Events, Issue 22, Magazine

The XX at CMJ Plus the Death+Taxes Interview

Gray Hurlburt :: Friday, October 23rd, 2009 2:30 pm

On a scorched afternoon in early August I met with The xx, a young, soft-spoken bunch of Londoners who dress in mishmash black attire, at a retro diner in Williamsburg, Brooklyn. On account of the stifling weather, the allure of air conditioning and starchy food just seemed called for. I was hungover and tired, which, as it turns out, so were they.

When they came in through the glass door, bassist Oliver Sim had to duck his elongated body through the frame, and the rest followed in right behind. Together they looked like an adolescent combination of the Jesus & Mary Chain and Bauhaus. And like those rock stars, who could chronologically be their fathers, The xx already bore the physical strain of supporting a new album—replete with drooped shoulders and raccoon eyes. This brunch came after a long tour through Europe’s summer festival circuit, five shows in New York City (one the previous night with Friendly Fires), and two photo shoots that morning.

The four of them—guitarists Romy Madley and Baria Qureshi, beats man Jamie Smith, and the aforementioned Oliver Sim—joined me in a corner booth to discuss their thirty-eight minute premiere, entitled xx.

All the way through it sounds like a pleasant déjà vu of rhythm and blues circa 1990, but with something more that’s enticingly different. After ordering a round of milkshakes, Oliver was quick to explain where this meshing comes from: “My older sister is quite into 90’s R&B. So, when I was growing up I stole most of her CDs, and had taken on most of her music. On the other hand, I was listening to a lot of Queens of the Stone Age, Placebo—and then, yeah, a lot of TLC, Aaliyah, and Ginuwine.”

These eleven tracks—from the instrumental “Intro” to the closing “Stars”—bob with a playful dubstep bass, circular guitar patterns, and prickly electronic drumbeats. Scattered throughout, keys and ambient textures provide subtle color, but remain understated. “There is quite a lot of space in our songs,” said Romy, “and I think that some of the producers saw it as a space to fill with their own sound—which is technically false.” This is why, eventually, Jamie handled much of the production on his own. He spent six months in studio tinkering away at the songs to attain a minimalist kind of precision.

After a long draw from his vanilla shake, Oliver added, “I suppose it’s kind of like an idea of only keeping what’s necessary in the song. It’s often the case when we are finishing a song, just taking stuff out.” What’s left serves as a tight foundation for vocals, which take the shape of Romy and Oliver chanting in a hushed harmony. In “Basic Space” they exchange intertwining verses, before converging with “Basic space, open air, here / Don’t look away when there’s nothing there.”

About now the waitress returned with plates fit for only a Brobdingnagian. Baria joked that she could probably wear the onion rings as wrist bangles. I asked where their choice of writing duets came from. Romy offered, “I think whenever we record a duet it never seems childish, because a lot of the songs are ultimately love songs. And we’ve been friends for such a long time that we felt it would be good if we wrote our own side of the same subject.”

“How long have you known each other?” I asked.

After she finished chewing, Baria answered, “Romy and Oliver have known each other since they were four.”

“—Three, really,” said Oliver.

Baria continued, “Then we all met each other when we were…eleven, in secondary school.” That was nearly a decade ago. Since then they went on to university at the Elliot School, an art school in London with famous alumni such as Burial, Hot Chip, and even Pierce Brosnan.

By doing the math you can see just where these four amigos are in life. Going on this, I thought I saw some light behind the numerals in their name. It turns out this conceit was true, but later in coming. I hailed our waitress for our check, then asked The xx what’s behind their name. “It was purely, when we started, just for aesthetical reasons,” said Oliver. “We quite liked an X—it’s strongly industrial. I think, thinking ahead of ourselves, we thought that, artwork-wise, it could be incorporated into a pattern. So, it probably had the least meaning behind it, besides being purely aesthetical. And the album came along, and we got to thinking that we will all be twenty when it comes out. So…it just sort of happened.”

“So, you’re all twenty.”

“We’re all twenty, except Romy,” said Baria, correct this time.

“I turn twenty on Tuesday. We’re having two gigs in London on Monday and Tuesday, so I guess that that’s my party.”

The XX Play tonight 10/23/09 at the Music Hall of Williamsburg with School of Seven Bells. Doors are 8pm.


One Response to “The XX at CMJ Plus the Death+Taxes Interview”
  1. [...] should be too shocked about The xx taking a break due to exhaustion. We interviewed them in August and they were kind of already complaining about it. Keyboardist / guitarist Baria Quereshi, the [...]

    Posted by: Death + Taxes Magazine October 29th, 2009 at 12:54 pm