An Interview With Jamie XX
As the producer and MPC-drummer behind platinum sellers The xx, Jamie Smith, aka Jamie xx, has been switching between sculpting the band’s stark, indie romanticism and his own club constructions. His reimagining of Gil Scott-Heron’s final studio album I’m New Here—released in 2011 as We’re New Here—hinted at the scope of his vision as an artist. Several singles later, Jamie xx’s debut solo LP In Colour is due out this May via Young Turks and is heavy on UK bass music influences, as well as his trusty steel drum.
Jamie, it’s been interesting hearing your progression as a DJ and listening to your mixes online over the years. As a British producer, how did you feel when you first discovered the impressive lineage of all these different but related kinds of UK dance music, like hardcore rave, jungle and drum ‘n’ bass, garage, dubstep and grime?
It was a long process of learning about it. But when I first went to Plastic People in London, that was quite a moment for me, and I guess the start of discovering a lot of that lineage. It was the first thing that had really grabbed me musically in a long time that was actually new. Because I used to love—and still do, actually—soul and jazz and that sort of thing. I listened to electronic music, but most of it was from the ’90s, and it wasn’t really dance music. So, when I was able to go to clubs and hear music like that for the first time, that was the beginning for me.
How old were you?
What was it that first grabbed you musically?
Well, Plastic People had the club nights FWD and CDR, so that was mostly dubstep. Mass in Brixton was drum ‘n’ bass and dubstep, and of course DMZ [Digital Mystikz’ club night usually held at Mass]. All that sort of thing.
Can you recall any particular epiphanic moments, particularly in regards to DJs?
With DMZ I can’t remember who was playing most of the time, it was just everybody behind the decks. But the atmosphere in there was people in silence listening to the music. Same at Plastic People and at FWD. I went to see Floating Points there early on, and that was very impressive.
Did it make you feel connected to something bigger than yourself? Do you see yourself as part of that?
I do now, but I didn’t at the time. These were people that I looked up to. Although I’d been playing records in bars and stuff, I was very removed from that. And I’m very happy to feel like a part of it now.
From your mixes over time it sounds to me like something you’ve embraced more. So dubstep was the genre that hooked you, but what about the others?
I think that garage is probably the thing that ties it all together. It’s just fun. And it’s quite a weird era and style, the garage scene. It had this whole culture of going out on the weekends and spending all your money on a night out. It was quite an odd scene and nothing like that had really happened in the UK before. The rest of it—drum ‘n’ bass, jungle, dubstep—was all about dark clubs and head nodding. But garage came out of nowhere and was something completely different. I think that’s why it finished so quickly. It never had time to properly grow until recently when it’s been influencing pop music.
[laughs] I guess it’s changed. I feel a bit older now. At the beginning, I just went to listen to music on my own. Because those sorts of clubs like Plastic People are the best places to do that. Then after we got back from the first The xx tour [around 2010], we all started going out and raving. There were a lot of festivals I was DJing at because of the Gil Scott-Heron record. That was a different side of raving, which I find is an interesting thing. All these people are out, trying to have the best time ever. On the surface, it seems like it’s the best time, but really most of the people that are regulars at these sorts of events are going because there’s something missing from their lives. I quite like that idea, and it’s the same with dance music. The best dance music is music that’s sad, but people are dancing to it. It kind of reflects that in the rave scene. And I probably did the same, raved too much in that year that we had off. But it was all a learning experience.
That’s an interesting idea—that people are going out regularly because there’s something missing in their lives. What do you think that might be?
I don’t know.
But do you think that was one of the reasons that you would go regularly as well?
It did become that for a while, yeah. Because I was playing so much, I was struggling to make music. I just wasn’t in the right mindset. I didn’t have enough time and space on my own to make music. I’d go out instead. It was kind of unstoppable. I wasn’t allowing myself the time or the clear head to be able to make music. But I had a very fun year. I must have been around 20. I always danced, even when I went on my own.
What’s the worst thing about being in a band with your best mates?
They know everything [laughs]. And they can call you out. It’s like nothing’s hidden. But that’s also the best thing.
It sounds like you essentially grew up in The xx. Is that accurate?
