On the Road with Xiu Xiu’s Jamie Stewart
by Max Burke
Jamie Stewart was on the road from Ohio to Kentucky when I finally got him by phone for our interview — he sounded groggy, but sleeplessness begets candor and he began to talk about “the slow deterioration” that all hard-touring bands face. “One of the fun things and the weird things about being on tour is you start going really crazy,” said the Xiu Xiu lead singer. “Your perception gets muted and mangled.”
Currently Xiu Xiu is in the midst of a cross-country trek in support of their new record The Air Force. All the while, the tour is being relentlessly documented with blog posts on the band’s Web site, xiuxiu.org, and videos on youtube .com. The videos and the blog entries, however, rarely focus on the shows Xiu Xiu is playing nearly every night.
Instead, Xiu Xiu’s online presence shows the band “just doing what we normally do and documenting it.” The barrage of media and prose from the Xiu Xiu camp isn’t so much a conscious change of direction as much as the result of new alliances. The artist David Horvitz is along for the entire tour, documenting the band for inclusion on a future DVD. The group, which includes Stewart, Caralee McElroy, and new member Ches Smith, has traveled many places outside of the standard North American or Western European routes. Shows in Serbia, Croatia, Japan, and Moscow have kept them busy, but it’s the large outdoor festivals in Europe and the States that provide the most laughs. “The sound is always horrible, none of the gear they rent ever works. It’s not even like a real show,” Stewart said, sounding more amused than annoyed. “Festivals are completely experiential.”
Although loaded adjectives have been attached to Xiu Xiu’s music since the release of their first album, Knife Play, words such as “cathartic,” “confrontational,” and “moody” only touch the surface of the group’s music, failing to recognize Stewart’s tremendous talents as a storyteller and the unique swath of sonic terrain the group have staked out as their own in the last four years. A single song can transform from a haunting, acoustic melody into a raucous tangle of electronic screeches and feedback, and then take off into a full-on keyboard and percussion freak-out without skipping a beat.
As a live band, Xiu Xiu are arresting performers. The often claustrophobic atmosphere of their records is condensed into short, focused bursts of song that are meticulously crafted with a variety of instrumentation, from auto-harp to electronic drum pad, and are played with a deeply felt conviction. Being able to record, release, and tour one’s music as a living seems to be the aspiration of any fledgling group, and Xiu Xiu is living the dream. The band released their third album, Fabulous Muscles, in 2004. “I was certainly aware of, once that record came out, the number of people at shows and that the number of records we were selling was much higher. But I don’t think we’ve done anything different,” said Stewart. Good thing, since the formula seems to be working for this weirdly funny and constantly surprising band.