The project of Jamie Stewart and Angela Seo, Xiu Xiu confronts difficult emotions with music that ranges from harsh to tender. With lyrics that are always based in reality, the group explores love, sex, death, and injustice over an emotive blend of post-punk, synth pop, folk, Asian percussion music, experimental music, noise, modern composition, and more. From the beginning, Xiu Xiu combined these influences in striking ways, whether on their brass and percussion-dominated 2002 debut album Knife Play or the hushed electro-acoustic experiments of 2003’s A Promise. Starting with 2004’s Fabulous Muscles, their pop elements became more prominent, but Xiu Xiu’s worldview — and Stewart’s impassioned vocals — remained uncompromising. Over the years, the band’s music spanned extremes from the rousing synth pop of 2012’s Always to the cathartic darkness of 2014’s Angel Guts: Red Classroom without ever sounding forced. And while Xiu Xiu’s music often captured deep loneliness and alienation brilliantly, they frequently worked with artists such as Mary Halvorson , Charlemagne Palestine , and their many friends and collaborators on 2021’s Oh No, an album that proved Xiu Xiu’s emotional honesty was still as genuine as it was in the beginning.
The roots of Xiu Xiu date back to the late ’90s, when vocalist/multi-instrumentalist Jamie Stewart and multi-instrumentalist Cory McCulloch played in the experimental indie rock band Ten in the Swear Jar . During their time together, the band issued 1999’s debut album My Very Private Map and the EP Inside of the Computer Are All of My Feelings before disbanding in July 2000 (in 2005, Asian Man records collected their work on Accordion Solo!). In 2002, Stewart formed Xiu Xiu, taking the project’s name from the film Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl and envisioning it as a way to dance away sadness; he claimed to have written the project’s first song after leaving a San Jose dance club feeling “stupid and lonely.” McCulloch, Yvonne Chen (publisher of the indie zine Zum), and Lauren Andrews completed the band’s initial lineup, and Xiu Xiu’s mix of programmed beats and instrumentation spanning brass, mandolin, gongs, and keyboards debuted on February 2002’s full-length Knife Play. Shortly after Knife Play’s release, Springman released a 10″ collaboration between Xiu Xiu and Deerhoof , whose member Greg Saunier became a longtime collaborator. That August, the band issued the Chapel of the Chimes EP, which included a cover of Joy Division ‘s “Ceremony.”
Chen departed Xiu Xiu before the band started work on its second album, while McCulloch turned his focus to recording and producing. Inspired in part by the death of Stewart’s father, February 2003’s A Promise was a largely acoustic set that included contributions from Jherek Bischoff as well as reworkings of Ten in the Swear Jar songs and Tracy Chapman ‘s “Fast Car.” That year also saw the release of the limited-edition Fag Patrol EP, which featured covers of songs by the Smiths and Ten in the Swear Jar . Andrews left the band in 2003, and Xiu Xiu took a different approach on their next album. They brought their moody synth pop influences to the fore and underscored them with experimental rock on February 2004’s Fabulous Muscles, one of their most accessible albums. That year, Stewart’s cousin Caralee McElroy joined Xiu Xiu’s extensive live performances in support of Fabulous Muscles. A live set, Life and Live, appeared before the band’s fourth album, July 2005’s La Forêt. Incorporating hints of the group’s pre-Fabulous Muscles sound, it featured contributions from Devin Hoff and Deerhoof ‘s John Dieterich . Later in the year, Xiu Xiu issued a split single with Devendra Banhart . XXL , the group’s collaboration with the Italian group Larsen , also released its debut album Ciaütistico! in 2005.
Xiu Xiu remained busy, releasing their fifth album The Air Force in 2006. Produced by Saunier (who also played on the album), its songs found Stewart processing personal trauma through some of the band’s most overtly pop music. Tu Mi Piaci, an EP of covers of songs by artists ranging from Bauhaus to Nina Simone to Nedelle , also appeared that year, as did a collaboration with Grouper called Creepshow. Following the release of XXL ‘s second album Spicchiology? in 2007, Stewart and company returned with Women as Lovers the following January. The album once again centered on Xiu Xiu’s synth pop leanings and featured Michael Gira on a cover of “Under Pressure.” In 2009, McElroy left the group and became a member of Cold Cave . Angela Seo soon joined the fold, and worked with Stewart and Saunier on March 2010’s Dear God, I Hate Myself. Recorded in California and North Carolina, the album included several songs composed on a Nintendo DS.
Early in 2012, Xiu Xiu commemorated their tenth anniversary with Always. Mixed by John Congleton and marking the return of Hoff to the group, their eighth album tackled war atrocities, the plight of Chinese female migrant workers, and the right to choose, and was dedicated to their devoted fans. Sal Mineo, a collaboration with Oxbow ‘s Eugene S. Robinson , released its self-titled debut album in April 2013 on Important Records . While touring with Swans , Stewart was inspired to cover the songs of Nina Simone ; Nina, which featured the talents of jazz and avant-garde players Tim Berne , Tony Malaby , Mary Halvorson , and Andrea Parkins , as well as longtime collaborator Ches Smith , arrived late in 2013. Soon after, Angel Guts: Red Classroom — which took its name from a Japanese erotic film from the ’70s and was touted as one of Xiu Xiu’s darkest albums — appeared in January 2014. That April, Unclouded Sky, a collection of American and Caribbean spirituals that Stewart and producer Shahzad Ismaily recorded at Sigur Rós ‘ Icelandic studio, arrived as a Record Store Day release.
In 2015, Stewart and company were commissioned by Australia’s Gallery of Modern Art to rework the Grammy-winning score to David Lynch ‘s iconic TV show Twin Peaks. Following a world tour, Xiu Xiu recorded their interpretation, and Plays the Music of Twin Peaks was first released in April 2016 for that year’s Record Store Day. During that time, the band also collaborated with Mitski and Merzbow on separate projects, and composed music for an experimental version of Mozart ‘s The Magic Flute as well as an installation by artist Danh Vo. Amidst all of this, Xiu Xiu released February 2017’s Forget, a more accessible set of songs featuring collaborators including producers Congleton and Saunier as well as minimalist composer Charlemagne Palestine and multi-disciplinary artist Vaginal Davis. The following year, they reunited with Vo for Deforms the Unborn, an extended piece based on firsthand accounts of demonic possession that they performed at the Guggenheim Museum. In February 2019, Xiu Xiu issued Girl with Basket of Fruit, which featured production by Seo and Saunier and some of the band’s harshest music since Angel Guts: Red Classroom. Later that year, Stewart and Seo began work on Xiu Xiu’s next album. Recorded in the band’s home studio with Seo once again producing, March 2021’s Oh No delivered a set of empathetic duets with longtime friends who included Grouper ‘s Liz Harris, Circuit des Yeux ’s Haley Fohr, Chelsea Wolfe , and Owen Pallett . ~ Heather Phares, Rovi