It’s hard to pick the most outrageous moment from experimental rock band Xiu Xiu’s catalogue. Is it the chorus from “Hives Hives” — “A-I-D-S-H-I-V / I cannot wait to die / Can’t you tell / Can’t you tell / Can’t you tell”? Or maybe the photo of a nude homeless man holding a rubber baby doll upside down on the cover of A Promise? And what about the video for “Dear God, I Hate Myself,” which is basically three non-stop minutes of band member Angela Seo forcing herself to vomit? Whatever the answer, there are a lot of options to choose from.
But despite all this, Jamie Stewart, the band’s frontman and only continuous member, says that Xiu Xiu has never aimed to be provocative.
“Frequently it comes up in some really middle-of-the-road bullshit music websites, that they will repeatedly say, ‘They’re trying to be provocative.’ And we have never nor will we ever try to be provocative,” he said in the back of a late model white minivan across the street from the venue Brooklyn Bazaar last Thursday. “We’ll always just write about stuff that is interesting to us or meaningful for us. And sometimes some people interpret that as trying to push people’s buttons.”
It’s this inability to shy away from life’s ugliest aspects that has made Xiu Xiu one of the most polarizing acts in indie rock during its 15-year-run. But while some have been turned off by Stewart’s preoccupation with disturbing themes like degradation, sexual violence, and extreme depression, a not insignificant number of fans have been drawn in because of that.
In late February, the group released Forget, its tenth studio album of original material. Across its ten pristinely-produced tracks, Xiu Xiu comes off as challenging as ever, equally comfortable pumping out clangorous hellscapes (“Jenny GoGo”) as they are glitchy pop-songs (“Wondering”). It’s because of the latter type of tracks that a number of critics have dubbed the record the band’s most accessible to date, something that annoys Stewart, a professed pop fan, to no end.
“Accessibility is totally relative,” he said. “If you listen to Top 40 your entire life then probably this record doesn’t seem particularly accessible. But if you have grown up listening to noise and electronic minimalist music it probably seems pretty boring. I think people think it’s accessible because there are fucking songs on it.”
Forget is most definitely a Xiu Xiu album — joyous yelps and creepy whispers abound — but never feels like simply more of the same. The band feels energized especially on twisted works of beauty like early record highlight “Get Up.” A saga in miniature ending in a rousing guitar solo, the song at once feels of a piece with “Clowne Towne,” a standout from the group’s 2003 masterpiece Fabulous Muscles, and a sonic evolution. Like so much of the album, it gives a nod to the group’s roots, while never getting stuck on it.
While Stewart doesn’t take the band’s 15 years for granted, his main focus is what’s to come. “I’m very interested in continuing to work and not feel nostalgic or look back in any way,” he said. “I think if I start thinking about that in any serious way, the momentum starts to gather some baggage which I think is the death of any band.”
But the best proof of the band’s continued vitality is the set they put on an hour after our interview. Effortlessly pivoting between tracks off Forget and old favorites like “Crank Heart” and “Sad Pony Guerilla Girl” (which earned a slightly unsettling sing-a-long), Stewart and bandmate Shayna Dunkelman exhibited the unbridled energy and intensity of teenage punks. There was nothing stagnant or comfortable about the performance, and the crowd responded in kind, gleefully participating in a moment of group catharsis that few were ready to let go of when the band left the stage for good.
Xiu Xiu has grown a lot over the last 15 years; its message and music becoming more refined. Stewart and his bandmates are still making music about the things people don’t want (and are frequently unable) to talk about. Forget, like each of the group’s previous albums, is about staring the hard realities of life in the eye and maybe figuring out a way past them. While Stewart admits to being as unhappy as ever, he and Xiu Xiu have figured out how to keep going.
“Probably the most difficult thing for me to deal with in so far as my own makeup as a person is I get really stuck on things that are bad,” he said. “I have an incredibly difficult time not thinking about them at every moment. I think possibly due to time passing and being a little more skilled in how I navigate my own stupid ass brain, I can at times force myself out of that by making myself forget about certain things. It’s almost a physical act. And it’s making my existence slightly more tolerable.”