The XX Factor
The xx drummer Jamie Smith talks to Ed Power about working with the legend Gil Scott-Heron, Mercury success, going mad on tour... and meeting Shakira
He was taller than Jamie Smith expected and a lot more charming, a chuckling scarecrow with dangerous eyes and a lust for living that hummed like an electric current.
"Gil Scott-Heron is one of the most charismatic people I've ever met," says Smith, behind-the-scenes beat guru with Mercury winners The xx. "He seems very happy and unexpectedly easy going."
Smith flew to New York last year to meet Scott-Heron, at 61 an icon of urban music whose blues-poetry is credited with paving the way of hip-hop (his 1971 anthem The Revolution Will Not Be Televised stands as one of the smartest pieces of agitprop in music history).
At the time, The xx man was midway through a remix project which would see him recast the gnarly Chicagoan's comeback record, I'm New Here, as a haunting dub odyssey. On a high after the success of The xx's own (self-titled) album, Jamie was hardly a neophyte. Nonetheless, the prospect of a face-to-face encounter with Scott-Heron sent something queasy rumbling in his stomach.
"He is definitely not someone I would just go up and speak to," he says. "That's because of everything he has done and everything he represents. He isn't imposing. I'm sure if you went up to him, he would talk to you."
A few weeks before their rendez-vous, a New Yorker magazine profile had painted Scott-Heron in a rather darker light. According to the piece, he was still on drugs -- I'm New Here had been conceived while he languished behind bars for narcotic offences -- and seemed at once embittered by his lack of financial success in music and too strung out to take proper advantage of his elder statesman status. The piece reeked of tragedy.
"I read that article," nods Jamie. "To be honest, when I met him, he didn't come across as tragic at all. I'm sure he has his bad days, like everyone else. On the occasions we met, he was very pleasant."
Scott-Heron was persuaded to record I'm New Here by Richard Russell, owner of the UK record label XL. A life-long fan, Russell tracked down his idol, who had not released new material in 16 years, to the infamous Rikers Island prison in the Bronx (Russell would also produce and co-author much of I'm New Here). For the remix album, Russell was equally determined to get the right man.
"Richard told me he had really been influenced by The xx record when he was recording the Gil record. So it kind of makes sense for me to do the remix. What I like is that the age gap between me and Richard is the same as between him and Gil. One of the main ideas behind the record is to show age has nothing to do with music."
He is aware that the history of remix albums is short and inglorious. In the 90s, awkward
outsiders such as Aphex Twin would infamously serve up re-imaginings that bore no relationship at all to the original track. More generally, remix LPs tend to be cynical attempts to coax a few more euro out of die-hard fans. "When I started remixing I never listened to the original song at all," says Smith. "I used to simply make a new song out of the various bits I was given. With the Gil record, I took completely the opposite approach. I tried to relate to what he was saying in my music. It's like everything we do with The xx, we try to filter out all the crap."
Scott-Heron insisted on hearing the finished LP before assenting to its release. Generally, he was supportive of the young remixer. The only sticking point was when Jamie proposed drawing on material he had recorded through the 70s and 80s. The Englishman was required to plead his case via a distinctly old-fashioned medium. "I met him a few times as we were making it. We chatted about it. I also wrote him some letters to explain the concept behind it and what I was trying to do. I wanted to make sure he was okay with the whole thing. He worries a lot. He wanted to have the final say."
Cynics will tell you The xx's Mercury victory was a calculated exercise in credibility restoration. After a series of underwhelming winners -- culminating in Speech Debelle's horrendous Speech Therapy -- the Mercury needed to rebuild its reputation as a lightning rod for the pop zeitgeist. Accessibly, yet unashamedly arty, The xx arrived at the perfect moment.
On the other hand, who could argue the judges' enthusiasm for the record wasn't utterly heartfelt? Influenced by Philip Glass minimalism and London's dub-step scene, xx was both beautiful and eerie, awash with haunting silences and sad glimmering grooves.
And while winning the Mercury isn't always a guarantee of commercial success, The xx have taken maximum advantage of the opportunities presented.
Stripped-to-the-marrow singles Islands and VCR enjoy a second life as moody background music on television, and artists such as hip-hop arriviste Drake have sought the group out as collaborators (Jamie reveals he has already conducted one recording session with Drake and plans on flying to Toronto soon for another). But the rush of success was at a price. Said to be worn out by endless touring, guitarist Baria Qureshi left in late 2009, as The xx were on the brink of breaking through to the mainstream.
"We were going a little bit mad on tour," admits Jamie. "The funny thing is, we've been home for about two months now, after a two-year period and we're quite eager to go back out."
Jamie's reputation as a difficult interviewee precedes him. Looking like a bunch of provincial goths who've just come in from the rain, no member of The xx is exactly verbose. Of the three, however, the drummer is known to be the least accommodating towards journalists.
As it happens, he clams up only twice this morning. The first time is when conversation drifts towards the imbroglio over alleged similarities between VCR and Geraldine by Glasvegas, which predated it by nearly six months. Some people felt The xx were taking hero worship a little far, a suggestion which leaves the percussionist squirming with irritation. "We wrote that song when we were 16," he says. "That was probably about four years before Glasvegas. I wouldn't say we were fans of theirs."
He turns monosyllabic for a second time when he's asked about Conservative leader David Cameron's appropriation of one of the group's songs during a victory rally over the summer. At the time, Smith and company were quick to go public with their displeasure, declaring in a statement: "The xx weren't invited to any party, didn't approve the use of their music at the party and certainly don't approve of said party."
With Cameron easing into the trappings of high office as though slipping on an expensive smoking jacket, have The xx changed their mind about the affair? "It was tweeted about everywhere how we felt about it," Smith says, his voice soft and clipped. "Not happy."
On the other hand, he will gladly admit to being a fan of Shakira, who controversially covered Islands at Glastonbury. In previous interviews Jamie has been less than effusive about her version, which flirts with heresy by making The xx sound vaguely upbeat.
This afternoon, in contrast, he is all compliments.
"It was insane. Mental really. It made sense. She chose the song 'cos she likes it so much. We got introduced to her as well. She was lovely. So it's all good."
We're New Here by Gil Scott-Heron and Jamie xx is released today
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