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By Chad Garrison
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The last time Xiu Xiu visited St. Louis, Caralee McElroy, one of the band's multi-instrumental members, inspired a mosquito feeding frenzy -- from which she emerged with almost 100 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, so if they get close enough to bite her, they'll be doomed," he says, calling from his cell phone on an errand run in the band's hometown of Seattle.
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 upcoming release, La Foret -- he describes cannibalizing the commander-in-chief, a grotesque image inspired by the Goya painting of Saturn swallowing his sons.
"I was feeling -- and currently feel -- a really violent hatred toward the president, 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," Stewart says. "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, as opposed to smoking and drinking," Stewart explains.
The band's ever-expanding instrumental arsenal also matches its unorthodox gigs. Xiu Xiu currently tours with two harmoniums, two keyboards, gongs, bells, a guitar, an auto harp, a bass and a drum machine. Since quitting his day job as a teacher a year ago, Stewart has started devoting eight-hour days to his compositions when not touring.
"Being able to work on music constantly has given us the time to focus on making more delicate and experimental sounds," Stewart says. "Before, it was like, 'We 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. Its 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 who experiment with exotic instrumentation in the studio seldom take their toys on tour, owing to the hassle of setting up the stage show. But Xiu Xiu, working without roadies, loads 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."
Xiu Xiu also 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 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 a performance-art parody, reasoning that such striking emotional exposure can't possibly 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 OK," 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 his own public airing of his fears and ugliest feelings, Stewart says, "that's more obsessive-compulsive than courageous."
Unsurprisingly, critics often call Xiu Xiu's music "challenging." The term seems to address Stewart's hyper-expressive vocals more than their backdrops -- which, though occasionally shrouded in electronic dissonance and metal-on-metal clatter, follow linear melodic patterns and often approach fragile beauty. Several tracks, propelled by programmed percussion and rumbling basslines, even settle into new-wave grooves, leading to the incongruous spectacle of fans dancing during Xiu Xiu's morbid recitals. There's even sexual energy at times, though Stewart warns "it's really unhealthy."
But to him, "challenging" doesn't mean inscrutable atonal noise, unorthodox instrumentation or provocative lyrics.
"Any music that someone plays from the heart, totally openly, becomes challenging music, even if it's just guitar and vocals," Stewart says. "And any reaction to that music is great, as long as it's what the person is really feeling."