When British trio The xx dropped their self-titled debut album eight years ago, they weren't expecting to snag a Mercury award, land a UK number one album, and stand eye to eye with audience members like Jay Z and Madonna at their shows. Oliver Sim, Jamie Smith and Romy Madley Croft were just 20, a trio of introverts who had found themselves inadvertently, under the glare of pop stardom, something they all acknowledge hasn't been easy. "I think our privacy came from being more shy than most pop stars," Oliver says, looking back. "That was partly an age thing, but also a confidence thing. Now we feel ready to share more. We're feeling more open."
Perhaps this newfound openness is why, when we meet the band at their record label's office in early January, our time together winds up feeling more like a group therapy session than an interview. We're there to discuss their latest album, the critically acclaimed I See You, a record warmly imbued with their trademark emotional minimalism, but which also takes the listener into bold new territory. The band are huddled close together, no one seems too fragile; Jamie spent New Years at a jungle themed party in a Devon pub, Romy got engaged to her fiancé, the designer and artist Hannah Marshall, at home in London, and Oliver was quietly celebrating one year sober outside the city with friends. A relatively low-key start to 2017. A sign - by their own admission - that they might be reaching maturity.
Coming of age is one of the big themes on I See You - an album that Oliver describes as an ode "to the end of the party" and which, like any truly momentous night out, dances its way through euphoric highs and plunges into epic lows. If the highs go some way to reflect what it's like to have the world at your fingertips when you're young, the lows are the strains the band's success have put on the trio's friendship. When they finished touring their last album Coexist, Jamie says everybody was ready to go home. A mixture of intense tour schedules and personal growing pains had tested the group to the very limits. "We spent so much time together we were just ready to be separate," he remembers solemnly. "I never want to get to that place again."
Growing up in southwest London, Romy and Oliver met when they were toddlers, and studied at the Elliott School in Putney where they met Jamie (the same school, incidentally, as Burial and Four Tet). Romy and Oliver started the band in 2005, with her on guitar and vocals and him on bass, vocals and keyboard. Jamie joined a year later to do production. After a few years of pub gigs, the band signed to British indie label Young Turks and released their debut album xx in 2009. Haunting and minimal, it instantly appealed to indie and electronic fans alike. They released Coexist in 2012, and in 2013 worked on Night + Day, a series of mini-festivals featuring artists like London Grammar and Kindness. It was around this time that tensions in the band started to come to the fore.
"For a while, I feel like we didn't see each other," Romy reflects, sitting between Jamie and Oliver in her usual uniform of black T-shirt and jeans. "Physically, because sometimes we were in different parts of the world, but also emotionally, because when you spend so much time with someone you start to see through them." She explains how the title I See You speaks of a newfound clarity between the three friends. The name comes from the lyrics of Velvet Underground song I'll Be Your Mirror and was Oliver's idea. "When Oliver brought it up we all agreed it was beautiful, the way a friend can be a mirror to you, reflect things you can't see yourself, good and bad," Romy says. "That's what happened when we got back together for this album; our friendship had changed, something had shifted."
Jamie puts a lot of their growth down to acting outside of their comfort zones, like playing a series of intimate gigs at the Armory in New York back in March 2014. They played three gigs a night to just forty people per show. Tickets sold out quickly, with celebrities like Bjork, Alicia Keys and Beyoncé taking front row. "I don't know what's more nerve-wracking, knowing Beyoncé's coming ahead of time or catching her eye while you're playing mid show," Romy jokes. Jamie says the Armory was the closer for Coexist and the beginning of I See You - "Everything had built up to those gigs; we'd learnt to play on big stages and we got really good at it, then we went the opposite way and played really small shows that were terrifying in a totally different way."
I See You took four and half years to produce because everyone was working on their personal lives and projects in the interim. Romy was mastering the art of commercial song-writing in L.A. Oliver was modelling for Dior and "catching up on life" and Jamie was working on his brilliant 2015 solo album, In Colour, under the moniker Jamie xx. "In the band, we always wanted to play everything live and that's why it was so minimal," Jamie says. "Not having that limitation on In Colour definitely helped me in the studio for I See You - we tried out every possible outcome for every song and worried about how to play it live later. It was way more freeing."
The parallels between Jamie's solo work and I See You is perhaps most obvious in some truly unexpected samples; Hall & Oates on the single On Hold, the Alessi Brothers on Say Something Loving (a collaboration with Stella Mozgawa from Warpaint) and a cheeky Drake sample on Naïve. After In Colour, Jamie says he felt more confident to experiment with Romy and Oliver's lyrics, which were, for the first time on this album, written between the pair in person rather than over email. "We used to find it too awkward, baring your soul to your best mate," says Romy, looking at Oliver coyly. "It took us a while to be vulnerable."
Vulnerable is a good word to describe I See You. It isn't a drastic departure from xx or Coexist but a candid testament to a new era of emotional openness and honesty for the band. Test Me confronts Romy's feelings of distance between her and Oliver -"Just take it out on me/It's easier than saying what you mean," she purrs, "tell me this time you've changed." Brave For You, an emotional crescendo with 80s-style percussion, is the first song she's written about her parents' deaths. While Replica addresses Oliver's former vices, with Romy reminding him: "Your mistakes are only chemical". "I definitely spent a lot of my early twenties going 100 miles per hour and 'celebrating'," Olivier says of the inspiration behind the song. "I was just running and not really facing or dealing with anything. I went into recovery at the beginning of 2016 and over the past couple years, I've tried to stop and do some self-inventory. I find it hard talking about it, but at the same time I'm really proud and want to talk about it. I just don't know how. It's almost been easier to put it into songs than put it into conversation."
While the subject matter is often gruelling, I See You is ultimately an uplifting album. Right from track one, the dancehall inspired Dangerous, you can hear Jamie's penchant for horns. A Violet Noise verges on morphing into a house track and the single On Hold winds its way from a ballad into what is undoubtedly going to be a song of the summer. The latter, with its glitchy samples and soaring vocals is everything that's perfect about the way Jamie's production fuses with Romy and Oliver's voices. It's definitely the most club-friendly moment on I See You, something Jamie acknowledges: "Parts of the album are really joyous," he smiles: "I hope that's reflective of how we were feeling; we've been through a lot, but we are finally coming out the other side.
Text Amelia Abraham
Photography Alasdair McLellan
Styling Ellie Grace Cumming
Hair Mark Hampton at Julian Watson Agency. Make-up Frankie Boyd at Tim Howard Management. Photography assistance Lex Kembery, Matt Healy, Simon Mackinlay. Retouching Output London. Special thanks to Terry Hack at Bayeux Ltd.