Jamie xx: “I’m not a lyrics guy.”

10.06.16

In 1988, the year Jamie xx was born, Dave Haslam was DJing two nights a week at The Haçienda club in Manchester. So we put the veteran DJ in a room with Jamie xx to discuss drugs, clubs, DJs and influences. And, of course, to find out where Jamie’s at in the wake of the success of his album, ‘In Colour’. Dave reports…

During the next month or so The xx will be finishing their new album, their third. It is over six years years since their critically-acclaimed and commercially successful breakthrough debut, and three and a half years since the follow-up, ‘Coexist’.  In the time since then, band member Jamie Smith has been busy, pushing his own life’s work in a few directions in addition to making the third album happen.

Jamie xx is so busy that when I went to East London to meet him in a cafe, it transpired, at the last minute, that he was unable to rendezvous. Three days later, I phoned him at his home and he was away. Then he went to Australia to perform DJ dates. I chased him down and called him again. This time he picked up. He was in Japan.

At the time Jamie xx was born, I was DJing two nights a week at the Haçienda. That year, 1988, Manchester was experiencing the first months of a new era, as a revolution took place. With the arrival of house and techno as the dominant music, and ecstasy as the new dancefloor drug, a new club culture emerged, which soon spiralled and triumphed. Later still our work later became the subject of books, TV documentaries and films (including 24 Hour Party People).

Through the crackle of a long distance call to Jamie’s mobile, for half an hour we talked about the state of club culture (as old as him, and now in the hands of his generation); the melancholic, powerful, sound of The xx; and the broken-up, fractured version in his solo work (last year he released his first solo album, ‘In Colour’).

He’s not the most effusive interviewee. He’s a man with many roles, but not a man of many words. His studio work includes producing Drake, and remixing Radiohead’s Bloom, and in his globe-trotting life as a DJ he encounters crowds of five , ten, thousand people. That Jamie is a shy person maybe (certainly reserved) may not come as a surprise to his listeners. Although his production and DJing are both heavy on the bass, even songs of his you could describe as “anthems” have a reflective, elegiac element to them.

He’s not a born performer. Even though it’s been over a decade since he first got on a stage with The xx, when he is DJing he looks uncomfortable, not only with the notion of performance, but even just having a spotlight on him.

“I’ve got more comfortable and I genuinely dance to music when I’m DJing”, says Jamie, “But it’s not a natural thing for me. It’s only been a few years since I’ve been onstage on my own and I found that getting used to it took time. Now it depends on the vibe of the place, the people I know there, and on the amount of alcohol I’ve had.”

And what do you drink?

“Whiskey.”

DJing straight isn’t easy because you’re looking to lock into the chemistry in the room. To communicate with the crowd you need to be close to sharing their wavelength. At the Haçienda – which was often chaos, especially in the ecstasy-soaked late 1980s – I knew when I was DJing that if I threw myself into the chaos it would seem like a good idea, for about thirty seconds…

Jamie agrees; “I’ve tried doing various different drugs when I’ve been DJing and everyone has been having more fun than I have. Drugs and DJing doesn’t seem work for me because I’m trying to concentrate and the drugs don’t help.”

Talk to any DJ or electronic artist – or, indeed, any dedicated music fan – and you’ll find there’s a particular venue, at a particular time of their life, that inspired them, and for both Laurent Garnier and the Chemical Brothers it was the Haçienda. When I ask Jamie whether there was a particular venue for him, he unhesitatingly names a tiny basement club in London’s Shoreditch called Plastic People (the venue closed in January 2015). At the weekly party he went to there most often, FWD>>, he’d mostly hear dubstep, then emerging and evolving from South London.

“For me, it was because I grew up in London and all that music was coming from there. Plus I had just become old enough to get into that kind of club. Before I’d only been able to get into clubs where music was terrible and it was really only about socialising with your drunk friends. It felt like something really different.”

When he began frequenting Plastic People, he had no big crew of friends. In fact, he used to visit the club on his own. He went to as many nights there as he could, on the evenings when the DJs were playing techno, too. And to hear Kieran Hebden (aka Four Tet); who hosted a regular night that crossed all genres.

As befits a graduate of a club with an open-minded music policy, Jamie’s album ‘In Colour’ is strikingly eclectic. There’s even room for the R&B influenced I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times): “My taste has become more and more eclectic over the years,” Jamie explains.

At Plastic People he’d wrap himself up in the music; “I tried to go as much as I could, there was dubstep, 2-step, sometimes techno. I could just go down there on my own, stand at the back and just completely lose myself in the music and not worry about anything else.”

“I tried to go as much as I could, there was dubstep, 2-step, sometimes techno. I could just go down there on my own, stand at the back and just completely lose myself in the music and not worry about anything else.” – Jamie xx on FWD>> during its days at the now defunct Plastic People

In 1988, one of the appeals of the rave revolution was the sense of positivity and community in the experience. Jamie totally gets this. It was also one of the appeals of Plastic People and the inspiration for his 2014 track All Under One Roof Raving. “There is that sense of community in the best clubs, even if you’re not socialising much there, that sense of everyone being there together. I felt part of the event, even though I was only standing in the audience”.

