The xx chat to Time Out about the dark days that sparked their brand-new sound
Time Out Dubai staff
Guitarist-vocalist Romy Madley Croft is the most unintentionally funny of the three members of The xx. Bassist-vocalist Oliver Sim has charisma in spades, whereas beats and production whizz Jamie Smith (aka Jamie xx) rests mostly silent, picking almonds out of a long tumbler, describing “stuff” as either “nice” or “really nice”. Still, there’s so much to talk about, such as the band’s decidedly brighter left-turn of a third album, which finds the group at its sonic peak. For an act that attained a deafening amount of buzz from the get-go – with its musicians still teens at the time, no less – that really is saying something.
The trio grew up together in London. Their early-era-defining albums xx (2009) and Coexist (2012) are monochrome exercises in spiky, sparse atmosphere by glum-looking youngsters who went on to be lauded by the likes of Drake and Rihanna. Their long-awaited third LP, I See You, which dropped earlier this year, changes the playbook and follows the yellow brick road to Technicolor electronics. Instead of being the type of celestial, hushed music to serenade you on the night ride home, I See You seems built for the clubs. From its opening jazzy horns on Dangerous to the sultry rhythms of Lips, it immediately surprises you with its heart-in-mouth sense of romance, particularly as it stems from a group usually too timid to make eye contact. The three look to have physically grown into themselves onstage, too.
Despite the outward expansion of their music, they remain almost inaudible during the interview, as though they’re terrified someone is about to tell them off for talking. For the xx, silence – or near silence – has always been their comfort zone.
But recently, while spending their longest time apart after recording their new LP, the quiet became uncomfortable. “We’d never missed each other before,” explains Croft. She was in LA, falling in love with the city, Smith was out on the road with his 2015 solo album, In Colour, and Sim remained in the UK.
Over 17 months, the production for I See You was the most protracted of all the xx’s records, occurring in New York, LA, London, Reykjavík in Iceland and Marfa in Texas. “It’s been the exact opposite of any other experience we’ve had,” notes Smith. They had never worked in a big-budget studio before, only small rooms. Coexist was completed before they played it for anyone. This time they shared material at earlier stages. Sim reckons it helped “chill things out” and curtailed them from limiting themselves like before.
Album three also pushed them sonically. Smith’s solo efforts encouraged a brighter, more ambitious sound from Sim and Croft, who, left to their own devices, became far more self-sufficient as songwriters.
“I felt very envious going to Jamie’s DJ sets, watching him make people dance,” says Sim. “I said, ‘I want this for us.’ ”
That period also bought time for Sim and Croft. “We got to know ourselves offstage,” she says. “That helped me deal with things I hadn’t dealt with in my life.”
On their current tour, Croft performs the song Brave for You, an ode to the family she’s lost. Her mother died when she was 11, and her father when she was 20, the same year her cousin, whom she describes as being like a sister, passed. She didn’t address those losses until now. “I was worried about that song,” she says. “It represents a time when I was reconnecting with the memory [of my family], going to that place I blocked out for so long.”
The demo was heartbreaking. But in the hands of the trio, it became euphoric and triumphant. “Now I feel that in the song. I don’t feel raw or cut open. I’m looking forward.”
The xx is so much more than just a band. It’s a family, a lifeline, a surviving friendship. Before 2015, the group had only ever been separated for school summer breaks when they were teens, and the distance caused problems. “It wasn’t great,” says Sim. “There was a lot of assuming. I worried that we were growing apart. There was a long period when I thought I had done something, and Romy thought she had done something.”
“We didn’t wanna be vulnerable, so we said things on text,” says Croft. Sim chimes in: “Texts are the worst. You read [them] a million different ways.”
But the family dynamic of the xx is intact once again. As jet-setting as the group has become, London remains home. Last month the trio played seven sold-out shows at O2 Academy Brixton and curated its festival, Night + Day, spending days in the local community and nights bringing out special guests like Robyn, Florence + the Machine and Jehnny Beth of Savages. Those shows were particularly special, but Croft describes the band’s most recent South American stint as “pandemonium”. “We’re not used to people screaming, crying and singing along to everything,” she says, laughing. “We stand still and people just go for it. It’s overwhelming.”
I wonder if this is the success they imagined. Croft scoffs. “In the beginning, we were unambitious. We didn’t think it could go anywhere beyond the pubs we played in London,” she recalls. “Somewhere along the way, we fell in love with it, and we’re very ambitious now. Funny, I don’t know how that changes.”
These days, each band member is nothing if not ambitious. “This is the first time I’m saying this: I would love to put music out outside of albums,” says Sim. And Croft wants to continue songwriting for others, as she has with the likes of OneRepublic. “It’s still a dream of mine,” she admits. Smith, a man of few words, doesn’t have many thoughts on the future other than doing a film soundtrack. He ponders sci-fi but casts it aside, claiming the best space movie has already been made: Interstellar. “I like cheesy teenage romantic comedies,” he says, finally cracking a grin. Lucky for him, with the xx he can continue to create soundtracks for plenty more of them. I See You is available on itunes.apple.com.