Jamie Stewart's first night in Durham felt like an unfinished dream. In the summer of 2008, he and his best friend and bandmate, Angela Seo, had driven from California to North Carolina, where she had decided to go to law school at Duke University.
Stewart had been to Durham once, on tour with his band Xiu Xiu—pronounced "shoe shoe" and, for the last decade, one of the most provocative and polarizing art-pop bands in the world. Though he'd been on the West Coast almost his entire life, the parts of Durham he'd seen seemed nice enough. Restless to the core, he decided to accompany Seo to the Southeast. He regretted it almost instantly.
Driving into Durham, Stewart and Seo passed through the bits of the town he remembered and realized they still had about 10 miles left to their trip. They hopped onto the multi-lane exodus of Highway 70 and rolled anxiously past subdivisions and strip malls, gas stations and lonely forests—as he puts it, "tract-home, no-sidewalks land."
Finally, the two found the house they'd rented over the Internet. The power wasn't on, and the water wasn't running; they were a long way from the Bay.
"'Fuck, fuck, what have we done?'" Stewart remembers thinking. "It was a very immediate, sinking feeling."
But there was some redemption: After a moment of despair, Stewart and Seo headed back toward downtown Durham, parking near the small commercial oasis anchored around Ninth Street. They found Whole Foods Market and, beside it, Avid Video, the independent movie store. The owner recommended they grab an introductory burrito at Cosmic Cantina. A discriminating lifelong Angeleno, Stewart was surprised when he actually enjoyed it. Maybe Durham would be OK.
That night in the restaurant, Stewart spotted a drunk, black drag queen, singing along loudly to rancheras blasting from the late-night radio. As she left, Stewart approached her and asked her where he—a strangely handsome bisexual man with a lifelong interest in Mexican culture, now plopped into a new Southern city—might hang out with people like her. She staggered down the stairs and stared at him, never actually answering the question. She only cackled forebodingly, as if to say at once "good luck" and "fuck off, white boy."
"It was a very mixed evening," he says after catching his breath from laughing at the memory. "That was the very first night. I actually never saw her again."
Stewart's welcome to Durham serves as a fitting parable for his time here. These have been the most productive years of his life, as he's sequestered himself in his home studio, stopping work only to tour. He's started at least three side projects, released two Xiu Xiu albums, a DVD, a handful of singles and splits, and lent his voice and vision to a variety of projects.
But, by his own admission, he's been mostly miserable, with bright spots like downtown bar The Whiskey ("The choices they have are passionate and extensive") or those tofu burritos ("I think I've had 9,000 by now") obscured by a cloud of cultural isolation and surprising invective. He says he's been called faggot several times simply when walking down the street, and his introvert tendencies have only deepened in a town where he hasn't found many friends. When I tell him that Durham has just been named the most tolerant city in America, he responds with a chortle, "By who, the Chamber of Commerce?"
He's a touch bitter, sure, but the city hasn't defeated him. He's charmingly self-deprecating. He apologizes for opinions he can't defend and dismisses himself as a dolt when he can't figure out how to avoid cliché. Much like the divisive music he makes, Stewart is smart, funny and dark, wont to laugh at his surroundings, even as they, in his words, make him "stuff overwhelming thoughts of miasmic loneliness deep into the crags of non-admission."
To wit, one of his brightest moments in Durham occurred the last time someone called him faggot.
"I was riding my bike down Main Street, and some frat asshole in a sports car comes with the classic, 'Hey, faggot!'" he remembers. Stewart has a strong jaw and deep-set, piercing eyes. When he tells this story, his deadpan stare softens into a smile and his eyes brighten. "Somehow, it beamed into my mind to yell out, 'It's Cinco de Mayo. You're supposed to say, 'maricon!''"
He hunches over the table and laughs until it seems to hurt: "I thought, 'Oh my God, what a good day I'm having.'"
To entertain himself during the last four years of life in Durham, Stewart, who turned 34 earlier this month, has developed the habit of taking what he calls "booze walks." That is, after a day of writing or recording or handling the various business affairs of being in a mid-level, full-time band like Xiu Xiu, he will get loaded and stagger along the streets of Durham that surround the house he and Seo share near Duke's East Campus.
