Weekly updates:


Upfront: Oliver Sim of The xx

"If it scares us, do it"

Words by

The xx’s music is a singularity. The sparseness of the instrumentation; the sonic space between each musician; the lyrical depth; the emotional subtlety all mould into one another. Oliver Sim’s trebling bass provides a stern foundation while Romy’s sparse guitars and anguished vocals carry the listener throughout. Of course, Jamie xx’s production is the backbone of this; moulding atmospherics that often threaten to swallow the collective sound until only a void remains.

But listening to the xx’s music is a lot different to speaking to them. Romy, Jamie, and Oliver have been friends since college and obviously share a deep affection for one another. In their near-decade of being together they have ridden the turbulent waves of success, from underground fame to cultural ubiquity. Notwithstanding, their love for the craft remains and their latest effort, I See You is a testament to their longstanding unison. Acclaim spoke to the trailblazing outfit to learn more about their new material, their unique take on songcraft, and what it means to be ‘original’ when musical originality seems questionable.

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type bool in /srv/users/serverpilot/apps/acclaim/public/wp-content/themes/acclaim/includes/posts/templates/feature.php on line 58

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /srv/users/serverpilot/apps/acclaim/public/wp-content/themes/acclaim/includes/posts/templates/feature.php on line 58

With the new album I get the sense that you didn’t want to force any ideas—you wanted them to come naturally. How did that affect the making of I See You?

The development has been too long. I wouldn’t change it, because the album wouldn’t be what it is and I’m very proud of it. But it’s felt really frustrating at times that it’s taken so long. This album was quite off-and-on. Jamie was a victim of his success, so he was away touring a lot. And there were moments when we weren’t together. Romy spent a lot of time in LA; I was in London.

We also finished this album about five times. There’d be times where we maybe felt it was finished and then we’d spend a week away from it and realised there was more work to be done, that we could better some of the stuff we’d done. But then realising that it wasn’t finished was just heartbreaking.

Did you ever have to scrap an entire selection of songs or was it about building off what you already had?

We had over 20 songs, which is the first time we’d done that. Before we would have just enough songs for an album and then a couple of b-sides. Each of these songs had gone through so many versions and they’ve evolved and had loads of different lives. It’s just been a lot of work on these songs.

You even sound exhausted.

I just really want this album out. And then I will believe it’s finished. When I have a physical copy, that’ll be a moment of, “Right, there’s no decision on going back in the studios. It’s done.”

Is every member of The xx a perfectionist?

Yes, but it’s a dangerous game. You could get caught in a circle where you’re constantly working. I know people that have spent a lot of time recording and still haven’t released their first album after quite a few years. It’s vicious.

In the five-year break, was each member constantly pitching new ideas or was the process more formal in that you set aside time to start writing and recording the album?

Sort of. One thing about these last five years is that we toured Coexist for a long time. That album came out in September 2012 and then we finished touring in November 2013. We’d done a year touring before the album came out so it was a full two years touring. And then we came home and decided to do some more tours in 2014. Some songs on the album, like ‘A Violent Noise’ and ‘Performance’ were written while we were still touring. Work on this album started pretty soon after we finished touring. There was no big decision to start making the album. It was a natural thing.

Listening to ‘On Hold’ it’s definitely a change of pace for the band. Has the process of writing and recording changed since you started in the garage all those years ago.

Yeah it has changed. ‘On Hold’ isn’t necessarily a good representation of how the rest of the album sounds. This is the most varied album that we’ve ever made. There’s heartbreak, there’s joy, there’s up-tempo, there’s a lot of sparseness. It was hard to pick one song that gave a good impression of all of it. But we’ve definitely changed. Romy and I now write together, in a room discussing things. In the past, it was very collage; she’d write from home, I’d write from home and then we’d come together and try and fit what we had. But now we write on our own; we discuss.

