With the success of their second album Coexist the xx have solidified themselves as one of the most original and celebrated bands in the UK. Meanwhile, percussionist / producer Jamie Smith enjoys a healthy solo career as a producer in his own right.
After the warm reception to his collaborative album with Gil Scott Heron, We’re New Here, the acclaimed ‘Far Nearer’ and a litany of remixes, this year will see a new, and as yet untitled, EP from Smith, which he touches upon in our quick chat ahead of his DJ set at Young Turks’ showcase at WMC in Miami this Friday. First things first though: the xx have a very busy summer ahead. The band’s noted ability to inject their live shows with a tangible sense of gravitas will be put to the test at Night + Day – their very own festival split over Berlin and Lisbon in May and London in June – and in their residency at the Manchester International Festival in July. Though keen to preserve elements of surprise about the residency until the event begins, the xx will be playing no less than 18 shows in different, secret locations within Manchester, further testing the band’s ability to utilise the space and form of their immediate surroundings to present their live show as a malleable yet deeply emotive experience.
How are you Jamie?
“Yeah I’m good, really happy to be back in London.”
The xx are just back from spending some time in the USA, right?
“Yeah, We’ve just come back from being on tour in the States – Texas, Florida, going to a lot of weird little places that bands don’t usually go. It was really great for us.”
You’ve got your first festival Night + Day beginning this summer. What is your role with the festival? Is it strictly curatorial, or are you very hands on with the full organisation of it?
“Yeah we’re doing pretty much everything – from the line-up and location right down to what smaller events will be going on during the festival onsite, the staging, the layout, how everything looks…. we basically get to control every little aspect of it, which is pretty fun. I mean, we have other people putting our ideas into practise on ground level, but it’s very much the xx’s festival, y’know? It’s nice to be the boss for once.”
What made you decide to host a festival in the first place?
“Well, we’ve played a lot of festivals now but we rarely get to have a proper festival experience with it. It’s often just – get there, play, leave, then onto the next one. I mean don’t get me wrong. We’ve been to festivals before as punters and loved it – like Glastonbury – but as a performer it’s always a bit rushed and we don’t get to get into the vibe of it, or we don’t really ‘get’ what the festival is trying to do, so we decided the best way to have this experience is just to do it ourselves.”
How did you go about curating the line-up for Night + Day?
“Everyone who’s playing Night + Day are either people we know and love, having met along our own path as a band, or people that we feel will fit really well with those we’re already familiar with. Location wise, we wanted to have a festival experience that wasn’t your average, three day-long, trekking through muddy fields to see bands you’re not really that fussed about vibe. Night + Day is very weighted on the atmosphere. Hopefully the people who will come to Night + Day will be fans of ours, and will end up fans of who we’ve selected to play.”
It’s interesting that you’ve chosen to host Night + Day in three different cities – London, Berlin and Lisbon. Why do so? What is it about Berlin and Lisbon that appealed to you?
“Well having it be in more than one place was our initial idea. It was kind of the big sell of it. I wanted it to be in more than one place in Europe so that people from all over could travel to somewhere near them, and not have to just miss out because everything is always in London – or at least it’s seen to be that way. Part of the process was down to the fact that we always have an amazing time in Berlin and the fans are great, but with Lisbon it was more that people don’t really do that much in Portugal music wise. Bands don’t go there too often but whenever we’ve gone to Lisbon the response has been really great.”
What are the locations themselves like?
“In Berlin it’s hosted in an abandoned amusement park. All the rides are still there but nothing’s open, so it’s quite an eerie place to be. It’s been used for film sets before but never for a music event, so it’ll definitely be a first for us. In Lisbon it’s hosted in a big castle right on the coast. It’s magical, a really beautiful place, and a totally different vibe from Berlin. I guess we’re not trying to make it a festival so much. We’re trying not to use the word ‘festival’ at all really. Its more of an experience. One day, start to finish, quite laid back, but with lots of quality people to see. If it’s successful I’d hope that we can do it again and again.”
The setting seem to be chosen for their drama and atmosphere primarily. I’ve heard that the xx only play at night, is that true?
“Yeah, we actually have it in our contract that we have to play either at sunset or after dark, ha.”
That seems very apt. Is this an attitude towards staging live performances that will carry through to the presentation of Night + Day?
“I’d like to think we as a band are pretty attuned to that sort of thing – how our music comes across to people in a live setting – so it’s definitely going to inform how we’re gonna do Night + Day and how the line-up will be planned out. You’ll have to wait and see how though…”
On a different note for upcoming live shows, the xx are playing 18 performances for the Manchester International Festival this summer. How did that come to be?
