The year is 2009, and a mysterious South London trio by the name of The xx are blowing critics and music fans around the world away with their debut self-titled record. In an age where indie deities like Yeah Yeah Yeahs, Animal Collective, The Strokes and Vampire Weekend reign supreme, Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith have swiftly joined their ranks on the strength of a beautifully sparse, melancholic album put together in the modest in-house studio at their new label XL Recordings. It’s official: ‘xx’ is a sleeper hit in both the US and the UK, where it eventually manages to land the coveted Mercury Prize and lay the foundation for an overwhelming 18-month touring schedule to capitalize on the trio’s rapidly rising profile.
Fast forward eight years to 2017, and The xx are celebrating the critical and commercial success of their stunning third album ‘I See You’. Landing to rave reviews and top five debuts across the world, the now-seasoned musicians and lifelong friends have expanded their horizons, pouring sunlight over their sparse signature sound and exploring daring new terrain after over a decade in studios and on stages together.
Early next year, The xx will finally bring their shimmering ‘I See You’ tour to Australian shores in Sydney, Melbourne and Brisbane alongside Earl Sweatshirt and Kelela. We caught up with Jamie during some downtime on their US tour to unpack the process behind ‘I See You’ and reflect on the the band’s brightest era yet.
Best Before: Hey Jamie! Where have I caught you today?
Jamie: I’m in Missouri, Kansas City. We’re doing a show here this evening.
Beautiful. Which venue are you playing at tonight?
It’s actually a beautiful amphitheatre. The Starlight Theatre. We’re really looking forward to it.
How was your trip down under earlier in the year for Splendour In The Grass? I heard you were shocked to see how rowdy the crowd were for your set!
Ha! Well, we definitely get all sorts of responses from people in the crowd at shows. It was actually very cold, so maybe that’s why people were moving around a lot. It was so much fun.
I was there, and I thought it was a really special set. You held the crowd in the palm of your hand, which isn’t an easy thing to do on a stage like that. I also really like in your latest live set how there’s a moment where Romy and Oliver step aside and you play out some highlights from your solo work. Can you tell me how that component all came about?
In the beginning when we were rehearsing for these shows, I was actually a bit unsure about doing my solo stuff with The xx. I think I just wanted people to hear what they’d come to hear – they were at an xx show, not a Jamie xx set. To be honest, though, I don’t really remember how I eventually ended up doing it – it’s all a big blur. That set was put together during months and months of rehearsals, and it was actually quite a different and difficult time for us.
It’s actually really interesting and kind of beautiful seeing the dynamic behind your solo career come together with material you’ve made as a trio. A lot of people heard ‘I See You’ and assumed that you were behind the brighter, more vibrant energy behind the record, but apparently Romy and Oliver were also eager to head in a similar direction. Can you expand on that change in approach?
Yeah, that’s right. Basically, we knew that the only way we could have finished the record was if we were all on the same page.
Was there a particular turning point where you decided to switch it up?
I don’t think it was a certain moment or executive decision we made. It was more because we were having a lot more fun in the studio and thinking less about every little thing. We also weren’t thinking about how we would play the material to other people – we were just doing what we wanted without the burden of a bunch of rules. We thought too much about everything on our last record, so it was different this time.
You spent a lot of time on your solo work in between ‘Coexist’ and ‘I See You’. What did you learn and develop in your sessions for ‘In Colour’ that you brought into the studio for this album?
I feel like I got a lot of stuff out of my system with ‘In Colour’ and everything I was doing as Jamie xx. But aside from that, we all were a lot better at our instruments this time around after touring for so long. That definitely made a difference.
“We knew that the only way we could have finished the record was if we were all on the same page.”
It definitely shows – ‘I See You’ treads some daring new ground musically. “Dangerous” opens the album in a big way, and it’s a sound that we haven’t heard from you guys before. How did those massive horns end up on an xx track?
“Dangerous” actually had so many different versions – it was actually much slower at one point. And then I remember Romy sent me back a demo which was a lot faster and was kind of garage-y. I had a sample stored away, and I knew I wanted to use it at some point, so I thought it might work. I remember when we did “Dangerous” I was working in my little studio, which I don’t actually have anymore, and I was still in that mindset where I was making stuff that sounded like my album.
You’ve said in the past that you feel like samples act as your voice. What did sampling look like for ‘I See You’? Was it an organic process, or was it more of a deliberate search song by song?
I don’t really have a particular way of finding samples, actually. I just listen to a lot of music at home, and then I usually have an idea of where I want the song to go. The sample will eventually come in from there. There’s so many times where I will hear a sample and I’ll store it away knowing I’ll use it one day.
“Say Something Loving” samples The Alessi Brother’s golden oldie “Do You Feel It”. Can you tell me how that little moment became such an important basis for the song?
Well, we were doing a roadtrip from Seattle to LA for about five days. We were actually heading over to LA to record, and I remember we were listening to so much music. The Alessi Brothers were a band that we just kept coming back to over and over again on that trip. When we were sending “Say Something Loving” back and forth, the lyrics kept coming back to this weird outro or intro to the song, and it just worked.
I’ve seen Romy and Oliver talk about how they decided to write a lot of the songs for ‘I See You’ together in the studio, rather than over email and online. How do you feel that influenced the way the album came together?
It definitely had a huge impact. It was more away from the music – it made a difference for them as people. It was a decision they made for their friendship, as well as for the record.
How do you slot in with their writing process? What does the dynamic look like there?
I generally leave them to write the lyrics, and I’ll take the song on when they’re ready. They’re usually pretty spot on, and I never really have to do much there. Often we just send each other ideas in the lead-up to a session, and then we’ll all come together and work on them. To be honest, the best stuff comes out when we’re all in the same room.
I’m a massive Drake fan, so I have to ask about your song “Naive”. How did that track come about? It’s such an amazing sample! I wish it was on the full album and not just the Deluxe edition.
I actually wanted that track on the album too! I think it just came down to the fact that he sampled me on “Take Care”, and it just felt like a good thing to do. The lyric in his original track (“Doing It Wrong”) – “It’s the wrong thing to do” – also just worked really nicely with what we were putting forward on “Naive”.
It seems even more fitting when you consider that the title ‘I See You’ was inspired by a Drake show you guys all went to together. Do you still get the opportunity to see live music? What have been some special live music moments for you?
Yeah, I mean it’s pretty much what I still do with my free time – mostly at clubs. We also spend a lot of time at festivals, so we end up getting to see a lot of live music just while we’re touring.
Have there been any festival sets you’ve seen lately that have blown you away?
Well, we’re actually on tour with Perfume Genius at the moment, and I think he’s amazing.
Who was your highlight at Coachella this year?
Oh man, we saw so many good things there. It’s all a bit of a blur though, to be honest. I do remember how nice it felt to play before Radiohead. That was pretty special – they’re one of my favourite bands of all time.
The xx are set to showcase their stunning album ‘I See You’ with a string of landmark shows in Sydney, Brisbane and Melbourne. Here’s all the info:
THE XX | ‘I SEE YOU’ TOUR DATES
+ Featuring Earl Sweatshirt and Kelela.
Saturday, 13th January
Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne (All Ages)
Wednesday, 17th January
Riverstage, Brisbane (All Ages)
Saturday, 20th January
The Domain, Sydney (All Ages)