One sun-drenched December afternoon in Melbourne, all three members of The xx are cooped up on a couch 19 floors above the CBD. Through the floor-to-ceiling hotel window behind them, the city fans out in a busy mess of office blocks, cathedral spires and rooftop cranes. Inside, the scene is mute. The UK trio is polite, but noticeably flagging under the day’s tide of press. They’re all, as you know, dressed in black.
The band – guitarist-vocalist Romy Madley Croft, bassist-vocalist Oliver Sim, and producer Jamie Smith – has a new album, its third. I See You finds the signature confessionals intact, but trades the band’s skeletal tension for splashes of communal abandon and groove. The narrative is one of self-discovery. “We wanted to shake things up,” says Madley Croft, launching in. “We wanted to record outside London, try new methods, and have some personal experiences outside the band.”
Those experiences were diverse. After the world tour for second album Coexist concluded in late 2013, the band went separate ways. Madley Croft tried her hand in LA as a pop songwriter for hire. Smith, as Jamie xx, became a notable DJ in his own right, releasing the critically acclaimed 2015 solo album In Colours. Sim just went home.
“It felt like my real first opportunity to catch up on life again,” says Sim. The most gregarious member of the group, the bassist says acclimatising to life outside the band came as a shock. “I’m in my late 20s and maybe fighting with the fact I’m an adult now,” he says, grinning. “In some ways we’ve seen the world and are wise in a certain way, but completely stunted in another. There was some learning I had to do.”
Some of that learning, as Sim revealed recently to Pitchfork, was to stop drinking so much. (He references it on burbling mid-album highlight Replica: “Do I chase the night, or does the night chase me?”) His bandmates confronted him about it, something Madley Croft makes subtle reference to. “At times it was quite scary and we had to face some things,” she says of the off-period. “Being vulnerable with each other.”
Smith’s refreshment was much more high profile. The most reserved member of the band, he spent time touring his solo album with a renewed confidence. “We got a lot better at performing during Coexist and actually started to enjoy being on stage,” says Smith. “Without Coexist I wouldn’t have been able to go on stage with my own album.”
By the time they regrouped, all three had arrived at the same thought – The xx was special. “I realised just how good we have it,” says Smith. “Trying to make music with anybody but these two is a completely different experience.”
An unforeseen hurdle was the popularity of Smith’s solo music, both on the dancefloor and internally. “Me and Romy were definitely inspired by what Jamie was doing on his own,” says Sim. “Our demos were very energetic in comparison to what we’d done in the past. We assumed when we met up with Jamie he’d be well up for it …”
Smith interjects. “I was up for it.”
“You were,” says Sim, “but I thought you had a real interest in not making people dance as well. Which makes complete sense, because that’s what you’d known for the past couple of years. So there was a bit of a tug of war there. But we met in the middle.”
Smith says his breakthrough was realising the music he was making for himself didn’t have to be distinct from The xx. “There were ideas I wouldn’t have brought to the table before that now I definitely would,” he says. “It’s really fun playing the dance-y stuff now on stage.”
Smith also returned with a new instrument – voice. Not his own, but vocal samples, something The xx had never utilised. “I didn’t actually think about how putting my voice on the record is through samples,” says Smith. The realisation spurred him to find out what his bandmates were actually singing about. “For this album I asked them to send me all the lyrics they’d written, which I’d never done before,” he says.
Another first was recording outside of London. As well as stints in London and LA, they booked time in Iceland and the small US town of Marfa, Texas. (It remains an inspiration for their new cowboy-shirt look on stage). The move was as much about team-building as it was making music.
“It was about being away from home,” says Sim. “And together,” completes Madley Croft. “You definitely feel more unified,” Sim continues.
“And as a result,” says Smith. “When we came back to London we felt more unified as well.”
Having cast the previous decade of pop music’s lust for melancholic minimalism (think Lorde, The Weeknd, Drake) in their own DIY image, there’s small irony in this private group blossoming via extremes. “We actually pushed ourselves past the end,” says Smith. “I remember sitting in the studio working on this one last song that still hadn’t been finished. I did the drums, made it into a sort of structure and stuff to show Oliver and Romy. But I just knew it wasn’t in me to finish it. And I was just very excited and ready.”
To be empty?