Jamie Smith of the xx on mixing oil and water and how it applies to his London band
The xx is an electronic pop group from London, England, whose music is informed by soul and post-punk as well as hip-hop and modern electronica. The act's critically acclaimed, self-titled debut album from 2009 garnered the outfit widespread popularity. And while a lot of bands would have stopped developing there and stuck to a successful formula, the xx enhanced its use of electronics to create a more fully realized fusion of its stylistic influences on the recently released followup, Coexist. Along the way, Jamie Smith, the band's producer and electronics guru, has done high-profile remixes for Adele, Florence and the Machine and Radiohead. We recently spoke to Smith about Gil Scott-Heron and the image of oil and water coming together as a symbol for the band and the group's latest record.
See also: The xx at Boulder Theater, 10/17/12
Westword: You've been a fan of RJD2 from a fairly young age. How did you learn about him?
Jamie Smith: From watching skate videos, actually. Me and Romy [Madley Croft] used to skate. We used to find a lot of new music, before we discovered the internet, from skate videos. He was using music that I loved, which is soul music, and sampling it, and it was a different way of hearing it.
You got started making your own music fairly early on. Your uncle bequeathed to you a couple of turntables?
That's right. He used to DJ, and he gave me his old one. I started sampling one night on to tape. Kind of like Kid Koala used to do.
What about remixing fascinates you and how do you approach doing them?
Originally, it was just a way to make my own music publicly without having to jump straight in and doing an album or a single. It was just me. Now it's a thing that kind of inspires us to make our own music.
What are some things you like about remixing hip-hop versus rock or another style of music?
It's more just about what song inspires me. If it says something that really stands out in a song that I know, I use it. So fans will still recognize it from the original, but it will sound totally different.
How did you come to work with Gil Scott-Heron on that last album he released?
The guy that produced that last album runs the record label we're on. He said that the production on that was inspired by the production on the first record by the xx. In a roundabout way, it would make sense for me to remix it. I hung out with him a few times. We went to some of his gigs in the U.K. and he came to one of our gigs in New York. We discussed it. We didn't go into great depth, we just kind of chatted and got to know him a little bit, which helped a lot.
Did Matt Groening tell you why he picked you to play All Tomorrow's Parties a couple of years ago?
He did. I think his son knew the xx.
You obviously make beats for the xx. What were some of your inspirations for that sort of thing, and is there anyone now you find especially interesting?
Early on, I listened to a lot of hip-hop. I guess it also [helped] that I have broad taste in music. Since then with touring and being involved heavily in music, nothing else has broadened our knowledge and what we listen to. So now I wouldn't really be able to say completely what [inspires me]. [If I were to name one band, it would be] Portishead, internationally.
How is your process for producing music in the studio different from performing it in a live setting?
It's completely different. Originally, we would play everything live anyway, so that [translates] to the stage. But when we're recording, I just have a few pieces of equipment. I don't really use an MPC. On stage I try to have everything as live as possible and not use a computer at all. I use MPCs just using the memory, turntables, piano, electronic drums and some live drums.
Do you use the Space Echo live, too, or is that something you can only really use in the studio?
We used it on "Fiction." We tried using it a lot but it has a specific sound and a lot of people use it, basically.
How is it you're able to incorporate using tapes into your live set?
I'd like to, actually, but we haven't figured out how to do that live. I just have an idea about making a tape machine that I could speed up or slow down to change pitch, but I haven't put that into practice just yet.
You still use it in the studio, though?
Sometimes in mastering, we record the tracks onto tape to give it that kind of analogue hiss. For this album, it was all processed with analog equipment before it went into the computer, so it all sounds quite natural.
On the cover of Coexist it has kind of an oil on water kind of effect. Was that something you had in mind or did you discuss that concept with the artist that worked on the cover?
We designed it. The idea behind the name Coexist came from the description of mixing oil and water coming together to peacefully coexist, so we used that as the basis for our artwork and made all these different prints using oil and water and filming it. We had help from an in-house artist at XL as well.
Was that concept of coexistence and oil and water part of what went into the songwriting?
It came after we wrote the songs and it just became apparent that the xx only happens when the three of us are all together making the music and we have an equal share when we come together. Like oil and water do.