A few days before the much-awaited official release of “Coexist”, the second album by The xx, we spoke to the London trio about their songs and their inner worlds, which remain mysterious.
Before sitting down to do the interview at a table in the coffee shop of a hotel in Madrid, we watch The xx without them knowing that we are here. The three of them are kidding around, sitting on a sofa along with their British manager, who could be their school teacher. While Jamie Smith (producer) makes a paper airplane (which he throws, clumsily, right into the ground), Oliver Sim (voice, bass) jokes with Romy Madley-Croft (voice, guitar). Although they are now 22 or 23 years old, they are acting like teenagers. At the beginning of the conversation they are a little distant, but then they take more of an interest, especially Oliver (the only one who gets our jokes and who even laughs!). Romy is very shy, her muted voice seeming about to disappear at any moment, and she has a very hard time looking you in the eye, even when she is talking to you. Jamie is odd, shy and reserved, but he knows that he is one of the greatest talents in music today and this gives him a pride that is almost offensive.
“Coexist” (Young Turks-Popstock!, 2012), the much-awaited follow-up to “xx” (2009), will be out on Monday, so we are sitting here with the trio trying to break through the veil of mystery surrounding them and uncover the secrets of their songs and lives.
In the new album, there doesn’t seem to be major stylistic changes in respect to the debut. In your electronic pop there still seems to be this duality that - in my opinion - characterises the group, between heights of euphoria and a placid drowsiness, between pleasure and pain. What was your intention with this work, in terms of sound?
[ An uncomfortable silence reigns. Oliver has to gesture to Jamie for him to speak].
Jamie: I like to see this album as a progression in our sound. To tell the truth, I don’t get too wrapped up in the ideas there might be behind what I record, I only care that it sounds good. I think that we didn’t want it to be the same as the first one. The goal was to move ahead. But I don’t think we could go much further ahead, either. In the end, what comes out is what we know how to do, what interests us, what we are.
Romy: The interesting thing is that there are songs that talk about really sad things and yet the rhythm is cheerful. It’s precisely that mixture you were talking about between euphoria and sadness.
"The song is a space where we can project our feelings"
The cut “Reunion” is an example of this idea: the music starts with a dialogue between Oliver and Romy that gives a feeling of confusion and exhaustion, as if it were moving ahead out of inertia. And then suddenly the rhythm changes brusquely, with an exciting atmosphere slipping in and building to a crescendo. It is a very evident mixture between dance and introspection.
Romy: Yes, definitely. In this song, the three of us started to improvise, without really having the melodies that we wanted to develop in mind yet. There is a very introspective part and, at the same time, this is the song that is most influenced by house music on the whole album.
Sometimes when I listen to your music, I feel like I’ve walked in on a couple’s private conversation. Is that your intention?
Romy: We never really talk about each other. I mean, I don’t talk about Oliver and he doesn’t talk about me. We use experiences that we have with other people for inspiration, but it isn’t a dialogue between the two of us, although it might seem like it. The song is a space where we can project our feelings.
What was the process of composition like for “Coexist”? The songs are very different depending on who is singing them; the intonation or type of voice gives one feeling or another. How do you decide who will sing which part?
Romy: In general, everyone writes what they sing. It’s all a really natural process: when Jamie has a melody that could be used for the beginning of a song, he passes it to us. Then each of us works on it separately until we have something tangible and all three of us get together in a room to write at the same time. That’s the first time that we open ourselves up to each other and this is where the final product should come from.
When did you start working on the new songs?
[ They are all quiet again. It’s obvious that none of them are very talkative].
Romy: When we finished the tour at the end of 2010, we had a little free time. We went back to London and we moved out of our parents’ houses. It was a bit weird to go back to the routine of our lives before, so we started thinking about new ideas very quickly. We spent the whole year working, and in the fall we went into the studio.
Would you say that there is an idea that is present throughout the album?
