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"Last year was just a ridiculous year," he says with a sigh. So much happened - some bad, some good - that Stewart admittedly withdrew a bit from the world while recording Xiu Xiu's amazing new record, Fabulous Muscles. "I got sort of hermetic," he says. That's understandable considering he had to cope with a flood of emotions triggered by a father's suicide and the realization that he could do little to help the poor immigrant family of one of his students - Stewart has taught pre-school for 10 years - deal with their teenage son's repeated molestation of the boy's 5-year-old sibling. Meanwhile, the war in Iraq raged on. Casualties mounted on both sides. And he grew increasingly sick of seeing the devastation on TV.
"Obviously, the United States has some sort of history as an unabashed colonial power, but I don't remember a point in history where we're being as inexcusably destructive as we are now, except at the end of World War II when we dropped the bomb," Jamie says. "There's just been an insane amount of destruction for political gain. The U.S. public is scared to death."
Personal tragedy. Bloody warfare. All of it weighed on Stewart's mind as he composed biting lyrics about the role of negative dominance in society, how the strong prey on the weak, exerting physical, sexual or emotional pressure to feel a sense of power. Stewart doesn't mince words.
"Did you know that you were going to shoot off the top of a 4-year-old girl's head and look across her car seat down into her skull and see into her throat/And did you know that her dad would say to you, 'Please sir, can I take her body home.' Oh wait, you totally did know that that would happen/ because you're a jock who is too stupid, and too greedy, and too unmotivated to do anything else but still be the biggest and still do what other people tell you to do." So begins the new album's fifth track, "Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!)", Fabulous Muscles' stinging spoken-word indictment of the U.S. military's actions abroad.
As Stewart sees it, it's that need to assert our authority that drove us to go to war in the first place - that and the fact that Iraq still has a lot of oil. "It's something that I can only speculate on, but I can voice my suspicion," Stewart says. "It's probably a little bit simplistic to point the finger at the current administration, but that group of people so far as I can see - and I admit what I actually know is limited - have set a profound tone of fear and paranoia as an excuse to amass more wealth through violence."
Stewart isn't looking for trouble. And he's not seeking mass-market acceptance for Xiu Xiu. He's well aware that the group's Dark Wave synth cacophonies, clanging percussion and subversive, brutally honest lyrics, sung in Stewart's unique blood-curdling yelp no less, might rub people the wrong way. "It's not consciously supposed to be that way, but I would say our music is confrontational," Stewart says. "We didn't set out to be that way, but I wouldn't shy away from writing something that people would view as confrontational."
Fabulous Muscles, Xiu Xiu's third full-length, isn't exactly what you'd call easy listening. Xiu Xiu still experiments with dissonance, but this time, Stewart's pop proclivities aren't buried alive by the terrifyingly psychotic noise that made Knife Play and A Promise so disturbingly sensual, as I'd imagine S&M is to some people. "It wasn't so much a desire to make our music more accessible," Stewart explains. "We're all big fans of pop, and we set out to write songs that were more pop because we like it. It wasn't done in the hope that we'd score huge piles of cocaine and drive around in limousines."
Stewart had to keep quiet to make peace with the new neighbors. "I moved to Seattle from the Bay Area, and I used to live in this slum kind of pad," he says. "The upside was we could make as much noise as we wanted. There was a lot more room to experiment with sounds. If we wanted to do 45 minutes of feedback, we could. Now, I'm in a regular apartment and I can't do that anymore, so we ended up using a lot of quieter acoustic sounds and a lot of electronic sounds you could make with headphones and keyboards. In some ways, it made things more interesting. You're forced to be more creative when you're working with a limited palette."
Stewart still likes to paint outside the lines though. In that way, he's a little like his pupils. "I haven't taught since the summer," he says, "but we used to do music in class, and once we tossed a bunch of instruments on the floor, and a couple of the kids did these insane noise jams, these percussion freak-outs that I recorded with a hand recorder." They appear on A Promise during the opening pair of tracks, "Sad Pony Guerrilla Girl" and "Apistat Commander". "I think that's the first time I've told anybody that," he says with a laugh.
Confession is good for the soul. So is falling love. Stewart wrote "Little Panda McElroy", Track No. 4 on Fabulous Muscles, for his new love interest. He appreciates the newfound stability, something his band doesn't always offer. After a host of personnel changes, Xiu Xiu became more of a solo project for Stewart, starting with Fag Patrol. "The lineup disintegrated for whatever reason," Jamie says. "People left for school or a job change, or they got kicked out for being retards. And I moved. It kind of ended up that way out of necessity." Producer and Xiu Xiu multi-instrumentalist Cory McCulloch stuck by him, though. "He's been consistent, as both a player and a producer, and we have that kind of beautiful psychic connection together," Jamie says. "It's a good situation. I'd prefer us to be a regular band again. I miss that. We're getting to be a regular band again. The last two tours I did by myself, but this one we're doing as a band. Hopefully, we'll stay together."
Already, Xiu Xiu is working the follow-up to Fabulous Muscles. He'd have a hard time telling you what it's going to be like though. "It's still kind of in the early stages of gestation... Hmmm, I was about to describe the visual picture I have of it in my head, but that'd make me sound totally nuts," Jamie jokes. "I think I'll keep that one to myself. Let me think for a second... It's going to be like gray crystals cracking. No wait. Anything I would say about it would be uninteresting. It'll have way more acoustic instruments and more people contributing. It'll be edited heavily, but it'll be more spontaneous. It'll be played more freely, with less repeating parts. And there'll be way less pop."
Wonder what the neighbors will say. Whatever the case, like everybody else, Stewart is going to have his ups and downs. But he'll deal. "I feel intensely fine or awful, but sometimes I like to make fart jokes," Jamie says. "Life can be miserable and difficult, and the last few years have been, but it wasn't always like that. You still have video games." SEE ALSO: www.xiuxiu.org
SEE ALSO: www.killrockstars.com
SEE ALSO: www.5rc.com
Peter Lindblad lives in Appleton, Wis., and bleeds green and gold just like all the Packer fan nutjobs in the area. He does draw the line at wearing blocks of chedder on his head, or any other body parts for that matter, though. His professional career has taken weird twists and turns that have led him to his current position as an editor at a coin magazine. He hopes his stay there will be a short one. Before that, he worked as an associate editor at a log home magazine. To anyone that will listen, he'll swear that Shiner was one of the greatest rock bands to ever walk the earth. Yet he also has much love for Superchunk, Spoon, DJ Shadow, Swervedriver, Wilco, Fugazi, Jawbox, ... And You Will Know Us By The Trail Of Dead, Queens Of The Stone Age, and Modest Mouse, among others.
See other articles by Peter Lindblad.
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