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
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.