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Mr. Misery

For Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart, the Personal is Political is Permissible for Creative License

By Michael Alan Goldberg | Posted 3/17/2004

"I mean, you can play 25-minute versions of 'Super Freak' only so many times before it does something really negative to your soul," laughs Jamie Stewart. As the 32-year-old Xiu Xiu (say it, "shoe shoe") frontman strolls through Seattle's boho Capitol Hill 'hood on an atypically sunny March afternoon--he moved there from California's Bay Area last year to be closer to his girlfriend--he's recalling his inauspicious entrance to the world of musical performance a decade earlier as a guitarist in a series of R&B cover bands.

"We'd play at yuppie bars for lame office workers," he shudders. "Y'know, I did it to pay the rent. I don't look back fondly on those years because I wasted a lot of time that I could have spent working on music that would have been enjoyable to me."

It's enormously entertaining to envisage Stewart returning to some of those old haunts to play songs from Xiu Xiu's new album, Fabulous Muscles (5 Rue). Undoubtedly those yuppies would be super freakin' out, not to never-ending funk grooves but to lines like these, from the delicate title track, delivered in a wan quiver: "Cremate me after you cum on my lips/ Honey boy place my ashes in a vase/ Beneath your work-out bench/ No romance no sexiness/ But a star-filled night/ Kneeling down before the now-familiar flesh/ Of your deformed penis."

Certainly, such candid and intimately conveyed lyrics are liable to make even the more open-minded wriggle as uncomfortably as a teenager in Rite Aid buying his first pack of Trojans. That's the Xiu Xiu way, though. Over the course of three full-lengths and an EP since the band's 2000 formation, Stewart and his ever-shifting gaggle of collaborators have created some of the most unsettling, challenging, polarizing, absorbing, and wholly original music you'll find anywhere in the indie-rock universe.

For the uninitiated, a leap into Muscles may throw you off at first. Structurally dazzling, if disorienting, each track is a dense thicket of blippy IDM electronics (similar at times to what Matmos provided on Björk's Vespertine) that sidle up to strange, dissonant drones and programmed beats, then scurry into the corner as a wiry guitar line, acoustic strum, distorted bass, new-wavey synth, trombone, or string section emerges to snatch and reshape the melody. And over the fray, Stewart's voice alternates between an impassioned whisper, a twitchy, major-malfunction wail, and a theatrically falsettoed croon--very often it conjures the unglued emotionality of Ian Curtis (yet not in that by-the-numbers Interpol way) or the mischievous drama of the Cure's Robert Smith.

If the lyrical content of the aforementioned title track disturbs you, well, there's more where that came from. "What happens to you when your dad/ Hears your brother pull down your underpants?" Stewart sings in "Brian the Vampire." The song was inspired by a child Stewart encountered during his 10 years as a preschool teacher in California--the boy was a member of a large, undocumented immigrant family living in a one-room converted garage, and every night he would be molested by his older brother while his parents did nothing to stop it. Other songs are far more personal, familial affairs. In "Nieces Pieces" he addresses his sister's new baby: "I can't wait 'til you realize the family you've been born into/ I can't wait to watch you turn from good to bad/ I can't wait to tell you your grandpa made your mommy/ Play stripper while your uncle watched." And the closer, "Mike," is an eerily elegiac tribute to Stewart's father, Michael--a folk musician and producer of Billy Joel's Piano Man--who committed suicide in 2002. "I feel like I am not nice because sometimes/ It is hard for me to think something happy about you," he murmurs.

"Lyrics, that's always something that's really difficult for me to deal with," Stewart admits. "I don't want to write anything that I know would make somebody feel bad, you know, and I definitely may have done that on Fabulous Muscles a couple of times. Artistically I'm glad I did them, but in my personal life I feel like I might regret it a little bit."

Care to be more specific? "No, I'd probably rather not," he chuckles anxiously. "I don't wanna get it out there even more than it already is. There's just a couple things in retrospect I think might not have been such a good idea.

"It's kind of a struggle because the overriding philosophy of what we're trying to do is write as openly and honestly as possible about exactly what's happening in our lives. That's the single most important reason why the whole band exists at all, but at the same time, when you're writing about people you love and care about and have a history with, you wanna preserve their feelings. My brother is involved in art also so he gets it, but for the rest of my family it's very difficult for them to understand the reasons behind doing something like that. They don't come to shows, and we don't really talk about it."

Stewart harbors no regrets whatsoever about what may very well be the album's most controversial track, "Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!)." Over claustrophobic textures and discordant, symphonic squalls he aims his disgust at the soldiers in the Iraqi desert: "You're a jock who is too stupid and greedy/ And too unmotivated to do anything else but still be/ The biggest and still do what other people tell you to do." It's the kind of politically incorrect sentiment that could easily become the Fox News Channel's "Outrage of the Week."

He explains: "You know, you see that bumper sticker all the time that's like, 'I'm against the war but I support our troops.' And I had read this article in Rolling Stone, of all places, where this journalist had interviewed a bunch of Marines right when they were initially invading Iraq, and their quotes were genuinely terrifying. They all completely admitted to having absolute wanton bloodlust and were really interested in seeing what it would be like to kill people and how certain bullets would rip people apart. It was just a bunch of fuckin' football guys goin' like, 'Yeeahhhh, we get to take this to the next level.'

"And the concept that you could be against the political policy or George W. Bush but then be like, 'Oh, there's these poor dudes stuck out in the middle of nowhere'--well, the American military is totally voluntary," Stewart continues. "These are guys that wanted to become killers for the government. Sure, maybe they wanted to go to school eventually, and that's a lofty endeavor, but becoming a murderer in order to go to college? That doesn't cut it. Not at all. I'd feel very differently about it if we were Switzerland or something, but we have a thinly veiled policy of imperialism and that's what the Army is about."

Stewart stands proudly behind his convictions, but let's hope for safety's sake that there aren't too many members of the military in attendance during Xiu Xiu's current tour. After all, he won't have much backup--for this outing the singer is accompanied only by Fabulous Muscles producer/multi-instrumentalist Cory McCulloch and a drum machine. Once he returns to Seattle, the ever-prolific Stewart plans to record the group's next album, which he says is already mostly written. And in between all of his musical exploits, he's even found time to pen a book, though the subject matter doesn't stray all that far from the Xiu Xiu mode of expression.

"From the time I was 6 until I was 29, a lot of super weird things happened in my sex life," he recalls. "Nothing bad, I never got molested, but some of it is pretty disturbing, so I wrote all of these short stories. Like when I was 8, there was this kid who thought there were witches living in his butthole, so he didn't wipe it for about six months, and then he asked me to take a Polaroid of his shit-caked anus. And then he cut a little hole in his unicorn doll and started humping it. Y'know, stuff like that."

Surely there's at least one happy ending to all of these unnerving tales, right? "Well, that guy called me about four years ago saying he was in Alcoholics Anonymous and was traveling around the country and wanted to know if he could crash at my house, but I just couldn't call him back. But, I mean, AA . . . that's a good thing, isn't it? I hope he's alright."

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