Experimental Xiu Xiu rewrites the rules
To adapt to shifting norms, the formula for producing mainstream music introduces “shock” elements that push pop music into the future. From Lady Gaga’s alien wardrobe and unknown gender, to Madonna dancing with a black Jesus against a backdrop of burning crosses, to the Sex Pistols’ prediction of “no future,” what unsettles popular sentiments is eventually incorporated into the mainstream.
So how long will it take for FM radio to rotate a Xiu Xiu track like “Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!)” from 2004’s Fabulous Muscles? Summoning the most desolate, dissonant recesses of experimental music pioneer John Cage’s catalog, the song—if you wish to call it that—paints a landscape portrait of a post-siege Fallujah. Quiet, malfunctioning electronics are randomly interrupted by bursts of feedback and clanking metal. Jamie Stewart, the brainchild behind Xiu Xiu, speaks over the ambience: “Did you know you were going to shoot off the top of a 4-year-old girl’s head … and her dad would say to you, ‘Please, sir, can I take her body home?’ … Why should I care if you get killed?”
Obviously, Stewart isn’t particularly interested in following the formula. “I don’t really care [about the music industry],” he says. “There’s nothing I can do about it. We’ll continue to try our best to write songs and hopefully somebody will get something out of them, regardless of whatever shape the industry takes.”
Stewart’s personal formula is reversed. After the Los Angeles native relocated to San Jose in the ’90s, his interest in engineering and audio design inspired him to try producing the most abstract, interesting sounds that he could. “I probably get as much emotional satisfaction out of strange sounds alone as I do out of harmony, melody, and rhythm,” he explains.
The digitally distorted swells and noisy synthesizers soon inspired lyrics, which are manifested musically as lush, melodic vocals. “Many Xiu Xiu songs initially stem from making a sound, then matching the subject matter of the song with the sound’s emotional content,” Stewart says.
Stewart’s songwriting is so backward, it now travels through time. On Dear God, I Hate Myself, released last month, the instrumentation is surprisingly standard, with songs like “Gray Death” summoning early Smiths, featuring Stewart’s falsetto floating atop a driving acoustic guitar. “I really like how the new Morrissey record is chock full of short, catchy songs,” Stewart says. “When you’re done listening, you immediately want to hear it again.”
Despite how unsettling certain selections from Xiu Xiu’s catalog can be, Stewart is a very friendly fellow, and audiences have responded by supporting his project for 10 studio albums, as well as a litany of splits and EPs. On the current nationwide tour, Stewart and Co. will be incorporating their followers into a fan-centric fundraiser for At The Crossroads, a San Francisco-based nonprofit that helps street youth through counseling, outreach, and other services. For every dollar that fans contribute, the band takes big group pictures with them, sends them silly personal gifts in the mail, and otherwise connects with them on a very personal basis.
Adding that personal touch isn’t out of the norm for a group that has established a name for itself through incredibly unique, direct, oftentimes challenging yet frequently beautiful music. “Initially, most Xiu Xiu songs came about by accident,” recalls Stewart. “In a lot of ways, we were making music wrong. But I think that led to us being able to continue, because we weren’t so totally entrenched in a temporary scene.” Pop musicians, start taking notes.
Xiu Xiu performs at 9 p.m. Friday, March 19, at the Crepe Place, 1134 Soquel Ave., Santa Cruz. Tickets are $12 in advance, $15 at the door. For more information, call 429-6994.