In December 2016, six weeks before the release of their third record, I See You, the xx trio – Romy, Oliver and Jamie – sat on the big comfy sofas in the upstairs meeting room of their parent record label, XL, in Ladbroke Grove. I See You is the xx’s chrysalis to butterfly moment, structurally engineering the architecture of their noble, interior sound into something more open and transparent. The glass roof has been put on. The light has been let in.
Before the conversation started, they show me a video for ‘On Hold’, the first single from I See You, shot by the peerless fashion photographer Alasdair McLellan in Marfa, Texas, where the first sessions on their road to transparency began. In the video there is a party scene, with Jamie DJing at the back, Oliver and Romy smiling in the fray. The message it sends out feels positional and strategic enough in redrafting audience perception of the xx to talk about.
That was fantastic. Was Bruce Weber’s Pet Shop Boys video for ‘Being Boring‘ touted as a reference?
Romy: I’ve actually never seen it.
God, you’re in for a treat.
R: I’m sure it’s one Alasdair’s familiar with. I’d love to see it. I’m going to watch it afterwards.
Were the three of you involved in the casting?
Oliver: A week before we went to Marfa, we were sent loads of snippet videos of the kids saying ‘hi, my name is Brad’ and this lady asking them questions like, ‘can you rodeo?’, ‘do you play football?’. Some of the kids were just like, ‘yeah’, and some were a bit more fabulous: ‘No, no, I prefer music and dancing.’ It was so sweet. They were so much fun. We thought it was going to be really awkward doing a party scene, just saying, ‘OK, dance’ but from the moment we said it they just went ‘waaargh!’
R: Somebody said something to me that sounded true, that people are great at having fun in Britain but if you put a camera on them they stop dancing, whereas in America the camera goes on them and they start. It’s definitely a different culture. I was just so thrilled that they were so sweet and up for it. A lot of them didn’t know the band. They were just enjoying the music. Jamie was playing them all kinds of different music.
Oh, you were actually DJing?
Jamie: Kind of, off an iPhone. I didn’t know what they’d like. So I played them hip-hop first. And they knew all the words that I didn’t know. Then I managed to get the 80s classics in. They were going mad to it.
R: They were so good. Jamie put on ‘Don’t You Want Me‘, and everyone was just jumping and screaming and dancing along and, you know, the shots of us in black and white at the end where I’m cracking up? That was genuinely what was happening.
Has ‘Don’t You Want Me’ ever been a touchstone for the xx on how a shared male/female vocal can work in electronic music?
J: I’ve never thought about it, honestly, even though I love the song.
R: No, definitely not consciously.
There’s a rhyme on the song ‘I Dare You’ on the new record about ‘chills’ and ‘multiplying’ that sounds like it alludes to another, very un-xx vocal duo, John Travolta and Olivia Newton John in Grease.
R: Oh my god, my girlfriend said that to me the other day. I didn’t tell you. My lyric is ‘I get chills/heart-rate multiplying.’ And she googled it and started playing that to me and I was like, oh my god! So yeah, you can put that in writing that it was a very unconscious reference to Grease. [looking mortified] I’ve never even seen the film the whole way through and everyone’s going to think I’m the biggest Grease fan.
I guess the new record is your Sandy moment, in a way, where she slips on the leather jacket and decides to play with the big boys?
O: Oh my god. For our encore song now you should come out smoking and stub it out under your shoe.
R: You can be Sandy and I’ll be John Travolta.
O: OK. Perfect.
Who are you in this equation, Jamie?
J: [quietly] Rizzo.
What specifically xx memories are contained in this room?
O: Me and Jamie were talking before, remembering that we’ve slept on this sofa. While we were making the first album we used to come up here, watch X Factor, play Guitar Hero and then sleep.
R: It’s definitely a home. At major labels there’s a stereotyped perception that it’s quite cut-throat but everyone here is genuinely quite a kind person. It does help.
Have you ever visited a major label?
R: No, never. I passed one today in a cab. Sony. Or the Universal building. One of them. It looked quite corporate.
What do you think The xx’s X Factor winners song would be?
O: We’ve only ever been covered once on X Factor. A girl sang Shelter. It was a girl singing for survival. And she got thrown out. Her name was Sophie Habibis. Me and Jamie were at my flat watching it and they were like ‘after the break… Sophie’s going to be singing Shelter for her survival’ and we were like, what?
R: There was this singer called Birdy. She covered ‘Shelter’ and it became like a Radio 1 thing. It sort of filtered through and then there it was on X Factor.
So I guess, de facto because that’s your one appearance on X Factor it would have to be ‘Shelter’?
O: Yeah, but clearly it doesn’t work very well.
I would posit that ‘Performance’ from the new album is the closest you’ve got to writing your own winner’s song.
R: We’ll keep that in mind should it happen.
If you were asked to go on a show like that as performers, would you consider doing it?
O: Maybe we have. And maybe we said no.
O: I love watching the X Factor but I think that’s where it ends.
R: I think it’s a different thing watching it for entertainment and connecting your band to something. It makes you question, well, do you really believe in it? Obviously, it’s great to give people opportunity but it’s a whole other world of very fast music and it’s a bit soulless. It’s definitely given some great people some great opportunities but, I don’t know…
What’s the TV show you’ll take on tour this time?
