Finding The Balance Between Light and Dark: An interview with The xx’s Oliver Sim

THE XX, a once cripplingly-shy bunch of teenagers who ended up releasing a worldwide hit debut album, are now a bunch of somewhat-confident, late 20-somethings who have just released their third album – another worldwide hit. The English trio, comprised of Oliver SimRomy Madley-Croft and Jamie Smith have had to grow up quickly and in public, which is something hard for anyone to do – let alone these three who, at one stage, couldn’t even look into the audience they were playing in front of.

However, after the surprising success (to them) of their debut, xx, and the consequent follow up, Coexist, it’s no wonder at all that they’re much more confident now with their third album, I See You now out in the world. Between their relentless touring schedules, the gruelling creating of Coexist and personal tragedies in between, they’ve had to learn a lot about themselves, about each other and about the world. Having taken some time between finishing touring Coexist in 2014, starting to create I See You almost straight after, and now, they’ve gone their separate ways and come back home to each other. Smith, also known as Jamie xx, made his foray into the dance world with his critically acclaimed solo record, In ColourMadley-Croft went to song-writing camps to learn about the pop-hit machine in the US, grappled with personal grief after the death of her parents and cousin earlier in her life, and got engaged. Sim modelled for Dior Homme, and perhaps grew the most, coming to terms with the negative affects of partying and has recently celebrated one year being sober.

Last year, they made their triumphant return with new single, ‘On Hold’, and in January they released I See You. Since then, they’ve been touring the world, playing every major stage you could think of, and have been revisiting their love for performing. Having just been in the country for Splendour In The Grass, they’re set to make their return much quicker than we perhaps thought, with three special shows booked for January, 2018 at some of Australia’s most beautiful venues. Fitting really, for a truly beautiful record that is all about self-reckoning and coming out the other side. We chatted to Oliver Sim after a special show in Glasgow, one of their first own shows not on a festival in months to talk all about where they are now, lessons learned and what we can expect when they come back Down Under.

How does everything feel now, having the dust settled after the release of I See You? It’s been out for a few months now, how’s it going now? 

It feels good. We did a show tonight and it was a really good one. We’ve just been doing loads and loads of festivals recently, but this was our first own show for quite a while. It’s quite a different experience. When you’re playing festivals, not everyone knows who you are, and you’re kind of selling yourself. But playing our own show and having people singing along to our new songs, it was a really nice feeling. It was one of those confirming moments that the new songs have gone down well. It feels really good.

Has it been liberating in a way to be playing these shows at the moment with I See You out, being so different to the old songs? 

Yeah, it really has. Some of these songs on this record we wrote a few years ago, and I’m proud of the album and I wouldn’t change how we made it, but it was frustrating at times because we had these songs for quite a while. It’s been a long wait to be able to share these songs with people, but it’s been really good! Especially playing live. We’ve never really been able to make people dance before, until now, which is a really great feeling. Having these brighter moments as well, because in the past with xx and Coexist, they’re darker records. It’s nice to have these brighter moments to counteract that.

A bit of balance in the shows now.

Exactly.

Despite all of that, how has it been returning to the older songs to evoke those times and memories on stage? 

I think some of the songs have taken on different meanings for me. Like a song like ‘VCR’, we wrote when we were 15. It doesn’t make me cringe, but it’s just taken on a whole new meaning. It’s kind of like a snapshot of myself at 15. It’s nice.

That makes sense, over ten years later, still playing it live. 

With a lot of the songs from the first record, we’ve ended up just changing them because it’s a good way of not getting bored of our own music and it’s a way of staying creative. So, a lot of them have taken on new forms.

Absolutely. You spoke to the New York Times about how there’s a lot of ambition for the band now, compared to when you first started when it was rather unambitious. Do you still feel that ambition now? 

Definitely. That first record, when we put it out, we had no expectations. We kind of just fell into everything. Over time, we definitely feel more ambitious, and incredibly driven. There’s still plenty of places we’re yet to visit, so I definitely haven’t lost my energy in that regard.

You’re about to return to Australia for your biggest shows ever here, in some of our most beautiful venues. That’s pretty ambitious!

I’m really looking forward to that tour. We were there a month and a half ago for Splendour, and that was great! I didn’t know Australia could be that cold.

I don’t think Australians knew it could be that cold. 

