Cutting Edge

With Knife Play, San Jose's Xiu Xiu carves cathartic music from traumatic experience

Even though Xiu Xiu's debut album, Knife Play, is chock-full of references to death and despair, bassist Cory McCulloch insists it could have been a lot bleaker. "I wanted to play really happy pop, but ... that'sour happy pop. You should hear us when we're really bummed." The rest of the San Jose group -- vocalist/guitarist Jamie Stewart, percussionist Yvonne Chen, and keyboardist Lauren Andrews -- laughs at McCulloch's summation.

One listen to Knife Play and it's clear why the members of Xiu Xiu (pronounced "shoo shoo") are laughing. Having spent the last year and a half watching family and friends fall prey to misfortune and misery, the South Bay foursome responded by making an album that's as disturbing as the events that inspired it. Xiu Xiu revels in a dissonant mixture of Indonesian percussion, synth washes, programmed beats, and anguished vocals -- a sound that's drawing a growing audience of indie-rock followers riveted by the band's raw emotion and ornate orchestration.

From such a description, you'd expect the members of Xiu Xiu to be black-garbed goth hounds. By all appearances, however, the low-key musicians channel their ennui into their music, not their image. Huddled in the drafty San Jose home where Stewart and McCulloch live, the unpretentiously dressed bandmates seem downright cheerful, cracking wise about Andrews' puppet-making pastime, Stewart's stint in the late G.G. Allin's backing band, and McCulloch's weakness for midnight movies. It's hard to believe that such carefree people could make such dour music, or that Stewart and McCulloch's first band together was a popular mid-'90s ska act called Indestructible Beat of Palo Alto. IBPA -- named ironically after the '80s South African pop compilations -- had an upbeat sound that garnered major-label interest from Elektra.

Ralphie P.

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"At IBPA shows, people would dance and have a good time," Stewart says. "At Xiu Xiu shows, people yell at us or start to cry."

After IBPA disintegrated, Stewart and McCulloch formed Ten in the Swear Jar, which Stewart describes as a musical transition between the beat-happy IBPA and the gloom-drenched Xiu Xiu. When Ten in the Swear Jar broke up before a scheduled gig at the North by Northwest Festival in July 2000, Stewart and McCulloch assembled Xiu Xiu to take its place, drafting Tiny Bird Mouth keyboardist Miya Osaki (later replaced by Andrews) and percussionist Chen, whom Stewart had met via her music zine, Zum. (Accordion player Don Diaz joined later and left after a few performances.)

Over time, the band developed a sound that sutured together what Stewart calls "depressing '80s pop" in the Joy Division and Cure mode with simple dance beats and found sounds, occasionally throwing in bits of Peking opera and reggae. "We're trying to use the not-pop instruments in a way that is influenced by pop, club music, and modern classical -- as opposed to the way they are played in their original settings," he says.

The approach is eclectic, but it's not unexpected once you learn that the band members all DJed at Santa Clara University's KSCU-FM (103.3). In fact, one might venture to say that Xiu Xiu is the product of playlist-free DJs running amok in a world-spanning music library. Describing his and McCulloch's radio show, Stewart proudly says, "We played no American music; it was the House Un-American Activities show."

Stewart's nightclub experiences also played a role in establishing Xiu Xiu's emotional tone and downbeat sound. "I'm an unbelievably bad dancer, but I like to go out dancing by myself a whole lot," he says. "But the only place you can go dance is at these high-energy and freestyle clubs in San Jose, and if you show up at a club by yourself, you go home by yourself. So the initial idea [for Xiu Xiu] came out of going to dance clubs by myself and leaving more upset than when I had gone there in the first place."

But the biggest influence on Xiu Xiu was the series of traumatic events that befell the band last year. (Any group that names itself after Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, which McCulloch describes as the "most depressing movie ever," is starting out with a grim perspective.)

