Tik-tik-tik. Heels are clacking in the hallway. Tik-tik-tik. The sound is coming from Romy or Oliver, but I can't be sure which. We're in the Saint Paul, a boutique hotel in downtown Montreal, where the xx — co-vocalists Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sims, and producer Jamie Smith, three Londoners who have been best pals since the first day of the sixth grade — have taken over a second-floor landing in a decidedly non-rock-star way. The band played a sold-out show at the Metropolis last night and, after a period of convalescence, are up and about, albeit softly. A small cadre from their label, XL Recordings, hovers, offering to fetch soda or sparkling water. A hotel clerk in a square suit and name tag unlocks conference room doors. The xx flit back and forth to say hello to everyone before requesting a Wi-Fi password and tucking themselves out of the way. There's some chatter, but mostly what you hear is the clacking.
It's been three years since the xx released their debut, xx, in the summer of 2009. That album took them out of their parents' bedrooms, where they wrote it — at night, quietly, so as to not wake anybody up. Artists with hit debut albums are always going on about how they never expected anyone to hear the songs on their hit debut albums. With xx, though — a piece of music so hushed it's almost radical — you believe it when they say it. Watch old clips of the three on YouTube getting a microphone jabbed at them by some U.K. TV personality, and you can see the trio going bug-eyed with incredulity: You're asking us questions? About this little album we made? Us? In September 2010 they were nominated for the very-big-deal Mercury Prize, awarded annually to the best album in Britain.
"I remember being more nervous about the red carpet," Romy says. "'We have to talk to people?' I hadn't even thought about the chance we would win. I just wanted to get that done with and have something to drink." "We had a win-or-lose party around the corner with all of our friends and family because we couldn't bring that many people," Oliver adds. "And someone filmed it, and when they announced we won it was like, 'Yeeaaaaah' and my mum runs past the camera crying." At the time, they were not yet 22 years old.
The xx album snuck up on me. I listened once and it felt like nothing much, a small, sad little handful of plinks and whispers. But I went back to it, again and again. Eventually, it destroyed me. Now it's like a chunk chipped, with picks and bloodied fingers, out of a broken relationship's agonizing pre-death. On "Shelter," when Romy asks, "Maybe I have said / something that was wrong? Can I make it better / when the lights turn on?" I want to wrap her up in a hug. Or as Caius Pawson, the xx's manager, explains: "Germany got them first, because over there they understand all that stark emotional shit."
On September 11, the xx will release their sophomore album, Coexist. There are two things to worry about here: failure, and more unlikely success. Representing the former, Romy: "We feel like we're selling the songs to people now. 'Please like this song!'" Representing the latter, Oliver: "Now it's coming from somewhere, not building from nothing. I'm very happy with what scale of band we are. I still wanna grow. In a way. I hope it never " he trails off. "We'll see." The xx is currently on the road promoting the album. True to form, they are doing so quietly.
I bump into Oliver first. He's downstairs in the lobby, in baggy black dress pants, baggy black dress shirt, and black dress shoes. His hair is slicked back, and he's got a hoop and a stud in one ear. I introduce myself, then blurt out that he's taller than I realized. "Ate my grains," he offers chummily. Jamie, in black jeans, a black T-shirt, and black Nike Frees, lopes in next. He spent his summer vacation breaking out as a solo DJ act, under the moniker Jamie xx. His remix of Gil Scott-Heron's "I'll Take Care of You," which reimagines the chugging original as a sheer and perilous slab of heartache, was recycled as the title track to Drake's smash "Take Care." It's now the most commercially successful piece of music the xx camp has produced.1
Jamie is preternaturally reticent; the hum of the air conditioner nearly drowns him out as we speak. Some things get him going, though. The secret studio sessions with an unnamed R&B star he oversaw in Jamaica, for one. "Take Care" has opened the door to an alternative full-time career as an A-list producer-for-hire, and it's one he's very much interested in exploring. Right now he's being picky about whom to work with. Soon, he'd like to start developing his own artists. There's also another possibility being kicked around: the idea of turning the xx into a "pop factory."
