When The xx debuted in 2009, few —especially the band themselves— could've foreseen their swift rise. The London teenagers —guitarist/vocalist Romy Madley-Croft, bassist/vocalist Oliver Sim, beatmaker Jamie Smith, and soon-to-depart keyboardist Baria Qureshi— were school friends who'd begun a whisper-quiet recording project, and their debut LP, xx, earned comparisons to such staunch minimalists as Young Marble Giants and This Mortal Coil. Yet xx was easily one of 2009's best albums, and by the time the band played the 2009 CMJ Marathon, they were on their way to becoming one of the year's biggest breakout bands. Their album went Platinum in the UK and Gold in Australia, and The xx started turning up in unlikely places: sampled in Rihanna songs, covered by Gorillaz, played in soccer stadiums during the Euro 2012 tournament, and used in countless television spots. After winning the 2010 Mercury Music Prize, the band retreated to the studio in 2011, and after floating the track "Open Eyes (Demo)" the follow-up xx album became one of 2012's most anticipated albums. They finally returned, late in 2012, with Coexist, an album that retained the stark minimalism of their debut in the face of ever-building hype.
Interview: 18 July 2012
What's been the most surreal experience you've had in the past three years?
"Coming to places like Australia. I didn't imagine our music would ever leave London, let alone bring us to the other side of the world, let alone take us to places we'd never thought we'd ever go and find people there that knew all the words. To go to places like the Deep South of America, to be eating alligator in Baton Rouge, it's like: 'how did our music actually lead us here?'"
I know this is the unanswerable question, but why do you think your music did manage to cross over, when its space, and its shyness, hardly suggests popularity?
"I have even less idea than you; I'm in it, so I have absolutely no perspective on it. I don't know. All I can say is that I'm thankful. I've always loved what we do. But it is —and still is— surreal to me. I never ceases to surprise me. It wasn't just the first time I went to Australia it felt surreal, it feels that way now. I can't work out what I was expecting when we made the first thing, but it wasn't this. I think it came as a shock to everyone. It would've been really unrealistic of me —or of any of us— to expect anything on the scale of this."
Had you ever traveled before?
"No, not at all. I'd never left Europe. I was 18 when we started touring. This has been my way of seeing the world. It's been amazing. Sometimes it can be pretty heartbreaking; you can go to a city you really want to see, and you arrive, you do your soundcheck, you do your interviews, then you leave. All you see of the city is the carpark of the venue. You really treasure when you get time to explore, and get a bit lost in cities, that's when you connect to places. When we first toured Australia we did Laneway, so we were literally just traveling from festival to festival, we didn't see anything else."
Did you find it strange to start playing your music outdoors, in the sunshine?
"Laneway was the perfect example of that. We were really used to dingy clubs, to the safety of hiding behind darkness, coloured lights, smoke. Not having any of that, it makes you approach performing in a different way; makes you think of really having to perform, which we'd never really been forced to it. We'd never intended our music to be heard in a setting like that. So it was good to be thrown into that setting. It helped us grow a lot."
The xx are often written about as a nocturnal band; like your music is, for some people, synonymous with 2AM. Is that how it feels to you?
"Yeah, there's definitely a mood. I think that's just a good example of who we are. When I'm at home, I'm definitely not a morning person; it takes me a good few hours to wake up. I work best at night. I do a lot of my writing very late at night when I'm half-asleep. It seems to flow a lot easier, then. It's when we work, so it's only natural that it seeps in to what you do."
How did you come upon space as such a central element in your sound? And, then, keep to it in the face of the digital era's multi-tracked clutter?
"In the beginning it wasn't really thought out. It was a happy accident. Me and Romy don't have very loud voices, it didn't make sense to make a big sound that we can't contend with vocally. And the simplicity came from where we were as musicians. A song like 'VCR,' I couldn't have played any more if I wanted to; I was literally just learning to play my bass. We were recording our demos on a five-track multi-tracker, so it was just two guitars, two voices, and drums. It was limitations like that in the beginning which made the sound, it was very natural. Over time it's become a lot more aware, and it's been a case of having restraint. I think we all enjoy the subtleties in music. And we want to preserve those in our music. We wanted to give our tracks the space to breathe."
How different did making the second album feel versus the first? How much did awareness, or self-awareness, change things?
"I think... I'm trying to analyze it now, and it's funny, because you don't really think of it at the time. Then you get to interviews, and you're analyzing things you didn't actually think about. We didn't feel any extra pressure with it; no more than we were already putting on ourselves. We were given a lot more freedom this time around, which was, I suppose, unusual, given that there were definite expectations on it. But we were left alone, a lot, which was something I really appreciated. We recorded the last album in a side studio in our record label's offices, so people were just naturally coming in and out a lot. And we were gigging at the same time, so we'd leave and go play shows in the middle of recording, test songs out in front of crowds. There was lots of input from other people, which was good, at the time. But we had more confidence this time around. We had the confidence to do this just by ourselves. We were working on it for a year before we played anyone anything."
Did you have a specific idea in mind of what you wanted to make?
"Not at all. One day we just started work, and from there we went song-by-song. There was no meeting before discussing direction. We didn't want to have a direction, we just worked on each song by itself, and let it take us where it wanted to go. It was pretty adventurous. It was only when we had enough songs that we started talking about a record once we had enough songs."
Did you feel the weight of expectations?
"No. But, yeah. It would be an impossible mission to block out everything that's happened from our minds. But because it was so internal —it was literally just the three of us for a year— it made is easy to be... this sounds naff, but: 'in the moment.' The people we work with were very, very patient, and understanding, and trusted us, and just let it do it on our owns. I remember doing an interview on the last tour, and the journalist sat me down, like having a word with me, and he said: 'your second album, you're going to have the worst time; it's going to be awful because there's going to be so much pressure, and you're going to be second-guessing yourself, and you'll change your minds about doing something different or staying the same countless times; it's going to be a horrible experience.' That totally threw me out a bit. But then when we made it, I didn't feel any of those things. The most pressure we felt came from ourselves. We weren't going to release something that we didn't feel confident in, that we didn't love."
Were there periods where you didn't love what you were doing?
"There was a moment when, after a year, when it had still only just been the three of us, that I just didn't know anymore. It was so internal that I lost all perspective. In hindsight, maybe we should've brought someone else's ears in earlier. When we finally played it for someone else, our management, they didn't even have to say anything; it was just nice knowing that someone else had heard it, and it wasn't just the three of us. Because it had been just the three of us for too long; I think in the end we went a bit nuts. That was because, this time, we had our own studio. We don't own the space, but after we won the Mercury, we had enough money we could build the studio in it ourselves. Having that there is a definite luxury. It was nice to be able to spend us much time there as we wanted. But that's also where the cabin fever came from. Having three people in the one room together, 15 hours a day. It gets intense, as you can imagine."