Ten days into their first tour in three years, the xx's return to the stage hasn't been as daunting as Romy Madley Croft initially expected. "To be honest I'd been talking to myself in a not very encouraging way," she says. "I thought I'd forgotten it all. I told myself, 'Oh, you're going to get on stage and you're not going to remember anything.'"
As with most anxiety-inducing events, though, the reality is rarely half as painful as the anticipation.
"As soon as I got on stage and looked at the audience and had that connection it kind of all came back – we've only done six shows but I already feel very different to being in rehearsal in London," she says.
The new set includes a handful of songs from the xx's third album I See You, named in reference to the fans in the front row with whom the band locks eyes.
Back in December while still learning the new tracks, maintaining eye contact was more difficult, but initial nerves aside, it's clear singer-guitarist Madley Croft, bassist and singer Oliver Sim and producer Jamie Smith are a far more assured band than the awkward 20-year-olds who arrived with a deceptively confident, unfussy debut in 2009.
"I think in the beginning things were minimal because we couldn't play a lot of things and we couldn't play our instruments very well," says Madley Croft. "It wasn't a stylistic decision, it was more of a happy accident and we kept going with the idea of everything being playable live."
Consequently, their 2012 follow-up, Coexist, was typically spacious, tasteful and restrained, if not all that markedly different from the simple guitar chords and unvarnished vocals of their debut. It took the success of Smith's 2015 solo debut as Jamie xx – called In Colour to denote the pivot away from the xx's shadowy palette – to inspire Madley Croft and Sim, who both sang on Smith's record, to consider a bolder approach.
"With this album we just wanted to throw the windows open and let some light in and try new things," says Madley Croft. "When we were working on In Colour, we weren't thinking it had to be playable live, and so when we came to working on I See You I think we just naturally kept some of that process, because it was much more open and fun instead of worrying and being so self-conscious. And I think that's just come from being older, and from being much more self-confident generally."
As well as Smith's solo success "lighting a fire" under Madley Croft and Sim, his absence while touring In Colour forced his bandmates to roll up their sleeves when it came to songcraft and production.
"It was really good that he was away, because it forced Oliver and I into a new way of working, and we ended up giving Jamie much more fully-formed songs," says Madley Croft.
"On Coexist, we had bits of songs – bits of guitars, bits of vocals – and then we'd give it to Jamie to fill in the gaps, which I think was a bit difficult for him and also difficult for us, if it came back and didn't sound exactly as we'd imagined it."
"In the beginning things were minimal because we couldn't play our instruments very well"
The group effort is audible on I See You, which combines Smith's love of samples and experimental sounds with the hushed vocals of Madley Croft and Sim and more classical arrangements. Madley Croft's favourite song on the new record, "Brave for You", is also her most personal – it's about her father, who passed away in 2010.
"It kind of represents loss for me, but the demo that I had was very heartbreaking-sounding and I really wanted it to sound more uplifting. Jamie was working on the instrumentals separately and they fit perfectly and I thought, I was going to sound in pain but feel really uplifted when I sing it," she says. "As a band we were able to take it to a place that I couldn't on my own, and that really helped me with the enjoyment of the song and it helped me get out what I wanted it to be, which I couldn't on my own."
From issue #783 (February 2017), available now.
Topics: the xx