Group Therapy With The xx
The xx realized their childhood dreams before they became adults. In three conversations across three continents, we talked candidly about how their relationships with their work and each other have changed.
The friendships we make as children are, more often than not, circumstantial. We bond with the offspring of our parents’ friends, or the kids we meet at school. It’s usually only as teenagers that we start to gravitate toward the people that represent who we want to be on our own terms. The tumultuous seas of teenhood rarely leave social circles intact, however. While many of us have college or employment to thank for helping us put away childish things, The xx didn’t have that luxury.
Romy Madley-Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie Smith have been close for almost two decades. (Romy and Oliver’s bond reaches back even further; they met as toddlers.) Their friendship begat their band in 2005, and, in turn, the band has indelibly shaped their relationships as adults. It’s not always been an easy ride. “It's such a new concept to me, the idea of having to work on a friendship,” Sim told me in December. “I thought friends were easy-breezy — I thought work was something you'd have to do with a marriage. Not a friendship.”
On their third album I See You, The xx pick over the grit of growing up. They talk about losing family members (“Brave For You”), falling into self-destructive patterns (“A Violent Noise”), and resisting becoming their parents (“Replica”). At the heart of the record there’s “Say Something Loving,” which is ostensibly a love song but comes off more as a call for recognizing the importance of platonic intimacy. Like a handful of tracks on the album, that song’s tone is set with a sample chosen by Jamie. In this case it’s ‘70s Californian pop-rock duo Alessi Brothers, wistfully singing “Before it slips away” at intervals throughout. Put the work in now, the sample seems to say, before it’s too late.
As 2016 drew to a shadowy close, I had three conversations with The xx. We met over breakfast in New York, then they called over Skype from Croatia, and later we had lunch in Tokyo. (I had an additional conversation with Oliver, who called from Melbourne.) They spoke about the people they’ve become in the 12 years since they’ve been a band. Throughout, it became clear that their new album’s title doesn’t only reference how all three see one another, but also suggests how they see themselves within the world. Once The xx’s default setting, these days introversion is an increasingly untenable position. They are learning how to take care of themselves, and how to acknowledge the needs of others. And like the rest of us, they are recognizing the clear-eyed intention required to move forward.
New York, U.S.A.
On a crisp Monday in October, we meet for eggs and juice at an upmarket brasserie in Manhattan. Considering The xx is in town to do press, all three members are surprisingly upbeat. They talk about the time they spent apart these past couple of years, what they learned during the making of the new record, and how it feels to be back together for this trip — the first of many to come.
OLIVER: The past two and a half years being at home felt really rough, in retrospect. At moments I was quite distant and it took its toll. I realized I missed having a purpose, which is to write songs, but also I just missed being around these two. They’re my siblings. It was difficult — not having structure, not having purpose, and not having my friends. I lost a lot of confidence.
ROMY: At one point in time, I was like, "Oh, they've changed. It's not the same." And I was very sad about that. Then I realized that actually, we haven't changed. It’s just like it’s a relationship, and we just need to spend time together and warm up. Then the ice goes away, and it’s the same as it was when we were all 16.
JAMIE: I'm feeling quite happy that we're on a promo trip just because we're all in the same place, being together. I always feel like Oliver and Romy are slightly ahead of me, in terms of being grown up, or just a person. Like, when we were in school, they were always going out to clubs and meeting people, and I was like two years behind that. At the moment, I'm getting to the point where I'm just being a bit more chill, like these two. I've been on stage on my own, and now I'm trying to push myself to have more of a normal existence.
OLIVER: I've always felt that same thing about you and Romy.
ROMY: A couple years ago, I told Caius [Pawson, The xx’s manager], “I wanna go and learn. Try and write some pop songs.” That's why I went to L.A. At the time, the idea of sitting in a room with other artists scared me, so I went and worked with a few producers. There's a lot of people listening to the charts and being like, what's hot and then going for that vibe, and I didn't really enjoy that. Kelela was somebody I worked with — just me and her — and I loved it. We had a really deep conversation and then we put that into her song. I learned a lot of things [in L.A.] — some I've chosen to leave behind and a portion of things I've brought to us.
