The xx’s reluctant frontwoman on dark nights, darker attire and the pressures of hosting your own festival
The Guardian, Thursday 9 May 2013 05.31 EDT
What was your first festival experience?
Oliver’s mum took us to Reading when we were 14, which, when I think about it now, is pretty hilarious. She was a massive fan of the White Stripes. She saw that Oliver and I were falling in love with live music and took us along. She was way more hardcore than us: she stayed down at the front through punk bands like Dropkick Murphys to watch the White Stripes. I remember being amazed by it all, but at the same time thinking: Get me away from this place.
You’ve gone from the mid-afternoon siesta slot to headliners in a short time. How does it compare?
It’s been quite sudden but although it’s more pressure being high on the bill, our band is better suited to night. We’re awful in daylight – there’s a lot of bumping around and I feel so exposed. We put on a much better show in the dark. I feel more comfortable surrounded by lights and the smoke.
You’re quite shy. Do you find the intensity of festivals hard?
You can try and hide, but actually I find it more relaxing to watch the other bands on the stage I’m about to play on. It makes me feel calmer than sitting backstage thinking: Oh my god, what am I about to do?
Who is your ultimate festival act?
One band who are always incredible to watch at festivals are the Kills. It’s not like they’ve got loads of stage production, it’s just them on stage, going for it. Seeing the two of them side by side, boy and girl, with no obvious lead singer – it inspired the xx hugely. Alison Mosshart came to watch us recently and I could see her from the stage with her new tequila sunrise hair. That was quite a big moment for me.
You’ve just come back from Coachella. What are the differences between UK and US festivals?
I feel like it’s normal to see English people going crazy, but in the US it’s a different kind of wild. There was a lot of screaming at a show we played in America recently and that wouldn’t happen in England. I came off stage thinking: What band were they watching? It shocked me, it was a proper One Direction scream!
How do you manage to reconcile rain ponchos and wellies with your all-black band uniform?
You’ve got to wear wellies. It would be a mudfest without them. Oliver and I went to Glastonbury in 2011 just for fun – the weather wasn’t good, so we bought wellies and got involved like everyone else. If it was raining, I think I’d wear a poncho. I would be happier if it was a black one, though.
You’re curating your own Night + Day festival this summer. As it’s your party, can you sit back and relax for once?
Oh, not at all. It’s our party down to every little detail. We’re considering everything from the atmosphere to the kind of food we want to the DJs we get to play. I’ll be well prepared for my wedding after this •
The xx play Night + Day, Glastonbury, Pukkelpop and Positivus
Sasha Bronner Posted: 04/13/2013 11:52 am EDT
The xx broke into the indie music scene in 2009 with their mesmerizing, whispery self-titled album — and every hipster from Brentwood to Brooklyn embraced their emotional lyrics and addictive sound.
Bandmates Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim started making music together at age 15, but they’ve known each other since they were 3 years old. Hailing from south London, Croft and Sim studied at the Elliott School, the same institution that claims Hot Chip, Burial and Four Tet among its alumni talent.
But the xx’s path wasn’t fated: Croft admitted in an interview with The Huffington Post that she never had the intention of becoming a musician. She took up the drums to get out of class, she picked up a guitar after not being too great at the drums, and she started singing just so she could learn the guitar a little better. Bandmate Jamie Smith joined the group later, rounding out the trio. Constantly surprised at their success, The xx has recently released their sophomore album, Coexist, and will play in a primetime Saturday night slot at Coachella. The band also will have a song in the summer blockbuster “The Great Gatsby” and have confirmed a spring tour with indie powerhouse Grizzly Bear.
Just before The xx boarded an international flight to Los Angeles, The Huffington Post spoke with Romy Madley Croft to uncover the struggles of writing personal lyrics, the fear caused by 20,000 pairs of watching eyes and what happens when someone starts to become a diva.
Your debut album received such amazing acclaim and success. What was your intention in moving onto your follow-up album, Coexist? Where did you guys want to go with it?
The thing with Coexist is we had no plan for it. We got back from touring and had been gone a long time and just wanted to make music again. The fact that we wanted to still make music again was a good thing [laughs]. We said if we get back and it doesn’t happen, maybe we will just take some time out. But luckily it all happened pretty naturally. Then it was about learning to work together again after all that had happened. With this album, we definitely had grown up a little bit more.
What is your process like as a band when you’re making a record? Do you write separately? Do you go into the studio with a clear-cut plan?
Oliver and I write quite separately and share lyrics over the Internet. We come up with our own things separately and then kind of collage them together. That’s the way we wrote the first album. But as time went on, with Coexist, we started opening up to each other a little bit more and actually began writing in the same room. It’s silly because I’m sure most people write songs in the same room, but for us it was quite different. It was like letting down a wall. We have been friends for a long time but it was a new place for us.
Another way we work is we just play things live. That’s when the songs become complete with Jamie. Our rule is that everything we record has to be playable live. It’s a limitation but it keeps things simple. If we can’t do it live we don’t do it. At the beginning I couldn’t really sing and play the guitar together that well. So we had to keep it simple.
You and Oliver have known each other since kindergarten. Were you both very musical children?
Not really. We both grew up with lots of music in the house, but neither of us were born-for-the-stage children. We weren’t music children prodigies. We were normal kids and both fell in love with music around the age of 14 and that’s when we both started going to gigs and sort of thought, well, why don’t we just try this ourselves?
What kind of music were you listening to around that age?
I was listening to heavier stuff like Queens of the Stone Age, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs and The Kills … so a lot more distortion and more attitude, I suppose, than we have as a band. But that’s really what I liked. I started playing the guitar and learning power chords and somewhere along the way that changed. I don’t really know what happened!
When you first have an idea for a song, does it come to you in the form of words and lyrics or do you hear music and melody first?
It’s always lyrics for me. The lyrics come first. I can basically write a poem and then work out the melody with some simple chords on the guitar. I have been writing a bit on tour recently and have been using Garage Band on my iPad, because I don’t always have my guitar with me. So I have been using different tools to get the melodies out of my head. It’s interesting because Jamie listens to a song and hears everything else but the lyrics. He hears the melody and the music. And I think it’s good that he’s different like that because we get both sides. It’s good to have different interests.
You played Coachella for the first time two years ago. What was it like?
It was a pretty terrifying thing for us. We were used to playing small clubs in America — you know, with a couple hundred people. And we walked out onto the stage at Coachella and it was like 20,000 people. It was the most people I had ever seen in my entire life. It was a really memorable moment. For us to come back and play the main stage at Coachella this year is a dream.
I saw you guys perform at the Wiltern years ago in Los Angeles. How different is it playing a show inside a theater vs. playing outdoors in the desert with so many people? Do you have a different approach?
Each is equally terrifying for me. In a small club, you can see everyone’s faces and you can really see into their eyes. At a massive festival, you can just feel the fact that there are thousands and thousands of people looking at you [laughs]. We don’t drastically change our show, but we definitely have some stuff planned for Coachella. We have been thinking about it for a while. The Saturday night 10 o’clock slot is a big deal for us and I feel the responsibility of making sure people have a good time.
While written cryptically in some ways, your lyrics on both albums are in fact very personal. Have you always felt comfortable writing about intimate experiences, or do you have any fear about that?
Well. It sounds silly to say this now, but in the beginning we genuinely didn’t think anybody was going to hear it. We were writing these songs for ourselves, I just thought Oliver would hear it. And some of the songs were ever so slightly cryptically written because we were playing for five people in a pub that were our friends. We didn’t exactly want to spell it out. It’s ridiculous now to think about how many people have heard songs of ours that were never meant to be heard.
