I’ve always wanted to think that the Casiotone for the Painfully Alone song, “Toby Take a Bow”, about a kid who wins the world record for longest time hiding out in his apartment, was written for Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart. Stewart may not quite be, like the song’s Toby Grace, the “biggest Smiths fan ever”, and I’d bet anything he gets out more than most of us for whom his freaking-out-in-the-bedroom noise rock hits home, but at 34 he may just be one of the oldest and most versatile musicians who can still unironically claim the spokesband of self-absorbed adolescence as his “number-one favourite”.
Stewart may also have a little of Smiths frontman Morrissey’s unusual approach to the boundaries between public and private. In interviews, he speaks of his music’s fraught personal content—his sex life, his father’s suicide, and his own depression—with the compulsive honesty of the professional patient. Yet mention the songs’ mechanics—their skill, for instance, in juxtaposing lushly beautiful and violently unsettling arrangements—and he grows uneasy.
“I don’t think it’s really in [the band’s] best interest to think too much about why we do what we do,” he says. He’s happy to have fans see whatever they want in his music. “If they want it to be about people in the band or about themselves or just about music generally, that’s fine.” But he says still finds it very difficult to read someone else’s take on his Xiu Xiu. His relationship to his work is so intense, apparently, that it can hardly stand the third-party scrutiny to which he so readily offers up his personal life. Nor has his recently-heightened profile in the industry. Bad reviews, he says, bother him more than ever.
Then he winces. “I dunno, that sounds romantic in like the worst possible way.” Yet Stewart’s painstaking self-inspection doesn’t read as romantic—and anyone who spends eight hours a day on his music, as he says he does, must be familiar with the kind of clear-eyed pragmatism that enters even the most intense emotions as they’re transformed into art (he claims that music can provide him with a way to “not feel as much”). And then, there is something deeply unromantic about Stewart’s singing voice, as elastic and expressively blank as Jim Carey’s face, insisting, as it hisses and shrieks up to a pitch of feeling beyond where any self-respecting listener can follow, that while this show of pain may be funny it is not, ever, a joke. Air Force even shows signs that Stewart the songwriter may be willing to treat other people’s emotions with the same cold clarity as his own. The album’s final track, a monologue delivered in an electronic voice reminiscent of Radiohead’s “Fitter Happier”, captures a brutal routine of sexual domination through lines like “The plane I am waiting on has your face painted on the wings / When it crashes, I will eat the paint off”.
Again, Stewart says that song was just a page from his life at the time.
“Almost all the lines from it are taken from text messages,” he says. “I was having a really filthy summer. I was sleeping with all these people and no one else knew I was sleeping with other people. Yeah, really uncool. I’d never done anything like that before. And it didn’t bother me that much, I didn’t feel particularly guilty about it, which kind of freaked me out.”
In fact, unlike most artists who make any kind of intense, disturbing music, Stewart rarely tries draw a distinction between himself and the fragmentary, traumatized voices that dominate his work.
“I try to write about things that actually happened to me,” he says, “because for me, the musicians that have meant the most to me are the ones that write about things that happened.”
Maybe it’s a product of Stewart’s unusual sound, that he feels so comfortable casting his music as an extension of his life. A folksy indie rocker with please-like-me lyrics and languid melodies may have reason to worry about being pigeonholed too easily through his music, but Stewart’s bouncy, driving beats tend to belie their I-hate-myself-and-I-want-to-die message.
Stewart, however, denies any tension between form and content. In fact, he says that much of his inspiration for his personal, dramatic lyrics came from dance music.
“There’s a lot of dance music that’s the most direct and simple music in the world. Disturbingly direct. House music lyrics are all about dancing the pain away. There’s actually a Baltimore house song called ‘Dancing the Pain’ away.”
Another possible reason for Stewart’s embrace of biographical literalism is that his songs don’t take place in the familiar confessional-music world of failed loves and drunken nights out. They focus, instead, on private nightmares and brief, violent stabs of consciousness. Stewart’s insistence that the surreal world of his songs is the world of “things that actually happened” amounts to an affirmation that his nightmares, no matter how strange or melodramatic they might look from the outside, are a part of daily life. (The language poet Paul Celan, who wrote oblique, sometimes impenetrable poems about his experience in Nazi Germany, was similarly famous for insisting, against all plausibility, that his images of black milk and blood sacrifices were not metaphors, but literal accounts of what happened in the camps.)
Yet for all his ownership of its angsty personal content, Stewart says he doesn’t see the music as some kind of therapeutic exercise. That’s in part because, as an exorcism of personal demons, it just doesn’t work.
“I don’t find music to be particularly cathartic,” he says. “I don’t feel better after playing. It’s not like after a show I’m like, ‘Oh my god, now I don’t feel crappy about x, y and z.’ But I think I might understand better.
Plus, there are parts of his life that don’t lend themselves to expression in a song. Albums like Air Force or Fabulous Muscles may sound as if they were written from the very bottom of a deep, dark pit, but Stewart claims that music doesn’t play much of a role in his worst depressions. The shrieking, trembling voice of “I Luv the Valley Oh” or “I Broke Up” is actually the sound of Stewart being kind of okay with the world. That seems to have something to do with the fact that Xiu Xiu has always attempted to “write about the things that mean the most to us”, as Stewart says—which seems for him to have a lot to do with writing about extremes. The grey, enervated state that characterizes the most common and mundane sort of depression must be especially devastating for an artist that has made his name on a knack for drama and intensity.
“When I’m really depressed I can’t write. I mean, I try, but it’s just kind of like…” He trails off, smacking his forehead with the heel of his hand.
Does he at least enjoy playing, when he can?
Stewart winces, tilts his head, squeezes one eye shut and wrinkles his forehead for a long moment: “Uhhhh ... Sometimes.” He pauses. “But I would go out of my fucking mind if I didn’t make music eight hours a day.”