- 14 Aug 19
On this day in 2009, English electro-pop band the xx released their acclaimed, Mercury Prize-winning debut album, xx. To mark the occasion, we’re revisiting our 2015 interview with band member Jamie xx.
Jamie Smith shudders slightly as he recalls the last occasion he played Ireland with his band, The xx. Not that he has any complaints about the gig – a monster 2013 affair at the venue now styled 3Arena. It’s just that the circumstances leading up to the event could have gone a little more smoothly.
“I was in terrible pain,” says the producer and DJ, wincing visibly. “I’d run a bath and flooded my hotel room. I’d forgotten I’d left it on. So I had to put my hand into the water and pull the plug. It was really hot and I got burned. The concert itself was fantastic.”
It says something about The xx and their relationship with fame and the fast lane that their idea of on-the-road mischief is leaving the hot water on slightly too long. Other musicians might prefer to chuck TVs from windows or ratchet up eye-watering room service bills. With The xx the wildest thing likely to happen is a pre-show bath gone awry.
These three London primary-school friends have, across two albums and several side-projects (including Jamie’s fantastic new solo LP In Colour), placed mannered introversion at the heart of their identity. They are to uncomfortable silences what Led Zeppelin were to eye-raising trysts with groupies or Kurt Cobain to self-loathing and over- sized cardigans. But in keeping to themselves they have somehow become one of the mostly wildly loved brands in indie – and Smith a respected composer and producer in his own right.
“We’ve always been shy,” nods the 27-year-old. “Even now, it’s something I still experience. As you get older, you realise that you do have to interact with people. You have to think about the big picture – make an effort in social situations.”
With work ongoing on The xx’s much anticipated third album (“we just finished a two-week session in London”) Smith, who put out solo music as Jamie xx, is touring In Colour. A pulse-quickening collage of feelgood dance tunes, the LP is in vivid contrast to his intense and downcast contributions to The xx’s studio records. It's nakedly nostalgic, gauzy – like an Instragram snap in music form. Variously recalling Orbital, Underworld and nu-gazers such as Ulrich Schnauss, it is also entirely irresistible – the most “un-xx” thing a member of the ensemble has yet committed to tape.
“I worked on it before during and after the other xx records,” says Smith, cold shouldering any suggestion that In Colour represents a reaction, conscious or not, to the music he makes in his “day job”. One influence, he allows, is New York – its pace and glamour. Having grown up in gritty South London, a summer spent in Manhattan was truly life-changing.
“During the recording I was doing a lot of residencies there,” he elaborates. “It felt as if I was living there. There’s also an age aspect. Starting out we were young and shy – not very confident about what we were doing. We’ve changed and grown a bit.”
Jamie’s first extra-curricular excursion was a 2011 remix album for Gil Scott Heron, the famous, and famously troubled, blues and soul singer. “Gil Scott- Heron was one of the most charismatic people I’ve ever met,” said Smith at the time. “He seemed very happy and unexpectedly easy going.” Scott, who passed away four years ago, was a revered figure in urban music – many were uneasy at Smith’s retooling of his final LP, I’m New Here, into an odyssey of bleeps and drops.
“It was definitely a new experience for me,” says Smith of the project and the scrutiny directed at it. “I found it a learning curve. I was figuring out how to make a record on my own."
In addition to proving that glum 20-nothings dressed head to toe in black can become an arena- filling concern, The xx stands as incontestable proof that there is life after a Mercury Music Prize win. They bagged the coveted/cursed gong for best Irish or UK album of the year in 2010, yet somehow did not meet the same grisly fate as Speech Debelle, Roni Size et al and see their fanbase promptly shrink. That’s probably as well, as Smith has been nominated again for In Colour and is one of the favourites with odds of 12/5.
It may be a stretch to claim Smith was destined to be an international DJ and producer. However, dance music is unquestionably in his genes, with two of his uncles earning a living as successful DJs. He faintly remembers being brought, as a confused four-year-old, to see one of them play in New York. The other was a presenter at Kiss FM who gave the young Smith a tour of his studio (he does not recall feeling especially smitten).
As it happens, Smith became a producer largely by accident. He had recorded what were intended as the demos of The xx’s 2009 debut LP. But when attempts to secure the services of a big-name producer fell through, it was decided to release the original recordings, which bore Smith’s gorgeously gloomy imprimatur. With the album a huge success and nominated for a Mercury, Smith became sought-after as a producer – and duly found himself staring across a mixing desk from bling–plated names like Rihanna and Drake. Did he feel comfortable in such surreal settings – confident in his abilities as a musician? For the first time in our conversation he almost laughs out loud.
“I do experience nerves. That helps me. If I’m trying to do the best I can in a short period, it is quite a natural way to work. I feel ‘comfortable’ being nervous. It spurs me on.”