In June 2011, after one of Stewart's inebriated expeditions through town, he came home and logged onto xiuxiu.org, where he has maintained a blog for the last six years. Some of the posts relate to the expected annals of band life—the announcement of a new single, a new album, a good review, updates on future recordings, tour dates and such.
But Stewart and Seo also write about whatever they want, whether it's Seo posting fancy photos of women's decorated fingernails or Stewart cataloging statistics about death counts in Iraq and Afghanistan. There are woebegone tales about breakups and fragments of tortured poetry, interpretations of strange dreams and diatribes against unsavory realities.
On that summer night, Stewart wrote a blog entry titled: "DhURuhm? More than EVER this is a mid atlantic towne that they forgot to bomb! come come nuclear whar!" The post that followed impugned most everything about his adopted city, like its associations with and pride for the tobacco industry, its minor-league baseball boastfulness and its legion of Irish-themed pubs. He balked at the juxtaposition of the city's latest jewel, Durham Performing Arts Center, with the gleaming white jail that, as he posited, overflows with the descendants of the very slaves who once picked that tobacco.
"fake mHusic, fake find your cool, fake weekly newspaper," he wrote. "if you see anyone on the street assume they wish you were dead."
That particular Stewart screed wasn't his first or last philippic against Durham. Two years earlier, while praising a beautiful moment he witnessed during the city's 2009 Pride Parade, he wrote, "more than a few times i have wished that my rotten little town of durham, NC would be destroyed by a fire storm." Late last year, he described Durham as "that stupid little town" to a reporter at a Kentucky newspaper. And in his sporadic column for The Huffington Post earlier this year, he wrote, "For a very, very long list of very, very good reasons, I hate it."
But the comments about Durham's baseball, music, redevelopment, bars and tolerance—basically, most every point of pride for the town's culture—cut deep and invited a quick backlash from residents. On Twitter, folks (myself included) hurled zingers at Stewart, picking on his music or his patois or his choice to stay in a place he so obviously and publicly deplored.
A few days later, we met late in the afternoon at International Delights, a small, bright Lebanese restaurant on Ninth Street. The place was mostly empty, so we sat undisturbed in a booth for two hours.
"Why does anyone give a fuck what I have to say about Durham at all? When I lived in Oakland, I talked shit about it all the time, and nobody cared," he said. Stewart has a deep, smooth voice that cracks and squeaks when he's excited, suggesting an adult male returning into puberty. "Invariably, no one has ever come to the defense of Durham. People have always just said, 'You are a dick.' I mean, come to the defense of some place you care about. Fuck, be true to your school."
In spite of the recent rant, Stewart was in relatively high spirits on that sunny afternoon. He was in the middle of making two new records—a pop album called Always, released last week, and a sequence of short experimental collaborations with heavy metal frontman Eugene Robinson, due this fall.
Since moving to Durham, Xiu Xiu has become wildly prolific, not only releasing an album every two years or so but also surrounding it with a wealth of singles, collaborations and contributions to larger projects. Stewart has started a line of T-shirts, each dedicated to some of his musical inspirations, and he's hosted an art show featuring teddy bears and sex toys at Raleigh's Lump gallery. Last year, he even started a Twitter account that serves as a natural extension of the Xiu Xiu aesthetic, mixing impassioned ridiculousness with unflinching insight:"Unless you already do, if you were going to prostitute yourself," he asked last month, "how much do you think you would be worth?"
In part, Stewart's kept so busy because he's felt alienated by a city of what he calls "feel-good indie rock beards." He'd hoped to find more experimental music in the Triangle, so he tried playing a few solo all-noise sets in area record shops and art spaces only to determine that, mostly, he couldn't locate proper kindred spirits. With Seo swamped by schoolwork, and with Stewart feeling divided from most everyone around him, he started collecting stuffed animals, hoping to surround himself with vaguely anthropomorphic objects.
"I have hundreds. That's very weird, I'd say, as I've developed as an adult," he says, smiling slightly.
Mostly, though, Stewart started working harder, stifling sadness with new songs.