When we were going into making the second album, Oliver and I were afraid that we might hold back a bit and be more private. But after about a year at home and writing, I used it as a diary in the same way I did before. It’s still very personal. So now we know [laughs]. We are going to have to sing these songs for a while, so I want to have a personal connection to them.
What inspired the title for your second album, Coexist?
I got really interested in iridescence. Like when you see a puddle of water when it’s rainy and there’s petrol in it in the street. I wanted to know why it forms that rainbow. I just searched online and it said oil and water, when mixed, agree to peacefully coexist. I liked the idea of these two things that are maybe not beautiful on their own but come together to make this beautiful effect. It made me think of the three of us in the band. As individuals, we can make music, but when we come together — the three of us — that’s when we are The xx and we are better together.
And also you got an X in there with Coexist.
Yeah! It was all those reasons I just said and then we, too, were like … “and it has an X!”
You and Oliver have spent some of your most formative years together both personally and creatively. This many years later, what is the same and what is different?
We’ve definitely changed a lot since we were 3! But I think we are still the same in some ways. We have always been very close. He has become more like a brother to me. It’s nice the way that we are bound together now, forever. We get on the same way as any brother and sister — we know each other inside and out. We love each other. We have that with Jamie as well. We have known Jamie since we were 11. They are like my brothers. It’s a great thing to have on tour, especially with all of the traveling. It’s great to have people who know you, and if you ever start to become a diva, you have someone to drag you back. That hasn’t happened yet.
What music or bands are you listening to now?
I really love a band called Polica. They have an album called Give You The Ghost and I have been listening to that a lot. That came out last year and I am really exited to see them play at Coachella. They are a great live band.
You mentioned loving the Yeah Yeah Yeahs when you were younger. They will be at Coachella too.
That is going to be amazing. I saw them play when I was about 15 in London and it was just one of those incredible experiences. It’s going to be amazing to see them again and to sort of have that feeling of being 15 when I was so in awe and amazed by live music.
I listen to both of your albums constantly. It’s music that I can play at any time and love. That’s a really special quality. Have you always felt confident in your talent or do you ever feel anxiety about being an artist?
I think to be honest, with music, it was never my lifelong dream. I didn’t think I would ever be a musician. My only aspiration was go to art college and music just sort of happened. I played the drums when I was younger in school. We had these music lessons and you could get time out of class, so I did drums. And I was never really that good at it. I just picked up the guitar around 14 or 15 and it was just very natural. I picked it up quite easily. It was a happy accident. I only sang because I wanted to teach myself the guitar and the timing of songs. I did a recording and played it for my friends who said I had a nice voice, but I wasn’t singing around the house. I have always been very shy about that.
It all sort of happened accidentally. I have always been pleasantly surprised by it. I love what we do. I wouldn’t say I feel overly confident with it. I feel pretty surprised by what’s coming out of me.
THURSDAY 4TH APRIL
“We’ve always sung together,” says Sim, thinking back. “When we were 15 and we started doing covers, it was pretty embarrassing to just start singing in front of your best friend. So we came to an agreement that we would sing together. And then we worked up the confidence to sing by ourselves, even if it was just for a verse.”
After they’d been playing for some time, Sim and Madley-Croft recruited another long time friend, Jamie Smith, to produce their debut album. Smith acts as the counterbalance in The xx, adding darker textures to Sim and Madley-Croft’s minimal pop songs. As Sim explains, Smith is governed by a completely different set of rules, creating spacious beds for Madley-Croft’s laconic guitar lines.
“Jamie has such a different mind to me and Romy. I listen to words and songwriting, whereas Jamie can listen to a song 20 times and not hear a single lyric. He can’t sing a verse to any of our songs,” he laughs. “Jamie understands the logistics of music – chord progressions and arranging songs. I find confidence with him there.”
Once they had established themselves as a three-piece in 2009, The xx recorded their debut album in a garage at the back of their record label, Young Turks, in West London. Being able to record in their own studio gave them space from the outside world – the same space that is evident in tracks like Crystallized, which combine Smith’s electronic beats with sparse vocals and melodic guitar lines.
Each evening, the threesome would arrive at the studio in Notting Hill and work well into the night. “We didn’t need money from our label to record, so we had more time with it,” says Sim. “We weren’t really working to any expectations so if we had failed, it wouldn’t have been such a huge thing for the record label. There was no clock ticking.”
Their first album xx went on to win the Mercury Prize for best British album in 2010 and received three Brit Award nominations. After playing some of the world’s largest music festivals including Coachella, Bonnaroo and Lollapalooza, Sim, Smith and Madley-Croft returned to the studio in 2011 to record their sophomore album, Coexist.
Moving into a new studio in East London, they again separated themselves from the outside world and recaptured the mood from their debut. “The second time around, there were expectations,” recalls Sim. “We have an audience now and if we wanted to play a shitty pub to test out songs, they would end up on YouTube or something.”
It’s a world away from where it all began. But in some ways, not all that much has changed. More than 20 years after meeting in kindergarten, Sim and Madley-Croft still live just a few minutes walk away from each other in South London. There’s tenderness in the way he describes their relationship – a softness that extends into all of their recordings.
Before he hangs up to unpack some boxes in his new apartment, Sim admits that they were never trying to make it big. “You know, it came from the most unambitious place, all of this,” he says. “We were just on holiday and we got really obsessed with music. The best thing is that it’s even better now…with just the three of us.”
Written by Marc Zanotti on 2nd April, 2013
The xx have landed in Australia for their national headlining tour behind their award-winning2012 album, Coexist. Having survived the expectations set by their heavily hyped and highly praised 2009 debut, the young English trio continue to grow into the underlying maturity of their music.
With Coexist, The xx proceeded to convey a myriad of ideas and feelings with minimal fuss, and plenty of fuzz. The album’s opening track and lead single Angels is a prime example of their brevity and directness, with its heartfelt lyrics and finely plucked guitar strings striking a chord in Australian fans, coming in at number 19 on triple j’s Hottest 100 for 2012.
Before the tour began, The xx’s endearing vocalist Romy Madley Croft kindly postponed catching up on some sleep to discuss the complexity of emotions that can co-exist within a simple lyric, finding inspiration from and delivering inspiration to hip hop, and why The xx chose Australian act Jagwar Ma to be the support act for their current tour.
Music Feeds: You’ve said that your favourite lyrics are ones that convey complex ideas in a simple manner. Where on The xx’s latest album Coexist do you feel you’ve best achieved this?
Romy Madley Croft: Oh (laughs), tricky. I guess, I’m not too sure exactly if I can say that, but I think the lyrics that I was most proud of when I wrote them was for Angels.
And, let me see my lyrics here, hold on – “And everyday I’m learning about you the things that no one else sees”, I think is probably my favourite just because it is very simple and I think it sums up that feeling when you’re just getting to know someone in a relationship.
Obviously there’s a lot of feelings going on there and it’s a special time. That simple line kind of summed it up for me when I wrote it. I knew it meant a lot more than just that.
That was a tough question (laughs).
MF: Do you think that a simple lyric is a delicate lyric?
RMC: Not sometimes – I think it can be a strong one but I think it’s just about summarising all of your feelings, trying to capture it perfectly in a few words. That says a lot more sometimes than writing a whole paragraph or talking about loads of things…
MF: Angels is an interesting example because in the wrong hands those kind of lyrics could become cliché but they are extremely effective in the framework of the song. What’s more important to you – the positioning of a lyric or the way it is delivered?
RMC: Probably the delivery, I guess. There’s so many times a lyric can be considered a bit cheesy or a bit cliché but sometimes if it’s in the right context and in the right song with the right singer, it can make a lot of sense.