One technique I learned is you sit there and sing a melody. Before, I would always just write a poem and then sing it. So Oliver and I got rid of that rule of what I sing, I've written and what he sings, he's written. It's funny that you can still feel exposed and vulnerable with someone you've known since you were three. It's a very open place to be, when you're just pouring your heart into music, and almost being someone's therapist in a way.
“Then the ice goes away, and it’s the same as it was when we were all 16.” — Romy Madley-Croft
OLIVER: There was some almost-conflict [making the new album]. With Jamie finishing his [solo] album, I definitely felt inspired. I was up for writing more up songs, whereas Jamie was like, "No, I'm done with this, I wanna bring it back down."
ROMY: I didn't even realize Jamie was trying to write stuff that wasn't maybe dance. We only realized that through doing interviews. Oliver and I, the demos we were making were 120 bpm.
JAMIE: I wasn't like done, you know. I just didn't wanna be making music for DJing — it feels like you're making music for somebody else. I still obviously love dance music; it inspires me. And a lot of that came out [on the album].
OLIVER: “On Hold” was one of the earliest songs. I'm really proud it’s the first single. There were so many chances to give up on it — on like version 15 after it not quite being there.
JAMIE: We finished “On Hold” quite late, considering how old it was. As kind of a last resort, I stayed late in the studio one time, and me and Romy were listening to Hall & Oates, that sample. The song still wasn't right so I just tried that, as a thing that probably wouldn't work. It's the same thing that happened with “Loud Places” [from In Colour] with the sample, and then everything just sort of fit.
ROMY: By the time that Jamie finally did that, he'd already done so many things to the song. I did have a lot of respect that he could inject something completely other to everything else he'd tried. I ended up re-writing the first verse. We really pushed ourselves with that, in retrospect. It wasn't like, "Oh, now it’s fixed!" It was like, "Oh, that's much better but let's still make it the best it can be." We definitely ripped things up and started them again a hell of a lot on this album.
JAMIE: We went over the same things over and over again so much that we drove ourselves insane.
ROMY: [Oliver and I] consciously worked hard to provide Jamie with more fully formed demos. With Coexist, we gave him bits and parts of verses and instrumentals, and put more weight on him to fill in the gaps. But this time he was away more and Oliver and I had more time just the two of us. So, more like on the first album, we made more formed demos with rhythm, that could inform or give Jamie what we were going for. And then he rips it up and reimagines it, to give us something to work on. We also had [producer] Rodaidh McDonald involved again, and I noticed that it meant that Jamie could be more creative. ‘Cause he was not having to do all of the little bits.
JAMIE: I could inject a little more of my own personality. [For example,] we had a demo of Romy and acoustic guitar singing “Brave For You.” And I had a demo that I'd made for somebody else. We were in that mindframe of trying anything, so we tried [them together], and it seemed to fit. We weren't sure whether it was too bombastic because they were so polar opposite, but the juxtaposition worked.
ROMY: The acoustic demo was very emotional, and almost too much. With the instrumental it had now, it’s more of a triumphant-sounding song now, rather than just a sad one. I’m grateful for that, because on stage it’ll help me from going too far into a mournful place. A friend of mine says that kind of represents how I've dealt with things. I don't deal with things I've lost in a heavy, every-day-sad way. I try and just get on with things.
JAMIE: We had one sample that we couldn't clear. There was a woman who owned the rights to her husband's song. She lived in Detroit and she wouldn't clear it — I think because of what she'd been through and everything that was going on right then with cultural privilege. I ended up writing her a letter and sending her some stuff. We still didn't manage to clear it, but doing that made me think about what’s happening with racism in America, and look into all the things that I've done, and the samples that I've used, and the music that I listen to. Which is basically all black music. It made me more aware of that.
ROMY: We grew up in a very multicultural school and it didn't feel like there was racism — not that I was aware of. When I did the writing session with Kelela, it was at the height of everything that was going on with Black Lives Matter and she was talking me through her perception of white privilege. I felt very privileged to hear that, and it really opened my eyes to what it must have been like for her, and is like for her.
Echoing the shock June victory of Brexit, Donald Trump wins the U.S. presidential election on November 9. The morning after, The xx announce their new album with lead single, “On Hold.” A couple of weeks later, they’re in Zagreb, Croatia, to launch the European tour promoting I See You. It’s their first time in the country since 2013, when a homophobic Croatian organization used their 2009 track “Intro” for an anti-gay-marriage advertisement, a move the band swiftly condemned. I Skype with the band from their hotel room the day before the show and, across miles of cable lines, the conversation quickly turns to the mood in the air.