"Doing the writing and the production," Jamie says, "and handing a fully formed song off to someone like Rihanna.2 With the lyrics, I'd like [Romy and Oliver] to write in the mind-set of an xx song — then we transfer to someone who would sing them in a completely different way."
The idea of working outside of the spotlight is, wouldn't you guess, appealing to the rest of the xx. "I'm always gonna write songs," Oliver says, "but I'm not sure I'm always gonna be onstage. In the U.K. there's something called Xenomania, this group of musicians that are responsible for all the [radio] hits. We joke about being an indie version of that." But there's no snooty stigma here. "We all listen to pop," Jamie says, "and it's something we try and capture in our music — the way a pop song can get in your head and stick there. Even if you hate it."
Romy quickly flashes her populist cred. She's in black skinny pants, black boots, and a sheer black shirt. She's got small, slightly crooked teeth, hair cut sharp that swoops across her forehead, and a slight lisp.
We walk down a side street that runs into a narrow park, a grassy jut lined with benches that dead-end into an obelisk commemorating the founders of Montreal. American tourists milling about pause briefly to size up Romy, even before they see I'm recording our conversation. Unaware, she chomps on a vanilla ice cream cone. Soon, there are big white drops on her big black boots.
Mostly, we're talking about the then-blooming Kristen Stewart–Robert Pattinson cheating scandal: "K-Patz? K-Stew? What do they call them?" She tells me the band members are big Twilight fans. I mention a photo I'd seen, of a U-Haul truck in Pattinson's driveway being used to make an escape. "Oh, I'd love to see that!" she blurts out. I ask if they've ever landed in the gossip mags back home and she laughs: "Me and Oly? Will they or won't they? Can you imagine?" Before we get back to the hotel, with no garbage can in sight, she places a compromised ice cream cone down in the street gutter as if she were laying to rest a baby bird.
"My family was always quite surprised to see me singing onstage," Romy says. "I've always been quiet."
The show the night before took place on a breezy summer Sunday. At the Metro station near my hotel, a couple of teen girls in short shorts with hanging pockets were dangling their feet over the edge of the subway platform. Outside the venue, crusty scalpers were hustling tickets for both the xx and the Frank Ocean concert going on down across the street. Competition was fierce. One guy doing the roll call to a buddy: "You know who's over there? Joe and the Weasel!" The aroma of weed was pungent. Which is to say that it didn't necessary feel like the right kind of night for the xx to do their perfect mopey thing.
The curtain comes down on a giant, translucent X, and as the band emerges — Romy and Oliver first, Jamie slinking in behind them — the lights render them silhouettes. From my vantage point, they stay in the shadows for the majority of the set. They lead with "Angels," the first single from Coexist, a song so minimalist it feels like a dare: You thought we were barely making any noise the last time around? Jamie, who plays a set of MPC drum pads planked on two waist-high X's serving as a DJ stand, has added percussion instruments this tour, and seeing him bash a snare with a mallet is a small shock. Actually, there are surprising flourishes of life throughout: Oliver, doing a brontosaurus neck-extension head-bang; Romy and Oliver, dancing toward each other, their instruments leading the way, till they're noodling face-to-face; all three bopping their heads together at the same time. That last one almost feels like choreography.
Early, you can hear chatter. There's more than enough white space for it to drift up. But by the time "VCR" drops, mid-set, the band has locked in, and you don't hear anything but the music. I look around and see a girl, alone, eyes closed, shaking her shoulders from side to side. Next to her, a couple is slow-dancing and — well, they're not so much making out as they are intensely shoving their lips together, really smushing faces, like they won't ever let each other go.3
The encore break is brief. At set's end, Romy and Oliver trot offstage together, holding hands as they go.
The next day I mention the lip-locking to Oliver, and he does me one better: "When we played Nashville we did a festival in a really old beautiful theater, and there were private balconies. I see the audience looking up, and then I see this girl really going for it" — and here he does a quick impersonation of this girl, lolling his head back, waving his arms about — "and I'm like 'OK, she's really into this.' And then I spot the guy, and I realize what they're doing." Pause. "I think they got chucked out."
