The xx: Back In Black

To celebrate our return to publishing the print version of MAGNET three years ago, we will be posting classic cover stories from that time all week. Enjoy. And order a copy of the issue here.

XX

Three years after its debut won the Mercury Prize and the hearts and minds of indie-dom—not to mention the likes of Drake, Shakira and Rihanna—London’s little band that could has released a new album of hushed, lovesick melodramas that are sure to play out in late-night teenage bedrooms around the globe. By Jonathan Valania

It is the tail end of another hot, dog-breath day afternoon in early August. Mercifully, we are on our way to some place that is, for one night anyway, cool: Staten Island. There are many locales that you might associate with the sound, the look and the vibe of the xx—London after dark, Tokyo circa Lost In Translation, Manhattan around midnight, capitals of cool each and every one—but Staten Island is most assuredly not one of them. There is nothing young or cool or stylish about Staten Island, which even residents refer to as “the forgotten borough.”

And yet here we are, standing on the deck of the Staten Island Ferry, motoring across the Hudson for a semi-exclusive audience with London’s black-clad indie-pop darlings, who are playing a hastily announced concert on the island that is Staten. Behind us, the Manhattan skyline recedes into the distance. Off the starboard bow, the sun dips behind the Statue of Liberty like a solar eclipse, giving Lady Liberty a corona of brilliant white light that sets the twilight reeling.

In advance of the release of Coexist, the xx’s much-anticipated follow-up to 2009’s beloved xx debut, the band is capping a sold-out pre-release promotional tour of select West and East Coast dates in the U.S. with a performance at the little-known Snug Harbor Cultural Center, a sprawling complex of botanical gardens and majestic Greek-revival buildings situated on Staten Island’s north shore. Erected in 1801 as a retirement facility for sailors, Snug Harbor has in more recent years been repurposed to serve the arts. Tonight it will serve the xx and serve them well.

I’m huddled on the deck amidst a de facto posse of employees from the Beggars Group, which, in addition to providing the care and feeding of legendary indie institutions like 4AD, Matador and Rough Trade, serves as the stateside outpost of the xx’s British home, XL Recordings. Everyone is, to put it charitably, over 30. Crouched nearby is a tender-aged, barely twentysomething couple leaning against the wall and discussing, improbably enough, the exigencies of aging.

“Life sucks more the older you get,” says the male to the female, who nods knowingly. He looks left and right to make sure this conversation is going unnoticed before adding, “I won’t say it too loud because everyone here will just be like, ‘Shut up, we know.’” We all hear it, but pretend we didn’t, feeling no particular need to provide confirmation. He’ll find out soon enough, the poor bastard. Just like we did. Just like everyone does sooner or later.

I bring this up because the distinguishing characteristic of the xx—beyond the tar-black wardrobe and deep debt to the darkly emotive guitar bands from the ’80s and the high-shine chart-topping ’90s R&B that provided the background noise of their childhood—is how impossibly young they are: barely 20 years old when the hushed nocturnes of their debut LP won the Mercury Prize, the British music biz’s equivalent of the Oscar, and sold a whopping 1.5 million copies. It feels a little like we are all on our way to see our little brother’s (and sister’s) band, which—after patting them on the head somewhat condescendingly upon learning of their ambitions for world domination—has somehow grown up to do just that.

When the band takes the stage in a haze of dry ice, a giant milky white X pierces the darkness like the Bat-Signal, as singer/guitarist Romy Madley Croft launches into the ghostly arpeggio that opens “Angels,” the leadoff track and first single from Coexist. The capacity crowd is transfixed from the get-go, and will remain so for the next 90 minutes. The band is flawless in its execution of choice selections from its debut, leavened with a generous helping of new material, and the light show is visually stunning, resembling nothing so much as an indoor version of the Aurora Borealis.

The three years since the release of its debut have clearly been kind to the band. They have shed the baby fat, downmarket haircuts, low-budget goth wardrobe and awkward posturing of their earliest press photos. They look poised, confident, stylishly coiffed and impeccably groomed, with all three dressed head to toe in their trademark ink-stained black. They have, by all outward appearances, grown into their fame. In short, they wear it well.

