Last time Dazed met The xx, they were bewildered teens who hadn't sold a record. A year later, they've shifted over a quarter of a million albums and everyone wants a piece of them. We spent some time with pop's shyest success story.
The first time I met The xx, it was only the second interview the band had ever done, and it took place in a sort of outsized cupboard in their record label’s office. This was where they were recording and self-producing their attempt at a debut album. They were a four-piece back then, all wide-eyed, humbly stoked and eagerly looking forward to finishing a record that they couldn’t believe “like, a real, actual label” had asked them to make. This was a year ago. They were still oblivious to all the crazy stuff that was about to happen.
Black-clad, softly-spoken and completely polite to the letter, The xx of early 2009 talked about how they’d all known each other since childhood (front-duo Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim have been best friends since infancy), how they formed the band at school when they were 16, and how they’ve never felt a part of any scene. They talked about skateboarding, about how “Beyoncé is the most exciting performer of our generation,” and about having no great message for the world beyond their music.
They were obviously shy, modest kids, but the brilliance of their intimate and unclassifiable pop music seemed a real surprise, even to them. Romy and Oliver said that the only reason they started singing together was because they were too embarrassed to sing on their own, even in one another’s sole company. They avoided being gender-specific in the lyrics, they said, to avoid confusion about whether they were singing about boys, or girls, or boys and boys or girls and girls. “We never say ‘him’ or ‘her’,” Romy said. “It’s always just ‘you’.”
In the year that followed, the school-friends’ meek expectations were touched by serendipity and catapulted into outer space. It’s been the most incongruously bonkers and batshit-busy time of their lives so far. The xx have peeled themselves from their south-west London bedrooms and recorded, released and promoted-the-shit-out-of a debut that has defied commercial expectation and driven critics across the board into a blissed-out frenzy of appreciation. At the end of 2009, their record showed up on so many end-of-year lists of critical highlights that it started to look like they had a monopoly on the British press. All the critical enthusiasm swelled gradually into frankly boggling commercial success: at the time of writing, xx is headed for sales of 300,000 worldwide. 90,000 of these have been in America, where their album currently sells between five and seven thousand copies a week.
Since their album’s release, The xx have sold out every single live show they’ve ever announced, anywhere in the world. They were a venerated presence at what seemed like every festival last summer. Their drum-pads guy and in-house producer Jamie Smith has developed an acclaimed sideline in remixing and manufacturing beats for other acts. There is barely enough room in these pages, basically, to list these kids’ various astonishing achievements, all of which are all the more astonishing because theirs is such a slow-burning, understated, minimal sort of music. This is a band who are about as in-your-face as Uranus. It’s hard to recall a popular music act so quiet and so slow who have risen to such prominence, so loud and so fast.
January 2010: one year on from our first interview, I am standing in a Berlin nightclub at full throb. This place is so much like the Berlin I’ve been told to expect that it’s weirding me out a bit – it looks like a onceglamorous but long-abandoned hotel, there are two big rooms replete with well-dressed stunners and pounding techno, and my retinas are getting burned off by green lasers. I’m new in town, and the third exchange with a German person that I have, after a taxi driver and a waitress, goes pretty much exactly like this:
Boy asking me for a cigarette: You are from London? Let me guess why you are here: Fashion Week, yes?
Me: No. I’m here to see a band play tomorrow.
Him: What is this band?
Me: They’re called The xx.
Him: Oh my God! The xx! I LOVE this band The xx! I cannot believe it that these people zo young can make this music which is zo intellectual. This is absolutely the best album of 2009!
You might think I made that bit up but I honestly didn’t. Even this guy put The xx’s album at the top of his end-of-year list.
The next day, I go looking for everyone’s new favourite band. The xx have sold out their headline show here in Berlin twice over: they play one set at nine, then the crowd of 1800 get swapped over for another crowd of 1800, and then they play again around midnight. I find the band backstage at the venue, where they’re pottering about inoffensively. They’re at the end of another long European tour and they’re all in good spirits; buoyed up by beautiful Berlin and the prospect of a few days back home. They’re still wearing all black, but they’re looking sharper than ever these days; less like goths in black trainers and New Era hats, more like supra-cool bohemian intellectuals. Romy and Oliver are still in the habit of wearing loads of chains and metal trinkets slung long around their necks. I make a mental note never to push either of them into deep water without warning.