“Well our manager and a few guys from the label went to Manchester International Festival last year for the Bjork show and they just said it was all amazing, so we got in touch with the organisers and they were keen to have us. They actually have a lot of grants and investors for M.I.F. so they’ve got room to do lots of amazing things, and the residency sounded brilliant to us; the idea that the surroundings change each time, and how the music relates to the surroundings informs your experience of the live show. It seems very meticulously curated and that appeals to us as a band. The performance for us is really important.”
You definitely seem, to paraphrase you, very attuned to the performative element of your live shows. How do you feel your new tour will demonstrate a growth in the band in this respect?
“From touring the last album we realised that we have to constantly re-touch and add to our live show to stay creative. We’re always doing new sound checks and practising, trying to figure out ways to re-work our songs so that there’s elements of surprise and so on. Its constantly changing, so hopefully if someone comes to see us twice in a year they’ll see a quite different set each time. On the visual side of things we’re also working out how to step it up again from the last tour. We’ve got Coachella coming up and a bunch of other really big festival slots too, so it’s quite a pressure to do well. We played at Coachella for the first time a few years ago to the most people we’d ever played to at the time, and it was very, very scary, but also really life-affirming.”
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How have things been developing this past year musically too, for yourself as a producer and for the band?
“In terms of my own production work I’m working with a few pop artists and the moment that I can’t name as of yet, and I’m thinking that it’ll form an EP, but I cant really call it until it’s nearly finished for me. I’m also getting ready to get back on the DJ circuit more what with all the summer festivals, so I’m working out how to go about that visually as well to keep it interesting.”
I’ve always found it to your credit that your solo works runs at a great parallel to the xx’s output. They compliment each other well, rather than sound like an individual breaking away from a band in bursts.
“I think they run a parallel very naturally because working in a band and working as a solo producer are two totally different experiences, so one can’t really overlap the other at any point for me. I always just want to make music that sounds beautiful, but also music that makes you want to dance. Spending years and years going to clubs and raves you cant help but be inspired in that way.”
How do you feel the reception to the xx has changed from the debut to Coexist? Have you noticed a change in fans and what they say about the music?
“After the first album blew up we kind of collectively ducked out of what everyone was saying about our music, because I don’t think that’s very healthy for us as a band. Saying that though we were very clued in on how fans were reacting to us live, especially on the last tour. It was just really nice to meet fans. Mega-fans, even. People who’d queue for hours for a show and things like that. It’s quite surreal. We’d never had that before and it felt like a proper step up in terms of our fans’ expectations of us. I was quite surprised by how many people I’d spoken to or had reached out to us saying that they were pleased that the album was more stripped back, and in a strange way less immediately accessible than the first.”
Do you feel in yourself that Coexist is less accessible – and is that a good thing?
“When we recorded the album we didn’t consider the public reception too much until right at the end when we had to pick singles. That was quite telling for us. I found it really hard. I don’t think the album as a story really lends to singles, but strangely enough people have liked the album all the more for it. For not just trying to do a more pop version of the debut. One of my favourite parts of writing an album is the sequencing and how the vibe of the album is built up, arranging tracks in an order that tells a story, so it takes you on a journey somewhere you otherwise can’t reach.”
Telling a story is the key I feel. One of my favourite quotes about electronic music is from Bjork: “If there’s no soul in electronic music, it’s because nobody put it there.”
“I really like that quote. I like that sentiment a lot. I know of a lot of electronic music with real soul but then on the other hand, I think a lot of popular electronic music is pretty soulless. All the European house, Ibiza influenced type stuff that’s at the top of the charts, I’m getting very, very bored of it all now. In a funny way as well it’s replacing hip-hop in the charts, which I find interesting.”
Yeah, shifts in how the charts latch onto underground music is always a strange one. It usually needs taken with a pinch of salt, in my opinion. In that case, what have you been listening to lately? What’s been inspiring your new production work?
“Well I just got home about a week or two ago and its been great to not only go home and listen to all my records again but to have a chance and go out and buy records too. I bought loads while I was on tour as well, mostly picking up old records and a lot of African music. I’ve been enjoying the melodies and how different the song structuring process is, and especially how danceable it is. I was speaking to Kieran Hebden a while ago and he was recommending me a lot of records in that vein too.”
Cool. Do you think we’ll see an African influence in your forthcoming EP then?
“Oh yeah, I feel like I’ve been absorbing a lot of that production wise. All the records that I collect work their way into the music that I make in some way or another, but I think in terms of the African influence it’s becoming more visible.”