Meaning Outside Of Horrible

27 September 2012 | 6:45 am | Anthony Williams

“I did not think it was genetically possible for there to be someone who was stupider or more terrifying than George Bush, but there is, and it is entirely likely that [Romney] will be the next president. I do not have a lot of hope for the future of the United States, or its role in the world; it’s very, very frightening times.”


Jamie Stewart knows how to make an impact. The Xiu Xiu frontman and creative constant has done it with disturbingly honest songs about molestation, rape, self-loathing, abusive relationships and war crimes. He's also done it with blasts of abrasive digital noise, the clatter of gamelan-esque percussion and one of the most distinctive wails in experimental art-rock. Across nine studio albums and ten years, Stewart and Xiu Xiu have mapped out unique, inventive and always high-impact sonic terrain.

Even so, the visceral intensity of the band's September 2010 Perth show – reviewed by yours truly in these hallowed pages – came as quite a surprise. Stewart brought a near-hardcore sense of purpose and urgency to the stage, attacking Xiu Xiu's finest tunes, and his guitar bred an exhilarating, on-edge physicality that actually felt dangerous. It's a night etched in memory, and a memory that begs the question: What does Stewart get out of the Xiu Xiu live experience?

“Anybody who plays live would probably say that it's a very singular experience,” he begins. “It varies between feeling completely exhilarated, unaware of what's going on in a sort of out-of-body state, and feeling completely and totally humiliated if it's going badly.

“Live, [Xiu Xiu] is very immediate and very loud. It's a bit more abrasive than the records and, certainly, it's 20,000 times louder than anybody's stereo. But we're trying to say the same thing and say it with as much honesty as we can.”

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That trademark honesty – documenting what Stewart describes as “the wreck of living” – is present, correct and in challenging full-effect on the band's latest album, the February 2012 release Always. A track like I Luv Abortion is both a personal and starkly political declaration, while Gul Mudin (named after a boy killed by US troops in Afghanistan) and Factory Girls (about Asian sex slaves) also document the Xiu Xiu worldview. Musically, the recording seems darker, more complex and more densely layered than its predecessor (2010's Dear God, I Hate Myself).

“We were trying to make the simplest record we'd ever made, and we made the most complex record we've ever made,” he recalls, with a chuckle. “So, amusingly, we blew it in that regard! It was [actually] a very fraught experience; there were a lot of interpersonal difficulties with a couple of band members, and, conversely, with the other couple of band members, it was some of the most fun I've ever had working, and the most productive things have ever been.”

The interpersonal difficulties Stewart speaks of were, sadly, of his own making; the result of an invitation to old friends and fellow musicians Zac Pennington (Parenthetical Girls) and Sam Mickens (The Dead Science) to contribute to Always. It wasn't long before old, unresolved tensions resurfaced and these old friends became former friends, returning Stewart to his more recent, and ongoing, Xiu Xiu collaborators – multi-instrumentalist Angela Seo and producer Greg Saunier (Deerhoof) – to complete the album. The track Beauty Towne – a sequel to Clowne Towne from 2004's Fabulous Muscles album – is the only survivor from the ill-fated Stewart-Pennington-Mickens sessions, but, thankfully, for Stewart's sake, his relationship with Saunier is proving much more enduring. “He and I are very good friends,” Stewart says of Saunier. “The production process tends to be done in a couple of stages – there's the writing process, which tends to be very difficult, very private and very separate from the post-production process, which is putting all the songs together.

“I think it would be completely impossible to get any of these records done with somebody who was depressing,” Stewart argues. “For me, it's almost impossible to work when I'm depressed, I can't do anything. Obviously, I like feeling happy and I like enjoying myself, and, luckily, when Greg's around he really brings that part of things out. He's an incredible joy to work with. We've known each other for 13 years at this point and have a lot of love and have a lot of history together, and I really, really trust him personally and creatively.”

Given the dark honesty and often harrowing subject matter of Xiu Xiu's work, the idea of a joyful recording process seems rather incongruous. But Stewart's unflinching trawl through the worst aspects of human nature – drawn from personal experience, observation and the damaged souls he interacts with – has found a counterbalance in music making (what he describes as “one of the greatest parts of living”). After ten years of Xiu Xiu, then, is life gotten any easier? “Some aspects of life have, and other aspects have gotten more difficult, not surprisingly,” offers Stewart. “It's the usual case for an Earthling. My external life is, for the most part, not as difficult as it used to be, but my internal life has taken some unfortunate turns which I'm struggling to work out. It's been a tough year.”

So does the process of documenting experiences of rape, abuse and personal trauma in song offer any sort of healing? “It's not so much healing,” Stewart says. “I definitely depend on it to get through the day. I think it's more of a place to put those overwhelming and negative emotions, rather than turning them into something self-destructive. It's almost more of a way of organising them, I think.”

Speaking of horrible, the state of politics in America, and the country's relationship with the wider world, has never been far from the Xiu Xiu agenda. Support Our Troops OH! (Black Angels OH!) was a stand-out track on 2004's Fabulous Muscles album, delivering a bravely direct line of questioning to US military personnel: “Did you know you were going to shoot off the top of a four year old girl's head[?]” and “why should I care if you get killed?” The aforementioned I Luv Abortion and Gul Mudin continue that tradition of questioning American methods and mores, and Stewart is similarly direct when about US politics in a presidential election year. “It's fucked,” he declares, without hesitation. “I did not think it was genetically possible for there to be someone who was stupider or more terrifying than George Bush, but there is, and it is entirely likely that [Romney] will be the next president. I do not have a lot of hope for the future of the United States, or its role in the world; it's very, very frightening times.” His ongoing XXL project, with Italian post-rock experimentalists Larsen, gives him a reason to escape to what he describes as his “favourite city in the entire world – Torino, Italy” (where Larsen is based). XXL delivered its third album, entitled Düde, in July, and it's obvious that Xiu Xiu has found a kindred spirit in Larsen. “XXL is very romantic, much more improvisational and a lot freer,” Stewart explains. “It's much more of a celebration and a signifier of friendship with those guys, than being an illustration of the wreck of living [like Xiu Xiu]. Basically, we're in the studio from about two to 10pm, and then we just go out and eat the best food in the world and get insanely drunk. There could not be a better holiday.”

Xiu Xiu will be playing the following shows:

Saturday 14 October - This Is Nowhere, Perth WA
Wednesday 17 October - GoodGod Small Club, Sydney NSW
Thursday 18 October - Brisbane Powerhouse, Brisbane QLD
Friday 19 October - Gasometer, Melbourne VIC