Less is greater than more
SO WHAT’S THE weirdest thing that has happened to The xx over the last few years? Romy Madley-Croft pauses for a moment. It must be quite strange to calibrate and guage everything that has happened to her, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith since The xx launched their debut album back in 2009.
Back then, they were relative unknowns, blinking into the limelight with a sublime set of songs which went on to steal many hearts. Fast-forward three years, add in accolades, awards and anecdotes, and you’ve a trio who’ve experienced the proverbial rollercoaster ride.
In the midst of this maelstrom of memories – winning the Mercury Music Prize, showing BBC current affairs rottweiler Jeremy Paxman how to remix a tune, hearing your band pressed into service to soundtrack everything from football highlights to election counts – Madley-Croft plumps for one of the stranger juxtapositions that occured.
“A lot of weird things have happened,” she says, “but my favouirte was Shakira covering Islands at Glastonbury. We’d met her when we were both on Later With Jools a few months previously and she came up to us afterwards and said she liked the song a lot. Hearing her doing that was weird. You never expected that.”
Today, Madley-Croft is looking forward as well as backwards. The xx’s new album, Coexist, is ready for release and the band are back to talking to people, trying to make sense of why the music of these quiet, shy, polite, reserved south Londoners has struck such a chord.
If anything, Coexist goes further into minimalism than their debut. It’s as delicate, atmospheric and broody as their original calling card, but it’s as if they’ve removed even more sounds and ingredients to amplifty the subtle, sparse, streamlimed whispers and textures. Yet for songs which are often slender and slight when you deconstruct them, Coexist still packs an emotional, melancholic, mighty punch.
For the band, it was about realising that such minimalism is their forte.
“It wasn’t an actual intent to take even more out, as a growing awareness that our music was minimal and that’s how we operate best,” says Madley-Croft. “On our first album, we didn’t think we were making stipped-back and pared-down music, it was just the way it turned out.
“When we record music, we want music which can be playable live, so we don’t do layers and layers that can only be replicated with more band members.
“With this album, we realised that’s the sound we really love so it was natural that that’s the sound we went with. When we listened back to stuff we’d done, we often just take things away rather than adding things. With big pop choruses, you tend to get a lot of layers to give the song emotion and drama. But if you take things out, you often can get a similar feeling.”
You hear an interesting mix when Madley-Croft talks about what has influenced her and her bandmates. She mentions Philip Glass (“I really appreciated his use of repetition”), dance music and Sade.
“Jamie said early on that the album was going to be influenced by dance music, so people might have been expecting more beats,” says Madley-Croft. “But dance music can influence you in so many different ways.
“I listen to a lot of house and disco, and the lyrics are often quite heartbreaking on those songs.