"Envious" is the word that The xx bassist Oliver Sim, huddled next to bandmates Romy Madley Croft and Jamie Smith in a hotel room at Melbourne’s Grand Hyatt, uses to describe how he felt watching Smith perform as a solo artist.
In 2015, while the London trio was effectively prolonging its hiatus following its 2012 album Coexist, Smith (who performs as Jamie xx) released a dance album, In Colour, that was critically beloved and yielded an international tour.
Compared to The xx’s delicate, heart-rending pop, the squelching bangers of In Colour were fresh and exciting; the band, in turn, began to feel like a relic from the indie-rock boom of the 2000s. Sim, leaning forward on a large sofa while Smith lounges back beside him, says he used to find playing shows “painful”; watching Smith mesmerize crowds, however, lit a fire under him.
“As proud as I felt,” he says, “I was definitely like, ‘I want to be doing this. I want to be up there, with the three of us.’” And so The xx evolved instead of died, and created its third album, I See You (Young Turks, Jan. 13), a demonstrably more upbeat project recorded more than 5,000 miles from the members’ usual habitat. The group’s two albums have sold a combined 967,000 copies in the United States, according to Nielsen Music, and its signature sound, full of negative space and sexual tension, was novel at the time of the group’s Mercury Prize-winning 2009 debut xx -- everyone from The Weeknd to Lorde to FKA Twigs has since co-opted it.
I See You’s pivot away from the darkness plays out like a necessary course correction and a natural progression. Sim, Croft and Smith are now 26, 27 and 28, respectively, and firmly beyond the post-teen emotional volatility of their early years, when they performed in all-black and without expression. “If you think about yourself from 22 to 27, it’s like you’re in a different head space,” explains Croft.
“We’ve all gotten to know ourselves offstage.” Sim agrees, pointing out that their new music will show how much they’ve changed from the “incredibly shy” 20-year-olds of their first album. “We’re portrayed to be sadder, moodier people than we are. With this album, we’ve tried to shake it a bit and be more fun.”
Sitting side by side, their backs to a giant window that’s pouring in sunlight, the three members of The xx stay close to each other, as they always have. Sim and Croft, who have known each other since childhood and started the band as a duo in their early teens, will intuitively speak on each other’s behalf, while Smith the quietest of the trio, often only giving one-sentence answers sits between them, occasionally nodding but usually more concerned with investigating the space around him.
At one point he’s inspecting a pocket on Sim’s pants; at another, he’s fiddling with sunglasses on the table in front of him.When he does speak about how In Colour influenced the xx album that followed it, Smith uses a quiet but assured tone, careful not to waste a word. “There were certain unspoken rules about how [The xx] made music,” he recalls. “Before my album, I might not have brought certain ideas to the table for the band, because they wouldn’t have ended up as an xx song.”
I See You contains a wider variety of samples and production techniques, and rather than the usual laundry list of influences (Aaliyah, The Kills), Croft says they found themselves listening to sunny pop-rock: “Fleetwood Mac and The Beach Boys, things like that.”
Prior to Smith stepping out on his own, The xx was already plotting a change in process. The recording of Coexist had been grueling, and the tour in support of it, which stretched well into 2014, too long. Having only ever recorded in London, where all three members have lived their entire lives, the trio decamped in late 2014 to Marfa, Texas, the desert town and minimalist art haven recommended by the mother of one of their managers. Compared to London, Marfa was all big sky and open road; Croft says that “it gave us the space to be creative and explore as a unit, and that brought us closer together.”
The music video for “On Hold,” the rhythmic lead single to I See You, was filmed in Marfa and depicts a high school football practice and a raucous house party; at one point, Sim and Smith high-five after the latter goes for a giddy ride in a shopping cart outside a grocery store. Although the group bonded while basking in the Texas sun, the members say that getting to explore individual creative ventures in 2015 and 2016 played a significant role in the band’s collective growth. While Smith was recording and supporting In Colour, Sim modeled for Dior Homme’s SS16 campaign.
Croft attended pop songwriting camps in Los Angeles with industry experts like Ryan Tedder to push herself out of her comfort zone, although she says she has “no burning desire to be up on a stage” by herself, unlike Smith. Ultimately, the gap between records allowed the members some much-needed recovery time after their teens and early 20s were consumed by recording and touring. “I just missed out on some basic life skills,” says Sim.
“When we started touring, all of our friends went to university. Being on tour, your tour manager is your parent -- a really overbearing parent.” The xx plans to spend much of 2017 on the road: a 36-date European tour, including a seven-night run at London’s O2 Academy Brixton, and headlining slots at festivals including Primavera and Lowlands have already been announced.
There may be more solo projects after the promotion of I See You wraps up; Sim, Croft and Smith are leaving things open-ended beyond 2017. For now, Smith is content. “The fact that we can go off and do these things and know that we have this to come back to as the core of everything is really nice,” he says. “I wouldn’t want to lose that.”
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