Jamie xx — a.k.a. Jamie Smith, one-third of precocious, Mercury Prize–winning dour-pop Brits The xx — steps out on his own this week with We're New Here, an album-size remix of Gil Scott-Heron's 2010 release I'm New Here. Vulture spoke with Mr. xx on the origin of the project, the production work he's doing for Drake, and the current status of The xx's eagerly anticipated sophomore album.
How did We're New Here come about?
Rich Russell, the head of [The xx's label] XL, produced the original album, and we were recording our xx album while he was doing his. We were in the studio at XL, and he was in and out. A couple of months after he was finished, he told me that the process of our recording influenced a lot of the stuff he was doing. So in a roundabout way, he thought it’d be nice if I remixed his work.
Did you collaborate with Scott-Heron?
I met him a couple of times while I was making it, but it was always after or before he had a gig, so it was, like, impossible to really sit down and talk to him about it. So I just kind of met him and made small talk. We talked a little bit about the record, but it wasn’t like I was able to explain to him everything. So I had to write him, explaining the concept.
No, he doesn’t do e-mail.
Just regular mail?
Yep. I just had to explain to him what I was doing, and I was hoping he’d be cool with it. And he was. He didn’t really direct any of it, he just had to approve everything because, obviously, it’s his name.
How familiar were you with his stuff?
I’d been listening to his records before I even made music. It was an honor to be able to do it. I never expected to be able to do that.
His drug problems are infamous. How's he doing nowadays?
He was doing shows, but he’s kind of a bit off the map again. Which happens. He still needs to approve some of my music videos, and I can’t get a hold of him. We know where we lives, but we don’t want to go and intrude. If he’s not responding, there’s a reason for it.
What was your strategy when you first sat down with the original songs?
It was definitely a lot of different [approaches]. With “New York Is Killing Me,” I just wrote this melody on the piano, pretty much made the whole track and put Gil’s vocals on it. They just fit so well, by accident. And with others, I carefully considered what Gil was saying and tried to make an atmosphere around it. On “I’ll Take Care of You,” I was listening to loads of Chicago house. I had just been to Chicago and picked up a bunch of records, so I was inspired by that. And we went back to the U.K., we were rehearsing, and there was a piano in the room, so I just started playing this piano chord sequence. And then [The xx's guitarist/vocalist] Romy [Madley Croft] did her guitar on the top, and it sounded really good. So I recorded it on my iPhone, then discovered it months later, when I was working on a Gil track. I ended up just using the same bit of audio that I record on my iPhone, like really bad quality. My favorite tracks are the ones that just work and flow, where there’s no hesitation. And that was one of them.
Did you have a conversation with your bandmates about doing a solo project?
We’d all been making music separately before The xx anyway. We’re all best friends, so we’re all into doing our own little things besides The xx. It just happened that mine turned into this. Everyone was cool with it.
Are the other guys planning on releasing solo stuff?
Romy’s done a track with CREEP, and that came out on twelve-inch a couple of weeks ago. And Ollie's [The xx bassist/vocalist Oliver Sims] just kind of chillin'.
How did you end up playing the MPC at xx shows?
I just did it because I didn’t know how to use an MPC to make music. I just knew that you could use the buttons to play things live, so that’s what I did. I guess I got an MPC because I was a big fan of RJD2, like a long time ago. I saw him live in Paris, and he was tapping away live.
You actually use three MPCs now.
Usually in a song, it’s like a [drum] kit on one MPC and a string set on another, and then guitar on the third. We never want to use backing tracks. We always want to play everything live, which means that we can only ever play three instruments at once. It’s not actually that complicated to play those three MPCs. It’s quite simple. I think I might develop some new way of doing stuff, that’s still as live but not using MPCs.
Do you play the drums?
I could, but I definitely wouldn’t want to [live]. That’s something I always think with live bands never captured well onstage. It’s just the same sound on every track. When you actually listen to it on the record, the producer specifically picks a different drum sound for each track because it works for it.
Switching gears: You're making beats for Drake's new album. How did that come about?
