17 Jan 2017

The XX - back together and closer than ever

From RNZ Music
The XX - Jamie Smith, Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim

The XX - Jamie Smith, Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim Photo: supplied

Introverted English minimalists, The XX, have expanded their sound palette on their third album I See You. Jamie XX talks with Kirsten Johnstone about creating joyful songs, and reflects on the strong bonds within the band.

It's been five years since Co-Exist, the last album from The XX, and eight since they were thrust as shy and reluctant teenagers onto stages around the world.

With the sparse and intimate sound of their debut, childhood friends Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim, along with producer Jamie Smith (Jamie XX), became a critically acclaimed band.

While Co-Exist attempted to follow the formula that had worked for them, it failed to progress their sound, something that is rectified on their new album.

Bounding out of the gates and onto the dance floor with 'Dangerous' the album's lead track, it's clear this is a great jump forward for The XX. The lyrics go deeper, the beats more varied, textures are borrowed from their previous work and samples are magpied from Hall and Oates 'I Can’t Go for That (No Can Do)', The Alessi Brothers 'Do You Feel It' among others. They were songs included on the playlists that accompanied the trio on a week-long road trip down the west coast of the US.

"We were listening to everything from techno to yacht rock to jazz", Smith says.

"Over the last few years our listening tastes have got broader and broader, which kind of explains why the album is so varied." 

Smith's production has become more confident off the back of his 2015 solo album In Colour and drives The XX through the nostalgic dayglo haze of early 2000s raves. He provides one of the standout moments of the album, with his devastating textural reply to Madley-Croft's lyrics on 'Test Me'.

The XX - Oliver Sim, Jamie Smith, and Romy Madley-Croft

The XX - Oliver Sim, Jamie Smith, and Romy Madley-Croft Photo: supplied

But the vocalists' range has grown too. Madley-Croft went to Los Angeles to study pop song writing.

"When she came back, she realised how lucky she is to have the band, and to be able to work in not such concise and rule-bound ways. With us it's more just throwing ideas into a pot and hoping that it works. And it usually does." 

The self-described introverts have come to enjoy the challenge of performing to stadium-sized crowds, but were taken completely out of their comfort zones when they played ten shows in 2014 to audiences of around 45 people at Manhattan’s Park Avenue Armory Drill Hall. With attendees including Kanye, Beyoncé, Jay Z and Wes Anderson, it was a high pressure situation.

"You could cut the atmosphere with a knife," Smith says.

"It was terrifying. But it inspired us, and straight after those shows we drove to Texas and started the album."

If I See You has an over-arching theme, it's of the closeness and friendship that this trio share.

"We all understand each other a lot better now. We've shown each other much more vulnerable sides of ourselves, and we're closer for it. The music is more joyous for it in places as well, and I think that it's also allowed us to open up and be seen a little bit more by the rest of the world."