Michael Dart Wadsworth is currently editing a documentary on beloved musicians, the xx, directed by Jamie-James Medina. Read more about the band’s story in The New Yorker, which includes a lovely shout-out to Final Cut.
Shy and Mighty
A band of introverted Brits finds unlikely fame.
BY JOHN COLAPINTO
In late March, the xx, a band that ordinarily appears at ten-thousand-seat arenas, played a ten-night “residency” at the Park Avenue Armory, performing for just a few dozen people at a time. Open to the public for fifty-five dollars a ticket, the shows also drew the musicians Beyoncé, Jay Z, and Madonna, as well as the filmmakers Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach. After assembling in a windowless storage area deep within the Armory, a former military headquarters on the Upper East Side, ticket-holders were led through tunnels to a small, square room, built around a shallow pit where three unsmiling figures stood in near darkness: the guitarist and singer Romy Madley Croft, with dyed black hair in a geometric cut that fell over one eye; the bassist and singer Oliver Sim, a tall man with a blond Tintin forelock; and the boyish-looking d.j./drummer Jamie xx (né Smith), who stood behind a phalanx of samplers, keyboards, and percussion instruments.
For fifty minutes, the xx played a restrained, audaciously spare version of indie rock with a pronounced dance-music edge. Picking out single-note riffs on a chiming Les Paul, Madley Croft sang yearning lyrics in a breathy whisper (“You don’t move slow / taking steps in my direction”) while Sim, plucking widely spaced bass notes, answered in a velvety baritone (“You say I’m foolish / for pushing this aside”). The songs were as intimate as pillow talk—murmuring and sighing against an almost silent background—but the two singers stood separated by the d.j. booth, until Smith’s beats launched them into a dance routine as sharply etched as a tango. Colored lights pulsed against the walls and the low ceiling as Madley Croft, in a black blazer, leggings, and boots, strode across the stage. Sim, swaying his bass in the air, faced off with her, in a pantomime of confrontation and retreat that could have been a lovers’ quarrel or a taunting seduction.
The mood of almost uncomfortable intimacy seemed to prevent performers and audience from acknowledging one another; the band didn’t speak a word between songs, and the spectators didn’t applaud. The mood persisted even when, halfway through the show, Madley Croft sang, “Can I make it better / with the lights turned on?,” and the fabric walls dropped away, revealing the Armory’s vast drill hall, an acre of stone and arching steel struts. Finally, in the last song, she crooned, “Did I hold you too tight? / Did I not let enough light in?” The room went completely dark, and when the lights came up, the audience, as if startled out of a daze, broke into loud applause. After one performance, Kanye West told the band that it had reminded him of Steve Jobs, who “took something as big as the computer and put it in a cell phone.”
The members of the xx were barely out of their teens when, in 2009, they released their first album, “xx,” a collection of muted love laments written mostly in their childhood bedrooms. For a generation reared on the calculated bombast of Lady Gaga and Katy Perry, the album seemed like a refreshingly honest account of first love, and the band itself, appealingly shy Britons, like a relief from exhibitionism and boastfulness. The album, released by a small label called Young Turks, sold more than a million copies and won the Mercury Prize, the most prestigious award in the U.K.’s pop-music industry.
For their second album, “Coexist,” the band members—after two years of non-stop touring—sequestered themselves for six months in a makeshift recording studio in a candlelit London attic draped with black velvet. The new album was another collection of plaintive ballads, but the band, praised for its spare style, reduced its arrangements almost to nothing; some verses were just a single voice over the distant whistle of one of Smith’s samplers. Released in September, 2012, the album débuted at No. 1 on the U.K. charts, but failed to generate the critical acclaim of the first album. Some complained that it showed little musical advance over “xx” and suffered from an airless mood and fussy production—flaws that the band reluctantly acknowledges.
Hence the decision, this spring, to create their third album on the road. After the residency at the Armory, the band set out to play a string of small venues in the Southern United States, writing and performing new songs almost nightly. The idea originated with Caius Pawson, a twenty-eight-year-old Londoner who manages the band, owns its record label, and acts as a kind of creative facilitator. “The sound, the songs, everything, existed before me,” Pawson told me. “My input is in the process. How do they get to writing that song?” He explained, “The first album came out of their limitations. Their second LP was about them thinking they had to hold onto those limitations. The third is about cracking them open. Making them do things they fear.”