"Suicide has been a big problem in my family, and a lot of Xiu Xiu's songs have been about that," Stewart says reluctantly, not wanting to delve too deeply into his family's personal details. (Several family members have made their mark in the music business: His uncle, John Stewart, was a hit-making songwriter, a Robert Kennedy cohort, and a member of the Kingston Trio, while his father, Michael Stewart, scored a huge folk-rock hit in 1965 with "You Were on My Mind" and later produced artists ranging from Billy Joel to jazz pianist Ahmad Jamal to desert-rock act Giant Sand.) However, Stewart does recount a litany of troubles that have touched band members recently, including institutionalization, pill addiction, unemployment, eviction, and brutality. "My own depression has gotten significantly worse, partly in response to my biochemistry changing and partly due to feeling overwhelmed by all of the above," Stewart admits.

With misfortune so deeply ingrained in the band's DNA, Xiu Xiu's music is a coping mechanism of sorts: Making harrowing art-rock allows the members to wear their heartbreak on their sleeves. For instance, McCulloch's mother recently died after a long bout with cancer, a fact that's announced on Knife Play's CD cover sticker, along with the artists -- Black Sabbath, the Smiths, Cecil Taylor -- who helped him recover from his grief.

"This is sort of a meatheadish way to put it, but life's a bitch," Stewart says. "A lot of really bad, bad things happen, and I think the way for us to deal with that -- instead of pretending like it didn't happen -- is to try to look at it in the face a little bit."

Early on in the group's career, Xiu Xiu won the admiration of Greg Saunier, drummer for San Francisco avant-noise act Deerhoof, by its willingness to express life's bleakest moments. "In an underground obsessed with daring and confrontation, [Xiu Xiu] stands out for me because they're so honest -- nakedly and brutally honest," Saunier explains in a recent e-mail. "And I have a hard time thinking of anyone doing something as daring or confrontational as that. Their music's so sweet on the surface, but then it finds a way to express all too accurately those feelings that I spend all my time trying to put out of my mind."

Knife Play finds catharsis in its uneasy alliance of cacophonous noise and unusual sounds. The songs teem with unexpected textures -- a baritone sax, a bass accordion, skittering percussion via traditional gongs, bells, and gamelans. "Poe Poe" pits seesawing synth lines against galloping beats, while "Dr. Troll" presses metallic guitar-screeching up against slow bell rhythms. Stewart's unabashed vocals preside over everything, whether he's wailing about breaking into a children's hospital ("I Broke Up (SJ)"), hanging oneself ("Suha"), or discovering HIV sores ("Hives Hives"). His voice is a fascinating instrument, able to move from a little boy's scream to the kind of lush, majestic tone that made Peters Gabriel and Murphy rich -- all in the space of one song.

Although it may sound funny, Xiu Xiu is quite happy with Knife Play. Still, after completion of its first nationwide tour this month, the band plans on making a different kind of album. "We're going to do a straight club record -- basically pop songs that have dance music," Stewart says enthusiastically. "We listen to a ton of Wild 94.9, lots of freestyle. ... San Jose is the high-energy, freestyle house music capital of the U.S. It's sort of inescapable here."

Maybe the move is a concession to the hometown crowd, which would probably scratch its collective head at the group's morose experiments. Still, Xiu Xiu doesn't think its take on San Jose dance culture and suburban angst is too far off base.

"I think I just became comfortable with the idea of not necessarily having a song have some redemption at the end," Stewart says. "IBPA and Ten in the Swear Jar were about getting past things that were bad and finding a semipositive twist and learning from things. Those potentially positive things were manufactured by rote because we were afraid of making a song that was hands-down horrible."

By horrible, Stewart is referring to Xiu Xiu's moods, not its music. The band's tunes may be too unpolished for the dance floor or too experimental for some rock fans, but Xiu Xiu's risk-taking honesty and ambitious compositions set it apart from its peers. And if you need to chase away the blues, nothing could be better.

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