When Romy Madley Croft arrived in New York City in late October for the CMJ Music Marathon, she'd declined to read anything about her much-hyped band, The xx, for months. It was too confusing to read one article that praised the young London band while the next declared them “utter shit,” she says. So when she walked up to the venue on the night of their first showcase, she expected a half-full house and a crowd of crossed arms. Then she came across a line, 200-people long, in front of the Mercury Lounge.
“I was clueless,” she says on the phone from a tour stop in Prague. “The queue stretched so far that it disappeared. I asked one of the people what they were waiting for and they said, ‘The xx.' I just could not believe it.”
The xx are unlikely musical heroes: They are fresh out of their teens, they have mediocre vocal pipes, they have no live drummer and they recorded their entire debut album by themselves despite having never worked in a studio on their own. Their talent defies the odds, really.
And yet, their record, xx, is a quiet masterpiece that's building on word-of-mouth and a near-spotless review from the high and mightiest at Pitchfork Media. The record seamlessly combines Croft's rich whisper with bassist Oliver Sim's soft-spoken murmur. Producer Jamie Smith, also a member of the live band, coats Croft and Sims in electro-bass, tickled indie guitars and a distinct new-wave reverence. But it's nothing more than the record's simplicity that makes it remarkable.
“Some of the best artists understand that not every quiet moment needs to be filled,” Croft says.
It's not just the band's record that's making headlines. The xx recently lost multi-instrumentalist Baria Qureshi—or they kicked her out of the band. It's hard to tell which it is because Croft is so damn sweet that it's unlikely she'd admit to kicking her old-time school buddy to the curb.
“We are now a three-piece,” Croft sighs. “It's time for us to take a step forward. We've all been friends for a long time and we're now different people. So it's not working out with Baria, but that just happens when you grow up.”
Croft admits that working as a three-piece is already leading them to more experimental realms and, on stage, pushing the album into a different place. They're jamming live for the first time, she says, and it's not easy.
“Jamie started out playing one instrument, and now he has three of them,” she says. “He needs more arms at the moment.”
Croft and Sims grew up together and met Smith and Qureshi at a performing-arts school, where they were studying music and drama. When they were first starting out, Croft remembers having some compositions but needing vocals to mix in. Since neither she nor Sims wanted to sing alone, they just sang together. The band recorded xx in London in 2008 under Smith's direction. The atmospheric alt-pop sounds that came out are frequently about sex, relationships and the space where sex and relationships meet. There isn't a weak track on the disc, which is nuanced and nervy enough to beg comparison to Low, Interpol or Radiohead.
Croft says she's excited to be demonstrating something to her parents.
“We didn't have jobs for so long and it really didn't look like we were doing much,” Croft says. “My dad still let me do it instead of saying, ‘Get up and sort yourself out.' It's nice to show now that we were actually up to something the whole time.”
While she was singing, playing and recording in her bedroom, Croft was also absorbing pop tips from Beyoncé, Rihanna and Aaliyah. By her own admission, Croft is obsessed with pop music. She's bobbing her head to a Sean Kingston track while we're on the phone.
“I want to secretly practice a Beyoncé video dance,” she says. “Wouldn't that be fun?”
It's difficult to picture The xx jazzing to “Single Ladies” in unitards and heels. Not because they don't have the talent to pull it off, but because Croft and Sims are especially shy. Mounting praise from the press is boosting their confidence, sure, but you won't hear Croft bragging about it or saying much at all.
“We just did a press day in Europe, and I realized I had never spoken that much in one day ever in my life,” she says. “To accomplish that was emotional and overwhelming for me. I have confidence for the first time.”
That confidence is starting to pay off in the music they're writing on the road and in the risks they're taking on stage, Croft says.
“We were 16 when we started,” she says. “So I can't help but feel so much more evolved since then. We're shy, but we can't play these songs in our bedrooms forever.”
The xx plays with Friendly Fires, Holly Miranda and DJ Edgartronic on Friday, Nov. 20, at The Casbah. www.myspace.com/thexx.
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