To be honest, State had been expecting the worst. Stood motionless on stage, dressed head-to-toe in black, and with a dour expression etched across his face to match his appearance, The XX‘s Ollie Sim doesn’t exactly come across as a bundle of fun. Despite cramming a good deal of Stradbally’s temporary populous into the Electric Arena tent last month’s Electric Picnic, Sim and his cohorts look almost embarrassed by the attention being given to them and their deceptively simple, sparse and lonesome bunch of songs. Throughout, you couldn’t describe them as anything but glum. Despite this lack of on-stage prescence, the music that the XX perform has a rich warmth to it and their debut remains one of the more exciting records of 2009.
Sim too is warmer and more exuberant in person than he appears on stage. Greeting us with a welcoming and bright smile, the six-foot plus 20-year-old arrives looking everything like the young Londoner that he is – hair slicked back and earring neatly in place. ‘I haven’t really slept in about four days,’ he smiles as we exchange pleasantries about his ever-busier schedule. ‘We were in Denmark last night I think, and yeah that was great. It’s kind of great and strange to find out people listen to your music in other countries – even outside of London. London can seem like its own bubble sometimes. But yeah, it’s been building. You know it (Electric Picnic) was kind of like Reading in that the tent was pretty full. And, I don’t know’¦it’s a bit of an awakening moment.’
2009 has been a year full of awakening moments for the quartet. At the start of the year, while the band were still in the midst of recording their self-titled debut, the NME (amongst others) was pointing to them as ones to watch, listing them at number six in their -future 50’ list. They’ve picked up other plaudits too – from the BBC to a glowing review on this very site for their much-anticipated debut, which was released last August.
‘In some ways we’ve obviously really noticed the pace quicken since the album has come out,’ Sim says, pausing at various times as he tries to get his head around the group’s burgeoning success. ‘The attention we’re getting has definitely meant things have became much busier. But I don’t know’¦I suppose I’ve just been too busy and tired to check up on it. I’m sure that’s worked to my benefit because if I had been taking notice, I’m sure that I’d have got a little bit freaked out by the whole thing. But yeah, it’s important not to Google yourself! Just get on with the music.’
Get on with the music is what the quartet have been doing since Sim and best friend Romy Madley Croft (guitar/ vocals) began writing together some years ago. Mates from year dot, the pair attended Elliott secondary school in Putney, London – notable as the institution that also schooled Hot Chip, Burial, Four Tet and The Maccabees. There, they met guitarist Baria Qureshi and producer Jamie Smith – progressing things to the stage that they were ready to pen a deal with the Young Turks label by the time they were 17.
‘Well, Romy’s kind of like my sister. I’ve known her since I was two or three,’ Sim offers. ‘And, it just kind of’¦we were both bored I suppose and the idea to get a band together, and make music, just came at a time when we were both really getting into music and both going to a lot of gigs and all of that. So we were like, why don’t we try ourselves? And although it’s hard to start singing and showing lyrics to your best friend, at the same time it made it easier that we were so close. So it was quite a comfortable place to start. From that Baria joined, and then Jamie joined a few years later. So it was kind of like building blocks.’
The mesmeric, sparse and nocturnal qualities of the material aside, much of the plaudits the record has received have focussed on the way both Sim and Madley Croft’s vocals and lyrics work so well together. Both voices help too create an intimate and engaging foreground by which Jamie Smith is able to inject his various blips and beats across the back of. What’s most interesting though, is the nature of the album’s lyrical side. Despite the fact they sound and read like raw, extremely personal love songs, the words are in fact collaged together from Sim and Madley Croft’s individual inputs.
‘Basically how it works,’ says Sim, ‘is what she’s written, she sings and what I’ve written, I sing. It feels a lot more genuine that way. I don’t know how comfortable I’d feel if I was singing somebody else’s lyrics, especially as they’re quite personal’¦but we don’t write off each other’s stuff either. It is strange I guess, but looking back I kind of went through some lyrics that I’d already written and kind of collaged it together for songs on the record. And it ended up fitting quite well, which was strange’¦but it works, so you tend not to question these things.’ Was he aware from the off how well the pair’s voices worked together? ‘Well no’¦before we started doing this, I hadn’t really sang. Nor had Romy. So we kind of started singing together and learned together. Also, I think, because we each write our own lyrics for any particular song, we’re not really singing to each other. I’ve never really asked Romy what her lyrics mean, or what they refer to. I have my own interpretations and we’re both singing to an outside subject. It’s not Sonny and Cher.’
Shunning bigger labels two years ago in favour of the little-known Young Turks imprint signals one side of the group’s assured nature in doing things their way. Another is their relatively brave decision to self-produce the record, scrapping sessions with Kwes and Diplo. ‘Young Turks,’ Sim says, ‘came at a time when we were beginning to get some interest from other people who were talking to us about releasing singles and this and that. At that time, we had about six songs, hadn’t done that many shows, didn’t have a very good live show’¦and Young Turks just offered us a place to rehearse and really, let us develop. The first year with them was just all about that, rehearsing and developing and them putting us in contact with some producers. From that we wrote most of the album and then, in the past year, we’ve been mostly working towards the album.’
‘With Kwes and Diplo’¦we definitely learned so much from working with them before the decision was made to go it alone. I can definitely recognise their marks on the album. It was just that the recordings with them kind of came out sounding a little bit more like them than it did us. It just felt more like their interpretation of our songs. And, the space in the songs’¦ they kind of saw that as space to be filled with their trademark sounds I guess’¦because all of them had trademark styles.’
Did those sessions lead to the band stripping things back even further and being very guarded about the space within each song? ‘Well’¦.’, he pauses as he puts his hand through his hair. ‘We never really intentionally thought to make really sparse, minimalist music. But after being complimented about it, I guess we made a bit more of a conscious decision not to stray away from that and to maintain it. When Jamie joined the band, it kind of gave us the potential to make a wealth of whatever noises we wanted to make. So I guess yeah, we had to recognise that’¦that we had to keep the space in the songs. We had recorded stuff and kind of stripped back whatever wasn’t necessary or whatever didn’t really serve a function. Most of my favourite songs are kind of down-tempo, mid-tempo and that, I suppose, influenced my writing…and I guess, in getting back to the attention and how people might see us as kind of shy and sullen’¦I’m not really a shouty, kind of jump up on a table waving my hands type of guy, you know. That’s never been me. I don’t think any of us are outrageous in-your-face people, and that, I think, is reflected in the music.’
The next two-years will prove interesting for The XX and whether they have the staying power. ‘I’ve only started to write again,’ admits Sim. ‘And it’s hard getting the time. You know, things have changed quite a lot and I’m aware now when I’m writing that the stuff I’m writing isn’t necessarily just for me anymore.’ And although the business of penning a second album is at the forefront of Sim’s mind, the next few months will see the group boost their live experience with tours lined up with Florence & The Machine, Friendly Fires, and their own headlining tour.
A relatively fledgling live act, anyone who has seen the band over the past nine months will attest to much room for improvement. ‘We’re a bit new to it,’ admits Sim. ‘We’re kind of being playing venues with 300 people max in them and festivals are really new to us. But for the next tour, we’ve invested in some pretty amazing light boxes for the shows. It’s something that I think that will come in time – that kid of mix of putting on a show for bigger audiences whilst also putting across the songs in a good way.’
The XX play Dublin’s Tripod on Saturday December 19th