"When we first started, we didn't really look like we wanted to be there," the xx's Romy Madley Croft tells Rolling Stone. "Which is fair."
Tight-lipped and clad entirely in black, the London electro-rock trio started out as an anomaly. On their 2009 self-titled debut, the primary school classmates turned indie stars took a defiantly low-key approach in a bombastic pop era dominated by Lady Gaga – enchanting listeners with sparse tendrils of post-punk guitars and vocal interplay that recalled the tempered sensuality of R&B greats like Sade and Aaliyah. Yet their minimalist approach yielded maximum results: The album won the Mercury Prize in 2010, and later landed at number 74 on Rolling Stone's "100 Best Debuts of All Time" list. Their dusky sophomore LP, 2012's Coexist, would peak at Number One on the Billboard Alternative Albums Chart.
The xx's third album, I See You, out Friday, is a glowing patchwork of U.K. garage, house and tropical rhythms, topped by big brass and bigger vocals. It's a rather ambitious turn for a band of introverts – but the group is more than ready to punch up their intimate sound.
RS meets the band in the cozy basement studio of XL Recordings' Manhattan headquarters, where guitarist and co-lead vocalist Madley Croft lounges alongside her bandmates. "It's been a theme for us on this album – wanting to do things that were out of our comfort zone," she says. Newly engaged to British designer (and band stylist) Hannah Marshall, Madley Croft believes their change in direction was reinforced by a push to take more risks – both personally and professionally. "We had gained a lot of confidence from touring Coexist," she says. "We became stronger singers, just from playing a lot of shows, and… working on our shyness."
The band's DJ-producer Jamie Smith, better known as Jamie xx, sinks deep into the shelter of a red beanbag chair nearby. Not one to boast – much less raise his voice beyond a trace of a whisper – he's still reeling from the success of his 2015 solo debut, In Colour, an arty dance-pop thesis that featured guests such as Four Tet, Young Thug and Popcaan (and, of course, his own bandmates in the xx). Written almost entirely during the band's Coexist tour, the record was certified gold in the U.K. and nominated for Best Dance/Electronic Album at the 2016 Grammys. "It's one of the stranger events I've been to," Smith says of the Grammys ceremony. "Everyone just sort of leaves and comes back when they think they might win something. … I sat through the whole thing. [My] first time could've been the only time."
With Smith on tour in support of his album, the rest of the band were left to their own devices. Vocalist/bassist Oliver Sim remained in London, where he started the path to sobriety and became the face of Dior's spring/summer 2016 campaign. After the Coexist tour, he says, "I was like a stranger in London. I'd been gone for quite a while, so much had changed. I knew this [album] was coming, so I wanted to savor some time at home."
Meanwhile, Madley Croft headed to Los Angeles for a self-imposed pop-music boot camp. "I wanted to see how pop songs were made," she says. Madley Croft shared a long lunch with left-field hitmaker Sia Furler. "She has so much energy and [is] so captivating," she says of their meeting; although hesitant to divulge any of Furler's trade secrets, she says, "I was kind of in a trance."
Madley Croft also sat in on sessions with Grammy-winning producer Benny Blanco, as well as OneRepublic singer-songwriter Ryan Tedder, the mastermind behind hits by Beyoncé, Taylor Swift and Adele. "I'm not sure how everyone's process is," says Madley Croft, "But in general I noticed people just start to sing melodies as almost like gibberish … and then add the words. In the past I'd just written poems and kind of quietly sung them to myself. So to sit there and have to just sing melodies to a stranger – it was very exposing."
Once Smith's schedule opened up, the band's first item of business was, quite simply, to spend more time together. "There were moments when we didn't even keep in touch," says Sim, "In contrast to what we've normally done, which is [to] see each other every day. We had to put work into our relationship as friends.
"Now I think we've reached a point, like in the best way possible," he continues, "Where we're just cemented in each other's lives. ... Like family."
The record's title, I See You, was conjured after a band outing at a Drake concert. "He just called out to all these different people," Madley Croft laughs. "'I see you, in the purple jumper! I see you. ...' It was really funny but you know, it's warm, it's affirming that you see your friend. You feel understood and you don't feel as alone."
This reinvigorated sense of connection shines through in the album's lyrics, which trade the distressed internal monologues of the xx's early work – "teenage dramatics," as Sim calls them – for more direct communication. "Everything before was about questioning, or longing, or hoping something is reciprocated," says Madley Croft. "There's more chances to be taken now." Of their newest single, "Say Something Loving" she says, "I need to hear something loving. … I need it. … So, I just say it."
Entrusting only one collaborator to tag along – Scottish producer Rodaidh McDonald, who engineered the band's debut – the xx decided to record outside London for the first time ever. "It was nice being a gang, getting out of London," says Madley Croft. Aside from sessions recorded in their hometown, I See You was recorded in New York and Los Angeles, with additional sessions taking place in Marfa, Texas, and Reykjavik. "It was my suggestion," laughs Madley Croft, "Oh, let's go to Iceland! I was actually terrified. We went on a tour in this monster truck. Next to, like, a live volcano."
The band's heightened sense of adventure led to some sonic exploration, too. Smith's penchant for sampling – heard prominently on In Colour – craftily comes to the fore in I See You, betraying Smith's affections for American soft rock. A cut from the Alessi Brothers' 1976 lullaby "Do You Feel It?" meets delicate Caribbean percussion in "Say Something Loving," while lead single "On Hold" splices vocal bits from Hall and Oates' "I Can't Go for That (No Can Do)" with a "Planet Rock" freestyle beat. In a November interview with Genius, Daryl Hall remarked of the sample: "[My song] belongs to the world and can be interpreted anyway they want. As long as I get paid, of course."
In anticipation of their North American tour this spring, the band is still refining their performance strategy. Expanded sounds require an expanded stage setup: integrating live drums and additional samplers for all members to learn and share. Madley Croft describes the process as "a bit of a headache." Still, the three resolve to power through. "On the first album, we wanted everything to be playable live," she says. "We couldn't really play that well so the music was very simple. People called it 'minimal,' but we weren't going for that. We just had this sort of … rule. On the second album, we thought, 'If [people] liked that minimalism, we'd keep it quite simple.'
"But on this album," she continues, "We all thought, 'Let's stop worrying. Let's just make music.' There's this liberating feeling of playing what sounds good, what we like. And... It feels really nice just to be back as a unit again."