New video for “Fiction”
By Matt Miller | June 4th, 2013
If you sit in a dark room long enough, you start to distinguish the difference between shades of grey — touches of blue in one, a brown in another. A bright light would drown out all of these subtleties, but a dull glow can make them all roar. And that’s the magic of seeing The xx live. The mood is steadily dark, the tempos slow, but as the atmosphere settles, you start to appreciate little details, such as a rare upward inflection in Oliver Sim’s voice on “VCR.”
It’s a wonder that a band like The xx can survive in 2013, where fans adhere to gratuitous stimulation and instant gratification. And here in Denver, enough fans had the patience to sell out the 3,700-capacity Fillmore Auditoriumfor a slow-building but rewarding set from the London band on Monday.
Each dressed in full black, producer Jamie xx, Romy Croft and Sim of The xx spent an hour testing the limitations of this patience. On “Crystalised,” Croft hovered before singing “eyeyeye,” letting the audience sing the chorus where they expected it, only to deliver it a few beats later where she wanted it. The band understands that this teasing is what the audience wants, like in the same song, where Jamie dropped into a four-to-the-floor dance beat, only to immediately slow it down as Croft and Sim sang, “go slow.”
There would be bursts of this EDM throughout the set, thanks to experimentation from Jamie. They’d feel a little out of place, but at the same time be welcome moments to let loose from the ever-building tension.
For the most part, though, it was an exercise in holding back. Singing in hushed tones, as if telling a secret, Croft and Sim sauntered about the stage. They seemed almost cold, anti-social, but their melodies and tones relatable and vulnerable. Even the lights that seemingly came from nowhere and everywhere, didn’t betray a hint of warmth. Shades of whites, dark purples and sometimes blue only brightened once to pink on “Reunion,” one of the night’s most inviting songs. Then again, during “VCR,” with its xylophone synth sounding like a child’s mobile, the lights felt suddenly cheerful, like a sunrise. This bit of positivity was a relief in a set that at times felt just a little too heavy.
As it came to the night’s closing song, The xx chose a subdued “Angels.” With a guitar note once every measure and the only beat a floor tom roll, you have to wonder what they’re holding back and if we would even love them as much if they let loose. And that thought still lingered as the lights flicked on, and for a moment the bright venue and sweaty, happy audience didn’t seem right.
Formed in 2005 by a group of classmates in Putney, England, the xx came to the attention of wide audiences with its 2009, self-produced and self-titled debut album. Bringing together a moody, post-punk musicianship with hip-hop beats and downtemp sensibilities, the xx struck a chord with a sound that recalls acts like Portishead and New Order. The act’s 2012 follow-up album, Coexist, revealed the increasing influence of the dance music the outfit’s members heard in U.K. clubs and elsewhere.
The songs on Coexist reflected a clear attention to a depth of atmosphere and texture tied subtly yet masterfully to rhythm. This is dark R&B imbued with warmth of feeling and a sense of romanticism. We recently spoke with Smith about his new live set-up, reworking “Together” for The Great Gatsby and why he thinks the band likes touring the U.S. more than anywhere else.
Westword: In our previous conversation, you expressed an interest in having a variable speed tape machine that you’d like to use live if you could. Have you been able to incorporate that as yet?
Jamie Smith: I’ve got a lot of new different things on stage, but I haven’t been able to design that myself my yet. I’ve got a few ideas but I’ve been too busy.
What have you added that you’ve been enjoying lately?
I use two 909 drum machines and a piano and some live drums. A tom and some cymbals.
Your band has been fairly successful in the last couple of years. Has that translated into tabloid type of coverage these days?
No. Luckily not.
Did Baz Luhrman approach you about writing a song for The Great Gatsby?
Yeah, he was a fan of our music before, and he was working on the soundtrack with Jay Z, who is also a fan.
Was that song something you already had?
It was a song we started doing for Coexist, but we didn’t feel it was quite right for the record. Baz sent us the scene and had a little description. What we had, we fit around the scene and recorded with Craig Armstrong and recorded an orchestra to give it that cinematic feel.
