Free Xpression

Xiu Xiu dodges mainstream success in favor of DIY catharsis.

The last time Xiu Xiu toured the Midwest, Caralee McElroy, one of the band's multi-instrumental members, was the focus of a mosquito feeding frenzy -- from which she emerged with almost a hundred itchy bumps. Tedious tour-van commutes enhance the temptation to scratch bites bloody, so singer Jamie Stewart has a plan if the swarm strikes again.

"We'll cover her with glue," he says, calling from his cell phone in the band's hometown of Seattle. "So if they get close enough to bite her, they'll be doomed."

Whether dealing with pests of the insect or political variety, Stewart prefers baroque answers to pressing problems. For example, on "Saturn," a track from Xiu Xiu's coming release, La Foret, he describes cannibalizing the commander-in-chief, a grotesque image inspired by the Goya painting of Saturn swallowing his sons.

X marks the spot: Jamie Stewart (from left) and 
Caralee McElroy are Xiu Xiu.
X marks the spot: Jamie Stewart (from left) and Caralee McElroy are Xiu Xiu.

"I was feeling -- and currently feel -- a really violent hatred toward the president," Stewart says. "And I was just thinking of what the result of that base anger might be if he were ever in the same room as me. We were on tour in Spain, and I saw that painting, and it captured the unapologetic bloodlust and fury that George Bush inspires in me."

Even more incendiary was last year's "Support Our Troops, Oh! (Black Angels, Oh!)," a caustic rejection of "I'm against the war, but I support the troops" rationalizations. "You shot your grenade launcher into people's windows and into the doors of people's houses/Why should I care if you get killed?," Stewart speak-sings over swirling industrial noise.

Such lines would spark heated protests -- if only the potentially outraged knew where to look. Xiu Xiu usually plays underground-network gigs in art galleries and community centers instead of in nightclubs and bars. "Those spaces are about art and community," Stewart explains, "as opposed to smoking and drinking."

Since quitting his day job as a teacher a year ago, Stewart devotes eight-hour days to his compositions when he's not touring. "Being able to work on music constantly has given us the time to focus on making more delicate and experimental sounds," he says. "Before, it was like, ŒWe have one hour this week; we've just got to bang it out.' We get a chance to make more mistakes, which is good, because when you do that you tend to come across something interesting."

New wrinkles on La Foret include Xiu Xiu's first lush string arrangement and its first piece completely orchestrated with woodwinds; bells toll like wind chimes in a tornado, as ominously plinked piano accents appear at eerily sporadic intervals and industrial effects enhance the drama. At one point, a sputtering gasket noise complements Stewart's histrionic vocals, conjuring the cartoon image of steam spouting from his ears. Even major-label acts that experiment with exotic instrumentation in the studio seldom take their toys on tour, owing to the hassle of setting up the stage show. Xiu Xiu currently tours with two harmoniums, two keyboards, gongs, bells, a guitar, an autoharp, a bass and a drum machine, working without roadies to load this equipment into venues that weren't made to accommodate mini-symphonies.

"It's kind of masochistic, but it ends up being worth it," Stewart says. "It's certainly more fun for us to be able to switch around, and it gives the people watching a chance to hear more interesting sounds."

Those people are usually a better fit for Xiu Xiu. The band tends to attract hecklers if it plays bars, mainly because Stewart is one of the most demonstratively emotive frontmen in modern music. A typical Xiu Xiu show feels like a reverse intervention for a morbidly depressed musician, with the at-risk singer inviting fans to an ostensible concert and then shocking them by baring his darkest impulses.

For some unwitting observers, the band's intimate concerts can be so profoundly unnerving that the confusion they cause curdles into anger. Others initially interpret Stewart's unsettling stage presence -- the trauma-damaged shudders, the whiplash-inducing transitions from dying-breath whispers to tortured-tiger roars -- as performance-art parody, reasoning that such striking emotional exposure can't be genuine.

But Stewart isn't faking it, and he has his reasons. On "I Luv the Valley, Oh!" he delves into his parents' deaths, references suicide in a quivering, terrifying tone usually only heard in hotline calls, and unleashes primal screams that seem to be ripping him apart as they emerge. Stewart also draws inspiration from the inexorable procession of international tragedies. With 24-hour news channels and Internet feeds, people have more access than ever to wide-ranging reports of humanity's atrocities. It's enough to overwhelm, even petrify, a sensitive soul.

"Hearing about the genocide in Sudan that the larger world community didn't do anything about, and that we're in the middle of Iran and Iraq murdering people constantly all day long, and that the United States is in the middle of devastating its environment," Stewart pauses, then emits a noise pitched between a strangled sigh and a dry heave. "Other than making that sound, I don't know what else to do."

Sometimes fans attempt to comfort Stewart. "It's nice that someone would take the time to ask if I'm okay," he says. Others tell him that his lyrics have helped them overcome their own harrowing ordeals. ("I really appreciate the fact that someone would be brave enough to share something intimate like that with us. It takes a lot of guts.") As for airing his own fears and ugliest feelings, "that's more obsessive-compulsive than courageous," he allows.

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