How Pop Introverts the xx Ditched Minimalism on Glossy New LP
“When we first started, we didn’t really look like we wanted to be there,” the xx‘s Romy Madley Croft tells Rolling Stone. “Which is fair.”
Tight-lipped and clad entirely in black, the London electro-rock trio started out as an anomaly. On their 2009 self-titled debut, the primary school classmates turned indie stars took a defiantly low-key approach in a bombastic pop era dominated by Lady Gaga – enchanting listeners with sparse tendrils of post-punk guitars and vocal interplay that recalled the tempered sensuality of R&B greats like Sade and Aaliyah. Yet their minimalist approach yielded maximum results: The album won the Mercury Prize in 2010, and later landed at number 74 on Rolling Stone‘s “100 Best Debuts of All Time” list. Their dusky sophomore LP, 2012’s Coexist, would peak at Number One on the Billboard Alternative Albums Chart.
The xx’s third album, I See You, out Friday, is a glowing patchwork of U.K. garage, house and tropical rhythms, topped by big brass and bigger vocals. It’s a rather ambitious turn for a band of introverts – but the group is more than ready to punch up their intimate sound.
RS meets the band in the cozy basement studio of XL Recordings’ Manhattan headquarters, where guitarist and co-lead vocalist Madley Croft lounges alongside her bandmates. “It’s been a theme for us on this album – wanting to do things that were out of our comfort zone,” she says. Newly engaged to British designer (and band stylist) Hannah Marshall, Madley Croft believes their change in direction was reinforced by a push to take more risks – both personally and professionally. “We had gained a lot of confidence from touring Coexist,” she says. “We became stronger singers, just from playing a lot of shows, and… working on our shyness.”
The band’s DJ-producer Jamie Smith, better known as Jamie xx, sinks deep into the shelter of a red beanbag chair nearby. Not one to boast – much less raise his voice beyond a trace of a whisper – he’s still reeling from the success of his 2015 solo debut, In Colour, an arty dance-pop thesis that featured guests such as Four Tet, Young Thug and Popcaan (and, of course, his own bandmates in the xx). Written almost entirely during the band’s Coexist tour, the record was certified gold in the U.K. and nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Album at the 2016 Grammys. “It’s one of the stranger events I’ve been to,” Smith says of the Grammys ceremony. “Everyone just sort of leaves and comes back when they think they might win something. … I sat through the whole thing. [My] first time could’ve been the only time.”
With Smith on tour in support of his album,…