The xx: Love songs for dancefloors

“We are so happy to announce that after what feels like a very long time, of sleepless nights, late night conversations, lost and found love,” began something of a momentous post on The xx’s Facebook yesterday. “Our new album Coexist is now available.” Indeed, it’s been a very long time: Coexist comes three odd years after xx was released and propelled Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith to the heights of critical acclaim. With the album scoring positive reviews everywhere from Pitchfork to Rolling Stone and taking out the coveted Mercury Prize, it was a lot of success for a group who’d first come together as teenagers only a few years earlier. And as these things go, it’s set the bar high for their sophomore release. So how does Coexist compare to the album that first introduced us to The xx? In the lead-up to the LP’s release, inthemix spoke to Jamie xx about how they approached the notoriously high-pressure task of following what was, by all accounts, a superb debut.

By the end of the last touring cycle for the band, was it starting to feel a bit routine?

Yes, it was feeling a bit routine. We were quite comfortable onstage, which is a nice experience as well. This time ‘round, there are new songs we haven’t played too much, so there’s adrenaline. It’s exciting to see people’s reactions to those songs. So yeah.

A good part of the album has a club pulse to it; how’s that been working with the older songs in the live set?

We’re still working it out, really. We’re so busy we haven’t had much time to rehearse. A lot of it is happening live onstage. We have a section towards the end of the set where it gets more dance-y, and we try to keep it going, almost like a DJ set without breaks. There are rises and falls, and you have to make some compromise with intimacy and big, bombastic showing off of your skills. We’re still learning. A lot of what we’re doing onstage is a bit unknown.

I find on the new album the bass sounds and drums are introduced in often quite surprising ways. Were you guided by the vocals there, or did the compositions come first?

Well, whenever we make music as The xx, we want to be able to play everything live before we record it. We never want it to get too busy, as there’s only so much each of us can do live. So I guess the drums and the sounds just react off everything really. When it feels right, that’s when we know we have it.

I read you say in an interview that keeping it simple is sort of like the guiding principle of The xx. Would you say that’s true of this album?

It was definitely simple, probably simpler than the last one because we had our own studio, with just the three of us. The studio was actually just an apartment, and we had no outside word for a long time. We probably spent more time on this one listening to arrangements and actually taking things out. It was just the bare minimum left in there that was needed.

Lyrically, it seemed to me the themes had deepened as well. Some of it is more literal, other parts not so much. So there’s that great interplay between the two. Was it a concious move towards that in-between territory?

I think all our songs, on the first album and this one, are love songs. But through just growing up and having actual experiences, Oli and Romy have developed the way that they write a lot. They’ve almost swapped roles in how they write. Romy now writes from imagination a lot and watching her friends, as well as from her own experiences. Oliver has become a lot more literal, whereas on the first album he hadn’t had so many experiences.

And their voices have changed as well.

Definitely. Definitely Oliver’s voice has got a lot deeper. I was very surprised when I listened to the first album again recently, how different his voice was.

Do you think there are other surprises on this album?

I hope it’s not too much of a surprise. We stuck to the limitations that we set ourselves within our sound. It’s still quite a progression, and we experimented more than we did on the first album.

I really felt the influence of house on this album.

Yeah, definitely. We had a year and a half off after our three years of touring the last album. We got home and just wanted to see our friends and have fun. During that year I was doing the Gil Scott Heron album and DJing at festivals and club nights all around the world. Oli and Romy would come with me sometimes. We’d just listen to dance music and dance quite a lot. It was only natural that it would seep into the record.

When you come to DJ in Australia, do you pack vinyl?

Yes. Even though it’s a pain in the arse, it’s always worth it. I kind of stopped DJing when we went into the studio, and stopped listening to any new electronic music that people sent me. It seems, especially in London, there’s always a path that dance music is taking and a lot of people seem to fall into a groove. Music of a certain time seems to fall into that time. I guess I did want to listen to a lot of new music, because it’s a passion but I was very satisfied with how the making of the album was going. I just moved house and managed to get all my record collection together properly, so I was able to listen to all my older records. I didn’t want our album to sound of any particular time.