"This last year so far has actually been the most difficult, in terms of emotionally dealing with more severe loneliness than I've ever dealt with since I can remember," he says. "But that is not a particularly new Xiu Xiu topic."
Indeed, songs about loneliness and depression are scattered across each of the nine Xiu Xiu albums. "Sad Redux-O-Grapher," from 2003's A Promise, offers a scarily spare glimpse at complete romantic devastation, Stewart trying to give his lover everything only to be told he used to be something special. "Rose of Sharon," from 2005's La Forêt, puts Stewart's damaged coo at the crest of an enormous drone so that he can apologize for his failures as a deserving partner: "You try so hard to be as sweet as you can for me," he offers at song's end, now screaming. His disgust is directed more at himself than the object of the song. "But I don't see you for who you are."
Stewart's infamous solo cover of Tracy Chapman's "Fast Car" extracts every bit of sadness from that '90s hit. Last year, he turned the Rihanna radio smash "Only Girl (In the World)" into noisy bedlam, its broken beat suggesting that its singer might never find real sexual satisfaction.
More than sadness, though, the unifying feature of Stewart's music has always been its intention of honesty, or of being sourced from real life. Even when the songs aren't autobiographical or about people Stewart knows, he pulls from the nonfiction books he's always reading (several years ago, he cited as his favorite book Elizabeth Becker's When the War Was Over, an exhaustive study of a quarter century of conflict in Cambodia) or current events to create a modern and immediate framework for his songs. In fact, there are so few songs on Always about Stewart's own life that, for the first time in years, he's back in therapy.
"I don't really consider Xiu Xiu to be fun," he told me. In 2010, without a record label and fresh from a long tour with a band he hated, he actually thought about quitting altogether. "In the most classic way, the thought made my heart ache, my chest ache. It's largely how I've organized my emotional life. Not to sound over-dramatic, but Xiu Xiu is totally essential to me getting through life."
Mike Stewart, Jamie's father, touched the edge of pop stardom, first in the mid-'60s with his band We Five and their jangly hit "You Were on My Mind" and then in the mid-'70s as the producer of Billy Joel's major-label debut, Piano Man. Years later, he was one of the early developers of ProTools, the digital recording platform that revolutionized the music industry and, in a sense, gave low-budget indie rock bands like Xiu Xiu the ability to compete sonically with major-label money.
In California, before Jamie started Xiu Xiu, Mike pulled him aside one day and asked him why he wanted to play music. Jamie flippantly said he wanted to have fun. Being famous could be cool, he thought. For Mike, that wasn't enough.
"He said that the reason to play music was to try and touch people, to give something rather than to try and get something," Stewart remembers. "It's such an opportunity to be an artist, so the public motivation needs to be about trying to give something real. That's very deep in what I want music to try to do, even if I don't always get there."
Before the start of Xiu Xiu, Stewart struggled with that idea, or that his music and his songs could somehow serve a greater purpose than his own popularity. His bands were writing songs that attempted to lure people to like them, but he admits he was never good enough as a songwriter to sell affectations through plain old pop-rock. No, if he was going to connect with people, he had to do something that was real or didn't hide behind some formula.
So he started Xiu Xiu. Stewart took the band name from a 1998 Mandarin film named Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl, in which a teenage beauty is banished into isolation as part of the Cultural Revolution of China, only to be reduced to prostitution by the men she trusted. Stewart once said he chose the name because he wanted his music, like the depressive film, to offer a void of redemption that could, at times, be difficult to hear. The name set a sort of threshold for Xiu Xiu, a band that often digs deep into the darkest corners of humanity with its subjects and sounds. The critic Carl Wilson once described the music as "a velveteen mess the French would call jolie-laide and Stewart bluntly terms 'retarded.'"
On Xiu Xiu's debut, Knife Play, Stewart tried to be honest, just as his father had requested. He threw his inhibitions to the wind and wrote about his life, a lesson reinforced by the Smiths leader Morrissey, the chanteuse Nico, the Russian composer Dmitri Shostakovich and the record Purple Rain, by Prince.
