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The xx Share the Secrets Behind the Songs on ‘Coexist’

The xx's Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim, and Jamie Smith / Photo by Jamie-James Medina

On their forthcoming sophomore effort Coexist, due September 11 on Young Turks, moody English nocturnophiles the xx are still living in a musical world of shadows, whispers, and soul-ache, but they’re letting a little more light in. New songs such as “Swept Away” and “Sunset” add dance-y touches to the now-trademark hushed intimacy of singer-bassist Oliver Sim, singer-guitarist Romy Madley Croft, and DJ-producer Jamie Smith. Speaking from a tour stop in Tokyo, the latter two broke down each of the upcoming album’s 11 tracks.

“It took a while to work out how to arrange it for the band,” says Smith of the album’s simmering opening track and first single. “The demo was quite perfect, but it was just Romy. It took the entire length of the recording process to get it right.” For her part, Madley Croft says that the song, “is about actually being in love; very positive lyrically. The album goes through a few different stages, and this would be the lightest.”

“‘Chained’ is one of the first songs we wrote [for Coexist],” explains Madley Croft. “Oliver and I wrote together in a room, which was a new way of working for us. I was playing keys and he was playing bass, and then we took it to Jamie. The beat he plays on it took the song on a complete different turn, which was a nice moment of collaboration.”

According to Smith, this yearning creeper, on which Sim (singing solo) broodingly laments, “Why do I refuse you?” is “a song Ollie started. We wanted it to show his strength, especially as his voice and ability to write has gotten so much stronger.” Says Madley Croft: “[‘Fiction’] is something that I loved and I thought very much that it didn’t need me on the song. I really feel that it’s [Sim’s] moment to shine.”

Following Sim’s spotlight moment, this ethereal, blurry track features both Sim and Madley Croft singing in unison. “It’s one of the ones where I push myself the most to really sing,” says the latter. “Playing live so much, I got more confident with my singing.” Smith stretches on this one, too, noting “I was experimenting with weirder electronic-music things.” The track’s slow-motion clatter and wafting siren-like noises are proof of that.

An outlier. “I think it’s the only track on the album where we recorded just the bass and guitar and a demo of the vocals first,” recalls Smith, who added a hypnotic steel-drum part to the noirish ballad. “Then,” he continues, “I spent a couple of nights on my own in a studio working on it, more as a I would a remix rather than an xx song.” His bandmate appreciated the woodshedding. “[‘Reunion’] is one of my favorite tracks on the album,” raves Madley Croft. “Jamie took this song to a really techno-influenced place. And it introduces a more house-y element to the album.”

Speaking of house — the demurely thumping “Sunset” marks the furthest the xx have crept towards dance music. “‘Sunset’ is an example of the idea of a kind of song we’re all really into, which is heartbreaking dance music,” says Madley Croft. “‘Missing’ by Everything but the Girl is a classic example of that type of thing. It’s one of my favorite songs.” The track was also influenced by Smith’s thriving moonlighting gig. “I was on tour on my own DJing and listening to a lot of dance music,” he says. “It was a fun time and we wanted to make something with that dance influenced, but without letting that influence take over.”

This ghostly, slowly building track, which is not a cover of the aforementioned EBTG hit, “was the song that inspired the writing process for the new album,” says Smith. “Oliver wrote it at the end of the last tour on the bus. That’s the only thing that’s ever been written on tour for the xx. Then it was one of the last ones to be finished. It went through a lot of change.”

“We were in a lull trying to work on something else and not getting anywhere so we just started playing this and by the end of the night we had a song,” remembers Smith about the origin of this (relatively) playful and string-laden track, which likens the ebb and flow of a relationship to that of the tides. Madley Croft also enjoyed the levity. “[The song] is quite a new thing for us,” she says. “It’s a bit of a different groove. Oliver plays quite a fun bass line.”

This gentle reverie is another song that came together quickly for the trio. “Oliver and I wrote [‘Unfold’] sitting in front of each other in about half an hour,” says Madley Croft. “It came very naturally. It’s quite an emotional one.”

“Swept Away”
Take it from an expert. “Even though we never intended to make a track for a DJ to play,” says Smith, “I think ‘Swept Away’ is the one that could be played out in a club.” The song’s sensual sway didn’t come easily though. “It took the longest of all the songs on the album,” says Madley Croft. “It began as a slightly more ballad-y thing with just me and Oliver, and then Jamie brought in a 909 drum machine.” The result is Coexist‘s heaviest groove.

“Our Song”
The album’s closing track also functions as a tribute. “It’s a friendship song,” says Madley Croft. “It’s the first time we’ve kind of just written about the love of friendship. Oliver and I felt quite keen to write a song that we felt reflected off each other. It’s for Jamie as well. It’s the only song where I’ve ever addressed Oliver and he’s addressing me.”