Mastering the minimal

MICHAEL RIETMULDER | Updated 10/18/2012

Simple yet detail-oriented indie-pop is in the DNA for Brit band the XX.

XX
Photo by Associated Press

Jamie Smith doesn't do excess. The producer/percussionist speaks in soft, cordial bursts, rarely offering more words than necessary when discussing his spectrally sparse indie-pop band the XX over the phone while he pokes around a Vancouver furniture store. ¶ It's only fitting that our conversation is concise and ramble-free, because the stark, electronic-hued curios on the XX's highly anticipated sophomore album "Coexist" reflect a rejection of all things superfluous.¶ "I think we were slightly more aware of it on this album than the last," Smith says of the threesome's minimalist aesthetic. 'It wasn't really something that ever came into our heads when initially making our sound, but it was nice to be able to explore that a bit more and try and push it to the limit." Not that there was any fat on the XX's lauded Mercury Prize-winning, eponymous debut, but by comparison, "Coexist" is heroin chic. The darkly denuded disc opens with the lead single "Angels," featuring only a faintly plucked guitar riff and Romy Madley-Croft's chilling, lovesick vocal, with one of Smith's fragmented beats occasionally creeping in. Smith, Madley-Croft and bassist/vocalist Oliver Sim leverage white space as well as anybody, notably on tracks like "Try," allowing notes to poignantly drift above porcelain, synthetic beats, before their cinematic dissipation.

Where stringed instruments dominated standouts such as "Crystalised" and "Islands" off their 2009 debut, "Coexist" feels like a more balanced and collaborative effort; each instrument or voice eases its way into every song without disturbing its placid waters. "It was a slightly different way of working on the first record, because there were three songs that were written before I was officially part of the XX and we were all learning how to make music together," Smith said.

The bushy-haired beatmaker attributes the unit's cohesiveness to their 13-year friendship, which dates back to their days at London's Elliot School. Life on the road doesn't seem to have diminished the bond between the trio of early-twentysomethings. "We thought when we got off tour from our last album that we would take a break from each other, but within a week we were hanging out again," he said.

During the XX's downtime, Smith established himself as a desirable DJ and producer, remixing Adele's uber-smash "Rolling in the Deep," Gil Scott-Heron's "I'm New Here" album and lending tracks to Drake and Alicia Keys. The year leading up to the recording of "Coexist" saw Smith touring heavily as Jamie xx (his solo moniker), playing clubs and festivals most weekends, with his "two best friends" Sim and Madley-Croft often along for the ride.

The heavy doses of house and techno Smith digested clearly seeped into the new record, most ostensibly on "Reunion" and "Sunset," where his thump-and-clack beats gently tow Madley-Croft and Sim's wispy tag-team vocals with dance-floor savvy. These are bedroom tearjerkers as much as they are hip-shakers, but the peaceful propulsions give the XX's subdued demeanor a refreshing vibrancy.

While simple on the surface, the "painstakingly" detail-oriented Smith would hole up in the studio for hours perfecting the nuances of his eerie, fog-like synths and clicking, percussive underpinnings. The snares alone on the grimly plinking "Tides" took two days of tweaking. "I usually spend nights and nights working on things that maybe I shouldn't notice, but I have to get it to the point where I'm happy," he admits.

But this is where Smith says he's most comfortable: hunkered in the studio, left to his creative devices. Once upon a time the thought of actually performing his shadowy beats live, as he will next Friday in front of a capacity First Avenue crowd, held little appeal to the noneffusive musician.

"That sounds like me about two years ago," Smith said, when reminded of a past remark regarding his stage aversion. "I really, really didn't want to be on stage ever, but we've come a long way and worked on our show, worked on being showmen, I guess, and just trying to enjoy it. I still prefer being in the studio, but I don't feel as strongly about not being on stage as I used to."

Good thing. Because if the XX's long-sold-out Minneapolis stop is any indicator, there are plenty of fans clamoring to catch the grippingly bare-bones Brits live. Just don't expect much rock-star indulgence.