This is a really bad example but in England there’s The X Factor – a girl who covers a Cher song [Believe], which, you know, is Cher normally singing in auto-tune and people probably don’t like that song very much, but this girl covered it and turned it into a very heartfelt piano song. And it was a massive hit in England and with people all over the Internet.
So I found that pretty interesting, in the sense that you can really make a song your own and really change the perception of it.
MF: Is The xx’s often minimal and stripped back sound an attempt to offset lyrical material that might otherwise be heavy-handed if it were sung over fuller instrumentation?
RMC: Yeah, I think it’s based around that. Oliver (Sim) and I don’t have the loudest voices. When we first started out we weren’t the most confident singers and I think we weren’t really the best at playing our instruments. So the songs, essentially, are pretty simple because we couldn’t play our instruments…
But it’s those kinds of limitations that shaped the way we sound. We always had the idea that we wanted to play everything live so when we did want to play live it was quite easy. That’s why some of the guitar parts, for me, aren’t that complicated because I couldn’t sing or play guitar very well when I wrote them, especially on the first album [xx, 2009].
As time’s gone on it’s been a bit more of a conscious decision to play a certain way or because we like the sound. I’ve enjoyed singing a bit more now because we’re playing live a lot more … but I think [our sound has developed from] kind of happy accidents.
MF: Have the songs from Coexist taken on different meanings over time?
RMC: Yeah, I think they definitely have. Some of these songs we wrote when we were 16 and are still singing now. Just to keep it interesting for ourselves, when you perform live your mind wanders to sort of fit them into your new situations.
Some of them become old memories and you relive that when you play them live. But I’m not sick of it yet, which I’m grateful for.
MF: Speaking before on the delivery of lyrics, do you find you’ll emphasise different moments of a song during a live performance depending on your mood?
RMC: When we’ve played a certain set a few times ’round you get a feeling of what kind of emotion you’re trying to get from that song. We change our songs around a lot now, so when you come see us live they’re not going to sound exactly the same as the album. That changes from tour to tour.
So if you’ve seen us a few times in the same year it’s going to be a different interpretation of the set. It depends on the mood, I guess. If you go onto the stage feeling a certain way … the songs that are reflecting the way you’re feeling at the time might become the ones you put yourself into more.
MF: Do you find that the maturity of The xx’s sounds places an unfair expectation of maturity on you, given that you’re only 23 years old?
RMC: I suppose. Personally, I’ve always felt a little bit older than I am. When I listen back to some of the first album [and] think about how old I was, I guess you think, “I was only 18. That was quite an intense feeling,” but at the time it felt completely normal.
So I love writing about love and heavier subjects … but I’ve definitely had people – my aunty said to me that she read the lyrics to the album not that long ago, and wished she’d asked if I was alright at the time. (Chuckles) But we’re just fans of love songs, really.
MF: So you see the difference in age between the first album and Coexist?
RMC: Yeah, I do, definitely. I do think we’ve done a lot of growing up in the time between them. Withxx, we wrote it from nearly 16 and 19. I can see it myself, all the different times in that album. And withCoexist, it was written in quite a specific amount of time … and I can remember that time bit more clearly from start to finish where with xx it was kind of just my whole teenage years.
MF: You do you look for inspiration when it comes to simple but effective lyrics?
RMC: Someone I’ve always really looked up to and admired is Everything But The Girl and Tracey Thorn. I recently read her autobiography, and it was really interesting and inspiring to read that, but there are some songs of theirs that I think just capture… Missing, being their biggest song ever… It’s just very simple lyrics and a lot of people can interpret it in different ways.
I think that’s what makes that song so massive, is that it’s just so simple that people can just sing that chorus and add all their personal meanings to it. It’s not like a story exactly about [one thing]. It doesn’t feel like she’s painting a picture … I mean, it does, but you can really imagine yourself in her situation, I think.
MF: On Coexist, The xx combined musical influences from pop, R&B and hip hop. Are there any rappers you look to for inspiration when it comes to writing lyrics?
RMC: Oliver and I are big fans of Drake. He and Jamie (Smith) have been in touch and have been working on some stuff together. And Drake told Jamie that we’ve been an influence on him and that was really a very special thing to hear… especially [given] how massive he is … It’s nice that he’s so in touch with his emotions, I think.
MF: The xx have been working on some fun covers recently, such as I Miss You by Beyoncé. Would you consider covering a hip hop track?
RMC: Maybe, I don’t know. We’re really open to doing all different types of songs. As long as, to me, it really just comes down to lyrics when we’re covering a song, because the lyrics and melody is about all I like to keep. We’re not going to take the riff, or whatever it is – just take the lyrics and shape a whole new thing around it, really. So I’d definitely be open to something else.
MF: Reportedly The xx handpicked Australian act Jagwar Ma as the support act for the band’s Australian tour. Is that correct?
RMC: Yeah, we did. We were keen to ask someone from Australia to support us and we looked at their music and we’re really into it, so we’re excited to have them. Last time we had Flume with us – that was a lot of fun.
It’s important to us to recognise where we are and it’s fun to meet new people. It’d be nice to get to know them on tour and hear their music live.
MF: Was the difference in musical style between yourselves and Jagwar Ma part of the reason The xx selected Jagwar Ma as your support act?
RMC: Yeah, definitely. I think we’ve realised that that’s ok, to have a different [style of band]. We’ve been touring with two producers from Barcelona… They’re essentially house DJs and producers. It’s definitely a lot more upbeat and I can imagine they have a similar sort of live style as Jagwar Ma.
And that was really fun because the crowd was quite energetic and in quite a up-for-it mood by the time we came on. And our sets have gotten a little more upbeat now so it doesn’t seem to out of context.
The xx are currently touring Australia and you can still grab tickets to some of their upcoming shows –
tickets and more show information available from Handsome Tours.
Thursday, 4th April – SOLD OUT
Festival Hall, Melbourne
Friday, 5th April – NEW SHOW ADDED
Festival Hall, Melbourne
Saturday, 6th April – SOLD OUT
Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
Sunday, 7th April – SOLD OUT
Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
Tuesday, 9th April
Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, Brisbane
XL/Young Turks, 2009
Pop was in a maximalist phase, all pummeling Eurodance beats and rococo production flourishes, when these London indie rockers arrived with a radically different musical message: less can be much, much more. Songs like “Crystallized” and “Islands” are masterpieces of minimalism – songs built around simple chord progressions, delicate guitar and keyboard ostinatos, the gentle rub of Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim’s his-and-hers croons. It’s beautiful music, an exercise in restraint, in the artful use of space and silence. It’s also funky (check the bonus track cover of Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire”) and, against all odds, sexy – booty call music for the blog-rock set.
With the success of their second album Coexist the xx have solidified themselves as one of the most original and celebrated bands in the UK. Meanwhile, percussionist / producer Jamie Smith enjoys a healthy solo career as a producer in his own right.
After the warm reception to his collaborative album with Gil Scott Heron, We’re New Here, the acclaimed ‘Far Nearer’ and a litany of remixes, this year will see a new, and as yet untitled, EP from Smith, which he touches upon in our quick chat ahead of his DJ set at Young Turks’ showcase at WMC in Miami this Friday. First things first though: the xx have a very busy summer ahead. The band’s noted ability to inject their live shows with a tangible sense of gravitas will be put to the test at Night + Day – their very own festival split over Berlin and Lisbon in May and London in June – and in their residency at the Manchester International Festival in July. Though keen to preserve elements of surprise about the residency until the event begins, the xx will be playing no less than 18 shows in different, secret locations within Manchester, further testing the band’s ability to utilise the space and form of their immediate surroundings to present their live show as a malleable yet deeply emotive experience.
How are you Jamie?
“Yeah I’m good, really happy to be back in London.”
