What kind of people do you see at a Xiu Xiu show?
Holocene, Portland, OR
When thinking about who I wanted to accompany me to see Xiu Xiu, Jamie Stewart’s long-time experimental noise-pop project, I found myself with a dilemma: Who could I bring with me? With many bands, you can drop them on an uninitiated party without much worry, but Xiu Xiu—with songs about all kinds of upsetting topics (violence, sexual abuse, BDSM subcultures, misogyny, suicide) set to abrasive noise—require some preparation, and a willingness to look for the “pop” part amid the noise, especially considering time has only made Stewart more difficult (if this year’s fantastic Girl with Basket of Fruit was any indication).
Which begs the question: what kind of people do you see at a Xiu Xiu show? Despite knowing the band since 2006’s The Air Force, this was my first show, so I wasn’t quite sure who I’d see. It turns out, a lot of different age groups turned out for the all-ages show, from a handful of actual children that appeared to be roughly 10 years-old (two of whom could be seen excitedly looking at the band’s Memorial Day weekend-ready “FUCK YOUR GUNS, FUCK YOUR WARS, FUCK YOUR TRUCK, FUCK YOUR FLAG” pins and patches at the merch table), a shocking number of teenagers—a pair stood next to me sing-shouting along to songs and screaming in delight during breaks—and a few that appeared to be middle-aged, though you have to wonder how many were supportive parents, chaperoning their art-weirdo children. They gave opener Methods Body, an experimental synth-and-drum duo from Portland made up of members of AU and Why I Must Be Careful, a hero’s welcome, applauding loudly during each song break. The fact that the crowd seemed engaged with the opener, instead of chit-chatting in the back of the room, was a refreshing change of pace.
The energy in the room felt different once Xiu Xiu took the stage, largely because of the intensity Stewart exudes. Dressed in all black (save for hot pink socks), he put his whole body into performing, to the point of throwing himself down the stage stairs and crawling back up and across the stage at the beginning of Girl’s “Scisssssssors.” The setlist for the night was a jarring contrast of cacophonous and quietly brooding songs that covered a wide swath of the band’s career, from 2003’s A Promise onward, with the band’s only real hit—“I Luv the Valley OH!” from Fabulous Muscles—placed second in the setlist. Stewart addressed the crowd just once, letting everyone know he’d be at the merch table one song before the end, opting to let his own chaotic physicality—which left the stage surrounding him nearly as sweat-drenched as he was—do the talking for him the rest of the evening.
As it turns out, the “noise” part of Xiu Xiu’s brand of noise pop was as much fun to watch being made as it was to hear: Stewart performed with a wide array of incomprehensible noisemakers, from slide whistles to shakers to a pair of bullet vibrators allowed to dance across snare drums and cymbals during a Thor Harris-lead “Pumpkin Attack on Mommy and Daddy.” Harris, who has played with everyone from Swans to Bill Callahan, was just as exciting to watch play with his array of mismatched instruments that included gongs and bells and a glockenspiel, as well as what appeared to be a tubular drum machine that existed solely for a deep bass drum tone when struck. This show should be chaotic, and it was, but it was tastefully done and controlled chaos, which is intoxicating when done right.
Watching ecstatic teens and children dancing along to Xiu Xiu’s warped world made me wonder if the general listening public’s tolerance for abrasive music has shifted while I wasn’t looking. It’s hard to know if I’d recommend the experience to just anybody; after all, even if it’s a thrilling experience to see Xiu Xiu play their weird, intense music with bags full of noisemakers and gallons of sweat, it’s still jarring to enter that kind of headspace if you’re not ready for it. If the idea of that thrills you, though, not many bands do it better.