Double-A prospect with XX factor

The young London four-piece with the small name have a similarly minimalist sound. But, says Chris Mugan, after a critically acclaimed album, they are a double-A prospect

If it is Sunday, it must be Brussels. One of the hottest new arrivals of 2009 has set forth on their first European tour, only a short hop across a handful of capital cities – but it is a step up, nonetheless.

Especially since their eerie, tremulous sound is not made for supporting the vibrant likes of Florence and the Machine, with whom the xx have toured recently. Better to perform in front of an audience primed for paying close attention, singer and bassist Oliver Sim admits. "The crowd gave us a lot of attention, which we're grateful for, but the way we play, you could still hear a lot of talking. It's great now that people have heard our album and know our music a bit better."



And soon many more will appreciate their understated charms. Since the south London four-piece emerged this year, they have earned critical plaudits both for mesmeric live performances and the aforementioned album, released in August. Having all turned 20, the band that also includes singer/guitarist Romy Madley Croft, keyboardist Baria Qureshi and beat-master Jamie Smith are set for great things, though at their own stately pace, one that reflects the spectral atmosphere they conjure.



It is ironic that on their tour manager's mobile phone, backstage at a Belgian venue, both Sim and Madley Croft sound clearer than they do on record. The pair share a diffident quality, combined with quiet, underlying confidence, that makes their work so beguiling. In separate conversations, they admit their lack of volume comes from the fact that neither of them are natural show-offs who wanted to front a band. They started making music separately, even though they had known each other since they were toddlers.



"She's like a sister to me," Sim divulges. The guitarist had been teaching herself, playing along to Queens of the Stone Age and The Distillers, when she plucked up the courage to sing in front of her oldest friend. "He was really surprised," she remembers. "Then he said he'd been singing too, so we just took it from there."



Madley Croft had by then realised her voice was overpowered by the loud, distorted sound of her favourite bands, but soon found the answer to that problem. "I had been learning about minimalism at school, Philip Glass and Steve Reich, all these sparse chords that made it easier for me to sing over." So they are not fans of Cocteau Twins or Young Marble Giants, then?



"People have said we sound like those bands, but we only started to hear them once we were close to completing the album." It is a job hazard for callow artists, being compared to outfits that disbanded before they were born, but the xx also face comparisons closer to home – all the other performers that have emerged from their alma mater, Elliott School in Putney. It is an impressive roll-call that includes members of guitar pop outfit The Maccabees; nu-folkie Adem Ilhan; his former bandmate in Fridge Kieran Hebden, better known in electronica circles as Four Tet; half of youthful string section Elysian Quartet; and Herman Li, guitarist in underground rock band DragonForce; not to mention the odd member of UK garage's infamous So Solid Crew. This sprawling comprehensive school with 1,000 students ("it looks like a prison" says Sim dismissively) first came to the attention of this paper last February, when Mercury-nominated dubstep star Burial was unmasked as William Bevan.



"Real school of rock" stories appeared and the likes of Adem provided fond memories of the place. He points that a whole generation of musicians came through at one time – including Fridge, Hot Chip and Burial. "We got to use the music rooms as much as we liked – it was a real DIY attitude. Elliott was a pretty regular school with a few rough kids, but it was inspiring seeing other people having a go – you thought, if they could do it, then so can I." So when the xx emerged those same headlines were recycled.



Their predecessors were all at least ten years ahead of them, Sim explains. He talks patiently about his old school, though it is clear he has stock answers already prepared. "We honestly had no idea about Burial and Hot Chip." The xx are, though, happy to thank the school for introducing them to such a wide range of fellow pupils. "Elliot is just a standard comprehensive with an eclectic mix of people," says Madley Croft. "I'm glad I went there rather than a place with a more limited intake." And that inner-city profile is reflected in the band's tastes, that mix contemporary R&B with guitar bands. The xx have namechecked Missy Elliott on their MySpace page, and cover Aaliyah's "Hot Like Fire" and "Teardrops" by Womack & Womack, in their own shivery style, naturally. Now having tackled an R&B classic and Eighties pop-soul, on forthcoming single "Islands", they are taking on as a B-side a newer anthem that only dropped in January, from the mini-genre UK funky, Kyla's "Do You Mind?".



