Xiu Xiu and Twin Peaks: Derivatively original

Tiarney Miekus

Though it’s known for its mysterious imagery and disquieting phenomena — chevron stripes, inexplicable crying, clairvoyant logs, lessons of adolescence, slowly swishing leaves, red curtains and extra-dimensional rooms — Twin Peaks is a remorselessly sonic television series. Angelo Badalamenti’s compositions are the hooks the show hangs on and any attempt at merely covering these songs would be rather exasperating. Fortunately, Californian ‘art-rock’ band Xiu Xiu has no such desire. Their reinterpretation of the music of Twin Peaks is more like a meeting of two personalities; a metamorphosis where Xiu Xiu and the work of Badalamenti and Twin Peaks co-creator, David Lynch, relentlessly feed into each other.

Last year Xiu Xiu reinterpreted Badalamenti’s compositions with its album, Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, released as part of the David Lynch exhibition, Between Two Worlds, at Brisbane’s Gallery of Modern Art. Created in the 1990s, Twin Peaks remains a pivotal piece of Lynch’s oeuvre: an arthouse series that introduced us to both auteurist television and the murder of a small-town, blonde-haired and blue-eyed, homecoming queen. The show works by transforming a seemingly simple detective story — who killed Laura Palmer? — into scenarios that take on difficulties not often well addressed in popular television: domestic violence, abuse, incest, evil spirits and demonic possession. Likewise, Badalamenti evokes the melodrama of soap opera scores and the rhythms of jazz, only to summon something far more obtuse and perverse, the latency of which is intensified by Xiu Xiu’s reinterpretation. Xiu Xiu recently toured the album to Brisbane and Sydney, with two shows at The Substation in Melbourne, the second of which was supported by Canadian musician Sarah Davachi performing her own original work.

Xiu Xiu performs the songs of Twin Peaks, courtesy of The Substation

Sitting alone on stage, surrounded by her minimal equipment, Davachi has a purposefully understated presence. Primarily working with electronic music, Davachi’s performance builds on repetition, overtones and density. Her sustained and droning sounds both compete and interweave, so that no singular sound is allowed to stray from the pack. The darker layers protrude, while the more melodic lines lie buried: prominent enough to be heard, yet doing the trick of withholding melodic catharsis. Instead, Davachi’s music delivers a different joy; the peacefulness of the layered flat line.

Between Davachi’s and Xiu Xiu’s performances, I hear a few people comment upon the “positively Lynchian” qualities of The Substation as a venue. With its working class history, semi-industrial aesthetic and thick red curtains, it contains that conflation of mood and setting that is so pivotal to the Lynchian oeuvre. Xiu Xiu references the Lynchian penchant for dramatics by beginning the performance not with music but an essential and recurring visual from Twin Peaks on the stage’s screen. The camera incites us to look up the Palmer household staircase, briefly focusing on a moving ceiling fan, before resting on Laura Palmer’s open bedroom door. It’s an enigmatic moment that holds both Laura’s absence and presence, mixing banal domesticity with wordless terror. As this scene changes to a spinning fan and the Douglas Fir trees of Twin Peaks (visuals that repeat throughout the show), we’re continuously reminded not only of Laura, but the absence and presence of Lynch and Badalamenti.

While this initial scene holds our attention, Xiu Xiu’s Angela Seo walks on stage and hits ‘play’ on a drum machine. After setting off a repetitious single-hit pulse, she walks off, leaving the beat on loop. It’s a rather cool move and a few minutes later the entire band emerges. Seo sits behind her piano and plays Laura Palmer’s Theme, which contains those two incredibly authoritative opening chords, before further escalating the song’s quasi-soap opera moment, adding dissonant layers to heighten the already-grandiose climax. Shayna Dunkelman takes to the vibraphone (and it’s a pleasure just to watch her nimble grace), while Jamie Stewart initially sets himself behind a drum kit, his snare hits and cymbals eliciting a feeling of stress for the audience, a certain affectation that Stewart builds throughout the show. This dual preoccupation with homage and light theatrics persists throughout the night. While this could be viewed as overly self-conscious, to my mind it speaks to the generosity and emotional investment of the group’s performance.

From here the band sequentially performs the entire album Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks. The obvious thing to say is that Xiu Xiu makes Badalamenti and Lynch’s compositions more dissonant, layered and darker. Yet this doesn’t nearly explain the relation between Badalamenti and Xiu Xiu, nor the weird and sudden expansions of sounds: the moments where Badalamenti’s melodies are enjoyed, only to be troubled by disparate intrusions. Xiu Xiu holds a clear reverence for pop sensibility (alongside a good sense of humour, found in songs like Audrey’s Theme and Dance of the Dream Man), aligned with a perpetually experimental impulse.

Xiu Xiu performs the songs of Twin Peaks, courtesy of The Substation

Because the band holds competing qualities — dissonance and melody, emotional upheaval alongside detachment — in such rounded and complex ways, watching Xiu Xiu play is like watching a puzzle reveal its logic. Sounds that I thought came from a synth turn out to be Stewart’s electric guitar; clusters of noise I thought were some kind of woodwind instrument stem from Stewart’s own mouth, while his neck tendons enlarge and his entire face goes red from sheer effort; a wash of notes and sustained chords that appear to be layers of piano and synth are, actually, just layers of piano and synth. With so many instruments needed to recreate the album experience (synths, piano, drums, guitar, vibraphone, harmonica), Stewart and Dunkelman spend the evening trading in equipment.

This hour-long accumulation of dramatics, pop sensibility and noise builds to the final song, Josie’s Past, where Dunkelman, in a dramatised teen-girl voice, reads the perverse confessions from Laura Palmer’s diary. After we indulge ourselves in the titillating thrill of secrets made public, Stewart’s voice breaks through in the style of a crooning and demonically possessed Leland Palmer. It slowly peters out to nothing, which seems fitting because it seems Lynchian (and this is both the trap and fun of the evening; seeing everything as somehow Lynchian).

As with any great show, it ends and you wish it didn’t. It’s the kind of performance that lingers for a few days, that makes you go home and play the record that very night, letting you indulge in that remarkable blend of something so unavoidably derivative and so utterly original.

Xiu Xiu Plays the Music of Twin Peaks, The Substation, Melbourne, 23 June

Tiarney Miekus is a Melbourne-based writer and musician who has been published by un Magazine, Art Guide, The Lifted Brow and Overland. Tiarney currently plays in post-punk group No Sister.

Top image credit: Xiu Xiu performs the songs of Twin Peaks, courtesy of The Substation

18 July 2017