At the end of the night, when they kick off a three-song encore with “Intro,” they somehow trigger the fire alarm. The audience rises to its feet, but nobody leaves, and the band keeps playing. The klaxon sounds like just another sample dropped into the mix by DJ/percussionist Jamie Smith. Sometimes where there is smoke, there is no fire. Just a screaming alarm blissfully ignored by 686 not-so-secret admirers.

Afterward, in the men’s room, the guy at the urinal next to me offers an unbidden but no less astute summation of the band. “They don’t make any wrong moves. It’s kinda like poetry—they give you as little as possible,” he says before flushing. “Anyway, I’m gonna go home and watch stuff on VCR.”

The xx hosts an after-party for friends and family in a charming two-story Victorian bungalow that serves as the band’s backstage area. The weather is about perfect: cool and dry. The sky is hung with stars. Out on the front porch, singer/bassist Oliver Sim is chatting up his sister Gemma, who has come over from London—where she works as a hairstylist for Madame Tussauds wax museum—to join the band on this short promotional tour. Sim is dressed in an upmarket version of the kind of black tunic you would ordinarily see on the head waiter of a Chinese restaurant, his thick bottle-blonde hair slicked back; judging from the smell of things, he nearly drowned in a vat of fancy-pants Frenchy cologne.

“It was a perfect night,” he says, grinning broadly, justifiably pleased that such an ambitious show has gone off without a hitch. Croft waves as she strolls across the moonlit lawn arm-in-arm with her girlfriend, clothing designer Hannah Marshall. They seem very lovey-dovey.

The next day, I meet all three band members for breakfast at Gemma, the restaurant situated inside the Bowery Hotel, where the group is staying. Smith’s presence is somewhat unusual, as he rarely does interviews, and for good reason. He is preternaturally reticent and has that look in his eyes that says, “I’m bored, and mostly I blame you.”

Fortunately, he’s a terrific beatmaker, having furnished the rhythm and loops for Drake’s “Take Care” (featuring Rihanna), which went to number seven on the Billboard Hot 100 chart. The video for the song on YouTube has 43 million views and counting. Drake is, improbably enough, a mega fan of the xx, and has told interviewers that Smith will have a “big presence” on his next album. The hip-hop/R&B crossover doesn’t end there. Shakira covered “Islands,” and Rihanna sampled “Intro” as the musical bed for “Drunk On Love” from 2011’s platinum-selling Talk That Talk.

Talk turns to the xx’s origin myth, and how and when each member became musical. Smith started the earliest. “I started playing instruments when I was six, but I never really enjoyed being taught, so I used to give up pretty quickly and start working things out for myself,” he says. “I started making electronic music when I was about 13. Just wanted to work out how it was made because I didn’t understand when I was listening to it how it was done.”

It was Smith who furnished Croft with her first guitar, a gold Epiphone Les Paul his uncle was awarded by a radio station for coming in first place in a go-kart race. “It was signed by a failed English rock band called Rooster,” says Smith.

“He just wiped off the signatures and gave it to me,” says Croft.

All three seem blessed with interesting parents. “My dad’s done everything,” says Sim. “He was a fisherman for a time, and then a professional boxer, and now he works for a charity.” Croft’s parents were friends with Sim’s, and in arranging play dates, they inadvertently birthed one of the preeminent bands of the indie-rock scene.

“We all grew up about five or 10 minutes away from each other,” says Sim. “I don’t remember a time when I didn’t know her. You know, at that age your parents kind of choose your friends for you. They made a really good choice! I mean, our parents were friends first, and they pushed their kids together, and I’ve been friends with Romy ever since. We went to primary school, secondary school, college, and now this.”

Smith became fast friends with Sim and Croft on the playground. All three attended the Elliott School, a sprawling London foundation school (the English equivalent of a stateside charter school) with a teeming student body of 1,000 and change. A number of bands have come out of the Elliott School, including electroclashers Hot Chip, enigmatic dubstepper Burial and post-rocker Four Tet.

Much has been made of the Elliott School in the trio’s press coverage and how it served as an incubator for the likes of the xx. The group isn’t so sure about that.

“I was unaware of the bands that were there until after we left,” says Sim. “We were given a lot of freedom, but I wouldn’t call it intentional freedom. I would call it neglect at times. It was a huge school with sprawling grounds. There were loads of different kinds of kids. There were some pretty troubled kids, and I think the teachers had to concentrate on them quite a bit. We were just left alone, so we’d go into the music rooms and just do what we wanted. You got a lot of freedom, but I think it was actually neglect.”

