There are the feel-good bands, and there are the fuck-you bands, and there are the ones who lurk uncomfortably in between: the ones who may very well do their best to translate their (usually intensely private) creations into something consumable, enjoyable, memorable—an experience for their fans to take home—but who find themselves hampered by their own navelgazing, who simply can’t interact in the way it would seem appropriate for a band working to solidify its relationship with fans in the live setting.
After such a long elaboration of that last category, I am obviously setting Xiu Xiu up to be placed in it, a categorization which I will admit is overly simplistic and not particularly helpful: I wanted to say something catchy. Now that I’ve undercut my own argument, let me add this support: Xiu Xiu are not exactly crowd-pleasers.
I had heard that their performances are inconsistent but always intense. From this first entrée into the Xiu Xiu live experience, I can agree that, yes, a Xiu Xiu performance is intense. From my experience, it is scathing in intensity. However, this intensity does not much involve an audience. It’s an intensity directed inward, with frontperson Jamie Stewart offering little to no interaction with the crowd—indeed, very little eye contact at all.
It would be critically immature of me to fault the band for this, I think. While I left the show sniffing at the practically zero nods to the crowd lead singer Jamie Stewart offered (“It was like we weren’t there! It was like we didn’t matter!” I think I remember whining to my friend), I left simultaneously awestruck at the band’s bravery, its flamboyance, and, perhaps perversely, its very resistance to outside engagement.
I think I can better understand now, after some weeks gone by and more time spent with the new album, that for Xiu Xiu to reckon with an audience would almost certainly have dissolved the energy needed to reproduce the psychosis of their music. Moreover, to acknowledge that some hundreds of people were working so hard to relate to that psychosis—and working equally hard to express that understanding to Stewart with I feel you, man!s—would be to in some sense devalue the singularity of Stewart’s volatile and unsettling narratives. We were all acting as voyeurs, there, at Reggie’s, a club with a cheesy interior and an ugly if functional bar that served beer by the bottle. Any claim to relate to, much less to understand Stewart’s dark, frequently violent imagery is a lie. At every turn he works to obscure the meaning of his songs. At every turn he distances himself—despite-slash-because-of what is generally considered to be the deeply personal nature of his songs.
That a crowd of some hundreds of people jostling each other for beers in a club that usually caters to the metal/hardcore contingent could possibly be deeply relating to a song like “Bishop, CA”—with its references to filial rape and death by mine shaft, couched in an unsettling mix of ominous keys and skittering percussion—seems just a slight bit unlikely.
This is the song Xiu Xiu opened with, setting the tone for what would be a gloomy evening of tremulous vocals, haunted lyrics, quirky percussion, and extreme dynamic changes. To begin with such a hushed and precarious tone poem in a too-big room cheesy with intoxicated laughter, sloppy grins, and a few couples who just could not stop making out, and especially after Thao Nguyen’s happy-go-lucky opening act, seemed a move made not only to acknowledge, but to invite the violation that is some hundreds of people thinking they know the feeling. Of those present, about half seemed to really be genuinely feeling it. (The other half was contributing distracting background noise. And texting.) Of course we all want to think we relate to Stewart’s touched mind. That he remains aloof seems not snobbery but self-protection.
Despite the band’s disinterest in the audience, their performance was almost uniformly on point, and certainly respectful. Caralee McElroy (cousin to Stewart) manned the keyboard and harmonium with a suspiciously flat affect that remained flat even when contributing vocals on “You Are Pregnant, You Are Dead” and “1948”. Percussionist Ches Smith was the most active presence on stage: not only were his limbs, as drummers’ tend to be, a-flying, but his head, too, was rolling all over the place, as though he couldn’t find something to hit it with. Smith’s contributions are a large part of what sets Xiu Xiu’s music apart from other gloompop bands—bringing in cartoonish clicks and clacks and childishly cheery xylophone runs that, especially when married to McElroy’s harmonium and Stewart’s sparer guitar and overdone vocals, call to mind an experimental orchestra for a silent video game: Un Chien Andalou with blips and bleeps, if you will, with clackety-clacks and whirrs and an aloof avatar that you can inhabit but never understand.
The mood onstage seemed fragile, tense, as though at any minute things could turn sour, beyond repair. It was curious to participate in this as an interested fan made to be an aloof bystander by the band’s visible wariness. It was similarly curious to encounter someone as achingly sincere as Stewart is, or seems to be. I’ve always identified a lot of kookiness in Xiu Xiu’s music, in the use of xylophone and other cartoonish percussion, in the absurdist way Stewart slings words and images together, the way he turns lyrics like “walla walla hey” into a threat. His performance seemed odd in its lack of humor. I kept waiting for a wink, some acknowledgment that, yes, he knows he’s an odd bird. But even when he punctuated the line “things will always be the same” in “Master of the Bump” with an unexpected, and, I thought, kind of darkly hilarious, lady-shriek, I felt inappropriate for laughing my sardonic, bitter laugh. Because, friends, he meant it. Or maybe he’s just that deadpan?
The set list pulled mostly from the new album, Women as Lovers, moving from the histrionic “In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall” to the abrupt explosions and depressions of “Child at Arms” and “F.T.W.”. “No Friend Oh!” was more cohesive than the songs that preceded it, possibly because the herky-jerkiness was kept to a minimum. The soft-loud-softs of basically half the band’s oeuvre, while certainly effective in replicating a torrent of contradicting emotions (from uncertainty to certainty, from vulnerability to abuse, for instance), became almost absurd in their intensities; and occasionally the shifts to full throttle were shrill enough to draw cringing.
All the while, Stewart et al. at all costs avoided eye contact with the crowd, even seeming embarrassed a few times, as though waiting to get it over with. I must admit to a disappointment with the setlist—no “Muppet Face” or “Bog People”, no “Boy Soprano” or “Under Pressure”?—which I mention only because it seemed shared with the rest of the interested crowd. When Xiu Xiu played “Clown Towne”, a song as sweepingly jubilant as it is delightfully quirky, the room seemed to open up; people became more at ease. This was one of the few songs played tonight that came off as full, rich, more directly enjoyable, and certainly less challenging and antagonistic than many of the songs from Women as Lovers, as intriguing and brilliant as many of them are.
And maybe songs like “In Lust You Can Hear the Axe Fall” and “Child at Arms” are just not well suited to a live show in a cheesy venue with too many people for it to feel intimate. Women as Lovers is an album similar to PJ Harvey’s White Chalk in that, if not quite hostile, it’s uncharacteristically dark for even the darkest of art-rockers. She chose not to do a full-on tour in support; Xiu Xiu might have followed her lead, or tried the theater circuit, where people are seated and patient, and thus better behaved.
Before the last song, we got a “Thanks, Chicago.” Again, no eye contact. Then the last song. No encore. McElroy came out afterward, mask off, chatting up various people in the front while the stage was cleared off by stage hands. The elusive Stewart for the most part disappeared. This seemed strange for an artist who has such a close relationship with fans online: who posts regular video blogs for Kill Rock Stars, as well as frequent, always somewhat half-crazed posts to a well-kept blog on Xiu Xiu’s website. But of course, by that point he had kept up a withering intensity for an hour, at least. Kudos to him for keeping his remaining energies for himself. For us, he will remain an infuriating mystery that will never, and perhaps should never, be solved.