Three days after the last Armory performance, the xx were in Athens, Georgia, to play at a thousand-seat theatre. I met with Madley Croft a few hours before the show. A strikingly pale woman of twenty-four with a quiet, slightly lisping voice, she was dressed all in black: T-shirt, tight jeans, and round-toed boots. She looked sufficiently alien under the bright Southern sun that she was stopped by a young man who wanted to photograph her. She blushed and stammered, “Uh, oh—um, O.K.,” then stood stiffly as he took two shots.
The band’s members, all similarly diffident, resist defining themselves as rock stars—or defining themselves at all. Madley Croft grew up in the London suburb of Putney, the only child of an art-teacher mother and a father who worked in a library. “I was a very shy kid and really into art,” she says. When she was eleven, her mother died, of a brain hemorrhage, and she was sent to live with her aunt and uncle and their daughter. “My life changed—just click—overnight,” she says. “I grew up a huge amount in, like, thirty seconds.” She and her cousin, Lotte Jeffs, became close, but they rarely spoke of her mother’s death. “She dealt with it in the way that she seems to deal with everything, which is very internally and very quietly,” Jeffs, now an editor at the Evening Standard Magazine, says. “She was just very worried about how everybody else was doing. I never saw her cry. Not once.”
Madley Croft’s father died, apparently of complications from alcoholism, soon after the release of “xx.” Another cousin, to whom she was also close, died of a brain tumor. But Madley Croft rejects the idea that these hardships help explain the band’s moody aesthetic. “I’m happy—despite things that might have happened in my life,” she says. “The melancholy in our music has never been related to any of the deaths. If anything, it’s just that I quite like sad songs.”
When her father had played records of sixties-era bands, she preferred the gloom of the Velvet Underground to the Beatles, whom she has never felt inclined to listen to closely. (“I feel like it’s not O.K. to say that,” she told me, laughing.) At fourteen, she took up guitar, teaching herself with tablature off the Internet. Inspired by the punkish band the Distillers, she played power chords with heavy distortion and sang like Brody Dalle, the raspy-voiced front woman. “I did it for about a day,” she says, “and then realized I can’t sing like this. I’m not Kurt Cobain.” Instead, she developed her soft contralto, and began plucking single notes to double the melody of her singing—the roots of the unembellished guitar patterns that are an xx signature. She recorded rudimentary cover songs on her computer. “I would send them to a couple of friends, but very much over e-mail, and not in person, and I was very private about it,” she says.
Among those she confided in was Sim, her closest friend since nursery school. “Our parents were friends and kind of pushed us together,” Madley Croft says. “There’s a lot of funny photos of us. We look like twins.” (The two retain a fraternal relationship. Before a recent show in Memphis, Madley Croft scolded him for eating fried alligator, which had made him sick on an earlier swing through the South.) Despite their closeness, neither had known, at fourteen, that the other was secretly playing music. “It was this really funny moment,” Madley Croft told me. “I said, ‘You sing.’ He said, ‘No, you sing.’ And so we sang together.”
Sim, a rawboned twenty-five-year-old, is the most extroverted member of the band. (During a post-show tour of a historic mansion in Marfa, Texas, he bounded off, margarita in hand, to sneak into closed-off rooms, and emerged from one joking about interrupting a pair of lovers.) Yet he is also the most guarded about his early life, which was scarred by family dysfunction that he declines to discuss. In an interview to promote the second album, he said, “If you took anyone off the street and asked them to share as much as we get asked to share, they’d say no. I don’t think that’s abnormal.”
