No More Bull for Xiu Xiu
By Jordan Lawrence
Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart bids adieu to Durham with Always, a frank and adventurous exploration of pained lives lived in society’s margins
Whiskey, a dark, comfy and strikingly well-appointed liquor bar in downtown Durham, is replete with rules for its patrons. Though the legal drinking age is 21, Whiskey only admits persons 23 and older. There’s also a strict dress code; Men may not wear sleeveless shirts. Athletic or camouflage gear and clothes that are excessively torn or baggy are not permitted either. And hats of the everyday persuasion are mostly prohibited – “No ballcaps, beanies, do-rags or Castro caps.”
On a nippy late February evening, a young journalist learns of the last rule first-hand and has to remove the toboggan that hides his unruly locks. He’s nervous about how he looks as the man he’s meeting is known for his critical nature – Durham and its denizens being one of his favorite targets. The reporter pays for his beer and slides into a corner table, awaiting his appointment’s arrival.
Jamie Stewart calls 10 minutes later. He shares a car and the other driver is late. As a result, Stewart will have to bike the short distance to the bar. Ten more minutes and Stewart strolls into Whiskey, his face flush from exercise and the cold. He wears a black coat with a matching black toboggan and a brown scarf with sock monkey heads dangling at each end. He greets the reporter and excuses himself to say hello to the bartender. They shake hands warmly and chat for a couple minutes, and Stewart returns to the table with a glass of water. He and the reporter chat just shy of 90 minutes, and then Stewart takes his leave. At no point during the interview does he remove his cap, nor is he asked to.
Stewart, the leader and only consistent member of the avant-everything musical project Xiu Xiu, moved to Durham four years ago – six years after starting the band in his home state of California. To some, the notion that Stewart would be so at home in a bar in his adopted home base might seem unbelievable. After all, his negative opinions of the city – expressed on his Twitter account and in blog posts, both personal and for the Huffington Post – have rankled many proponents of the city’s recent, hard-fought efforts at urban renewal.
“For a very, very long list of very, very good reasons, I hate it,” Stewart writes in his most recent post for the Huffington. “I say it all the time on my stupid website, and people here get insanely angry with me about it. Do they love their red-bricked city so little that my pointless releases of graying steam are able to cast such a thick fog over their valiant but reactionary burg and so they feel the need to so strenuously curse me?”
No, Stewart doesn’t fit in with the Durham scene – even when it comes to music. His records are painted with a dark but frenetic brush, melding blackened dance abstractions to dramatic rock that borrows equally from David Bowie’s manic glam and Swans’ abrasive melodrama. It’s a thrilling and eccentric mix of twisted pop hooks, crushing grooves and devastating narratives that Stewart delivers with an airy warble that contorts into a crazed howl during Xiu Xiu’s more desperate moments. It’s a confrontational style, one that’s earned him a fervent mix of respect and disdain from critics, but it doesn’t really mesh with the rock, experimental folk and hip-hop that dominate Durham’s music scene. As a result, Stewart finds himself in artistic purgatory.
On a personal level, Stewart doesn’t feel he fits in any better. He’s a bisexual male. Raised in Los Angeles and having spent time in both Oakland and Seattle, Stewart is used to more robust gay communities than the one he’s found in Durham. In his last Huffington article, he complained that while the city played host to an active lesbian scene, he found there were few options for queer men. Raleigh, which does have hot spots for gay males, is “30 minutes away by car, and one can’t drive home drunk from there.”
Back at Whiskey, Stewart seems less comfortable now than when he walked in – though this likely has more to do with the probing about his fraught relationship with the Bull City and less to do with the bar around him. His piercing gaze seems slightly unnerved as he considers each question. He sits up straight in his chair and begins almost every response with a flustered “Oh,” hesitating for just a second as though every question pains him a bit to answer.
“I had played here a couple of times and had a different picture of what it was going to be like,” Stewart says, wrangling his words into well-manicured responses that belie their agitated beginnings. “When I initially moved here it was even more difficult. I didn’t know where was what. I had to find my way really quickly. I lived like way in the sticks, down (Highway) 70, almost at the border of Raleigh, like in the no-sidewalks, track-hoe area for a while. It was a 20-minute drive to here. It was very, obviously, incredibly isolating.”
