The xx may be pop’s introverts, but British electronic band have lightened up and grown up
Known for their claustrophobic sonic textures and minimalist delivery, the British electronic trio shed this gloomy image in their latest album I See You: one they describe as a ‘celebratory’ record that proves they have grown up
The three members of British band The xx had been an impenetrably tight-knit group since their school days together, happy in their own little world. But when success came calling, Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith found themselves pulled in different directions.
Paradoxically, the intrusion of the outside into their geeky existence of electronic music, whispered harmonies and claustrophobic sonic textures seems only to have further cemented their friendship.
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“We’ve had relationships and ended relationships, and grown further apart and grown back closer together than ever before as friends,” Smith says of the past few years.
But we found ourselves in each other, saw one another and appreciated everything a lot more. That has been the biggest inspiration for songwriting recently. And one thing we’ve learned is what makes this band special is our friendship – I See You is a reference to that.”
I See You is the third and most colourful album yet from a band famed and admired for its monochrome austerity and minimalist delivery. And it’s the album that will bring them back to Hong Kong for a performance at AsiaWorld Expo on February 1 as part of the band’s biggest tour yet.
In many ways, I See You is also The xx’s most human record. It adds an organic element and a vibrancy to the band’s trademark brand of downbeat electronic music that has long conjured impressions of the three friends as emotionally delicate and always on the verge of a breakdown.
It includes for the first time samples of tracks from other artists, most notably 1980s yacht-pop stars Hall and Oates, further adding to the perception of a band breaking out of a psychological shell and making their first tentative steps into the outside world.
“On this album, we wanted to do something a bit different this time and get out of London and be a bit less precious about the music,” Sim explains of the process behind album No 3. “The previous album, Coexist, was really more a closed-off experience. It was created with just the three of us in a room in North London. It was our first time making a record when we had an audience and people noticed stuff in our music that maybe hadn’t been intentional in the first record.”
The three members of The xx bonded in a south London state school that counts electronic music giants Four Tet and Burial as former pupils. (Croft and Sim had been friends since toddlers). They formed a tight gang that let their shared love of dance, hip hop and indie music do the talking for them.
Originally a duo of Sim and Croft, they later expanded to include another friend, Baria Qureshi, before Smith was eventually brought in. Success came quickly after the release of their debut album – critical acclaim poured in from the dance and indie worlds, and soon they were headlining their own tours.
The departure of Qureshi couldn’t slow their ascent, propelled by endorsement deals that saw xx music providing dramatic musical backdrops for everything from the BBC’s coverage of the 2010 general election to NBC's Winter Olympics bulletins and movies including Project X.
The debut was a brooding record that had the claustrophobic feel of a band playing in your living room. Follow-up Coexist was a similarly taut offering that didn’t stray far from the path beaten by its predecessor. I See You, however, is playful, has some floor-filling bangers and, by the band’s own admission, has cast off some of the gloom of the previous records.
“I’d say it’s a celebratory album on the whole,” said Smith. “Of course, given what we’ve done before, our version of celebratory is possibly pretty different from somebody else’s. It’s also about growing up, friendships and family.”
If The xx had feared letting in the outside world, they’ve subsequently found needn’t have: it’s proven beneficial for all involved. After touring the world with Coexist in 2013, the three decided they needed time away from each other.
Lyricist and vocalist Croft jetted off to Los Angeles to develop her songwriting skills with the likes of R&B star Kelela. She also found time to forge a romantic relationship with the band’s costume designer, Hannah Marshall. It’s a relationship Croft has said helped her better face the outside world. They announced their engagement earlier this month.
Singer and co-songwriter Sim, always the least confident of the three, had suffered most from the rigour of touring and had begun turning to drink as a way of dulling the offstage boredom. He’d also developed a paranoia about the other two that fed into his inferiority complex. It took an intervention from the others to snap him out of his funk.
Most notable, though, was Smith’s emergence as a dance production powerhouse in his own right. Having already remixed albums for the likes of jazz legend Gil Scott-Heron and tracks for Drake and Rihanna, in 2014 he released In Colour, an solo effort of infectious dance and soul that spawned five hits singles.
Always the band’s techno boffin and almost permanently surrounded by banks of synths and percussion instruments, it was his solo work – to which Croft and Sim contributed – that seems to have helped galvanise the band to regroup for I See You.
“We find sometimes working on different things can help influence each other,” explains Croft. “For example, when Oliver and I worked on Jamie’s album, we worked in a completely different way to what we were used to and this helped us when we came to making music as a band again.”
Sim adds: “In the studio with him, we never thought it was going to be played live because it’s a dance album. We loved how that was and on this album we kind of carried that idea through.
“Jamie’s album was an opportunity to work in a different way, which definitely influenced I See You. I think it was a natural progression – working with Jamie on his record certainly helped us as a band open up the way we were writing, to include more outside influences. It’s not a new image all together, but maybe we have grown up a bit more.”
The xx, Feb 1, 7.30pm. AsiaWorld-Expo, Hong Kong International Airport, Lantau HK$720 Ticketflap