He grew up in a council flat in South London, with his mother, a social worker, and his father, who worked for a hepatitis C charity. He listened to his parents’ music (Talking Heads, the White Stripes) and to his older sister’s commercial R. & B. (Aaliyah, En Vogue, Ginuwine). Like Madley Croft, he resists speculating on the origins of the melancholy in the xx’s songs. “I suppose I’ve never really tried to analyze it too much,” he says. “But I do remember sharing music with my mom the first time and her asking if I was all right.” He laughed. “I said, ‘I’m O.K.—don’t worry.’ ”
Their earliest collaborations were studiedly jokey cover tunes. “God forbid we would seem like we were taking ourselves very seriously,” he says. Wham’s “Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go” was an early staple. (“We took it to a weird place,” Madley Croft says. “I’ll give us that.”) They soon began writing songs, but, too shy to work in the same room, they sketched ideas separately and shared them on iChat, assembling songs like collages. They refrained from asking about the meaning of lyrics. “I wouldn’t be sending him an e-mail back asking, ‘What exactly is that about?’ ” Madley Croft told me. “It’s unsaid, which is quite nice.” They worked in their bedrooms late at night, keeping their voices down so as not to wake their families—a source, both say, of the xx’s muted aesthetic.
When they were fifteen, they finished their first song, the unreleased “Blood Red Moon.” Recorded on Madley Croft’s digital eight-track to the accompaniment of a rinky-dink drum pad, it already suggested the xx’s later style: a sultry melody with an uncluttered backdrop, and enigmatic but suggestive lyrics. As a bass throbbed under a two-note guitar hook, Madley Croft and Sim murmured, “Picture me under blood red moon / I’ll make your eyes turn yellow / Make your skin turn blue / I know that it’s hard to see.” The band felt that it had discovered something almost by accident: a stripped-down, atmospheric sound reminiscent of New Order, the Cure, and Mazzy Star, but with a propulsive dance beat. “We were, like, ‘Ahh—we like this!’ ” Madley Croft says. In the next year, they wrote a handful of songs—including “VCR,” “Night Time,” and “Stars”—that ended up on their début album.
The spareness of their music was partly imposed by their lack of virtuosity. “We couldn’t have done more complicated parts, even if we wanted to,” Sim says, “because we didn’t actually have the playing skills. We didn’t have very loud voices so we couldn’t make a very big sound. When the first album came out and people would ask us, ‘Where did this minimalist thing come from?,’ we thought, It’s minimal, is it?” Another defining aspect of the xx’s music—the tamped-down eroticism of the singers’ entwined voices—was also unintended, since both are gay. “It sounds like we’re addressing each other, but we’re not,” Madley Croft says. “We’re really singing past each other.” The romantic yearning, however, was real enough—even if the scenarios in their songs were, at least on the first album, mostly imagined. One early song, “Crystalised,” was built from a passage that Sim wrote as he fantasized about what an affair might be like. “I hadn’t really had any relationships to be working off,” he told me. “But I had a huge interest in life, and looking at other people’s relationships around me.” He sent a snippet—“You applied the pressure / to keep me crystalised”—to Madley Croft, who wrote an answering verse, which begins, “I’ll forgive and forget / Before I’m paralyzed.” The finished lyrics, some of their best, suggest a twisted love affair, but also hint at drugs and ecological disaster.
Their high school, the Elliott School, was seen as a center for pop music—having produced several notable acts, including Hot Chip, Burial, and Four Tet—but Madley Croft and Sim kept their musical aspirations private. Nicola Pocock, a music teacher at the school, told the Guardian, in 2010, “I don’t remember Oliver and Romy singing at all. They just didn’t do it.” But in their junior year they decided to attempt a live gig. They recruited a classmate, Baria Qureshi, to play second guitar and a two-octave child’s keyboard that Madley Croft bought, for ten pounds, on eBay. They named themselves the xx—they liked the graphic possibilities of the paired crosses, as well as the associations with kisses and chromosomes—and started playing at far-flung pubs and clubs. “In our school, there were lots of bands putting up posters saying ‘Come to our gigs,’ ” Sim says. “We didn’t want people to know.”