The xx are just back from spending some time in the USA, right?
“Yeah, We’ve just come back from being on tour in the States – Texas, Florida, going to a lot of weird little places that bands don’t usually go. It was really great for us.”
You’ve got your first festival Night + Day beginning this summer. What is your role with the festival? Is it strictly curatorial, or are you very hands on with the full organisation of it?
“Yeah we’re doing pretty much everything – from the line-up and location right down to what smaller events will be going on during the festival onsite, the staging, the layout, how everything looks…. we basically get to control every little aspect of it, which is pretty fun. I mean, we have other people putting our ideas into practise on ground level, but it’s very much the xx’s festival, y’know? It’s nice to be the boss for once.”
What made you decide to host a festival in the first place?
“Well, we’ve played a lot of festivals now but we rarely get to have a proper festival experience with it. It’s often just – get there, play, leave, then onto the next one. I mean don’t get me wrong. We’ve been to festivals before as punters and loved it – like Glastonbury – but as a performer it’s always a bit rushed and we don’t get to get into the vibe of it, or we don’t really ‘get’ what the festival is trying to do, so we decided the best way to have this experience is just to do it ourselves.”
How did you go about curating the line-up for Night + Day?
“Everyone who’s playing Night + Day are either people we know and love, having met along our own path as a band, or people that we feel will fit really well with those we’re already familiar with. Location wise, we wanted to have a festival experience that wasn’t your average, three day-long, trekking through muddy fields to see bands you’re not really that fussed about vibe. Night + Day is very weighted on the atmosphere. Hopefully the people who will come to Night + Day will be fans of ours, and will end up fans of who we’ve selected to play.”
It’s interesting that you’ve chosen to host Night + Day in three different cities – London, Berlin and Lisbon. Why do so? What is it about Berlin and Lisbon that appealed to you?
“Well having it be in more than one place was our initial idea. It was kind of the big sell of it. I wanted it to be in more than one place in Europe so that people from all over could travel to somewhere near them, and not have to just miss out because everything is always in London – or at least it’s seen to be that way. Part of the process was down to the fact that we always have an amazing time in Berlin and the fans are great, but with Lisbon it was more that people don’t really do that much in Portugal music wise. Bands don’t go there too often but whenever we’ve gone to Lisbon the response has been really great.”
What are the locations themselves like?
“In Berlin it’s hosted in an abandoned amusement park. All the rides are still there but nothing’s open, so it’s quite an eerie place to be. It’s been used for film sets before but never for a music event, so it’ll definitely be a first for us. In Lisbon it’s hosted in a big castle right on the coast. It’s magical, a really beautiful place, and a totally different vibe from Berlin. I guess we’re not trying to make it a festival so much. We’re trying not to use the word ‘festival’ at all really. Its more of an experience. One day, start to finish, quite laid back, but with lots of quality people to see. If it’s successful I’d hope that we can do it again and again.”
The setting seem to be chosen for their drama and atmosphere primarily. I’ve heard that the xx only play at night, is that true?
“Yeah, we actually have it in our contract that we have to play either at sunset or after dark, ha.”
That seems very apt. Is this an attitude towards staging live performances that will carry through to the presentation of Night + Day?
“I’d like to think we as a band are pretty attuned to that sort of thing – how our music comes across to people in a live setting – so it’s definitely going to inform how we’re gonna do Night + Day and how the line-up will be planned out. You’ll have to wait and see how though…”
On a different note for upcoming live shows, the xx are playing 18 performances for the Manchester International Festival this summer. How did that come to be?
“Well our manager and a few guys from the label went to Manchester International Festival last year for the Bjork show and they just said it was all amazing, so we got in touch with the organisers and they were keen to have us. They actually have a lot of grants and investors for M.I.F. so they’ve got room to do lots of amazing things, and the residency sounded brilliant to us; the idea that the surroundings change each time, and how the music relates to the surroundings informs your experience of the live show. It seems very meticulously curated and that appeals to us as a band. The performance for us is really important.”
You definitely seem, to paraphrase you, very attuned to the performative element of your live shows. How do you feel your new tour will demonstrate a growth in the band in this respect?
“From touring the last album we realised that we have to constantly re-touch and add to our live show to stay creative. We’re always doing new sound checks and practising, trying to figure out ways to re-work our songs so that there’s elements of surprise and so on. Its constantly changing, so hopefully if someone comes to see us twice in a year they’ll see a quite different set each time. On the visual side of things we’re also working out how to step it up again from the last tour. We’ve got Coachella coming up and a bunch of other really big festival slots too, so it’s quite a pressure to do well. We played at Coachella for the first time a few years ago to the most people we’d ever played to at the time, and it was very, very scary, but also really life-affirming.”
BY JANA ROOSE | 20 MARCH 2013
It’s 10pm in London when we chat to one third of The XX, Oliver Sim, whose voice makes us melt like paddlepops in the heat of summer.
Hi Oliver, how are you?
Not too bad thanks, how are you?
Really well. So where are you at the moment?
I am in my flat, at home in London which is an absolute luxury.
What did you get up to today?
While I’m home right now I’m just doing the most mundane stuff. I bought my first flat last year and I’ve only spent, you know, about a month in it since the beginning of last year so I’m just trying to make a home and trying to write and see my friends and family while I have the chance.
Have you managed to unpack everything?
I have three more boxes! The home stretch.
When was the first time you sang in front of someone?
I sang in front of Romy, I guess I was about 15 and it was a big deal. I was so nervous and terrified. We weren’t even singing alone, it was a compromise because neither of us wanted to sing in front of the other so we agreed to sing at the same time, and from doing that I got the confidence to sing alone.
Do you remember the first song you sang together?
I don’t know, we were covering Pixies songs and then pop like Sugarbabes, so it was somewhere in between those two songs I guess.
You guys are a vocal guy/girl duo, who is your favourite vocal duo?
Marvin Gaye’s collaborations with Tammi Terrell are amazing.
What kind of kids were you and Romy?
We weren’t like unpopular, but we weren’t really popular, we just sort of kept to ourselves. I’ve never had a tonne of friends, but the ones I did have I was very close with. We always knew where one another was. And I’ve got the coolest parents ever, so I know I was personally very happy hanging out with my parents quite a lot as well.
What are your parents like?
They’re music lovers, they’ve never tried it themselves, but they are actual music lovers. There’s always been good music playing in my house. My mum and dad have different tastes, but they really loved Talking Heads, especially The Cure and bands like The Durutti Column and Everything But The Girl, music that I now consider my favourite bands.
What was your first day job?
I was working in a sports café in a tennis club, and I was making coffee for pretty fat, older rich women who would come and play like ten minutes tennis and then drink about six coffees and it was the most boring thing. It just wasn’t very busy, so the days just seemed very long. I’m very grateful to be here doing something I love for a job.
You guys wear black a lot – was this a group decision or it just happens?
My teenage years were kind of a descent, my wardrobe got a lot darker. I don’t think I was trying to Matrix it up or be a bit goth and make a statement about what was going on inside. There are lots of people in my family that wear black and I’ve always thought it’s quite chic, as opposed to ‘I wear black because my soul I dark.’ (laughs) I just think it’s chic and smart.
Do you wear really colourful underwear to compensate?
No, but I’m not going to lie, I’m wearing a bright red hoodie right now. Only in the comfort and privacy of my home.
The music is quite beautiful and serious, what part of your life do you let out the lighter side of things?
Yeah! Every day. We don’t walk off stage and cry, we just have a good time. And we’ve actually got so much to be happy about, we’re pretty smiley people. The recording studio is more serious, we talk quite a bit but it is pretty quiet in a nice way. The three of us are such good friends, and it gets to that point where awkward silences don’t exist.
