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Split Myself in Two 

The dual personalities of Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart

Wednesday, Sep 21 2005
A golden sun is warming Fruitvale on a Saturday afternoon. I'm seated in the kitchen of Jamie Stewart, the singer, songwriter, and multi-instrumentalist who is the driving force behind the group Xiu Xiu (pronounced "shoo-shoo") and who is way more handsome -- in a "young, clean-cut gay guy copping a fashion tip (or two) from Morrissey and Johnny Marr" kinda way -- than the press photos make him out to be.

The window just above the table is wide open, birds chatter in the trees, and neighborhood atmospherics glide into the room. Stewart, who recently relocated from Seattle to the East Bay, resides just off the main strip, Fruitvale Avenue. His pad retains a quiet, almost meditative vibe. Brief introductions are made as he pours me a glass of water and I fiddle with my recorder. Stewart then seats himself so he's directly facing me; about two feet separates our bodies. It's a closed configuration that I usually reserve for conversations with really good friends. But I feel the need to be close to Stewart when I start asking him personal questions about relationships, family, and sex.

"I don't want my friends to overhear our conversation and make fun of me after you leave," Stewart explains as he rattles shut the cafe doors separating the kitchen from the living room, where a couple of touring musicians, who played a gig the night before, relax on the floor.

His concern seems a bit odd. The Stewart on Xiu Xiu's latest release, La Forêt -- the Stewart who can be heard chanting, barking, moaning, whispering, and crooning in this powerful, indie-operatic tenor that sits right alongside the respective voices of Ian Curtis, Robert Smith, and Nick Cave on the "drama meter" -- is the type of man wholly unafraid of bellowing his most private, painful, and often vile thoughts at his friends, his family, and total strangers. I mean -- this surely isn't the same Stewart who, on the track "Ale," unloads the lyrics, "Shut up, shut up, up your insipid voice. Shut up, shut up, is that your glass heart clinking? You want to go to bed every second, and wrap your arms around your kitty. She won't cuddle up to your disgusting feet. She's not the only one who won't. Your GameCube is on. Its tender buttons hide that. Crazy is the place your gigantic fat body fits." Nor can this be the same Stewart found on the chillingly gorgeous lament "Rose of Sharon," pleading, "It's light outside when you finally see the quiet failure sleeping next to you. Don't think, don't try, don't rush away when I say you deserve less."

These lyrics, which Stewart describes simply as "honest," are so jagged and, as with many of his songs, so obviously pointed toward those close to him. But for now, I shrug off this incongruity and begin our interview, asking one of those standard musician questions.

"How do you choose who you are going to work with?"

"Whoever will deal with me," Stewart replies, giving off a faint laugh. "Over the past year, the lineup has been fairly consistent. But, I think there has been about five different lineups since the beginning."

Xiu Xiu began life in 2000 as a quartet from San Jose consisting of (in addition to Stewart) Cory McCulloch, Lauren Andrew, and Yvonne Chen. Since then, the group has released four full-lengths, and the name Xiu Xiu has evolved into a term for the ever-mutating conglomeration of full-time members and guest musicians whom Stewart surrounds himself with. Some of whom are (or have been) Caralee McElroy, Ches Smith (Mr. Bungle), and Greg Saunier (Deerhoof). I ascribe instrument duties to none of these musicians because most of them, Stewart included, play an eclectic assortment from song to song: vibraphone, guitar, synth, piano, percussion, mandolin, harmonium, bass, double bass, tuba, drum machine, clarinet, cello, autoharp, and more.

"Would you say you are hard to work with?" I ask.

"I'm half-joking and half-serious," Stewart explains, shedding light on his previous answer. "Lately, I've been better ... I hope ... I don't know ... no one has quit yet." He punctuates this fractured succession of tentative responses with a bit more of that laughter.

"Would you call yourself a happy person or an unhappy person?"

"I would love to be a happy person. But my history and my biochemical makeup make it real hard to be all the time. I certainly appreciate the concept of happiness and love."

