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Music: Playing With Shadows

Xiu Xiu frontman Jamie Stewart channels personal darkness into deep, intricate music

By Cole Haddon · August 24th, 2005 · Music
Shadowy man on a shadowy planet: Xiu Xiu braintrust Jamie Stewart is often painted as a strange, dark bird by the music press.
Blueghost Publicity

Shadowy man on a shadowy planet: Xiu Xiu braintrust Jamie Stewart is often painted as a strange, dark bird by the music press.

There are some people for whom therapy will help them come to terms with their demons. There are others for whom it will never work. And still there are others for whom it'll never work and, thankfully, rather than bury it and climb a tower with a rifle, they channel it into something beautiful. Or something horrible, depending on how you look at it.

Xiu Xiu frontman Jamie Stewart is the catalyst of this ugly exorcism of sound that is at once engaging and off-putting. Like tragedies piled up on the side of the highway, you try not to look, but you can't look away either. Somewhere in the whispers, cries and shouts about family dysfunction, mental illness and sex -- not the good parts of it -- we find ourselves. Stewart's excruciating pain is a reflection of the darkest parts of our psyches we do our best to pretend away.

Sometimes, though, salvation isn't found in what we resist, but in what we embrace.

That Stewart has become a Rock cliché frustrates him -- music, he hems and haws, keeps him sane.

"I don't know if it necessarily makes me feel better or anything," he admits, "but it very, very definitely gives me a reason to get up in the morning."

The press often portray Stewart to be a misanthrope in love with his own misery, the sort of dark, creepy character that breathes through his nose while sexually gratifying himself to the thought of razors opening up his veins.

When asked if this is the case, if Stewart really is enraptured by mortal rot, he laughs aloud. In fact, the guy laughs a lot. "That's fucked, man," he says. "If I had any idea you were going to ask that question, I would've drank something.

"A lot of crappy things have happened to me ... which has led to depression. I mean, the subject matter of the songs is not coming from nowhere. Certainly not manufactured. But at the same time that my family are all completely insane, they only have everybody's best intentions at heart. That makes it possible to deal with the really negative things in a semi-constructive manner -- i.e., playing my music as opposed to, you know, shooting methamphetamines or something like that."

It's not just family that can send Stewart into a desperate downward spiral. On Xiu Xiu's latest, La Forêt, as fuzzy industrial noise assaults your ears on "Saturn," he lambastes a certain president in his haunting whisper: "George, when it comes to bedtime/My sweetness will not go to waste/I will shoot this arrow right up your anus and/You'll taste what we taste."

It's not every day that you'll find musical artists willing to sing about anally raping presidents, but Stewart doesn't shy away from such volatile subjects.

When asked about the state of the world at the moment, he lets loose a loud groan. "Oh God, I can only make that sound about it. Maybe it's because I'm getting older; I've been a bona fide adult for 10 years now, but I don't remember in all that time ever feeling this tense. Being a citizen of a country that's responsible for an unbelievable amount of destruction and death and largely being isolated from that is, on one hand, a blessing, 'cause I don't have to watch my niece's corpse getting mauled by dogs or kicked around by U.S. soldiers. But obviously it makes one question the point of it and the merit of their existence, the country that they're living in."

This is Jamie Stewart on a good day, remember.

The tangled lyrics on "Saturn" are typical of everything Xiu Xiu churns out, too, meaning and metaphor so dense you have to hack through it with a psychic machete to make sense of it all. "There's no intention to make them complex," Stewart observes. "I think the intention is to make them be as simple as possible, but obviously that's not how it turns out. One of my difficulties with a lot of contemporary 'Indie Rock music' is you never need to listen to it more than twice. You can get it right away, which just makes it kind of pointless, like drinking a caffeine-free Diet Pepsi."

Xiu's Xiu's last album, Fabulous Muscles, has been called the band's most accessible work to date, while La Forêt is a regression in those terms. It's almost as if they take a certain pride in resisting the whims of the commercial market, which Stewart says would feel a bit hollow if he were to admit as much. "It is important to us, though, to try as hard as we can to not give a shit about that. Any of the music that's been important to us, just thinking about that kind of stuff is totally beyond them. And genuinely, I don't think we, even if we wanted to, have it in us aesthetically to do it. Other bands that I've been in, before I pulled my head out of my ass, tried to be likeable and were totally horrible."

What about the band's name, which is taken from the film Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl about a young Chinese girl who, in a bid to escape her caretaker, prostitutes herself out? "The person I started Xiu Xiu with, Cory McCullough, we saw that movie at the same time," Stewart explains. "At the time, both of our lives were a big mess and we were making a lot of bad decisions about things that were making things a lot worse. Not intentionally, but out of desperation or freaking out. It wasn't like I was prostituting myself or got shot by my caretaker on the Mongolian steps, but Xiu Xiu was, as her life was unraveling more and more, making worse and worse decisions. That sort of thing. So that really resonated with us at the time."

And is he making better decisions today?

"Maybe 10 percent better," Stewart laughs (more). "Maybe."

XIU XIU performs Monday at the Southgate House with Yellow Swans, Nedelle and W-S Burn.


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