What do you three do besides music?
Go for drinks, just be in each others company. We’re part of the same social group. When we finished the first tour we’d been together for about two years and every day I’d see them more than anyone else, and I thought in my head ‘I might want some space and in the most loving way just not see them for a bit’, but after four days of being back home I was ringing them up asking what they were up to and if they wanted to hang out. I’ve known Romy since I was three years old and we’ve spent pretty much every day together since, and been friends with Jamie since I was 11, so we’re used to being with each other all the time.
Can you sleep on aeroplanes?
I struggle with sleep in general to be honest. And going on an aeroplane is the most exciting thing, but when you have to do it five or six times a week you begin to hate it. So I don’t sleep very well, but I try. I’m quite a tall person so unless I have a bed it can be pretty hard. I’m trying to read at the moment.
What are you reading now?
I’m reading Tracey Thorn’s biography, which is really good, I’ve just started it.
What’s your favourite thing you’ve bought while travelling?
I’ve got a lot of nice records and to be honest I don’t play them very much, my vinyl player is wrapped up at the moment. I like looking at them, and all my music is on my computer or hard drive so it’s nice to have something physical. So I have a lot of Sade records on my mantelpiece right now.
Have you started working on a third album?
We’ve started writing. We’ve been trying to write on tour because we’ve never been able to do it, but it’s going well. We have bare skeletons of songs, like the barest of bare.
Can you give us any clues what it’ll sound like?
I think it’s too early to tell to be honest. I think the second record came out, we weren’t trying to sound like us but we weren’t trying to do anything drastically different. The third time round will be a case of maybe considering a bit more and I suppose pushing ourselves a bit more out of our comfort zones.
You’re touring Australia very soon, what have you got planned?
That’s what we’re working on at the moment, we’re in rehearsal. We’re playing this set every day on these tours so we like to change it up just to keep it exciting for ourselves. So we’ve changed up the set from the last tour we did in America and right now we’re just trying to figure it all out.
Will there be back-up dancers?
God that would be awesome. Maybe not this tour, maybe for the reunion tour.
Have you managed to do much recreationally in Australia?
The first time we went was Laneway and we were just constantly moving so we didn’t get an opportunity to get out there. I didn’t even go on a single beach, which was a bit of a disappointment. Then last time was such a short visit, I actually got to a beach but it was winter. So this time round it’s going to be a bit more relaxed so hopefully we’ll get an opportunity to see a bit more of the cities.
Are there any Aussie artists you really like?
I’ve only just been introduced to Chet Faker and I really like it. It’s kind of in the same vein I suppose as James Blake. And I saw his cover of ‘No Diggity’ and I found that really, really great.
He works a lot with Flume too.
Flume supported us on our last Australian tour, he’s an impressive guy and so young. Stuff has been going so well for him this year.
Who’s someone you’ve toured with or met on the road that has really surprised you?
On this tour we just did we were touring with Austra, a Canadian band, and I’m such a big fan. And, like what people may think about us, I thought they might be a bit scary, I think it was because I like the music so much I was scared I was going to be a bit star struck. But they were the most warm, warm people and it was a really incredible tour.
Jamie adopted a new last name, xx, do you and Romy ever think of getting a new tail?
Well, I think Jamie Smith is maybe the most common name in the world but I don’t know many Sims or many Madley Crofts, so I think we’re alright.
What’s your favourite ’90s song?
I’m going to say Sade ‘Cherish the Day’.
I’ve heard you like TV shows. Who are your favourite characters?
Yes! I used to watch a lot of Breaking Bad, but he gets worse and worse. Every series, he gets more of a monster so I don’t know if I like him but I like the show. If not then Arrested Development.
Are you excited about the movie?
Very excited! Lucille Bluth from Arrested Development is I think the funniest character ever made.
What’s your standard drink?
I’m just a beer drinker, I love beer, but if we’re getting fancy I like my rum. Oh, I like White Russian.
That has milk in it, right?
Yeah… I don’t drink it very much.
The XX – Australian Tour, April 2013
Monday, 1st April – NEW SHOW ADDED
Metro City, Perth
Tuesday, 2nd April – SOLD OUT
Metro City, Perth
Thursday, 4th April – SOLD OUT
Festival Hall, Melbourne
Friday, 5th April – NEW SHOW ADDED
Festival Hall, Melbourne
Saturday, 6th April – SOLD OUT
Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
Sunday, 7th April – SOLD OUT
Hordern Pavilion, Sydney
Tuesday, 9th April
Brisbane Convention & Exhibition Centre, Brisbane
PUBLISHED: JANUARY 30, 2013
As the xx starts touring behind its second album,Coexist, singer-bassist-keyboardist Oliver Sim sees a night-and-day difference between the group on stage now and the one that toured for their 2009 self-titled debut.
“On the first album, if you put us in some of the situations we’re put in now, I think we would pass out,” Sim says. “Because that first album, each day we were kind of pushed a bit further out of our comfort zone. So, the venues got a bit bigger and a bit further away from home, and the tours got a bit longer. We just grew. I think we’re still the same people, but we’ve come very far with our confidence.”
It isn’t just the band’s presence on stage that’s changed markedly in the three years since this South London trio of Sim, singer-guitarist-keyboardist Romy Madley Croft and drummer Jamie Smith released their first album. That debut met rave reviews and won the Mercury Prize, a prestigious award honoring the best British or Irish album of the year. But becoming one of rock’s most buzzed-about bands, Sim says, created concerns about how expectations and anticipation for the second album might affect the creative process.
“The first album, a lot of the songs were written at a place where we didn’t think anywhere outside of the band, really,” he says. “Going into the second album, we had the idea of ‘these lyrics I’m writing right now could end up in a lyrics book or reaching a lot of people around the world.’ I thought that would be a scary prospect and would make it maybe a bit more reserved and perhaps a bit more aware of putting so much out there.”
The group found a way to deal with these concerns by not allowing anyone – including its record label and management – hear the music that was being created.
“It was just the three of us for a year before we played anything to anyone,” Sim says. “I think it was good being that internal. It gets a bit easy to just forget about the whole outside world.”
Things were comfortable enough that the writing process evolved in significant ways during the year it took to create Coexist.
Although Sim and Madley Croft had been close friends since childhood, they wrote the first album individually, exchanging over the Internet the ideas that would eventually become the finished songs.
For Coexist, some of that separate writing happened. But for the first time, Sim and Madley Croft wrote together, face to face.
“Although she’s like a sister to me, it’s still a pretty scary, intimate thing to do to kind of go in there and kind of share something with her,” Sim says. “(But) it was incredible. … It was so, really gratifying. It was so instant. It was, ‘What do you think about this? Yes or no?’ The back-and-forth was so quick, and we wrote four songs like that.”
Also different, Smith became more involved on Coexist. Between albums, he grew considerably as a producer, doing a remix of Adele’s hit “Rolling in the Deep” and producing the title cut of Drake’s Take Care.
Smith’s input extended to the songwriting on Coexist, and while he also produced the first album, he was able to bring far more to the table in producing Coexist.
“Jamie has grown so much as a producer; I’m kind of still a bit in awe,” Sim says. “Now, along with being his bandmate and best friend, I’m a fan. He just constantly blows me away.”
Yet, for all the contrasts in the creative process,Coexist retained the xx’s stylistic hallmarks.
Once again, sound is quiet and spare, as the group leaves space between the bass lines, chiming guitar notes, silky synths and electronic beats that populate songs like “Try,” “Angels” and “Sunset.” This measured instrumental approach allows the fragile vocal melodies and personal lyrics to take the spotlight and create music that is emotional, intimate and bold in its own starkly understated way.
