Great xxpectations: Jamie xx talks Coexist and the future of electronic music
Coexist is the second album from London three-piece The xx, combining the melancholic, minimalist production work of Jamie Smith with the intimate, spectral songwriting of Oliver Sim and Romy Madley. Their critically-lauded debut, xx, won the Mercury Prize in 2010, catapulting them into a sellout worldwide tour, and focusing the scrutiny of fans and journalists alike on the often shy-and-retiring band members.
Since xx, Jamie Smith (working under the moniker Jamie xx) has become an in-demand producer, remixing everyone from Radiohead to Adele, and releasing a seminal reworking of tracks from Gil Scott Heron's final album I'm New Here. Did his newfound status have an effect on Coexist – was there any tension between these two facets of his career? “Not really – I've tried to take a break from producing and DJing since we started recording Coexist,” says Smith. Softly-spoken and modest to a fault, Smith explains that the effect of working on so many remixes, and on his solo tracks, was simply to find more confidence in himself as a producer. As such, the recording of Coexist was very different to that of xx. In the early sessions for the first album, the band worked with Diplo and Kwes on certain tracks. Although that work didn't end up on the finished article, except as an influence, by the time the sessions for Coexist came around Smith felt ready to helm the recording sessions solo.
“The recording process for Coexist was a communal activity,” Smith explains. “It was just the three of us, locked in the studio for a year, with no-one else even in the building. Sometimes I would record Romy and Ollie separately, sometimes together. When you record two singers together using the same microphone, it gives a very different effect to recording them separately. So we had the chance to experiment on this album with different approaches and recording techniques.”
This hits on the element that is key to The xx's appeal – the lyrical and musical back-and-forth between Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim. According to previous interviews with Sim and Madley-Croft, the lyrics for xx were written separately and then collaged, with meaning and symbolism often emerging through the contradictions and coincidences within their writing. For Coexist, the pair experimented with writing together for the first time. Furthermore, particular songs feature a single voice – the heart-stopping Fiction, which features Sim on vocals, is a big departure for the band, but Sim artfully carries the tender, regret-filled lyrics on his own.
In the run-up to the release of Coexist, it has been mentioned in the press that the second album would be more influenced by 'club music.' While traces of house and other electronic forms can be heard on tracks like Try and the sublime Sunset, they are subtle, delicate traces rather than broad strokes. Smith was keen to avoid listening to anything that would influence the album over all else: “It moves so fast,” he explains. “The sound and style of the music that is popular right now will be very different to music that is popular next year. If I was listening to new electronic music while recording the album, it might have ended up sounding dated by the time it came out. Now the recording is over, I've been listening to some new stuff again.”
These electronic influences may well be fleshed out live – while touring xx, many of the songs underwent a process of evolution, with Smith creating a more sturdy, beat-based framework using an MPC drum machine. “I used the MPC in my live set up on our first tour, but not in the studio,” says Smith. “For this tour, I have a lot more stuff on stage – I have keyboards, drum pads, synthesisers. So there's a lot more for me to play with. In the studio, I still write beats using Logic.” His sonic pallette is understated, but strongly recognisable, from the reverb-drenched guitars that lend the band their atmospheric sense of space, to the delicate, muted kicks of tracks like Missing, or the steel drums on Reunion, a signature sound which appears on several other Jamie xx productions.
The title Coexist suggests a commentary on relationships, but also on humanity, finding a way to live in the world together. This seems very much to define the lyrical concerns of Sim and Madley-Croft. Why did the band choose the title and what does it mean to them? “We are not a political band, so for us the title really doesn't have anything to do with politics, or the state of the world,” Smith clarifies. “It's much more about our relationships with each other as friends, and as a band. We've known each other for so long, but we've had to find ways to coexist that complement each other. It's about relationships in a wider sense, too – the idea of sharing your life with someone, becoming a part of them. It's also got a lot to do with the artwork – we got some concept artwork for the album which was produced by mixing oil and water, and we found a quote about that which said something like: 'oil and water don't mix, they coexist.' That's where the title comes from. We liked the artwork so much that we have based a lot of the art and videos from the album on these visuals.”
Some of Jamie xx's solo material has been released on Young Turks / XL, the same label that initially gave The xx a home. Two EPs have also been released via Numbers, a musical collective and record label with deep roots in Glasgow. What was it that attracted Smith to Numbers? “I was looking around for a place to put my first EP, and I was aware of some of the artists on their label. I sent them a demo and they liked it, and since then I've played at their nights and we have become friends,” Smith explains. “I just really liked what they were putting out, and they throw really good parties, so it was a good fit.”
Smith talks of his growing confidence in his abilities as a producer, but in early interviews there was a strong impression that the band found dealing with press attention quite difficult. “I think we did find it quite daunting initially, but so much has changed since the first album,” Smith says. “We've all grown and changed as people, and speaking for myself, I can say that I have a lot more confidence in my abilities.”
Does he feel that his fingerprints as a producer are more visible on Coexist than they were on xx? “I think that the music we make as The xx is different to the music we could make separately,” says Smith. “We all like different things, and we all bring different influences to the table. Together, we make music that sounds like none of us, but also like all of us.”
The electronic influences which have always been a part of The xx's sound have now infiltrated the sonic architecture of many an indie and pop band – this is something Smith sees as inevitable, and to some degree welcome: “The majority of music you hear nowadays in the commercial pop charts is electronic,” he argues. “It has become the dominant sound, or genre. I think that because of this, it was inevitable that it would start to influence more traditional rock and pop music. I think now that's happened, it's here to stay – I don't think that influence is going anywhere.”
In terms of his own career, given that Jamie xx is at least as well-known as The xx now, is he ever tempted to go it alone? “The xx is my main focus – even in my solo work, I always use the 'xx' in my name,” he says loyally. “I have known Romy and Ollie for so long, and we have had such intense experiences together on tour and while making the albums, that I can't really imagine going it alone.”
This closeness, and the remarkable degree of intimacy that the band manage to capture and recreate in their music is the key to The xx's appeal. With Coexist, they have produced a piece of work which celebrates, laments and evokes moments of union and disunion between lovers, friends and opposites. In the twilit world of Jamie's production, Romy and Oliver explore every emotional texture of codependent relationships – it's a thrilling and deeply personal experience, an opportunity to peer inside the emotional lives of a three-piece who really do function as a symbiotic unit. Long may they continue to coexist.