ROMY: Our single release of "On Hold" was always planned for the day after [the U.S. election]. We were thinking about: Do we go ahead with it? Is it the right thing to do? Do we move it? It was difficult, but we decided to go ahead and put out the song. Music has been such an escape for me. It helps me deal with things, face them, or escape from them. So I hope — and the vibe I've gotten from people — that the single gave some light relief.
OLIVER: [With Brexit and the U.S. election], it’s become clear that a lot of people have been thinking a certain way. Nothing has actually changed yet except the fact that it's been brought to light, which is quite a daunting, scary thing to realize.
JAMIE: We’ve always said that we didn't want to mix up politics and music. Music is a completely different thing from anything else in the world. But maybe it is a good idea to take responsibility. I do think it's important that everyone does everything they can. We have the power to do anything at this point, but we haven't really got to that point yet — we're still working out how to play songs.
OLIVER: Working on Jamie's record — making music not for The xx — definitely helped open our minds a lot more to not having to worry about what's appropriate for what we've done in the past, because Jamie's record was a new thing. We didn't really go into this record with that worry. Jamie didn’t like present something to us as necessarily for The xx or not. It was just, "This is what I've made."
ROMY: And we were like, “Can we write on it?” I guess we’ve always loved samples — they just hadn't been in our music before. But in this new wave of just being more open, it just flowed. With a song like "Lips,” which has a very lyrical sample, my ears pricked up. I loved it instantly. It was a different challenge: Jamie presenting us a beat with a lyrical theme, and us writing inspired by the theme of those samples.
JAMIE: Most of the records I buy are from [an earlier] era. And those are the best-sounding records, in my opinion. The music that made me want to start producing all sampled music from 20 or 30 years before it. I rarely sample something that's contemporary because I think it needs to have aged for it be usable; ready to be reinterpreted. But that lead sample from David Lang on "Lips" is just so simple that it's quite timeless.
ROMY: This album was difficult to name. I couldn't think of an overriding theme. But then I just started thinking about our friendship, and how we’d drifted apart and then come back together again. And how crucial it is feeling seen in any sort of relationship. We hadn’t seen each other, and I needed that.
“Stepping offstage and, within an hour, being in a hotel room alone is the most crazy feeling.” — Oliver Sim
OLIVER: Towards the end of Coexist, we had a couple of short tours where, although we were on the road together, we weren't speaking very much. We were there to do a job, and once the show was done we'd go our separate ways to our hotel rooms. Those were some of my unhappiest moments. Stepping offstage and, within an hour, being in a hotel room alone is the most crazy feeling. I don't know how to really explain it. I felt just lost and confused. It's anticlimactic and you just feel really lonely.
JAMIE: They talk about that a lot in the Swedish House Mafia documentary. They filmed them going back to their hotel rooms after each show, separately, and they’re just like, "Shit! Bahh!" Full of energy, but completely alone.
ROMY: I never felt that [we might split up]. I think it's just, sometimes when you’re in something, you go into autopilot to get through it. We drifted a bit and stopped enjoying it as much. I'm happy to have recognized it, you know.
OLIVER: I’ve been asked a lot recently, in interviews on my own, if I felt threatened by Jamie's career. If like, he wouldn’t return [after] a taste of being solo. I've just been quite arrogant and said, “No.” [Laughs.] I knew he was going to come back, obviously.
JAMIE: I don't think that’s arrogant. Even if we were distant for a moment, we still know each other better than anybody else. I’ve learned that our friendship being strong is something that makes me happy.
In late November, the band release a video for “On Hold” that features a variety of romantic relationships, including two young men sharing a kiss. In December, I go to Tokyo for an electronic music conference, and catch The xx live at Toyosu PIT, where they play to 3000 rapt fans. On stage, they perform reworked versions of old songs that stand chest-to-chest with their new material, and Jamie plays an extended anti-encore. Earlier that day, over salads and smoothies in Tokyo’s sophisticated Roppongi Hills, we spoke about what they want from life as they prepare for their thirties. Several weeks later, Romy announces her engagement to longtime girlfriend Hannah Marshall, the designer and artist, on Instagram.