Despite the brooding, it's not unusual to get awesome stories about public sex from the xx. "The biggest misconception is we're all super-emo," Oliver says. "Like, we come offstage and sulk and cry? But really we're pretty happy, pretty smiley, and we listen to a lot of loud music after the show." He understands, of course, where the misconception comes from: "My mum properly read the lyrics to our first album recently, and she said, 'Should I be worried?'"
In one early review, the Guardian described the xx onstage as "run[ning] the emotional gamut from morose to I-was-forced-here-at-gunpoint." "I can't even imagine what those shows were like," Romy says now. "I'm sure that we really didn't want to be there." This time around, they've gotten a bit more open to the idea of a performance. "I like when me and Oliver come together onstage. It all feels natural." And then again: "After all the times that we were too scared to look up, now I'm up there moving? I'm a bit embarrassed. It's that thing where your friends see you and they're like, 'Oh, you're acting differently.' They're lovely but it's always how I think."
The xx present a shroud of mystery, but there's no use trying to get past it. They'll happily debunk themselves.
"There isn't, like, a rule book of 'You must wear black every day all day,'" Oliver promises. "Romy wouldn't send me home if I smiled. Being in the xx is relaxed. I know it doesn't look like that; I've seen our promo pictures. But that just came from fear of having our photos taken."
And so what we're looking it at are three nice kids who happen to wear black, too scared to look up for a camera. They do half their show as silhouettes because they're happy to hide in the dark. Incidentally, it makes them look cool, detached, iconic. Now you can recognize them just by the shape of their shadows.
Of course, a soupçon of calculation must be acknowledged. It does take some effort to put together an all-black wardrobe.
The xx was officially formed on June 26, 2005. That night Romy and Oliver, a couple of 15-year-olds bored on summer holiday, came up with the name, made a MySpace page, and recorded some covers: The Pixies' "Gouge Away," Yeah Yeah Yeahs' "Pin," Wham!'s "Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go." Their parents were friends; they'd known each other since pre-school. Everyone in their class had a little scrapbook made for them, filled with photos and descriptions and stories. When the two found theirs, they saw that Oliver was all over Romy's scrapbook, Romy all over Oliver's. "I literally don't remember life before her," Oliver says.
Jamie was in the mix by 11. He and Oliver were seated next to each other in art class. "Me and Jamie have the same friendship that I've had with Romy," Oliver brags. "All three of us are best friends."
So is it difficult for outsiders to interact with the three of you, I ask him, seeing how close you are?
"For a long time we had to get different tour managers. They'd come to our management and ask, 'Why do the xx hate me?' And it's just like, 'No no no. I promise you they don't."
Soon after that summer holiday, along with a fourth schoolmate, Baria Qureshi, the xx began working in earnest.4 And then they almost got expelled. "We just didn't turn up," Oliver says. "We fell in love with music, and preferred that," Romy adds. "It got to the point where we were given an afternoon off a week to rehearse." When they were 17 their demos got to Young Turks, a subsidiary of XL Recordings. They weren't signed, officially — that wouldn't happen until years later — but had a working agreement. After high school Romy and Oliver applied for the same art college, but only Romy was admitted. For the first time in their lives, they were apart. Oliver took a job at a tennis club coffee shop, and planned to apply again the next year. But after Romy finished her first year, they decided to give the xx a go full-time.
Oliver told his parents he was quitting his job to write songs. "Our record label got us travel cards, which we thought was the most glamorous thing that had ever happened," Oliver says. "And we were getting like 50 pounds a show. So a tenner each. We made it work." They bunkered in a converted garage space next to XL's Ladbroke Grove offices, and rejected the label's attempts to link them up with name producers (Diplo was brought in at one point). Stubbornly and naively and with great prescience, they handed control to Jamie.