The new approach began to work quickly, at least as Greg Saunier remembers. Saunier plays drums in the indie rock band Deerhoof; he has performed on, produced or mixed nearly all of Xiu Xiu's albums. Stewart and Saunier met when their bands were young California upstarts, so Saunier has seen Xiu Xiu progress from the beginning. He understands that both the process and product drive Stewart, that making this music is what satisfies him. The better part of a year after recording Always in Durham, Saunier still sounds energized by their time together.
"We're rolling on the floor laughing the entire time. It's creative camaraderie. We're friends, but we're friends goading each other on to do crazy things while sitting in front of a computer, recording like a couple of nerds," says Saunier of his time with Stewart in the studio. "We make each other do things within a song that we'd never do otherwise. I leave Jamie's house feeling like I am the man."
A decade ago, Saunier instantly recognized that Stewart was one of the most adventurous and unflinching musicians he'd ever met, ready to push his sounds and his lyrics past any personal boundaries he might have—pop bends into noise, dark humor meets darker confessions, diaries become tape. Before Knife Play was even finished, the members of Deerhoof obsessively passed around an incomplete version. Saunier had never heard anyone make music like this—so unapologetic and honest, so intense and unmitigated.
"His music touches a sore spot when you hear it. It might make you laugh. It might remind you of things you don't want to think about," Saunier says. "You recognize something when you hear it. Xiu Xiu is annoying to listen to when you aren't looking for music that is going to reach you on that deep of a level or touch on things you aren't in the mood to deal with."
During the last decade, those qualities have earned Stewart both devoted cult followings (scope the blogs fuckmejamiestewart.tumblr.com or fuckyeahxiuxiu.tumblr.com) and complete scorn (google "Fuck Xiu Xiu"). In fact, around the time the small Washington-state label 5 Rue Christine released Knife Play, an anonymous fan dropped off a pair of knitted panties at Stewart's house for 30 consecutive days. A decade later, he doesn't remember what the note inside the underwear would say, but the text made it clear that someone was responding to some lyric he'd sung.
"I was totally weirded out by that," he says, laughing loudly. "But on the other hand, since it was the first album we'd ever done, I was fascinated. It was a very unusual sort of affirmation that someone cared about it. In the back of my head, I knew it was nice someone was thinking about it."
Stewart's interested in more than the microcosm of his own misery. On Always, for instance, he writes about Gul Mudin, the Afghani boy killed by rogue U.S. troops in 2010 and later posed seminude in photos taken by the soldiers. During the smoldering-and-exploding "Factory Girls," he explores the tragedy of Asian women exploited for sexual tourism. In the lyrics, Stewart calls the website lbfm.biz, a prostitution directory devoted to "Little Brown Fucking Machines," by name. The point is to address the world as he understands it.
"Not all of the songs are about my life, but a number of them are. I like to think someone will have an easier time attaching it to what their personal experience is, knowing that it's coming from a place of reality," Stewart says. "The point of the band is to write music so someone can get something out of it."
That admission might be difficult to reconcile with the public perception of Stewart himself or Xiu Xiu, a band that can sometimes seem provocative just for the sake of provocation. In one press photo for Xiu Xiu's 2010 album, Dear God, I Hate Myself, Seo is standing above a kneeling Stewart, vomiting blood into his mouth. They're both wearing white shirts stained and streaked with the stuff. The band even released a special edition of the album bundled with T-shirts bearing the words "Xiu Xiu for Life" smeared across the front in human blood. They sold out almost instantly.
"He's not trying to please everyone. He's not trying to displease everyone, either. I think he's just really being honest to his anger or whatever emotions he's feeling at the time. It's never meant to be fake," explains Seo, who has struggled occasionally with an eating disorder. "The blood T-shirts, vomiting on camera, whatever it is: One, there is some kind of meaning behind it, and two, we realize it's completely absurd and ridiculous."
That honesty is an outlet of identity for people who, as Stewart does in Durham, feel ostracized by the world at large. He wants his songs to offer connections for people, to give them some sort of fucked-up lifeline in a fucked-up life. On Always, at least two songs represent the fulfillment of exactly that kind of relationship: Album highlight "I Luv Abortion" opens with shattered throbs of noise, Stewart's voice crippled by a web of effects. "Little jizzo/ Little sweetest glob," he howls at the start of a song that, in perfect Xiu Xiu form, is likely to be misconstrued as a needless shock tactic. But it reads as a mother's love letter to her unborn child, a child whom she could never care for. "There are too many things I can't be for you/ We will meet again when the time is right."
