‘We had bottles chucked at us. We were 19, playing on a farm': The XX interview
Oh no, you might think. Not another festival. Not another boutique, glamped-up, middle-class shindig, with Ben Howard singing at you from a hay bale and Alex James proffering his cheese. Dear God, you’re entitled to say, spare us the cheese. Well, think again, because Night + Day isn’t just any festival, it’s a festival put together, top to bottom, by London three-piece The XX, and treated with the dedication, quiet genius and frequently breathtaking amounts of cool the band have made their trademarks.
The home leg of Night + Day is happening at Hatfield House, just outside London. It’s a beautiful stately home, chosen personally by the band, whose members – Oliver Sim, Romy Madley Croft and Jamie Smith – are curating everything from the line-up to the food. Everything ‘except the Portaloos’, as bass player and singer Sim clarifies, over coffee in the West End.
‘To be good, this needs to be ours,’ states Madley Croft, the band’s guitarist and other singer. ‘It needs to have the feeling that everything’s been chosen by us – which is the way it is. We’re all definitely control freaks, not just with the music, but with the artwork, the merchandise… everything.’
Speaking of merchandise, the Time Out team has come up with some good ideas including… nipple crosses: two strips of tape on each nipple and, voilà, your chest is XX-branded. ‘That’s a big one at festivals already,’ Sim smirks. ‘From the stage, you can see girls on people’s shoulders with them everywhere.’ Yes, but this way they could sell the product themselves.
‘Oh yeah!’ Madley Croft suddenly sees the light. ‘We’ll sell black tape at the merch stand.’ They will? ‘Er, no.’
We should have known better than to suggest something so tacky to such a classy band. Everything about The XX is cool, even the venues they’ve picked for Night + Day on the Continent: an abandoned theme park in Berlin and a coastal castle in Lisbon. Still, the best thing about these events will be the music. The sparse but exquisite melodies and moody beats made by The XX simply are the sound of London – reflecting the city’s resistantly blank surface as well as its tender heart. The group came together in the mid-noughties while studying at the Elliott School in Putney. In less than a decade they’ve won the Mercury Prize, shifted more than a million copies of their two albums and stamped two whopping great big Xs on the world. These are all reasons to be happy – very happy. And yet, in photographs the trio tend to look like scowling goths about be forced to do some PE. ‘Our default is just miserable,’ says Sim, laughing. ‘We probably do look a little upset in photos,’ Madley Croft concedes. ‘I think that’s something I’d like to change: the perception that we’re just serious, miserable people. I don’t feel that depressed.’
In person they’re far from surly. In fact, they’re wonderfully nice. Madley Croft is sensitive and talkative, Smith is quiet and furtive, and Sim is so laidback his sentences often begin with indecipherable slurs. ‘Isssszzzz we’ve been planning so much,’ he says. ‘When the day comes it’s going to be a bit surreal, like a wedding.’ Madley Croft chimes in: ‘A wedding for our fans.’ She desperately wants The XX’s followers to feel like part of the band – part of the family even.
Madley Croft’s father died in 2010, while The XX were on their first tour. She had already lost her mother several years before. Her closeness with Sim, whom she’s known since early childhood, comes through on record, with the pair’s hypnotising vocal back-and-forth sounding achingly affectionate. Theirs isn’t a romantic tie but there’s something in the nighttime quality of The XX’s music that listeners find sexy. Indeed, the band’s records have become the preferred bed-sports background music for ardent fans of all ages.
‘An interviewer in his mid-fifties was telling us, quite graphically, how “Infinity” reminded him of the time he lost his virginity,’ remembers Sim. Madley Croft continues the theme: ‘We’ve had people come up to us after our gigs with their partners and let us know they’ve…’ she hesitates to choose the right phrase, ‘…had a nice time to our music. You don’t really know what to say. It was never intended. When we were making our music we were never like, “Wow, this is really sexy!”’ ‘Are you wondering whether Night + Day is going to be a make-out festival?’ asks Sim, pre-empting my next question. In truth, that seems to be on the cards. The line-up features Dalston disco king Kindness and brilliantly bassy south London duo Mount Kimbie, but also playing in London is Minnesotan band Poliça, whose sleepy, downtempo love songs have the same aphrodisiac effect as The XX’s. ‘This is a new angle,’ considers Madley Croft. ‘We can pitch it as a different thing.’
This (London perverts, take note) is a joke – one that proves the band are upbeat enough to laugh about Night + Day in between fretting over it. ‘We’re okay, we’re okay,’ Madley Croft keeps repeating. ‘I feel happier than ever before,’ deadpans Smith, suddenly speaking up after such a long silence I’d begun to forget he was there. He should feel happy – he’s currently one of the planet’s hottest producers.‘I’ve had conversations with people I’ve been working with saying they can hear something different in London,’ he explains. ‘The reason why some big stars in America are getting English producers for that particular sound is that they don’t want to sound like everything else that’s in the US Top Ten, which is getting really tedious.’ So the sound of London is becoming the sound of the world. This, as Smith agrees, puts The XX in a good place. ‘Now we know how to make ourselves happy,’ he says. ‘How to be on tour, how to be off tour. When to be with each other and when not to be with each other…’
And yet, despite everyone’s best intentions, gigging isn’t always fun. Festivals in particular can churn up negative emotions like mud under a gang of dancing men dressed as Smurfs. Sim grimaces at one memory of being heckled off stage. ‘ “Fuck off and bring on Scroobius Pip!” someone shouted,’ he recalls. ‘We had bottles chucked at us. We were 19, playing on a farm. We did four songs and had to get off. I think that was a low.’ Madley Croft hit her low in Germany last year. ‘Halfway through our song “Shelter” – which is quite an emotional ballad – suddenly the whole crowd started cheering,’ she says. ‘Germany had just scored a goal and they’d flashed it on the screens by the side of the stage. Everyone went crazy. We had to pause, clap the goal and then carry on. It’s encouraged us to make sure nothing like that happens at Night + Day.’
The band know how badly wrong large-scale events can go – Smith was supposed to DJ at last year’s Bloc festival in London’s Docklands, which had to be shut down by the police because of overcrowding – so why do it themselves?
‘In a climate of dying festivals, to go and do something big like this…’ Sim tails off. ‘If anything goes wrong, it’s on us.’
‘And that’s okay,’ adds Madley Croft. ‘I just hope Night + Day is a statement that we care a lot.’
It might not be a make-out festival, or one where the baring of breasts will be encouraged in order to sell nipple tape, but it does sound touchy-feely. Even cosier will be the band’s run of shows at the Manchester International Festival in July, when they’ll be playing eye-to-eye with audiences of 60. Maybe that’ll have a more ‘intimate’ quality? ‘We could snuggle?’ suggests Sim. There you have it – The XX are making this summer a love-in. Let’s just hope Alex James keeps his stinky cheese out of it.