“There will always be a handless wrist to crush.” Xiu Xiu demands attention. This is not casual listening. It registers for listeners at poles: shocking or boring, all or nothing, engaging or alienating. Above all, there’s one precept: Drop the notion of a songwriter that requires the bard to invite someone into a place of comfortable empathy (the fold) or brilliantly cast distant lands in the mind’s eye (the fantasy).
Xiu Xiu is Jamie Stewart and a band of contributors. His songs are defined by their own self-involvement, constructs of Stewart’s own life–love, friends, fights, the mundane cast in brilliant dramatics–and times–a hyper-alienated people too close to their video games and smitten by or apathetic to the disdain of its leaders–being a plague for which the only cure is to cope. The arrangements follow through, too, sometimes begging a listener to lean in closely for emasculated vocals muttered under a sole acoustic instrument or simple bells. Just when volumes almost fall away into a dour oblivion, things collide and explode, organs, guitars, synthesizers and drums grating to lift as Stewart commands it all through a theatric, preach-unto voice full of scorn and hopelessness.
“There will always be a headless neck.”
Jamie Stewart is too smart and literate to be emo. And Jamie Stewart is too blunt to make you feel at home, anywhere. But, today, Jamie Stewart is just a guy living in Oakland, on the way home after dropping by the post office.
It’s perhaps in this daylight–at home, off tour and between albums–that Stewart’s best work is best cast. In interviews, he insists that none of his songs are rendered from broad, postmodern emotion. Instead, like a folkie, he writes when moved by a moment in his life or a headline. Today, he insists that the notions for and the explanations behind his songs are “sort of melodramatic,” “sort of preposterous” or “so ludicrous.” He takes a stab at “Pox,” the fourth song from his fourth album in four years in Olympia’s 5 Rue Christine, La Foret.
“I was walking down the street after I had moved here, and I saw on the front page of the paper that Bush had lifted logging protections from the forests I mentioned in the song. They’re not very big and the money earned would be negligible. And it would take 1,500 years to grow back,” Stewart says. “The song is partially about how unbelievably hideous he and his family are as people. And it’s partially a lament for the forests.”
“There will always be a hopeful heart to disrespect.”
For some, maybe that is absurd. But Stewart manages something rare with his music and its root-level oddity: It’s exhausting in its rapture, making everything else seem small and remote, inconsequential and indifferent. It’s a combination of dynamics and thematics.
On “Muppet Face,” a chirping melody peaks through, Stewart harmonizing with a synthesizer–“do do dododo do”–before it’s all eclipsed in snarling keyboard sustains and a screeching, drill-bit guitar. It’s a song written for a friend’s dead cat. It’s a song with references to a smell like Fallouja and a cling like dander.
Antediluvian images of a proud stand of redwoods come crashing down in “Pox,” Stewart begging the ultimate neo-con slam: “Even Jesus is wondering if he can love you.” In the end–just after a synthesizer mimics the buzzsaw of progress pushed along by the pursuit of favors for favors–Stewart invites the Bush daughters to school, singing “Community college awaits you.” Through it all, a simple electro-beat gets clashed by a maddening high-frequency sine wave. Case studies of cacophony and comeliness in contrast become train wrecks inspiring vitriol for the principles, not the creator.
Surprisingly, the effect works live just as well as it does on record. At his biggest show to date in July at the Intonation Music Festival in Chicago, Stewart and his bandmate, Caralee McElroy, stood in front of thousands of people mid-set with an autoharp and a mandolin. The audience was attentively quiet, stock still.
“I can tell almost always off the bat when it works and when it’s not,” says Stewart, who remembers looking at the audience and being amazed at their attention. “Part of it is specifically the people in the audience and what kind of music listeners they are and how on Caralee and I are.”
Mostly, Xiu Xiu isn’t intended for the faint of heart, which makes simultaneous acceptance by thousands that much more intriguing. Growing popularity has demanded a changing approach from Stewart. In early songs, he would rip people wholesale from his life and plot them as central characters in his songs; now, he can only allude to them, knowing that people actually pay attention to what he is doing. The thought of his family wholly digesting–and understanding–the references in his work bring nervous laughter.
“Thankfully, my family never comes to shows. I would die. I don’t know, it’s really weird because they have been really supportive in the last couple of years,” Stewart says slowly, as if considering all of this for the first time. But the thought of discussing specific points of a song–even one or two lines–if they knew what it was about and wanted me to go into detail. I can’t think of anything I’d rather not do more.”
But, for Stewart today in Oakland, it’s not a big concern. For a writer whose reputation is built solely on the negative, he’s completely amicable, answering questions with enthusiasm and swapping stories. He laughs at the preposterousness of the Bush administration. He audibly smiles while thinking about the friend who asked him to write a song about Muppet Face. He raves about collaborating with Italian noise-goths Larsen for their recent album as XXL: “None of us had anything ready when we got to Torino to record, but it’s the most fun I’ve ever had recording anything.”
There is a sunny side. Or, as he half-pleas/half-hopes through cracking falsetto in the fevered “Bog People”–“There will always be happiness.”
Xiu Xiu plays Duke Coffeehouse with The Dead Science and Cantwell, Gomez & Jordan on Wednesday, Dec. 7 at 9:30 p.m. Tickets are $7.