Romy credits her dad with turning her on to music. Her mother died when she was 11, and so at dinner it'd be just the two of them. Often, in lieu of conversation, he'd put on records: Nico, Velvet Underground, Nick Drake. "He was very open-minded," Romy remembers. "He went through a Madonna stage. I'd come to the kitchen, and it'd be the William Orbit album? Ray of Light? This is great! And then when he got to Music I was like, 'I'm not sure of this one.'" Oliver's father bought him his first bass; when he was a teenager, his mother was dragging him to Reading Festival to see her favorite band, The White Stripes. Meanwhile, Jamie was pouring himself into every nook of electronic music history. "Most of the music I was listening to was producers," he says. "It wasn't really bands. I didn't have any posters of icons on my walls. I didn't know what my icons looked like." To this day he has to make a marked effort to listen to vocals, even those coming from his own band. Romy and Oliver swear that, even after thousands and thousands of practices and shows, Jamie still cannot sing along with a single xx song.
It's a haphazardly perfect dynamic. Romy and Oliver wrote the songs on xx by stitching together lyrics they each penned on their own, never asking the other who the words were about. Then Jamie, a self-taught professor of obscure club music, sewed it all up with great reserve. What would xx sound like if Romy and Oliver's vocals had been paired up with a bashing drum sound instead of Jamie's gorgeously skeletal MPC fills? We'll never know. Three best friends made something heart-stirring without really knowing what they were doing. "I still think, in my mind," Oliver says, "that I'm writing pop songs and slow jams."
Two years of touring behind xx took the band as far as Japan and Australia, but eventually they returned home. They moved out of their childhood bedrooms, bought flats in East London, and went out drinking and dancing a lot, mostly in each other's company. (Romy: "We came back to London as if it" — worldwide success — "never happened. That was great.") And they started making music again. Both Romy and Oliver write their bits late at night, in their rooms, recording into their laptops with the recording software GarageBand. This time they shared as they were going along, either iChatting or e-mailing each other lyrics. They both feel their best stuff comes just as they're about to fall asleep; they like to wake up the next day and pick through their notes for usable scraps, almost as if it's someone else's work.
By the summer of 2011 there was enough material to get in the same room. They began recording parts on their iPhones, playing them back to each other, listening. Eventually Jamie booked a space in the central London neighborhood of Angel. They spent nearly every day there for the next six months, sometimes up to 15 hours a day. Oliver would occasionally sleep in the studio, on a pull-out couch; at one point he went five days straight without seeing sunlight. They liked the bunker mentality, what Oliver describes as "just kind of verging on desperate and crazy. That's really often when the best things come out." It was an attempt to re-create the insular environment of the first album, with one big difference: This time, they had to stop themselves from imagining what the fledgling songs would sound like when performed on Conan.
"It's an impossible mission to completely block it out," Oliver says. "But it was just the three of us. It made it slightly easier to forget about the outside." Until a few months ago, when XL began sending copies to press, no one but the xx had heard more than a single note of Coexist.
This time there was no question Jamie would produce the album. He engineered it, too, which he'd never done before. "Everything was unorthodox," Jamie admits. He Frankenstein'd a mixing desk from the guts of others. He left doors open during sessions, letting street sound bleed into the mix. But he'd also spend endless hours perfecting the sound of every instrument during recording, rather than going back to fix anything with studio wizardry. He wanted it to sound homemade and immaculate.
The band blew past one label-mandated deadline. They had a version of the album ready, but they knew they weren't done. "If the record is successful," Jamie says, expressing a confidence I wasn't aware these mild-mannered Brits possessed,5 "people aren't going to think about when it was released. They're just going to think of it as a classic."
After Montreal I see the xx again in New York, at the midtown offices of Sirius Satellite Radio, a heavily windowed space with dizzying views, monitored by a security guard who has funny Howard Stern stories. ("Howard brings food for everyone. When Howard's not here I'm on a diet.") Romy, in a black blazer, and Oliver, in the same blacks from Montreal, are palling around in a photo booth; him in dark shades, her giving him a peck on the cheek. Then a photographer huddles the three together in front of a Sirius backdrop, and, as he snaps away, all signs of joviality fall away. Are they secretly fighting smiles or do the xx's patented dead eyes come naturally by now?
