Less is more” is a cliché that deserves to gain more ground in contemporary indie rock. Ambitiously experimental acts like Animal Collective, Yeasayer, Bear in Heaven, and the Ruby Suns have produced fascinating music, but their work tends to be saturated with so many effects, samples, off-kilter instruments, and other opulent flourishes that melodies can get lost.
English indie-rock/post-punk band the xx has received loads of attention as of late — due not only to its distinctly taut compositions, but because of how pointedly under-stimulated the band is. Instead of holding tight to every scrap it produces, the xx makes sure that its work remains sparse and demure. Everything is delivered with the lightest touch: whispers are breathy but restrained, lyrics are emotive but elusive, and the wire-thin instrumentation is birthed by an economy of movement. This event affects the band’s internal framework: After guitarist/keyboardist Baria Qureshi left the xx last fall, the group’s ranks slimmed from four to three, and that number has yet to change. The abundance of empty space makes the material more demanding, forcing the listener to focus on what pieces do seep through.
In keeping with this fragile, frugal approach, the xx combed the tracks that fill XX, its 2009 debut album on XL Recordings, to eliminate any extraneous additives. “If [any piece] didn’t necessarily need to be there, we took it out,” said guitarist Romy Madley Croft, whose lithe voice also leads the trio. (She’s also quick to add “there wasn’t much to take out.”) It’s an offbeat technique, but one used for a reason. “When I hear a beautiful part hidden underneath lots of layers, it’s a shame,” said Croft. The sparseness eventually pays off: When the xx roars a riff instead of eking one out, it means something important. Each portion has pragmatic purpose.
Originally, the xx did not intend to exercise minimalism so prominently. Having gotten into music as a teenager just four years ago, Croft says she was more taken with the harder-edged rock ‘n’ roll of the Distillers and Queens of the Stone Age — “things with a bit more distortion.” However, when she and bassist/vocalist Oliver Sim began crafting their own music alongside drummer Jamie Smith and Qureshi, the duo hadn’t developed the skills to pull off complex, more unruly pieces. “The more simple riffs and basic songs come from the fact that we didn’t realize they were simple,” she said. “It was just the way we were doing it.”
The pair of string players did give distortion a go for about a month. At some point, Sim stripped the distortion from his bass, which led to a turning point in the xx’s dynamic. “I can’t remember the exact moment it got switched off, but I’m grateful it has,” said Croft. By the time the record was assembled, the list of ingredients included two vocals, guitar, bass, drums, and keyboards. “It didn’t seem like there was space for anything else,” said Croft.Another element that anchors the group’s aesthetic is the interplay of Croft and Sim’s voices. Sim’s young but sobering tone serves as an able XY complement to Croft’s coy, feminine call, and the words are built on a simmering romantic (or, more directly, sexual) mystery. “Crystallized” exemplifies this concept: Things have gotten closer to the sun/And I’ve done things in small doses/So don’t think that I’m pushing you away/When you’re the one that I’ve kept closest.
Despite a plentiful supply of intimate lines, both Croft and Sim attest that their actual relationship is closer to siblings than lovers. Friends since they were toddlers, Croft recalls that when she fell into music, it was alongside Sim. This also means that, unlike most duets, these two are never communicating with one another, but rather a hazy outside entity. (Croft contends that they didn’t plot that tension.)
Croft and Sim do not write their words together. Instead, one typically devises a verse or chorus and sends it to the other so they can write in the same theme, giving it the effect of a collage. In contrast to their platonic familiarity, they never share the meanings of their portions with each other. “There’s a lot of privacy, even between Oliver and I,” said Croft. “We’re cryptic with most of the lyrics. We are private people.” She’d rather not learn the meaning behind her band mate’s stanzas. The uncertainty allows her to appreciate her songs on the same terms as the average listener.
With all these elements — the delicacy, the mystery, the passion — combined, the xx’s pressurized sound is swelling into something bigger. Croft imagines that her group will run wild, but even that excursion will have limits. “After playing so many gigs, we’re going to want to write songs that are more loose,” she said. “We will definitely change, but I can’t see us getting an orchestra and distortion pedals for the sake of it.”