an interview with the xx from 2010
10 years on from the release of their eponymous debut album, we look back at this early interview from i-D's Lovers of Live Issue.
Photography Alasdair Mclellan
This article originally appeared in The Lovers of Life Issue, no. 305, 2010
X marks the spot to hidden treasure. An X is also a warning to not go there. An X is an invitation, provocative and stimulating. X is for the step into the paranormal and the unknown. X-rays can read you like a book. Who is Mr X? X marks you out as straight edge. X marks you out as under age. The X-Rated was the best ever Swatch. X-Men are superheroes. Jedward didn’t have the X Factor. Or did they? Yep, all in all, the X is a profoundly symbolic icon. Don’t forget Xs are also kisses. And now there’s The xx to add to the list.
The xx are three subterranean neophytes who crept out of Putney in south London into an already over-populated musical ecology and at just 20 years of age, have produced a perfect album. Which really came without warning. Or maybe it did considering their precautionary Xs? They’ve cocooned their vision and softly projected this into the world away from any scene. And gently and quietly is exactly how it goes. Just like the Xs that adorn their artwork and live stage, their aesthetic and musical landscape is simply black and white, emotionally, musically and artistically stripped bare. They play through a peaceful simplicity of plucked and reverbed guitars, bass and drums, which echo in their hypnotic grip. Musical touch points would glance around Polly Harvey, Young Marble Giants, DMZ, nights at FWD>>, The Cure and Suicide.
What makes their songs so tenderly epic are the hushed duelling vocals between best friends Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. Rather than just duets, they exist as a dialogue and dual monologues. A breathy and sighing, elegiac emotional purge of found love and lost love, inquisitively trapped between longing and an embrace. Romy and Oliver dress mainly in black, which feels more like a camouflage union to hide in the shadows with, than an expression of any gothic intent. They look like an amalgamation of EMF and early Raf Simons referenced subcultures, with their MA1’s, black hoodies, undercuts and multiple necklaces, rings and charms. To their side stood hammering away at a drum machine is Jamie, the production hub whose curly hair remains caged in a New Era fitted cap. Their fourth member Baria Qureshi recently left the band after a struggle with the rigours of some punishing international touring.
They have a modesty, which is often mistaken for shyness, and a sense of control and vision, which belies their age. Live, it feels colossal for such intimate music, mobiles held to the heavens twinkling like fiery torches to what will literally become torch songs.
You seem to be out on a pretty punishing tour schedule at the moment!
Romy Madley Croft: Europe then America, Europe then America. We’ve never done this before. A few days away here and there. It’s new but it’s good. I’ve never really been this tired before. I enjoy just sitting on my own and listening to music a lot more now!
So exactly how long have you known each other?
I’ve known Oliver since I was 3. We were at nursery school together. We’ve just grown up together really. Went to primary school and secondary school and sixth form, and now we’re doing this. Seventeen years. We met Jamie and Baria aged 11 at school. So we’re old, old friends. Around 14/15 we started going to gigs and getting into music. I started teaching myself guitar. Oliver started playing bass.
And what was the first gig you went to?
The first gig I went to see was The Distillers at Brixton Academy, with Pretty Girls Make Graves, Peaches and Eagles of Death Metal supporting. I was at the front, thinking it was the best thing ever.
Then how did it progress?
From there we all did GCSE music classes together. Jamie started getting into production and listening to hip-hop quite separately. I was sitting on my guitar playing heavy distortion. Then Oliver and I used this multi-tracker and started messing around. We just played covers of Wham and The Pixies. I had drum lessons for a while, but I never really wanted to be a drummer. Jamie hammering away with his fingers on the drum pads is a real focal point of The xx live experience. Jamie had an MPC for his eighteenth birthday and just came along to play in a rehearsal with us. He started playing along, and I was like, ‘that was really good, will you please like join us?’ We’d all been friends but we’d never been together as a band. From there we just kind’ve gigged.
So what were you like at school? All running as a pack?
I’ve always been best friends with Oliver, so we were always together. Baria became friends through music and me and Jamie used go skateboarding together.
Were you any good at skating?
Yeah, I was alright. I was more into bowl skating. I could never really do steps. I found out about a lot of music through skate videos, bands like The Cure and Mazzy Star.
Were you always called The xx?
The name was the first thing we came up with before making music. Playing around with words that we liked. And we liked Xs. It doesn’t really have a meaning, it’s a symbol. What does it mean?
Did you and Oliver always play around with the concept of forming a band?
It all came out of a summer of boredom, and music was my obsession at the time. I was quite late to the internet, so I used to record music off the radio, mainly Xfm and John Kennedy’s new music thing. I don’t think I was born to perform or anything like that. We’re pretty reserved as people. I was teaching myself guitar and sang along with the chords, recorded it and sent it along to one of my friends on the internet, and she was like: ‘I like that, can you do more?’ We definitely weren’t those children who were on stage from a young age.
Are your families into music?
My dad was always playing records at dinner. Things like Nick Drake, Jimi Hendrix, Velvet Underground and Brian Eno, but he went through a Madonna phase. At one point I was eating breakfast and he’d be playing "Hung Up"... at that point he had gone a bit far!
Has your music always been as controlled and minimal?
We didn’t have loads of complicated equipment and we didn’t want to layer the guitars and produce a sound we knew we wouldn’t be able to play live. It was partly because we were lacking skills, so it came out quite accidentally. People commented on it being simple and stripped back and we quite liked that. We were just like, this is how it sounds, because this is all we’ve got!
At what point did your sound form into what it is now?
I don’t really know. My guitar sound is like that because my amp had reverb on it. At school, we studied minimalism, Phillip Glass and repeated, picked guitar, which I preferred to strumming. And it cuts through Oliver’s bass sound, which is quite thick. Nothing was really premeditated.
You’ve come up with something beyond your years, which isn’t meant to sound patronising, but you’d maybe expect an album like this, four albums down the line...
At school I had friends that were older than me. I’ve always like the company of people who were older than me. I dunno… We definitely had a period of about a month or two where we were playing as loud as we could with loads of distortion. And then, somebody turned it off. And I don’t think it’s ever been on since. We got that all out of the way early on and I guess haven’t gone back. The first song we ever made was "Blood Red Moon" and I don’t know how that came about, it went from Wham covers to that. It’s a compliment if people think it should have come further down the line. But, it just came out like that.
This article originally appeared on i-D UK.