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Xiu Xiu's Stewart Takes On 'Gay-bashing'

If there is such a thing as an acquired musical taste, Xiu Xiu fit the adage. Led by singer-songwriter Jamie Stewart, the group has a rotating roster of musicians joining forces to create tortured compositions. Their songs feature extremely candid lyrics delivered over an electric maelstrom of burbling, eerie effects. Stewart's singing voice — which could be described as sounding like a musical bloodletting — is often self-effacing and quite disquieting.

After experiencing a chaotic year on the road (having much of the band's equipment stolen while on tour, for starters) and some minor internal feuding after the release of Xiu Xiu's latest full-length album, A Promise (5RC), Stewart has decided to go solo for a while, and has just released a new EP, Fag Patrol (Free Porcupine Society Records). The album combines an acoustic reworking of some of Xiu Xiu's older material with some new songs.

"It's [about] a couple of things," Stewart began, tenuously and with a bit of nervous laughter, calling from his home in Seattle. "The two things that it's about are almost like diametrically opposed to each other. The first thing it refers to is gay-bashing, like physically gay-bashing, I mean, not just in the media.

"And on the other side of that, just, phonetically it's just sort of fun to say," he said, expanding a bit on the humorous aspects of what, to some, is a dire and, perhaps, offensive moniker. "I was riding around in my car with my friend Daniel, and he was like, 'What are you going to call the new record? Fag Patrol?' And we both started cracking up and then we're both totally horrified that we were cracking up because we knew what it referred to. But just that also it was almost — in a tactile way — kind of fun to say, which, almost, just refers to the horror about what it's about."

Stewart says that humor often underpins his songs' bleak subjects. "The sense of humor refers directly to just how totally horrifying it is. It's just totally disgusting and horrible to me, even being a queer person myself, it's still funny to say. But why is it funny to say?

"The idea of a fag patrol is a totally miserable, awful concept, and all the songs are about really terrible things that have happened," he continued. "Maybe, there's a few lines in some of the songs that are sort of funny in a non-ironic way, sort of considering how they're couched, like the other lines around them and the music and stuff. It's sort of horrible that they're funny, I guess. Not that it's supposed to be goofy or silly or anything like that."

The album was released with handmade artwork, one of its immediate selling points. Despite an inclusion of older, reworked Xiu Xiu songs, there is also some newer material, including "Nieces Pieces," a song written, Stewart said, for his own young niece. The songs lyric, like those of others on Fag Patrol, is quite disturbing.

"Can't wait to watch you get older
"Can't wait to meet the first boy that breaks your life
"Can't wait till you realize the family you've been born into
"Can't wait to watch you turn from good to bad
"Can't wait to tell you that grandpa made your mommy play stripper while your uncle watched
"Can't wait to tell you that I punched your mommy in the chest in front of her friends
"Can't wait till you realize your mommy's heart is broken
"Can't wait to watch you grow up around the people who broke it lalalalalala"

"My sister just had a baby, and it's about some feelings that," Stewart said. "I guess, the terror that I have about what her daughter's life is going to be like based on my own and my sister's family history. Just knowing all the things that my sister has gone through and wondering how that is going to affect her daughter. And what it's going to be like watching my niece grow up in the same family I grew up in and wondering.... It's a very direct address to my niece going 'good luck,' pretty much, hoping things will turn out better for her."

In addition, Stewart recorded a cover of The Smiths' song "Asleep." But it's not garnering the same attention as Xiu Xiu's version of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car," which appeared on A Promise, and features just spare guitar-strumming for accompaniment. Sometimes the music fades entirely and the only sound remaining is Stewart's breathy whisper.

"With the Tracy Chapman song, that song really, very, very, very directly shaped how I wanted to write lyrics or what I wanted songs to be about," he explained. "And how I wanted them to turn out in so far as the song very specifically narrates some particular horrible things that happen to somebody and there's no positive resolution in the end at all.

"I don't know if that is a true song — whereas all the Xiu Xiu songs are about real stuff that has happened. Just how that song was set up was tremendously, tremendously, tremendously influential for me. And it's super corny to say this — but really, literally, every time I hear that song it makes me cry," he said, adding, with a laugh, so as to clarify: "Not the Xiu Xiu version."

The cover art for A Promise — depicting a naked Vietnamese male prostitute, hunched over, and posing with a baby doll in a voyeuristically vamp position — is certainly provocative. On the American CD version of the album, distributor Touch and Go placed a splashy orange box over the man's penis; a vinyl version lets it all hang out.

"The censorship of the artwork is so goofy, I mean, they just covered the guy's penis [on the CD], so you just get to see his penis on the vinyl," Stewart said, laughing.

When he first learned of the orange box, "I was really surprised and 5RC was really surprised, also," he said. "Touch and Go, who's the distributor, said that a lot of the stores would freak out and not sell it. So, 5RC said that if I wanted to, we didn't have to censor it, but that the distribution would be like an eighth of what it would normally be.

According to Kill Rock Stars/5RC founder Slim Moon, Stewart was consulted regarding modifying the cover art before anything was done; Moon said Stewart's use of the word 'censorship' to describe what happened is "inaccurate in the circumstances. KRS does not censor our artists, although we would decline to release certain things if they included sexist, racist, or homophobic content," Moon wrote Neumu via email.

"For the record, neither 5RC nor Touch and Go covered the penis without permission or insisted that it be covered as a condition of releasing the album," Moon wrote. "We went over the issues with Jamie and he agreed to it."

"The record's not about that photo," said Stewart, explaining why he agreed to have the penis covered on the CD release. "But the record is about what that photo is about and I thought it would be an empty gesture," he said. "If the record were about censorship, then it would be important to stand firm. The record is not about that guy's penis. It's about what that person has been through and what his life is like."

For more info about Xiu Xiu, please check out their Web site. — Brian Orloff [Wednesday, July 30, 2003]

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