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X-Men: Jamie Smith & Richard Russell

In a rare interview with the publicly-shy duo, Tim Noakes spoke to boss of XL Recordings and producer of The xx in the January Issue of Dazed & Confused

When The xx stood on stage to accept the 2010 Mercury Music Award, there were no crocodile tears in sight, just three humble musicians clad in black trying to process the craziness of the situation. Barely a year had passed since they had recorded their self-titled debut in a converted garage below XL Recordings, yet there they were; live on national TV, with Paul Weller sobbing into his soup bowl and the entire music industry giving them a standing ovation. Since that night at Grosvenor House, the trio have seen their album go gold, watched Shakira cover “Islands”, and grimaced as the Tories hijacked their music for political grandstanding. It’s been a weird ride.

Now, as their unforgettable year fades out, Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims have retreated back into the shadows to begin writing a follow up. Jamie Smith, the shy producer at the heart of their quiet revolution, has decided to go deeper underground. Under the moniker of Jamie xx, he’s taken a sabbatical from the introspection of his day-job to indulge his love of bottom-heavy beats. So far he’s DJ’d at FWD>> and on Rinse FM, released a mix for Colette and a 12-inch on Numbers, warmed up mosh pits for OFWGKTA and, most excitingly, remixed the whole of Gil Scott-Heron’s critically acclaimed comeback album I’m New Here.

Renamed We’re New Here, it’s the 22-year-old’s love letter to sample culture and the history of the UK electronic underground. Against Smith’s booming backdrop of sub bass breakdowns, obscure samples and two-step rhythms, Scott-Heron’s scarred poetic missives take on a more sinister edge. His spectacularly dense refix of “NY Is Killing Me” is as atmospherically menacing as anything Burial or Skream are capable of.

Early on during the sessions for the original Scott-Heron album, Richard Russell, its producer and boss of XL Recordings, knew that he wanted Smith to remix it in its entirety, rather than farming out singles to the great and good of Hype Machine. No stranger to club “I didn’t have any expectations, which has made the whole experience a lot better” culture himself, the man who created Kicks Like A Mule’s 1992 rave hit “The Bouncer” felt that Smith’s textured production on xx and his dance remixes for Florence and Glasser would add a new dimension to his labour of love.

From Liam Howlett and Dizzee Rascal, to Jack White and MIA, Russell has always had a knack for spotting unique production talent. Since taking the helm of XL, the 39-year-old impresario has built an unparalleled reputation for spotting artists who go on to redefine the cultural landscape. His belief in giving musicians total creative freedom has turned XL into one of the most influential independent labels in the world, with Vampire Weekend and Radiohead among their heaviest hitters.

Revitalised by the positive critical response to the sparse electronica he crafted for Scott-Heron (I’m New Here came second in Rough Trade’s best albums of 2010), Russell has refocused his attention on producing again and started releasing grime inspired blog beats under the pseudonym of WLD PTCH. He’s also one of the only producers in the world who can play a drum machine standing on his head.

After weeks of trying to track them down, the famously publicity-shy duo finally agreed to meet Dazed to discuss pop music, pirate radio culture, their evolution as producers and their experiences with the godfather of rap.

Dazed & Confused: Did you both always want to become record producers?
Jamie Smith: My ambition was to DJ in a club, but it was a few years before I got to do that. I gave mixtapes to people but I never really thought about where I was going.

Richard Russell: I also started making mixtapes and selling them. I had a stall in Camden market. That’s really what a record company is, apart from the fact it’s not legal. You sort the music, get the artwork done, do the manufacturing and then sell them. That was actually the most
fun, visceral way of running a record label that I’ve ever been involved in, because you talk to every single person who buys something. It was nice to do that.

Jamie Smith: None of this has been planned. I never had an idea of where I wanted to be and I didn’t ever really think that I’d be able to do this as a living. Everything has been just out of this world. I didn’t have any expectations, which has made the whole experience a lot better. None of us in The xx are performers. At school we were definitely the people who never put our hands up in class. So going from that to playing shows in front of a lot of people is pretty insane. Two or three years ago we could never have fathomed it.

