The xx: British minimalist indie band
British indie band The xx are bringing their sultry, minimal sound to Hong Kong, writes Amy Russell
After building up a following in Asia, one of the most critically acclaimed indie bands to emerge in recent years are making their Hong Kong debut later this month.
"We've played in Singapore and Japan before, and there was an insane response," says The xx's Jamie Smith. "But [the Asian crowd] is also very respectful - they're quiet at the right times."
The xx's ethereal, minimalistic music has a muted quality, born during late-night recording sessions for their first album, xx, in a west London studio that was converted from a garage. The sound continues to define them.
Smith is better known by his stage name Jamie xx. He is a producer and successful remix artist in his own right and has reworked tracks by artists such as Radiohead and Adele. He's also more than happy that The xx's tracks are being remixed by others.
"I love it," he says. "We spend a lot of time deliberating over who we are going to get to remix tracks from our albums. After spending such a long time working on every tiny little detail in a song, it's really nice to hear somebody take it apart and do their own thing. It gives you a new view of the music you've been making."
Smith - who comes across as humble and mellow, the kind of laid-back guy you could chat to at the pub - is at the forefront of a new wave of remix artists whose reinterpretations are as important as the original recordings.
But those husky, sensuous vocals that make The xx distinct were incubated before he joined the band in 2006.
Romy Madley-Croft and Ollie Sim started the band as a duo in 2005, and met Smith met while studying at Elliot School in London (which also spawned the likes of Hot Chip, Burial and Four Tet).
So how did their sound take shape? "It just came from what we had available to us and our skills when we were 16. As we played more, people noticed that it was minimal. We do think about that a little bit more. But generally we all love that kind of music and we all listen to minimal, simple music," Smith says.
They honed that minimalism into meticulously constructed tracks, their aching, sultry vocals complemented by simple beats and a sense of negative space that emphasises the music's texture and depth while also creating a strangely empty, haunting feeling.
But for all the minimalism, things can still get cluttered when the band are working, Smith says. "When I was in the studio recording our second album, I had a sort of superstition that if I got rid of all the mess that we made during the process, it would somehow ruin the vibe in the room. So it got pretty messy towards the end."
Their debut album was hugely successful. After spending more than 100 weeks on the UK albums chart, it went platinum and won the 2010 Mercury Music Prize. Smith says: "I think that was a good moment for it to happen, because we had just finishing touring and it meant that a whole bunch of people who had never heard us were turned on to our music. So when we went back on tour, after the second album, everything was a lot bigger than where we left it. It was quite exciting for all that to happen without us actually performing."
The band's second album, Coexist, released last year, continues that sense of intimacy and isolation. It is like the after-effects of a long, loud night out - when those distant, thudding beats stay with you.
There's a synchronicity between the beats and Sim and Madley-Croft's intimate, whispered lyrics about heartache and love. So it comes as a surprise that Smith doesn't seem to pay much attention to the words. "I barely even listen to the lyrics, to be honest. I'm more about production."
And what about onstage? "We try to change it so we don't get bored, and if people come to see us more than once a year they won't get bored," he says. "We try to keep the intimacy of our sound in the shows. We also try to create moments where people can lose themselves and … can dance. We like to split it in half, basically. And we like to make it different to how the album sounds."
The xx are steadily growing more popular. Their song Together featured on the official soundtrack of The Great Gatsby.
"I felt that in 2012 there was a lull. I was recording and wasn't concentrating on new music," says Smith. "But as of this year, I've discovered a lot of new stuff from London and around the UK. It's quite refreshing. Especially in the electronic music department. There was a big influence from house music. People are moving on from that, and there are weird new sounds coming out again."
The xx also turned their hand to curatorship. They put on a series of three festival-style concerts called Night+Day, just outside London, and in Berlin and Lisbon. The events featured DJ sets and performances curated by the band, who finished off with a live set.
Given their affinity with festivals, it's no surprise that their Hong Kong debut comes on the back of an Asian tour that also sees them performing at Fuji Rock in Japan. Do they prefer performing in front of a festival crowd, or in smaller alternative venues?
"I enjoy both," says Smith. "I enjoy our own gigs because we have complete control. But I also like the element of surprise at a festival … you don't know what to expect until you get on stage. Not everybody is going to be one of your fans."
At their sold-out gig on July 31 the band will take the audience on "a journey", says Smith. "Hopefully a journey of different styles throughout the show. We are really working hard on making it spectacular."
The xx, July 31, 7pm, Kitec, 1 Trademart Drive, Kowloon Bay, sold out. Inquiries: untitled.asia/