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Feature Thu Oct 26 2006

My Name is Jamie

Not long into his band's current tour, Jamie Stewart of Xiu Xiu suffered what might be delicately described as a personal problem. A personal problem of a sexual nature. A personal problem that resulted from excessive friction. A personal problem that most people would keep under wraps.

But not Stewart. Instead, lying on the floor of a Motel 6 in Houston, Texas, he drunkenly narrated the details of his friction-induced personal problem: the cause and the symptoms and his faith that Neosporin would make it better. Sooner, hopefully, than later.

And, then, he posted the confession on YouTube.

Jamie Stewart was once a social worker, and one can only assume that, having seen other people's struggles, he doesn't have much compunction sharing his own. "There's nothing we wouldn't write about," Stewart says. With no subject off-limits when it comes to art, whatever veiling of autobiography occurs does so in service of others' privacy. Which is to say, much as Stewart did via internet video, Xiu Xiu performs the personal, problems and all: the band's intense and often provocative lyrics tell the stories of their lives.

Even still, Xiu Xiu's latest album, The Air Force, is, in its frontman's words, as "intentionally poppy" as the band could make it. Despite the record's love and death obsessions, the word one hears is "accessible." That, though, is grading on the curve of contemporary experimental music. Stewart's too polite to name names, but he intimates there are other acts putting out material in the experimental sub-sub-genre that he finds unlistenable. And not just because they're "difficult." On the other end of the continuum, the band plays a lot of Top 40 on the road. Beyond the obvious aural bubble-gum appeal, Stewart's fascinated with the sociological ramifications of pop music: what is it the svengalis who've assembled these acts believe the market wants, and how much art can what's essentially an advertising entity make? And, structurally, what's there that makes the music — such as it is — so immediately accessible? (Ah, that word again...)

As the band was prepping for its new record, Stewart stumbled on a perfect template for marrying the sweet and the strange, Weezer's Blue Album. Having been "too old" to get swept up in "Buddy Holly" mania when the record came out in 1994, he missed it the first time around. But Stewart's bandmate (and younger cousin) Caralee McElroy was forming her alt-rock tastes then, and she helped encourage a "Sweater Song" revival in the Xiu Xiu camp. Though he'd not listened to it before, Stewart figures he played the record a good fifty times while making The Air Force. It was just so catchy. And the lyrics, once listened to, were so "super weird." That blend kept Stewart coming back: the instant hook and the unexpected idiosyncrasy.

So it is with Xiu Xiu these days, and the video for "Boy Soprano" [MP3] epitomizes this nexus of popular and avant-garde. Animated like an arcade game, figures representing Stewart and McElroy hatch from eggs reminiscent of Yoshi's in Super Mario world. The usual video game backdrops are there, from forest to underwater to clouds to outer space, but the tropes have been turned on their heads: swarms of bats and squirrels inflict bodily harm on the characters, leaving them wounded on the ground, fending for themselves and each other — there are no power-ups in this game, no extra lives. And, rather than make progress to another level, the players end where they began, and worse for the wear, at that: one's stumbling around on crutches; the other's in a wheelchair. Their life meters flicker out, the game is over, and owls linger ominously in the trees. For Xiu Xiu, saving the princess doesn't rate; saving oneself is hard enough.

I first saw Xiu Xiu play several years ago at a bar with a capacity of maybe 60 people. This was in Atlanta, so chances are it was hot. There was no stage. Instead, Stewart and McElroy played "in the round" — insofar as people assembled themselves in a sort of circle around the equipment. It was tough to watch that show, honestly. You worried Stewart might break down under the weight of his songs, and imagining the sight wasn't pretty. Still, one could hardly look away, lest that breakdown actually happen.

I last saw Xiu Xiu play at the Pitchfork-curated Intonation Festival. This time there was a stage (more than one, even), and there were a lot more people than could be counted in the double digits. The contrast couldn't have been sharper, really, but if the small show was tough on an audience member, Stewart describes the musicians' perspective of festival sets as "like a weird museum visit." Slipping into the jargon of critical theory (references to Barthes are fair game on the band's blog), Stewart says festivals operate as "semi-codified aesthetic spaces" in which every participant is acting according to a script of previously defined behaviors that are almost independent of what's happening on stage. In a small setting, he continues, the band has some level of control over the audience's response; in the middle of a field, there are too many variables.

Nevertheless, in Union Park (hot there, too), Stewart and McElroy came off less as tortured artists and more as popstars.

xiuxiu43.jpg

In the garage / I feel safe / No one laughs about my ways

In the garage / Where I belong / No one hears me sing this song

Weezer's Rivers Cuomo sang those words about a physical sanctuary for his music, but they echo metaphorically in a recent review of Xiu Xiu by Ann Powers. She writes, "Each Xiu Xiu song is a little hothouse where the forbidden grows, not free, but safe." If the forbidden requires the occasional application of Neosporin, so be it: sometimes a guy's gotta bleed for his art.

...Xiu Xiu play the Logan Square Auditorium October 27th at 8pm. See Slowdown for more details.

-Matt Peck

 
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Feature Thu Dec 31 2015

Our Final Transmission Days

By The Gapers Block Transmission Staff

Transmission staffers share their most cherished memories and moments while writing for Gapers Block.

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