Standing like suspects in a police lineup, avoiding eye contact with the audience, they eked out their set to tinny drum patterns pre-recorded on a CD. Lotte Jeffs loyally attended every gig. “I would be one of three people in the room,” she recalls. “They’d be playing a pub in Shoreditch, in East London, and I’d be up front, miming to Romy, ‘Sing louder,’ or ‘Enunciate more.’ ” Sim told me that being onstage was unpleasant. “Really painful,” he said. “All the other bands would say, ‘Uh, you’re all right. Might be a good idea if you got a drummer.’ ” Neither Sim nor Madley Croft can explain what made them endure the terrors of performing. “I guess, deep down, somewhere, hidden underneath all of our nerves, there was a desire to be onstage,” Madley Croft says. “But it’s quite odd. We definitely didn’t look like we wanted to be doing it.”
Bands were starting to find popularity on the Internet—the British singer Lily Allen had built a large following through her MySpace page—and so the members of the xx posted their songs online. “There was no interest in us,” Sim says. “None at all. We weren’t being written about on any of the blogs. We weren’t ever in NME”—the New Musical Express, an influential rock weekly. “We didn’t have any fans.”
One day in Wandsworth, near their neighborhood, they noticed the headquarters of the independent record label Beggars Banquet. “We saw a White Stripes poster and asked if we could hand in a demo,” Sim told me. “But we never did, because we were too afraid.”
Caius Pawson is a loquacious young man with slicked-back blond hair and a square, leonine face. Having struggled with learning disorders since childhood, he dropped out of college after one semester and became a devotee of London’s underground rave scene, supplying d.j.s and sound equipment for a series of all-night dance parties he called Young Turks. He enjoyed growing celebrity, until the police raided one of his parties and seized his gear. Pawson, then nineteen, took a job in A. & R. at XL Recordings, the London-based independent label known for signing Adele, and quickly established his own small label within the company, also called Young Turks.
In his first three years, Pawson signed several groups, without much success. One day in the fall of 2007, his assistant, Katie O’Neill, told him about the xx, which she’d found trawling MySpace—“just clicking on different artists’ ‘Top 4’ or ‘Top 8’ friends to find something interesting,” she says. Together, they attended the xx’s next gig, at Shunt, a large, dark club with ivied walls situated beneath the massive arches of the London Bridge railway station. There, Pawson was confronted with the unprepossessing sight of three eighteen-year-olds—Madley Croft, Sim, and Qureshi—standing motionless, eyes on the ground, inching their way through a moody set. “For some reason, the guy behind the bar wouldn’t turn off the bar stereo,” Pawson told me. “And they were playing off a beat on a CD player. It was very funny. If you’d reviewed the show, you wouldn’t necessarily have reviewed it very positively, but there was, like, endless scope for . . . other possibilities.”
Pawson had been raised to appreciate the possibilities of stylish minimalism. His father is the architect John Pawson, who created the spare glass-and-stone Calvin Klein store on Madison Avenue, and the Sackler Crossing, an unadorned sine wave of black granite that crosses a lake in Kew Gardens. Before a retrospective of his work at the Design Museum in London, a Telegraph article noted that his home was so bare of ornament that, when he showed it to some Cistercian monks whose monastery he was about to design, they “worried his style might be too austere for them.” Caius’s mother, Hester van Royen, is an art dealer who was one of John Pawson’s earliest patrons, and had worked with the artists Donald Judd and John Chamberlain. She took a lively interest in her son’s work at Young Turks. “She would come down to shows and give me a visual-arts reference,” Pawson told me. “I had a band called Holy Fuck—an instrumental Krautrock band. She loved them. She was, like, ‘This is the gangster Rothko of sound!’ ”
He brought her to an early xx show at the AB Club, in Brussels. “She grabbed me,” he says, “and she was, like, ‘This is the first extreme talent you have.’ She looked me in the eyes and was, like, ‘Creativity is not a tap! Do not fuck this up!’ What she meant was, just because you have something exciting, you can’t just put them on the promo bandwagon.” Pawson recognized that the xx were especially vulnerable to the pressures of recording, touring, and press interviews. “They were very frail and shy kids,” he says. “Some people are born a bit more ready. This band wasn’t born ready.”