The band’s songs, Sim says, have started to take on a bit of a different character live.
“We’re evolving the songs every day, like every show, to kind of keep it exciting for ourselves,” he says. “Some subtleties on record might not translate too well live. So, it can be a case of not being more blatant, but being a bit more exaggerated or extending songs that maybe could hold up a lot better live, or adding a bit more of clubby feel. … It’s kind of changing all the time.”
BY Charles Poladian | January 25 2013 2:41 PM
(Photo: Charles Poladian)
The xx have moved beyond being indie darlings and have embraced the spotlight that has shone upon them since their much hyped self-titled debut. At Hammerstein Ballroom in New York on Thursday, The xx defined maturity and the fragility of love and relationships.
Over the course of two albums, The xx have become incredibly popular, first playing the Mercury Lounge in 2009 and now selling out two nights at Hammerstein Ballroom. Their success has been defined by the exploration of love and that tenuous string that draws people together but can so easily be lost.
The xx have carved a niche for themselves mining human emotions and at their first concert of 2013, the band exuded control. Much like relationships, some experience goes a long way and that was evident throughout the night. Quietly assured of their choices, The xx know they have made the right step and can truly expand on the rich tension of their music.
Hidden behind a curtain, The xx start the night with “Angels,” from their latest album, “Coexist.” That initial veil is quickly removed and fans are given an early treat with “Heart Skipped a Beat,” from their debut. The xx are theatrical on stage, pulsing and quaking with tension and pushing for relief.
While the focus may be on the dual leads of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, the not-too-secret secret weapon of Jamie xx is further highlighted throughout the night. Jamie xx, who has quietly become a superstar producer, gaining great notice for his Gil-Scott Heron remix album “We’re New Here,” gets to have a moment in the spotlight with his single “Far Nearer.”
For The xx, a chasm seems to keep Madley Croft and Sim apart as each stand on opposite ends of the stage. Sim sometimes crosses that imaginary line and the two leads converge at the center of the stage. If there has been a knock against the band, it could be that they are more style than substance. Each member is dressed in black with little physical emotion but the band uses that style to create something more than the sum of its parts. The band is a blank slate for the emotions, such as love and loss, that make up the core of their music.
The xx are now out of the shadows and their personalities are allowed to shine while the more minimal songs of “Coexist” are built up and expanded. Jamie xx is allowed to flex his production muscle, providing segues, thunderous blasts of bass and club-ready beats that had the crowd at Hammerstein Ballroom dancing.
At times, The xx on stage could be considered adventurous. Very rarely in the past did the band go beyond their comfort zone but at Hammerstein, Sim and Madley Croft would move to the center of the stage with all the attention on them. The band even went so far as to introduce a one-time only version of “Chained.” While it took them three times to get it right, the effort was worth it, especially seeing Madley Croft and Sim laugh and that cool facade melt away for just a second.
Visually, The xx had a few tricks to compliment the musical tension. The lighting would set up cloudy skies that were soon coupled with pulsating lights, offering a nostalgic and dream-like quality to the set. At the end of the main set, The xx revealed a giant “X’ hanging above the stage that lit up and announced the end of the main set and the inevitable return for an encore.
“Intro” was a concussive and satisfying way to return to the stage segueing perfectly into “Tides” before wrapping things up sweetly with “Stars.” The xx proved that they had grown up and become more than just a pining youth in love. Instead, The xx were willing to lead and show off what they had learned.
The setlist and a playlist from the night are below. A link for the playlist can be found here.
Photograph-Jamie-James Medina/Young Turks
EDMONTON - A few years ago, two local music fans started a Facebook group to convince The xx to come to Edmonton.
Whether the British dream-pop trio saw the online campaign or not, they’re about to play their first show in our city.
The xx, led by the woozy, under-the-sheets vocals of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, will perform Wednesday, May 22 at the Shaw Conference Centre — their only date in Alberta. Tickets are $43.50 plus service charges at ticketfly.com. On sale Friday, Jan. 25.
Their minimalist debut, xx, won Britain’s Mercury Music Prize in 2010. Their second, Coexist, hit the top of the British charts — and went to No. 2 in Canada — last year.
PUBLISHED: JANUARY 23, 2013
When the xx first got together in 2005, they were still in high school. Their 2009 self-titled debut folded dreamy, downtempo grooves with soulful vocals, particularly those of Romy Madley Croft, who often evoked the same sort of emotional tension as Beth Gibbons. The album was endlessly praised by critics and fans, and the teenagers set about touring the world, winning over even more fans with energetic shows that integrated innovative light design and changed from night to night.
Before embarking on a follow-up, the band wisely took time to let it all sink in, stay in one place for a while, approach things slowly. The result is another gem, Coexist, which exudes an easy sophistication that brings them even closer to their obvious heroes, Portishead. Now, they’re back on the road and coming to Rams Head Live on Monday. When we caught up with Croft in advance of the shows, she promised some new visual surprises which integrate the iridescent oil-and-water design on their album cover, as well as lots of new sounds.
City Paper: Your first album took off so quickly, how did you approach making a follow-up?
Romy Madley Croft: We’ve been touring for so long—we toured the first album for almost two years—and we’d gotten to the point where we needed to stop and reflect and have a bit of a normal life for a while. After finishing that tour, we came back to London and all took about a year off and moved out of our parents’ houses and did a little bit of growing up, I guess. In doing that, we got inspired by things that weren’t touring and new experiences, and gave ourselves some new things to write about. Once we got a bit more ready to start making music again, we bought a studio—actually just an apartment, it wasn’t soundproofed or anything like that. It was just a nice space that we wanted to hang out in a lot. We set up working there and hid ourselves away for about six months and were constantly in there. We were quite private while we were in there, we didn’t play anything for anyone, even our label. They were very patient and I’m very grateful because I’m sure that’s not the case for everyone. We just started again, really, and learned a lot from playing live so much and having new experiences and came at it as ourselves, having learned more.
CP: Did you feel pressure to make something that would be as well-received as the first album?
RMC: I think because we took some time, we kind of got into this normal life, it was easy to forget about those expectations and pressure, which is a really good thing, because we would’ve really worried about that, so I’m grateful that we managed to block it out quite well. When we started doing press, before the album had come out, people started talking about the pressure and we were suddenly thinking, Well, should we have thought a bit more about this?, but we just tried to make something that we liked and we were proud of—like the first album—because we had no expectations for that and had no idea what it would do, so we tried to get into that state of mind.
CP: What kinds of experiences did you go through after touring that influenced the album?
RMC: I think it’s just living a bit and being in the moment and one place for more than a day. And growing up as well. In the two years that we had to make Coexist, I felt like it was that kind of transition between young teenager to a bit more of an adult. I just feel a different perspective on things. I felt like writing a bit more observationally, about chats I’ve had with friends, over coffee or something, and hearing their experiences and about love and their relationships, as you do when you’re talking with your friends, and I found that really inspiring, which I haven’t done before; I’ve been writing mainly about myself, so it was good to write from a different perspective.
CP: Did you try out the songs from Coexist live before recording them?
RMC: No, that would have been a luxury for us to do that. We’d been playing some of the songs [on the last album], like “VCR,” we’d been playing in pubs and clubs for two or three years by the time we actually recorded them on the album. We knew that song inside out and we were happy with it and we knew that it went down well live. With Coexist, we play the songs live to each other and everything is always written live—we make sure it’s always playable live—but when we went out onstage for the first few shows, we initially were kind of going in blind and hoping that it worked live and going on our instincts, and I’m very grateful that it has worked out, but I think going forward, we are going to be a lot less hesitant to just press things on the audience and make things on tour and play them and just develop things a bit more and not wait so long. I think you can really see in the moment whether it’s working. We like to change up our sets a little bit, to try out new bits and new versions of songs. It’s quite fun for us and for the audience, who may have come and seen us before, and everything sounds different the second time.
