Soulful and somewhat somber, The XX talk to Sam Richards about keeping things dark and intimate.
When we meet, The XX are still buzzing from their show the previous night at Amsterdam’s Paradiso Club. They didn’t even play the famous, cathedral-esque main room – that was given over to a Michael Jackson tribute concert – but a tiny basement cell with a capacity of about 30. Intimate and attentive: that’s how The XX prefer their audiences.
“We’ve done our fair share of club nights around London and it never seems to work,” says bassist and vocalist Oliver Sim, who speaks as softly as he sings.
“If I went out on a Friday night and a band came on at midnight, I probably wouldn’t give them my full attention either,” reasons his fellow frontperson Romy Madley Croft.
So when is the best time to encounter The XX? “Maybe after the night out,” Oliver decides.
The XX are a rarity among hotly-tipped British bands in that their music doesn’t force itself clumsily upon you. They don’t write songs that will sound good on the radio. Their music is slow, stark, skeletal. But give it a chance and it will utterly envelop you.
Romy and Oliver have known each other since the age of two. They learned to talk at the same time, and fourteen years later, they learned to sing at the same time too. Baria Qureshi (guitar/keyboards) and Jamie Smith (beats/samples) were friends from school – the same Putney comprehensive, incidentally, that Burial, Hot Chip and Four Tet attended a decade previously.
The foursome have spent most of the last 18 months squeezed together into a studio the size of a small garden shed, gradually honing the sound of their debut album XX. The intensity of the situation didn’t faze them – they say they would have been hanging out together anyway. The XX certainly have the look of a tight-knit gang in which any colour of clothing is OK, as long as it’s black.
“It’s not like if Jamie turned up wearing an orange T-shirt we’d make him take it off,” says Romy, unconvincingly. “He started off more colourful but he’s slowly descended to the dark side,” cackles Oliver. The look complements the music: defiantly not goth, it’s more early-’80s punk meets glamorous hoodie.
Their label Young Turks initially tried to matchmake them with a series of hip producers, Diplo included, but it didn’t work out. “We learnt a lot, but it always ended up sounding more like them than us,” says Oliver. “I suppose there’s a lot of space in our music, and they saw that as an opportunity to fill it with their trademark noises.”
The space between the notes is very important to The XX, even if it appeared there almost by accident. “When we started recording, we couldn’t really play,” admits Romy. To mask their deficiencies, they whacked up the distortion. “Then one day, someone turned it off,” says Oliver. “Good move.”
Romy only strums one full chord on the entire album, which is characterised by simple, crystalline guitar lines, quivered vocals and Jamie’s vaporous production. The fragile atmosphere recalls Young Marble Giants, The Chills or early Cure but with a soulful edge and a steely urban glare.
At first the music seems cautious; guarded even. But listen carefully and the lyrics are full of frank, vulnerable declarations of love and longing. “I still want to drown whenever you leave/ Please teach me gently how to breathe,” pleads Romy on the devastating Shelter.
If you’re trying to discern some sexual tension between the two singers, however, you’re barking up the wrong tree: both Oliver and Romy are gay. “We’re never singing to each other,” laughs Romy. “We’re not Sonny and Cher.” Sometimes, as on “Crystallised,” their verses graze abrasively against each other. Yet even though they both write their lyrics in isolation, they’ll often discover that they’ve subconsciously articulated what the other was feeling.
The XX are voracious music listeners. Signed to a subsidiary of XL, they’ve been allowed to raid the vaults of Beggars group, recently discovering the Cocteau Twins and Arthur Russell. Their vocal lines betray a love of R&B – they do their own, ghostly version of Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire” – while the occasional breathtaking bass drop suggests an intimacy with London bass culture.
“We were recording at the XL offices in Notting Hill during the carnival,” reveals Romy. “We took a break to listen to some of the sound systems and you could feel the sub-bass resonating in your chest. That kind of music is emotive but it’s physical as well.”
Oliver continues: “We walked back into the studio and we were like, ‘Sub bass on all the tracks!’ We had to tone it down in the end.”
“Emotive but physical” is a good way to describe what The XX do too: songs that lure you in gently before punching you in the gut.
Photography: Ben Rayner
Words: Sam Richards
A full version of this article first appeared in Wonderland #19, Sep/Oct 2009