The xx are more than an indie band. They’re figureheads of a genre, if not a movement. But The xx still consider themselves merely three best friends making music. Now the Brits are back with I See You – 2017’s first key album. It signals a reinvention – and a rejuvenation.
In December Romy Madley Croft (guitar, vocals), Oliver Sim (bass, vocals) and producer Jamie “xx” Smith descended on Australia (via Japan) to exclusively promote I See You. Evidently, their label, XL Recordings, flushed with funds from Adele’s sales, is reinvesting.
Music Feeds caught Sim and Smith lounging around a posh Melbourne hotel, attired in their distinctive black. The xx are known introverts – and wary interviewees. To win the band over, we joke about taking them on an Aaliyah ‘sights of Melbourne’ tour – the late avant heroine filming Queen Of The Damned locally. Indeed, The xx are Aaliyah fans, covering ‘Hot Like Fire’ early on. “Oh, awesome!” Sim responds.
While Smith broods, ‘Oli’ is almost merry. A charming conversationalist, he puts everyone at ease – Smith included. Astonishingly, Sim recently revealed to Pitchfork that he’s battled alcohol dependency, describing his social anxiety and possible impostor syndrome. He’s now sober.
Watch: The xx – On Hold
The xx have their own chronicle. Sim and Croft were childhood buddies, eventually attending South London’s modest Elliott School (among its alumni Burial and Four Tet). Furtively exploring music, they conceived a vehicle as co-leads – bringing in another shy outlier, Smith, as their electronics/percussion guy, plus guitarist/keyboardist Baria Qureshi. The teens harboured no ambitions beyond gigging. However, A&R-type Caius Pawson discerned The xx’s potential, nurturing them for his XL imprint Young Turks. The xx experimented – and dispensed – with external producers like Diplo. In 2009 they debuted with xx – ushering in a spectrally austere neo-trip-hop. Sim and Croft sang fractured duets about angst and desire over claustrophobic, shoegazey atmospherics. Though both identified as gay, they notably declined to use gendered pronouns – their lyrics ambiguous yet all-encompassing. The sleeper xx scooped the Mercury Prize. By then, Qureshi had been discharged over some murky drama. In 2012 The xx, accidental enigmas, returned with that traditionally ‘difficult’ second album, Coexist – introducing a subliminal club influence.
Today The xx aesthetic – amorphously classified as ‘post-dubstep’ – is pervasive. The band can’t hear it. “I think we’re too in it to have that kind of perspective; to pick up on it,” Sim says. Smith reckons that The xx’s sound is increasingly “convoluted”, anyway, since they listen to such diverse music (check their Spotify playlist, ‘in the studio’).
Regardless, with I See You, The xx have concluded a trilogy, each album transformative. “The first one [xx] was quite naive,” Smith contemplates. “All the music was made by playing live and then recorded after working out how it works live. The second one [Coexist] was kind of done whilst thinking about what we sound like – maybe overthinking about what we sound like. It was very insular and [had] moments of darkness – especially looking back… I didn’t quite realise at the time, because we were thinking about the success of the first and working out how to do the second. The third one [I See You] is us having come out of the other side of that and played lots of shows for [Coexist] and really pushed ourselves in a lot of ways and getting to the point where we knew that we wanted to have a different process and do the exact opposite of what we did for those [previous albums] – to go away from London and be in completely different landscapes and make music for the moment, rather than thinking about what people might wanna hear.” Sim concurs. “The biggest change is just confidence. We’re a lot more confident.”
I See You sounds nothing like The xx of old. For one, they revel in their love of pop (The xx have performed Wham!). I See You is their most uptempo and sanguine outing. The xx’s vocalists are also surprisingly demonstrative. Not that there isn’t anguish. I See You thematises beginnings, endings, and change. Less banger than shuffler, the single ‘On Hold’ deploys a subversively flippant Hall & Oates sample – but captures the dissolution of a relationship. Croft sings of losing her parents in ‘Brave For You’. The finale, ‘Test Me’, is band therapy, alluding to Sim’s struggles.