Making Coexist was the first time we made a record with an audience, no one knew who we were when we were making the first record. A lot of the way we sounded then were happy accidents, learning to play our instruments. People talk to us about ‘space’ and the ‘simplicity’ of the songs. It was so unintentional. Making Coexist there was a lot of thinking about ‘What do The xx sound like? What do people like about us? Let’s hold on to that and do it more.’ There was a lot of putting ourselves under the microscope. This time around we’ve tried to let go of that. We’ve realised we don’t have to put so much effort into sounding like ‘us’. We’re trying to be a lot more adventurous with sounds and not worrying if something’s appropriate for how the xx sounds.

For example, there’s a lot of samples on this album which maybe we wouldn’t have done on Coexist because it wouldn’t have been right for what The xx sounded like. It was a lot more of a free and open experience making this album.

But straining?

Definitely straining. It’s just a long period of time, of course there’s going to be highs and lows.

Was this the most exhausting album you’ve made?

At times, this album has been the hardest and the most fun. It’s definitely the most rewarding and I feel confident about it now, which is something I haven’t felt before. Sod’s law you know? Everyone’s going to hate it [laughs]. It’s been a bit of a journey.

Musical influences aside, do real world or societal influences play a role in the band’s song-writing process?

More than ever we’re writing from a place of experience, whereas in the past we were kids and — it was still very personal — but we would write about expectations and hopes and looking at other people’s lives. Recently, a lot of people have been trying to put a political narrative to what we do. It’s interesting, but I don’t think that’s where our heads are at. For us, creating music is separate to politics. It doesn’t mean we’re not engaged or interested. But a great thing I take from music is being able to escape. It’s a safe haven.

I admire people who can do it – like Kendrick and Beyoncé who’ve done it really well this year – but it’s separate. Undeniably, it’s also a pretty scary, dark time at the moment. I think more than ever there’s a real need for music and art, to give people reassurance and connection to remove themselves a bit.

Is it important that The xx’s music provide the listener with that artistic escape?

We just want people to feel connected. That’s why we avoid putting in time, place, and ‘he’ or ‘she’ in the songs because we want people to be able to fit their own ideas and experiences to the songs. It’s going to be a really interesting time for music, because those people who do work off what’s going on politically – like punk in response to Margaret Thatcher – so I’m definitely interested to see what happens.

Recently, it seems bands have taken a back seat to solo artists when it comes to popular music. Do you think it’s important that The xx maintain the single unit, band mentality?

That’s something I’ve only picked up on in the last couple of weeks; the band is kind of dying. I do think it’s the dawn of the producer-turned-artist. It’s much easier to make music now. For example, people like Flume, whose music I love, I don’t necessarily think he would be a popstar on his own accord. But because he’s able to make music on his own, he is. People like Beyoncé are by default, which I think is great. People like Kanye are all-encompassing. He’s like Andy Warhol.

How do you feel about creating new music and pushing boundaries in 2016 when a lot of people say there are no ‘original’ ideas anymore?

Obviously, there’s truth behind that, but it’s still a pretty grim way of thinking. But if you’re really trying your hardest to make something innovative, you’re probably not going to do it. Things that are ‘new’ and ‘interesting’ don’t come from working in your comfort zone. That’s been a big part of making this album. If it scares us, do it. We decided to get outside of London – which is where we live – to record. We went to Reykjavik in Iceland, Marfa in Texas, Los Angeles, New York and some in London as well. We did loads of road trips. A lot of these places – maybe not New York – is beautiful nature with open sky. I can hear different places on the album.

I hope it still sounds like us.

Does that really matter when you’re pushing your sound even further?

I suppose it’s because we haven’t made this album trying to sound like us. We’re hoping it still carries a thread from the past two albums. But we just weren’t thinking about it. People still say it does. But it’s still a very varied album. There are moments that hint towards previous us but it’s definitely an evolved version of us.

The xx’s new album ‘I See You’ is out now via Young Turks.

The xx play at Splendour in the Grass 2017, North Byron Parklands on Friday 21 July – Sunday 23 July. More info here.

Follow The xx

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type bool in /srv/users/serverpilot/apps/acclaim/public/wp-content/themes/acclaim/includes/posts/templates/feature.php on line 58

Notice: Trying to access array offset on value of type null in /srv/users/serverpilot/apps/acclaim/public/wp-content/themes/acclaim/includes/posts/templates/feature.php on line 58

Weekly updates