For the last few years, Stewart has maintained an email correspondence with a teenage fan who used to cut herself. Before he could afford to become a full-time musician, he worked in California as a preschool teacher and a social worker, occupations he occasionally mentions picking up again. So when his listeners reach out with problems through the email address he lists on the band's website, he does his best to listen, "to maybe answer back and say that I'm sorry."
The woman eventually quit mutilating herself and mailed Stewart the knife she'd used; it still sits on his recording desk in Durham. After a few years, she renewed the email relationship with the news that she was pregnant but not at all ready to be a mother. As it turns out, "Little jizzo," or how Stewart opens "I Luv Abortion," is actually what she named her unborn child. It's not that she didn't want to be a mom; it's that she wanted to be the best mother she could be when the time was right.
"It's bad enough having to deal with it alone, along with having half of the country say that they want to kill you and your family and your cousins because of it," he says. "It's a small attempt at not being a left-wing wussy about the issue."
Ahead of a massive jungle beat and chirping synthesizers, opener "Hi" reveals a similar sort of gathering beacon for fellow outsiders. To cutters, to deviants, to radicals, to the abused, to those on the verge of doing something really horrible to themselves—"If you don't know what to say, say hi," Stewart sings, the voice revealing the mind's vulnerability through a falsetto fault line. The song stems from a fan and friend who, after years of wrestling with sexual abuse as a kid and an abusive relationship as an adult, escaped her present and past in Oklahoma by fleeing to Los Angeles. Here, Stewart steps momentarily away from a negative rejection of the world, to solidarity spawned by separation.
"It's essentially," Stewart says, "about looking for friends in the face of tragedy."
On Nov. 13, 2002, Mike Stewart killed himself in Sacramento at the age of 57. From a "classically Dickensian abusive family," he'd slipped in and out hard drugs for most of his life, a problem only exacerbated by his proximity to stardom. Jamie hasn't talked about his father's death much in the press. "It's been less than in the last year that I've been able to not feel completely negative about his suicide," he admits.
But Stewart didn't need to talk about it, because he'd fulfilled his father's request: to put himself and his feelings, unfiltered, on tape. Stewart ended Xiu Xiu's most popular album, 2004's Fabulous Muscles, with the song "Mike." Singing in a crushed whisper set against a mess of misguided drum machines and fragmented guitar lines, Stewart unfurls his grief: "I feel like I'm not nice because sometimes/ It is hard for me to think something happy about you."
Jamie, the oldest of three children, was rarely close with his father. From the time Jamie was in elementary school until about the time he entered high school, Mike's career—and all the mental and substance-abuse problems it entailed—was booming. When Jamie started developing an interest in making music, his dad made sure that he had his help. After school, for instance, Jamie discovered an expensive Tascam four-track tape recorder at home; other bits of recording technology would arrive and vanish unannounced. A month before Mike died, Xiu Xiu played a show in Sacramento to almost no one. Mike came and praised his son.
"I'm sure we were terrible, but he pointed out the things he thought were good," Jamie says. "Although he was completely out of his mind, that was particularly important to hear. I've always felt a little bit under his shadow; the level of success he had was so much more than I will ever have."
The song "Mike" ends, somehow, with a joke: "Pull my finger," Stewart sings.
It's the sound of a kid teasing his dad, somehow looking to find or give any strange comfort in the face of ultimate tragedy.
As the sun starts to fade on a warm late-winter afternoon in Durham, Jamie Stewart sits at a wooden picnic table outside Bull McCabes—one of the "fake irish bars" he lambasted last summer. He deflects the day's glow with a fitted black Los Angeles Dodgers baseball cap and a hoodie zipped near his neck. He occasionally pulls out a bright pink phone to text Seo, his roommate and bandmate, delaying their evening plans.
