“Trust the art, not the artist,” they say.
Yet when it comes to Jamie Stewart, the brains behind Bay Area-bred indie-experimental band Xiu Xiu, that saying gets a good, hard twist: trust the art to unsettle, not the artist.
That’s because despite the darkness of his songs, the screeching dissonance cloaking pop hooks, and the doom dogging his beats, Stewart might be one of the most disarmingly friendly and sweetly engaging gloom merchants of his generation. Some might call it a case of adult-functioning goth, but Stewart wouldn’t be caught dead in a cliché. Instead, on the phone from L.A. and on the verge of a performance at the Venice Biennale with his sometime collaborator, artist Danh Vo, the performer is chatty, smart, faintly self-effacing and slightly oversharing, like so many that came out of the '00s Bay Area music scene.
Stewart is happily matter-of-fact while detailing the dismal MacArthur Park neighborhood in L.A. that he moved to a few years ago, after spending a miserable period in small-town North Carolina. His time living in MacArthur Park “was at once incredibly beautiful and interesting, and literally colorful because most of the botanicas and merchants have rainbow umbrellas,” says Stewart, who grew up in a more suburban part of L.A. “But across the street, at this park, it was packed with dope and meth addicts, dead seagulls and people committing suicide on a regular basis.”
It didn’t help that the musician was held up at gunpoint, setting the tone for his life in the neighborhood, "which was incredibly anxious, and at night it was incredibly depressing,” he continues. “You’d see human feces on the sidewalk, people passed out on the sidewalk, people hooking on the sidewalk, naked. I certainly learned a lot, though nothing I liked.”
The seamy scenario right outside his door, however, provided inspiration for Xiu Xiu’s most recent and possibly most powerful album, the harrowing Angel Guts: Red Classroom (Polyvinyl, 2014). When Stewart and current bandmate Angela Seo play the Fillmore on May 15, opening for Timber Timbre, expect songs from the album paired with tunes from 2002 to 2004: “It seems like [the older numbers] are closer in tone to the newer music,” Stewart says. “My head was more troubled and beat down at that time.”
Trouble and trauma seems to find Stewart, whose family background is steeped in music. Uncle John Stewart was a member of the Kingston Trio, and father Michael Stewart, who had a hit with 1965’s “You Were on My Mind” as part of folk-pop act We Five, went on to produce artists like Billy Joel and Giant Sand. I first met Stewart in 2002, shortly after the release of the group’s debut long-player, Knife Play, at his house in San Jose. "Suicide has been a big problem in my family, and a lot of Xiu Xiu's songs have been about that," he told me at the time, presciently. Michael Stewart committed suicide later that year, which Jamie chronicled in the song “Mike,” from Xiu Xiu’s 2004 album, Fabulous Muscles.
Somehow, amid loss and everyday horror, Stewart seems to have found a way to translate the darkness into popular art, inspiring outlets like the A.V. Club to call Xiu Xiu one of the best bands of the aughts.
In Angel Guts, that art is outlined with “synths that are purposely trying to sound like a piano that’s falling on top of a preschool,” as Stewart puts it. Hovercraft synth lines and oscillating beats mark the song “Archie’s Fades,” whereas rapid-fire laser bursts and Stewart’s anguished croon dart through “Stupid in the Dark.” Picture an East L.A. giallo, scored with stabbing synth, tortured drum machines, and pathos on the dance floor.
For Angel Guts, Stewart says, “we'd write a sound and make a song around it, instead of writing a song and trying to decorate it, essentially.” The anti-songs of the band Suicide and the early sonic assaults of Einstürzende Neubauten were touchstones, while the title was taken from the name of a 1979 erotic B-movie released by Japan’s notorious Nikkatsu studio. “That movie was playing in a theater the first couple days in L.A. after I moved back, and I was profoundly relieved to see something I would not have had any access to in North Carolina,” he explains. “It was one of the most miserably debauched movies I’d ever seen, and it was fantastically out in plain view.”
What could possibly come next, now that Stewart has moved to a safer, and duller, L.A. neighborhood? “I think, sonically, I kind of tapped into a palette of sounds on the last record that I still feel really attracted to,” says the musician, who’s already working on Xiu Xiu’s next full-length in his home studio. “I think this will be as dark and violent, but probably concentrate more on songwriting. With the last one, we were trying to not write songs, and a couple friends pointed out to me that we totally failed.
“It certainly won’t be a pop record, but it will be, for lack of a better word, more tuneful, still noisy, and still obsessed with evil," Stewart says. "But you can probably still sing along. I think it’s in my blood.”