The xx's Oliver Sim talks Mercury Prize, the end of privacy, and playing small music in huge rooms
If you haven't already secured a ticket to the xx's sold-out victory lap at the Hollywood Palladium tonight, put the "Islands" video on loop and get comfortable, because they're going to be gone for a quite a while.
This show caps an incredible year for the trio, having won the U.K.'s biggest music-industry garland, the Mercury Prize, played to enormous crowds at the world's most tasteful festivals, and finally figured out that they can walk around a bit onstage.
We talked with 21-year-old vocalist and bassist Oliver Sim about writing such intimate tunes for a massive audience, how teenage lust feels from the other side of 20, and what a crowd of 30,000 in the Indio sun really looks like from onstage.
Congratulations on your Mercury Music Prize. I'm guessing you probably didn't anticipate this for your band when you started it.
It was so surreal. It was thinking that when we’d started this band, if I could have seen us four years later, I wouldn’t have believed it at all. Especially as this cycle is all coming to an end and this is our last tour of the States for a long while, it’s just an incredible way to come to the end of this period, to summarize it with an award like this.
Your more recent shows have used an involved lighting rig to great effect -- is that something you felt the band needed now, given your early reputation for pretty minimal live shows?
When we booked our first tours, we were playing much smaller venues, and as we moved on from that, that was a decision we had to make. We knew we needed to put on more of a show, so we had to ask ourselves if we wanted to make more money ourselves -- or spend it on lights? In the end, we went with the bigger show. I felt like we put a lot of pressure on ourselves, and people really liked the album, but we weren’t at all comfortable onstage for a long time. Now, I feel like we’re less rigid and can perform a bit more. I know it’s taken a long time to grow into that, though.
I saw you take a picture of the massive crowd at Coachella onstage. That experience must have been intimidating for a band like yours.
Coachella was so strange; playing in the sunlight is so unfamiliar to us. The darkness of clubs makes me feel much more secure, and you can hide behind smoke and lights. You’ve got to perform more outside, but we were too scared to move up there. We learned from it, though I don’t think shows like that will ever be “normal.” The day that you walk out in front of 30,000 people and don’t get nervous is probably the day to give it up. It’s inspiring to be a little terrified.
You and Romy (Madley-Croft, singer-guitarist) have been best friends since childhood. How have your friendships changed over the course of this band growing?
The three of us thought we knew each other well, but now we’ve got so much more of an understanding, it’s really solidified the sibling-like relationship we have. Not that much needs to be said between us, we’re so close. But we still hang out together at home.
The songs on the first album were often pretty searingly intimate. Do you worry it might be harder to write like that knowing there's a considerable audience waiting for new songs?
I’ve thought about that. It’s definitely a problem I had at the end of writing our album. On the early songs, I truly thought nobody would hear them, and as I found myself being aware that people were listening, I found myself becoming more cryptic. Now, thousands of people may hear it, and I hope I can block that thought and not think too hard about writing. At home when I’ve been writing, it’s been both more cryptic but also more about personal experience. The older songs were more observations on other peoples’ lives. Now that I’m writing more about myself, I want to keep that privacy -– it’s a way of holding back and not putting myself so far out there.
I’ve already started writing again, but we’ll do a lot more now that we’re coming home and will have a lot more privacy. I don’t find touring very creative. There’s not much time to yourself with your instruments. That’s a big reason why we’re pretty eager to stop touring for a while.
Do you feel like your ideas about love and sex and youth -- all favorite topics for you -- have changed as you've grown out of your teens and into your 20s?
I do. Not in a bad way, though. The songs on the album are all very naïve in a nice way. I can see that in “VCR,” it’s very lighthearted and simple, and as the album went on it got more complex and personal. Worryingly, it got darker. So much has happened in our lives since then, we’ve been around the world and met really different people, and now I feel like we’re a lot more confident and knowledgeable.
Do you still relate to those older songs?
In a different way than how I wrote them. The meanings have changed -- it’s like reading an old diary. I can identify with what I was saying in them and still enjoy the songs, but there’s a disconnect there. There’s a lot of second-guessing in these songs. They were written about how I wanted the world to be. Now, a lot of that has happened and it didn’t quite match my expectations then so neatly.
-- August Brown
The xx performs at the Hollywood Palladium tonight. L.A. band Warpaint opens.
Photo: The xx. Credit: Armando Franca / Associated Press