Apparently Britain’s Office For Standards In Education shares that assessment, giving the school an “inadequate” rating back in 2009 and invoking “special measures,” a sort of double secret probation applied when a school fails “to supply an acceptable level of education, and appears to lack the leadership capacity necessary to secure improvements.”

A pivotal moment in their development as musicians came when Sim’s mother took Croft, Smith and her son—all three the ripe old age of 13—to their first gig: the White Stripes at the Reading Festival. “My mom had a musical awakening in her 40s where she got that passion that you’ve got when you’re a teenager, and you seek out music and go to gigs and stuff,” says Sim.

Mum proved to be a far fiercer festival warrior than her young charges. “She wanted to be right up front for the White Stripes,” says Sim. “And she eventually got there after wading through Dropkick Murphys and Libertines fans for four hours.”

When Croft and Sim started jamming around the age of 15, they were both obsessed with gnarly guitar bands like the Distillers and Queens Of The Stone Age. Sim would use a distortion pedal on his bass to give it teeth, and both he and Croft competed to be the loudest in the room. “Neither of us were singing at that point, so it didn’t matter if it was too loud to sing over,” he says. “It was basically a competition between me and Croft to be the loudest.”

This loud-rock direction was further encouraged by Elliott schoolmate Baria Qureshi (an avowed acolyte of bands like the Bronx and Pretty Girls Make Graves), who had recently joined their loud-offs. From there, the band began goofing around with cover songs flaunting unlikely, bordering-on-ludicrous arrangements.

Drummerless at the time, they slapped a house beat on their cover of the Pixies’ “Gouge Away” and began scrounging up gigs at venues Croft describes as “shit pubs.” Around this time, they asked Smith to become the band’s drummer, but he declined, citing two concerns. “I didn’t want to be onstage; I hate the idea of performing in bands,” he says. “Plus, I didn’t want to ruin all they had, since they had such an original thing going. I didn’t think I was a good enough drummer.”

And then something happened that changed everything: They turned the fuck down. “The competition to be the loudest wasn’t really going anywhere, and we decided to maybe try singing and writing songs,” says Sim. “And, you know, me and Romy didn’t really have very loud voices, so it didn’t make sense to make a huge noise that we couldn’t compete with vocally. So we found the ‘off’ button.”

Something else happened around this time that would play a central role in the evolution of the band’s sound: Croft discovered the reverb switch on her guitar amp. Suddenly, a single guitar chord strummed in a cramped, shitty rehearsal space could sound epic and mysterious.

They set up a Myspace page, as quaint as that sounds today, and forced to come up with a name, they settled on the xx, just because they liked the way it looked. Both Croft and Sim were given to dressing head-to-toe in black, and there was an unspoken agreement that this would become their look.

“I hate to think of it as a uniform, you know,” says Sim. “But my teenage years was literally like a descent into the dark clothes. I don’t know anything different, to be honest. A lot of my family wear all black, and I always thought it was quite chic, I suppose.”

“We never had that sort of, ‘by the way, everyone wear black’ moment,” says Croft. “I never said, ‘Oliver, you can’t wear that brown top.’ I would hate to have that sort of conversation, but you know, I’ve worn black since I was about 15, basically—just, it’s all I’ve worn. And I’ve never thought too much about it. I don’t actually own anything that’s not black now.”

Shy about their nascent vocal techniques, or lack thereof, Croft and Sim insisted on singing everything together so that neither would have to take the blame for bum notes. “I found comfort in singing with Romy,” says Sim. “No one wanted to sing first. It was too much of a thing. This was my oldest friend. It was like a compromise, singing together. And through singing together, we gained the confidence to sing alone.”

They began writing and recording song segments at home using GarageBand on their laptops and emailing and IMing the snippets back and forth. “There’s that certain shyness about having to express yourself, and it’s quite openly emotional,” says Croft. “What we used to do is we used to just speak to each other on Instant Messenger from our respective houses, and we’d kind of share music and things like that. Then if I came up with something or I wrote these lyrics, I’d send it over to him and he could take it in on his own and react and send it back to me. That’s kind of how we wrote a lot of the first album.” The hushed singing style emerged from necessity. Often writing and recording late at night in their bedrooms, they didn’t want to wake their parents.

