London-based The xx bring their melodic beats and humble vulnerability across the pond
Story by Ken Courtney / Photography by Victoria Stevens
If I’ve said it once, I’ve said it a million times: there’s so much music on the market now that it’s impossible to keep up. Thankfully, though, I did my homework and got to interview one of the more sought-after acts of the moment: London’s The xx. While The xx has gotten a lot of buzz in the UK, they’re still relatively unknown in the U.S. It was one faithful trip I made to Young Turk’s site (that’s their label) to check out a video by The Big Pink when my curiosity got the best of me and I watched the video for Crystalized. Midway through the first listen, I was hooked. The deep, breathy vocals (half male, half female) are soulful and sexy, and the music is melodic and mesmerizing, with perfectly mixed guitars, synthesizers, and ethereal bass lines countered by amazing uses of negative space that pull it all together perfectly.
Upon my arrival to the CMJ Festival at the Music Hall of Williamsburg, the venue was virtually empty. Setup was complete, sound check was over, and the bands were either off somewhere else or in one of a series of “green” rooms behind the stage chilling out before the big show. Subconsciously I knew my encounter would be amicable — after having listened to their music non-stop for weeks, I had a sense for who the band was without having met them. Much as I expected, The xx pre-show were chilled out, as I imagine they are most of the time. One of the members of the band was tied up and couldn’t make it for the interview (Baria Qureski, rhythm), but I got to talk to Romy Madley Croft (vocals, guitar), Oliver Sim (vocals, bass), and Jaime Smith (rhythm).
It makes perfect sense that Jaime — the man who makes the beats and produces the music — is a listener/observer, who spoke but once, and only when I asked him a direct question. While neither Romy nor Oliver has the typical bravado of a pop performer, each had lots to say, usually with the slight hesitation of highly self-aware and self-conscious people who think before they speak, not wanting to be misunderstood. In short, they are their music.
One of the qualities that make The xx so good and seductive is the lead singers’ abilities to convey a sense of vulnerability that is more akin to artists than pop performers. While vulnerability isn’t a stranger in the context of indie music, there’s something about The xx’s brand of vulnerability that pulls me in and holds me tight, hanging on to every syllable. It’s an unaffected delivery of who they are that has a certain naiveté that’s unaffected, not asking the listener to do anything other than listen to what they have to say.
When I mentioned this, Oliver shocked me with the revelation that, initially, he wasn’t drawn into the project as a performer. His love of writing lyrics and making beats got him into music, but at one point he realized that if they were going to make this real, they were going to need to perform. Slowly but surely, he’s “gotten over himself” and enjoys performing, as does Romy, who started out teaching herself guitar. Only after receiving some encouragement from her peers did she come into her own as a vocalist. Given the band will be touring non-stop around the world for the next six months, it’s good news that the once shy, fresh-faced foursome have grown to like performing.
Before I knew it, it was time for me to bid the band adios. I was sad for the conversation to end, wishing I’d been there to chat rather than to interview them, sensing that while they know the necessity of interviews and speaking to the press, they really shine when they’re just hanging out without all the fanfare. All in all, though, I left happy to have met them and can’t wait to see them when they’re back in town on Dec. 5 at Webster Hall.