The Mercury Prize–winning indie-rockers share their innermost thoughts on hit ’90s sitcoms, secret musical weapons, and why they’re not like Ike and Tina.
1. After conquering the world and winning the Mercury Prize, they’re finally learning how to collaborate.
The xx’s critically lauded, self-titled debut album was built upon the duelling vocals of bassist Oliver Sim and guitarist Romy Madley Croft. To compose that he-said, she-said dynamic—which became the band’s trademark—Madley Croft and Sim actually recorded their parts separately and fused them together at a later date. But in an effort to grow as songwriters, they chose to mess with success when penning their follow-up, Coexist, which comes out this week. “Me and Romy wrote [four songs] together on this album, which we’d never done before,” says Sim. “Normally, I’d email her and wait for a response, and that back and forth can take days. But we wrote one of my favourite songs [“Unfold”] in half an hour. It was gratifying to do it so quickly.”
2. It helps to have a secret weapon.
On the strength of his remixes and production work for the likes of Radiohead, Drake, and Adele, percussionist Jamie Smith has become far and away The xx’s most famous band member. Sim says he and Madley Croft were able to capitalize on Smith’s relentless creativity when they wanted to find unique sounds for the new album. “He’s got a whole village of equipment. His role is just never-ending: He’s not a drummer, he’s just…noise. He can enter a song and [we think], ‘How wonderful would it be to have steelpan [drums], or harp?’ And he does it. It frees up the [songwriting] process.” But The xx are trying to make sure Smith’s fame doesn’t alter the band dynamic too much. “I think he’s creatively brilliant,” Sim adds, before glancing stealthily over his shoulder. “But I better make sure he doesn’t hear, so his head doesn’t get too big.”
3. They’ve invented a new take on the traditional love song.
To most listeners, The xx’s music sounds like emotionally charged confessions exchanged by star-crossed lovers, but Sim insists that couldn’t be further from the truth. “We’re not your conventional male-female duet. Romy’s like my sister—it’s not the Ike and Tina kind of relationship. So it didn’t matter if there was a disjointedness to what we did, because we’re not singing to one another.” Sim adds that the band’s lyrics are so personal, they don’t even disclose to each other what they’re singing about. “I can’t really speak for her,” he says, “but I have my own interpretations.”
4. Even minimalist indie-rockers are big Friends fans.
On a recent trip to Los Angeles to play on Conan, The xx found time to explore the ghostly remnants of one of NBC’s most beloved institutions. “[The set] was in the Warner Bros. studio,” Sim explains, “so we went on a tour of the Friends set, to see Central Perk. It’s still there!” Underneath all the dark clothes and sad music, could it be that The xx are ’90s sitcom lovers, just like the rest of us? “I am,” he says. “Everyone is. I grew up on it.” We asked Sim to name his favourite character, just to be sure. “I’m going to say…Phoebe. Actually, I’ll say Ross, because no one’s favourite is Ross—he’s the underdog.”
Fast Facts: The xx
■ Founded: London, England, 2005.
■ Discography: xx (Young Turks, 2009); Coexist (Young Turks, 2012).
■ Current lineup: Romy Madley Croft (vocals/guitar), Oliver Sim (bass/vocals), Jamie Smith (percussion/production).
■ Ex-xx: Original guitarist Baria Qureshi left in 2009.
■ Famous fans: Karl Lagerfeld, Matt Groening, Rihanna.
■ On screen: Songs featured in 90210, Cold Case, Suits, the 2010 Vancouver Olympics telecast, Hung, and the movie I Am Number Four.
Coexist will be released on Sept. 11.