The xx find undiscovered shades of grey

The xx’s sophomore LP, <em>Coexist</em>, is a dark and moody affair, but it’s not without its splashes of sunshine

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      As sensitive and melancholy as he’s often portrayed in the media, Oliver Sim is also a trouper. This gradually becomes evident when the Georgia Straight tracks him down in his hometown of London, England.

      When the xx singer and bassist picks up his cellphone, the first thing you hear is the roar of traffic and the wailing sirens of passing police cars. If the spotty connection is any indication, there also seems to be a minor hurricane in the vicinity.

      Sim has had a busy day; he notes that he’s just left band rehearsal, an all-day session that’s part of the preparation for the xx’s upcoming U.S. tour. But as thoughtful and gracious as he comes across, it seems something is wrong, and not just because a good third of what he says is completely unintelligible. This has nothing to do with his answers; it’s more that he’s seemingly standing at the mouth of the world’s largest wind tunnel, no doubt in the pelting rain.

      Asked three quarters of the way through the interview if everything is all right, Sim finally confesses that it’s not.

      “I’m really sorry about this,” he replies. “It’s raining right now and very windy. And I’m really freezing. But we can keep going.”

      On the strength of two hit albums, 2009’s xx and last year’s Coexist, Sim is in a great place right now, as miserable as he is at the moment. The band—which includes singer Romy Madley Croft and DJ-producer Jamie Smith—has enjoyed a rapid rise since slinking onto the international music scene three years ago.

      Seemingly coming out of nowhere, xx turned out to be one of the most unlikely hits since the White Stripes’ White Blood Cells back at the turn of the last decade. All muted synths, fluttery percussion, and minimalist-minded musings on love and love lost, the album somehow waltzed away with the Mercury Prize for 2010, its songs getting invaluable prime-time exposure everywhere from NBC’s broadcast of the last Winter Olympic Games to the Greek version of Next Top Model.

      No one was more surprised at xx’s success than the three musicians who made it.

      “My expectations were so low going into this—we didn’t have any huge aspirations to be on-stage performing even,” Sim admits. “That only came about because we were sort of forced on-stage as a way to get our music out there. I don’t know what I was expecting, or what I was dreaming about the xx accomplishing. I do know that in my wildest dreams, it wasn’t this.”

      What has him doubly amazed is that the xx has shown no sign of losing momentum with Coexist. The band’s sophomore outing has led to high-profile slots at this year’s edition of Coachella, universally positive reviews, and sold-out shows at North American soft-seaters like Vancouver’s Orpheum. It’s also turned Smith, Sim, and Croft into the favourite dream collaborators of other musicians, with up-and-comers like Australian DJ Flume frequently putting the xx right at the top of acts they would die to work with.

      The band’s members went into Coexist determined to re-create the vibe of their debut, not necessarily sonically, but more in the way that the songs were recorded. Sim reveals that the second release started causing them stress even before they’d finished promoting the first album.

      “I started to get a bit frightened while we were doing our last tour for xx,” the bassist says. “I remember a journalist starting an interview with a huge warning about making a second record when the first has been successful. He told me the pressure would be enormous, and that we’d be constantly second-guessing ourselves—whether we should stay true to our sound, or consciously try do something drastically different. He basically told me that the process was going to be torture.”

      xx came together after-hours in a tiny recording space in the offices of the Beggars Banquet record label, where Sim and his bandmates reshaped and tweaked songs that they’d written as teenagers. Success enabled them to set up their own small studio for Coexist. The goal was then to shut out not only their self-doubting inner voices, but also the outside world. Looking back, Sim figures that was accomplished, with Coexist—released on the Beggars boutique label Young Turks—serving up more of what made the xx a critical and commercial favourite. Once again, dark-and-moody is the primary colour scheme, with the band building atmosphere the low-key way, whether through the distant-thunder percussion rumbles in “Missing” or the subterranean guitar washes in “Try”. There are splashes of sunshine if you look hard enough—check out the tropicália-tinted drums in “Reunion”—but the xx mostly seems determined to imbue each song with 50 previously undiscovered shades of grey.

      Sim considers himself lucky that he and his bandmates were able to do this with zero outside interference.

      “We had the rarest of rare, which I appreciate now and realize now that I’ve spoken to other people,” he says. “Everyone that we work with basically left us alone and let us be. There was no pressure to play anything for anyone and no time limitations put upon us. It was us and only us. It was really nice to get back to that intimate state, making music purely for the love of making music. We kept that up for a year.”

      That process wasn’t completely hiccup-free. As has been noted in past features, the xx is one of those rare bands where the members practically share the same brain, a result of Sim and Croft having known each other since they were babies, with Smith coming into their lives at age 11. The problem with the band being like family, the bassist acknowledges, is that it’s possible to convince yourself that there’s no need for outside feedback.

      “I think that maybe we took things too far, where we kind of lost perspective,” Sim offers while breaking down the creation of Coexist. “Eventually, when we did bring people into the studio from Young Turks, they didn’t really need to say anything. With just the three of us, it was like we didn’t know what was good anymore. We were going around and around with the songs. With the first record, we were playing live and getting feedback—this one, we were in the studio pretty much 24 hours a day. I think the next time, we’ll make sure that doesn’t happen.”

      Actually, given the final results, maybe they should. As cold as he is on this day, Sim—like his bandmates—couldn’t be much hotter.

      The xx plays the Queen Elizabeth Theatre on Friday (May 24).

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