Ushered into a studio for an on-air interview, they keep 'em up: One of the three offers soft-spoken answers as the other two stare off into the middle distance. They're set up in front of a glass wall that looks out onto a back hallway, where a white wall is covered with the framed names of a bunch of goofy-ass Sirius stations: Kids Place Live! Hair Nation! Radio Margaritaville! Behind them, dumpy studio engineers in pocket tees walk with pep past Keyshia Cole and her platinum- and purple-haired entourage. Meanwhile, the xx look like they've been poked and prodded by their parents into a school recital performance that they just know is going to catch them a schoolyard beating later.
As soon as the interview ends, Jamie, who'd been asked to put together a DJ mix for the station, bolts, leaving Romy and Oliver to read off "liners" — promos for Sirius and affiliates. They start off innocuously enough: "This is Romy," "And I'm Oliver," "And we're introducing you to our new album all week " Farther down the printouts, though, things get a touch out of character: "It's time to kick off another alternative morning with Greg " "We're not always in San Diego, but when we are " "Turn it up, because another 94-minute stretch starts right now!" There's this exchange:
Oliver: I'm Oliver from the xx and I'm ... [Cracking up.] I can't say that! I'm a 'rock-a-holic'?
Romy: [Quietly.] Oh, but you are.
And this one —
Romy: Hey, this is Romy and I'm throwing an all-girls party
Oliver: [Cracking up harder.]
Romy: I would literally say anything that was written on this paper
The two tumble out to the lobby, pleasantly dumbfounded. Oliver grabs his Marlboros and heads for a balcony. Romy recounts the incident to the XL folks, pointing to a cardboard cutout of Elvis and imagining one for herself, as the promoter of this theoretical, spring-break-style "all-girls party." Jamie is in a studio down the hall alone, headphones on, silently putting together his set.
Later that night the xx play Terminal 5, a cavernous, notoriously impersonal venue.6 They do their best to get, as is their wont, dramatically intimate — pools of blue light, curls of smoke — but it's tough in here. While Romy's singing "Shelter," a couple of girls at the bar strut and pout for photos being taken by a guy in a carefully untucked Oxford, shouting along. It feels so wrong. Romy, in as few words as possible, is exploring the despair of a torturously endless middle-of-the-night fight. Later that night, Romy says their songs are about universal feelings: "'Sunset' [on Coexist] was written about that feeling of seeing someone again and it just being different. I feel like everybody in the world has gone through a similar thing." Meanwhile, these three dumdums at the bar are dancing and having fun. I want to shush them, like we're at the opera. But, really, I can't blame them. "Shelter" is catchy as a motherfucker.
After the show is the after-party, held on the second-floor bar of the venue. Some girls are in black leggings and black lipstick and black Raiders jackets; most people, though, are in plaid. Up on a higher landing, there's a woman who might be Keira Knightley. I stare at her trying to figure it out because I'm a dedicated reporter, but I've clearly looked too long because (a) it is Keira Knightley, and (b) now she's aghast, turning away from my leering. Back on our floor someone's shit-talking The Watch when, oddly enough, Jonah Hill shows up. Hill and Jamie chat — I can't really hear what they're saying, but it sounds complimentary. Nearby, Romy chats with a tall woman in high heels and thick lipstick who vaguely resembles Paz de la Huerta, then jets off down the hallway hand-in-hand with a different ladyfriend.
The party moves to a club in Chinatown. There's a velvet rope at the door and a guy bartering with a bouncer as to the number of bottles he has to purchase to be let in. Someone on the xx squad hustles me through, and I tread lightly into a grip of very good-looking people hopping up and down to "Stuck in the Middle With You" and "Twist and Shout." Hill, smiling, beer in hand, is still hanging, and I follow him (uh, without asking) downstairs to the basement, past drunk models accidentally booting votive candles as they stumble down squat steps. The basement's lit red, choked with smoke machine spirals, and packed tight — the house music is exceedingly loud and surprisingly persuasive. The crew is holding court — Romy holed up in a corner booth, surrounded by buddies; Oliver on the dance floor, bopping to the beat with a tall girl in a denim vest and fedora; Jamie's around here somewhere. And it's not so hard to imagine tonight as one of those nights, back when they were making the album, nights spent dancing in East London.