CP: You guys are known for putting on a great visual show—anything new in store for this tour?
RMC: Something we’re really passionate about is making sure that the lights and the full show [are] as much of an expression as the music. The lights this time out all reflect our album artwork, which is all about iridescence. We got really obsessed with finding colors and integrating the look of natural things, like oil and water and stuff like that. We tried to tie it in. You can see it in our music videos and… in our live shows.
CP: You recently launched an app, right? What’s that about?
RMC: Yeah. These days a lot of people—including me—buy music from iTunes, and you kind of miss the experience of buying a CD and looking through the booklet and reading the lyrics and seeing the artwork and things like that. We spent a lot of time thinking about the artwork and I thought, realistically, not everyone’s gonna see it, so we have an app that’s got the lyrics and the artwork and some of the videos, and you can sort of immerse yourself in that experience, which you might miss.
The xx play Rams Head Live Monday Jan. 28.
Continuing our countdown of the year’s best albums is the xx’s second LP, which didn’t break new ground so much as cover old terrain with even more delicacy and poise
The xx’s first album had debuted a sound – a spectral melange of post-punk and R&B – that seemed unprecedented. It went on to soundtrack everything from Newsnight to Greece’s Next Top Model, was sampled by Rihanna and won the Mercury prize. So the pressure was on for the follow-up. Coexist didn’t manage to reinvent their sound – and it certainly wasn’t the all-out dance record some had been anticipating – but it did refine the band’s blueprint into something even more minimal, sexy and insidious.
Though it lacked the shock of the new, Coexist wasn’t lacking in confidence. Slimmed down to a trio and jettisoning all outside help (even their managers didn’t hear the album until it was finished), Jamie xx, Oliver Sim and Romy Madley-Croft brewed up a quiet storm. Some songs, such as Angels, weren’t so much intimate as internal, like tuning into someone’s thoughts. Others, such as Fiction, were so sparse that a guitar line packed as much drama as a thunderclap. Yet the record’s shadows weren’t so dark that the tunes got lost. From the surging Unfold to the yearning Try, they were uniformly strong and supple, while the atmosphere of unspoken desire was even more torrid than on their debut, but increasingly shaded with darkness and anxiety.
As the album slowly revealed its secrets, the sheer strangeness of the xx became more and more apparent – a producer and percussionist plus two singers (Sim and Madley-Croft) who never harmonise, don’t sing to each other or even about the same person, yet are so tightly knit they seem like three aspects of the same androgynous whole. This second album showed them coexisting, beautifully and mysteriously.
With a number-one album and fans including Rhianna and Samantha Cameron, it’s been a stellar year for The xx. Craig McLean catches up with the enigmatic Londoners who helped provide the soundtrack to 2012.
SUNDAY 02 DECEMBER 2012
Three hours before showtime in Utrecht, and the British band of the year are perched, like the crows on the telephone wire in Dumbo, along their dressing-room sofa. Here’s Romy Madley Croft, 23, one of The xx’s two singers, and the south-London trio’s guitarist. Like her bandmates, she’s friendly, thoughtful and quiet. She’s talking about last night’s show in Antwerp, when The xx played to a whopping, whooping 7,500 people, their first arena crowd.
“Yesterday definitely took our breath away,” she says softly. “We’ve played some big festivals, on some pretty big stages, and played to – how many people in Belgium? 40,000? Which made me feel insane. But to come back and play our own arena show – last night was the biggest [headline] show we’ve ever played – that made me feel a bit crazy. It looked like [London’s] O2, but scaled in a bit.”
Next to her, in the middle, is Oliver Sim, 23, bass player and the other frontperson. His speaking voice, like his singing one, is low – so low that it often rumbles below hearing level. He’s talking about the strength and succour this band of black-clad equals draw from their long friendships. In the case of he and Croft, they’ve known each other, via their mothers, since they were toddlers. They began playing music together at Putney’s Elliott School (other musical alumni include: Hot Chip, Burial, Four Tet).
“I appreciate that more than ever. The idea of being in a band with people you don’t even know…” he says with a small shudder. “Like some people just reply to an advert in NME – ‘Drummer Wanted’ – that just seems pretty alien to us. So, yeah, I definitely appreciate it a lot. I can’t even imagine how it must be to be a solo artist playing with session musicians. I remember hearing an interview with [XL Recordings label mate] Adele saying that she finds touring the most lonely place in the world, and I felt so sorry for her.”
And next to him, furthest away from me, is Jamie Smith, 23, aka Jamie xx, the band’s drummer, multi-instrumentalist and sonic architect, and an in-demand DJ, producer and remixer (Florence and the Machine, Radiohead, Gil Scott-Heron). His voice is as elusive as his eye-contact. He’s talking, just, about his skills. “I never really learnt from anyone. I just spent a lot of time at home, knocking things out. It has been interesting going into proper studios, working with people who know everything. But I find it doesn’t hinder me. I was in the studio with Alicia Keys [for a track on her new album], and we were just experimenting with things, and she was quite interested in the way that I worked, just a laptop and keyboard, rather than this whole massive studio that we had. So, yeah,” he repeats, unshowily, “it can be interesting.”
What does he think these big-league collaborators are looking to get from him? “Some of them have told me. They like a certain melancholy that comes with our sound, and they want to find something that moves away from that overproduced American pop stuff. But at the same time they want some of that in there as well.”
The xx have been touring since May, since finishing their second album, Coexist. It was released, to rave reviews (and going straight to number one in five countries), in September and is sure to figure near – or at – the top of many of the Best Albums of 2012 polls. Throwing more uptempo beats and fresh colours (steel drums!) into their artfully spartan sound, Coexist came out almost exactly three years since their debut – an equally lauded album that, a year later, won the 2010 Mercury Music Prize.
That night in London, they appeared on stage, blinking. Proper rabbits in the headlights. They had already had to deal with some difficulty – a fourth member, Baria Qureshi, had been asked to leave, for reasons the band still diplomatically decline to detail. But that night, and the concomitant avalanche of publicity, put them at a crossroads. “We felt genuinely as we looked,” recalls Croft. “It was a shock, and it was amazing. It was our first awards thing. I was just thinking about going through the whole red-carpet thing, getting our pictures taken…”
That week, 12 months after its release, The xx album reached its highest point in the charts. “That was really nice,” she continues. “The album had grown naturally; it wasn’t like it came out and was a hit. And I guess we could have just gone back and done a big tour.” But rather than cashing in on their success, The xx did one US tour and then “just went into hiding. We were pretty knackered by that point and felt like we were ready to start making new music.”
Sim nods. “A big part of the excitement about the Mercurys was that we were home for a week. That was the longest we’d been home for a while.”
That self-titled debut was a wonder: an album of space and beauty and atmosphere, of spidery guitar lines and echoey electronics and simple soul, but also of indelible pop hooks. Its openness and its simplicity lent itself to all manner of “syncs”. The xx became the sound of the BBC’s coverage of the 2010 General Election, were featured in Gossip Girl, sampled by Rihanna (their track “Intro” opened her 2011 song “Drunk on Love”), and were used by advertisers and broadcasters and opportunists left, right and far right.
For these self-effacing, unassuming musicians who are precious (in the right ways) about their songs, does all that exposure taint their creations? A little, agrees Sim. “The ones you have control over [are OK] – the Rihanna one, that was something we approved and we liked. And some… I’ve turned on Channel 4 and heard us on shows like Embarrassing Bodies and not really understood what was going on.”
