Jamie Stewart’s mom warned him not to become a musician. “My dad and uncle were successful musicians,” he says. “Mom discouraged me. She knew it was a difficult life.”
Nevertheless, since 2002 Stewart has been the bandleader and only constant member of Xiu Xiu, a California-based experimental art-rock band. Xiu Xiu’s latest, 2019’s Girl with Basket of Fruit, is out now on Polyvinyl records.
Stewart’s earliest memories of performing music on stage were at a friend’s 14th birthday party. His band was called the Number 1 Fish Pointers, and it mainly played Bauhaus covers. “We only knew one verse of each song,” he remembers. “We would all look at each other and try to stop at the same time.”
So now that he’s more than a decade into a career as a professional musician, I ask Stewart if his mom was right.
“It’s a very difficult life,” Stewart says. “It wasn’t until the first Xiu Xiu record that I knuckled down and did it. I don’t think I’m made for much else.”
Like a lot of Xiu Xiu’s material, Girl with Basket of Fruit rides a fine line between vulnerable and adversarial. Throughout the album, Stewart sort of sings-speaks-rants-screams over looping sound beds that are at once industrial, a little goth-rock and even sometimes funny.
The song “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy,” a title that would be funny enough on its own, opens with a rhythmic chicken bock-bock before turning into vintage Skinny Puppy.
Elsewhere on the album, the lyrics to the nervous album-opener show Stewart’s willingness to be artfully ugly, a Hieronymus Bosch painting with words. “It’s a vagina strained without end,” Stewart frantically incants, “And her lungs fill with tears/ Or the lungs turn to gills.”
On the relatively serene “Amargi Ve Moo,” Stewart says “ba-nay-nay” like a children’s singer from hell.
Stewart calls Girl with Basket of Fruit a radical departure for Xiu Xiu, the usual pounding intensity of the band augmented by collaborations with Haitian and Nigerian drummers. It is music held together, sometimes barely, by Stewart’s frayed psyche. But he’s without a doubt master of the chaos.
While listening, it occurs to me that there isn’t much that’s more punk rock than a willingness to be vulnerably adversarial. This binary is not something Xiu Xiu strives for, Stewart says, but he doesn’t disagree with the characterization of the band’s sound.
“Things that are ugly are interesting to me,” Stewart says, adding he doesn’t feel art has to be ugly to be valuable. “I don’t know that there is any inherent importance in art at all,” he says, except for art to be nothing but itself.
Stewart is also known for writing album reviews. A recent review of Morrissey’s last album, Low in High School, appeared on Talkhouse.com. It indirectly addressed the British singer’s willingness to at best defend right-wing populism and, at worst, to out himself as more than a little alt-right curious.
In addition, Stewart, a Morrissey fan from childhood, bemoaned the overall not-greatness of Morrissey’s recent output.
“It’s a baffling transitional period,” Stewart says. “Younger bands seem to be averse to taking artistic risks. Older bands seem to be showing their true colors, as far as preposterous social beliefs. Eventually things will become exciting again. Not just terrifying.”
Xiu Xiu with Dancing Plague and Entresol
Sunday, May 26 • 8 pm
$12 adv., $15 door