When I leave, the lanky white guy from How to Make It in America is coming in with a gaggle of girls in white dresses. I turn the corner and make eye contact with a blonde, grinning, putting her hair up — possibly in a seductive manner? Behind her is her boyfriend, pissing into a row of trash cans. It's very late, and we're definitely in Chinatown.
I was," Romy says the next day, "I was quite drunk." We're on the back patio of the Bowery Hotel. Jamie's futzing with turntables that have been trucked in so he can check for defects on the newly arrived Coexist vinyl. Sound fidelity, you will not be surprised to know, is a big deal for Mr. Smith: "I took so long to finally agree to the final master that we had to send out pre-mixed versions of the album to the press. If one of those leaks, it'd just be the end of the world for me." Since the band's playing in Staten Island the next day, Oliver throws out a hopeful "That's where Wu-Tang is from?" and I have to be the latest person to mercilessly confirm that a tour of the Stapleton projects of Shaolin wouldn't be particularly interesting.
Right now, I should probably be asking about the girl Romy was holding hands with at the party. Oliver and Romy, in early interviews, were identified as gay, but haven't spoken much about it since. A couple of years ago, along with her girlfriend, Romy did an interview for a friend's website, a post which has since been taken down. Later, she told the New Statesman, "I outed myself to the whole world on my friend's tiny little blog. I forgot that everyone could see it." To me she says, "I've talked a bit here and there about stuff. I've never been like, 'I won't talk about that.' It's just naturally the way I am. I don't necessarily want to know my favorite band's favorite color and what they had for dinner and where they live."
(Romy may have purposefully been avoiding pronouns during out conversations. "We were slightly more cryptic in the beginning because the person that we were writing about, Oliver and me separately, could perhaps be at the gig.")
I know I should prod. But it feels like I'm trespassing, dirtying the xx's cooked-down core.
Romy, on naming the album Coexist:
"You see a puddle of petrol on the floor — it can look sort of beautiful with the colors that come through it. I looked it up on Google or whatever, and it said oil and water don't mix, they peacefully coexist? And that's what it is when you see those colors. I liked that idea: those two things coming together to make something more beautiful than they are. And I liked the idea of us three coming together; only when the three of us are together, that's when it exists."7
There's the three of them, and the music that they make, and, in their opinion, nothing else.
"I've always wanted the music to sort of go," Romy says. "The music is the first thing and we happen to be in the background."
Staten Island is the last show of the xx's North American tour. The venue, Snug Harbor, is part of a fenced-in municipal ground. It's fronted with giant Doric columns and ringed curiously with vegetation uncommon to New York; it feels like it was plopped in from Palmetto. Inside, the cozy space looks like a tidy high school auditorium, with stiff wooden seats ranging all the way to the stage. Here, tucked away like this, the xx look as comfortable onstage as I've seen them.
The light show throws up their giant shadows, flickering along one wall, which seems apt. When Oliver puts down his bass to sing his solo song "Fiction," you can catch him easing back to make eye contact with Romy. A little safety net. No one in the audience gets up out of their seats, and I'm content in knowing that no one up on that stage is even thinking about exhorting anyone down below to do so.
Late in the set, a smoke detector goes off. Its beeps and flashing lights are mostly buried under the strobes and waves of sound. As a security guard books it down the aisle to turn it off, ripples of the crowd pick up on what's going on, and seeing that the band, coolly, is playing on, shoot up in their seats in appreciation. When it's turned off, they go respectfully back down. Afterward, an excitable drunk guy barges into the bathroom — "How's everybody doing!" — and sets up in front of the urinals to declare his verdict of the show: "They say as little as possible but have it mean so much! It's like poetry!" Tonight, at the end of the set, Romy and Oliver, Jamie behind them, again hold hands as they walk off. This time, they stop at center stage for a moment and face forward. A mini-curtain call; just the tiniest bit of triumph.
Earlier I'd asked Jamie kind of a throwaway question: Considering the time the xx has known each other, and the time you've planned ahead, do you ever worry you'll, you know, run out of things to talk about? "We probably have already," he smirked, taking the bait. "But that's the thing about being best friends — you don't have to talk."