The xx

A hyped band loses a member and gains confidence.

Before Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim had even started to craft the songs that would make up their debut album, xx, they came up with a band name. Messing around on a computer one day, Croft explains, “it just became xx”—pronounced “ex ex.” Sim enjoys the ambiguity of it all: “People come up to us and are like, 'Is it “the Kiss Kiss”? Or something to do with pornography?’ I quite like that.”

Most rock listeners are familiar with whispering vocals. But whispering interviews? At the DC 9 nightclub in Washington, D.C., a borrowed Sony TCM-200DV recorder barely picks up anything the sheepish Croft, Sim and Jamie Smith say. (So much for Clear Voice Technology.) But maybe that’s because the xx isn’t really a rock & roll band. The black-clad group that owned this fall’s CMJ Music Marathon and has garnered attention from indie-rock blogs worldwide is a lovelorn bunch, hooked on subtle electronic beats and radio-friendly R&B.

The band members may be young—Smith just turned 21, Sim and Croft are 20. (Asked about stateside alcohol access, Sim slyly replies, “Yeah, we do all right.”) But they have been at it a while: Guitarist Croft and bassist Sim have known each other since they were three, and met producer and beat maestro Smith and former keyboardist Baria Qureshi later at the Elliott School in Putney, England. That institution has birthed many respected musical acts, from Hot Chip to Burial. The xx sees that as more coincidence and circumstance than as a result of what goes on inside the classroom. “We were given a lot of freedom,” Sim not so gently relates. “In the music lessons there was a lot of time to figure out stuff for yourself. I don’t know if that was them intentionally giving us time to be creative, or them forgetting about us and neglecting us.”

Whichever was the case, it worked. Croft and Sim began writing lyrics for their own verses about five years ago, a practice they maintain today. Trading many lines then rejoining on the chorus like a latter-day Sonny & Cher, the two vocalists each sing what they write. Full of sex-starved visions and sad breakups, their words are beyond their years, a quality Sim chalks up to “writing with expectations and observations.”

Speaking to these soft-spoken musicians, you realize their baby-faced youth is deceptive. Coming up with an x-based band name early, for instance, was “thinking ahead of ourselves with artwork and visually,” Croft explains—this is a band that plans. Croft acknowledges a black aesthetic, but says, to my bright-orange Denver Broncos tee, “It’s not like if Jamie were wearing your shirt one day we’d make him change it.”

And a future with Qureshi, seemingly, was not in the cards. Her departure was blamed on exhaustion, but that was just part of the story. “You have your friends when you’re 11,” Croft says, “and then you become 20; you’re not always friends still. We just grew apart.” The three canceled only a handful of dates, rehearsing and putting much of the onus on Smith, who was “stressed out” and had to pick up a third MPC (Music Production Center, an electronic instrument) to cover Qureshi’s keyboard parts.

The stress doesn’t show. Backstage in a small room, Croft coolly and humbly acknowledges the xx’s need to “earn our place” with its current opening slot for Friendly Fires. Onstage, the xx exudes a quiet confidence, Sim piercing female audience members with his gaze (see above for proof) as the band cycles through its debut album—a breezy extended version of “Basic Space” and a percussion-accentuated “Infinity” being the highlights. The group may have namechecked artists like the Kills and CocoRosie earlier on, but it covers R&B charters Kyla and Womack & Womack during this D.C. show. It makes perfect sense, a complement to the buzz band’s take on Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire,” which many have brushed off as novelty. It’s not: For what amounts to a thoroughly modern take on rhythm & blues, the xx marks the spot.

The xx plays Webster Hall Sat 5.

xx - The xx

See more recommended shows