HE STANDS ABOUT 5 feet 10 inches tall and weighs roughly 160 pounds. He has short, neatly cut dark brown hair and wears a black cotton hoodie, black slacks, and bright yellow flip-flops. He smiles frequently and laughs unabashedly. Standing in the early morning Northwestern light, 31-year-old Jamie Stewart appears to be anything but the overly emotional, fragile frontman of experimental art-rock band Xiu Xiu (pronounced shoe shoe). But listening to his music tells you otherwise.
The idea behind Xiu Xiu is to write about real things. Not like, Today I bought a chocolate milkshake, but about big things.
Stewart recently moved to the Emerald City from San Jose to be with his girlfriend. (Bandmate Cory McCulloch, the other constant member of Xiu Xiu, still resides in San Francisco.) It's also closer to Olympia, where 5 Rue Christine, the Kill Rock Stars subsidiary that releases Xiu Xiu's records, is located. The band has already completed the recording for its third studio album, Fabulous Muscles, for a February release. Muscles is the follow-up to A Promise, released last February, and 2002's acclaimed Knife Play. Their soundessentially an '80s new wave, synth, IDM, Asian percussion-inspired symphonyis marked by overly intimate lyrics and unconventional instrumentation, played by a rotating group of cast members.
As a result, Xiu Xiu's music is eccentric and constantly evolving. The group's fluid membershipwhich has included members of the electronica duo Yellow Swans, experimental Bay Area quartet Deerhoof, improvisational new-jazz band Good for Cows, and local jazz-pop trio the Dead Science, among othershas, according to Stewart, kept the music surprising and fresh. "A bunch of people, I mean a lot, have been in Xiu Xiu despite the fact that Xiu Xiu hasn't been together all that long," he says. "I think that we've had roughly 10 or 11 band members by now. It's sort of devolved into being a collaborative [collective] instead of a band, which really makes it sound totally fucking retarded. Different people work on different stuff all the time."
Heavily influenced by Asian percussion musicBalinese gamelan, Chinese funeral marches, Japanese KabukiXiu Xiu builds a landscape of sounds that closely emulate volatile human emotions. When matched with Stewart's morbidly frank and overtly sexual lyrics, the music gives a whole new meaning to the word "uncomfortable." Take A Promise's "Walnut House." A triangle, slow and steady bass drum, and sparse piano set the stage for a wildly surreal take on sadomasochism and mother-son relationships. Stewart's trembling whisper pierces the plaintive background: "Think about it before you spray paint/'Don't worry, Mom!' on the dumpster of the nursing home . . . My leather daddy dancing very near/Like a sweetheart would." The song quickly dissolves into a chaotic blur of banging Chinese gongs and barrel drums while Stewart repeatedly mutters, "Don't worry, Mom." The effect, needless to say, is jarring.
Stewart explains, "The idea behind Xiu Xiu is to write about real things that have happened or are happening to us in the band or people that we're close to. Unfortunately, the things that have been happening have been really hard. I want to write about things that are very intense. Not like, 'Today I bought a chocolate milkshake, and it tasted good,' but actually write about big things."
"Ian Curtis Wish List," the last track on A Promise, exemplifies this, with Stewart sing-speaking over computer-generated twinkles, a Moog synthesizer, and amp-feedback buzz, "Oh, what will happen/Will you ever bleat out/'Do ya love me, Jamie Stewart?'/Jane S., I am kidding/I'm just kidding." It's ridiculous, exaggerated, and comical, but it also feels like a universal truthespecially once the listener inserts their name in place of Stewart's.
STEWART SPEAKS OPENLY about his personal battles with self-doubt and unhappiness, as well as the fact that his father, prominent record producer Michael Stewart (best known for his work on Billy Joel's Piano Man), recently took his own life. "My dad taught me the ethics of music, like why I should play and where to play from," says Stewart. "In my early 20s, my dad and I actually played in a band together for a couple of years, and that was the first time that we actually got to hang out and get to know each other. It was really nice. I learned from him that it's important to make music that's totally honest. Like with my dad killing himself, it's not like I have to make that feeling up. It's always right there."
Getting ready for a West Coast tour and anxious to start recording his fourth album even though the third hasn't yet been released, Stewart admits that he's unsatisfied. But if pouring his heart out for the past three years has yet to give him the cathartic release he seeks, why do it at all? "I'm having a difficult time trying to define that," says Stewart. "It's not like I've sung about these things and relived them night after night and I feel so much better from totally obsessing and dwelling on it. But afterwards it's less scary. Having [these things] be so in the open and present makes [them] feel less overwhelming. These things have been analyzed and felt really thoroughly and clearly. I don't think I feel happier doing it, but I think I feel less squished by it."
Xiu Xiu plays with Good for Cows and 7 Year Rabbit Cycle at the Aftermath Gallery, 928 12th Ave., 206-709-9797, 9 p.m. Sat., Sept. 27. $6.