Interview: The xx

Interview with The xx

The xx

Introduction

As The xx prepared to deliver the follow-up to their Mercury Prize-winning debut, we caught up with singer Oliver Sim about the pressure of expectation, the inspirations behind Coexist and his tips for 2012’s Mercury Prize.

Questions and answers

Hi Oliver, what are you up to today?

We’re in rehearsals in London Bridge. We’re just trying to figure out all of the new songs at the moment...

But you’ve already started touring the record, right? How is the new material going down with audiences?

Yeah, it’s been good. We’ve mostly been playing festivals and I was really worried about playing new songs at festivals; I kinda doubted people’s patience. But people have been really eager, so it’s been nice.

So your debut was a huge success. Did the degree to which people took the album to their hearts surprise you?

Definitely. I can’t even remember what I was expecting for the record when we were making it. It was more than we could ever have dreamed of.

Was there a particular moment where you realised things would never be the same again?

There have definitely been milestones – or moments of perspective – where I’ve kinda realised. Like being able to invite my family to ‘Later with Jools’, when we were performing. That meant so much to them, and a lot to me, because that’s a show that’s always been playing in my house. And our first headline show at Shepherd’s Bush Empire, definitely.

In the time between albums, Jamie’s established himself as successful artist in his own right. Has it altered the band dynamic at all?

I can see changes in him. He’s definitely a lot more assertive in the studio this time round and a lot more confident. Dynamic-wise, me and Romy love and are inspired by what he does, but he’s always said that The xx is the main thing, and his solo work is on the side. I think it’s very cool though, and I’m sure he’s going to make lots more great music.

He’s actually working on his own stuff at the moment. But I’m not part of the process at all: I’m literally a fan and just hear stuff when everyone else does. I just see him working on his keyboards and he’s definitely in his own world.

Do you have any plans to pursue any solo projects or collaborations?

I genuinely don’t. I’m happy giving everything I’m doing to The xx. I don’t want to say never, but I’m in my favourite band and I’m very happy.

Ok, so did you feel any sense of trepidation when it came to writing album number two?

Yeah, I suppose. I remember doing an interview in October 2010, on our last tour, and the interviewer sat me down and basically told me that this second album was going to be a tortuous experience. That I was going to be second-guessing everything, like, “Should we stay true to our sound or go out of our way to do something very different?”, and that the pressure would be enormous. (Laughs) I didn’t know quite what to say to that.

But with this record, I just had a good time. The people we work with are incredibly patient, so we were just left to make the songs that we wanted to. I suppose there is pressure but it comes from within; to do yourself proud and make an album that you actually want to release. We’re definitely all quite hard on ourselves but the people around us are good.

Can you tell us a bit about the writing process on Coexist please? What did you want to achieve sonically?

We started writing as soon as we got home. So we started writing in October 2010 and we got a rehearsal space in East London in February 2011. And we moved into our studio in September 2011, and we officially left it last month.

We didn’t have very many goals with this album: there was no sit-down meeting where we discussed what we wanted from this album. We were just working song-by-song.

How do you feel you’ve progressed artistically since your first record?

I think that Romy’s voice has grown a lot. She now has the ability to yelp, which is pretty impressive, and I think her writing is a lot more honest and a lot more straightforward in a way that I see as being brave. Jamie is just better at what he does. I don’t really know how to put it into words; he very much knows what he’s doing. And speaking for myself... It’s hard to judge yourself, but the biggest thing I’ve taken from the last album is just confidence. Confidence in my own decision-making.

Did you ever consider bringing in an external producer?

No, there was no discussion about it: we knew Jamie was going to do it. On the first record – before we realised that Jamie was the best person to do it – we worked with a few other producers; people like Diplo and Kwes and James Rutledge. And it was a lot of fun and I think we took a lot from it, but maybe the biggest thing we did take from it was that we realised that we should probably do it ourselves.

So yeah, it wasn’t really an idea for this second record. I mean, if we’re needing outside input that’s probably a bad sign: we probably should question making that record in the first place.

They say you have your whole life to collect ideas for your first record, and the second record is the one that you write as “an album”. Do you feel Coexist’s more cohesive than your debut?

Yeah. We started writing xx when we were 15-16 and finished it when we were 19-20. And although three or four years might not seem like a huge amount of time, at that age it is years and years. You’re just a different person. And listening to that album is like looking back at an old school book or a diary: I see myself at all different ages. This album is very specific: it’s last summer, and it’s a lot more concentrated.

What’s the significance of the album title?

We just wanted to get across unity and togetherness. There was talk of calling the album “Together” but, even though it’s such a simple word, for me it’s very “nice” and conjures up quite a twee image. I think we wanted to do something with a darkness to it, that was a bit more honest about how relationships can be.

Romy found the word “coexist” when doing artwork research. She was looking at the way oil and water make those beautiful rainbows when mixed together and found a line about it: “Oil and water don’t mix, they agree to peacefully coexist.” She’s a bit of a romantic and really liked that, and saw a mirror in what we do – in that we’re three separate people and we only make this music when we come together. So the word “coexist” seemed a lot more honest and it felt right.

You can really hear the dance influences in tracks like ‘Reunion’ and ‘Sunset’; is that Jamie’s influence or is it symptomatic of the music you’re all into?

I think it’s what we all enjoy listening to. Romy DJs a lot as well. And I have no aspirations to DJ, but I spent a lot of last year going to their sets. It got close to fan-boy territory with Jamie – I went to a lot of festivals with him. So it was never something that we intentionally wanted to capture in this album but it’s just what we’ve been listening to, I suppose.

What music have you been enjoying in the last year?

It hasn’t really been dance records, not at all. Someone that I can’t really talk enough about is Sade. I’ve come shamefully late to her: I only started to listening to her when she was touring her last record. But I did my research and looked into her back catalogue and at interviews and pictures. So yeah, I’m definitely a big Sade fan right now.

Do you have a particular favourite track on the record?

I think it would be ‘Unfold’ or ‘Our Song’. They were the first two songs that Romy and I have ever written together. There’s always a lot of separation in our writing, with us emailing each other ideas from our homes, but on those two songs we sat down in a room together and tried to write. They came out really naturally and really quickly as well: we wrote both songs in less than half an hour. It was a bit of a turning point for us. I still want to continue writing alone at times but it’s nice to know that we can collaborate in that way.

So what’s the plan for the rest of the year?

Touring. So much touring...

Are you excited about that?!

Yeah I am, even if I don’t sound it! It’s just that I can’t tell you how daunting it is to look at our calendar and every day for the next year and a half is accounted for. It’s pretty hard to take in and I’m trying to take it day-by-day. I just want to get the record out. We’ve been living with these songs for quite a while now and I just want people to have them.

What’s your ultimate goal for the band?

To leave this record still feeling inspired and positive enough to make a third record? That would be nice. Also, we just booked our first South American tour and that’s something I’ve wanted to do for such a long time.

Finally, the Mercury Prize nominees are announced soon. Who’s your tip for the prize?

Jessie Ware’s definitely going to be nominated isn’t she? Yeah, I’m putting good money on Jessie Ware. I like her a lot. I met her when she was Jack Peñate’s backing singer, and I always thought she was very cool, and then she kinda disappeared for a bit. And now she’s come back as this suave lady; it’s very cool.