THE xx’s Oliver Sim sweeps into his dressing room, troubled.
Dressed head to toe in black, he is sweaty and anxious.
What afflicts him? “I’ve just tried to go Christmas shopping and got bloody lost,” he says. “And then my phone died, so I couldn’t figure out how to get back to the venue.”
Sighing, he eases onto a couch. “It looks like I’ll have to get all my presents on the internet this year. We’re on tour for the next few weeks, so I don’t have any time,” he says.
The xx are solemn and tearful on record, but the Mercury-winning trio are a surprise in private. Backstage at Dublin’s Olympia, they are chatty, jokey, and not self-important. You have to remind yourself that these are the same musicians who waxed miserable on their two studio albums, The xx and Coexist.
“We’re normal people,” says Sim. “I mean, I know we don’t do ourselves any favours by dressing in black. But, no, we don’t go around feeling sorry for ourselves all the time. We like to go clubbing. We do the same things as everybody else.”
The interview is at an awkward time. A few days earlier, Sim, in a throwaway comment to a journalist, said he’d love to write a song for Beyoncé. Now, the internet is buzzing with the news that The xx will hook up with pop’s biggest diva.
“It’s funny,” he says. “You say something in passing and then it’s up in lights. Yeah, of course, we’d love to write for Beyoncé. I can see myself always writing songs — but I’m not sure if I’ll always want to perform. We think Beyoncé is great. We love pop music. That isn’t something we’ve ever tried to hide.”
Sim says The xx’s reputation for dourness is due to early interviews in which they were rabbits dumbstruck in the halogen. “We were 18 years old and had no experience of the media,” he says. “This was a whole new world to us and we didn’t have much to say. It was pretty terrifying.
“We found live concerts terrifying, as well. We headlined Electric Picnic recently. If you’d told us three or four years ago that, one day, we’d be standing in front of all those people, we’d have run a million miles. There has been a lot of growing up.”
The heart of The xx are Sim and guitarist Romy Madley Croft. Close since early childhood, their relationship is akin to that of brother and sister, Sim says. He’s good friends, too, with keyboardist and sound manipulator Jamie Smith (styled ‘Jamie xx’). Sim couldn’t imagine sharing a tour bus with people he hadn’t known all his life.
“We have rows — but it’s the way I row with my older sister. You say what you feel and it’s out there and you move on. The worst situation would be if you held something back and it sort of builds up. We are very direct, especially in the studio. And then we forget about it.
“You see bands putting ads in the paper: ‘drummer wanted’. I could never be in a set-up like that. It would just be so weird. For me, that would be tremendously uncomfortable. I’d hate to be a solo artist, too. I remember reading an interview with Adele, where she said that touring was the loneliest thing in the world. All of her band are hired, so, really, it’s just her. I can’t imagine what that must be like,” he says.
The xx’s self-titled debut album won the 2010 Mercury. That put them under enormous pressure to produce a good follow-up. Rather than buckling, though, the trio cut themselves off from the outside world and worked at their own pace.
You can hear this on their new LP, Coexist, a subtle, steady refinement of its predecessor. It doesn’t fall into the classic second-album trap of trying too hard to upset expectations.
“I remember, we were in Washington DC and this journalist sat me down and said making our second album would be the hardest thing we ever did,” says Sim. “He said, ‘you won’t know whether you should stick with what you know or rip it all up — you’ll end up second-guessing yourself’. You know what, we really enjoyed the process. The touring had gone on so long that to get back to our little studio, and have some time to ourselves, was a relief.”
The band’s sexuality has been the subject of enormous online speculation. Early on, Sim and Madley Croft were open about the subject. However, fame brought reticence and now they’d rather not discuss it.
“I don’t think it’s good for people to know too much about you,” says the singer. “With my favourite bands, I don’t want to have the inside track on every single aspect of their personal lives. We want the focus to be on our music rather than us. Honestly, I don’t think we’re all that interesting as people. We do not like to over-share, which can be unusual in this industry. In the real world, however, I think it is absolutely normal. It’s the way most people are.”
Even if you aren’t a follower of musical trends, you’ll probably be familiar with The xx. From sports shows to consumer programmes to everything in between, tracks such as ‘Intro’ and ‘Islands’ have been exhaustively employed as background music. It is obviously a sore topic.
“I started getting twitchy about it,” Sim says. “Do you remember when a band called Gotan Project had a song on a supermarket advert. That’s what they became known for. We didn’t want to go down that route. What people don’t understand is that, actually, you don’t have a huge amount of say. Either you allow them to use your music for TV or you don’t — if you do, then they can use it for whatever they want. It’s a blanket thing. We actually stopped touring our first album because we thought we were in danger of over-exposure. We have never wanted to be in everyone’s faces. Sometimes, it’s better to do stuff at your own pace.”
* The album Coexist is out now.
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