Story by Adam Daniels
Photo by Aliya Naumoff
The xx do not work on paper. You try selling four pasty British kids dressed in all black as the new faces of smooth R&B. In fact, singer Oliver Sim was once within earshot of someone forced with the challenge of describing his group to a colleague. This is what he overheard.
"I don't really know how to describe them," the stranger said. "Have you ever seen South Park? You know the goth kids in that? Kind of like that but with an R&B twist."
The strange thing is, this description is not all that inaccurate on a surface level. This makes it all the more unlikely that these four twenty-something South Londoners put out the sexiest debut album of 2009. But you haven't heard these kids sing.
The xx's debut, simply titled xx based on the approximate age of all the members when the album was released, features a largely stripped down instrumentation that showcases the chemistry between Oliver and Romy's voices. The chemistry that results is freakish, their vocal patterns complement each other near perfectly, a fit that Sim chalks up to little more than a lucky coincidence.
Coincidence or not, the way the two lingering vocals build up against one another can't help but make even the most mundane of topics seem sensual. The album's first full track, "VCR," centers quite literally on watching things together on VCRs. This feels like yet another reason The xx do not work on paper. They craft simple metaphors out of basic relationship issues or pieces of technology that some of their fellow twenty-somethings barely even remember. But then they extend them into these undeniable three-minute minimalist pop ballads that often feel impressively original for subject matter that has been touched upon thousands of times in the history of love. "Basic Space," for example, deals with just what the title suggests, the idea that eventually your space can be invaded so much within a relationship it can be hard to tell where you end and the other begins.
Just as this vocal chemistry was not foreseen, neither was the band's larger music style initially mapped out when the four of them began. That aspect came from a simple combination of mutual appreciation and well yeah, coincidence.
Sim had been close with Romy Madley Croft since childhood. Then years later, Sim attended London's famed Elliot School. The school has more recently garnered headlines for notable alumni Hot Chip, Burial and Four Tet, but all these acts were a few years older than Sim and still breaking out while he attended.
"The school's kind of notable celebrity--claim to fame--when I was there, was Pierce Brosnan, which I thought was really cool," he says. "That was all anybody talked about."
While roaming the halls 007 once roamed, Sim met Jamie Smith and Baria Qureshi. The four quickly gelled and used the school's ample practice facilities as the base for their future band.
"We didn't have a clear idea of what we wanted to make," Sim says.
He says the R&B influence just happened to be a common interest of the four. For him, it stemmed from a timeless sibling bond.
"I've got an older sister," he says. "And as the younger sibling, it's kind of like your duty to steal all their shit. And since she was a girl I couldn't steal her clothes so I stole all her music. She was very into commercial '90s American R&B, things like Ma$e, TLC, Ginuwine and Aaliyah."
The minimal instrumentation behind the soothing grooves, however, was less a shared musical interest and more a complete accident.
"Romy was just teaching herself to play guitar. I was just starting to play bass," he says. "So there was a lot of simplicity to songs like VCR, and I don't think that was intentional. We were just a bit shit at our instruments. We were just learning how to play. That was all we could play. But as time's gone by, after being complimented on a more stripped-down sound, we have learned to play with more restraint and been able to know that we have this sound and we like it."
Coupled with the band's gift for embracing negative space so gracefully, this restraint immediately won critics and fans at home in the UK. But it wasn't until their second trip to play New York's CMJ Music Marathon festival in October of last year that it became obvious they were catching on Stateside. The band played four shows per day during the marathon festival. Exhaustion set in a few nights into the festival when they were the surprise 2 a.m. guest for NME's showcase at The Delancey on the Lower East Side.
"At the Delancey one, we'd started our day at about 10, we did like a show at like 11 in the morning," Sim says. "Did another one at 2, and then another one. And then by the Delancey show, I had like 20 minutes sleep at a car outside. We went there and then there I am outside the venue with my face smashed against the window trying to sleep and someone came outside and said, 'You're going on stage now.'" It was hard, but I kind of felt like stuff was happening."
This rigorous schedule proved to be a gift and a curse. It was a big part of the reason Baria left the band shortly thereafter, citing exhaustion (the band has chosen to continue on as a threesome). But Oliver was right. Things were absolutely happening for them. They quickly became the talk of the festival and town, sparking cues that wrapped around Brooklyn and Manhattan venues like pythons. Whether you were curious or already a die-hard by that time, chances were good you couldn't get in.
Things are getting bigger and bigger quickly. They've toured with fellow alums Hot Chip, and Oliver says the next tour they have planned will be something bigger than he'd imagined or aspired to. He says he, along with the band as a whole, are self-admitted control freaks (proven by the fact that they passed up on Diplo's production on their album in favor of doing it themselves). And with these bigger venues approaching comes the possibility that you could soon go to an xx show and listen to music performed by the band, produced by the band, while being surrounded by visual art and video created by the band. Then you can walk home in a T-shirt designed by that very same band.
Not bad for a few South London kids in black that just wanted to jam to some Aaliyah. Those goth kids on South Park never even left Colorado.