He was just a fan. He’s got a right-hand man who just plays him new music, so he heard some of my remixes and e-mailed my manager. He’s a pretty busy guy, so it was hard to track him down. But he came to London about a month ago, and we went to the studio where we recorded The xx album. He played me some of his stuff, and I played him some of my stuff I made for him. And he was loving it. So he took some of those away to do stuff over. I might be working with him by the end of this week, or might be coming back to work with him in a few days in Toronto. He’s ridiculously busy.
Some of the beats on his album Thank Me Later don't actually sound that different from The xx.
I think that’s why I was a fan. His stuff is a lot easier to relate to than a lot of mainstream hip-hop. Well, I love listening to Hot 97. But I don’t buy mainstream American hip-hop very much.
If this takes off, and other big huge rappers started calling you up, would you be cool with having “hip-hop producer” be a part of your résumé?
If it were the right people. It’d have to be the right people. I’m not really bothered by it being big. And I think it’s the same with Drake, he’s more interested in being interesting. He’s not necessarily looking to make another hit album. Which is nice. The stuff he was playing to me, he was explaining that it was a bit more depressing. But actually, in the few tracks that he played me, it was quite happy. So, yeah, I’m eager to hear more.
Did you get along personally?
He’s a really nice guy. Very different from his stage persona. And he doesn’t have a massive entourage or anything. He just rolls with his two best mates, who happen to also be his producers. And I guess the age [similarity] was kind of a reason we got on together. But he’s just a nice guy. He’s down to earth. It surprised me at how nice everyone is. Because, you know, the music industry is supposed to be a harsh world. And I guess we’re not at the forefront of, like, commercial-pop labels. We’re very lucky to be on XL, which is like the best independent label, probably in the world. But generally, most people are genuinely in it for the music, which is great.
Tyler, the Creator from Odd Future is your labelmate now. Are you a fan?
Definitely a fan. They came to our gig in L.A., actually. They were just insane. They came to one of our after-parties in New York, too. But yeah, I love their music. It’s completely on the opposite end of the spectrum for us. And I really loved that performance they did on Jimmy Fallon as well. They know what they’re doing.
And what's going on with the next xx album?
We're gotten back to recording, in London. But there's no plans. We're just seeing how it goes.
With The xx, how much you guys discuss the look?
Well, we don't really talk about it. With the black — I think it's that groups of friends sort of gravitate towards the same look. That's what happened.
Did you expect this kind of success for your first album, or did you try not to think about it?
It’s not that we tried not to think about it, it’s just that we didn’t know. We really didn’t know. They just gave us this space, a room, and a computer, and they let us record our album, which I thought was amazing. We just recorded it because we had these songs for so long, and we just wanted to record them well. Then everything just snowballed and got bigger and bigger. Every time something happened, it was so unexpected, and that made it all the more amazing.
What were the big moments?
There were a few. I think the first was holding our finished record, like with the sleeve and everything. And then there was playing at Glastonbury; that was the loudest crowd I’d ever played in my life. And playing at Coachella with all those people, with that scenery, that was amazing. And playing in London, doing our first headline show there. That was great. The Mercury is a big deal for us, just because we’d all been following it since we were younger. But never in our lives did we think we’d actually be there nominated, let alone winning.
How did you celebrate?
We had all our friends and family in a venue down the road, so we went and just hung out. They watching the show from venue. It was just really nice. The record label bought us hotel rooms in the place where the show was filmed. It was a very easy, nice night.
Do you guys get into the more debauched part of the touring-band lifestyle?
[Smiles.] We definitely like to party. New York is always great. And London, just because it’s home and we know people.
Does any part of this make you uncomfortable?
Now that I’m doing this stuff on my own, and I’m coming out of the background, it makes me anxious. Because I never really wanted to do it. I didn’t think this remix project would be such a big thing, and I didn’t think XL was going to promote it like this. That makes me very nervous.
Do you have an ideal career in mind?
Portishead pretty much have it down.
You'd want to disassemble and take that much time off between albums?
Well, not disassembling. Just taking a lot of time and still constantly making music, just not necessarily for anything. Just for ourselves. I would really like that.