Xiu Xiu's 'Reality' Rock
Xiu Xiu front Jamie Stewart documents his real-life tragedies in song. The somber post-punk band's next album, Fabulous Muscles due out on 5RC Records March 9 finds the troubled singer/songwriter enduring and overcoming an extremely difficult year.
"My dad killed himself, my sister had a baby and my mom went crazy," Stewart said from a pay phone near his home in Seattle's hip Capitol Hill neighborhood. "That was the most intense and insane and sad and fantastic year of my entire life."
Laughing nervously, sounding lighthearted in spite of the interview's dark subject matter, Stewart was candid about his lifelong chronic depression and rough upbringing as he spoke to me from a phone booth while sirens cried intermittently in the background.
He admitted to the addiction problems that he faced that year as a result of his emotional state a cloudy place he has since come out of. "I was having tons of crazy binge-drinking months and blackouts brought on by my having chronic depression, plus the intensity of everything that was happening," said Stewart, who also plays guitar. "I have since started taking antidepressants."
Forming in San Jose, Calif. about four years ago, Xiu Xiu have endured an ever-changing lineup. Currently, the lineup is not stable, but contributors to Fabulous Muscles include Cory McCulloch on harmonium and mandolin, Jherek Bischoff on bass and trombone, Sam Mickens on guitar and synthesizer, Lauren Andrews on synthesizer, Sprout Guy on viola and violin, Josh Stewart on trumpet, and Gabe Mendel and Peter Swanson providing "power electronics." Bischoff, Mickens and Andrews also played percussion on the new album, which McCulloch produced. Using a computer program, Stewart also added beats and synth effects.
Despite the group's revolving cast of players, Stewart is vehement about maintaining the driving force behind Xiu Xiu. "The only constant that we want to maintain in the band is that all the songs be about real things that are going on," Stewart explained. "The point of this band is to be as open as possible to what's happening to us and what's happening to people around us.
"I personally am never struck by anything that somebody obviously did just for fun and didn't risk something, or lived through to do," he continued. "I can be very hippie-ish and obsessive about this, but music is a huge, huge deal to me. It is the oldest and most serious way that people try and get through the day. And not doing what you think is totally right while doing it seems almost despicable.
"I don't think there is any reason to make music, or any kind of art for that matter, that's not emotionally difficult to do," Stewart, a former social worker and preschool teacher, added. "It seems to be totally pointless and hollow otherwise."
And pointless and hollow, Fabulous Muscles is not. Dark and tormented, the band's third album stirs your insides with the same strength as painful memories or love lost. Evoking hints of such late-'70s and early-'80s angular post-punk downer acts as The Cure and Bauhaus, the album blends bedroom electronic-pop experimentation with edgy, melodic guitar work and deeply impassioned vocals that alternate often between quiet and loud. The songs are stormy and emotive.
"'Brian the Vampire' is about one kid in particular," Stewart said, in reference to a former student of his. "The story was so gruesome. His whole family lived in one garage and his older brother, who's in his early teens, was molesting Brian at night while the whole family was sleeping in the room. Sometimes his dad caught him, sometimes he was able to sneak and do it."
"Brian, tender kisses run, run, run is my wish for you/ Brian, tender drops of blood run, run, run I'm thinking of you," Stewart laments. "What happens to you when your dad/ Hears your brother pull down your underpants?"
But the album doesn't exist entirely beneath a dark cloud. While Stewart endured a great deal of tragedy last year, he also perhaps fatefully fell in love, which served as inspiration for "Little Panda." "That whole song is basically a list of how being in that relationship was positively changing me," he explained. "It's always very dangerous and unfair to depend on love to fix your life, but in this case it totally did. It also made me a little crazy, which it does. But it definitely gave me a very solid and good reason to get my shit together."
Xiu Xiu take their name from the 1998 Chinese film Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl because of the eye-opening experience it gave Stewart. "It was relentlessly bad, and there was no happy ending at all," Stewart said of the film. "The bands that I had been in before were having a difficult time coming to terms with that there were not happy endings with stuff. So actually having seen that film made me realize it was OK to write about stuff and not have it come to a hopeful, happy end."
Xiu Xiu kick off a U.S. tour Feb. 26 at Seattle's Chop Suey before heading east to play the Midwest, stopping at Minneapolis, Minn.'s Triple Rock on March 11 and North Manchester, Ind.'s Fire House on March 12. The band will play a few dates in Canada, wind down the East Coast and then through the South, hitting New Orleans, La.'s Bank St. on March 27 and Denton, Texas' Hailey's on March 29. They'll head back up the West Coast and wrap things up right where the tour began about a month and a half earlier. Jenny Tatone [Monday, February 23, 2004]
Xiu Xiu Tour Dates
Feb. 26; Seattle, Wash.; Chop Suey
Feb. 27; Bellingham, Wash.; TBA
March 5; Portland, Ore.; Holocene
March 6; Vancouver B.C.; TBA
March 7; Spokane, Wash.; TBA
March 10; Iowa City, Iowa; Gabe's Oasis
March 11; Minneapolis, Minn.; Triple Rock (early show)
March 12; North Manchester, Ind.; Fire House
March 13; Chicago, Ill.; Fireside Bowl
March 14; Toronto, Ontario; Gladstone Hotel
March 15; Ottawa, Ontario; TBA
March 16; Montreal, Quebec; La Salla Rossa
March 17; Portland, Maine; Space
March 18; Ithaca, N.Y.; Cornell University
March 19; Boston, Mass.; Zeitgeist Gallery
March 20; New York, N.Y.; Tonic
March 21; Philadelphia, Penn.; Fire
March 22; Morgantown, W. Va.; 123 Pleasant St.
March 23; Baltimore, Md.; Talking Head
March 24; Washington D.C.; Warehouse Nextdoor
March 25; Winston-Salem, N.C.; PS211
March 26; Atlanta, Ga.; Lenny's
March 27; New Orleans, La.; Bank St.
March 28; Austin, Texas; Emo's
March 29; Denton, Texas; Hailey's
March 31; Phoenix, Ariz.; Modified
April 1; Tucson, Ariz.; Club Congress
April 2; Los Angeles, Calif.; The Smell
April 3; San Francisco, Calif.; Hemlock
April 5; Eugene, Ore.; WOW Hall
April 6; Seattle, Wash.; TBA