How did that affect your journey into adulthood?
I had the choice between going to university or doing a really crap tour of the UK in the back of a van, and I chose the tour. I’m very happy I did. A lot of people that I know who went to university—especially to do music—are pretty lost now. And I feel like I’ve learned a lot more than I would have doing that.
Do you recall anything specific about growing up while in The xx that made you unusual from the rest of people your age?
You have to meet so many people and talk and be onstage and develop some sort of persona—that is, if you’re not comfortable on stage, which none of us are. I think that definitely made us become a lot more confident as individuals as well as performers. And I definitely wouldn’t have been like that if I hadn’t had that whole journey.
Now at 26, it seems like you’d fall into the “millennial” generational category. The term gets thrown around a lot in the media. There’s a lot of stereotypes, I’m not sure if you’re aware of that or not.
I hadn’t been, really. I don’t know, I’m just as much a part of it as anybody else. The Internet is a big part of what we do, and I feel musically, it was a massive help for us in the beginning. We even got discovered on MySpace.
Part of the reason I ask is because you’re now a young adult, and I wanted know what your general feeling is about what’s happening in Britain now. The country about to undergo a general election. You were able to vote at the last election, but maybe you were less aware of stuff then.
Well, I never talk about political stuff in interviews. I don’t think I should be able to influence anybody just because I do music. So I’d rather not talk about it.
Fair enough. So it seems like you have a sense of the influence that you might wield.
I don’t know if anybody would care, but when I see people fronting politics via their popularity as a musician, I just don’t really like it.
You’ve formed a pretty close working relationship with people like [Spanish house DJ and producer] John Talabot. What are some of the lessons you’ve learned from the older artists that you’ve worked with?
I’ve learned a lot about DJing just from watching and listening. I’ve learned so much from John, really, and Kieran [Hebden, aka Four Tet] and Floating Points. Mostly just about records and new tangents of records to go and look for and be excited about. Those are the guys that always get me started on that sort of thing.
Yeah. I was playing with Kieran on Saturday night, and we took the train together. He was just pulling out all of these records that were amazing.
What about someone like Gil Scott-Heron? I know you weren’t in the studio together, but surely that experience must have been important.
Yeah, his music was a part of my life before I got offered to work with him. For some reason, I managed to take the importance out of it, so I could actually make the music. I’m really happy that I could. I don’t think I’d be able to do that now. I’d overthink it. But at the time working with him and getting to meet him and stuff, I was honored. It was incredibly special just being able to sit down with him and chat. We rarely chatted about music. He would just tell stories.
What kind of stories?
Just fun little anecdotes. He talked about his dad. Now I look back on it, and I’m very happy that I was, like, slightly unaware of it all. I’m not sure exactly what I learned—maybe just to try and think less.
You mean in the musical process? What’s the alternative? Feeling more?
Yeah. I guess it’s just that whatever comes out is a lot more natural, and less about a concept that you already have in your head. It’s more about enjoying what you’re doing at the time. I can definitely hear that in my music when I’m making something from just the flow of it and the enjoyment, rather than coming into the studio with a specific idea and trying to put it down on paper or the laptop.
You’ve met quite a few big pop stars through your work. At this point, you’ve done a track for Alicia Keys, and your track with Gil Scott Heron was used as the basis of the Drake track “Take Care.” I read that you’ve hung out with Drake. Who have you really vibed with?
In that world? I guess with Drake. I would play him lots of UK stuff while he was making the album Take Care, especially. Then he worked with Sampha on Nothing Was the Same, and he loves Jai Paul and all that stuff. But it’s always a weird thing, or it has been so far, working with people like that. There’s just so many people around them, protecting them or protecting their own interests. It’s hard to have a genuine relationship with these people, I’ve found. And that’s why it’s hard to make music with them.
So has that put you off working with big pop stars?
Yes. I might do it again, but in a way, doing that made me realize that I really just wanted to do my own record. So I’m happy I did it. But I went from having quite a lot of restraints doing that sort of thing and not even having a say in the final product to just being on my own in the studio, and being able to do whatever I wanted, which is nice.
