Darkness Becomes Him
Xiu Xiu prime mover talks Genesis, gang violence and autoerotic asphyxiation
By M. Brianna Stallings
Those who prefer music videos sans murder should skip “Stupid in the Dark,” the latest in a series of “WTF did I just watch?” releases from Cali-based noise group Xiu Xiu. For those among us with stronger constitutions, however, the music created by Xiu Xiu founder/mainstay Jamie Stewart is less terror and more revelation: grinding, volatile, blessedly relentless.
Courtesy of artist
So desolate are Stewart’s musical landscapes, in fact, that when the press release for Xiu Xiu’s new album, Angel Guts: Red Classroom, proclaimed it the group’s “darkest to date,” the idea seemed comical. Can you get much darker than Knife Play (2002), for example, or Dear God, I Hate Myself (2010)?
For starters, you can live butt-up against LA’s notorious MacArthur Park. “It’s pretty treacherous,” Stewart said in a recent phone interview with the Alibi. “It has a long history of extreme homelessness, poverty, drug dealers and gangs. So it’s this beautiful park, with these people who are living in some of the most dire circumstances possible.”
“Dire circumstances” is shorthand for “usual subject matter” in the Xiu Xiu lexicon, as evidenced by the aforementioned video for “Stupid in the Dark.” Other tracks from Angel Guts: Red Classroom—which takes its name from an erotic 1970s Japanese flick—address equally familiar territory, such as violence, crime, sexuality and suicide.
The music of Xiu Xiu owes its razor-sharp edge to equal parts abrasive instrumentation—Stewart used only drum machines, analog synths and a drum set for this latest record—and Stewart’s trademark pained voice.
With its uncomfortable, visceral sexuality, Stewart’s vocals sound like the singing voice of autoerotic asphyxiation. When presented with this analogy and asked what informs his vocal style, Stewart laughed and replied, “Nothing. That was exactly how I got the sound I wanted: I hid in the closets of middle-aged men, listened to them jerking off and recorded it so I could get my style down. I ran into a lot of trouble. There were quite a few arrests and police reports filed.”
Still, for an artist whose band seems like the sonic equivalent of a stagnant puddle that never lets you forget that the rainbow shining on top of it came from an oil slick, Stewart is a jovial conversationalist. Stewart spoke in glowing terms of the audiences he encountered in Moscow and Saint Petersburg, where Xiu Xiu recently toured with experimental legend Psychic TV. “It was delightful,” Stewart said. “We had good audiences.” He had similarly kind things to say about PTV front person Genesis P-Orridge. “Anybody having anything to do with interesting music owes a huge debt of gratitude to Genesis.”
What about next-gen artists who might owe some gratitude to Xiu Xiu, like Kirin Callinan or Perfume Genius? “That’s not necessarily the case,” Stewart demurred. “If anything, they owe their sound to the same people we do.” Nevertheless, Stewart did concede that he “would feel grateful to anyone who took the time to listen to Xiu Xiu’s albums and be inspired by them.”
Speaking of up-and-coming noise makers, experimental artist Circuit des Yeux, aka Haley Fohr, will open for Xiu Xiu at Sister (407 Central NW) on Saturday, Aug. 9. “I played a couple shows with Xiu Xiu in Europe this past May,” Fohr said in an email interview. “I’m excited to tour with them again on the West Coast. They’re dedicated musicians who’ve spent 10-plus years making music that’s uniquely their own.”
Circuit des Yeux’s album Overdue sits somewhere between folk and dark, experimental rock. The record was, according to Fohr, “an act of desperation in many ways. All of my songs are based on static events—things that happened in my life, light bulb memories that changed me forever. My hope is to take these things, lose the context, but keep the emotion.” In addition to the common territory of personal experience, Fohr’s educational background also informed her aesthetic. “You can learn a lot about humanity through music, and ethnomusicology has opened my mind to these investigations,” Fohr said.
With Overdue, Circuit des Yeux conjures artists like Nico, Diamanda Galás and Carla Bozulich. When told this, Fohr confessed that she “had never heard Carla Bozulich until after Overdue was released. I’ve fallen in love with her work. I've discovered so many great artists through critics and writers’ comparisons.
“Women like Yoko Ono, Kim Gordon, Lisa Suckdog and Patti Smith are all inspiring to me,” Fohr continued. “Their ethos in art, music and their way of dealing with situations that arise from being a female musician have all been very helpful to me.”
And what about dream collaborations in the future, Haley? Who’s on that list? “(Post-punk group) This Heat is one of my favorite bands; it would be awesome to splice up some tape with Charles Hayward,” Fohr replied. “Oh, and Genesis P-Orridge of Throbbing Gristle (and Psychic TV). That would be pretty incredible too.”
Who knows? Maybe your touring mate Jamie Stewart could hook something up.
with Circuit des Yeux, The Casket Girls and Death Convention Singers
Saturday, Aug. 9, 9pm
407 Central NW
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