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Friday, August 19, 2005 | By IAN PORT
It’s a death knell, declaring music “experimental.” Brand a work of art – especially a musical one – any word that means overtly daring, adventurous or unusual, and suddenly few have time or patience for it. The work becomes an artifact of the underground, relegated to “spaces” (or, scarier, universities) instead of clubs, “devotees” instead of fans. Articles on the subject feature disclaimers, as if critics have to apologize for finding merit in a work that isn’t content to lull within the accepted boundaries of current music.
Xiu Xiu, which will hit the stage at 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 p.m. Sunday at the Che Café, a vegan co-op hangout on the UCSD campus, used to be a rock band to fit that description. Their provocative, and, yes, experimental, mix of searing electronics and elaborate acoustic instrumentation, while ruthlessly original was, and is, often difficult and occasionally jarring to absorb. Their constituency was young, cerebral and prone to leaky eyes. But when the Bay Area group’s last album, “Fabulous Muscles,” was released in 2004, something changed: word of its delicate and terrifying humanity leaked profusely, and mostly positively, out from underground. The splash from “Muscles” put the band on the national map: its latest release, the warmer, less-confrontational “La Foret,” was lauded, albeit with disclaimers, by such mainstays as Entertainment Weekly and The New York Times.
“It’s been like little tiny but very constant forward baby steps,” said Jamie Stewart, vocalist and guitarist for the band, over the phone from his home in Oakland. The calm, carefully spoken Stewart modestly attributes his band’s rising notoriety to hard work, time and their growing number of releases. “It certainly hasn’t been sudden and it’s not mysterious to me. I mean, I appreciate it,” he chuckled.
The band’s hard work has paid off in the creation of a musical style that is absolutely unmistakable for any other group, a somewhat rare quality in today’s pop music.
Their tireless discovery of new instruments and combination possibilities – a Xiu Xiu recording might use gong, autoharp and keyboard synthesizer – has helped form a “sound” identified strictly with their work, and made people want to notice.
Stewart says his father, a former musician, helped fuel that freewheeling creativity. “He told me that the only regret he had was not going too far with things. I don’t think that I really understood what he meant until I was about 30. I had been in a bunch of other bands and he always kept saying that it needs to go further, that it was still sounding like we were trying to make people like it.”
For his “histrionic affectations,” Stewart has earned the daily right to make music instead of go to work, a longtime goal. His band’s success has earned him praise on paper, but for the five or six months out of each year the band is on the road, they perform in mostly small clubs to smaller audiences.
It’s apparently enough for Stewart, who says, admitting it’s cliché, that he wouldn’t know what to do if he didn’t write and record strange pop songs, whether people get them or not. He’s doesn’t care about that, which he says is absolutely necessary.
“It’s sort of a funny spot to be in, because the point of making music is to touch people. There’s a huge difference between being self-indulgent and not caring what people think.”
So is Xiu Xiu’s music, while solidly experimental, self-indulgent?
Stewart laughs. “On accident it is, sometimes. But we’re definitely making records for people to listen to and hopefully get something out of.”
Xiu Xiu will play two shows at the Che Café, located on the UCSD Campus, at 6:30 p.m. and 9:30 pm Sunday. Price to be announced; tickets available at the door. For more information, visit
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