Interview: The xx’s Oliver Sim on their new album, 'I See You'.
Up until late last year, The xx camp was entirely radio silent. One third of the band, Jamie Smith, had explored a solo endeavour in 2016 through the release of his own album, ‘In Colour’, but the group was by no means any less together, with Oliver Sim and Romy Madley Croft, both contributing towards the album with their signature vocals.
Now, the release of 'I See You’ - out today - marks an important landmark in the British group’s career. Jamie Smith himself describes the new album as “triumphant and celebratory,” a sentiment we can’t help but agree with - listen to album-opener ‘Dangerous’ and you’ll agree. The album is in a similar vein, but at the same time in stark contrast to their previous outputs.
Jamie’s distinctive production and use of samples (Hall & Oates on ‘On Hold’, David Lang on ‘Lips’) works well amongst the newfound collaborative style of Oliver and Romy’s writing - as Oliver explained to us, “It’s a lot more conversational, it’s more two sides of one story, as opposed to two stories fitting with one another.”
Jamie sums up the record well by saying: “It’s about seeing reflections of yourself in other people. It’s basically us understanding each other better. Being pals again. We went through lots of ways of saying that and 'I See You' seemed the best... I never think about people watching or the audience in any way, really.”
We spoke to the ever lovely Oliver Sim over the phone whilst the band were in Melbourne recently on a promo trip - about the transformation the group took during the creation of ‘I See You’, the sexiness of danger, and the best way to express love…
COUP DE MAIN: When we first ever interviewed you in New Zealand back in 2010, you did a photo diary for us using a disposable camera. It's been a while... so, the most important question for us is, of course, when are you going to return to New Zealand to play a show for us?
OLIVER: Oh yeah, I remember that! It was with Laneway Festival! I think next year might be-- like mid next year might be on the cards, but I’m not entirely sure to be honest. I’m slightly taking every day by day, but I would love to come back. I think our last trip there we were literally there for about 12 hours, so it was one of the shortest trips we’ve ever done. It would be great to come back.
CDM: ‘I See You’ is truly incredible - I haven’t stopped listening to it over the past few days. It’s like a mixture of completely what I wanted your third album to sound like, but something I could never have imagined from you guys.
OLIVER: Thank you very, very much! I think this is why I normally don’t love interviews... but just speaking to people that have heard the record that aren’t your Mum and Dad, or someone that have worked on it-- so thank you.
CDM: ‘Dangerous’ has a total triumphant sound from the outset - it’s an amazing way to start a record. In it, you sing, “If it all falls down / You’ll have been my favourite mistake.” Do you think a sense of danger in a relationship is almost addictive?
OLIVER: Ooohhh. A sense of danger definitely can be, like, in general. I think ‘Dangerous’ in general is just-- in the past it’s been a lot of the smaller gestures being painted out to be grand things - like someone just moving their hand. This is definitely a lot more... there’s a lot of doing, rather than just thinking, I suppose.
CDM: Why do you think humans are so drawn to danger?
OLIVER: I suppose it’s a lot more sexy than kind of the slow and sensible <laughs> - and it’s just real.
CDM: In ‘Say Something Loving’, you contemplate the feeling of love itself, saying, “I need a reminder - the feeling’s escaped me.” Love can be expressed in a number of different ways, and different people find certain things an expression of love (saying something, an act of kindness, noticing small things). In your world, what’s the best way to convey love?
OLIVER: I think the best way is probably playing the long-game, and actually just being there for a long period, for the future, opposed to fleeting. A lot of the writing on this album has come from a place of experience, and I’ve maybe realised moments of infatuation that were very short but were very intense weren’t necessarily love, so I think really just them being there is the grandest gesture of love.
CDM: ‘Performance’ is a really interesting song - how much of life do you think is a performance? Do you think that humans are always performing a version of themselves?
OLIVER: Yeah. I don’t necessarily think it’s a bad thing to have your masks, a lot of people find confidence in it. Not everyone wants to bear all of their insecurities, rightfully so, but I think this album ‘I See You’, even calling it ‘I See You’, is about vulnerability and being able to show it, or being able to see yourself through someone else’s eyes. I think that’s a great thing in friendship - ‘I See You’, within our friendship is about maybe being down on yourself and a friend just wishing you could see yourself through their eyes, it’s a lot of reassurance in ‘I See You’, which I like.
CDM: Did your writing process between you, Romy, and Jamie change at all for this album?
OLIVER: Yeah, very much. Me and Romy are very collaborative now. In the past what we had done was almost collage, she would write from home and I would write from home, if something happened to fit we’d work it into each other. Whereas now it’s a lot of-- although we still sometimes work like that, but it’s a lot of just sitting in a room together and talking about life and what’s going on, then that slowly turning into writing. So I suppose the writing now on those sort of moments, it’s a lot more conversational, it’s more two sides of one story as opposed to two stories fitting with one another. And also, Jamie has even started writing through songs like ‘Lips’ - he started that song, through sampling, had some words that me and Romy had to pick up from, we had to continue the story that he started with those words. We’re just coming from a place with a lot more confidence and experience. I listen to that first album, and considering it’s an album of love songs, I didn’t have a ton of experience in love. It was a lot of writing about my hopes and my expectations, just daydreaming I suppose, looking at other people's relationships around me. Whereas this time it’s been a lot of working through stuff that I’ve gone through, and working off the experience.