Pawson refrained from asking them to sign a deal, convinced that handing them money to record an album would “make them collapse.” Instead, he promised to secure them a rehearsal space and find them gigs. Still high-school students without heavy financial obligations, they agreed, and began to gather at the rehearsal room—a disused garage at the record company’s headquarters, in the same Wandsworth building where they had once been too afraid to drop off a demo. “I don’t know what I thought we were doing—with what purpose,” Madley Croft says. “It wasn’t for an album. I was just happy playing music.” Sim was galvanized by Pawson’s enthusiasm. “He was taking us seriously. It’s a real driver, when no one else is particularly excited.”
The xx soon recruited Jamie Smith, a longtime friend from the Elliott School. A highly self-contained young man, Smith has dark, puppyish eyes and a bashful smile. (“I once went shopping and raving with Jamie in Holland,” Pawson told me. “A day and a night of partying. Don’t think he said a word—but he had an awesome time!”) He grew up listening to his parents’ Stax soul and funk, and then to electronic dance music, built around drum sounds sampled from those classic recordings by musicians like DJ Shadow and RJD2. He had turned down an earlier offer to drum for the band. “I didn’t think I was good enough,” he says, “and I didn’t want to be onstage.” But for his eighteenth birthday he was given his first MPC—a combined recorder, sampler, and drum machine—and brought it to the xx rehearsal room. When Madley Croft and Sim heard how the band sounded with Smith providing live beats, tapping pads with his fingers to simulate a drum set, they urged him to join. “It had a live element,” Madley Croft says, “and it added so much texture, with all these other sounds he could make.” Smith’s drum patterns and ethereal synths gave the xx a distinctive quality: a hybrid of singer-songwriter balladry and influences from hip-hop and underground London dance music.
For eighteen months, they rehearsed in the garage, testing new songs at tiny venues. In that time, all of them graduated from high school. Madley Croft was accepted in a pre-undergraduate course at London’s Central Saint Martins arts college, where the musicians M.I.A., Jarvis Cocker, and PJ Harvey had studied; Sim got a job as a waiter; Smith worked on his d.j. beats; and the band continued to rehearse and play gigs. “It was all very casual,” Madley Croft says. “And then one day the people at Young Turks were, like, ‘Do you want to make an album?’ ” By then, she had plans to attend college. “Caius was, like, ‘You kind of need to make a decision—do you want to go to university, or do you want to focus on the band?’ I chose the band.”
For the xx’s stripped-down tour of the South—including shows in Atlanta, Raleigh, Memphis, and Marfa—Pawson encouraged the band not to fall into the usual rut: performing, crashing, rising late, eating, performing again. The idea was to absorb the color and culture of the South, in the hope that the new surroundings would break them out of their routine. Before sound check in Oxford, Mississippi, Pawson corralled Madley Croft and Smith on a trip to a record store, the End of All Music, outside of town. While Pawson energetically pitched the owner on hosting a solo show with Smith for broadcast online (Smith has developed a successful solo career as a d.j., and worked as a producer for Drake and Alicia Keys), Madley Croft quietly scanned the albums on the walls. Smith camped out in a back room filled with obscure gospel and country recordings, where he listened through headphones to record after record, bobbing his head, looking for sounds to sample for the xx’s new songs.
When Smith produced the band’s first album, he was only nineteen. Pawson had brought in experienced hitmakers, including Diplo, an L.A.-based producer who has worked with Beyoncé, No Doubt, Justin Bieber, and Usher; and the London-based Kwes, who has collaborated with Damon Albarn and Bobby Womack. The xx were initially excited to work with established names, but soon balked. Where the band had left spaces in the songs, producers wanted to insert sounds and beats. “They wanted to put their own little stamp on it,” Smith says. “If you have a band with a sound, and you can hear it, you should do something that sounds like them.” He lobbied his bandmates and the label to let him produce the record, and they agreed.
The album, recorded in December, 2008, in the converted garage, retained the unvarnished production of the band’s demos. “We had a rule that everything had to be possible to play live, without extra instruments,” Madley Croft says. Instead of using the studio’s synthesizers, they insisted on the child’s keyboard bought on eBay. “I can’t believe how naïve we were,” Smith says. “I’m glad, because that’s why it sounded like it did. None of us even had the idea in our head that it was going to be released.” Indeed, Young Turks did not sign them to a record deal until after the album was released.