Smith emerged as a cult producer with We’re New Here – his Gil Scott-Heron remix album. He’d consolidate his dance music cred with 2015’s retro-future solo set, In Colour. It received a Grammy nod. And, with its tropical party vibes, In Colour bled into I See You. In fact, Smith’s bandmates cameo-ed on In Colour, Croft carrying the single ‘Loud Places’. The projects were partly recorded in tandem. “To me, it feels like quite a natural progression – just in terms of the music that I’ve been making over the years,” Smith suggests. “Working together on my album was a different thing because we were working in twos and we were working towards something that wasn’t The xx and that never had to be played live. So a lot of the rules weren’t there that we had for Coexist. [But] then we just kind of kept doing things like that and caring less about things that we’d cared about before and making things that we thought sounded good at the time.”
With Smith establishing himself globally as a super-DJ/producer, the other members maintained low profiles. “I took it as an opportunity to have a bit of a life outside of music,” Sim admits. He modelled in a Dior Homme campaign. As for his foil? “Romy moved to LA for a while – [she] did a lot of writing within the pop machine.” Bizarrely, Croft has a writing credit on OneRepublic’s Oh My My. Yet the pair fretted over Smith. “There’s been moments where me and Romy have craved time with him – he hasn’t been so available,” Sim states. But, he emphasises, he and Croft devoted that time to prepping xx songs.
Listen: The xx – Say Something Loving
The xx cut I See You in New York, Texas, Iceland and Los Angeles, wrapping it at home. “We’ve never worked in a proper studio, until this album, and never worked outside of London – [we] just wanted to be a bit open to the world,” Sim says. Ironically, these adventures allowed them to reconnect. The xx’s strangest destination was Marfa, a contemporary arts hub in the Texan desert. “There’s something unexplainably magic about it, because a lot of artists go there to find themselves,” Sims enthuses. “It’s half-authentic cowboys, half-artists.”
Despite their historic autonomy, and Smith’s studio prowess, The xx asked Rodaidh McDonald – XL’s in-house producer – to assist with I See You. Smith proffers, “After we did Coexist, we realised that we need some sort of outside voice for our own sanity and just to be able to reflect ideas off somebody who’s not in our… (“Bubble?,” Sim pitches helpfully.) We had that for xx with Rodaidh [as engineer]. Then I wanted to try and do it myself for the second album. I did – and I’m glad I did – but having to take on the engineering side as well as the creative side definitely stunted both.”
The xx are closer – and freer – than ever, because they’ve opened up. The group have learned not to be complacent about their bond. “‘Cause we are the best of friends, sometimes you can just assume the other one knows how the other one’s feeling,” Sim divulges. “So we’ve had to work on communication.”
The xx have jointly accepted unusual side-projects. Contributing ‘Together’ to The Great Gatsby soundtrack, they experienced flamboyant Aussie director Baz Luhrmann’s famed attention to detail. “We had a few dinners with him before we even started working on it,” Sim relates. Luhrmann supervised their orchestral session. “He must be an absolute control freak – but in a way that we completely admire.” Incidentally, Luhrmann’s ’90s emo Romeo + Juliet is one of Sim’s favourite movies.
These days Smith has the cachet to produce pop acts like Drake (Take Care‘s Rihanna-blessed title-track), only he’s ambivalent. “It definitely is not something that I’m comfortable with. Going to an unfamiliar place and hanging out with the superstars – it’s not casual. You have to make an effort – and you also want to do really the best you can all the time… It always makes me realise how good I’ve got it with the band – and how natural it feels compared to anything else.”
Next month The xx will hit the road (they’ve sold out seven nights at the Brixton Academy in March). Smith confirms that they’ll tour Australia this year (Splendour In The Grass, people?).
At the interview’s close, Sim worries that they haven’t discussed the most obvious thing about I See You: its obliquely symbolic title, lifted from The Velvet Underground’s song ‘I’ll Be Your Mirror’ with Nico – the line here denoting acknowledgement. He turns to Smith. “I’d love you to talk about the title – please!” Sim entreaties. Smith: “Why me?” Sim: “‘Cause you’re so good at it.” Smith: “But we’ve covered it.” Sim: “Okay.” All eyes on him, Smith again deflects. “We have covered it.”
‘I See You’ is out this Friday January 13th 2017. Pre-order a copy here.
Listen: Velvet Underground and Nico – I’ll Be Your Mirror