You would be forgiven for thinking that, when Croft and Sim duet about the twilit vagaries of post-teen romance, they are singing about their relationship. But you would be mistaken. Their relationship has never trespassed the borders of the platonic—they are, in fact, singing past each other.

“Our songs were kind of disjointed, and that was something I always kind of liked because I think one thing that is different about us is that we’re not your normal male/female duet, you know?” says Sim. “Not in the same vein as, like, Ike and Tina. We’re just the best of friends; though we’re singing these love songs, it’s kind of aimed outwards at different people, and it was fine to have that disjointedness.”

Both Croft and Sim are gay. It’s not something they go around advertising, nor do they shy away from it when the topic comes up. “I was outed in the first interview we ever did by a friend, and, um, I was frustrated about that at first, because I didn’t want it to become something that defined us,” says Sim. “Then I was just happy with it because it was just out there, and it wasn’t a big deal. From the beginning it was out there, and if people wanted to know, they could do their research. And I’m kind of happy with how it is, you know? It hasn’t become a big thing.”

“It’s not a big deal,” says Croft. “I kind of never shout about it because it’s not something that seems like it changes me in any way. So, it’s kind of like, when I’m writing a love song, it … doesn’t feel to me like if I was writing about a boy I would be writing it any differently. I really don’t put it out there as the first thing about me. I guess that’s the only sort of message I’d like to get across: It doesn’t have to define you, by being gay or lesbian. It’s just a part of you.”

Eventually Smith acceded to Sim and Croft’s repeated entreaties to join the band and provide much-needed propulsion to the songs, but, he made clear, he would not be playing a drum kit. His role would be more like DJ than a drummer, and his addition to the band took the live show to the next level. After a gig at one of those “shit pubs,” the group was approached by Caius Pawson, a show promoter and owner of a tiny-yet-influential imprint called Young Turks, which is part of the XL label roster.

“They just approached us at one of our gigs and just offered us gigs and a rehearsal space,” says Croft.

“I knew they were serious when they bought us (subway) travel cards,” says Sim. “We thought that was the most glamorous thing ever.”

After two years of writing and gigging, Young Turks judged the xx ready to make an album. The band was paired with a number of high-profile producers, including Diplo, but nothing came out of those sessions that the band was in love with.

“Working with Diplo was a lot of fun,” says Sim. “But you can hear Diplo in everything he does, and as cool as I think that is, it was exactly what we didn’t need. The space in our music had ended up being filled by his token sounds.”

The band decided to record itself in XL’s in-house studio with Smith and XL engineer Rodaidh McDonald behind the mixing desk. Sessions were scheduled on the fly, whenever the studio was available, which often meant recording in the dead of night when everyone else had left for the day. More than once, the band was mistaken for interns by XL staffers.

The xx’s debut was released in fall 2009, not with a bang but a whimper. “People were positive, but it wasn’t like, ‘Wow!’” says Croft. There were internal problems as well. A personal rift had developed between Qureshi and the rest of the band members, and two months after the release of their debut, it was quietly announced that she had quit the band and would not be replaced. Qureshi would later take to Twitter and explain that, contrary to official reports, she had not quit the band, but been fired—and to add insult to injury, she was notified via text. (Sample tweet: “talk about back stabbing and hiding behind record companies. If anyone needs any advice on being an evil prick then message the xx!”)

The band no longer shies away from these facts. “It wasn’t a decision she made; it was a decision me, Romy and Jamie made,” says Sim. “She didn’t just walk away from the band. And also, it wasn’t because of touring. Touring made it a bit more visible, and we were about to go on longer tours in even closer quarters, even further away from home, so it was kind of something that needed to happen for us to keep going.”

“It was personal,” says Croft. “It sort of came to a head whilst we were on our first intense bit of touring, like after the album. We were in New York and were really tired, and CMJ is obviously a very, very intense thing, and we were a bit overwhelmed and exhausted, and it came to light then. It seemed like the best thing to do.”

The band regrouped and went back on the road, gamely taking opening act slots for Florence + The Machine in the U.K. and Friendly Fires in the U.S., and while both tours drew sizable crowds, they could never be sure if anyone was actually there to see them. It wasn’t until they went out on their own in spring 2010 that they realized how much word of mouth momentum the album and the touring had garnered.

“I’d say around the time of Coachella, we came to a really big realization that we’d come from touring small clubs to this huge outdoor stage with thousands and thousands of people,” says Croft. “It was quite a moment to step back and say, ‘Oh, wow! Something’s happening.’”

