When the xx first got together in 2005, they were still in high school. Their 2009 self-titled debut folded dreamy, downtempo grooves with soulful vocals, particularly those of Romy Madley Croft, who often evoked the same sort of emotional tension as Beth Gibbons. The album was endlessly praised by critics and fans, and the teenagers set about touring the world, winning over even more fans with energetic shows that integrated innovative light design and changed from night to night.
Before embarking on a follow-up, the band wisely took time to let it all sink in, stay in one place for a while, approach things slowly. The result is another gem, Coexist, which exudes an easy sophistication that brings them even closer to their obvious heroes, Portishead. Now, they're back on the road and coming to Rams Head Live on Monday. When we caught up with Croft in advance of the shows, she promised some new visual surprises which integrate the iridescent oil-and-water design on their album cover, as well as lots of new sounds.
City Paper: Your first album took off so quickly, how did you approach making a follow-up?
Romy Madley Croft: We've been touring for so long-we toured the first album for almost two years-and we'd gotten to the point where we needed to stop and reflect and have a bit of a normal life for a while. After finishing that tour, we came back to London and all took about a year off and moved out of our parents' houses and did a little bit of growing up, I guess. In doing that, we got inspired by things that weren't touring and new experiences, and gave ourselves some new things to write about. Once we got a bit more ready to start making music again, we bought a studio-actually just an apartment, it wasn't soundproofed or anything like that. It was just a nice space that we wanted to hang out in a lot. We set up working there and hid ourselves away for about six months and were constantly in there. We were quite private while we were in there, we didn't play anything for anyone, even our label. They were very patient and I'm very grateful because I'm sure that's not the case for everyone. We just started again, really, and learned a lot from playing live so much and having new experiences and came at it as ourselves, having learned more.
CP: Did you feel pressure to make something that would be as well-received as the first album?
RMC: I think because we took some time, we kind of got into this normal life, it was easy to forget about those expectations and pressure, which is a really good thing, because we would've really worried about that, so I'm grateful that we managed to block it out quite well. When we started doing press, before the album had come out, people started talking about the pressure and we were suddenly thinking, Well, should we have thought a bit more about this?, but we just tried to make something that we liked and we were proud of-like the first album-because we had no expectations for that and had no idea what it would do, so we tried to get into that state of mind.
CP: What kinds of experiences did you go through after touring that influenced the album?
RMC: I think it's just living a bit and being in the moment and one place for more than a day. And growing up as well. In the two years that we had to make Coexist, I felt like it was that kind of transition between young teenager to a bit more of an adult. I just feel a different perspective on things. I felt like writing a bit more observationally, about chats I've had with friends, over coffee or something, and hearing their experiences and about love and their relationships, as you do when you're talking with your friends, and I found that really inspiring, which I haven't done before; I've been writing mainly about myself, so it was good to write from a different perspective.
CP: Did you try out the songs from Coexist live before recording them?
RMC: No, that would have been a luxury for us to do that. We'd been playing some of the songs [on the last album], like "VCR," we'd been playing in pubs and clubs for two or three years by the time we actually recorded them on the album. We knew that song inside out and we were happy with it and we knew that it went down well live. With Coexist, we play the songs live to each other and everything is always written live-we make sure it's always playable live-but when we went out onstage for the first few shows, we initially were kind of going in blind and hoping that it worked live and going on our instincts, and I'm very grateful that it has worked out, but I think going forward, we are going to be a lot less hesitant to just press things on the audience and make things on tour and play them and just develop things a bit more and not wait so long. I think you can really see in the moment whether it's working. We like to change up our sets a little bit, to try out new bits and new versions of songs. It's quite fun for us and for the audience, who may have come and seen us before, and everything sounds different the second time.
CP: You guys are known for putting on a great visual show-anything new in store for this tour?
RMC: Something we're really passionate about is making sure that the lights and the full show [are] as much of an expression as the music. The lights this time out all reflect our album artwork, which is all about iridescence. We got really obsessed with finding colors and integrating the look of natural things, like oil and water and stuff like that. We tried to tie it in. You can see it in our music videos and. . . in our live shows.
CP: You recently launched an app, right? What's that about?
RMC: Yeah. These days a lot of people-including me-buy music from iTunes, and you kind of miss the experience of buying a CD and looking through the booklet and reading the lyrics and seeing the artwork and things like that. We spent a lot of time thinking about the artwork and I thought, realistically, not everyone's gonna see it, so we have an app that's got the lyrics and the artwork and some of the videos, and you can sort of immerse yourself in that experience, which you might miss.
The xx play Rams Head Live Monday Jan. 28.