Oliver: If I had to go to the most basic thing, I would say that - like the first one - this album is about love songs. But it’s true that the world that I live in now has changed so much since then … In the debut there are songs that I wrote when I was 15 years old. Then, I didn’t have much experience in love. Everything that I talked about was how I imagined things would be when I did them. Now I am 22, I’ve grown up and I’ve had a lot of experiences. I would say that the lyrics are more autobiographical. In that sense, this is a more honest album. While the first one was forged over several years, this one draws on a very specific period of time: from when we finished the tour at the end of 2010 until the beginning of 2012. For me, it’s all very concentrated. My lyrics, specifically, reflect my experience during the summer of 2011.
"In general, nobody has the guts to tell you how they really feel when they listen to your album"
What happened in the summer of 2011?
Oliver: [ with a shy, adorable little smile]. Last summer… Well, I was in London. A lot of things happened.
[ It’s obvious that no one in The xx is going to talk about their private life to a journalist that they have just met a few minutes ago, but I had to try to cut through the tangle of references and code words that define the group’s music].
When I listened to the album, I felt different emotions, some of them contradictory. In songs like “Missing” ( “and there’s no hope for you and me”) and “Reconsider” it seems like one is suffering all of the pain and sadness in the world; however, there are also cheerful cuts like “Swept Away” and narcotic ones (in a good way), like “Our Song”. Would you agree with me about this?
Oliver: It’s good to hear people’s reactions to your music. It’s especially good when they are new songs and you don’t know how people are going to react to them. In general, nobody has the guts to tell you how they really feel when they listen to your album.
But do you usually think about the feelings your music is going to give to listeners?
Oliver: I think about the listener a lot when I’m writing. That’s why I try to talk about very general things, things that everyone can identify with. We don’t use genders, the words ‘he’ and ‘she’ don’t exist in our lyrics; we don’t talk about specific places or dates. My goal is to connect. I would love it if in the year 3000, a girl in Japan could identify with what I’m singing on the new album, for example. When I think about my favourite songs, they are the ones that made me feel something when I listened to them during the important moments in my life. One of the few things that I always take into account when I write is trying to come up with something universal.
Do you like to listen to your own music when you are alone? How do you feel?
Oliver: Not long ago, I listened to our first album. I still connect with the songs, but I do it very differently than I did when I wrote them. I have never had a diary, but I suppose you must feel the same way when you listen to a song that you recorded a long time ago that you feel when you read things that you wrote when you were someone different. It’s good to be able to remember who you were when you were between the ages of 15 and 19 by listening to an album.
One of the first times that the new songs were played live was at the last San Miguel Primavera Sound festival. How did you feel?
Oliver: We played six new songs. I was very nervous, especially because the concert was at one in the morning. At that hour, people want to have a good time and maybe it isn’t a good idea to play songs that nobody knows. But the audience was very patient and enthusiastic. We didn’t really expect it. We had a very good time. Those days in Barcelona were like a holiday for us. It’s the best festival in the world. We played on Thursday and we stayed there the whole weekend. The 2010 concert was also fabulous, although it was different. I don’t know which of them I would prefer.
"Our music is so specific, every detail of a song is so measured that it doesn’t make any sense to improvise live"
Sometimes it’s said that you are too obsessive performing live, and that you try to play the songs exactly like they sound on the album.
Oliver: At the beginning we did play the songs on the debut the same, so that people would get to know them, but lately we’ve been changing them a lot live. In fact, now that’s what is happening with the ones on the new album - we play them without changing a single note, so that they start to sound familiar. But we like to change the songs that people know. It’s a way to keep up the excitement. And not just for the audience, but also for ourselves.
Don’t you ever get carried away onstage - excited by the response of the audience or by the connection between you as performers - and break the rules?
Jamie: You mean, do we improvise live? I don’t think that we’ve ever done that. We are very specific about the things that we want to do. In the studio, we improvise all of the time; it’s fun and it helps us to find new things. But our music is so specific, every detail of a song is so measured that it doesn’t make any sense to improvise live.
