The xx Storm New York

by Roland Li

The New York Observer, December 10, 2009

On the frosty evening of Dec. 5, the line outside Webster Hall snaked its way along 11th Street, shivering in the season’s first snowfall. It proceeded, caterpillar-like, into the cavernous music venue, coalescing in front of the stage in anticipation of London’s the xx, the most scrutinized indie rock band of the past four months. Just after 8 p.m., the stage lights dropped dramatically and the 2,000 person crowd crammed against the stage, erupting in cheers as three silhouettes emerged. Guitarist Romy Madley Croft and bassist Oliver Sim filled the room with wordless vocal harmony, while percussionist Jamie Smith sampled beats.

It was the last stop in the band’s month-long American tour opening for fellow U.K. group Friendly Fires. Despite over a dozen shows in New York since August, the xx continues to sell out venues, each bigger than the last, capitalizing on blog hype, a Best New Music stamp from indie tastemaker Pitchfork, and the adoration of Michael Stipe of R.E.M., who saw them in Paris, and Courtney Love, who left them a gushing MySpace post.

Now comes the hard part.

Preserving the xx’s early success in the accelerated music industry is a balancing act: avoiding burnout, dodging backlash and most of all, keeping it together. Already, the relentless touring has taken a toll, with guitarist Baria Qureshi leaving the band on Nov. 11. The band first cited exhaustion, and later said they had “grown apart.” But the xx soldiered on as a three-piece, playing one of their largest shows in the U.K., before returning again to America.

“The xx seem to be here endlessly, which helps them get continued coverage in the blog world,” says Andy Hsueh, a marketing manager at Astralwerks, a record label. “We deal with mostly non-U.S. based bands, and one of the biggest obstacles we face is having the bands in market to tour the U.S.”

But the xx has benefited from supporting strong headliners. In the spring, they will open for Hot Chip, an Astralwerks band, hitting New York’s enormous Terminal 5 on April 22, with a capacity of 3,000. They’re also playing in the spring with the Swedish electronic pop group jj, another blogger favorite.

“In the end, it all comes down to the music, though,” Mr. Hsueh adds. “It’s a really great record.”


The first wave of hype broke stateside at the end of July, with the prominent indie blogbrooklynvegan posting tour dates—an astounding six New York shows in the first week of August alone, including an opening slot at the summer’s final South Street Seaport show, with Brooklyn’s School of Seven Bells headlining.

At the end of August, Pitchfork gave their debut album, XX, an 8.7, calling it “slow, furtive pop music, mostly about sex.” (The album means “20,” because all the members had turned 20 when it came out. The name of the band has no particular meaning, and was just born of Microsoft Word.)

During the CMJ Music Marathon in October, the xx was unofficially dubbed the band to see, with ballooning lines, sold-out shows and a hype machine that was furiously churning.

“Big hype. Bigger fizzle,” says Jeff Meltz, a blogger and photographer, although he later backtracks.

“They’re a good band, and I don’t want it to seem like me saying ‘they’ve gotten a lot of hype’ is a bad thing. It doesn’t have to be. It’s just proven in the last few years that it can be a real terror,” he says, citing the rise and fall of Clap Your Hands Say Yeah.

But the assumption that this band came out of nowhere—as the Pitchfork review put it, “fully formed and thoughtful”—is a misconception.

A couple days after the Webster Hall show in December, the band prepped for a photo shoot at the XL Recordings office in Soho.

Jamie Smith, the band’s percussionist and all-around tech-head, is shaggy-haired and clad from baseball cap to boots in the band’s signature black. He’s soft-spoken and thoughtful, and when handed a grease-flecked bag—”burger, fries, ketchup”—he’s just an ordinary kid. But his lunch might be the only ordinary part of his life now.

He tries to keep things in perspective.

“We didn’t have any expectations,” says Mr. Smith, noting that much of the hype came after the record was released.

The xx began as collaboration between Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, who have been inseparable their entire lives. They added the now departed Baria Qureshi, and then Mr. Smith, during their time at the Elliott School in South London, which roughly corresponds to America’s middle school.

But the school was not, despite alumni like Hot Chip, Burial and Four Tet, predominantly a place of musical genius.

“The kids who picked music were the kids who didn’t want to learn,” Mr. Smith says. It wasn’t the quality of the classes, but rather the open environment that allowed the xx to develop—they were free to tinker with instruments while most of the students goofed around.

An early track, “Blood Red Moon,” was posted on MySpace and caught the attention of the band’s label, Young Turks, an imprint of XL Recordings, which offered them rehearsal space, gigs and, most importantly, no pressure.

A couple years later, the xx recorded their debut album in a garage studio, with many of the songs written years before. Since they were near major intersections, they waited until nighttime to record, embracing the urban hush.

“Everything about London influenced us,” says Mr. Smith, who also produced the album.

Although Ms. Madley Croft and Mr. Sim’s yearning, double vocals inevitably characterize the band, the skeletal, spacious instrumentals also distinguish the xx from most contemporaries.

Mr. Smith decided to use samples, crate-digging for the perfect beats to supplement the sultry lyrics. He said he was influenced by the 1960s group Jazz Crusaders and RJDJ, a chameleon producer who is also signed to XL. British library labels, including KPM Music and Conroy Recorded Music Library, were also a big influence.

The xx have covered Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire” and Womack and Womack’s “Teadrops.” Their music has also been used in commercials for Cold Case and Law & Order, as well as in an episode of the show Lie to Me. The band recently finished a new track, which it submitted for inclusion in the third installment of the Twilight series. Mr. Smith admits that they’re fans, citing the similar appreciate for nighttime and the “hotness” of the main characters.

But unlike Hollywood’s vampires, the rest of the xx’s story is unwritten.

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