CDM: I often talk to people who say that a lot of what they write about love isn’t from their own experience of being in love - lots of musicians say they’ve never been in love, but write about other people’s experiences. It’s super interesting.
OLIVER: I still think that way of writing, that first album is still very personal to me, it’s still my own feelings and my own viewpoints and my own expectations, but just not my actual experience I suppose.
CDM: The album was recorded across a number of different cities, and different countries, compared to ‘Coexist’ which was a lot more isolated. How did that change in scenery throughout, influence the new record’s sound?
OLIVER: Running through these places, like Reykjavík and Los Angeles and Marfa, it’s just beautiful nature, and big open natures and skies. I feel one of the most-- a reoccurring thing has just been roadtrips. We did a roadtrip from Seattle up to Los Angeles, and that was on the Route 101, and we were just listening to music. I think that is the best way to listen to music, I’ve only just realised, in a car. So being in Reykjavík we were listening to a lot of local radio and we listened to a lot of pop Top 40, and when we got into the studio we wrote our poppiest song that I think we’ve ever made, which was ‘I Dare You’, but also just being outside of London was an influence in itself. Not being at home where we are most comfortable and most at ease. When we work at London sometimes at the end of the day we go our seperate ways to our homes, but being on these trips we definitely felt very unified and together. Making this album it has been a very long period of time and there have been moments when we maybe have been a bit seperate, so it was good to have months very much together.
CDM: Alasdair McLellan did such a good job of the ‘On Hold’ music video, it kinda reminds me of ‘Friday Night Lights’, the Texas high school football show. Did you guys work on that video when you were recording parts of the album in Marfa, or was it a place you returned to for the video?
OLIVER: We returned. Marfa was the first place that we went to record, so it made to sense to come back and shoot the first music video there. What we wanted to express with the first music video was just youth, openness, and warmth. We had made a whole moodboard of images that kind of summed it up to us and we realised a whole load of them were Alasdair’s photos and we didn’t even realise. We’d worked with him a few times and we approached him, he was a fan, we were a fan, and we told him a very brief thing of what we wanted. We suggested Marfa and he sort just ran with it. I love the video so I’m really glad.
CDM: I love that as part of unveiling the album and the European tour, you guys mailed tickets to shows to some huge fans of yours. Was it important to you to include fan involvement in this way?
OLIVER: That was an idea actually of one of our managers, Simone, and when he told us, I loved it. I thought it was like 'Charlie and The Chocolate Factory'. I just thought that if I was fan of someone and I received something like that, I would love it, I would absolutely love it. We’re not about big announcements and it was a nice way of sort of gently hinting towards the tour before it was a big thing, before it was a big announcement.
CDM: Before you sold out seven nights at Brixton Academy! Congratulations, it’s such an epic achievement.
OLIVER: Thank you very much - cheers.
CDM: You kind of announced the fact that The xx were doing something hidden within a Spotify playlist - in several 55 second snippets with just a - (dash) for a title. What was the decision process behind using that playlist as a way to tease your new music?
OLIVER: We’re not great at social media, we’re not great at, like, Twitter. For songwriters, words can save us a lot of the time, and we love being able to post images - I think that’s something we really enjoy - and also just sharing music. That playlist was a way of giving people a bit of an insight into what we were listening to and where we were at in our heads without having to give too much. Then also just hinting at music was again a nice way of spicing it up.
CDM: What are your thoughts on how album campaigns, and the 'normal' process of releasing albums has changed
OLIVER: It has changed a lot, and I’m not at all down on it. I think people get down on it because maybe they just they don’t know - no-one really understands how it all works now. <laughs> Actually, one thing I was a bit sad about and maybe got a bit confused about, was that you put so much effort when making this album into the physical copy and what it would look like, and we put a lot of work into it and then kind of realising the physical copy is such a small part of it. Although vinyl is having resurgence, the percentage of people that will actually have the physical copy is actually very small and that was something that I did know, but was a bit of a realisation. I like music to be physical. I think having an album, especially on vinyl, you listen to an album from start to finish as opposed to just on shuffle or just focusing on single songs, so we put a lot of effort into the tracklisting as well, but yeah, it’s just evolving.
CDM: I read in the bio for the album which mentioned your festival Night + Day, that you personally took it upon yourself to meet every artist playing the show on site every morning. Is that festival something you guys want to continue doing?
OLIVER: Yes, definitely. Right now I can’t think about it because it takes a lot of brain-power. <laughs> We’re control freaks for sure, so we want to be as involved as possible - so it came down to what the tickets would look like, what food is being served. It was a lot of work but we definitely want to do it again for this album, and pick some new cities to do it in. It was great. You know what, the scariest part of the whole process wasn’t playing, it was actually just meeting the artists. If it’s someone you love and respect - which they all were - it was just a really daunting thing to just host and to speak, but it’s a lot of fun.
CDM: Are there any artists you’re loving at the moment that you would want to be on a dream curated festival?
OLIVER: Yes! His album is not out yet, but Sampha, his album I can tell you I’ve heard it, and it’s incredible. He played with us a week ago in Japan - it was just him and a piano it was beautiful, I think he would definitely be up there. And Kelela as well, we’re big fans of her, yeah there’s quite a few.
CDM: Thank you for taking the time to talk to me today, I really appreciate it! See you when you’re next in New Zealand.
OLIVER: That was great, thank you, cheers. Yes definitely, have a good day!
The xx’s new album ‘I See You’ is out now - click here to purchase.
Watch the ‘On Hold’ music video below…