Once he was a Plastic People regular, Jamie’s socialising went up a notch or two. At Plastic People he met Kieran, and also Sam Shepherd (aka Floating Points); the low-lit basement club with room for two hundred people had become the breeding ground for a new generation. Four Tet included a track called Plastic People on his 2010 masterpiece ‘There Is Love in You’. It sounds likes soundtrack to a life cocooned. Like much of Jamie’s work, it takes the edge off the chaos of a full-on club; the euphoria is internalised.

Jamie’s role as a producer emerged during the making of the first album by The xx, and evolved during his project remixing Gil Scott-Heron. One of his qualities is silence in the music. It’s the same as the appeal of the space in Kraftwerk, Joy Division, and in those early Derrick May productions that form the bedrock of techno. Space, silence, is as important a part of music as melody or rhythm. Silence is a space the listener can fall into.

“I agree,” says Jamie “That’s the biggest compliment I could get, so thank you. For us, I guess it started out just because there were four of us in The xx, and then there were three of us in the band. When it came to performing we did as much as we could live; which turned-out to mean not very much. It worked, people started commenting on it, and that’s when we started pursuing that sound.”

Creating anything; what you leave out or edit out is as important as what you include.

“Yes. It’s become a part of our way of working ever since.”

One of the key elements in a Jamie xx production – among the bass lines, echoes, and the sound of silence – are samples, like echoes from the past, connecting us to our communal or personal memory. It seems that history of music is an important resource and inspiration to Jamie; “The kind of stuff I listen to least now are really new or unreleased things. There’s so much else to discover. When I DJ, I’m concentrating more on playing things people haven’t heard, and playing things that I love.”

The sense of unpredictability – in a DJ, set at least – is an important value. Post-1988, club culture became an industry, a global phenomenon of superclubs, EDM, and big business. The rave revolution appeared to be tamed; that’s always the tendency of cultural revolutions, to move from maverick status to the mainstream.

A hundred years ago ragtime arrived, it caused a stir and shook up dancefloors all over Europe. By the late 1940s, jazz had mutated into radio-friendly, commercial swing, with no edge. Then came bebop, which ran counter to mainstream swing, but reinvigorated jazz. Early bebop musicians Dizzy Gillespie and Charlie Parker twisted the rhythms, and extended the sonics. It reminds me of the way the graduates of Plastic People (and others) have shifted dance music.

“It definitely helps for me to have my own thing. It’s also partly that I am 27, and you change over ten years. They have their own lives and I’ve created my own life. If we only had the band there would have been a lot more pressure.” Jamie xx on the band

The comparison with be-bop seems even more appropriate when you consider that so much of Jamie, Floating Points, and Four Tet’s work is instrumental; “I’m not a lyrics guy,” says Jamie. The standard banging rhythms and hired-in house diva just aren’t for him. On ‘In Colour’, most of the vocals come from his band-mates Romy Madley Croft, and Oliver Sim. One of the tracks featuring Romy, Loud Places, is particularly brilliant.

During the making of ‘In Colour’, the lines between  Jamie solo’s work and songs by The xx became a little blurred. “There were two songs that Romy and Oliver liked so much that they wanted to keep them for our next album. Stranger in a Room they wanted to build up some more, but I kept it and kept the bare-bones structure. The other was The Rest Is Noise which Oliver had some lyrics for and we’re using the song on the album, but I’ve included a re-worked instrumental version on ‘In Colour’.”

Despite these moments of potential conflict, Jamie finds it creative that he lives one remove from his band-mates, with his own projects; “It definitely helps for me to have my own thing. It’s also partly that I am 27, and you change over ten years. They have their own lives and I’ve created my own life. If we only had the band there would have been a lot more pressure.”

I suggest his skills would be wonderfully employed working on film soundtrack work. Could that be part of a long term goal? “I’m not sure,” says Jamie. “Eventually I want to build my own studio, do more producing people, and, yes, doing soundtracks for movies.”

You’ve been asked?

“Yes,” says Jamie; “But nothing has quite panned out.”

In amongst his multiple activities, Jamie admits he is probably most happy lost in music, just was he was at the back of Plastic People. Most of all in the studio; “That’s when I’m most likely to feel that I’m doing what I really want to do. The happiest moments of my life are on my own in the studio, when I have some sort of breakthrough. It’s very fulfilling doing something I love.”

“The happiest moments of my life are on my own in the studio, when I have some sort of breakthrough. It’s very fulfilling doing something I love.” – Jamie xx

One of the things that haven’t panned out is that he started working on a TV series with Romain Gavras – “He did the M.I.A video [Born Free] and the Justice video where all the kids are running round Paris smashing things up.” I try to imagine the mix of Jamie’s reflective, elegiac production and the visceral visuals of Gavras.

It would have been an unlikely combination. But then the idea of an introverted DJ/producer travelling the world and playing to five or ten thousand people is also unlikely, as is the idea that nearly 30 years after it was born, the rave revolution is still being celebrated and re-energised – or that Jamie xx is channelling the spirit of bebop.

Unlikely is good.

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