Xiu Xiu brings anxiety to the main stage

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Xiu Xiu performing at Holocene on March 22. Andrew Jankowski/PSU Vanguard

On a breezy Wednesday evening at 8:25 p.m., I found myself waiting outside Holocene for an evening with Xiu Xiu, Force Publique and Mattress. I’d never heard of the latter two bands, and prior to getting this assignment I had never actually listened to Xiu Xiu: I was only familiar with them from the MySpace pages of friends with social anxiety and good taste. In line, a British woman asked me when the doors would open. Behind us a man of color with a fashion sense only Willamette Week could love scoffed to his friend, “This is Holocene and she thinks they’ll be open.”

Look, I get it, I mentally responded. You’re cooler than us.

So far I’ve only listened to Xiu Xiu by hitting shuffle on their Spotify discography. Short tracks of bird calls and early-aughts examples mixed with offerings from their Twin Peaks soundtrack cover album and the distinctly different styles of their latest release, FORGET. I heard experimental deconstructions of dance song forms, and I heard noise structures that seemingly defied classical classification and heightened my sensory awareness. I wasn’t sure what to expect as I shivered in the late-winter wind.

I thought of FORGET’s cover art, written in Arabic text with a color scheme tied to 2016’s twin colors of the year: serenity & rose quartz. Symbolism of 9/11 and the bisexual pride palette sprang to mind.

Xiu Xiu often adds elements into performances they consider impossible to capture on a recorded album. Live Xiu Xiu and recorded Xiu Xiu are totally different beasts. Experimental music seems to be something to either love or feel like an idiot for hating. After spending a few days learning my own opinion, I felt ready for the show.

I thought of what I knew of the Xiu Xiu fans in my social circles: some women but mostly men; some people of color but mostly white people; some queers but mostly heterosexuals; some extroverts but mostly introverts—all of whom pride themselves on their taste and influence, all of whom felt alone in their environment at one point in life.

I thought of a question that arose during my research into FORGET and the band: After 15 years of releases, after covering David Lynch’s cult-classic TV show’s soundtrack, and after seeing expressions of anxiety and depression move from the fringes to the center of mainstream culture…can Xiu Xiu still be considered outsider? Are they, instead, now some kind of authority? Both? Neither? Maybe something off the binary altogether?

The doors opened and I made my way to what I know as Holocene’s back room, the only section easily partitioned off from the bar. Before I realized that this was the designated all-ages space, I had a moment of existential terror when I saw I was easily the oldest person in this space. The boys around me were talking about Snapchat and Instagram interactions, and the girls around me weren’t talking much at all, silently staking out prime space near the stage alongside larger boys. I never went to shows like these as a kid—everyone seemed to be between the ages of 17 and 20—but I imagined this is how they would have been when I was their age: swap MySpace for SnapChat, but leave in the social awkwardness and youthful anticipation we only recognize in retrospect.

Opening the show was Mattress, aka Rex Marshall, a Portland-based “future-lounge” singer who reminds me of what a Sonic Youth-inspired Richard Cheese trying out for a post-apocalyptic Las Vegas after-hours club would sound like. His Caucasian-influenced dance moves reminded me of straight men trying to vogue, and the shimmers off his gold-sequin blazer filled the whole room like a disco ball made of anxiety. Nothing against Mattress, but I personally started getting triggered during the performance and was relieved when he was done. I do suggest checking out Mattress if you don’t have an aversion to lounge singers; his music’s actually quite worth the listen.

After Mattress came Force Publique, a relatively young duo that recently relocated from Denver and have started to build a local following. Cassie Graves and James Wayne played beneath a vaporwave-aesthetic digital art presentation that complemented their audio style, which to me sounded like a blend of Björk, Mazzy Star and Tricky. Someone else said “witch house,” and I have no idea if that’s true. From what I understand, Force Publique are on the rise in Portland, and it was easy to understand why…and, well, if I made that up, Portland people really need to get into Force Publique.

Finally, Jamie Stewart and Shayna Dunkelman took the stage as Xiu Xiu and demonstrated to me how and why the band established its anti-curated following.

When Xiu Xiu is loud, they are violently loud. Stewart dances like the most skilled punk dancer I’ve ever seen, moving through the stage, practically moshing a cymbal without knocking it over. He screamed, he whipped out a red plastic-looking vocal modifier and shrieked, he played what sounded like glitch-aesthetic pop chords while Dunkelman danced around and assaulted her percussion set. It was thrilling.

When Xiu Xiu is quiet, they are violently quiet. At times, I found the ambient noise of the room grating when straining to hear Stewart mumble in between songs or softly sing and strum the slow numbers. I eventually realized that the noise from the 21+ section and all-ages overflow were elements incorporated into the full show—just like the bird call opening songs, Mattress’ shimmering jacket, and the peach-palette LED glow from the bathroom hallway.

Once I stopped straining to make sense of what I was seeing and hearing, I found myself dancing like the white people in the audience, who I noticed were dancing like the light machines above Xiu Xiu: swiveling, shoulder-heavy, glowing and largely to their own rhythm. I found myself watching the audience, most of whom were enraptured with Xiu Xiu. Some were singing along with Stewart; some eyes were locked on him. The ones who could hear Stewart’s remark about drinking pee onstage laughed from the gut.

I became fascinated with the audience, strangers united by a love of music evocative of anxiety and alienation. Are they aware of each other, of how different and how similar they are? What will this city—let alone this soundscape—be like in another 15 years, when Xiu Xiu turns 30? Will I see witch house at the VMAs? Does any of it even matter?

I made it back to my car and made it home. I don’t have the answers to these questions. I have no authoritative ideas about the deeper meaning of FORGET, but I’ve found myself listening to Xiu Xiu a bit more (loving the older and newer stuff, hating the Nina Simone cover album) and keeping myself on the lookout for Force Publique’s next show. I’m finding connections that Xiu Xiu has to other artists I like, and possibly getting closer to understanding the “unity in alienation” paradox that is 2017.

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