Seven years ago, Jamie Stewart, frontman of the noisy, experimental music project Xiu Xiu (pronounced "shoe-shoe"), caused a stir in Durham. In a June 2011 blog post on his website, xiuxiu.org, he called the city a "cigarette burn of a town," deriding its "fake everything, fake history, fake bass ball, fake irish bars, fake post genocide culture, fake mHusic, fake find your cool, fake weekly newspaper." A few months later, in January 2012, Stewart published a column on The Huffington Post where he continued to lay out Durham's flaws, pointing out that the city was the only place he'd been physically threatened and called slurs to his face.
That "fake weekly newspaper"—this one—ran a feature by Grayson Haver Currin in March 2012, which further outlined Stewart's problems with his temporary hometown. Even if some of Stewart's points about the city were valid—the hypocrisy of the city's "Find Your Cool" branding despite his and others' experiences to the contrary—but locals were rankled by his tone and persistence. Many asked, "If you hate it so much, why don't you just leave? And so, later that year, he did.
Stewart now lives in Los Angeles, where he's continued Xiu Xiu's path as one of this generation's most intriguing and provocative experimental artists. This weekend, he returns to Durham to play Duke Coffeehouse's annual spring Brickside Music Festival, alongside Bill Orcutt, Ahleuchatistas, Tashi Dorji and Sarah Louise, and more. We caught up with Stewart about what he's been up to in the years since he decamped from Durham.
INDY: Did you know that David Lynch was doing a third season of Twin Peaks before you released your tribute album in early 2016?
JAMIE STEWART: Our devotion to Twin Peaks has existed furiously since the beginning of the band. We had initially been commissioned to play two shows of it by the Queensland Gallery of Modern Art in Australia. While we were there, the curator of the museum—who had gotten to know David Lynch very well—told us there was going to be a third season.
Across your career, you've done some notable covers of women like Tracy Chapman, Björk, and Nina Simone. Why add ZZ Top's "Sharp Dressed Man" to the list?
The A.V. Club has a series wherein they give bands a list of songs to choose from to cover. I looked at the list and it was a lot of music that I actively dislike. "Sharp Dressed Man" is a preposterous song, but it's not a pompous or douchey song. It is redeemable in that it is not trying to be anything other than what it is. They are unapologetic about their obsessions with fucking and cars. They're not trying to pretend that they're not. It was really the only honest song on the list, even though it's far away from my general sphere of interest.
You're playing in Tennessee, Georgia, and North Carolina, which have always had a contentious political relationship with the queer community.
Oh, yeah. I lived in Durham for four years. It's the only place I've been called "faggot" to my face.
Do you feel as though touring through those areas is a form of outreach?
I haven't been in that part of the world since Hitler II was elected to our presidency. I don't know what it's fucking like. I have not had a great time in that part of the U.S. I really hated living [in Durham]. On the other hand, I more than likely won't see anything that bothers me. Most people who go to little underground shows are pretty progressive politically. I don't have to deal with any of the bullshit there and I get to drive away. Nothing bad will happen but nothing good will happen either.
Do you hope or assume that Durham is different from what it was in 2008?
It doesn't make any difference what I hope or assume. I will be there for less than twenty-four hours. I hope that people who come to the show get something out of it. I mean, Durham isn't my nephew, I don't have a lot of hopes and dreams for it. I hope that any place on earth is better than it was. And I know that for a lot of people who live there they fucking love it.
Why tour through a town you notoriously hate?
I fucking hate New York, too, and I play there all the time. I'm going there to play a show, I'm not going there to live. It doesn't make any fucking difference where it is. I mean, who cares that I didn't like living there?
Do you think the behavior you experienced while you were in Durham is still reflective of the entire city?
No, obviously not. But does it matter? It doesn't really make any sort of sense to say "I dislike a percentage of Durham." The bottom line is I'm going to play a show there and I will dig as deep as I can to have it be a real show for the people that come. When I lived there some shitty things happened to me. And I rarely think about them.