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.
“You can have a room full of people who are having a great time, but the song can actually be seen as something not so upbeat when you strip away the rhythm and the beat. I love the contradiction you get when these lyrics are contrasted with quite brash, upbeat music.”
Sade’s influence on The xx goes beyond music, she notes. “I’d been aware of her music all my life, as most people would have been. But in the last year and a half, we started listening to her music really intently and finding out that it’s really beautiful lyrically. Then we went online and watched interviews with her and realised she was a really gentle, funny, talented down-to-earth, private person and we respected that and could relate to that.”
In an age when it seems many acts are happy to trade their privacy for profile, The xx are an anomaly. There’s no social-media stream-of-consciousness, no gossip-page tittle-tattle, nothing bar the music.
“That’s the kind of people we are. We don’t have Twitter accounts. If I was on Twitter, I’d be really boring because I couldn’t imagine myself writing about what I was doing or thinking like that. It suits us as people to stay low-profile. That feeds into the artwork for the new album too, as we didn’t want our faces on the front cover. I like the idea of people listening to our music who’ve never seen a picture of us and who can make up their mind based on what they’re hearing rather than who we are.
“I think we’re very lucky because we’d had so few instrusions into our private lives. At a time when you can find out anything about anybody really, we feel very grateful for that.”
Between albums, The xx’s in-band producer Jamie Smith (AKA Jamie xx) found himself in the limelight thanks to his Gil Scott-Heron remix album We’re New Here and production and remix work with Drake, Rihanna and Radiohead.
Did these extra-curricular activities have any effect on the band when they reconvened?
“Because of the amount of work he’s done and the people he has worked with, he says he has gained a lot of confidence and learned a lot and broadened his horizons. I mean, he is constantly working. He made that Gil Scott-Heron album when we were on tour, which we hadn’t realised. He’d used his time on tour really well!
“After the tour, Oliver and I rested up and then began to write because we need that quiet time to write, but Jamie went on and did a lot of DJ-ing.
When he came back and we started working, it took a bit of time for us all to fit in again and for him to remember what his role was and what our role was. It was another learning process.”
For Coexist, the band also struck out for a new physical space. Their debut album has been recorded in a then garage attached to their record label’s west-London offices, which was in the process at the time of being converted into a studio.
“We’ve done a lot of growing up and moving on, so we felt ready to move on and find our own space,” says Madley-Croft . “It’s an apartment in Angel in north London, not far from where we all live. It’s not soundproofed, it’s not a fancy studio, just a room with some equipment where we can spend a lot of time. We’re not very loud but we have some patient neighbours nonetheless. They could have ended up with worse bands.
“You don’t need much other than some nice micrphones and some compressors. I hope it inspires people who think they need go to plush studios and spend lots of money. You can do it yourself quite cheaply.”
You can also do it without any outside help. “We have never really considered bringing someone else in for the new album. If anything, we cut even more people out. We had a sound engineer for the first album and Jamie engineered this one. It was just the three of us, which was quite freeing because we could go to our studio and work on it at any time of the day or night without needing anyone else.”
Because of how The xx work, she says the process often results in “Frankenstein” songs. “It’s definitely a collage in the early stages because of how we operate or used to operate. I’d record a file on Garageband and send it to Oliver and he’d record more on top and send it back to me. As we’re never writing or singing to each other, it’s always a bit of a Frankenstein of a song because it’s not like a typical duet. Oliver and I share the song, but we don’t write it by sitting down and singing to each other.”
Madley-Croft says The xx put a lot of store in trust and democracy. “We discuss things a lot because it really is a collaboration between the three of us. Each of us comes in with a lot of ideas and we like to get our ideas across, but it comes down to what happens when we start to play together. We usually play out the idea, record it on one of our phones, play it back and talk it through. There’s a lot of conversation about what bits work and what bits don’t. It requires a certain kind of discipine but it’s what works for us.”
But The xx are also, crucically, about friendship. Here are three friends who’ve been through so much in the past few years and have stuck together through it all. If anything, says Madley-Croft, they’re probably better mates now than they’ve ever been.
“We’ve always been friends. I’ve known Oliver all of my life and Jamie since I was 11. But this journey, for want of a better word, that we’ve been on has made those bonds even closer. They know what it felt like to be there when all of this was going on.
“Making this album brought us closer again because of the emotions and experiences and conversations that went into it. The last song on the album Our Song is the only song we’ve ever written which is actually about the three of us. It’s a song about friendship and what that means. There’s no-one else who can relate to what has happened and it’s really nice to have people who are so close to you to share that with.”
* Coexist is out today on XL Recordings