[Laughs] It was pretty good, though. It’s a great festival and I got to see a lot of other bands play. But as I was saying, it’s been really great coming back and playing our own shows because at a festival you have to let go of a lot of control.

You were saying that putting these new shows together was a bit of a nightmare and there was a lot of new changes. Are you doing anything else for these Australian shows, or have you got what you’re doing down pat now? 

Month by month, the set is changing just because we’re playing so much. It’s a real release for us to be creative in our soundchecks, and we really don’t want to get bored of our own set, so our way of getting around that is changing it up. I don’t know where the show will be by January but I’m looking forward to bringing our full production because we love our live show, and we love the idea of continuity from how the album cover looks to our videos into everything really.

I actually saw you play at Splendour In The Grass, and it was my first time watching you. It was really odd because we’d just come from RL Grime to The xx which was definitely a change! I remember though, seeing how truly happy you all looked playing the new material like ‘On Hold’. How has it been on this journey from being so nervous and shy when you first started playing, to now where you’re actually enjoying it and having people see that you’re having fun on stage? 

It’s been a really long journey. The first couple of years of gigging when we were teenagers, it was physically painful to be up on stage. I could never even look up to enjoy it or see the people in the audience. I don’t know why we kept gigging, maybe we were more ambitious than we gave ourselves credit for, but over time I’ve learned to relax and enjoy the idea of performance. To be able to look up. I’ve always said my main love is writing songs and being in the studio, and performing was just something I had to do. But now, playing live is equally as important to me and I have just as much love for it as I do for writing.

It’s such a nice journey from the start to now, when you’re actually having fun. 

Yeah! Our friend Florence [Welch], from Florence & The Machine, she is a really good person to watch. I believe she’s one of the greatest performers in the world. She said to me that it’s basically about just enjoying yourself and trying not to live in your head too much while you’re up there. She’s been a really big inspiration for me.

Florence is a really great example of someone that completely lets go on stage and is completely present. How has that been for you to be able to be 100% present in your show and really allow yourself to be immersed in the experience now? 

It’s difficult, because when I look at Florence, she is someone that I believe was born to do that. She is so at ease up there, and that is just not who I am. It’s not in my nature. I’ve had to really work at it. Even still, every time before I go out on stage, there’s a voice in my head telling me, “It’s all going to go wrong. This is where it ends, everyone’s going to hate you.” But I have to just ignore that voice, and teach myself to really relax. I love it.

One thing I really love about your records is that with your songs, anyone is easily able to insert their own narrative into the story. It’s specific but not entirely explicit to a certain situation. Do you think that’s contributed to the emotional power in your performances, not just on stage but in the audience as well? 

I hope so! That’s one thing we actually considered and it’s been really purposeful that we’ve avoided. Gender, places, time… We’ve tried to just be as universal as possible so people can have that moment and that connection and be able to fit their own experiences into it. It’s still personal writing but that’s the main thing that we want from people listening to our music.

In shows such as tonight in Glasgow or festivals, do you feel that emotion up on stage? Can you feel that power? 

Yeah. What I like to do is really focus in on one person, because firstly it makes it a lot easier [laughs]. You kind of can’t fathom sometimes the thousands of people in front of you. If you focus in on one person, you can kind of get a reading from them throughout the show and it’s really special.

Has there been a moment over the past few months that’s really stood out to you, where it’s all really hit home? 

Yes, there’s been a few. I think Glastonbury, playing Glastonbury at the Pyramid stage was a really big moment. In a great way, I kind of felt like we didn’t belong up there, and it was a real novelty because the Pyramid stage is world-wide famous, and I’ve watched so many performances on home on TV of people I’ve loved playing on there. It was a really special moment, and a lot sunk in that day.

The xx return to Australia in January, 2018 supported by Kelela Earl Sweatshirt.

Sat 13 Jan | Sidney Myer Music Bowl, Melbourne, VIC (All Ages)
ticketmaster.com.au | Ph: 136 100

Wed 17 Jan | Riverstage, Brisbane, QLD (All Ages)
ticketmaster.com.au | Ph: 136 100

Sat 20 Jan | The Domain,Sydney, NSW (All Ages)
moshtix.com.au | Ph: 1300 438 849

I See You is out now.

Image: Laura Coulson

Words by Emma Jones

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Three-time uni dropout who just can’t stop telling people about this great new song she’s found.