When “xx” went on sale, the following August, NME hailed it as “one of 2009’s most unique debuts.” The critic Robert Christgau wrote, “It’s hard to imagine their music getting much better,” and Slant made comparisons to Belle and Sebastian, Joy Division, Interpol, and Regina Spektor. Katie Stelmanis, of the Toronto-based band Austra, which later opened shows for the xx, said that the album signalled a changing fashion. “Their entire aesthetic really didn’t exist in any kind of mainstream way before,” Stelmanis told me. “I remember the first time listening to them and thinking, How can they get away with this? It’s so simple. That minimalism has definitely swept over the world—even to the point where Beyoncé’s new record sounds like it could be produced by Jamie xx.”
But the album sold slowly at first, and the band’s affect on stage remained recessive. That fall, when they played at the CMJ Music Festival in New York, Pitchfork praised their music but said that “their live presence is not exactly dynamic.” And there were problems offstage. The pressures of touring had increased long-standing tensions between Qureshi and the rest of the band, and she subsequently left, signing an agreement that officially ended her relationship with the band. She does not speak to the press, but in a recent tweet she complained that she didn’t get enough credit for her contribution to the band’s music. (Pawson disputes this.)
If the band’s critics called the music anodyne, its blank-slate quality offered wide commercial opportunities. The BBC picked up the spooky instrumental “Intro” for its coverage of the general election, and Rihanna sampled it for her dance tune “Drunk on Love.” Soon, the xx’s music was being used in car commercials, movies, and television shows (“Cold Case,” “Grey’s Anatomy,” “Gossip Girl”). Karl Lagerfeld chose it for a Chanel fashion show. In April, 2010, the band was invited to play at the Coachella Music Festival, in California. The members came onstage at four in the afternoon to discover that thirty thousand people had gathered to see them. Jay Z and Beyoncé were in the pit in front of the stage. Madley Croft says, “That was the moment when I was, like, Oh, my God, I think people might be into this.”
Touring relentlessly over the next two years, the band grew more at home onstage. “Over time, Oliver started to move a bit,” Madley Croft says. “I didn’t know, because I spent the whole time looking either down or forward. I thought, I’ve got to step it up. I started to move, and now we’ve kind of developed this whole swaying thing that we do. I sort of follow his lead.” (Before the Armory shows, they worked out each night’s moves on paper.) Madley Croft lost weight, and traded her baggy black T-shirts for slim blazers, leggings, and high-heeled boots. She started dating Hannah Marshall, a London fashion designer, who creates stage outfits for all the xx members: narrow black clothes with slits at the elbows. Inevitably, critics and fans talked about the sexiness of the music. “A lot of people would come up to us after the shows and want to tell us that it was a sexy sound. You kind of don’t know what to say!” Madley Croft told me, laughing. “What I like about it is that there was absolutely no intention to make it sound like that.” Some of their early fans, who loved their awkwardness, feel that they’ve sold out. But at the Armory the transformative power of stardom made their stony expressions look less like stage fright than like deadpan cool—the sang-froid of rock stars content to make you come to them.
A few weeks ago, I visited Final Cut studios in New York, where the photographer Jamie-James Medina was editing a documentary about the band. Medina has been shooting for four years, amassing a hundred and twenty hours of footage, which he was trying to assemble into a ninety-minute rough cut. In an editing suite dominated by a large TV screen, he spoke wistfully of D. A. Pennebaker’s “Don’t Look Back,” with its unguarded scenes of a young Bob Dylan gleefully bullying a Time magazine reporter. With the xx, he said, “it took me two months before I even asked if I could shoot backstage.”
But Medina did capture moments of drama, however subterranean. He showed me footage from the velvet-lined attic studio where the band members, intensely nervous about following up on their début, were making the second recording. Sim says, “Our first album we thought no one would even hear. Now we were creating knowing there was an audience. It was bizarre.” Madley Croft adds, “We thought, We just need to hide away, and we kind of shut all the doors.” Smith, who was producing again, at first loved the isolation. Now, he says, “I realize a lot of it was quite miserable. I spent too much time making sure every sound was perfect.” In Medina’s footage, the band members hardly speak to one another, and when they do a tone of tetchy irritation is audible. They finally stopped communicating directly, settling creative disputes by speaking through Pawson. Their label asked repeatedly to hear the new recording. “We’d be, like, ‘O.K., we’ll play it to you this week,’ ” Sim says. “Then we’d realize we wanted to change part of it.” Finally, Pawson demanded to hear the album. “Caius came,” Sim says, “and was, ‘O.K., this is great. You captured a moment, where you’re at right now. There will be other albums—this is it.’ ”
The resulting album, “Coexist,” sounded in many ways like “xx,” but even more starkly minimal—an effect that seemed less a confident artistic choice than a band’s straining to recapture what critics had defined as its signature sound. “With the first album, we never talked about it” being minimal, Smith says. “Making the second album, we may have talked about it too much.”
“It’s a great record that we all love and are extremely proud of,” Pawson told me, “and there’s no other record that could be made. But the process was exhausting and very painful.”
During sound check at the Georgia Theatre, in Athens, the xx played a song written only days earlier, in New York. It began with washes of organ from Smith’s keyboard, and a plangent lyric sung by Madley Croft: “I used to escape / into my hiding place. Now we’re face to face / and I don’t feel so afraid.”
Pawson, standing close to the stage, said, “First time I’ve heard this. First time anyone’s heard it.” The song was more thickly orchestrated than usual—tolling drumbeats, swirling organ sections, ringing chords. When it ended, Pawson elaborated on forcing the band to write and arrange new songs on tour. “Instead of having two months to dwell on how the drums should sound,” he says, “they have half an hour before the show to get it right. It’s trial and error—live.” The need to resolve artistic differences on the spot left no time for entrenched disagreements, an approach that Madley Croft said was closer to how they made the first album. “We’d played all those songs live loads of times before we recorded them, and they morphed and were influenced by the reaction they got from the crowd.”
In the next few days, they rehearsed “Hiding Place” at sound checks, and often struggled with a section late in the song where Sim takes a verse. The band was trying to figure out what instrumentation, if any, to include under his singing. Each night, they played a different version, sometimes with Madley Croft doubling Sim’s voice on guitar, sometimes with nothing but a booming bass-drum sample under his voice. After each show, the band discussed which version had got the best reaction from the audience, and made mental notes for when they reached Marfa, in West Texas, where they were scheduled to start recording the new album. Madley Croft said that it was frightening to play an unfinished song live—at sound check in Athens, she had to stop midway through “Hiding Place,” because she couldn’t remember the melody of her verse—but, she added, that was the point of the exercise: “I’m trying to go along the lines of, If it makes me nervous, then do it.”
On the Southern tour, the xx played mostly in college towns, for audiences of undergraduates in preppy T-shirts and shorts: boys and girls on dates, swaying with their arms around each other’s waists; groups of sorority sisters and frat brothers. Diehard fans reverently sang along to “Angels,” as it slowed nearly to a halt with the repeated, whispered phrase “They would be as in love with you as I am.” While the band played its hits, the feeling in the room was less like a rock concert than like an encounter-group session, with both the audience and the band members reliving the private moments of their first loves.
The new songs, however, were often less well received. On the tour, Madley Croft débuted “Performance.” Sung solo to strummed guitar chords—a departure from her usual single notes—the song is an achingly tender confessional about private pain and the necessity of putting on a brave face onstage. At the Armory, the audience had leaned in close to catch every nuance. But in Oxford, at a small, dark venue called the Lyric, the standing-room-only crowd of college students talked and laughed as Madley Croft bared her soul; some checked messages on their phones. After the show, Pawson, outraged, herded the band into the tour bus, past a line of autograph-seekers. Over dinner the next day, in Memphis, Madley Croft acknowledged that it was difficult when audiences were indifferent, but she said that even this could be an inspiration. “That feeling of hoping for the best—and then people just talking right through,” she said, and laughed. “It really reminded me of when we started out.” ♦
Annals of Music JUNE 30, 2014 ISSUE