He's been working too much, he says: In less than three weeks, his new record label, Polyvinyl (based in Champaign, Ill.), will release Always. Stewart's been preparing a short collection of rarities to accompany the release. He's done interviews with music writers and written short essays about the album, its songs or his politics for magazines seeking content on the cheap. And the week before the record hits shelves, his new band will arrive in Durham to begin rehearsal. He's been practicing.
This band is different from the one that came to North Carolina just months earlier to make Always. Xiu Xiu has always involved a cast of revolving members centered around Stewart; he has been the only constant. For Always, Stewart wanted to open the door to legitimate collaboration, so that the band wasn't only playing his songs. In July, his old friends Zac Pennington and Sam Mickens had flown to Durham to help write and record the album with Stewart and Seo. Everyone contributed songs to the sessions, and Stewart seemed thrilled by the music they were making.
"It's delightful to be able to work with Sam and Zac because our formative links are so deeply furrowing. I feel like I have a good understanding of what they're trying to say, and I feel they have a good understanding of what I'm trying to say," he explained.
Together, they'd written a song called "Beauty Towne." It was meant as a response to the Xiu Xiu classic "Clowne Towne," a moody lamentation about the run-down punk-rock house in a dangerous part of Seattle he once shared with Mickens and several other Xiu Xiu collaborators. Back then, Stewart's dad had just died, he was working in a neglected school and America had just gone to war in Iraq. That song was about how bad life was; this new song was about surviving.
"We've certainly seen the worst in each other," Stewart had said of Pennington and Mickens. "All of us are more together now than when we first knew each other."
But in somewhat predictable Xiu Xiu fashion, that didn't last, either in spite or because of their long relationship. Mickens and Pennington agree Stewart wasn't ready to collaborate; Stewart says Mickens and Pennington weren't ready to give this band their all. In any case, after a short tour, they were deposed. The professed redemption of "Beauty Towne" now feels hilariously and tragically ironic, like the perfect three-minute encapsulation of a decade of frustration as Xiu Xiu.
"If purity is the goal," Stewart says, laughing, "then who else could play on the song but those guys?"
Two years ago, a reporter at the Duke Chronicle baited Jamie Stewart about his feelings for Durham, asking him whether they'd changed, what he actually liked and about an admittedly awful concert he'd played on campus. "If North Carolina passes gay marriage," the writer, Jonathan Wall, asked at the end of the interview, "do we have your approval forever?"
Stewart's sexuality has rarely been easy. He finally realized he was gay when a kid at his high school whom he calls "a crazy queen" simply proclaimed, "You're a fag." A few years later, he finally came out to his parents, who, as best as he can remember, always had a lot of queer friends. They didn't approve: "My mom lost her fucking mind about it for a couple of years. I was pissed at my parents for being assholes."
Stewart was, of course, interested in what the Chronicle proposed, especially since the area hadn't felt particularly receptive to him. "Forever," he answered. "California hasn't. So if that happens, I'll reassess everything I've ever thought about this place."
After about an hour in the sun, a steady stream of adults and kids starts to march past on the other side of the street, yelling at everyone they pass. "Vote against Amendment One!" they scream, referring to the proposed legislation to constitutionally ban gay marriage in North Carolina. "Vote against Amendment One!"
This summer, when Stewart returns from the long tour behind Always and Seo finishes law school, he'll finally leave Durham for New York or Los Angeles, and she'll likely go wherever she can find a job. Gay marriage won't be legal in North Carolina; it might even be more illegal than when Stewart arrived. Durham can forget its pardon.
But Stewart's time here hasn't been a total loss. He's gone from having one band to four, and most anyone who's ever worked with him will tell you that his level of workaholic devotion has skyrocketed in Durham due to his loneliness. That isolation has reinforced the role of Xiu Xiu as a beacon for the dispossessed, or as a means to find allies in a world that sometimes feels like it's full of foes.
"Some people like it here because it is a little, sort of offbeat place. If they can feel a certain amount of calm here, that's great," says Stewart. "But me feeling the opposite way and needing to look outside of this place for comfort works, too."
This article appeared in print with the headline "Nice and hard."
Correction (April 2, 2012): Polyvinyl Record Co. is based out of Champaign, Ill. (not Chicago). Thanks to the commenter who alerted us.