I suppose I’ve gone and convinced myself that this band and I go way back – that because of Dazed’s early interview I’ll get some kind of exclusive treatment – but it turns out that I am in no way the only journalist here. Over the next few hours, an unending shower of reporters, television presenters, photographers and cameramen show up for their 15 minutes with The xx. When I get my chance to do a proper interview, I have to forcibly eject an over-enthusiastic German music writer from the room, which proves difficult because he’s not listening; he’s talking excitedly on the phone to his boss – “Ya, I’m here with them now!” he yelps. “Would you like to talk to The xx?” Everyone wants to talk to The xx. In a rare moment of – gasp – almost impoliteness, Oliver tells him no: they don’t want to talk.
How do a bunch of people this unassuming cope with a whirlwind of promo like this? “I guess this is just a particularly intense day of it,” starts Oliver, after the band’s interview-customary thoughtful pause. “It’s got to a point where it can sometimes get upsetting. We repeat ourselves over and over. Sometimes it can just be annoying to have to explain things.” I make another note to self: don’t ask boring questions. “It’s not necessarily that people are asking us boring questions,” Jamie offers. “It just feels like there’s not that much left to say. We’ve said everything that we want to say to the press, pretty much, already.” Oh, crap.
“It just feels like there’s not that much left to say. We’ve said everything that we want to say to the press, pretty much, already.” – Oliver Sim
Maybe it’s just that The xx identify with all those artists who are staunch interview refuseniks. Do they feel that their art itself does sufficient talking; that all their explanations are superfluous? “Well, no, not really,” Jamie contends, “because the music is quite ambiguous, isn’t it?” Romy runs with this: “Maybe we just don’t have a lot we want to say about it. We definitely don’t have anything we’re trying to say politically. This is just the music that we’ve done naturally and spontaneously, about our lives, our experiences. I never liked having to explain all my workings at school; it’s a bit like that I suppose.”
But all this success must have killed off last year’s charming bewilderment. I mean, 300,000 punters forking out for your album has to bolster the old self-belief, right? “I am definitely still completely bewildered,” says Romy. “I still have that feeling of not being able to believe it. When we spoke to you before, just the fact that we had even been asked to make a real album, by like a real record company, was so great; we couldn’t believe it. And now there are all these different types of people who are into it. I had this allAmerican cheerleader girl, in Georgia or somewhere, coming up to me and asking for guestlist at a show. I never thought our music would reach out to such a broad variety of people like that. It’s… incredible.”
For a group of people who seemed so markedly fond of their bedrooms, The xx have had to spend a daunting amount of the last year on tour. Has it been a trauma? “I think the one thing we’ve really learned is that touring just isn’t particularly creative, just because we’re used to writing on our own, in our bedrooms, in solitude,” Oliver explains. “And being alone isn’t an option on tour.” Romy, in her shyness, agrees. “For me, I can sort of sit there and write something down, but I can’t develop it,” she says. “Because to do that I have to sit on my own and sing. I have to be really alone to do that. Even if I was on my own in this room here, I wouldn’t feel comfortable enough to do that. That’s why I started doing things at night, when I was really left alone, even by my dad,” says Romy. “It’s that solitude that led us in the beginning to actually be creative.”
The lifestyle switch that The xx have lately undergone – from veritable hermits to veritable nomads – has claimed its most significant victim in Baria Qureshi, the keyboard player who left the band just hours before an important London gig in October 2009. Why would they part ways with their old school friend, just when things were blowing up? “Being on tour, being so intensely together for so long, it brought to light that we’d just grown apart as people,” explains Romy. “You become friends with someone when you’re 16, but by the time you get to 20 you’re a completely different person.” Was there a big fight?
Can you imagine these kids ever getting angry? “Well, at the CMJ festival in New York, playing like four shows a day; that’s when things just went a bit bad between us,” says Oliver. “This was a choice that me, Romy and Jamie made, by the way. It wasn’t Baria’s decision to leave.” Do they still talk to their old pal from school? “We haven’t spoken to her since it happened,” Romy states blankly. Was she angry? “No, she wasn’t angry,” remembers Oliver; “she was just…very sad about it. It would have been easier if she had been angry.”
These insular, tight-knit types weren’t about to audition strangers to replace the departed Qureshi, so they’ve had to rework their live show significantly in an incredibly short space of time. Jamie, on all the drum-pads and technological widgets, has taken the biggest hit. He’s got more machines now, and operates them all in a mystifying ambidextrous flurry. Has all this extra work been a bit of a ballache? “I definitely prefer it now,” he’s quick to point out; “…compared to how it was before. It was difficult, to face up to going on with just three of us… but it’s easier now to work on the set, because it was always us three, really, who were interested in actually progressing. Tour life is a lot easier now.” We have to cut our interview short here, so that the band can go and do another one upstairs. Upstairs are more hot lights, make-up artists, cameras and preened-slick presenters. This one is for MySpace TV.
