Photo: Jacklyn Krol/The Recording Academy
The xx Travel The World On Third LP, 'I See You'
Most aficionados of so-called indie-pop music are not only well aware of London's the xx, but can probably remember the first time they heard the band's signature sound.
The minimalistic punch of Timbaland and the atmospheric edge of the Cure — all tempered by a whispered intimacy that pulled you into the speakers instead of jumping out of them on early hits like "VCR" and the aptly titled "Intro." There's enough space in those records for listeners to come in, sit down and stretch out their legs.
Two albums later, the band found themselves in a multitude of different spaces — literally —with their third full-length album, I See You.
"We did a bunch of recording in different places around the world, which was the first time we'd recorded an album outside of London," explains the band's producer, Jamie Smith (aka Jamie xx). "It was the first time we'd been in a proper studio, even."
These new surroundings, everywhere from Marfa, Texas, to Reykjavik, Iceland, had a profound influence on the songs on I See You. But it was the band's experimentation with samples they found while in transit that shaped their third album's brighter, pop-friendly sound.
"On the way to these studios in different places, we would take road trips for like a week and listen to loads of music and each make playlists, and just enjoy wherever we were," says Smith. "And all that music we were playing for each other just kind of crept in, and I ended up sampling some of those artists we were listening to during those trips."
On I See You, the xx incorporated samples from the likes of Hall & Oates ("On Hold"), the Alessi Brothers ("Say Something Loving") and even Drake ("Naïve") to create their richest sonic tapestry yet, a cohesive album Pitchfork described as having an "eerily seamless wholeness … smooth and polished with no visible edges."
"When we made that first record, no one knew who we were and no one cared," recalls bassist/vocalist Oliver Sim. "So everything was sort of an accident, and we were still figuring out how we sounded."
The first album, nascent as the band may have been, exploded. Rolling Stone placed it at No. 74 on their 100 Best Debut Albums of All Time list, while Rihanna sampled "Intro" for her song "Drunk On Love," and megastars such as Madonna, Jay Z and Beyoncé reportedly attended the band's concerts in New York.
But as buzz built around the band, so did some creative walls.
"Making Coexist, our second [album], it was the first time we'd made an album having fans, having an audience," says Sim. "There was a lot of thought about how we thought we should sound, what people liked about us, and I'm proud of the record, but it made [for] quite a claustrophobic experience."
The process for I See You materialized in a different fashion. Songs had time to grow and evolve, as did the members of the xx. After Coexist, Jamie xx released a solo project in 2015, In Colour, that climbed to the top of the U.K. indie charts and earned a GRAMMY nomination for Best Dance/Electronic Album.
"On our time off, Jamie was touring his solo record," says Sim. "Me and Romy [Madley Croft] were going to his shows, and we saw him making people dance, and I felt jealous. That's something we've never been able to do, really."
The band reconvened and set out on their string of traveling recording sessions with a new mindset.
"I think making our third record was a completely new experience," says Sim. "We just wanted to be as open and as adventurous as possible, and not be too weighed down by our own ideas about how we thought we should sound. So, we tried as much ideas as possible and let in as much new music as possible. It was a lot more fun."
Vocalist/guitarist Madley Croft has also come to appreciate this adventurous approach to writing and recording on the band's third go-round.
"I think for us, pretty much all of the songs go through a lot of different journeys," says Madley Croft. "We all add bits and then they completely change."
As the songs came together, so did a new sound — a more confident, cohesive and accessible sound that seemed somehow every bit as effortless as the minimal roots of their debut album.
"We were basically just dancing around the studio," says Madley Croft, "which is new for us in terms of things being more fun."
The xx head are currently touring Europe through mid-September, then they hit the U.S. for a string of dates before heading to Mexico, New Zealand and Australia.
"I think from two albums worth of touring, this album was really informed by the idea of, 'We're going to play this live one day,'" admits Sim. "So, this album has translated quite well to performing live. We've been able to make people dance, which has made my life. It's made me so happy."