Sometime around 3AM in rainy Boston, the girlfriend of the guy who let us have an after party in his apartment gets curious enough to ask what band we are in. JB says, “The XX,” which is not true. But he is on tour with them, trying to get girls using his all access pass, walking around in the park unshaven, unemployed, and generally having the time of his life. Next to JB on the couch, his friend and actual XX member Jamie Smith answers truthfully. The girl says she’s watched their videos but didn’t recognize him. “What do you play?” she asks. He thinks for a moment, then tickles the air with his fingers. “Keyboards?” she interrupts. He considers this, pauses again then says, “I play drums.”
Within the open source technological ecstasy of Gen Z, this is an accurate statement, but in the traditional sense, Smith is much more than that, a self-taught composer who rejects both the limits of his tools and the process of conventional songwriting. He grew up in London with musically-inclined parents, where he “played drums a year and a half, like with lessons, but I was never really that good.” He has a working knowledge of the xylophone, and when The XX play live, he pulls out a cymbal on one song, which he did in New York, the night before Boston. The New York show was in a magnificent old theater on 175th Street in Washington Heights with gilded latticework and a very nice balcony, and its seats were filled with people who probably never had a reason to come this far uptown before. A lot of them were making out, one couple fully sprawled and groping. It was a visually beautiful performance, the band bathed in warm, white light. Smith, as always, was in the back, behind guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim, both of whom sing. His dual samplers propped atop two large, square boxes, each with one giant X carved out and brightly backlit. He and the boxes sit on a riser in order to make him, or at least the X’s, more visible. Surprisingly, this was Smith’s idea, a subtle prominence for someone mostly modest and shy. But honestly, there’s not much to see. The XX have only one album, and Smith has played their standard set hundreds of times, his complex duties now routine and mechanical. Only once, when he uses his right hand to play a difficult harp pattern on a sampler and his left to bring out the crunchy drums on “Heart Skipped a Beat,” does he appear strained.