FOR a band that trips ghostlike and lightly across the musical landscape, the xx are making a lot of noise in the right places, discovers Aidan Smith
On A warm day underneath London Bridge, summer is still hanging around and so, too, is the Olympic spirit. For, as she takes a break from rehearsals, Romy Madley Croft of the xx sounds like nothing so much as one of those polite, modest, can’t-quite-believe-it’s-just-happened Olympians. She uses the word “surreal” a lot, just as the athletes did, post-triumph, but her most recurring phrase is: “I’m so grateful”.
She is so grateful, she says, for the success the band enjoyed with their self-titled debut album, a collection of slow, quiet, ghostly songs which seemed to strike a chord with the mood of the nation. “We were surprised and even shocked,” she says of the acclaim, which peaked with the Mercury Prize. Now the trio are about to release the feverishly anticipated follow-up.
She is so grateful for the opportunities the success has afforded them. “We’re all just 23 and yet already we’ve been right round the world three times.” Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Croft – introspective, like their music – have been courted by stars who find being famous much easier than they do, with Croft being especially overawed by a meeting with bootilicious R&B queen Beyonce: “That was surreal … and also pretty crippling!”
And she is so grateful, too, that celebrity has impacted on the xx hardly at all. As Croft stands in the sunshine, she is passed by a lunchtime throng, many of whom will have been affected by the band’s music – songs about loneliness, lust and love – without even knowing it, but no-one stops to stare at the young woman hiding behind the thick, dark fringe. “I sometimes get asked, ‘What’s it like, being spotted?’, but the truth is I don’t, ever. I love that I can walk around, being private. The three of us do.”
This is very much an xx ethic. “We don’t put ourselves out there,” adds Croft. “For some bands, it’s about the music but it’s also about them. We bare everything in the music and we need to let it speak for itself. You don’t see our faces on our album covers, so unless you’ve seen a photograph in a newspaper or something, you wouldn’t know what we look like. I like that. I like that some people will hear our music not knowing anything about us, who we are, the mystery of it all ...”
Croft concedes this is becoming an increasingly fanciful notion. The xx are now popular enough to be playing venues the size of Edinburgh’s Usher Hall – “I’ve just seen pictures of it, what a beautiful space” – in support of sophomore album Coexist. But even if more people now know that Smith is the curly-haired one with Sim sporting a teddy-boy quiff alongside the Croft fringe, there may still be some left wondering at the true extent of the relationship between the singers in the band.
The lyrics are written in everyday language and often whispered. There are pleas, urgings, and tantalisingly trailed-off sentences, so it’s as if we’re eavesdropping on a private conversation and more than likely pillow talk. Instrumentation is sparse, exposing the nakedness of the words some more.
Croft and Sim don’t sound like merely duettists – are they, or have they ever been, lovers? “The speculation used to make us laugh,” says Croft who first met Sim in a sandpit aged two and now thinks of him as more like a brother than the close friend he’s always been. “But we’re open to people putting their own interpretations on the songs and therefore us. As a fan of pop music myself, I hate discovering that a favourite track has a completely different meaning from the one I thought.”
In fact, the pair have already been outed. To their mild consternation, this happened in a magazine, in the first line. Sim has continued to say next to nothing about his sexuality, while Croft will merely point out that they’re not defined by being gay, that they don’t sing about it, that it’s personal. “It’s just not the focus for us,” she adds today, “and we’ve never pushed anything about ourselves out there.”
This devastatingly seductive music is omnipresent. Even if you don’t own any of it, you might have been to a dinner party where it’s gently throbbed in the iPod dock. Failing that you’ll have definitely heard it as accompaniment to all kinds of TV programmes. When the script for, say, Waterloo Road reads “Playground: sad scene” the director will invariably get in the xx. On the arid plains of daytime telly, the band are used to crank up reality show tension (What is this garish heirloom worth? Will the vulgarians get the bolthole of their dreams?). And according to the BBC team in charge of the 2010 general election coverage, the drama of the declaration at Romsey and Southampton North – the Tories’ top target – wasn’t enough in itself, it needed the ceaseless, melancholic pulse of the song Intro.
“We have no control over that,” says Croft. “Well, we did agree to our music being used on the BBC, which is something bands get asked at the start of their contracts, but we can’t limit how much this happens, or where. We guess it’ll have been used in some naff contexts, but hopefully some great and moving ones as well. We know it turns up a lot, which is a bit concerning, because we never wanted it shoved in people’s faces – nor did we want it used in politics.”
After the election, the Tories appropriated Intro for their conference that year, which angered the band. “Our music isn’t about events and we don’t want it taking sides,” continues Croft. “We’ve always seen it as something people can escape into and be introspective.”
David Cameron even claimed to be a fan of the xx. If you were cynical you might have wondered if this was pop devotion to rival Gordon Brown’s for Arctic Monkeys. Even if you weren’t, the image of the Prime Minister and Samantha canoodling on a No 10 sofa to their music didn’t appear to do much for the band’s cool rating. Who knows, Cameron’s enthusiasm may well be genuine, and perhaps he was still listening to Intro while deliberating this week’s Cabinet outros. “It’s been bizarre but if he likes us then I’m glad,” laughs Croft.
After that historic first meeting in the sandpit – their parents were friends in south-west London – Croft and Sim went to nursery school together. “Then primary, secondary, sixth form and finally the band.” There’s nothing they don’t know about each other, she says. “We learned to talk together. I don’t know why our voices fit so well when we sing but maybe that’s it.”
Their secondary was Elliott School, the Putney comprehensive with a pop academy reputation, although Croft insists: “It didn’t hothouse us and we find the fact of it getting all this good publicity through our success quite funny. The music department had hardly any instruments, and because the teachers were always chasing after the unruly kids, we were left to our own devices. That said, when you discover something without being taught, it can become a passion. I taught myself how to use a multi-track tape recorder, which was the first time I recorded myself. And the Elliott was also where we met Jamie.”
Originally a quartet, with Baria Quershi leaving after the first album, the xx’s sound relies as much on what’s not said as what is, and the big, roomy silences between the murmured vocals are the work of beat-master and producer Smith.
But at the start Croft says they had no idea this was minimalism. “The first songs were so simple because I couldn’t really play guitar and sing at the same time so our sound has come about by accident rather than design.”
As the band worked on the follow-up album they were “so grateful” to their record company for not putting pressure on them. “We didn’t let them hear anything for a whole year.”
Coexist is a clear progression for this shy but brilliant threesome, although it wasn’t without its anxieties. “I started out writings songs for what I thought was going to be a maximum of five people down our local pub. For the new record I was like: ‘Help, people are really going to hear us now!’” So, she and Sim tried a different approach. Previously they traded lines by e-mail, this time they were ensconced in the same room “like a couple of sitcom writers”. It worked, most notably on Our Song. “There’s no one else that knows me like you do,” goes the album’s closer, “What I’ve done you’ve done too”.
Adds Croft: “It’s Oliver and I’s relationship. I’ve never talked about a song’s inspiration before and I probably won’t again. It’s about the function of love and the love of friends.”
• Coexist is out on Monday on XL. The xx play Edinburgh’s Usher Hall on 12 September.
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