In California, Stewart says he rarely endured insults to his sexuality – apart from the stray 8-year-old who had just learned the word “faggot,” but even then he says the mortified look on the child’s mother took away the sting. In the South, his appearance has garnered more aggression. Your typical good ol’ boy probably doesn’t buzz the sides of his head and slick back his hair or walk around wearing a scarf bedecked with stuffed animals. As some people do when threatened by something outside their everyday norms, they sometimes lash out at Jamie, usually in the form of name-calling or jeering. Stewart estimates he has to deal with these verbal attacks once a month or so, more frequent than in any other place he’s lived.
Only once have these confrontations risen to the level of physical violence. As Stewart was walking into Durham’s Whole Foods shortly after he moved here, a guy walking out called him a “faggot.” That time, he decided he wasn’t going to take it.
“I just yelled something back,” Stewart says, “and as people do when they say something shitty, when people don’t take it, he was like, ‘What!?! You insult my judgment of you by not taking it?’ He pushed me into a corner and said he was going to beat me up, and then he didn’t.”
Despite the bigotry he’s endured, Stewart doesn’t have much to say about Amendment One, the landmark legislation on the ballot in May that would ban gay marriage in North Carolina. When it comes to the area’s social issues, he sees himself as simply passing through.
His chief concern while living here has been his own artistic isolation. Angela Seo – his best friend and a member of Xiu Xiu who is currently attending school in Durham – is his only locally based collaborator. Working alone isn’t exactly unprecedented for Stewart. He’s been recording much of his music alone since Xiu Xiu began 10 years ago, utilizing the musical faculties of his personal computer long before the practice had become so commonplace. Still, he relishes having another ear to bounce ideas off, and the occasional extra hand to help bring his concepts to fruition.
“I don’t have anybody here to play with,” he says. “Before, it was something where if I had kind of half of an idea it would be really easy to call somebody, and they could come over and we could work on something together. Now, I’ve got to fly somebody out, and it’s a condensed period of time and it may not necessarily be the hot moment. But we’ve got to get it done at that point. It’s certainly been less convenient.”
But the struggle to invigorate himself musically hasn’t hurt the quality of his output. Always, Xiu Xiu’s feisty ninth LP, explodes in a multitude of directions. Opener “Hi” is a devilish take on synth-propelled dance rock, finding room within kinetic keyboard lines for rhythmic embellishments and a nervy undercurrent of experimental noise. “Chimneys Afire” affirms Deerhoof’s Greg Saunier as the record’s producer with a twisted romp of clanging hi-fi piano chords and fuzzy, psychedelic strings. “I Luv Abortion” lives up to its abrasive title with blasts of hyper-rhythmic noise that are paired with moments of catchy melody via horns and keys. While Stewart’s voice as a songwriter is steady throughout, the album’s sonic palette is a constant variable.
“I can’t say that Xiu Xiu has gone in one direction,” Saunier says of the way the band’s sound has evolved. He has an insider perspective on Xiu Xiu’s progression, having helped produce the outfit’s four most recent records. “I just feel like the approach to making music gets reinvented every time there’s some new music to be made. I can’t sum it up in some sort of evolution or just some direction. I just feel like he’s an extremely creative spirit. You never know what’s coming next basically, and that could be from album-to-album or song-to-song within an album. Surprise is part of it and self-surprise is part of it.”
The intensity of Stewart’s music is something he traces in part back to his father, the late Michael Stewart. The guitarist for the 1960s’ folk outfit We Five as well as a one-time member of The Kingston Trio, he died in 2005.
“We didn’t really ever talk about music very much,” Jamie remembers. “But he mentioned to me that one thing he’d always wished that he had done was that he had taken things a little further than he did. A lot of the music he did was really good and really complicated, but it was pleasant. I don’t mean that in a derisive way, but it was nice to listen to, harmonically nice, texturally nice to listen to. For him, he had a really miserable life, and he was trying to create something that was the opposite of that. But he just said that he wished that he had taken things a lot further.”
In Xiu Xiu’s music, misery is channeled into powerful expression. Stewart’s recent records have trended more and more towards dance music, but this is not to say the new songs are remotely happier. Stewart is fascinated by the way most dance music is lyrically sad, frankly poignant choruses about deepest heartbreak painted over by transformative hooks. In Stewart’s music, the impact of these elements is tweaked, darkening the textures and using the energy of synthesized drums and keyboards to fuel depravity rather than cover it up.
