Not long after Jamie Stewart, who's led the interminably honest and vaguely unsettling but curiously danceable art-punk project Xiu Xiu for more than a decade, moved to Los Angeles from Durham, North Carolina, he stumbled across an arthouse screening of Angel Guts: Red Classroom. The 1979 Japanese erotic noir film is characterized by "racialized sex, double suicide, double penetration, criminality, fear of physical harm." Stewart was so thrilled that he took the film's name for Xiu Xiu's thematically similar latest LP. It was the kind of stimulation he found lacking in Durham, a town he lived in and hated for four years.
"That part of my life and that part of the aesthetic and the artistic culture was completely absent where I lived in North Carolina," says Stewart, who performs with Xiu Xiu as the July 1 opener for Swans at the Neighborhood Theatre. "To come to a place where — not that the movie is normal — that sort of thought and that sort of expression was generally and easily and widely available, it felt like a tremendous relief."
But relief didn't come wholesale for Stewart in Los Angeles. He moved blindly to MacArthur Park, a neighborhood whose dangerous reputation was unknown to him. Stewart's since moved — to a "very safe and very boring neighborhood," he deadpans — but his experience permeates Angel Guts, from its abrasive, haunting textures to its stark, noirish lyrics.
"It's hard to really quantify it other than to say, 'a lot,'" Stewart laughs. "A number of other things were happening at the time as well, but being in a place as environmentally stressful made those other stresses that much more acute. It was a fascinating but dreadful place."
On his first day in MacArthur Park, Stewart was mugged on the street. He recounts the experience in "Stupid in the Dark": "Pull out the gun/Give me your money," he whispers threateningly over a pulsing drum machine; as the song explodes into a grating cacophony of grimy analog synths, he quavers, "You taught me a lesson/People are stupid in the dark."
Elsewhere, the tense "El Naco" paints Stewart's neighborhood like a poisonous Hieronymus Bosch painting — surreal and decaying and infested with "Ants in the kimchi!/A worm in my stool!" At the end of "Botanica de Los Angeles," the last proper song on the record, Stewart rattles off a list of dead girls — murdered, the song implies — as the music swells to a bruising but beautiful climax of brackish drums and bone-rattling bass synths.
The environmental stresses amplified Stewart's acutely personal examinations, too. The trust issues examined in the withdrawn "Bitter Melon" reach new depths of misanthropy given their context. Romance-cum-suicide pact "New Life Immigration" ("We don't need to live to love") sounds like a smog-drenched sunrise in the barrio. Even "Black Dick," a deep examination of fetishization wherein Stewart chants the title phrase like a mantra, draws a distinctly and disturbingly deathly pallor ("Black dick on the table/One ball like a skull") and bleak humor ("The other like Bullet Bill").
But for this, Xiu Xiu's third tour with boundary-pushing rock band Swans, Stewart won't be playing any material from Angel Guts. He says Swans asked him to open as a solo act, and Stewart will instead perform a brand-new set of "ultra minimalist death drone," he writes on Xiu Xiu's website.
"I practiced [songs from Angel Guts] for a couple of days, and they just sounded really bad," he laughs. "It seemed like a shittier thing to do a half-assed version of songs people were expecting than a full-on version of music that people are not expecting. Music is too big a deal to me to pretend."