Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart is not some one given to reservedness or restraint when it comes to his music. So it is generally with trepidation that people tend to approach Xiu Xiu gigs (if you could even call them that). Having built up a hardcore following since their inception in 2002, it’s not surprising to see the cross-section of people who’ve trundled out on a freezing February night to see one of the most divisive and charismatic bands to come out of the U.S. DIY scene in the past decade.
Despite the fact that Stewart and his newly appointed right-hand woman Angela Seo have been quietly going about their business onstage for a good 15 or 20 minutes before they even start, there is an ungodly silence once they start up with ‘Black Drum Machine’. A stark and depressing tale of incest and rape unfurls to a backdrop of delicate guitar plucking and chiming, putting everyone instantly on edge. Welcome to a Xiu Xiu gig, guys.
At times, it has more of the air of a poetry confessional than a quiet Saturday night gig, as Stewart yelps and strains his way through tales of depression and suicide underpinned by stark flourishes of keyboard and ominous bass. He croons through ‘Apistat Commander’, ‘I Luv The Valley OH!’ and ‘Poe Poe’, interspersing with newbies ‘Dear God, I Hate Myself’ and ‘Chocolate Makes You Happy’, an oddly upbeat mantra with a forbidding undertone. A few songs in and the crowd have relaxed considerably.
By the frantic and urgent ‘House Sparrow’, they’re practically bopping. It almost seems a sin to dance at a Xiu Xiu gig, despite the inherent danceability of their music and the fact that they wear their ’80s disco influences so clearly on their sleeve. But it seems to be the interestingness of their music that prevents a full-on old fashioned shimmy from occurring, the almost shoegaze-ish nature of how they warp and distort a tune till you have to search and dig for it in the density of their music. But finding that hook or melody is the prize, in this case.
In contrast to the sonic fuzz and industrial sound they cultivate is Stewart as a singer. Sometimes sounding like he’s been sobbing in a meat locker for hours, he is, while perhaps too full on and vulnerable at times for those of us enjoying an innocent pint, a palpable presence and a compelling frontman. Meanwhile, Seo acts as the classically trained pianist, dutifully legitimising the at-times adolescent emotionality of Stewart’s lyrics. The endearingly humble wave from Stewart which we’re rewarded with after ‘Boy Soprano’ only compounds the contradiction. In truth, (and in fairness, anyone who knows anything of Stewart’s personal life will agree) someone has to be the tortured poet. And why not someone as talented as him?
Photos by Damien McGlynn.