HotStar: The xx

Parting ways with The xx’s former fourth member last fall was the best thing that ever happened to the band’s live show.

“It was a bit hard in the beginning [because] we had to work out how to do it as a three-piece. But now our live show is the strongest it’s ever been,” The xx’s Jamie Smith, who handles beats and production, told Pollstar.

“When we were a four-piece we used to play the album as it was. … It didn’t really require any experimentation. But now that we’re a three-piece we’ve been forced to change things up and we each have to do a little more [on stage].

“It kind of opened us up to a whole new world of just having a bit more fun on stage and keeping things fresh. Now our live show is pretty different and there are a lot of club mixes and extended endings to songs,” Smith said.

Singer/guitarist Romy Madley Croft and singer/bassist Oliver Sim, both 20, have known each other since they were 3 and started the group in 2005. Smith, 21, met his future bandmates when he was 11 and joined The xx, with former keyboardist/guitarist Baria Qureshi, in 2007.

The British indie pop band’s melancholy, atmospheric sound has been compared with early Portishead as well as The Cure and Velvet Underground.

Smith explained that “Romy was more into rock music, Ollie was into R&B and I was into hip hop. And I guess that the music we make is a combination of all three of our tastes.”

The xx started working with its manager, Caius Pawson, and label, XL Recordings / Young Turks, two years ago. Smith said the band knew signing with the label was the obvious choice because it didn’t initially put any pressure on the group.

“They just got us some gigs and some places to rehearse with no talk of albums or contracts or anything,” he said. “We definitely lucked out having Young Turks and XL. We can pretty much dictate exactly what we want and be in control, which we wouldn’t be able to do with nearly every other label that exists nowadays.”

Pawson told Pollstar that it was important to “smother any interest in the band early on” to let the group develop on its own.
“We didn’t do any interviews, any promotions. They didn’t play any sort of high-profile gigs and we just let them grow for about a year and a half, play [smaller] shows and find new influences” before making their debut album, Pawson said.

“That was the initial strategy and after that it was about … letting people discover the band for themselves because the more people discover the band for themselves rather than being dictated to, then they would champion it, they would think it was their own. The idea was always subtle marketing, subtle promotion,” Pawson said.

The band took six months to make 2009’s xx at a production cost of only about £2,000 ($2,960).

Smith said that the band’s songwriting process is collaborative. Croft and Sim write lyrics separately and then “share them over the Internet, molding them into songs. Then either Ollie comes up with a bass line or Romy comes up with a guitar riff or I come up with a beat, and then we just head into the rehearsal space and put things together. It’s quite a natural process.”

After working with five different producers, Smith said the album didn’t sound like what they had envisioned and so he produced the debut on his own.

“We’re all control freaks and we have to have everything our way,” Smith said. “Having somebody else shape our sound just wasn’t right so it made perfect sense for us to do it ourselves.”

The band made its U.S. debut in August with six New York shows, followed by a fall support slot with Friendly Fires and a few support gigs with Hot Chip.

“Those August shows went better than everyone expected,” Tom Windish told Pollstar. “And by the time the Friendly Fires tour happened, it was evident that about half the people were showing up at the gigs to see The xx and the other half were showing up to see the Friendly Fires.”

Windish says that The xx’s music is “intimate at times,” a sentiment Pawson agrees with.

“It’s very delicate and quiet,” Pawson says about the live shows. “And if the crowd is with them, in a kind of silence, it can be really powerful and beautiful, very moving.”

This summer the band makes the rounds on the European festival circuit and then closes out the year with an Oct. 9 set at Austin City Limits Music Festival in Texas.

“This fall we’re making some more ambitious moves,” Windish said. “We’re going into theatres. They’re going to play very nice venues.”

Smith and the gang then plan on taking a break to start working on their sophomore album.

“The first album was done with no intentions and absolutely no idea of what was coming,” Smith said. “So if we can get back into that mind frame and try and not worry what people are going to think, then I think it will come out.”