Xiu Xiu's Jamie Stewart confronts his family's darkest secrets
"I mean, you can play 25-minute versions of 'Super Freak' only so many times before it does something really negative to your soul," laughs Jamie Stewart. As the 32-year-old Xiu Xiu (pronounced: "shoe shoe") frontman strolls through Seattle's boho Capitol Hill 'hood - he moved there from California's Bay Area last year to be closer to his girlfriend - he's recalling his inauspicious entrance to the world of musical performance a decade earlier as a guitarist in a series of R&B cover bands.
It's enormously entertaining to envisage Stewart returning to some of those old haunts to play songs from Xiu Xiu's latest album, Fabulous Muscles (5 Rue). Undoubtedly those yuppies would be super freakin' out, not to never-ending funk grooves but to lines like these, from the delicate title track, delivered in a wan quiver: "Cremate me after you cum on my lips/honey boy place my ashes in a vase/beneath your work-out bench/no romance no sexiness/but a star-filled night/kneeling down before the now-familiar flesh/of your deformed penis."
Certainly, such candid and intimately conveyed lyrics are liable to make even the more open-minded wriggle as uncomfortably as a teenager in Rite Aid buying his first pack of Trojans. That's the Xiu Xiu way, though. Over the course of three full-lengths and an EP since the band's 2000 formation, Stewart and his ever-shifting gaggle of collaborators have created some of the most unsettling, challenging, polarizing, absorbing, and wholly original music you'll find anywhere in the indie-rock universe.
For the uninitiated, a leap into Muscles may throw you off at first. Structurally dazzling, if disorienting, each track is a dense thicket of blippy IDM electronics (similar at times to what Matmos provided on Björk's Vespertine) that sidle up to strange, dissonant drones and programmed beats, then scurry into the corner as a wiry guitar line, acoustic strum, distorted bass, new-wavey synth, trombone, or string section emerges to snatch and reshape the melody. And over the fray, Stewart's voice alternates between an impassioned whisper, a twitchy, major-malfunction wail, and a theatrically falsettoed croon - very often it conjures the unglued emotionality of Joy Division's Ian Curtis (yet not in that by-the-numbers Interpol way) or the mischievous drama of the Cure's Robert Smith.
Other songs are far more personal, familial affairs. In "Nieces Pieces" he addresses his sister's new baby: "I can't wait 'til you realize the family you've been born into/I can't wait to watch you turn from good to bad/I can't wait to tell you your grandpa made your mommy/play stripper while your uncle watched." And the closer, "Mike," is an eerily elegiac tribute to Stewart's father, Michael - a folk musician and producer of Billy Joel's "Piano Man" - who committed suicide in 2002. "I feel like I am not nice because sometimes/it is hard for me to think something happy about you," he murmurs.
"Lyrics, that's always something that's really difficult for me to deal with," Stewart admits. "I don't want to write anything that I know would make somebody feel bad, you know, and I definitely may have done that on Fabulous Muscles a couple of times. Artistically I'm glad I did them, but in my personal life I feel like I might regret it a little bit."
Care to be more specific? "No, I'd probably rather not," he chuckles anxiously. "I don't wanna get it out there even more than it already is. There's just a couple things in retrospect I think might not have been such a good idea.
"It's kind of a struggle because the overriding philosophy of what we're trying to do is write as openly and honestly as possible about exactly what's happening in our lives," he concludes. "At the same time, when you're writing about people you love and care about and have a history with, you wanna preserve their feelings. My brother is involved in art also so he gets it, but for the rest of my family it's very difficult for them to understand the reasons behind doing something like that. They don't come to shows, and we don't really talk about it." •