This is Sim's contribution, he admits. "My older sister was into that kind of music and I just nicked it from her. I can't really differentiate between music that I like and music that influences our sound, but I imagine it must seep in somewhere." Madley Croft says something very similar about Mariah Carey, who she enjoys singing along to, she says, though you would be hard pressed to believe it judging from her vocal style on record.



It might also be something they share with Burial, an artist who quickly escaped the confines of the genre from which he emerged, while Prince fans Hot Chip have themselves successfully merged dance beats with guitars.



"What I like about both Burial and Hot Chip, and I think this goes for the rest of the band, is that they sound so organic," Madley Croft says approvingly. And what about the school's music department? While the group's guitarist is self-taught, Sim learnt bass guitar at Elliott and it is where he connected with Smith and Qureshi. Adem and Hot Chip's Joe Goddard have both reminisced about free access to its facilities that allowed them and future bandmates to find their own modes of expression. "I like to say I don't know if [music teachers] did on that purpose or just left us to our own devices," Sim says. "Though I suppose we were able to work out what we wanted to do early on."



Madley Croft remembers having access to a four-track studio at school that inspired her to get hold of her own so the band could record themselves. One of her and Sim's joint inspirations were The Kills, the duo formed by Alison Mosshart and Kate Moss's beau, Jamie Hince. "It was great two people were able to do so much," Sim explains. "But I distrust backing tracks. Once they fail, you're completely screwed." So they brought in Qureshi and Smith, to help achieve Madley Croft's "organic" sound. The uncanny atmosphere of the xx on record owes much to crackles and pulses at the edge of hearing.



It is a facet they share with dubstep, of which Smith, who provides beats and samples, is something of an aficionado, though the outside noises that seep into recordings also owe much to Madley Croft's early recording technique. "I live on a road with a police station, ambulance centre and fire service, so there are sirens going by all the time. When we started, we had to record downstairs where there was a hedge to protect us, but still... one time we pressed record and something shot by wailing, so we kept it in." Also distinctive are the vocals she shares with Sim. Rather than a Marvin Gaye / Kim Weston call-and-riposte, their styles reflect solidarity, of shared experience and the strength gained from another's support.



In the main, these are traditional love songs, yet the pair wrote the album separately: one came up with a verse and the other responded with more lines or a chorus. On record, each contributor sings his or her own lines, though from the outside their input seems interchangeable.



Like the music, the process is rather tentative, with neither really understanding what the other is writing about, Madley Croft reveals. "The way we put things together is more like a collage than collaboration, though I suppose we are going through the same things, like relationships. We just never discuss the details." Sim adds, "We are the same age, so we are bound to have similar things happen to us."



It is apt that the xx are currently on a tour of European cities, given how, like dubstep and trip-hop artists, they reflect inner-city anxieties and experiences. Yet the band never forget their manners. At the back of the album's lyric booklet, where an R&B star might thank God and endless hangers-on, is printed one simple, quietly effective message: "Thank you".



The xx's single 'Islands' is out October 26 on Young Turks

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Feeling all at sea: Barbara's 18-year-old son came under the influence of a Canadian libertarian preacher – and she had to fight to win him back
TV review
Arts and Entertainment
Living the high life: Anne Robinson enjoys some skip-surfed soup
TV review
Arts and Entertainment

Great British Bake Off
Arts and Entertainment
Doctor Who and Missy in the Doctor Who series 8 finale

TV
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chvrches lead singer Lauren Mayberry in the band's new video 'Leave a Trace'

music
Arts and Entertainment

music
Arts and Entertainment
Home on the raunch: George Bisset (Aneurin Barnard), Lady Seymour Worsley (Natalie Dormer) and Richard Worsley (Shaun Evans)

TV review
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Strictly Come Dancing was watched by 6.9m viewers