ROMY: It was new to have so much time in between recording. It can be a good and a bad thing. [I had time to] deal with things like the loss of my parents and that was actually very hard for me. It wasn't like I had a choice. I wasn't busy with the band, so I spent a lot of time connecting with their memory. It was quite tough on me, but I’m happy I did it. There's a lifetime of stuff to go through, but for this next period, I feel more solid.
OLIVER: I’ve spent a lot of my early twenties focusing on other people as opposed to myself. Being madly in love with people and putting them first and not necessarily putting myself under a microscope. It’s unsettling but I'm trying to be the kind of person that can be alone, at peace with himself. Making this album, I felt braver putting stuff into songs then I do bringing them up in conversation. Which makes no logical sense. Lyrically, there was a lot less hiding behind suns and moons and stars.
JAMIE: I asked them to send me the lyrics when they sent me the demos. I love listening to the songs and knowing a little bit more about them.
ROMY: As I’ve gotten older — and being with Hannah as well — that’s helped me become outward-facing and more confident in social situations. I used to be so awkward and now I'm talking to people. My life is better because I feel less self-conscious and less worried. Which is something that I didn't even think was a problem before — it was just how I felt. I do feel a lot lighter now. I guess that sort of plays into this “letting yourself be seen” thing. But that's in your own time. Sometimes, you don't want to be seen.
Things have shifted in the way sexuality is digested since our first album. I remember feeling so nervous about my sexuality and talking about it in the beginning. Maybe, again, it comes with age and feeling more secure in myself. I did an interview and they said, “You’re very public on Instagram with your relationship, do you think you’re sharing that to send a message?” I'm glad if it’s inspirational, but it's just my relationship and I share it because that's normal. I know it’s not easy for a lot of people and I hate that. So like, if people say, "Oh, The xx has got two guys kissing in their video,” and that challenges them, that’s a good thing. It makes sense for us to embrace that.
OLIVER: Our writing is quite like a queer space. We avoid gender, we avoid sexuality, we avoid time and place, so people can have that room to connect and to set their own ideas to it. But Alasdair [McLellan, video director for “On Hold”] brought the idea [for the kiss], which I was very happy about. And you know, the scene with me shaving the very handsome man's head, in Alasdair’s own words, brought some "much needed homoeroticism."
“Even if we were distant for a moment, we still know each other better than anybody else.” — Jamie Smith
ROMY: [Looking ahead,] I want to get better at producing and become completely self-sufficient. I'd love to write with other people, and help them get their voice out. I'm gonna try and mix and produce. I love the guitar, but I'm not a guitarist guitarist. It's like a tool for me to get sounds out. I tried to get into pedals — I got Gemma from Savages to teach me. I really tried [laughs].
JAMIE: I just bought a piano for my house. I just want to sit at the piano all day and play with that. I'm not reading music, I'm just getting to know everything. Sometimes, I'll work out how to play something that I love in order to look at it and the piano in a new way.
OLIVER: I feel like I’ve got so much to do, from a music perspective. Jamie's done his record and traveled around the world with it. Romy did all those writing sessions. I would love to do what Romy’s done and experience that other side of the pop machine. It sounds terrifying and, at times, a little bit soulless. That's a real pet peeve of mine, when people talk about songwriting in a cynical way. But having said that I still want to do it, just to know what it's like.
I need to have something in place for when this album finishes. Because I got myself into quite a lot of trouble coming back home after Coexist, because it was so anticlimactic. I'm trying to think of to have this time so it's not such a crash landing, but I'm still searching. It sounds stupid but I really wanted to do a barbering course — I used to enjoy doing mine and Romy's hair a lot.
JAMIE: I want to read more. I've got a lot of bookshelves in my house that I need to fill.
ROMY: You should have a rule that you can only fill it once you've read it. You read it and then you put it in.
JAMIE: I want to be a bit more civilized. Like, wake up to the radio. Simple things. I was supposed to learn to cook one dish really well this year — that’s what I said when I turned 28. But I haven’t learned yet.
ROMY: I want to learn how to use this camera much better. We got it as a tour camera and we're just taking photos of each other, so it's through each other's eyes. I want to learn how to take care of myself on tour. I want to take all the things I've learned while living at home and implement it into the madness of being in a band.