The xx are taking photos of each other on the balcony of a penthouse in midtown Manhattan. It's a rare free moment between radio interviews, a performance on The Tonight Show and a flight to Germany. Romy Madley Croft holds the camera while Oliver Sim and Jamie xx (Smith) pose, dressed all in black against a background of green trees and grey building peaks. They're smiling. When someone looks at this photo days or weeks or months or years from now, they'll see a band that's in a good place. This is the xx. They're happy.
Four days earlier, the band released its long-awaited third album, I See You, to almost universal acclaim. But they don't know that yet. They took the weekend off, and the only reviews they've heard have been from friends and family who, naturally, loved it. "We've just been in our little world a little bit," Smith says.
That little world has transformed completely in the nearly five years since the band put out its sophomore album, Coexist. Thanks to the success of their first two albums, Croft, Sim, and Smith were pulled from their bedrooms—where they made sparse, intimate music as teenagers—to perform for the biggest crowds in the world. The music was deeply intimate and honest, full of whispered confessions of anxieties with love, loneliness, and loss. "We always used it to get emotions out before we can vocalize them," Croft says.
The band took a hiatus after Coexist to focus on other projects; Smith released his solo album In Colour to enthusiastic reviews in 2015, while Croft and Sim took time to redirect their lives outside of music and fame. "Oliver and I have been more sort of getting to know ourselves off stage and doing life stuff," says Croft, who earlier this month announced her engagement to partner Hannah Marshall.
It was during this break that Croft and Sim found themselves in the audience of Smith's shows—a totally new vantage point. They watched their bandmate do something the xx had never done.
"Going to Jamie's DJ sets, for me and Romy, and seeing him make people dance, that kind of made us feel quite envious. Like, we want that," Sim says. "I don't think sad songs necessarily have to make people sad, but we wanted those kinds of hands-in-the-air moments."
So they committed to finishing a new album. They committed to doing something different. And they challenged themselves to create a new sound.
"You know, writing a cheerful song—or, not cheerful, a happy song—is hard. It's so hard because there's such a risk of, I suppose, sounding corny," Sim says. So they used Smith's album as a blueprint. As he did on In Colour, Smith laced I See You with breezy, ornate drumming, glowing synths, and samples ranging from the poppy Hall & Oates to the more obscure '80s soft rock of the Alessi Brothers.
The first sound on the opening track, "Dangerous," is a bold blast of horns, a statement that makes this new attitude clear. "They say we're in danger / But I disagree / If proven wrong, shame on me / But you've had faith in me / So I won't shy away," Sim sings. It's lush without sacrificing restraint and confident without ignoring insecurities.
But while the album introduces more optimistic tempos and textures, the xx still delves deep into their own anxieties, like on the beautiful and quiet album highlight "Performance." "If I dance like I'm on a stage / Will you see I seem out of place? / If I put on a disguise / Will you think everything's all right?," Croft sings over a wavering violin, which Smith learned to play for the song. It speaks to a kind of duality of performance—on stage and in social situations.
"It's an inner dialogue. It just sort of poured out of me," Croft says of the song. "It's about the way that you present yourself to the world versus what's going on inside, and the masks that we all wear."
After the band debuted several new songs during a residency at the Armory in New York, "Performance" was the song that people of all ages approached to ask about. "It was kind of cool to be able to have that instant dialogue with people that listen to it," Croft says.
The song also speaks to the band's awkward early days as performers. "I don't know why we kept playing because it was just genuinely painful to be on stage, like crippling," Sim says. While the xx have always been known for capable and controlled shows—patient and slow-building performances that find subtle grooves and harmony—their presence on stage felt somewhat reluctant. Playing in front of crowds of thousands, they'd hide themselves with a stunning light show. Literally avoiding the spotlight, they'd be lit from behind, seeking solitude in the shadows. Croft and Sim would sing more to one another than the audience, finding confidence in each other. Despite the fear, for the better part of a decade, they've continued to walk on stage. They've performed.
"We kept doing it," Sim says, "and it slowly becomes something you love."
The xx is now prepping for the biggest tour of the band's career—one that includes top spots at Coachella, Lollapalooza, Primavera Sound, Bonnaroo, as well as appearances on the largest stages in the world. And finally, they feel ready for it.
"You kind of just have to take a deep breath and do it, I don't know," Croft says. "It's just come from years and thousands of gigs, feeling completely uncomfortable and terrified and then starting to enjoy it and feeling more at ease and then being able to play with it and have fun on stage and engage with your audience. I think it only happened slowly over time."
Even if they never dreamed of it, this is Croft, Sim, and Smith's life now. Soon they'll set out for long months of touring and millions of fans staring back at them expectantly. But, on this Wednesday afternoon, they're still coming to terms with the album being out in the world, the knowledge that it's out of their hands now, the sight of people on the streets of New York running up to them with copies of I See You to sign. Then it's off to Germany.