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Music: An Honest Man and His Band

Jamie Stewart of Noise Pop band Xiu Xiu uses his inside voice

By Ryan Mclendon · March 26th, 2008 · Music
Four Paws Media


When I was 12, my brother informed me that the mark of a really great musician was whether or not he or she could fly. He wasn't kidding. This revelation came in 1994 after Nine Inch Nails' "Closer" video, directed by Mark Romanek, hit MTV. When NIN frontman Trent Reznor wasn't bound, blindfolded or crucifying a monkey in the video's sadomasochistic narrative, he was calmly levitating in a dilapidated meat locker (not an easy feat when 20-eyelet Doc Martens are part and parcel of your daily raiment).

Jamie Stewart, the architect of the San Francisco-based Xiu Xiu and the constant gardener of casually disturbing and obscenely delicate Noise Pop, might not have flight capabilities (and since Reznor has ostensibly gained 50 pounds since 1995, his flight plan has probably been canceled). The 36-year-old Stewart, however, has other laurels to rest on: He is manifestly one of the most original musicians around, and he also has great pronunciation. The fact that the most formative, influential concert he ever went to was an Einstürzende Neubauten show isn't as impressive as the fact that he can correctly pronounce Einstürzende Neubauten (Eyen-shtuur-tzen-dah Noi-bouw-ten).

Xiu Xiu (pronounced shoe-shoe) was formed in 2000 and remains one of only a few musical acts that is chronically self-actualized.

Their sound is derived ostensibly from the starkest and dreamiest elements of bygone-era Pop juggernauts: Stewart's vocals mimic the acrimonious wail of Robert Smith if he were griping feverishly to the breathless resignation of Fiona Apple as she makes Ian Curtis a sandwich. The concoction produces a chorus both heart-wrenchingly sober and deliciously sanguine.

Xiu Xiu is an honest band.

A sentiment often uttered (but rarely believed) in guitar magazines and Entertainment Tonight interviews is that making inherently honest music is better than purposely making honest-sounding music. Often we hear it from multi-platinum celebrities, a la Beyonce or Jessica Simpson, just before they discuss the launch of their new line of jeans. Xiu Xiu might be the first band that lends credence to the creed.

"The point of the band is to write about the things that are going on in the lives of the people in the band," Stewart says. "To think about making music as something for someone to listen to, and for someone to get something out of."

Personal truth is also a huge influence for Stewart. Within differing music genres, dynamic tension often exists between image and sincerity: Some rappers that rap about the 'hood came from suburbs originally (see: Dr. Dre). Some rockers that sing about being 15 and stupid might still be stupid, but no longer 15 (see: KISS).

Xiu Xiu's music, however, doesn't make erroneous claims. Many of the tracks on 2004's Fabulous Muscles, Xiu Xiu's most critically successful album, have overt homosexual references and innuendos, such as the track "I Luv the Valley OH!" where Stewart lustfully proclaims, "My behind is a beehive/There's a buzz in my backside/My behind is a beehive/And I won't rest while you break my will."

And there is a method for all their honest madness.

"The band is discussing our lives and it's an aspect of my life, so it comes up," Stewart says of Xiu Xiu's uninhibited sexual content.

The difference between Xiu Xiu's unfurled gayness and, say, Ja Rule, DMX or Clay Aiken's suspected homosexual proclivities is this: Xiu Xiu outright owns it what it sells while other artists sell what they don't own. Some often use overly masculine bravado and homophobia, rather than substance, to sell an image.

"Hyper-masculinity is super-gay," mocks Stewart.

Still, Xiu Xiu's honest predilections are only a fraction of their greatness: They are a challenge. Their sound is difficult, if not completely impossible, to articulate, partially because they skirt the conventions of form and formula that many bands require to distinguish themselves. Like a disgruntled Kansas City cocktail waitress at the Met, Xiu Xiu sticks out eagerly in a sea of static, Pro-Tooled tripe. While they employ some synthesized instruments, many songs involve simple variations of guitar and auto-harp and sharp, staccato drums (and the occasional gong, for good measure). There is a looming, vividly discernable soul to their strings and beats as well, something that pulses through the music in tandem with the rhythm section.

Xiu Xiu's latest effort, Women as Lovers, produced by Greg Saunier of Deerhoof, is a terrifying chronicle of love, sex and the abyssal void between the two. The song "F.T.W." -- a coincidental allusion to Prozac Nation author Elizabeth Wurtzel's notorious "Fuck the World" tattoo -- seems to sheepishly tell the world to go fuck itself as the result of a most toxic sexual experience and subsequent fatal car crash, with Stewart crooning, "I don't care, I don't care anymore/Remarkable, pulsating creature/Into whose calves the poison flows."

Stewart, along with fellow bandmate Caralee McElroy and new drummer Ches Smith, began touring to promote Women as Lovers in March. But as they oscillate between tour stops in the U.S. and Canada, they won't be looking back to the past. They certainly don't when creating new albums.

"It can completely wreck any opportunity to potentially make something new or different," Stewart says. "You're operating from a place or analysis rather than a place of trying to be creative."

Even winning "Avant Album of the Year" at the 2007 Plug Awards, a testament to the Xiu Xiu's inventive and curious nature, has had little effect on the band's modus operandi. Stewart believes that while Xiu Xiu's sonic delivery is generous and unique, he doesn't purposely think about trying to be a musical anomaly.

"I don't think it's constructive or healthy," Stewart says. "It's not a good idea for bands to think about that kind of thing." ©

XIU XIU performs Tuesday at the Southgate House. Buy tickets, check out performance times and find nearby bars and restaurants here.



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