Published Sep 25, 2012Two years since shooting into indie royalty, the XX find themselves exiting adolescence in a hectic flurry of public interest. You might expect the heady lifestyle to jump-start their serotonin levels, but after a pillow-soft debut, Coexist does what few might have predicted: tones things down. Not in an emotional sense, however. With typical elegance, the London, UK trio take the opportunity to address a few vital truths about being mopey, lovelorn youngsters here, namely that 1) getting dumped is a bitch and 2) sometimes getting over it isn't high on the list of priorities. This in mind, it's a record of sombre electronics and deep-house ruminations, and if their debut conveyed with light brushstrokes the ephemerality of the honeymoon period, then Coexist crosses the "everything's screwed" bridge in the moments shortly before the screwing stops. It's fair to say that these themes of keeping things fresh over time align neatly with the band's second-album difficulties: theirs is a blueprint that's permeated the UK's dance underground, not to mention artists like James Blake and the Weeknd, and certainly the scene has progressed since 2010. Coexist is far from a bad effort. Gentle sophisticates that the XX are, however, it's hardly surprising that the cutting edge got a little too sharp.
I read there were doubts about releasing more music as the XX. Was that a genuine concern?
Singer/guitarist Romy Madley Croft: We'd been touring so long and we hadn't made any music. When we came back to London, we were going to be like, "If music happens and if it feels like it's coming naturally, then of course we'll go with it. But if it feels forced, then who knows." It was just to say we're not going put out anything we're not sure of. But, luckily, when we came back, all that not writing for ages opened up and we started writing instantly, which felt good.
Was it scary, the possibility that this record wouldn't come naturally?
Yeah, it was. I tried not to think about it too much. In the end, it was different [than the debut]; Jamie [Smith, drums] took on a different role. He's been working with strangers and pop stars, so he'd gotten used to being his own judge of things. He had to remember to open up and work with the three of us. And that was good ― it was a good learning process of how to keep things balanced. That's what our band is: making sure it's an equal balance of all of us and all our tastes, and that we all love it equally.
Keeping in mind the songs' sparse, house-of-cards fragility, was losing a member more difficult for the XX than another group?
Yeah, and I think losing a member of us three would be the end of the band. But Baria [Qureshi, second guitarist/keyboardist] wasn't so much part of the creative process; she was part of the live process. When it came to it, obviously it was really sad, but it wasn't a dramatic effect; it didn't really harm us musically. Jamie just became more of an octopus. We sampled in each note of guitar that Baria played and he would play it individually as samples. The amount of equipment he plays on the back of the stage now has grown. Pianos, steel pans, CDJs, MPCs ― I feel like I should be doing more!
Even just in the two opening songs of Coexist, and also on the cover, there's a motif of light overcoming darkness. Is that a conscious theme?
We realized that light comes up a lot in things: lyrically, the artwork, even with the pictures we've put on our blog. And we always appreciate beautiful skies, sunsets and stuff, so it must be something that we are quite passionate about. I like the idea of putting emotions with physical things, with elements and stuff like that. I guess they're a bit romantic.
Are you writing about different experiences than those found on the debut?
Yeah, it's just a continuation of our lives. It's all still based upon people in our lives. That's very vague, sorry.
It's difficult to talk about?
Well, it's like, I really like Fleetwood Mac. And Stevie Nicks, if she was to write a book about what she was going through when she wrote every song, we'd read it and be like, "Eugh, well that's not what it means to me. I know too much now.' That's why, as a fan of music, I don't want to tell anyone.
Someone explains a joke and it's not funny the next time you hear it.
Is there anything you fear as a songwriter?
I'm not too into telling a story word for word; I like to make it fairly vague so people can fit their interpretations to it. And that kind of came from when we wrote the songs, often the people in the audience could've been who they were written about. We made them slightly more cryptic so it was easier to sing in front of them. I'm quite open to trying things though. I guess mainly it's more romantic themed. I don't feel the need to sing about anything political.
Is Coexist an ambitious record?
Well, it was an adventure. We didn't set ourselves any boundaries; we went in and had some fun, explored different things. And with "Swept Away," it had about 15 different versions and went round and round with this drum machine and tried out different stuff. It ended up being a five-minute song; we realized it's influenced by house music and needed that repetition.
Listening to the record, I was thinking about the band's aesthetic ― look, sound, album art, even the song titles and moniker ― and it all ties together rather nicely: minimal, restrained and shy. But doesn't that clash with the emotionally charged lyrics?
The music is very emotionally bare; it's not emotionally minimal, but everything else around it is a bit more minimal. But it's like, with us all wearing black, it's got to the point where all I own is black and I don't even think about it any more. And it's the same with the guys. Writing the songs all comes from playing live, so it's one guitar, bass, keyboards, drums and voice. And we never thought we could need more, because that's all we could play live. The minimalism came from that; qe didn't sit down and think, "minimal, minimal, minimal." It just kind of happened.
The songs have a restrained type of romance, which seems natural but also tiny and peculiar. But then the band make grand gestures, like releasing "Open Eyes" on Christmas Day last year or Oliver requesting that the lights be turned up during a recent London show so that he could take a picture. Has an aloof image of the band been portrayed when that's not really the case?
Yes, that's something we're aware of now. A lot through shyness and a lot just it being very new to us, I think we project a cold, sort of... I mean, we haven't done ourselves any favours by not smiling in photos, but it's quite difficult to know what to do when someone sticks a camera in your face. I think we're actually quite happy, warm, chilled-out people. To take that photo onstage or put up a song on Christmas Day feels like the type of people we are. I think on this album, I'd like to portray that side of us ― that we're not machines.
You've said you were surprised that teenagers could get into your music. Why?
I guess because it was only after quite a long time that we had people our age and younger at the shows. What is pop music now is pretty brash. I love Rihanna, I love Beyoncé and I appreciate it, but it's not what we make. It's a different thing; it's subtle. Maybe it is underestimating younger people's tastes.
Does it surprise you, or seem odd, that many the XX fans are into big guitar bands as well?
I think that's cool. I grew up listening to Queens of the Stone Age and Yeah Yeah Yeahs and much heavier guitar rock, and so did Oliver [Sim] ― Placebo and stuff like that. Over time, I just stopped playing with distortion. I appreciate a lot of music, so I like to think that people that like our music would feel that way too.
Your music appeals to both young and older people. Do you think older fans are nostalgic for a time when they were experiencing what the songs are about?
Yeah. There was a guy in Amsterdam who told us that "Infinity" reminded him of losing his virginity, and this was a 50-year-old guy. We were like, [pulls face and laughs]. That was his nostalgic feeling of young love and confusion.