How The xx Discovered The Sound Of Two Hearts Whispering
Their music is as simple, minimal and understated as their band name. Still, clear and uncluttered, it sounds like the middle of the night. When I learned that’s when the members of the xx recorded their album, it did not surprise me. I didn’t even need to be told – it’s obvious. Theirs is an intoxicatingly intimate sound that’s hooked the ears of an ever-expanding network of devotees worldwide, certainly here in Atlanta where the succession of venues they’ve played tells the story. Their first show here was booked at 529, as Stateside buzz about the just-released debut album, xx, was just starting to percolate; by the time the band, then a quartet, arrived in town the show was considerably sold-out, and an in-store performance that day at Criminal Records packed the store. Their next time through, by that point even more minimal as a trio following the departure of guitarist/keyboardist Baria Quereshi, they sold out Variety Playhouse. Now, on their third and final US tour for xx, the London-based band’s headlining the Tabernacle. Their reserved, spidery music does not seem like it would translate properly in venues much larger than that, but if their second album – which they plan to write and record late this year and next – is as solid and alluring as the debut, we may have no say in the matter. Hell, Shakira’s even been covering them!
I spoke with vocalist/guitarist/lyricist Romy Madley Croft the day after the xx – Croft, vocalist/bassist/lyricist Oliver Sim and producer/beatsmith Jamie Smith – won the coveted Mercury Prize for their debut album, yet another feather in their collective cap. And they’re all of 21 years old! Naturally, Ms. Croft was in a cheery mood…
Congratulations on the Mercury Prize win! The band gets 20,000 pounds for that, and I understand you’re planning to set up your own studio with some of the money?
“I think so, yeah. We made this album in our record label’s converted garage. It was great, we got to work there for free, and the album was made for next to no money, but we’d really love to make our own space to work, just for ourselves, for in the future. I think it’s just going to be a room in Jamie’s house. We really like the way that we’ve worked before, and…we’re very aware that our music does sound a certain way, and I really don’t want, just because we have a bit more access to money or resources, to suddenly bring in strings or something. Unless they’re already there.”
You still live with your parents?
“Um, yeah. Kind of.”
I know you spend most of your time on tour. I guess you’ll probably be moving out soon.
“Yeah, that’s kind of the first, number one on our list when we get back [from tour] in October. We’ll be looking for places. Doing the natural kind of growing up, moving out from home, that sort of thing.”
You’ve been playing larger and larger venues. Yet your music is so intimate sounding. Do you think it comes across as well in the bigger places?
“It is, definitely. There’s always a fear that it wouldn’t work, and as we’ve been growing into bigger [theaters], I guess I like to hope that it will. And I’ve really been surprised by the way that it’s worked, even though it worked in a way that I never thought it could. When we were making these songs and when we were playing them live, we were playing to about five people in a pub. The fact that we’re now playing to thousands of people at a festival on an outdoor stage, it blows my mind a bit! The songs weren’t written with the intention that they would be played that way. But just by playing every day, we’ve changed the songs a bit. The songs are extended in places, they’re slightly different in places, and we’ve spent a lot of time thinking about our live thing, to sort of make it more of a show now that we realize we’re playing strange places and to more people. So we are conscious of it. We’re trying to make it work. We hope it is.”
When you’re writing and recording your next album, do you think you’ll take all that into account?
“I think probably. I mean, we can’t help but sort of take everything that’s happened into account. We’re better at playing our instruments now than we were. A lot of people say that our album is minimal and simple, but it’s mainly because we couldn’t necessarily play our instruments very well. It was partly a mistake. We weren’t that good at it. So, it’s kind of interesting. We can play our instruments a bit better, we’ve been playing every day, and we’ve heard a lot of music all over the world. I think we’ve all grown up as people as well, so it will be different. But hopefully it will still sound like us.”
That’s funny that it wasn’t really intentional. Because everyone’s making such a big deal about how cool you sound.
“It’s a happy accident.”
Have you even started working on material for the second album yet?
“I’ve started to write lyrics. But it’s all very much in the baby stages of anything, I think. We like to work really separately when we first come up with ideas. And we haven’t had any time to be separate lately! So we kind of need that initial sort of time apart, to sort of get back to being creative again.”
You and Oliver have been friends since age three?
“Yeah, since we were three. He’s basically like my brother. And so is Jamie, really. We knew Jamie since we were 11. So we’ve all grown up together, really.”
But you don’t write together?
“Yeah, I think because of the dynamic of our relationship, because he’s like my brother, and these songs are all love songs, we write very separately about our own personal experiences, and then we kind of use the space of the songs as a sort of a conversation, a sort of collective space to express ourselves, but not about the same person, or about each other, or about the same situation. It’s two different conversations happening in the same song. We try and fit it around the same theme, but we’re never addressing each other in the same song.”
Any plans to add someone else to the lineup to be a quartet again?
“No. Well, we’ve been a three-piece since October of last year. The main part of our touring has been just three, and the whole of our band is based on the fact that we are three really good friends, and I think if we were to add someone else it would be just as weird for them as it would for us. We’re so close, I think it would be strange. We’ve tried our best to make it work as three, and I think we’re doing alright.”
Did you always intend to not have a live drummer?
“Well, actually, in another sort of twist of things, Jamie did play live drums. He always has been quite shy, and when we first started he didn’t want to play live drums with us. Mainly because he didn’t feel comfortable that he was a very good drummer. I mean, I think he’s good, but he didn’t think he was good. And he wanted to be innovative, and he didn’t think he could be with live drums. So Oliver and I just made the electronic beats ourselves, which were pretty basic, and not very good. So in a roundabout way, we asked him to make electronic beats for us, because he was doing some production work and making some sort of hip hop at the time. And then eventually he got an MPC and he didn’t know how to play it, so he played it the way he thought was right, which was to hit it, as if you’re playing in live time. So in another accident, that’s how he came into playing electronic drums.”
I’ve heard you were influenced by The Kills in that respect.
“Yeah, definitely. That was a big influence for Oliver and I, as a boy and a girl, and both sort of singing at the same time – they do a lot of very cool interaction with each other. And just the fact that they were just out there, the two of them, the same amount of tension – neither of them were the lead or the backup singer. They’re just both up there. We really liked that. We were very inspired. And also the sort of backing track drums. But at the same time, we never had live backing tracks for ourselves – we were always hoping it to be live. So we kind of took what they did but wanted to keep it live.”
So it seems to me your sound is just a series of accidents that turned out for the best!
“Yeah, it’s complete sort of hapless…we just had no idea what we were doing, and it just happened to work out quite well, ha ha ha!”