Hearing Jamie Stewart call Xiu Xiu’s music “pop” almost makes me stop and correct him. Very few artists would consider an album laced with squealing feedback and lyrics steeped in murder their breakthrough pop record. On Xiu Xiu’s new Fabulous Muscles even the melodic chimes tinkling in the background of the saccharine ballad “Clowne Towne” come through the speakers tinged with crackling distortion.
But it’s all relative. As a songwriter, Stewart has always traded in the harshest of tonal and lyrical truths. His excellent voice and penchant for catchy refrains have helped to make even his most unflinchingly honest songwriting easier to swallow. Few singers could make the line “cremate me, after you cum on my lips” the foundation of the sweet, sing-along-worthy title track. Yet with each album Stewart’s ratio of hard to soft draws ever closer to equilibrium as the band’s fanbase expands from the far edges of music listeners inwards, towards the center of the mainstream.
He may not have topped any Billboard charts but he still has reached that first benchmark of success. As of last summer, Stewart has been able to quit his regular job and make a living as a musician for the first time in his life. Though Xiu Xiu still plays small venues their shows have sold out with increasing frequency.
PopMatters caught up with Stewart before the band’s first-ever appearance in DC—not quite sold out, but close—to chat about the band’s trajectory and what keeps it aloft.
At shows and through the mail, Xiu Xiu’s fans have showered Stewart with personal gifts. “Most of the people give us stuff they’re working on, their bands or art or stuff like that,” he says. “It’s really incredibly sweet—and I mean that in a totally unpatronizing way.
“Once in a great while somebody will do something weird. Just like send a really overtly sexual letter or something like that. That hasn’t really happened in person much but it has happened in emails a few times and in letters. I did get groped in a show just like three or four nights ago. It was in Philadelphia. Some guy totally came up to me and grabbed my ass and rubbed himself.
“And knew my name so it wasn’t like randomly,” he adds.
Otherwise, Stewart hasn’t encountered any long-term stalkers. “I’d probably be real amped about that,” he admits.
In spite of the upturn in his group’s popularity, Stewart maintains an outlook uncharacteristic for an up-and-coming performer: he already sees an end in sight. “I think that that’s inevitable for any sort of pop band,” he says. “I still would want to do some sort of music after this, kind of more classical-oriented, but I think we’ll keep doing it until we start to think it’s lame. Hopefully we’ll know when it’s lame.”
Xiu Xiu’s current popularity seems like a detour in his life plan. After nearly a decade working as an on-again off-again preschool teacher and occasionally as a social worker, he still expects to go to grad school “after our rock time is done.”
Stewart’s realistic/pessimistic viewpoint may be what has spurred on the flurries of speculation that the band will soon break up. In reality, another album is already partly recorded, with longtime producer and occasional bandmate Cory McCulloch at work on it while Stewart continues touring. Stewart says he expects the next record to shy away from his recent explorations into mainstream music.
“I think on Fabulous Muscles we really tried to write a pop record just because,” he says. “We were on a lark and wanted to see how it would turn out. [On the next record] I don’t know that we really went into it with as much of an idea thematically but it seems to be turning out to be more experimental. I think the vocal parts will still be like pop vocal parts and sort of melodic and rhythmic but the instrumentation is not as frilly.”
McCulloch’s part as producer is much larger than it might seem from the outside. Stewart rejects the notion that the band is simply his solo project, despite the constantly changing cast of supporting members, and credits McCulloch with much of Xiu Xiu’s success.
“I wouldn’t say that at all,” he insists. “Ultimately we work very closely together. I’ll do as much as I can do and then he’ll kind of tighten it up and finish it at the end. We have things set up really well insofar as that I’ll do a lot of close, intense work on stuff and then he’ll work on it after it’s done so that we have a perspective on things. Which for us works out really really really well because he can see the difference and say ‘This is working, this is not working.’ He would say it sucks and I trust his judgment.”
On tour, however, Stewart has been the only constant member. At one time a four piece, the current touring version of Xiu Xiu consists of Stewart, multi-instrumentalist Caralee McElroy, and a rather prominent drum machine. “I think drum machines sound really really cool,” he says, but admits that “it’s definitely more fun to play with a drummer.”
To get around the usually dismal quality of drum machines run through a small club’s PA system, Stewart now makes sure to bring an array of amps dedicated entirely to his tiny drum machine. “That was a lesson hard learned,” he says. “When we started out we didn’t have them, and it was a total disaster.”
Stewart’s sudden boom in tourdates—he plans another round through North America after traveling to Europe—may allow more fans to see his live performance, but may cause the band’s output of new material to drop down to a trickle. “I can’t write on tour at all,” he claims. “Before, the most we could ever tour in a year was like three months. So we had a lot of time to record. I have tried [writing on tour] and don’t find it works usually. Your brain just gets so fried that it’s hard to really conjure anything.”
Stewart insists on clarity of purpose and meaning in what he writes. He says lyrics are the most difficult aspect of what he does. “The records that have been very important to us…very clearly portray what they were about, so that’s what we want to emulate,” he explains. “We’re pursuing it in a way that it feels truthful and honest and, for lack of a better word, pure to us.”
This dedication to unflagging sincerity can lead him to drop songs from the repertoire if he can’t muster the proper feeling for them. “There’s a couple songs that I don’t think we could really do convincingly,” he says. “Just because they were about such a specific point in time that it may not be relevant anymore. I couldn’t really sing it and really have any sort of genuine feeling about it.”
Stewart’s commitment to his songwriting hardly allows for a wrong word, let alone a lack of energy or imagination. “Lyrics are super-super-super-super important to us, one bad word has ruined entire songs for us. There’ll be a bad line and it’s like ‘Ugh, I can’t even listen to that song anymore.’ So we try to write something that we think every line feels like we’ve done it as well as we can.”
“I shouldn’t have said us, I should have said me, I guess,” he adds, after a pause.