Richard Russell: I definitely never had a plan either, but I did have a feeling of being bored and stifled where I was. I felt an intense desire to go somewhere else. Something about music and fantasy and escape just clicked in my head at a certain point. It had a lot to do with hip hop but also with the breakbeat side of rave as well. All the different things that happened were just ways of transcending Edgware, where I grew up. I wanted something interesting and exciting to happen really. I wanted an escape from boredom.

Jamie Smith: I lived in Greater London, so it wasn’t boring, but I’ve never really been good in social situations. Now I’m trying to be social and do things that most other people do normally. If I’m sitting at a dinner table with a bunch of people, I usually find myself thinking that I’d actually rather be at home making music. I still find it very hard to make myself do anything musically, but when I think about it, it’s actually the most enjoyable time.

Richard Russell: I’d agree with that as well, definitely.

Although you’re quite a social person?

Richard Russell: Yeah because there just isn’t anything as good as that. There was a phase when I just stopped doing it and I was really unhappy, but I didn’t put two and two together at the time. I was always compelled to make music in some way and when you’re compelled to do it you get a release from doing it. If you don’t express yourself, a lot of stuff gets internalised and it could actually do you a lot of damage. I’ve got a feeling that everyone should be either painting a picture or writing a poem or singing a song or making a beat or something. I’m pretty sure it’s part of being human.

Even if it’s not really appreciated on a wider scale?

Richard Russell: That’s not important, it’s actually doing it that is important. Having success is complicated because it comes with plenty of downsides as well as upsides and it can stop people making good things. When I was very young, I had a hit song with ‘The Bouncer’ and“Having success is complicated because it comes with plenty of downsides as well as upsides and it can stop people making good things” a lot of people didn’t really like it. Well, initially people liked it because it was a big pirate club song, but then it got into the charts and people decided they didn’t like it. We did a deal with a major as well and it didn’t work out so all these experiences weren’t really conducive to what I was doing musically. It threw me. A big part of being an artist is how you navigate that stuff.

Jamie Smith: I totally agree. I never really thought about it, but after DJing and seeing what people get into, I’ve been thinking about making stuff just to make people happy. But when you try and make something for other people instead of yourself it kind of messes with your happiness. When we made xx we were pretty naive in everything we were doing, which worked out for us because we didn’t think about anybody else. Since then it’s been hard to get back into that mind frame, but after playing a lot of gigs and DJing a lot, it has come full circle and we’re all making an effort to make things for ourselves again. That’s kind of the most natural thing you can do.

Russell Smith: That’s where success messes with people’s heads quite a lot because once you know that all these other people like it you’ve got to make something for them; but who are they? And what do they want? That’s just pure confusion, “Nobody wants to be in a genre because then you get stuck to it” really. I’ve always said this and this includes my experiences with having a label, I don’t care about the public. Of course I care about their lives, but I don’t care what they think of music. You can’t be thinking about that, people have got to be strong at being themselves. Someone once said to me that they wanted to be me. I thought, ‘That’s just hopeless.’ You’ve got to be like you and do a good job of that.

Jamie Smith: One of the biggest things I think about while making music is progression. So I don’t think I’m going to be trying to make music like we did, I don’t think any of us are. It’s a big deal for me because dance music is the music that I love and dance music is all about progression. I don’t think we can make something that tries to sound like something we’ve done before. We’ll make music because of the music that’s influenced us since we made the last record.

Richard, you once said on Twitter that people connect to The xx because of the space that they leave in their songs. How important is silence in music?

Richard Russell: Well, it’s similar to sub-bass, there’s a sort of secret aspect to it, because it disappears if you listen to it on a laptop or radio speaker. There’s nothing else in music that does that. I’ve always been a real believer in a sub-bass breakdown. It’s quite rare that records actually do that completely because the record disappears. Space is very important because everything is very cluttered now. There’s such a tendency to do so many things at the same time “I think if you do something totally unlike everyone else then people will hear of you eventually” at the moment and any psychologist will tell you that you should never do more than one thing at once. To me, The xx album felt a bit more calm than that. And there’s a lot of space in my Gil record as well. It’s very sparse; he used this word ‘spartan’ quite a lot.

Jamie Smith: I hope not too many people do it though, because it would make it less special, there’d be too much of it. We were thinking about writing songs under aliases for other people where we’d make songs that we still like which would probably mean they’d be quite empty. It’d be nice to put out something really big that still has a lot of space in it and sounds quite different to most pop things but can still be as popular.

