“The tree which moves some to tears of joy is in the eyes of others only a green thing that stands in the way.” - William Blake
By Christine Beaderstadt
- The Capitol Hill Times -
Listeners stood silently in front of Xiu Xiu, a.k.a. Jamie Stewart, unwavering in their support of his emotionally charged songs Friday at Neumos. On stage, Stewart clung to his instruments as if they were lifelines, and each lyric sounded as if it was wrung out from the depths of his soul. Dramatic. His open, pained expressions were a surprisingly vulnerable emotion for someone to be displaying on stage, and listeners seemed to cherish and hold onto what Stewart was offering.
Behind the scenes, though, Stewart is a confident yet soft-spoken man who knows himself and his craft. “There’s a very palpable physical release that happens when something is working,” he told The Capitol Hill Times of his songwriting. “It allows a person to deal with something that is physical, visceral, and intellectual at the same time.”
Stewart’s success in music started with a crumbling. In a single week, he was kicked out of all three of the bands for which he played guitar. The fallouts with his former band mates varied from money issues to homophobic songs he refused to play, and, “Well, in one I was an asshole and they didn’t want to deal with me anymore.”
“Thankfully that happened,” he said, “Otherwise I’d still be playing in a dub band.” A friend told him he should just start his own group, and Xiu Xiu was born.
It took Stewart a while to realize that his career and path would be paved with music. “It’s a little bit out of your hands,” he mused. “It’s what the Universe has decided you ought to be doing, and not a lot else feels right.” It took a college professor, and later, a therapist, to assure Stewart it was okay to quit his job in social work and pursue music.
The sound of Xiu Xiu lies somewhere between avant-garde and experimental, yet neither genre fully encompasses what Stewart creates with each of his albums. Since the formation of the group in 2002 (which has held various members, leaving Stewart to sometimes perform solo in the middle of a member transition), Xiu Xiu has had 11 releases, including two in 2003.
Stewart is a performance artist, and some of his songs border on the spoken word, especially in “Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels Oh!),” from the album Fabulous Muscles released in 2004. He also had an unrelated running project called “chests” in which people of all shapes, sizes, and gender orientation submit a photo of their chest, and he posts it on his site (only 18 and overs allowed). In addition, he will be publishing a book of his haikus at the end of the year, and is also working with artist J. Morrison to design one-of-a-kind t-shirts that highlight artists like Robert Mappelthorpe, Yoko Ono, and Freddie Mercury.
Xiu Xiu’s music can be inaccessible to the mainstream listener, leaving more room for longtime, dedicated fans, but this is something he doesn’t try to think too hard about. “Being analytical [about one's music] lends a certain falsehood,” he said. “I think with a band that is active, it’s a lot more productive to keep working and not think about what you have been doing too hard. I think creating something at that particular moment is self-reflective, but once that is done, reflecting on that is pointless and even detrimental.”
His newest album, Always (Bella Union and Polyvinyl), resurrects some of his earlier work, leaving a handful of critics to accuse Stewart of being formulaic. That being said, Stewart stretches his songwriting in Always by touching on more blatant, aggressive social issues, like the labor conditions in Asia and abortion (“Factory Girl” and I Luv Abortion”).
Xiu Xiu is currently touring with Swans around the country, and will be heading to Australia and Europe next month.