London trio the xx achieve an intimate connection by being spatial and subtractive. Their cross section is beautiful and bleak, close yet lonely. Nothing is crowded or rushed. Lyrics lie bare. Sounds mean more. The hushed, austere, and padded voices of Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim draw and bide with tension. Their guitar and bass play on clean, refined builds punctuated by producer/percussionist/DJ Jamie xx. This September, they released their second full-length, Coexist, as a follow-up to their platinum-selling self-titled debut. In between albums, Jamie honed and grew his skills collaborating with the late Gil Scott-Heron and remixing Radiohead and Adele. Oliver spoke from his flat in London, prior to playing the Later... with Jools Holland show. Soon after, the band would be off to Mexico.
You've known Romy since you were 3 years old. What's the first memory you have of her?
There are loads of pictures of us when we're little. It's hard to distinguish between what's memory and what I've made in my head. I remember kindergarten. It was a pretty new age kindergarten; half of it was outdoors. There were these baby turtles they brought in. I remember Romy and I playing with them.
Baby turtles are the last thing I would have imagined bringing your band together, but it makes so much sense.
It was the baby turtles, yes [laughs].
Where does the darkness in your music come from, the desolateness? You all seem so nice and friendly. Not dark.
I don't know where it comes from. It's confusing, I agree. I think some people think we probably come offstage and cry [laughs]. The color scheme doesn't help. I wear black—not in a goth way, or a my soul is dark way, but because I think it's chic. A lot of the older people in my family have always worn black, and I look up to them. If I think about my favorite songs, they're love songs, but they're pretty dark. When times are good, I think I'm too busy enjoying them to write. I promise we're happy people, though; we're surprisingly smiley.
Is it true that you and Romy don't know what each other's lyrics are about?
It's true. I have my ideas about hers and I know her very well, but I've never asked her to explain, and she's never asked me. It's easier for me to make my own ideas about what she's writing. That's how it goes with all songs I love, I don't want anyone to explain. I think it would be heartbreaking if it didn't match my own story and expectations and interpretation.
How do you deal with long stretches of time out on the road? You've been touring so much, does that take a toll?
It definitely takes its toll. I'm sitting on a sofa right now, and I'm not really wanting to leave it, let alone the country. We find comfort in each other; we're such good friends. Home on the road is people. We have the luxury of bringing those people with us when they can make it, which is nice and makes a big difference.
Who's playing on Jools Holland with you?
Muse, the Beach Boys, and Public Image Limited. The show starts with all the bands in the room kind of jamming. Then each band takes their time doing a song, going around in a circle facing each other. It's a pretty good vibe.
Wait, there's no kind of jamming. You're either jamming or you're not jamming. So you'll be jamming with the Beach Boys?
Jamming, yeah [laughs]. It opens with a jam. And we're not really a jamming band. We will be jamming with the Beach Boys though, yes. I'm not sure who is still in the band. I'm hoping it's Brian Wilson. Jools says what key to play in, and then we go for it. We did it once before—we had just turned 20 and our first album had just come out. We played with Shakira, Mika, the Cribs, and Gladys Knight. A very funky mix of people, and fun. We were so petrified.
You've said that Sade, and CocoRosie, and Beyoncé have influenced you. How so? Let's start with Sade.
I love Sade as a person. She's very in control of her own image and her reluctance to share things about herself. She's very private, as one of England's biggest female stars. She's a recluse and takes her time with her albums. That inspires me.
And here we are delving into your baby turtle years. If that's too private, we could leave it out.
It's okay [laughs]. The other thing about Sade is that she uses beautiful imagery, but she's simple and direct in her writing. I think that's brave. She captures complex emotions and delivers them in a really simple way. CocoRosie is a band that all three of us love—the way they fuse operatics with hiphop and R&B. They blend it all so well, organically. And Beyoncé, I'm just a lifelong fan. I got sad when Michael Jackson died—everyone was saying that he was the last of the megastars. With the way that music is distributed now, there are just so many stars now, and it's more diluted, but I think the idea of the megastar exists with Beyoncé. Whether you like the music or not, she's impressive.
In your song "Unfold," Romy sings, "I choose to forget, and take the good, and leave the rest." What does that mean to you? How do you choose to forget something?
My interpretation is that it's beautiful and heartbreaking because it's naive and unrealistic. It's asking for the impossible. I've definitely wanted to forget some things that I couldn't.
Are you surprised by your success?
It's a surprise, yes. We weren't aiming for this. This kind of minimal music that we make. We started playing main stages at festivals, which is something I thought we would never do. That's for bands like the Killers. I'm surprised it's connected with as many people as it has. I'm very grateful, but also surprised.
I know how to step up your stage show. Three words for you—gigantic flaming gong.
Nice. Spectacle. Yes. We are trying to make more of show these days—we have a big 15-foot X that levitates, blows smoke, and projects colors. It's no flaming gong, but we're trying.
In between your albums, Jamie remixed Radiohead and Adele and collaborated with the late Gil Scott-Heron. How did that affect your second album?
He had so much more confidence. He had grown up. In his DJ sets, there's always this journey, and the journey affects his songwriting. He's a completely different person than he was when we did our first album, in a good way. He's more confident and happy with his decision making.
Y'all were 15 or 16 when you wrote some of the songs on your first album, right?
Yes. I'm happy that people get to see us progress.
Listening to your songs is like reading a novel. What are you reading?
Believe it or not, I've never read The Great Gatsby. I watched the trailer for the new Baz Luhrmann film version and wanted to read it before I see the film, to make my own ideas about it. So I just read it twice, and can't wait for the movie.
Do you identify with anything F. Scott Fitzgerald was saying?
I guess I identify with the willingness to completely reinvent yourself, like Gatsby did. I'm looking forward to seeing how they portray the grandeur and extravagance. I think it'll be an incredible thing, visually.
Of all the places you've visited in the United States so far, what comes to mind?
Willie Nelson's truck stop in Texas. A place I never thought I would end up. The gift shop was amazing, with all these bongs and bandannas. We walked in and they were playing our song "Shelter." It sort of freaked us out. I never thought our music would reach that far. I liked it a lot. I had my first biscuits and gravy; it was an alien taste for me, but I loved it. Willie Nelson is a wise and accepting man.
You cannot deny the biscuits-and-gravy aspect of our culture.
Biscuits and gravy are true. When we're touring, it's all about the food. In LA, I tried the chicken and waffles. In Philadelphia, I had the cheesesteak. In Washington, I had a chili dog. In Seattle, I had the fish chowder.
You must also try the strawberry shake and french fry aspect from a place called Dick's. What happens in your mouth when you combine the two is overwhelmingly powerful. But don't try to the Bacon Sundae from Burger King, it's disgusting.
I'm taking notes.
Have you all played in Mexico before?
No, this is our first time. It's something I've wanted to do for a very, very long time. We're playing in Mexico City and then in Guadalajara, and we're having a holiday in Tulum. I can't wait. We'll be gone for six weeks, then home for five days, then we're gone again.