“It’s that thing where you don’t have control over it any more,” frowns Croft. When the band were first exposed to the music industry and how it worked, they were not long out of school. “It’s what you learn through just doing it. When you sign over your music to the BBC or Channel 4, you are signing it over, and they either use it or they don’t. And with our music, I kept getting texts from friends – ‘Oh, you’re on this, you’re on this, you’re on this…’ – those weird programmes that it doesn’t make any sense for you to be on.”
To their discomfort, the Conservative Party Conference used “Intro”, and the PM supposedly said that he and Sam Cam like to cuddle to The xx. Did the band believe that? Croft titters, while Sim grimaces.
“We try not to think about that,” he eventually smiles. “The big thing that we’re scared of is the idea of just being shoved in people’s faces. It was like when Gotan Project became the sound of Boots. But when it comes to ones we have control over, our publishers have got it now – we’re like the ‘no’ people.” So The xx have declined “quite a lot” of advert offers. They think k they’ve said yes twice. One, early one, was for an AT&T Olympics advert.
“Which in retrospect we probably would have said no to now,” shrugs Croft. “Then we went to America and did an interview, which was filmed, and I didn’t know what AT&T was. I was really embarrassed. It’s like BT or Vodafone in the US. So I feel like we’ve learnt a lot. When we started out we were young and were testing the water. Then,” she remembers, “there was a fake version of [first album song] ‘VCR’…”
“In Slovenia?” asks Sim.
“No, it was in a phone advert somewhere in Asia. It was a remade version.”
“And there was an unapproved one for guns. It was American. The xx,” he clarifies with a grin, “do not condone guns!”
After three heavy years of touring The xx have settled into an easy, functional, on-the-road routine. Tall, handsome, fit, fashion-forward Sim has given up beer, now favouring gin and tonic and regular physical work-outs. “Now we’ve got the luxury of being able to bring friends from home out with us – that makes it a lot more exciting.”
His Rowenta portable valet idles on the dressing-room floor, near his open mobile closet of entirely tenebrous clothing, ready for another pre-show steaming. But while his wardrobe may have something of the night about it, the relaxed guitarist is affable, relaxed and engaged. When my Dictaphone threatens to play up, he records the interview on his iPhone, then emails it to me afterwards, along with a clip from the Katy Perry tour documentary (Part of Me) that we’d discussed at one point. “That bit made me feel so sorry for her,” he said.
Small, smiley, striking, elegant Croft finds comfort in writing song whenever possible. “You can’t really sit and start singing into a laptop at an airport. Well,” she thinks, “you could, but you’d have a lot of sound in the background. I’m always trying to write stuff. Oliver and I both like writing at night, that time when you’re half-awake, half-asleep. But we’re travelling on a tour bus with bunkbeds right next to each other, so I can’t sing into my laptop like I would in my bedroom and test out ideas. But it’s just about adapting.”
“I’m pretty envious of Jamie,” adds Sim of Smith’s music-making methods. “He can just put his headphones on and completely escape. It’s a bit harder for me and Romy. We need the option to be alone and be quiet and still. And that doesn’t come about very often on tour. Whereas he can be at an airport and just be lost in it.”
Medium-height, dark-eyed, shy, undemonstrative, red-wine-drinking Smith, meanwhile, embraces all the opportunities touring throws his way. Tonight, after the show, he’s DJing from midnight until 2am in a local club. Plus, his girlfriend is on the road. “We have a rule that we don’t go more than a week apart,” the friendly and fragrant Italian says when we bump into her in a backstage corridor. “We had to go three weeks in the summer and we nearly went mental.”
He goes under the name Jamie xx because, when he plays clubs or works with other artists, he’s carrying the whole band with him. “And we all have the same musical values. But also,” he says with a hint of a smile, “the name came about cos I couldn’t think of a better one.”
Enigmatic. Melancholy. Sad. Minimal. These are the adjectives you’re meant to use when talking about The xx. They are these things, sometimes, for sure. But there is real, pure, palpable joy about them. For all the heartache – real, experienced and/or imagined – in Croft and Sim’s lyrics, there’s a euphoria too. The xx are resolutely not post-millennial Joy Division, pretentious emos, woe-is-me goths or dour indie refuseniks. They’re pop fans and club-goers who just happen to view quieter music as the perfect prism through which they can talk about the delicate, shifting, sometimes abstract matters of the heart.
But give them half a chance and they’ll shake a tail-feather. After all, this is a band who, to a (wo)man, worship at the feet of Beyoncé. They love Sugababes and Drake, and Rihanna and Lady Gaga. But Beyoncé is the one, and they are thrilled at having met her a couple of times (once in London after the Radio 1 Hackney Weekend in the summer). They’ve even, Sim has said, written with the Queen B in mind. “Did I say that?” he gulps, slightly startled, looking at Croft. “Um… we’ve written a song, yeah, together, the three of us, in the past three months. It’s good. To be honest, I’m just excited that we’re able to work on tour,” he deflects.
“It’s just writing,” chips in Croft, riding to the rescue of her closest friend. “And we’ve written some stuff that we’ve thought, ‘Oh, that would be amazing if that could be sung by this person…’ Just pushing ourselves in different directions. Trying to write with the intention of it not being sung by ourselves. That’s something that is quite fun.
“But, just, kind of, yeah…” she falters. “I wouldn’t say anything like, ‘Yes, message to Beyoncé, we have a song for you…’ But if it happens that would be incredible.”
So just to be clear: did you write with her in mind? “We definitely weren’t trying to put ourselves in Beyoncé’s shoes and write a song!” Sim declares. “It was just that we wrote something, and liked it, and felt like we could… give it up, I suppose.”
Can they tell us the title? Croft and Sim look at each other. As happens on stage, when they face each other with their instruments and stalk the stage together, something almost telepathic seems to pass between them.
Croft [quickly]: “No.”
Sim [catching up]: “No.”
“You were about to say it!” she laughs to him. Sim just looks at her, his eyes boggling a little.
On stage a couple of hours later, The xx bedazzle, bewitch and, you might say, Beyoncé, 2,500 Dutch fans. Courtesy of the sexed-up R&B beats with which Smith has retooled some of their songs, there is more booty-shaking than head-nodding. And even some hands in the air. The lights wink and glimmer, in perfect sync with the music. Images based on their xx logo – designed by one-time art student Croft – beam down from screens.
The voices of childhood friends Croft and Sim weave around each other in lifelong empathy. It’s a total, immersive concert experience, magical and transporting. It’s no wonder that their most recent album is called Coexist. They are all, band and fans, in this together.
Earlier, asked for their individual highlights of their stellar year, The xx had each thought hard.
Jamie Smith said it was the morning in May when he finally handed in the finished album, after two or three sleepless nights, at 6am, had a big fry-up, then promptly went on holiday to Majorca. “That was the first time I finished the album,” he clarified, lips twitching. “There was another month or so after that.”
Oliver Sim said it was walking down London’s Oxford Street with Romy Madley Croft, going into HMV, and seeing a giant poster advertising their imminent album. “There was no backing away from it then – we couldn’t finish it again.”
For Croft, it was playing in Australia and hearing people singing new song “Angels” back at them. “It was so loud!” she gasped, still shocked. “They were shouting – I guess that chorus is pretty… shoutable. That moment it felt like, ‘OK, it’s changing.’ I was so excited.”
And their hopes for 2013?
More writing on tour, “to definitely up the creativity level compared to last time”, said Croft. “I’d like to play in South America,” says Sim. “Same as Romy, really,” says Smith.
The UK tour starts on Thursday at the Dome in Brighton. The album ‘Coexist’ and the single ‘Chained’ are both out now on XL Recordings