O: Me and Jamie just finished The Fall on the plane back last night. The Gillian Anderson and Jamie Dornan one, very good.
R: [slightly sheepishly] I watch rubbish. I watch The Only Way Is Essex religiously. Oh, my last Netflix thing was Grace and Frankie, which I just thought was so good. And I thought it was so great that there’s a TV show about women in their 70s. My aunties were thrilled that there were women in their 70s that were cool, having sex, it was really not patronising at all.
Did it do your heads in when Ed Sheeran called his album ‘x’?
R: Oh god, yeah. I was watching a bit of his Live at Wembley thing on a plane and it was kind of crazy and amazing that he did that – good for him – but when you look out on all his fans in the crowd at Wembley and they’re all wearing caps with x’s on them and I was bit like, oh, come on. Can’t it just be a picture of his face? Why does it have to be x’s.
“I just was always drawn to strong women that were doing their own thing”
Romy, did you have lesbian role models growing up?
R: Ooh, let me think.
O: Brody Dalle’s not gay, but…
R: I definitely idolised her a lot. It was never a crush. I kind of wanted to be her. There was something about her. She was very empowered. She didn’t seem to give a shit. Her old look was a big influence for me. I don’t know about lesbians because they didn’t seem to be so much in the public eye. But both of us [indicates Oliver] started going out in Soho when we were really young. So I used to observe other girls and was intrigued as to how they lived their lives. I guess more looking, because I would never talk to anyone. But I would observe.
Where would you go to?
O: We used to go to [gay indie night at The Ghetto] Misshapes. We’d go out twice a week, maybe on a Thursday and then on a Saturday as well. After the Thursday we’d arrive for art class on the Friday feeling a bit the worse for wear. Misshapes… Trash Palace, that bar that used to be near The W Hotel.
R: I definitely remember that one. Then a bit later Oliver and I would go to [East London gay rave] AntiSocial, both looking really scared. We were very underage and not dressed up at all. Again, just observing. We weren’t confident at talking to other people. I think it really did shape us. We definitely saw and experienced a lot of things. And maybe, in retrospect I was a bit young but at the time I was very much like, we’re old enough.
It’s so great you had a gay buddy to do it with.
O: Yes, that definitely made it easier for us.
J: I started going out later, a couple of years after these guys. The things I was going to there were definitely no girls there. They were very geeky.
O: Hang on, you got your DJ residency at 18?
J: Yeah, but that was just a completely different thing from Anti-Social.
Just record shop boys?
It’s really lovely that you bring those two potentially quite separate worlds together, the seriousness of the Phonica boys and the theatre of the gay East End. They’re both essentially countercultural expressions of awkwardness.
R: Yes and there was a nice moment where we joined up. I remember taking Jamie to [lawless Hackney Road gay bar] The Joiners Arms and having a great time there. That was a nice moment of all our worlds meeting.
Were there any gay role models for you growing up, Oliver?
O: Not that I can think of. I wanted to be somewhere between Josh Homme and Justin Timberlake [laughs].
R: It’s funny. I’d like to think about that. Was it that out there? Maybe among the people I admired it wasn’t out there. I don’t know. I think I just was always drawn to strong women that were doing their own thing; Alison Mosshart, Karen O, Brody, Siouxsie and The Banshees. It was always women who didn’t seem to care. That was what I was drawn to.
Whenever I think of you at school I always think of you as being a bit like the characters in Ghost World, of Oliver being the Scarlett Johansson character and Romy being the Thora Birch.
R: Oh my god, I love that. We all watched that film a lot. I must have seen it about ten times. But I love that. That’s hilarious. Who’s the boy that they hang out with. There’s a boy, isn’t there?
That’s Jamie! [it’s actually Steve Buscemi]
O: I think that definitely the three of us were a unit then. We spoke to other people but mostly to ourselves. Towards the end the three of us almost nearly got thrown out [of school], we really weren’t there.
R: We were just playing music all the time and to give the school credit they gave us Wednesday afternoons off to rehearse. There was a local band at school that were always handing out flyers and putting posters up but we always kept the music separate. It was our little secret thing. It would have been more scary to perform to our school peers than to some strangers in a bar, even if we were underage. We weren’t seeking the attention of people in our school.
Very Ghost World. What song will you open your shows with this time?
O: I think it might be ‘On Hold’. We’re in rehearsals at the moment and it is working.
R: When ‘Angels’ came out as the first single from Co-Exist we opened a lot of our shows with that and we liked how that worked, starting with something new. It’ll be really exciting to start with that injection of energy.
O: I think it’s going to be a lot more fun.
R: It’s fun to have three albums to play with, and Jamie’s, too. I’m happy that we’ve got higher highs to reach for now.
O: Me and Romy were at Brixton last week seeing Christine and The Queens, which was good but it was being at Brixton Academy that really gave me the hunger.
R: I definitely had a lot of admiration for her moves. I wish I could let myself go in that way.
Maybe by the end of the tour you will?
[Romy shakes head]
This interview is taken from the Spring 2017 issue of BEAT get your copy here!