Rihanna sampled “Intro” on “Drunk On Love.” Were you consulted about that beforehand?
Yeah. It was a long process. We weren’t that thrilled about the beginning of the song. So there was back and forth, and we rewrote it with the band, but it eventually went on. But it was a process, as is all sampling.
When you’re on tour, do you write new material? Do you do more of that when you’re at home?
As a band we’ve been trying to write on the road, but there isn’t much space. Luckily I can just go on my laptop, which is where I make most of my music.
What software do you use these days?
I use Logic. I feel most comfortable with [that]. I’ve been using it for so many years now I everything about it.
Do you find it easy to use live?
I never use a laptop live. I like that it’s completely separate from live stuff.
So you compose in Logic but live you find a way to re-create it with hardware?
I sample the things I create in Logic, and we use different bits of software.
So you use a sampler? What kind?
I have two MPCs and two [Yamaha] DTXs.
You’ve toured the U.S. more than once at this point. Is there anything you’d like to see or experience that you haven’t yet?
We’ve driven past the Grand Canyon a lot of times, but never got to see it. I went there when I was really young, and I remember that I was in awe of it, and I’d really to go back to it someday.
The touring experience is a bit different in the U.K. and Europe versus the US. What do you like about touring here?
The U.S. is my favorite place to tour. I think it’s all of ours. [It’s similar but] it’s just different enough to the U.K. The food is what you’d expect but a lot better than England. So much good music comes out of there that we can get a lot of good bands to play with. I think it’s always exciting when the crowds are always really nice. On recent tours, it’s a little bit more like being pop stars and a group of kids come to the back of venues and want autographs. It’s nice to see fans like that. We get fans like that [in the U.K.], but it seems more like a frenzy in the U.S.A.
Is there anybody in the U.S. you have toured with or would like to tour with that you’re excited about?
We’re about to go on tour with Grizzly Bear over there, which I’m really excited about. We were playing with them in Coachella, and they’re really nice guys. I hadn’t listened that much before. I just had one album. They’re such a good live band instead of just electronic. They have their synths and stuff, but it feels kind of raw like an old school band.
Club music influenced Coexist. Has there been any music of late that has stirred your imagination in terms of writing what you might do next?
I couldn’t say, really. It’s too early. One thing we know is that we’ll write the album from beginning to end and be able to play it well live before we record it. And I think we’re all becoming better musicians live, and I think that will influence the recorded version.
Ray Chavez/Bay Area News Group
Posted by Michael Arellano on Wednesday, May. 29 at 2:06 am.
The xx at Sasquach 2013
The xx’s sophomore LP, Coexist, is a dark and moody affair, but it’s not without its splashes of sunshine
by MIKE USINGER on MAY 23, 2013 at 3:35 AM
As sensitive and melancholy as he’s often portrayed in the media, Oliver Sim is also a trouper. This gradually becomes evident when the Georgia Straight tracks him down in his hometown of London, England.
When the xx singer and bassist picks up his cellphone, the first thing you hear is the roar of traffic and the wailing sirens of passing police cars. If the spotty connection is any indication, there also seems to be a minor hurricane in the vicinity.
Sim has had a busy day; he notes that he’s just left band rehearsal, an all-day session that’s part of the preparation for the xx’s upcoming U.S. tour. But as thoughtful and gracious as he comes across, it seems something is wrong, and not just because a good third of what he says is completely unintelligible. This has nothing to do with his answers; it’s more that he’s seemingly standing at the mouth of the world’s largest wind tunnel, no doubt in the pelting rain.
Asked three quarters of the way through the interview if everything is all right, Sim finally confesses that it’s not.
“I’m really sorry about this,” he replies. “It’s raining right now and very windy. And I’m really freezing. But we can keep going.”
On the strength of two hit albums, 2009’s xx and last year’s Coexist, Sim is in a great place right now, as miserable as he is at the moment. The band—which includes singer Romy Madley Croft and DJ-producer Jamie Smith—has enjoyed a rapid rise since slinking onto the international music scene three years ago.