Strictly
Arts and Entertainment
NWA biopic Straight Outta Compton

film
Arts and Entertainment
Natalie Dormer as Margaery Tyrell and Lena Headey as Cersei Lannister in Game of Thrones

Game of Thrones
Arts and Entertainment
New book 'The Rabbit Who Wants To Fall Asleep' by Carl-Johan Forssen Ehrlin

books
Arts and Entertainment
Calvi is not afraid of exploring the deep stuff: loneliness, anxiety, identity, reinvention
music
Arts and Entertainment
Edinburgh solo performers Neil James and Jessica Sherr
comedy
Arts and Entertainment
If a deal to buy tBeats, founded by hip-hop star Dr Dre (pictured) and music producer Jimmy Iovine went through, it would be Apple’s biggest ever acquisition

album review
Arts and Entertainment
Paloma Faith is joining The Voice as a new coach

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Dowton Abbey has been pulling in 'telly tourists', who are visiting Highclere House in Berkshire

TV
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Patriot games: Vic Reeves featured in ‘Very British Problems’
TV review
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Isis profits from destruction of antiquities by selling relics to dealers - and then blowing up the buildings they come from to conceal the evidence of looting

    How Isis profits from destruction of antiquities

    Robert Fisk on the terrorist group's manipulation of the market to increase the price of artefacts
    Labour leadership: Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea

    'If we lose touch we’ll end up with two decades of the Tories'

    In an exclusive interview, Andy Burnham urges Jeremy Corbyn voters to think again in last-minute plea
    Tunisia fears its Arab Spring could be reversed as the new regime becomes as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor

    The Arab Spring reversed

    Tunisian protesters fear that a new law will whitewash corrupt businessmen and officials, but they are finding that the new regime is becoming as intolerant of dissent as its predecessor
    King Arthur: Legendary figure was real and lived most of his life in Strathclyde, academic claims

    Academic claims King Arthur was real - and reveals where he lived

    Dr Andrew Breeze says the legendary figure did exist – but was a general, not a king
    Who is Oliver Bonas and how has he captured middle-class hearts?

    Who is Oliver Bonas?

    It's the first high-street store to pay its staff the living wage, and it saw out the recession in style
    Earth has 'lost more than half its trees' since humans first started cutting them down

    Axe-wielding Man fells half the world’s trees – leaving us just 422 each

    However, the number of trees may be eight times higher than previously thought
    60 years of Scalextric: Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones

    60 years of Scalextric

    Model cars are now stuffed with as much tech as real ones
    Theme parks continue to draw in thrill-seekers despite the risks - so why are we so addicted?

    Why are we addicted to theme parks?

    Now that Banksy has unveiled his own dystopian version, Christopher Beanland considers the ups and downs of our endless quest for amusement
    Tourism in Iran: The country will soon be opening up again after years of isolation

    Iran is opening up again to tourists

    After years of isolation, Iran is reopening its embassies abroad. Soon, there'll be the chance for the adventurous to holiday there
    10 best PS4 games

    10 best PS4 games

    Can’t wait for the new round of blockbusters due out this autumn? We played through last year’s offering
    Transfer window: Ten things we learnt

    Ten things we learnt from the transfer window

    Record-breaking spending shows FFP restraint no longer applies
    Migrant crisis: UN official Philippe Douste-Blazy reveals the harrowing sights he encountered among refugees arriving on Lampedusa

    ‘Can we really just turn away?’

    Dead bodies, men drowning, women miscarrying – a senior UN figure on the horrors he has witnessed among migrants arriving on Lampedusa, and urges politicians not to underestimate our caring nature
    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger as Isis ravages centuries of history

    Nine of Syria and Iraq's 10 world heritage sites are in danger...

    ... and not just because of Isis vandalism
    Girl on a Plane: An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack

    Girl on a Plane

    An exclusive extract of the novelisation inspired by the 1970 Palestinian fighters hijack
    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    Why Frederick Forsyth's spying days could spell disaster for today's journalists

    The author of 'The Day of the Jackal' has revealed he spied for MI6 while a foreign correspondent