It was around this time that the band found out its label had submitted xx for Mercury Prize consideration, and it had been shortlisted, along with records by artists like Paul Weller, Laura Marling and Mumford & Sons. Croft remembers sweating the red carpet way more than the actual voting, but, against pretty heavy odds, they won. The album shot up to number three on the British charts, and the xx’s sells skyrocketed from a respectable 225,000 to 1.4 million to date. There would be no mistaking the band members for interns anymore.

Still, the physical and emotional toll of their uphill climb was starting to show. After a year solid on the road, they were ready to come home, and the plug was pulled on a scheduled American tour. They needed a break not just from the grind of touring, but from each other—or so they thought.

“I thought we might want to take a break from one another and also take a break from work,” says Sim. “But I think we realized when we came home that we are the best of friends. When we want to be chill at home and just have a good time, we will be together. So, we started hanging out within the first week of being back. We started writing as well; I got reintroduced to the idea as well that this isn’t my work—this is what I love to do. It’s how I relax, it’s a release for me. I really vented a lot in my writing; it’d been such a long time. It’d been three years since I’d written. As much as I’d grown to love touring, my big problem is that I hadn’t found it very creative. I needed to write and also just be still. That’s two luxuries that just don’t exist on tour.”

By Sim’s reckoning, songwriting for the new album began in October 2010, while actual recording started 11 months later. Originally slated for release at the beginning of the summer, Coexist wasn’t mixed and mastered until the beginning of August. Despite the protracted gestation, all three are pleased with the result.

“I did an interview on our last American tour,” says Sim, “and the interviewer sat me down and was just like, ‘This second record is going to be an awful experience for you. You’re going to be constantly second-guessing yourself. Do you stay true to your sound at risk of being boring, or do you try to do something very different, but lose yourself? The pressure’s going to be awful,’ That turned out not to be true.”

Sim is fairly confident the xx avoided pandering to people’s expectations—realistic, reasonable or otherwise.

“We created this album making the songs that we wanted to,” he says. “It wasn’t contrived. We weren’t trying to be different, but we weren’t trying to be same. We’re still the same band, but we’ve grown. And we managed to do what I thought was the impossible, which was just forget about what was going on outside.”

They are well aware of the fact that the runaway success of their debut was a matter of the zeitgeist bending their way instead of the other way around. “I don’t feel that we’ve had to adapt ourselves to fit a mold, and I’m so happy about that since that’s something we would never do,” says Croft. “It just happens that people are open to it at this time, which is something that could definitely not have been that way. I really appreciate that so much.”

Early indicators suggest the planets are still aligned in their favor. Their pre-release tour in the U.S. was completely sold out, including a date at the Fonda Theater in Los Angeles that sold out in minutes, as did their New York show at the 3,000-capacity Terminal 5 a few days later. The Snug Harbor concert was announced only days in advance, and tickets were snapped up in an instant. Still, they worry, perhaps justifiably so, about finding that sweet spot between effectively promoting the new album and overexposure.

“I think we came close to risking it on the first album with just really being shoved in people’s faces, you know?” says Sim. “I know the way I react to that kind of thing. Even if the music’s good, it can make me want to just stay away from it just to prove I can think for myself. I just don’t want people to grow sick of us.”

With that, we wrap things up. The trio has to jet off to a photo shoot for this story, then back to the hotel for band meetings and rounds and rounds of interviews with journalists. Tonight they fly to Croatia, where they will be headlining a giant rock festival. I get exhausted just thinking about it, but the kids in the xx, all now pushing 23, are hardened veterans. The density and the demands of their promotional schedule do not seem to faze them. When I suggest that that schedule sounds utterly exhausting, Croft tells me I haven’t heard the half of it.

“This is nothing,” she says. “This is not nearly as insane as the time we flew to some little town in Finland, took a heliplane to Helsinki, then got on a plane to London, hung out for four or five hours, then got on a plane for 23-hour flight to Melbourne.”

All indicators point to Coexist outperforming its predecessor and the xx having a lasting and productive career. But given how well-adjusted the band members are to the bottomless demands of fame, and their cheerful willingness to labor long hours in the machinery of that makes it all possible, no matter what fate greets the release of the record, this much seems clear: The kids are all right.