Seemingly coming out of nowhere, xx turned out to be one of the most unlikely hits since the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells back at the turn of the last decade. All muted synths, fluttery percussion, and minimalist-minded musings on love and love lost, the album somehow waltzed away with the Mercury Prize for 2010, its songs getting invaluable prime-time exposure everywhere from NBC’s broadcast of the last Winter Olympic Games to the Greek version ofNext Top Model.
No one was more surprised at xx’s success than the three musicians who made it.
“My expectations were so low going into this—we didn’t have any huge aspirations to be on-stage performing even,” Sim admits. “That only came about because we were sort of forced on-stage as a way to get our music out there. I don’t know what I was expecting, or what I was dreaming about the xx accomplishing. I do know that in my wildest dreams, it wasn’t this.”
What has him doubly amazed is that the xx has shown no sign of losing momentum with Coexist. The band’s sophomore outing has led to high-profile slots at this year’s edition of Coachella, universally positive reviews, and sold-out shows at North American soft-seaters like Vancouver’s Orpheum. It’s also turned Smith, Sim, and Croft into the favourite dream collaborators of other musicians, with up-and-comers like Australian DJ Flume frequently putting the xx right at the top of acts they would die to work with.
The band’s members went into Coexist determined to re-create the vibe of their debut, not necessarily sonically, but more in the way that the songs were recorded. Sim reveals that the second release started causing them stress even before they’d finished promoting the first album.
“I started to get a bit frightened while we were doing our last tour for xx,” the bassist says. “I remember a journalist starting an interview with a huge warning about making a second record when the first has been successful. He told me the pressure would be enormous, and that we’d be constantly second-guessing ourselves—whether we should stay true to our sound, or consciously try do something drastically different. He basically told me that the process was going to be torture.”
xx came together after-hours in a tiny recording space in the offices of the Beggars Banquet record label, where Sim and his bandmates reshaped and tweaked songs that they’d written as teenagers. Success enabled them to set up their own small studio for Coexist. The goal was then to shut out not only their self-doubting inner voices, but also the outside world. Looking back, Sim figures that was accomplished, with Coexist—released on the Beggars boutique label Young Turks—serving up more of what made the xx a critical and commercial favourite. Once again, dark-and-moody is the primary colour scheme, with the band building atmosphere the low-key way, whether through the distant-thunder percussion rumbles in “Missing” or the subterranean guitar washes in “Try”. There are splashes of sunshine if you look hard enough—check out the tropicália-tinted drums in “Reunion”—but the xx mostly seems determined to imbue each song with 50 previously undiscovered shades of grey.
Sim considers himself lucky that he and his bandmates were able to do this with zero outside interference.
“We had the rarest of rare, which I appreciate now and realize now that I’ve spoken to other people,” he says. “Everyone that we work with basically left us alone and let us be. There was no pressure to play anything for anyone and no time limitations put upon us. It was us and only us. It was really nice to get back to that intimate state, making music purely for the love of making music. We kept that up for a year.”
That process wasn’t completely hiccup-free. As has been noted in past features, the xx is one of those rare bands where the members practically share the same brain, a result of Sim and Croft having known each other since they were babies, with Smith coming into their lives at age 11. The problem with the band being like family, the bassist acknowledges, is that it’s possible to convince yourself that there’s no need for outside feedback.
“I think that maybe we took things too far, where we kind of lost perspective,” Sim offers while breaking down the creation ofCoexist. “Eventually, when we did bring people into the studio from Young Turks, they didn’t really need to say anything. With just the three of us, it was like we didn’t know what was good anymore. We were going around and around with the songs. With the first record, we were playing live and getting feedback—this one, we were in the studio pretty much 24 hours a day. I think the next time, we’ll make sure that doesn’t happen.”
Actually, given the final results, maybe they should. As cold as he is on this day, Sim—like his bandmates—couldn’t be much hotter.
May 23, 2013. 1:16 pm
Photos by Ed Kaiser/Edmonton Journal.
