Reading & Leeds Preview: The XX And The Sound Of Now
, August 25th, 2009 10:09
Hazel Sheffield talks to The XX about turning down Diplo, their debut album, and their accidentally classic sound
The shock of the new? A new sticky label on the same old tin of beans, more like. The NME's Future 50 recently proclaimed that our best hope for tomorrow is Animal Collective, a group of visionary 30-somethings who've been making music for a decade. They beat dormant Swedes The Knife to the top spot, the compilers momentarily overlooking the fact that the latter haven't released a record in over three years. The rest of the list is so futuristic it can't be mentioned here for fear of ripping a hole in the space-time continuum and transporting us all to a parallel universe that exists only in Chris Cunningham's nightmares.
Chances are, those looking for something new to feed their insatiable ears will end up frantically clicking round the murky corners of the blogosphere before passing out cold in a pool of their own drool after reading some blethering pansy twit's 'creative' review of an unheard of Brooklynite with an 8-track. The predictions and promises of your favourite garish magazine/blog/zine are so often redundant, self-serving and contrived. Good music, the kind that doesn't need force-feeding down desperate open gullets, creeps up on you and demands attention, like an audio-tug on the sleeve that arrests unintentionally from the off.
One of the few acts to really merit their place in the Future 50, a veritable sleeve-tugger themselves, are south London quartet The XX. Their debut is an album of claustrophobic beauty and measured sentiment so strikingly self-restrained that it has, rather ironically, inspired some of the internet's more excessively poetic reactions.
While the verbose reviews will grate, it's true that there is something unquantifiably refreshing about hearing this band for the first time — though it's for a far simpler reason than the word-botherers would have you believe. What sets The XX apart is the vision of four south-London teenagers, discovered two years ago and then quietly cultivated, keenly supported but unrushed and un-meddled with, until the time that they were ready to break. Budget cuts, media edacity and attention deficit in the information age have nigh-on made this kind of approach to new music obsolete: The XX are a reminder of what can surface when bands are given the opportunity to mature on their own terms.
"We started working with [Young Turks] when we had just turned 18," co-vocalist Oliver Sims explains. "They just turned up at our shows and offered us a place to rehearse, got us gigs, got us chances to work with some amazing producers. That's all it was for about a year — playing shows, writing songs. It's only in the last year that we've started working towards an album. When they first started working with us we only had about six songs — now we have an album."
Young Turks, the subsidiary of XL Records responsible for Wavves, Kid Harpoon, and (less fortunately) Jack Penate, were quick to realise the quality of their newest associates, offering the band the chance to work with some stellar producers including Diplo and Kwes.
"We worked with some producers beforehand just to get some experience, and maybe if we liked it to have them produce the album. But everything we did ended up sounding more like them than us," says young producer-programmer Jamie Smith. "I was producing before I was in The XX, so during those recordings I kind of realised I was a control freak, and that I had to do it all myself to be satisfied with it."
Jamie joined The XX when the band started working with Young Turks, adding to the original line-up of childhood friends Oliver and Romy Madley Croft, and keyboardist/guitarist Baria Qureshi, who joined to help the original duo recreate their ideas live. Baria explains: "Everyone else we worked with over-produced it. We wanted to stick to our original sound, and Jamie knows what it is that we want. It was important for us to be able to play the record live, and so it's better to have someone who's more involved with us."
"Jamie's work is really good," Oliver adds quietly. He's spot on. Jamie is arguably The XX's secret weapon. A shy, curly-haired computer-aficionado who barely looks up from his equipment on-stage and admits to terrible nerves before gigs, Jamie speaks keenly about his MPC - Media Production Centre. The technology, which has existed since the late 80s, allows him to programme the sounds he requires on his computer and then provide all percussion live on electronic pads, with his finger-tips, in a miniature imitation of a drummer.
"I did drum lessons for about two years. I'm okay at drums, but I'm not good enough to be technically innovative," says Jamie. "There are so many bands with amazing drummers who sound the same, and I'm not good enough to make the drums sound different, and I wanted it to sound different. With an MPC I can make it sound exactly as I want, so I can create all the sounds that we need." Not only does the technology add a dimension and facilitate experimentation, it's also fairly unique. "Some bands use an MPC to trigger a long sample that plays round a couple of times, but I don't think anyone uses it as much as I do, except maybe a couple of producers," Jamie explains, citing American producer RJD2 as his major influence.
Of course, it's not just Jamie's production that makes this band. They talk openly of their 'sound' with rare precision for an act so young. "I don't think it's been an intentional decision to make this kind of music," Oliver says when pressed to explain how their sound came about. "I don't know, Romy just got a new amp that had reverb and it kind of just came from that, and I'm not a very loud singer, so it didn't make sense to make loud music that I couldn't compete with vocally. I wouldn't describe it as an accident, but it was quite natural rather than intentional."
The unusual closeness between Romy and Oliver permeates this record. Their cool, antiphonal vocals, the lyrics addressed always to another 'you', manage to seem at once isolated and conjoined. Oliver explains that they each write their own lyrics, in their own time. For words written in solitude, they match astonishingly well. A testament to their friendship, perhaps? "I suppose so," Oliver replies, with habitual vagueness. So many of his answers are punctuated with 'dunno' and the word 'nice'. "I find it weird," he goes on, "[the lyrics] seems to match up quite well. Romy's like a sister to me, so all the songs are addressed to something outside of us."
Music aside, it becomes quickly obvious that The XX are genuinely a product of this decade - a true, bonafide band of our time, for better or for worse. Romy and Oliver thought that 'Teardrops', arguably their finest cover, was originally a garage remix rather than a hit for Womack And Womack in the 80s. ("It's quite shameful, really," Oliver admits now.) The two of them swap lyrics and write songs over iChat rather than face to face. Their understated pop-focus has its bottom flattened out at intervals with the unexpected squelch of a massive sub. They have rewritten classic pop and made it their own - listen to the parallels between 'Infinity' and Chris Isaak's 'Wicked Game'. ("I don't think it was planned, but I think he is deeply engraved in my mind," Oliver counters at the suggestion of plagiarism.) They have toured with Micachu and The Big Pink, and have support slots planned with Florence and the Machine and Friendly Fires; four bands engraved indelibly on the musical landscape of 2009.
Yes, The XX are a band that belong in that future fifty, if ever a future fifty is worth the paper it's written on. But more than that, they're a lightyear ahead of the rehashed, branded and contrived indie and pop that has dominated this decade, simply because they had clarity of vision and were given the resources to explore their ideas, undisturbed. "We don't know what to expect, we're just taking it as it comes," Baria says of the future. But then, no one's qualified to say what lies ahead. For now, it suffices to have discovered a band that make you glad to live in the present.
The XX play Leeds Festival on August 29th and Reading on August 30th before heading out on a UK tour with Florence & The Machine