Jamie, what led you to make the Gil remix album so club-orientated?

Jamie smith: I admired the original Gil album so much because it all fits so perfectly together. The lyrics and the tracks work so well together, and I didn’t want to lose that element in remixing it. I grew up listening to Gil but I wanted to put it to something that was more relevant to me, it just so happens that this is the music that is popular again now. It also allowed me to try something else, which was how I ended up finding samples that related to Gil.

With vinyl sales on the wane, do you think that the digging in the crates sample culture is dying out?

Jamie Smith: I don’t know, I just really enjoy doing it. I enjoy the idea of using something that was recorded 30 years ago and making it sound new. I love finding an amazing dusty groove.

Richard Russell: Exactly. It takes a fair bit of audacity to sample something. I think a lot of people won’t sample stuff because they haven’t got the balls or they’re worried about how they’ll be judged by other people. If you don’t care about that then you’re more at liberty to do what you want. I can’t think of that many times when I hear people sampling and I think it’s not original.

Have you heard the new Black Eyed Peas track?

Richard Russell: Okay, that’s a different thing.

They’ve sampled “(I’ve Had) The Time Of My Life” from Dirty Dancing.

Richard Russell: Yeah, that isn’t the best approach.

Jamie, what did you make of Shakira’s cover of “Islands”?

Jamie Smith: Shocking. I’m very happy she did it and it was pretty amazing to be on the side of the stage at Glastonbury watching her play our song, but I don’t think she should’ve sampled our record. They sampled my drums on it but
I think they would’ve been better off if they’d just completely redone it.

Was We’re New Here always going to be this bass odyssey?

Jamie Smith: Yeah, because it’s what I was listening to at the time. All my DJ sets are progressions of rhythms and eras of music so I wanted it to represent a DJ set that I would like to hear. I didn’t want it to sound like a DJ set because I would like to hear a DJ set that was fluid and didn’t change as much as my record does. But I wanted it to be progression of sound. I had a concept for the whole thing to be like a good night at the pub and also to represent the music that I love. I wanted to show what I’ve been listening to on the radio for such a long time. 

How much has pirate radio influenced you?

Richard Russell: It’s a massive influence for me and it’s a massive part of the history of everything I’ve been involved in. It’s always been a thread with the label from The Prodigy through to Dizzee and everything else really. I always listen to pirate stations every weekend. There’s a pirate radio music current that flows through British music, which is actually quite undocumented. That’s one of the reasons it’s got some magic because there are all these different genres, all this different music from lovers rock and reggae to speed garage, dubstep and rave. London pirate radio music is basically the best genre ever.

Jamie Smith: Yeah I love it too. I was really happy to be able to play on Rinse before it got its FM license. I mean I’m happy that they got their FM license but it’s nice to have been able to have done that. And I never really thought about it as a genre in itself but it’s true, pirates play such a broad range of underground music that it does all kind of sound like one genre.

Richard Russell: Nobody wants to be in a genre because then you get stuck to it, but that’s not a bad genre to get stuck in – you can do anything. Maybe because it’s happening for the right reason, they’re not on there to earn money.

Is it harder to make pop records than club music?

Jamie Smith: For me, making a pop record took a lot more effort because it was a melding of three different people’s ideas rather than just your own, which is why it came out sounding like that. It’s not a conscious decision, at least for me, to make something hardcore and bass-driven. It was harder and more conscious-driven to make a pop record. When we started out playing clubs we made these kind of house tracks to play live… I’m glad they never surfaced! From seeing people’s reactions in clubs to some of the bad music that we made compared to the other demos, it was obvious what our record should sound like. The Gil remix record is just what I wanted to do instead of having a collage of all three of our influences.

Richard, you once said that when pop music is weak it’s the best time to come through with something that’s completely original. Is now that time? 

Richard Russell: People idealise different eras but in any given time there’s a lot of stuff clogging up the airwaves and the supermarkets. I think people can get the wrong message from seeing what’s out there and thinking, ‘Shit, unless I do something that’s really like what everyone else does then no-one’s going to hear me,’ but I don’t think that’s correct. I think if you do something totally unlike what everyone else does, then people will hear of you eventually.

We’re New Here is out on XL Recordings in February

Photos by Tung Walsh

Shot at Annabel’s in Mayfair, London