The XX perform Missing at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre in Vancouver on May 24, 2013
(completely out of focus but they sound so beautiful)
May 24, 8 p.m. | Queen Elizabeth Theatre
Tickets: $39.50 - $47.50 plus charges at 604-569-4416 or NorthernTickets.com
British neo-noir trio The xx may appear to be reclusive, guarded types, but don’t judge them by their calculated, minimalistic sound or deceptively dark appearance: This is a band that is laying it all on the line for itself and its fans.
Bassist/vocalist Oliver Sim, guitarist/vocalist Romy Madley-Croft and producer/percussionist Jamie Smith are still touring promoting latest album Coexist, globe-trotting on a multi-legged trek that took them to Vancouver last fall at the Vogue Theatre and sees them return May 24 at the Queen Elizabeth Theatre.
The band is lugging around about twice as much lighting gear as it is amps and musical equipment, which includes its trademark array of downtempo guitar, bass and synthesizers, aiming to give fans an experience as striking as possible.
Among the elements we saw last fall were high-definition ambient visuals fed by giant projectors from the back of the room, X-shaped Plexiglas stands, strobes, and a giant LED-speckled X that came down from the ceiling at the end of their set.
The xx are, quite literally, going for broke.
“We’ve always said, ever since we were able to play a proper venue rather than a pub, that we wanted to have something people could go away with afterwards and talk about,” Smith said in a recent phone interview from Prague. “We’re happy not to make that much money off touring if that means people will remember the show for a long time.”
The man known as Jamie xx is a charming, soft-spoken guy.
When it was mentioned that what The xx are doing is risky considering the current music business landscape where everyone is struggling to make a living, Smith gave an audible shrug.
“I guess so,” he said. “When we thought of doing this we did it because we loved it. We didn’t want to do anything else, and we always came at it from a creative approach rather than wanting to be a ‘big band’ or to make money.”
Beyond Coexist, the band has started to work on pieces of songs for a future album, though Smith admitted the process was haphazard on the road.
The band’s newest piece of music is a song entitled Together that appears on the soundtrack to Baz Luhrmann’s latest musical epic The Great Gatsby, a soundtrack that also features Beyonce, Lana Del Rey, will.i.am, Florence + The Machine, Jack White, Jay-Z, Emeli Sande, Gotye and more.
A clear snapshot of today’s musical landscape, the soundtrack immediately recalls that of Luhrmann’s late ’90s hit Romeo + Juliet, which featured Radiohead, The Cardigans, Garbage, Everclear and other alternative acts of that era.
Does Smith feel The xx is part of a musical moment in time by being included on the Gatsby soundtrack?
“I hope not,” he said with a chuckle. “I like most of the artists that are on the soundtrack and we’re so happy to be on it. But I hope we don’t become one of those bands that people remember as ‘of this era.’ I want to keep going.
“We love the Cardigans but we don’t want to be them.”
When it is revealed to Smith that the soundtrack was being pressed on vinyl via Jack White’s Third Man Records label, Smith audibly lit up.
“That’s great! I didn’t actually know that,” Smith said. “We went to Jack White’s studios when we were on tour in the U.S. last time and it was amazing to see. It made us want to have everything of ours in one place and have people come to us. It’s a really nice idea. But I guess you have to get to a certain level like Jack has.”
Beyond The xx’s work, Smith admitted he remains constantly busy working on his own stuff.
A sought-after remix artist, one of his most famous collaborations was with late great poet Gil Scott-Heron for 2011’s We’re New Here, a remix of Scott-Heron’s final studio album I’m New Here from 2010.
These days, Smith admitted craving to work on bigger pop albums with major label artists.
“I’m interested in going down that route as well as still making more underground releases,” Smith said. “When I went to work with Alicia Keys (for Girl On Fire track When It’s All Over), it was a very interesting and exciting experience and I want to do more of that.
“She seemed like somebody who lives in another world to us. To be able to go in the same studio with her and make music and hear her sing at me was something I’d never imagined I could do.”