The xx were a rising young, Mercury Prize-winning indie rock band. After nearly three fast years on and off the road they had one thing left to do: move out and grow up. It's easy to forget that the London trio were still teens when this thing started, crafting whispery broodings on love won and lost, amid sounds passionate and achingly minimal. When they finally got home, the xx had catching up to do.
“The first week back, we all moved out of our parents' homes,” says singer-bassist Oliver Sim, who, like the others, is now 23. “It was something we had to do really fast, like taking a Band-Aid off. I was living with my dad and I loved it. But I could totally imagine that if I didn't move out quickly, I would end up staying there well into my 30s.”
What followed then was a year of mostly not performing and definitely not recording what would become Coexist, the followup to 2009's xx. Sim and singer-guitarist Romy Madley Croft retreated to some kind of normal life, reconnecting with friends, going to clubs and the cinema, while multi-instrumentalist Jamie Smith veered into another career as producer, remixer and international DJ.
“We kind of missed some of that growing up period, so that year meant a lot,” says Smith, who believes the time away from the xx fed into the sounds to come. “Music is basically our lives. I'm not saying we're cocky or anything. We still have a lot of doubts. It was definitely nicer to have the feeling that we knew a bit more. The first one was pretty naively made.”
The xx finally reemerged this month with Coexist, and are back in Los Angeles tonight at the Hollywood Palladium, and tomorrow at Hollywood Forever Cemetery . The new music continues the band's quiet obsessions with devotion and heartbreak. It's not a huge departure from the debut, but counts as a refinement and a deepening.
Coexist begins with “Angels,” with a delicate echo and yearning melody, accompanying the sound of Croft's halting, infatuated voice. “Light reflects from your shadow / it's more than I thought could exist,” she begins, slipping into a mantra of “Being in love with you as I am, being in love with you as I am . . .”
The messages are simple and eternal, but it's the delivery that carries weight. Voices are afloat within Smith's waves of understated acoustic/electronic sound, undulating with emotion and hurt without ever shouting its presence. The xx remain unafraid of empty spaces, and the music will suddenly halt, like a gasping for breath.
There was no grand mission plan for Coexist beyond continuing what they had already done, though an early comment from Smith in an interview suggested the album would be club-influenced. It was absolutely true and utterly misleading. The result is more about the tempo than the volume.
“I didn't want it to be a club [album] with the xx on it,” Smith explains. “I wanted it to be our sound with the juxtaposition of that element, which we'd all become familiar with in the last year. We had time to have fun and go to parties and me run around as a DJ, so it obviously was going to make its way into the record just because the record is about the last year of our lives.”
They spent six months writing, before Smith found an empty London apartment and set up speakers and recording equipment, putting curtains around the walls, to begin to piece the tracks together. The trio spent another six months recording there, usually seven days a week. The isolation and small space was necessary.
“I've done some stuff the year before in big studios, and a lot of people were milling about — people who will get you a sandwich if you're hungry. It's just not how we work. When it's just the three of us, we can share everything and tell each other when something's shit.”
Sim affectionately called their studio “the dungeon,” explaining, “It's always going to get intense, just three people in one room for 15 hours a day.”
At just under 38 minutes, Coexist captures a mood and holds you there, the kind of album you can keep on endless repeat while tearfully waiting for the phone to ring. All those nights in the London clubs can be felt within these grooves, but any new tempos that have invaded their sound remain subservient to longing and romance.
The voices have matured and there is a bit steel drum on “Reunion” played by Smith, using a kid's instrument he found in Atlanta. “Jamie is one of those really annoying people who can pick up an instrument and just start playing it very well,” Sim says. “It's impressive to see.”
What made the experience different from their earliest days was knowing that an audience was now out there waiting to hear the results. “I was getting a complex on the last tour thinking about it,” says Sim, “especially thinking about writing lyrics.” And Smith admits to “a small amount of wrestling. We hadn't really been in a studio together for three years, so it was just getting to terms with our roles.”
Smith's role was perhaps the most fluid, particularly since becoming an in-demand producer to work (and re-work) other artists. His bold and extensive remixing of Gil-Scott Heron's final album, I'm New Here, into a forward-looking collaboration called We're New Here drew critical acclaim, while his travels as a DJ gave him a public profile entirely separate from the xx. But when it came time to make Coexist, his loyalties were clear.
“This is really what I do, and everything else outside is something I'm lucky enough to do because of the xx,” says Smith. “It's really fun and exciting, but it's nowhere near as gratifying as everything that we do together.”