The xx fac­tor

Now that they have emerged bleary-eyed from their garage bunker, The xx are steal­ing the show with their blend of emo­tional, som­nam­bu­lant rock. Singer Oliver Sim tells Jim Car­roll how a bunch of teenagers from south Lon­don be­came the talk of the town

The Irish Times - Friday - The Ticket - - Music -

TH­ESE ARE sounds to haunt your nights. Del­i­cate, at­mo­spheric and broody, The xx make mu­sic for the wee small hours, those hours when you re­ally should be sleep­ing. The sub­tle strokes, sparse grooves and whis­pered duets be­tween boy and girl on var­i­ous tracks en­hance this noc­tur­nal mood. The likes of VCR and Crys­talised are tai­lor-made for those hours when sighs al­ways sound louder and doubts al­ways loom larger.

Then, there’s the mat­ter of the lyrics. In a dossier of heart­breaks, aches and mis­for­tune, The xx tell tales of love and hate and ev­ery­thing in be­tween.

You’re prob­a­bly think­ing that you’re deal­ing with a bunch of griz­zled hard-chaws. Who else but jaded vet­er­ans could have ex­pe­ri­enced the an­guish that has gone into th­ese lyrics? Those brit­tle, stream­lined sounds could only be the work of old hands. Not so. Th­ese sounds are ac­tu­ally made by a bunch of quiet kids just out of their teens from south Lon­don. They are youths who have spent this year try­ing to get to grips with what it means to be in de­mand.

Since their xx de­but al­bum was re­leased a cou­ple of months ago, the band’s world has changed ut­terly. No longer a best-kept se­cret toil­ing away in a leaky garage, The xx have had to em­brace a new re­al­ity and be­come ac­cus­tomed to some­one else call­ing the shots on their be­half. It’s no won­der that it’s taken its toll on some of the band.

The xx story be­gan in school (see panel), though the band re­ally be­gan in earnest two years ago, as singer Oliver Sim ex­plains. “We be­gan work­ing with Young Turks (their la­bel and man­age­ment com­pany) two years be­fore the al­bum was re­leased. Back then, we were 18, we hadn’t played too many shows and we didn’t have very many songs so we just weren’t ready to put our­selves out there un­der the glare of the spot­light.

“It’s scary to put stuff out be­cause it’s so fi­nite. You can’t take a song back once it’s out there. We wanted to be con­fi­dent about what we were do­ing so we took our time. I think we fin­ished the al­bum about six dif­fer­ent times. Each time, though, we went back to it and thought of some­thing to change or add. We didn’t feel that there were any ex­pec­ta­tions build­ing about us so we could work away at our own pace.”

Yet it’s of­ten just as scary for a band to re­main un­der­cover for so long. In the two years it has taken The xx to ready them­selves, count­less oth­ers have al­ready ex­pe­ri­enced rapid rises and just-as-speedy falls due to an in­dus­try-wide pres­sure for acts to be part of the next-big-thing cir­cus.

The xx turn their back on all of that. They didn’t fea­ture in the BBC Sound of 2009 poll or any bands-for-2009 lists. They kept their heads down and kept work­ing.

“We took our time,” says Sim. “We spent the first year do­ing shows, writ­ing songs and learn­ing how to play. And we spent the sec­ond year in the garage.” The garage was a pokey space at­tached to record la­bel XL’s Lon­don offices.

“When we went into the space for the first time, you couldn’t re­ally call it a stu­dio,”

“You can’t take a song back once it’s out there. We wanted to be con­fi­dent about what we were do­ing so we took our time”

re­mem­bers Sim. “It was ba­si­cally a garage with a ceil­ing, which was leak­ing, and a cou­ple of mat­tresses on the wall to pro­vide some sound­proof­ing.

“Af­ter a while, XL thought it might get some use as a stu­dio, so they did some ren­o­va­tions. But when we started, it was a one-car garage. You had the four of us and a sound en­gi­neer in there 12 hours a day for two-and-ahalf months. It was def­i­nitely cosy.”

The xx worked the night shift and Sim feels this had a huge ef­fect on their fi­nal sound. “We worked at night be­cause it was free and con­ve­nient and there was no-one in the offices to dis­turb. I think we work best at night be­cause things flow a lot bet­ter and the qual­ity of your thoughts are a lot stranger. It’s a time when you should be fall­ing asleep, but you’re awake and work­ing so emo­tions are a bit all over the place.

“Iron­i­cally, we played a lot of fes­ti­vals over the sum­mer and, as a new band, we got rel­a­tively early slots, so we were play­ing when the sun was still shin­ing. We’re not used to that. Our mu­sic is def­i­nitely not two o’clock in the af­ter­noon mu­sic.”

It was in the garage that the al­bum’s min­i­mal sound ac­ci­den­tally came to­gether.

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