On the cover: Xiu Xiu for life.Xiu Xiu front man Jamie Stewart is walking back and forth across the narrow length of The Jackpot. He's setting up for a show in Lawrence and the sound check seems to be taking a while. On stage, there are several keyboards with various cymbals and gongs, and after a line check Stewart only meows along with the music to set vocal levels.
At a glance, Stewart's fashion eccentricities go unnoticed. However it's the chipped blue nail polish, smiling popsicle backpack and colorful socks (one does want a hint of color) that stand out over his simple black shirt and blue jeans appearance which is reminiscent of the working-class image donned by fans of The Smiths in the 80s.
I greet him after the sound check and we head to his van for the interview. After taking my place in the passenger's seat I start to feel as if I've invaded his personal space, his home on the road. This trespass goes unnoticed by Stewart as we chat.
Xiu Xiu formed in 2002 in San Jose, California. With Stewart as the only consistent member, the group has released nine full -length albums and a slew of singles and splits with other artists in the past decade. Xiu Xiu's music is composed of a mixture of electronic and organic instruments creating a sound that can range from simple acoustic arrangements, to catchy pop, or even absolute dissonance. This unique bastardization of the pop mentality is what helps give Xiu Xiu their creative sonic edge.
"I never really separated the idea of dissonance from ideas about music generally," he says. "I'd been an avid fan of modern classical music and experimental music, noise-music, long before the band started. It doesn't seem separate than any other way of harmonically expressing some kind of emotional idea or sort of supporting a lyrical idea. It's not like we write a song and then think of how we can inject dissonance into it. It's a regular part of the composition process. If you're in the right space those things just seem to happen naturally."
As the main composer for Xiu Xiu, the composition and recording process have become completely intertwined for Stewart. Even on tour Stewart frequently works out new ideas in Garage Band or on a Game Boy sequencer program. "I've had little home studios forever and it has been a rare song in a long period of working on stuff that something has been written separate from while it was being recorded," he says. "It's an attempt not to lose anything that could be happening kind of beyond your control and out of the way of your brain."
This eclectic assortment of sound topped by Stewart's whispery singing style and deeply personal lyrics combine to create a visceral and emotionally voyeuristic experience for the listener. Often writing about the struggles of family members and friends, Stewart hasn't shied away from tackling difficult topics such as child abuse, his father's suicide, and his own feelings of self - loathing. It's this willingness to be exposed and vulnerable that has gained Xiu Xiu a dedicated fan base worldwide.
Though his lyrics are based in reality, he often curtails the lyrics in a manner that doesn't expose anyone's identity.
"Once I wrote something that somebody didn't want other people to know about and it was kind of at a time when we were just starting out and I didn't think anybody was listening to our records at all, but it got back to this one person who's in my family. Since then, most of the time I'll still write about real people but I'll just make up a name or use initials or something like that," he says. "Occasionally, I'll still use real people's names. I could certainly understand why someone wouldn't want something very private about them clearly broadcast, even though it's a relatively small number of people that listen to our records."
Always, the band's most recent album, has the same trauma-infused pop feel for which Xiu Xiu is known. The opening track and first video from the record "Hi" has a strong dance feel to it, encouraging the listener to sing along whilst contemplating whether their "bed is a living hell" or if they should "burn out their eyes." The following tracks are an eclectic mash-up of different sounds with topics ranging from the story of an Afghani teenage boy murdered for sport by American soldiers to teenage abortion.
Stewart has always considered himself a queer artist and growing up in Los Angeles his parents had many queer friends. "Fortunately I didn't go through a lot of trouble regarding sexuality," he says. "I went through a lot of struggle with gender-dysphoria things, but as far as sexual orientation ... once I finally figured it out it was like 'Oh, okay.' There was never any shame around it at all, luckily, in my formative years, which was good."
Around the age of 14 Stewart and his father visited the studio of a gay musician friend. Stewart had just gotten into synthesizer music and enjoyed the visit. "Driving back he said, in this very adorable now, kind of clunky way, 'So, you think Paul's cool right?' I said, 'Yeah, he's alright.' And he said, 'Well, Paul's gay. So being gay is cool.' And then we didn't talk for like an hour on the whole drive home. I think in his own way he was trying to show me someone who was gay who I would admire, and then that topic between us never came up again until I came out in my early 20s."
Stewart's openness about his sexuality has always been more happenstance than a promotional ploy for attention. "I think it has more to do with the sort of, for lack of a better word, the creed of the band; which is always to write [as] honestly as possible," he says. "The point of being [honest] with writing the songs is an attempt to emulate bands who have done that and I have found moving."
Though personal traumas and depression seem to be the fuel behind Xiu Xiu's flame, there is obviously something cathartic about the music for both Stewart and his fans. It's no simple feat to maintain a career in the music industry for over a decade, and Xiu Xiu has given no hints at slowing down.
Xiu Xiu will be performing with SWANS on Sept. 19 at The Beaumont Club in Kansas City, MO.