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Friday, May 7, 2010
Isolation brings The xx out to the world
By SHAUN CURRAN
Special to The Japan Times
LIVERPOOL, England — Every so often a band arrives, seemingly from nowhere, out of left field and fully-formed, with a sound, image and narrative so flawlessly off-kilter that once discovered, you wonder how you ever did without them.
Over the last 12 months, The xx have been that band. Unknown by all but the coolest, ear-to-the-ground music aficionados a year ago, a group of unassuming, introverted school friends from South London have, despite having just hit their 20s, created the most soulful, poignant, hauntingly unique album in recent memory, becoming the cult band of choice in the process.
To find them one afternoon in a diminutive, grubby venue in Liverpool feels somehow inherently wrong, and it acts as a real juxtaposition with the splendorous, exalted, spacious music that fills their debut album, "xx."
Deservedly topping endless best-of polls in Britain, "xx" is a collection of songs that are simply startling; equally mysterious and minimalist, their brooding, nuanced, breathy hybrid of modern R&B textures and understated Portishead-like atmospherics is supported by a sexual enigma and emotional intensity that belies the band's tender years.
Yet to meet the members of The xx — Oliver Sim (vocals and bass), Romy Madley Croft (vocals and guitar) and Jamie Smith (percussion and programming) — is to be starkly reminded they are indeed the shy, socially awkward group of outsiders barely out of their teens; dressed universally in black, they utter not a word on the walk to the tour bus, where we enter to discover a paused episode of "Gossip Girls" on the TV screen. "I can see why you'd be surprised," laughs Sim. "But you've got to pass the time, haven't you?"
Individually, they seem fragile and apprehensive. Smith in particular seems uncomfortable, patently deciding the sight of his shoelaces to be more fascinating than any aspect of the conversation. Yet while the sense that such engagements don't come naturally is transparent (no doubt the reason all three members are present for the majority of their interviews), collectively they are able to overcome any notions of nervousness to discuss an ascent that has been as welcome as unanticipated.
"We're getting used to this attention," admits Sim. "We've had to come out of our shell a lot more. We've grown so much in confidence. If you'd have put me onstage at London's Shepherd's Bush Empire a few years ago, I'd have run away. I couldn't have done it. We used to be terrified."
Inevitably, much is made of the band's almost indecent mixture of talent and youth — "People mention our age to us all the time, but I don't know any different age to be," Sim reasons, with a half smirk across his face — but The xx story actually began long before now, with Madley Croft and Sim as childhood friends. From there, the pair, along with Smith and original fourth member Baria Qureshi attended Elliott School, whose inexplicably talented alumni include Hot Chip, Burial and Four Tet.
"We never know how much credit to give it," says Sim. "A lot of times we were left alone to do our own stuff. I'm not sure if that was their intention, to let us work things out for ourselves and be creative, or whether we were just neglected."
With a similar musical education (they bonded over a love of Queens of the Stone Age and The Distillers), the four teenagers began making music "as a bit of a joke," using Madley Croft's multitrack to record covers of, bizarrely enough, George Michael.
"It's easier to be jokey with your friends than be really serious," she says.
The "really serious" aspect began soon after, with a smattering of songs on "xx," the hopelessly adorable "VCR" included, written at just 16, a consequence in part of the remoteness of their hometown of Wandsworth.
"Even though we live in London," interjects Madley Croft, "we don't live anywhere near the center of London, so there was that feeling of separation. There are no good places to go out or to go shopping. I think the isolated feeling comes from living there."
Isolation is a recurring theme throughout "xx," from the apparent sexual longing to the fact that the hushed, shared vocal interplay between Sim and Madley Croft is like listening into someone else's evocatively private conversation. Coincidently, much of the album was recorded during witching hours, further fueling the mood of seclusion.
"None of us are morning people," Sim laughs. "As a working environment, there's a certain type of stillness of night time you don't get in the day. Lyrically, I like writing at that point where I'm very much ready to go to sleep, with emotions running a bit higher."
"We never set out to be a night album," says Madley Croft. "But I definitely like to do a lot of my writing at night, where I'm not disturbed and I can be private. I need to be alone to write so no one can hear me. I'm glad that is reflected."
Young Turks, the U.K.-based independent label, had been slowly grooming the band before signing them and releasing "xx," for which Madley Croft is "grateful we weren't just thrown into the fire, we wouldn't sound the same, or be as good." Despite the natural, organic pace of their progress, it hasn't been unburdened; original guitarist Qureshi left under a cloud in November.
"It was a decision we all took," says Sim matter of factly. "The social dynamic in the band wasn't right, and that is a big part of what we are. We're all very close and we felt it was being lost. From 16 to 20, we all grew up and I think we grew into very different people."
Sim says the departure has made The xx "stronger than ever," with Smith, who is forging quite a reputation as an innovative remixer, "taking on the brunt" of the change of dynamic. The specter of new material is hinted at ("there's no master plan, if it takes five years, it takes five years" says Sim), but the overriding aspiration is to feel accustomed to the unforeseen success "xx" has afforded them.
"It's been very overwhelming," Madley Croft says genuinely. "We didn't even think about people hearing it, never mind enjoying it. And to go to Japan is just unbelievable. For people all over the world to enjoy it is way beyond anything we imagined."
The xx play Daikanyama Unit on May 14, tickets cost ¥5,000. For more information, visit www.unit-tokyo.com or thexx.info