Stewart is thoughtful and engaging, but he also seems somewhat confounded (like so many of us do) when attempting to make sense of his self, so much so that he comes off as acutely overwhelmed at times. And again, this isn't the confident, strong-willed Stewart found on La Forêt (which translates to "the forest"). Over immaculately textured sonic backdrops -- kaleidoscopic arias constructed from shards of post-punk, free jazz, IDM, goth, musique concrète, and faux-gamelan percussion -- that Stewart never equivocates, speaking his mind with absolutism and stinging vengeance. On "Bog People," he wails, "There will always be a jar of ash. There will always be an unfit mind. There will always be a lonely son. There will always be a humiliated little girl. Why ask? Is there any reason? Why ask? If it will just let up?" This final "up" multiplies and explodes into these manic, rapid-fire yelps whose edges fray and dissolve into a riveting digital buzz. "Bog People" (like most tracks on La Forêt) possesses a real sexual tension, and it's this theme I now want to know more about.

"Sex and sexuality and the physicality behind sex and the emotions behind sex is really important to me," Stewart half-mumbles. His answers are littered with pauses.

"It seems like few interviewers ask you about sex. I think indie rockers are afraid to talk seriously about it." My voice cracks. I'm hesitant to go there.

"Yeah. There's a little bit of tension there."

"Why do you think that is?"

"Probably because of what you said about indie-rock kids," Stewart answers. A brief fit of laughter follows and then silence. "I can't think of --" He terminates his sentence with a strained chuckle and again falls silent. "I'm physical. I don't know what else to say."

"How come sex is so prevalent in your music?"

"Because I'm not getting laid." He again bursts into edgy laughter. "For most of my life, the majority of the sexual experiences I have had have been really weird. I never have been molested or raped, but I have been in a lot of really strange situations, and, I tend to have nonstandard tastes sexually. But at the same time, both of my parents were totally fucking insane but very loving. Maybe I'm just a bit mixed up."

"Sure, but who do you look to as the measuring stick for normalcy?"

Stewart drops his head a bit; his eyes scan the linoleum. I notice his hands are faintly shaking.

"My sexual orientation is that I'm bi," he patiently explains. "And for years, I was having a real hard time with gender identification, which can be impossible to deal with. And my parents were just really open about sexuality. And all these things, for me, just kind of came together. I was never shy about reading about sexuality and reading some extreme examples of it. I've always had a difficult time maintaining relationships. No matter how interesting they are, I just don't want to continue them. But, sexuality is a really strong aspect of what I think about."

In my humble opinion, reality for Stewart means confusion, lack of identity, vagueness, timidity, and doubt. It's a dizzying maze of mirrors that often makes him reel. It's a thick, gray fog, and he's experienced (and caused) a fuck of a lot of pain attempting to make his way out of it. Stewart's response has been to create this other personality who lives inside the music of Xiu Xiu (inside La Forêt) and who practices a methodical, ice-cold revenge on a reality that the Stewart I'm currently conversing with feels powerless to change.

With its crafted layers of atonal synth-scree, droning harmonium, and crunchy blast-beats, the dirge "Saturn" is one of Stewart's more extreme examples of this response, particularly when he sings, in a hushed, menacing tone, "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. I will stab it right through the bottom of your mouth."

"'Saturn' is about George Bush," Stewart informs me. "I have to be careful how I word this. It's about how enraged I am about the actions of the Bush family and the actions of the Bush administration in terms of being so self-serving and so unbelievably violent, and my reaction is wanting to rape the president to death."

"And you are Saturn and Bush is your son?"

"Yeah. Do you know the Goya painting?" Stewart asks. "It's this really incredible and jarring painting of Saturn chewing this corpse. We saw that painting while we were on tour in Spain as Bush won the election, and I put those two things together. So much death for power and profit, I have never in my entire life felt so helpless about a political situation."

"And that kind of helplessness manifests itself in this dream of wanting to rape?"

"Yeah. I'm not a particularly violent person," Stewart reasons out. "I don't think violent solutions are a pleasant way to handle anything. But, what else do you do? It's gotten to that point where I don't know how else to think about it. I never want to think about anybody in those terms, but I don't know how else to think about it. I feel driven to that."

"Was it therapeutic to make this song?"

"It would have been therapeutic if --" Stewart stops himself again. "No. It didn't make anything better."

About The Author

Justin F. Farrar


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