Jamie xx is one of our generations most iconic producers and as the kiss-curl-haired, low-spoken, Islington-living lad kicks off his summer playing Primavera today we sit down to chat about good music.
Speaking very little and never singing solos, Jamie Smith’s spacious, mind-warping sound tapestries create a near perfect noise. A quintessential British talent, Jamie is the third, less conspicuous member of Mercury Award winning three-piece The xx. Favouring anonymity and conducting few interviews, Jamie has difficulty accepting the fact he is quite phenomenally successful. Officially reworking an entire album for the late and profoundly respected soul-jazz poet Gil Scott Heron and multiple remixes for Radiohead, before being recruited to produce for the king and queen of R’n’B Rihanna and Drake, whilst working on new material for himself and The xx, Jamie’s job, hobby and obsession is the discovery of new atmospheric beats.
After bonding with band mates Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sims at a year seven induction day at Elliott School, Putney, The xx was formed when the three best friends first began experimenting with music. Recording vinyl on tape decks and then layering vocal samples on top of instrumentals, Jamie’s skills were self- taught, inspired by his parents’ extensive jazz and soul collection. The first album that helped him to understand electronic music was Double Figure by Plaid, the mini remixer then got more into hip hop and began incorporating the new sounds he discovered into independent reworks that were then distributed online. Coining the shrill, rumblings of a steel pan drums as his signature riff, playing around with the juxtaposition of stop, start melodies, which travel hypnotically, interrupted occasionally by hollow vocals, prolific spoken sentiments or loud, manipulated sounds, Jamie xx’s electronic constellations are entirely unique.
How have your techniques as a producer evolved over the last few years?
I think they’ve evolved technically, which is very boring, but I’ve also learnt how to work with other people and how to know when to let somebody else do their own thing and play off it, or when to take more control as a producer.
What records were you sampling when you first started playing music?
I started by sampling my parents’ jazz and soul records. Then I moved into house stuff that I had been given by people.
What makes you want to engage with a piece of music?
I guess for a remix, if there is one element of a track that’s really strong and that people will recognise, then that allows me to do whatever I want underneath. I think that’s the basis to how I choose what I do.
When did you start to believe that music was something you could do professionally?
I didn’t really and I still don’t.
Who gave you the affirmation to build up your confidence?
That comes from playing live and meeting a lot of people. I still kind of can’t believe it.
Your parents listen to a lot of soul music. Did they first get you into Gil Scott Heron?
Yeah. They used to play his music when I was really young, I didn’t really remember it. Then, one of my art teachers in school played it and it kind of evoked memories. Years later, I was asked to work with him which is amazing.
What was he like to work with?
Very nice, just a really nice guy with all these great stories. The first time I met him he was going to do a secret set halfway through one of our sets in New York. So, he just came backstage and we were hanging out and it was really easy but he actually didn’t make it to the set. He went off and by the time he got back he missed his slot.
How did the creative processes between the reworking of his album happen between you two?
He sent me all of his acapellas basically and I just got to do what I wanted. I was writing him letters and showed him things that I had done and it all had to be confirmed by him.
Do you prefer working as a solo artist or as part
of a band?
I always think of what I do as The xx and everything else on the side is just for fun really.
Are any elements of your last album Coexist influenced by Gil’s music?
I don’t know if it’s influenced by Gil’s music but it’s just influenced by what I had to do after. I listened to a lot of dance music and we all went out and danced a lot this past year. House music is universal. It’s what makes people want to dance the most. That’s what influenced me.
What times of the day were you most productive when working on your material?
It was kind of from 3pm til very late.
What makes music romantic in your opinion?
I wouldn’t be able to say. I think that’s one of the best things about music, you can’t really explain why you love music when you hear it for the first time and fall in love with it.
Do you think that your own music is romantic?
Why do you think the more commercial techniques employed in pop make a track more popular than the experimental techniques that you would use in your more underground material?
I think I enjoy that sort of pop music occasionally, if it’s done well, but I don’t really like listening to things which sound polished. I think that Drake has managed to do something more interesting and still has managed to make it big in America. I wouldn’t be able to tell you exactly what the difference is but just imagine a photo that can make you look really horrible or a photo that can make you look good, even if you’re not that good looking. I imagine that’s the difference between a very polished production and something that is more experimental.
Do you think you are always going to keep within electronic music or could you see yourself branching out into a different genre?
I would quite like to do production with more live elements. It would be cool to try and do something original with a classic set up.
Who are your favourite fashion designers?
Acne is a good brand, I think you could do a lot with the music for their runway shows. I also really love Comme Des Garçons and Céline. If I was a girl I’d be wearing Céline.
How did you first become involved with Boiler Room?
I was friends with the people behind Boiler Room before it started out, and it was actually in a Boiler Room and people would just stand around and listen to the music. That was just around the time that I was doing my first remix and the The xx’s first album had just come out, so it was perfect timing.
Who is your icon?
I never really had musical icons when I was growing up. I guess my icons are Oli and Romy. They were the first people and friends that I was playing live music with and I am amazed by their ability to write music so maturely for our age.