The Gil Scott-Heron album that you refixed came out in early 2011. It must have been a huge confidence booster for you.
How did you know you were ready to make your own solo album?
I didn’t. Up until the end of the summer last year it was still just a collection of music that I’d been making on the road in hotel rooms, or in my little studio whenever I got time to be at home. Some of the music on the record was started three years ago. I was planning to make it into a mixtape, because I wanted to get the music out of my head and out of my laptop, so I could start afresh with the next xx album or whatever the next project was. But then, gradually, the idea formed that it would just be better to put it out as an album. And then I made four or five tracks from scratch when I decided that. One of my favorite tracks on In Colour is “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” with Young Thug and Popcaan.
It’s also kind of a stroke of genius to pair them, because their voices sound so good together. But you’re probably the first one to think of that. What’s the sample that you use that provides the track title?
It’s The Persuasions, an a cappella group. That’s a record that I found in Detroit. Thinking back on your previous productions and also your work with The xx, you seem to have an affinity for voices that your productions will complement. What other vocalists are you interested in working with?
At the moment, I’m working on a ballet for the summer. I’ve been collaborating with Okay Kaya, and she’s got a really nice voice. She hasn’t released anything yet, I don’t think. We’ve been doing weird, abstract stuff for this ballet. I’m not, like, a lyrics guy really. It’s much more just about the sound of a voice for me. And maybe that allows me to be a bit freer with the music underneath, because I’m rarely listening to what the song is actually about.
It’s been a really diverse group of vocalists you’ve worked with. Is there anything in particular that draws you to these voices? Going from Romy and Oliver in The xx, which was maybe a circumstance thing, to someone like Gil Scott-Heron, whose voice you grew up listening to, and then choosing people like Young Thug and Popcaan, together.
I think that with Gil Scott-Heron and with the “Fiorucci” vocal samples that aren’t sung, I can kind of relate to it a bit more because it’s not sung. There I actually am listening more to the lyrics. The Young Thug/Popcaan thing was more like, I was in New York for a while and we were driving around in cabs listening to [renowned hip-hop radio station] Hot 97. It just inspired me, and I wanted to make a track like that. I’ve been into bashment [Jamaican dancehall] since I did the Adele remix, basically. I got to go to Jamaica with Alicia Keys and went to a sound system, a proper party, and it was amazing. It was very inspiring. So the vocalists I choose don’t really come from one place, one idea or one type of vocalist that I like. It’s more just the things that happen along the journey.
What about people who maybe are further out of your orbit?
I love Lana Del Rey’s voice. And I worked on some stuff for her last album that never made it. But it’s great to work with her voice. I don’t know what it is about it, but she’s somebody I’d like to keep trying to work with. I can see why it didn’t make the last album.
Ultraviolence was so rock. But maybe if she moves away from that, it could work really well.
Yeah, I was really happy with what we did. But she recorded the whole album and then went back and rerecorded it in that rock style.
What The xx does tends to be quite moody, which is not the case for your solo work. How do you feel about that contrast between The xx always wearing black all the time and your sound, which is generally sunnier?
I really like that. That’s why my album is called In Colour. It’s like a play on the fact that everybody thinks we’re moody and always dress in black. We do always dress in black, but we’re not moody. We’re quite happy people. That said, I still love sad music. In fact, that’s what I listen to all the time. But I like the contrast between the two in a song. Although a steel pan is quite a tropical, happy-sounding thing at first, the tone of it can also be quite melancholic at the same time.
Gil Scott-Heron passed away pretty soon after you released the collaborative album. I know you weren’t close with him, but you mention growing up listening to his music. What were your thoughts when you heard the news?
It was very strange. I was actually playing at the Primavera festival when he died. I came off stage and everyone told me, which was strange because the last track I’d played was “NY Is Killing Me” from the album we did. It was quite the moment. I guess like everything with that record, it didn’t really sink in until a lot later, the importance of it. And I felt bad that that was the last thing that he’d released, because it wasn’t all him. I just wanted him to have all the respect that he deserved.
This article originally appeared in the Spring 2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. Click here to read more from this issue.
Published March 31, 2015.