Last year’s cover of Rhianna’s “Only Girl (In the World)” exemplifies the approach. In the original, blasts of stereotypical club synths bolster Rhianna’s demand that her man make her feel like she is, in fact, “the only girl in the world.” Xiu Xiu’s take isn’t so simple. The entire song is underpinned by whirring noise and stark, angular slices of effected strings. Stewart sings with his breathiest croon, trading Rhianna’s brash confidence for blatant insecurity. When he reaches the chorus it’s still defiant, but it’s also desperate, as if the feeling the narrator gets from her lover is the only thing keeping her alive.
“That came out of being at this dyke bar in Durham,” Stewart says of his version. “The dance floor was like empty, and that song came on and all the ladies came on and started singing it and totally re-contextualized the song. For a bunch of Southern dykes to sing it, it was really different. ‘Only Girl,’ the song itself, is fine, you know. Rhianna’s fine, likable, not bad, incredibly normal. But that group of people completely turned it into something different.”
Always incorporates dance elements more than any Xiu Xiu record before, a trick that Stewart uses to ends that on the surface seem contradictory, but in practice end up nicely complementing each other.. On songs like “Hi,” Stewart manipulates dance tropes with maniacal mischief. The synth lines are straightforward and kinetic, the beats intricately layered and propulsive. But the textures are hyper-aggressive, and the tunes are contorted into a minor key. If there’s a jig to be had here, it certainly won’t be a happy one.
The style fits Stewart’s conceit perfectly. He reaches out to those who feel oppressed or beaten down by society, relentlessly listing different struggles and asking those who identify to say, “Hi.” As the song builds, the situations get more harrowing and more graphic. “If your body is wrong and you regret residing in it,” Stewart offers in the final verse, “Jack razor blade at your throat/ Broken hearts will shine for with the moon.”
“I Luv Abortion” inverts the formula. The song is a ranting confessional from the perspective of a young girl contemplating the termination of her pregnancy. The lyrics dig deep into the controversial issue as the narrator struggles to justify the procedure – to herself, to her baby, to the listener. “When i look at my thighs I see death,” Stewart sings with a glee so frenzied it borders on despair. “It’s rad/ I love abortion/ You are too good for this life.”
The music matches Stewart’s unhinged performance. The rhythm is intense and buried in a wash of caustic fuzz. It’s an incredible din, one that consumes your consciousness entirely. Stray elements flit in and out chaotically, a triumphant horn solo here, a far-off scream there. In all, it’s a transcendently confusing mess, one that approaches its subject with an appropriately conflicted perspective.
Most amazing, though, is the way Stewart is able to seamlessly inhabit a plight that he could never actually endure. On Always, it’s just par for the course. Throughout the album, he reaches out to victims of various different injustices. One minute he’s bemoaning the plight of the Asian factory worker (“Factory Girl”), the next he’s relating a graphic tale of incestual rape (“Black Drum Machine”). In every instance, Stewart’s empathy for his subjects is the kind that you’d have for the direst straits of a close friend.
“The motivation for doing it is to attempt to document something that to me or somebody else has been meaningful,” Stewart explains. “I’m a little bit hesitant to be analytical about the results of something like that. I think it has the potential to cloud any further attempts at it. Thinking too hard about what is happening or why it is happening when I’m not doing it and I’m not writing is really not a good perspective. I’m worrying about what it will mean to me rather than attempting to just write about what their experience is.”
Stewart’s honesty on record can overwhelm, but there are a few things he’s unwilling to talk about in the public forum. One of these is the “private family stuff “ that brought him to Durham, but he is happy that he will be leaving this summer, the mysterious business that kept him tethered to the South finally at an end. He may have had a rotten time here, but he admits that Always wouldn’t have become what it was without the time to tinker and write without distraction. When he leaves, he says he’ll take a new-found appreciation for the places he lived before, as well as a newly acquired taste.
“I’ve gotten a developed palate for hard alcohol,” he says, talking about Whiskey – and its whiskey – and how he’s come to love it. “I didn’t like it before, and now I genuinely love drinking hard alcohol. I think that’s great. It wouldn’t have happened had I lived at home.”