Talking to Jamie Stewart, the singer/guitarist who leads the noisy experimental SF Bay Area band Xiu Xiu (pronounced "Shoo Shoo"), can be almost as disconcerting as listening to his music. Heís polite, quiet, and modest, adding small question marks to his sentences and even tossing in a familiar "dude" now and then. Itís all more in keeping with what youíd expect from an emo band frontman than from the mastermind behind some of the more terrifying howls, screeching guitars, and unapologetically dejected lyrics in indie rock. Yet just like a Xiu Xiu song, heíll touch on a subject thatís uncomfortably personal, like the suicide of his father, Michael Stewart, who produced Billy Joelís Piano Man. On last yearís Fabulous Muscles (Kill Rock Stars), Stewart sang, "I feel like Iím not nice because sometimes it is hard for me to think something happy about you." But on the new La Forêt (Kill Rock Stars), a sense of resignation has set in; when Stewart entreats himself along with "people I hurt" to "shut up, shut up" ("Ale"), heís accompanied by a tuneful clarinet melody.
Xiu Xiu have a taste for discord ó atonal arrangements filled with foghorns, tape hisses, and violent beats and topped off by Stewartís whispery vocals and the melodrama of his confessional lyrics. The latter have inspired open-mouthed fandom from sensitive scenesters who find solace in his pain, and attacks from critics as being cloying and histrionic. "People have thrown lit cigarettes at me and audiences have yelled all kinds of nasty shit," Stewart says as he prepares for a national tour that brings Xiu Xiu to the Middle East this Saturday for an afternoon all-ages show. "Then there are also people who drive 800 miles to come see us play and ask if they can come sit in our van for three days because they donít have a bus ride home."
On Fabulous Muscles, Stewart worked mostly without his amorphous band, eschewing the buzzing and shrieking of earlier recordings in favor of neo-new-wave synth-pop, decaying house beats, and an entirely acoustic title song. The darker, denser band effort La Forêt splits the difference between convention and daring instrumental explorations, between subtleties and extremes.
"Itís not a plus or a minus or a forward or backward," Stewart says of the album, which he recorded with a full, mostly temporary line-up that included Xiu Xiu staple Cory McCullough and Caralee McElroy, Jamieís cousin and lone back-up musician on tour. "The motivation for writing a less-pop-oriented album wasnít ĎOh, Fabulous Muscles is the past ó we must shun pop now.í At the time we were working on La Forêt, we were interested in more experimental music." The Bay Area collective Yellow Swans and a smattering of modern classical composers are detectable influences here, in addition to, Stewart notes, Okinawan vocal performances, gamelan orchestras, and Islamic liturgical chants. Centering lush winds and stirring strings, ringing vibraphones and thick electronic beats, Stewartís voice floats free as he meditates on decay with a waver that recalls both Conor Oberst and Ian Curtis. "We always write about things that have been going on in the lives of people around us. There have been a lot of difficult things that have happened, and a long history of mental illness in my family."
Politics also plays a role. Fabulous Musclesí evocative monologue "Support Our Troops, Oh" finds its match in La Forêtís condemnation of the Bush administration during the atonal "Saturn." In the rollicking "Muppet Face," Stewart squeezes in the lines "smells like Fallujah" and "pull down your pants by the Shiites." But he hasnít lost all hope. "Iím certainly interested in being happy. But working on being happy is definitely working."
Xiu Xiu + Frog Eyes + Yellow Swans | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | September 3 | 617.864.EAST
Issue Date: September 2 - 8, 2005
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