Make yourself uncomfortable

Xiu Xiu bloom on Dear God
By EUGENIA WILLIAMSON  |  April 6, 2010

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DIY + TMI: Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart (here with bandmate Angela Seo) has built a career singing about frailty, despair, and sex: gay sex, weird sex, terrifying sex.

In the past month, Sandra Bullock’s husband betrayed her by screwing a white supremacist with a face tattoo, a Georgia teenager was granted the right to take his boyfriend to prom, and Ricky Martin declared himself a “fortunate homosexual man.”

What does this have to do with indie rock? “It seems really trite, but the personal is the political,” says Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart, over the phone from St. Louis, when I ask him what he means by “politics” — a word he uses a lot.

Stewart — Xiu Xiu’s founder, songwriter, and sole permanent member — has built a career singing about frailty, despair, and sex: gay sex, weird sex, terrifying sex. (It should tell you something that “Cremate me after you cum on my lips/Honey boy place my ashes in a vase beneath your workout bench” is the band’s most frequently quoted lyric.) He has always taken a stance of utter sincerity — he maintains that Xiu Xiu’s songs document his personal experiences and those of the people close to him. But this directness should not be mistaken for guilelessness. Each Xiu Xiu song has, he says, “so many layers” — which include disjointed drum-machine rhythms, cacophonic synths, and Stewart’s incredible voice. And oh, that voice: it’s among the most distinctive in contemporary indie pop, ranging from a wan baritone to a magisterial tenor to a fluttery, craven warble — sometimes all in the same song.

The cumulative effect of these layers conjures an authorial persona that’s one part Ian Curtis, one part Al Jourgensen, one part Woody Allen, and one part Hecubus (the black-clad Satanist immortalized by Dave Foley on Kids in the Hall). That persona earns Xiu Xiu (who come to the Middle East this Saturday) the No. 2 spot on my list of Weirdo Bands That Have Been Praised in the New York Times (No. 1: Fucked Up). The February release for which the band are on tour, Dear God, I Hate Myself (Kill Rock Stars), finds this ebullient weirdness in full flower, augmented by the keyboard stylings of the newest Xiu, multi-instrumentalist Angela Seo.

“It’s important to us that people can make the music into something personal, maybe make someone think of something that they haven’t thought of before,” Stewart points out. And the responses have been equally personal. Read any online interviews or watch any Xiu Xiu video on YouTube and you’ll find attacks that can’t be printed in a family newspaper. This abuse isn’t confined to Internet trolls. Stewart has had plenty of things thrown at him during shows — lit cigarettes, change, ice. “Someone jumped on stage and punched a former band member in the chest,” he says, recalling the worst of it.

He doesn’t ascribe this virulence to homophobia, however. “In my weaker moments, I attribute it to something that I’m too embarrassed to admit,” is his cryptic response. “Most of the songs with queer politics haven’t been overtly political. It’s more an attempt to be open about that struggle.” True, “open” hardly describes a lyric like “we swallowed a clover made of lead.” But it’s not a stretch to say that even Stewart’s most oblique references could make those accustomed to Vampire Weekend uncomfortable.

XIU XIU + TUNEYARDS + TWIN SISTER | Middle East downstairs, 480 Mass Ave, Cambridge | April 10 at 9 pm | 18 + | $12 | 617.864.EAST or mideastclub.com

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