Jamie xx - The sounds of a reluctant superstar DJ
He's won the Mercury Prize and worked with Gil Scott-Heron and Adele. Now Jamie xx is finally facing up to fame, says Morgan Durno
Friday 05 August 2011
Finding yourself at the forefront of the British dance music scene can prove rather daunting, especially if you're as shy as Jamie xx. It seems like just about everyone wants a piece of the 23-year-old producer and remix artist. "I've just got a message from Thom Yorke," whimpers a third of last year's Mercury Music prize-winning outfit The xx, as he bashfully glances down at his phone. As it transpires, Jamie xx's (or Jamie Smith's) remix of Radiohead's "Bloom" has just been mastered, and it's a remix which is due to appear on the internationally renowned band's next album.
And Radiohead haven't been the only musical heavyweights desperate to get their hands on his distinctive post-dubstep treatment; since going solo less than a year ago he has worked on tracks for the likes of Adele, Jack Peñate, Florence and The Machine, and Canadian rap giant Drake. If all this wasn't enough for the nervous young man responsible for The xx's beats and production, his ever-burgeoning solo efforts reached a peak with a reprise of the Gil Scott-Heron album I'm New Here; a stunning venture which earned him a joint album credit with the American godfather of hip-hop, just months before he died earlier this year.
In the past two weeks the South-west Londoner has travelled extensively, playing his trademark broken dubstep beats, funky rhythms and spaced out melodies in DJ sets from Singapore and Tokyo, to Montreal and New York, but it's in East London's humble Hackney Wick we meet today.
We're in the studio of the visual artist Davide Quayola where the pair are working on their upcoming collaborative performance Structures. It's the debut joint project from RizLab, an organisation which aims to bring together the most innovative artists to create new and ground-breaking material.
In a one-off live experience at The Classic Car Club in London's Old Street, the producer and DJ will debut tracks from his forthcoming solo EP while digital artist Quayola works alongside him, interpreting the music visually and screening it in real time onto three giant HD screens. Guests will be treated to a four-hour DJ set amid an all-encompassing cinematic show of flowing computer-generated artwork.
Smith first became interested in Quayola, a London-based artist whose work encompasses photography, geometry, time-based digital sculptures and immersive audiovisual installations, when he saw one of his projects earlier this year in Paris. Since then, together with artists Abstract Birds, Quayola has finished creating Partitura, software which can both interpret sounds and transform them into visuals inspired by the geographic artwork of Kandinsky, Paul Klee and Oscar Fischinger.
The digital artist talks freely about the inaugural RizLab project which aims to create the ultimate in music experiences by bringing togethre progressive artists and pushing creative boundaries. "I'm really looking forward to finally seeing it, to seeing your music," he chirps gesturing towards his awkward musical collaborator, who nods sheepishly.
It seems that the only non-singing third of the indie buzz band The xx doubles up as the only non-talking half of this RizLab project, but the producer eventually opens up on the subject. "At four hours, it will be the longest DJ set I've ever done", he says.
The xx producer also describes the awe of discovering Quayola's work in Paris. "I could really see how this could be a totally immersive experience," he murmurs with discreet enthusiasm.
Likewise, Quayola is a fan of Jamie xx's. He confesses that it was his girlfriend who first got him into The xx, but adds, "It would have been difficult not to have discovered Jamie's music over the past couple of years."
He's right. As well as his and The xx's records receiving airplay all over the radio, there's hardly a BBC montage on television that hasn't featured The xx's "Intro". But as the biggest artists in the industry clamour for his personal hallmark the reputation of this producer-of-the-moment is quickly exceeding the fame of his band. After walking off with the Mercury Music Prize for The xx's self-titled debut, Jamie got to work on Scott-Heron's album of remixes. And as the buzz surrounding the award-winning indie band died down, the Jamie xx hype began to reverberate.
Yet the man himself hardly exudes the confidence instilled by a string of critically acclaimed records. "Every time you do a release it sort of stamps you with this thing, you feel like the next thing you do might just be worthless."
It seems that the huge amount of pressure that accrues when everything you touch turns to gold is taking its toll on the hottest DJ in town. How does an artist maintain creative momentum in the wake of a success that has come relatively quickly? "Making music that you love takes longer and longer in-between every release because each time you're trying to progress," he admits.
Though he "tries not to think about it", he shares the mounting burden of anticipation surrounding the sophomore album from The xx with his fellow band members, Rommy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim. "We are all very similar people," he explains. Familiarity is important to the band. The sole barrier preventing the recording of their follow-up album (already written) is the sourcing of a studio in which they'll all feel at home. They used to record in Jamie's bedroom.
Still, success has, to an extent, brought Jamie out of his shell. "It's definitely changed me. I've gained more confidence, I've had to," confesses the introverted DJ. Yet, his social profile remains in stark contrast to the buzz he's generating. "I've been forced to meet a lot more people than I ever would have liked to meet," he declares, with startling sincerity.
Garnering a reputation as the producer-of-the-moment has lured many others out from the shadows and into a spotlight that they've gone on to embrace. The likes of Mark Ronson, Pharrell Williams, Timbaland and Calvin Harris, have all gone on to become more famous than the artists they produced. But finding himself the UK's hottest commodity seems to have caught Jamie xx like a rabbit in the headlights.
Perhaps the decision to swap Smith for xx when marketing his solo work was intended to manufacture a ferocious persona more capable of thriving in the spotlight. If this was the case, it hasn't really worked. His refreshing lack of ego and insistence on sticking to what he's good at, though, points to a character that is unlikely to fall prey to unashamed over-exposure. And crucially, this might ensure him a degree of longevity in the ever fickle industry of music production. Win one of two pairs of weekend passes to Bestival with RizLab Win one of two pairs of weekend passes to Bestival with RizLab
Perhaps the fact that the only one not buying into the Jamie xx hype is Jamie Smith himself will be what keeps the producer's head above water and ultimately save the man-of-the-moment from disappearing in the waves of his own success.
Jamie xx and Quayola's RizLab project 'Structures' will be performed live at the Classic Car Club, London EC1, on Thursday. Sign up for free tickets and see exclusive Jamie and Quayola videos at www.rizlab.co.uk. Jamie xx plays Field Day, Victoria Park, London, tomorrow
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