Since emerging from their respective London bedrooms in the late aughts, the members of the xx have cultivated a rather appealingly enigmatic aura. On 2009’s self-titled debut, sparse meditations seethed with tension between vocalists Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. To the unknowing ear, it played as gothic romance, underpinned by Madley Croft's echoing, harshly plucked notes.
It didn’t take long, however, for inquiring minds to discover that the pair were not lovers, but childhood friends (they both also happen to be gay) — the ache not for, but of each other. Regardless, between beatmaker Jamie Smith’s soft-touch production, an all-black dress-code and perceived passive attitude, the xx gained a reputation as maudlin brats of the rising British indie-electro music scene.
"We've always been happier than we appear"
It’s a description which, some seven years later, Madley Croft would like to clear up. “We've always been happier than we appear,” she says, leaning in from the corner of a couch in the group’s Toronto hotel room. “Maybe now we're just more confident and grown up in ourselves.”
“And willing to let that be seen,” Sim adds.
It’s been an arduous road to gain this confidence. One marked with social anxiety, instant fame and critical failure; of bold-faced fandom, drinking problems and jealousy; of recording in Iceland, California and Texas before returning to the comforts of home. And of coming to terms with happiness. It’s all there on the xx's third album, I See You, which happens to be the first openly fun listen in the group’s 12-year existence. A result, the group says, of forced experimentation and reorientation. As Sim points out with a self-aware grin, “Our comfort zone is a very small space, so it's not hard to take us out of there.“
"Our comfort zone is a very small space, so it's not hard to take us out of there"
Like most albums released by iron-hot "indie" bands, I See You’s journey began on the heels of the previous album’s tour cycle. It was November 2013 and, following a very short break, Sim, Smith and Madley Croft got together to pen material for the followup to 2012’s critically stale sophomore effort Coexist (a result of pandering to the audience, according to the band). To avoid a similar fate for their third release, the trio aimed to road test the new songs with a trial by fire: a 25-gig residency at New York’s Park Avenue Armory and a tour of southern U.S. colleges. The results, as one might expect, were less than encouraging. “In retrospect,” Madley Croft demures, “that feels really early.”
Only one song from that era remains, Madley Croft’s haunting “Performance,” but all parties agree it was an important step nonetheless. “The tour did its job,” Sim says. “We tested [the songs] out and instinctively it just didn't feel right.”
From there, songwriting began anew, and the group booked recording sessions in diverse, sunny locations, including Marfa, Texas, Reykjavik and a West Coast road trip to Los Angeles, where the requisite late-night indulgences soon followed.
“It just seemed like the natural thing to do after being in a dark room and not particularly enjoying it that much,” Smith explains, citing Coexist’s London studio sessions. “Those were the best moments, when we were in the places all together.”
While Madley Croft and Sim set about writing demos, Smith conceived a solo release of his own. The resulting album, In Colour, with its prescient use of tropical steel drums, would lead the shy, mono-chromed DJ right into the neon glow of the EDM scene (which, ironically, was already populated by others mimicking his band’s sound), playing hip clubs where people danced instead of swayed, and leaving his bandmates to their own devices: Madley Croft dabbled in L.A songwriting sessions with OneRepublic’s Ryan Tedder while Sim modelled for Dior Homme and developed a drinking problem (he’s now been sober for year).
“It was very humbling,” Madley Croft says of the break. “I felt quite idle at times.”
At some point the group presented an album to their record label, “and the people that we worked with were like, 'Great, what're you gonna do to it next?' Which is a really frustrating thing at the moment,” Sim recalls.
Tensions eventually boiled over when the band members attended one of Smith’s DJ gigs and heard their featured voices. “It was very surreal. Oliver and I being at the show, our voices coming out of the stereo system and everyone's looking at Jamie because we're not onstage. We're in the audience. No one can see us,” Madley Croft recalls.
“It was like, 'I want this.’” Sim adds. “It makes me want to do better.”
"Sorry, this feels like therapy"
Listening to his friends recall their frustration, Smith is shockingly honest. “I had a great time,” he says, allowing for a light chuckle. “I really enjoyed making my album and I think I needed to do it to make [I See You].”
“I feel bad that there were struggles, and maybe some of that was my fault,” he adds. “But it wouldn't have been the same without them and now that we've all come to this place and we've all talked about how everybody felt about that. We've learned a lot and the next album we're not going to do it like that. We were all in very different places, even geographically at times. But we're all best friends. So we just needed to learn that and work it out.”
Letting the words hang in the air for a moment, Madley Croft jumps in. “It was the longest we've been apart in forever but no regrets, I don't want Jamie to feel bad,” she says. “Sorry, this feels like therapy.”
When a band hits a certain level of fame, there’s an assumption both internal and externally that they’re outgoing — or reasonably good at faking it. Talking to strangers, after all, is part of the gig. For the xx, the introvert act wasn’t one at all. All three members say they spent a large part of their off time learning to get comfortable “just talking to people you don't know. Having to interact in the world and not be in your little bubble in London.”
The group, which speaks continuously, if quietly, during our 35-minute interview, has come a long way from the shy 20-somethings who would literally gasp if they ran into another band at a festival.
“We were talking about this in the car yesterday, Romy is far ahead on that comfort zone thing,” Smith states. “Especially when it comes to interacting with other people like a normal person.”
"We had no idea it would be this big, but we're embracing it"
“I'm leading the way,” Madley Croft says. “But we're all striving to be that, and a lot happier because of it.”
If the songs on I See You are any indication, it seems to have worked. The album’s opener, “Dangerous,” pumps with triumphant trumpets, heavy bass, and a defiant chorus: “'Cause I couldn’t care less/ if they call us reckless/ until they are breathless.” While the two singles, “On Hold” and “Say Something Loving,” with their chugging beats and sampled choruses, sit comfortably alongside the Chainsmokers on the pop charts.
As the artistic followup to Coexist’s muted murmurs, it’s a genuine shock to the system.
“All of us felt a bit more free. That's why some of that joyousness came out,” Smith explains, citing his own personal success as a catalyst for the more upbeat sound.
Lyrically, as well, I See You’s glass is considerably more half-full hopeful than the group’s previous releases. A result, both lyricists say, of their satisfying private lives. “I'm not heartbroken so I didn't feel like I could write a sad song,” Madley Croft, who recently annnounced her engagement to partner Hannah Marshall, explains. “It was a challenge to write happy love songs. I know I can write about heartbreak but can I write about other themes? And Oliver and I wrote a lot of things together, which was very new for us. I guess that's a sign of confidence. We're stronger together.”
“I think that reflects us as people,” Sim adds. “It's been quite a long album to make — we had time apart and we've been out of touch, then we came back and I'm happy that it sounds joyful. We're not wallowing on sad times or anything. It feels like fun. That's good.”
So what does a reasonably well-adjusted xx look like? The band is just as excited to find out as their fans.
“It's grown into something we never expected,” Madley Croft says. “We made this music just for ourselves. And felt some sort of strange internal need to perform it live even though it didn't look like we wanted to be doing it. We all for some reason did. And I think about that a lot.
“We had no idea it would be this big, but we're embracing it.”
More to explore: