It’s game night in Marfa, Texas. The Shorthorns break onto the school field in their royal purple kit and matching helmets. A small team of cheerleaders performs for the crowd, all fringed pom-poms and high kicks—clichés in technicolour. In the stands, the assembled adults hoot wildly and prod at each other. Teens with braces on their teeth laugh and then cover their mouths, as teens with braces do. Now and again, some leave their seats to find fast romance beneath the bleachers. In the morning, the sun will crest upon the Chihuahuan Desert, passing across the silvery Marfa water tower and throwing its shadow down Washington Street. There are caravans, there are ranches with log fences and coarsely-wrapped barbed wire, there is stucco in the Spanish Colonial Revival style. There are horses, cows, and couples sporting Stetsons. In the distance there are small brown hillocks carpeted in faded grass.
Nine miles east of the game, at a hard shoulder off Highway 90, the infamous Marfa Lights glow and pulse across the West Texas horizon. Tourists and locals observe from the cargo beds of parked pickups, contemplating extra-terrestrial visitation in whispered tones.
It’s in these sun-baked, overwhelmingly American surrounds that British trio The xx recorded much of their third album, I See You. The location may seem antithetical to the band’s preference for restraint and the monochromatic. What could a group of Londoners find for themselves in the American south? A new expansiveness, as it turns out. Though familiar in its introspective qualities, this LP shifts its creators toward a more joyous, open-faced sound; these are love songs recorded in the intensity of alien surrounds. The energy of youth is perpetually fascinating for members Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie Smith (known as Jamie xx)—both lyrically and in production. The spectres of age and growth repeatedly arise in conversation.
We meet—the four of us—on a warm Monday afternoon and are guided to a polished hotel dining room. We sit almost alone. There is smooth jazz playing from unseen speakers and festive decorations being erected throughout the space. The band has just taken a long walk in the sun. They are tired and a little pink, but remain alert and generous. We discuss America, uncertain adulthood and working with light.
JOE BRENNAN I’d like to start by talking about Marfa, Texas. It’s the home of the Chinati Foundation, as well as Prada Marfa and music festival Marfa Myths. Directors George Stevens, Larry Clark and Paul Thomas Anderson have all filmed there. It’s been the ongoing inspiration for Alexandra Gordienko’s Marfa Journal. Marfa seems to draw creative people towards it. What drew you there?
OLIVER SIM Our manager’s mum lives there half the year, so we’d heard a lot about it. It’s funny when you actually get there …
ROMY MADLEY CROFT Landscape-wise it’s incredibly beautiful: huge skies, open road and sunsets. I think we were just really open-minded to record in places outside of London, and Caius [Pawson, of Young Turks] suggested this exciting place where none of us had been before. So we decided to have an adventure and go to this small town in Texas. It wasn’t like what I assumed ‘a small town in Texas’ might be. There’s a lot of space and quietness there, which helps you think.
JAMIE SMITH It was definitely an adventure. We went from performing shows at The Armory in New York to a road trip through the south, playing shows along the way to Marfa. We actually played our last show in Marfa and then spent two weeks recording.
BRENNAN The music video for ‘On Hold’—directed by Alasdair McLellan—frames adolescence as joyful and hedonistic. Are these feelings that you associate with your own youth, or are they more reflective of where you are now?
CROFT It certainly reflects aspects of my teenage times. We wanted to incorporate those themes of openness and youth. I think that’s where we’re at [mentally]. The party scene that we filmed was way more fun than any house party I went to at 15. The kids were quite young but they were so wonderful and excited to be involved. I think only like two of them knew who we were. They were all just happy to be in a video. As soon as Jamie put music on, they just went wild.
SIM I think we were probably projecting our own teenage selves onto them. We thought it was going to be a really awkward party, asking teenagers to dance in front of a camera. But they were all so up for it. They just had sugary drinks. It was amazing.
BRENNAN What is it about McLellan’s work that appeals to you? How did your collaboration come about?
SIM It’s funny, we were making a moodboard of images that summed-up the video we wanted, and realised that we had a collection of his photographs. We wanted beautiful skies and warmth. And that’s him. We also wanted to make a real trip of it and have photographs of ourselves, shoot the music video and start working on a zine. So we met up with him in London and he was up for it.
BRENNAN Is the zine still happening?
SIM It’s happening. We’re in the middle of it in the moment.
BRENNAN The evolution of album titles from Coexist to I See You, in a purely linguistic sense, is a movement from a clinical understanding of relations to an open-faced declaration. It’s reflected in the individual track names: ‘Brave for you,’ ‘I dare you,’ ‘Test me.’ Is this what you mean by the album being more outward looking, more expansive?
CROFT I think this album is more like ‘I feel this,’ rather than ‘You’ve made me feel this.’ Oliver and I consciously tried to include more of that perspective. It’s also been unconscious, in a way. It came quite naturally from becoming more self-confident and growing up. When we were making Coexist, we were 21. Now we’re 27 and 28. If you ask anybody what they were like at those different ages, it’s quite a shift in terms of knowing who you are and what you think.
“As we’ve become bigger as a band, I’ve gotten the confidence to look up more and into the eyes of the audience”Romy Madley Croft
BRENNAN In the past you’ve talked about the element of fantasy in your writing of lyrics—especially on xx—detailing tragic, imagined relationships. How does fantasy manifest itself in your song writing?
SIM The fantasy came from a lack of experience. The writing was still personal but there was a lot of hope and expectation. Writing this album has definitely been working off experience. There are a lot more actual events now. [Laughs] I also see a lot of love in the relationship between the three of us, if not romance. There’s more joyous love between us than there has been in the past.
BRENNAN Jamie recently worked alongside Wayne McGregor and Olafur Eliasson in scoring the ballet Tree of Codes. Eliasson’s work is so much about space and light. The same could be said of your live performances. Or the music video for ‘Angels’—light on water—or the shimmering album cover of I See You… What about light and reflection appeal to you?
CROFT It’s been a real theme through everything. We got to speak to Olafur through Jamie. We haven’t figured out exactly how we’d work together but we’re very keen to do that. Obviously he’s the king of mirrors and just talking to him is incredibly inspiring. He brought to our attention the idea that a friend can be a mirror to you. We instantly fell in love with that idea and that was a big part of I See You as a concept. I definitely want him to be credited for that.
BRENNAN Jamie, how did In Colour inform the production and genre bases of I See You? I love Hall & Oates, so thank you for that.
SMITH We all love Hall & Oates! We didn’t have a specific idea as to how the album would turn out, we just knew that we wanted to be away from home and be influenced by the outside world rather than our own tiny bubble. We listened to so much music on road trips across America. It was really the variation and breadth of all that that was the inspiration, rather than [very specific] genres. Working on my album helped slightly in that it lifted some barriers that then stayed open.
CROFT On Coexist, we looked at ourselves under a microscope and were very self-conscious, asking “What do people like about us?” and “What makes us who we were?”
SIM I had felt like it was almost freeing to give ourselves these limitations within which to work. If Jamie had brought a Hall & Oates sample to Coexist, it would have been shot down immediately.
CROFT We found it quite challenging, looking back. With this album, being influenced by working with Jamie, it felt fun to say “That sounds great, let’s put it in!” and not analyse as much.
BRENNAN The album opens quite energetically with ‘Dangerous’ and a blast of horns. Various critics have interpreted I See You as indicative of a complete tonal shift, yet there’s still a lot of recognisable stillness: tracks like ‘Performance’ and ‘Say Something Loving.’ How do you situate this new sound within your existing aural aesthetic?
SMITH I think it’s a progression. It sounds exactly like the album we wanted to make. It was quite difficult tracklisting it to get it to sound like it does, as there are so many shifts.
CROFT I hope it’s a progression. Jamie’s album and his process definitely influenced us. We were going to his gigs and meanwhile the BPM on the demos Oliver and I were making was getting higher and higher. At the same time, Jamie was coming back from making people dance and wanted to slow it down. So we met somewhere in the middle.
BRENNAN Let’s move away from music momentarily—in a recent Twitter post, you referred to the “uncertain times” in which we currently live. How do you feel about the political role of the arts in a post-Brexit, mid-Trump, ‘post-truth’ era?
SMITH Normally we don’t say much. We’ve almost kept the music separate from everything else. But with Brexit, it felt too important to ignore … we put something up [online] because being unmotivated was a problem, particularly with the youth in England. Because of the bad outcome—or, whatever, the outcome—we see young people now engaging a little bit more. It’s a silver lining. In general we’d rather see our music as a nice moment of relief.
BRENNAN Raf Simons and Karl Lagerfeld are counted among your fans. Oliver, you’ve been shot for the cover of Fantastic Man, Jamie you’ve soundtracked the ‘Stranger in a Room’ campaign for Dior Homme. How does it feel to be followed around by fashion? Is that a kind of attention that feels comfortable?
SIM I think we’re definitely tourists in the fashion world. Raf Simons said that he played our albums continuously in the studio. I like the relationship between music and fashion. Our interest is in style, although we’re not very educated when it comes to fashion.
CROFT We’ve been to a few fashion shows and felt pretty out of place. It’s quite an intense environment. It’s definitely a novelty for us. But like Oliver said, we’ve always had a strong sense of individual style–variations on a theme of black. I think tourists is a good word for it.
BRENNAN Oliver, you’ve said of Sade that, “She takes quite complex emotions and delivers them quite simply … it speaks to me.” Which other artists—musicians or not—speak to you most clearly?
SIM At the opposite end, Stevie Nicks is not simple. It’s all veiled in imagery and nature.
CROFT I was going to say Stevie Nicks. Depending on my mood, it’s between her and Christine McVie. I know everyone loves Fleetwood Mac, but I really love Fleetwood Mac.
SMITH I tend to listen to the music first and then have to make an effort to listen to the lyrics. Actually, the lyrics I know the best are from The xx. They’re the songs that I’ve made the most effort to try and understand.
SIM This time around, every time we’d send Jamie a demo he’d always ask for the lyrics.
CROFT I think it’s nice you made a conscious effort to see what each song meant to Oliver and I … There’s some actual vocal samples on this album, which is new for us. With a song like ‘Lips’ it was different because Jamie came to us with the beat and the sample, and Oliver and I wrote inspired by the sample lyrics. So it’s kind of like Jamie started the song lyrically.
“Stevie Nicks is not simple. It’s all veiled in imagery and nature”Oliver Sim
BRENNAN Aside from one another, who do you call when you need advice? And who calls you for the same?
SIM Our managers are like our best mates. One of them has been managing us for ten years, since we were 17. They’re good people to bounce off. They’re not always telling us—as much as we might want it—how great we are.
CROFT I call my girlfriend [Editor’s note: now fiancée]. But similarly, she definitely doesn’t just tell me what I want to hear. She tells me some hard truths, [often] about my songs as well. I’d rather that than her just be like, “You’re great.”
SMITH I talk to my friends, but not that much. I’m trying to do it more.
BRENNAN Your music in general seems to lend itself to art spaces; there were those shows at The Armory back in 2014. When you’ve gone from performing in small bars to giant arenas and then back to cloistered art spaces, how do you find a general understanding of intimacy—what it means to ‘connect’ with an audience?
CROFT As we’ve become bigger as a band, I’ve gotten the confidence to look up more and into the eyes of the audience. Even looking at someone while they’re having a moment, observing without them realising, that’s now one of my favourite parts of the show. That’s another bend of the meaning in I See You. When we went to gigs when we were younger, we used to think the band couldn’t see us. I hope that with these larger shows, we can still reach the people at the back just via our … mood. We’re consciously trying to reach you in some way.
BRENNAN Romy, you taught yourself guitar as a teenager using tablature off the Internet, later sharing songwriting ideas with Oliver via iChat. And on your debut album, Jamie, you envisioned a romantic idea of a pre-Internet rave era. What is your creative relationship to the Internet?
SIM We got found on Myspace. [Laughs] The Internet scares me sometimes.
CROFT It’s funny when I think about it. We were probably 14 or 15 when the Internet became accessible. Before then, I used to record things off the radio onto tapes which now seems really prehistoric. But that’s what I did, and I’d bring it so school like, “Listen to this.” If I imagine myself at 14 now, I could go online and listen to anything I want. This whole generation can go from listening to one type of music to another in a heartbeat and I find that quite exciting. I don’t know if music is going to get worse or better because of it but I like the idea of less strict genre lines. The Internet is definitely a scary… rainforest? I guess.
BRENNAN That’s the pull-quote.
CROFT I think I’ve finally run out of things to say.
BRENNAN Back in 2012, you were occasionally quoted describing Coexist as reflecting your collective transition into adulthood. If you’re now firmly adults, what period does this LP represent? Where are you all now?
CROFT I don’t actually agree with that now. I’ve always felt older than I am, perhaps due to life experiences. And at the time maybe I thought that, but now I think this album represents that change … Whether we’re adults yet, I don’t know.
I See You is available on 13 January via Young Turks / Remote Control records.