“I hate doing that stuff,” Jamie confesses afterwards over a beer. How come, exactly? “I just feel…” he pauses, stuck for something to say, “… like I don’t have anything to say.” Jamie is the quiet one in a band of palpably quiet people. The biggest laugh of today comes when Oliver and Romy suggest that, were they ever to win any kind of award, they’d force Jamie to go up and make the acceptance speech. Even Jamie cracks up at this. He is reserved, for sure, but there’s a sense that Jamie is perennially sitting on pearls. During an off-tape conversation, about garage and funky, making a beat for rapper Drake, and the paradox of touring, he brings up The Lady from Shanghai, an old film he and Romy just watched on the bus: “I guess we can all identify with what this guy says in that: ‘I was too busy travelling around the world to learn anything about it.’ That sums us up.”
“If I drink every night, then my voice just gives out. And it upsets me too much when I can’t sing. Caning it on tour’s just never really been our thing.” – Romy Madley-Croft
Throughout all our conversations, last year and now, The xx have never done a great deal to intellectualise their “intellectual music”. Romy’s opaque maxim that “we have put a lot of thought into it, and then again, we sort of haven’t” seems to sum up the way they view the creation of their sound. “Naturally” is a concept that comes up over and over, with Oliver insisting that the band have never deliberately attempted to make anything “high-brow”. I try to steer them towards talking about minimalism and about their intentions, and they talk about, like, not having any. They concede that taking things out, rather that putting them in, has always been of great importance. Jamie, murmuring in the back, doesn’t even want to think about their intentions. “I think the thing for me is to try and not have any intentions as to what we’re going to do next,” he says. “Because that’s how the first record came about.”
By nine, the venue is packed out with more of this city’s unending torrent of hipsters young and old, and the band have to shoulder it through the crowd, heads down, to get backstage and get ready. When they emerge (looking the same as they’ve looked all day), it is immediately clear that the new, three-piece xx’s live show is in a rude state of health. Also obvious is that this is not a “quiet” band. Their version of single
“Basic Space” mutates towards its end into a heaving, bass-squelchy noise that makes the floor and the bones vibrate. This stuff never happened before, certainly not on the record this audience have learned to love in their own bedrooms. The set morphs and pulses and throbs harder then ever and somehow stays tender and heartfelt; is actually moving. They don’t say much between songs. Romy stands static almost throughout, Oliver snakes sexily on the spot with his high-slung bass, Jamie juggles his beat-making duties like a coolheaded guy with six arms.
There is a moment that happens in The xx’s set, where there’s the three of them standing in a row; Romy on guitar and Oliver on bass and Jamie hitting two drums (real drums!) with real sticks. It is a completely hypnotising bit, partly I think because it just doesn’t quite look or sound right. It simply doesn’t sound like any other music you can recall being made by a three-piece band with only a guitar and a bass and basic drums. It’s a bit like dance music, only slower and trippier and more heart-rending. How do they do this? That in 2010, and almost accidentally, The xx have pulled off this weird feat, may well be their greatest achievement. They still sound original and fresh and exciting on three bits of analogue equipment that you could find in any school music department.
After the shows I go and find the band backstage. I’ve seen Skins, I know what’s up; I figure these whippersnappers will be down for some kind of debauch. But the trio are sat quietly on the sofas, chatting, not a line of ketamine in sight. “We are just honestly not debauched on tour at all,” says Romy. “If I drink every night, then my voice just gives out. And it upsets me too much when I can’t sing. Caning it on tour’s just never really been our thing.” These kids aren’t even potheads, seriously: where do they get off ? “We’re just not that kind of band,” says Oliver, still sober, still polite.
The last time I see The xx is in a disco night in another typically weird Berlin club that’s got a load of old-fashioned table-to-table phones rigged up. Romy and Jamie are DJing, while Oliver administers the booze on their rider to those of their entourage who want to drink it. There are some fans in the club; some earnest high-fiving goes back and forth across the decks. The xx, in spite of themselves, have gone and got a bit internationally famous. In three days, they fly to Australia for three more weeks of touring.
For Romy and Oliver and Jamie, it’s been a long day, a long night, and a freakily eventful long year. They seem strung-out but happy enough, grateful, optimistic; real friends who look after each other. When their current promo schedule winds down, and making a new record rolls around, it will be the bedroom, eventually, mercifully, that they can get back to again. “I never want to get to a point where every day is like today,” Romy confides at one stage. “We don’t want a celebrity lifestyle… Privacy and solitude. These are the things that we value.”