When Baria Qureshi left the band in late 2009, many thought it might be the end of The xx. “The last big one-day fly of the 21st century”, said some. Was it really such a big deal?
Oliver: I don't know why people thought that. We had known Baria for five years, maybe a little more. I think she didn't feel comfortable when things started to grow. Things became very demanding very quickly: the touring, the interviews … But, to be honest, her leaving didn't really affect the group dynamic. In a way, it was even a good thing. Our response was positive, we managed to adapt to being three people instead of four. We became more adventurous, and ‘everything’ happened right at that time. We went on tour in North America. Everything started to grow. People made up stories about the band falling apart, but it actually didn't affect the three of us. Baria wasn't that important when it came to the song-writing; her role in the band was mainly onstage.
Jamie, would you say your work as a DJ, producer for, and collaborator with other artists in the past three years has been a big influence on The xx’s music?
Jamie: Obviously, everything I do, and the music I hear, has an influence on my work. But to be honest, I don't think that the things I've participated in on my own have had any impact on The xx’s album. In this band I'm playing together with two people who I know really well, whom I share a series of references and personal views with. It's something very personal, which isn't influenced by anything outside. But I did learn a lot as a producer by working with different people, and that has undoubtedly helped me try out new things here.
The case of The xx seems significant to me. I think your music in a way defines the times we are living in, where young people master many different references without needing to brag about them, and speak of isolation and feelings in a cold and soulless world. What led you to make this kind of music? What bands did you listen to when you were teenagers?
Romy: Jamie, you answer this one, it's about the music.
Jamie: You two started the band, you should answer.
Romy: Ah. Well, I'd say our first influence were The Kills, because they're a boy and a girl and they're both leaders. We liked the fact they both sing, and the drum sound was very inspiring for what we wanted to do.
Oliver: Yes, it was the group dynamic that inspired us. I'm trying to remember what I was listening to when I was 13 or 14... Bands like Queens Of The Stone Age come to mind. I couldn't tell you anything specific, but I've always listened to a lot of American commercial R&B, thanks to my older sister. A lot of pop, too, even some new wave, through my parents.
Jamie: Many bands say they listen to bands that are similar to them, even image-wise. Not us. I've had episodes in my life when I didn't get out of the house, discovering unknown electronic music producers and new sounds. It's something I still do, and I'll probably keep doing it for the rest of my life.
Oliver, do you still listen to R&B?
Oliver: Yes, especially 90s singers. But there are people now who are doing really good things, too. I think Frank Ocean is amazing; his music is exciting, introspective, very dark. In Barcelona, for example, we saw The Weeknd. I love his live show.
Did you ever dream of being in a band when you were little? Are The xx anything like the band you dreamed of?
Oliver: Before being in The xx, I never really thought of being in a band. When I was a kid I wasn't confident enough to see myself on a stage. Of course, there were bands I loved, but I couldn't imagine myself having a band some day.
Jamie: I'm very happy with who I am right now. I don't think I would be able to do anything else. But I agree with him, I never thought that one day I would be making a living this way.
I get the impression that, at least in Spain, you're spending more time on the promotion of this second album than with the first one. Maybe that's because at that time you didn't have great expectations, and now there’s no choice. Or maybe you've lost the fear of talking to someone you don't know about your things.
Jamie: Do you really think that? I don't know. The process with 'xx' (2009) was very long. Every day the snowball was growing, and we didn't know where it would end up. We had to take on more responsibilities every day, beyond the simple act of making music. Right now, nothing is certain. We're happy to be experiencing this moment, and we're going to do our best to make sure everything goes well.
What's the best thing that has happened to you since you've been in The xx?
Oliver: I'm 22 years old and I've been around the world a couple of times. That's pretty cool. But I think that the best thing being in this band has done for me is that I've gained self-confidence. I'm a different person now, and for that I'm very thankful.
And the worst thing?
Jamie: At the end of our last tour we had been away from home for a long time. That was very hard, being away from London, from our people, not getting any rest... During our last couple of gigs I was really fed up.