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'We've All Come a Long Way.' The xx Talks Sexuality, Sobriety, and Friendship

From TIME - February 12, 2018

Jamie xx has a new skateboard. The British DJ and producer (ne Smith) picked it up in Thailand on the previous stop of The xxs first full-fledged Asia tour for their new album, I See You (2017), and practices backstage before the bands Hong Kong show. His tricks echo through the arena of AsiaWorld Expo, ramping up as he rumbles right into bassist-vocalist Oliver Sim, grabbing his blue fur-collared bomber jacket to brake. Laughing, they disappear into the dressing room where Romy Madley Croft completes the picture in her signature all black, Doc Martens, and headphones.

Jamie and Is friendship from the early years was based around skateboardingjust going off on adventures and being very free, Madley Croft tells TIME, tracing the bands childhood origins. From beneath her black geometric haircut, the vocalist-guitarist recounts how she and Jamie used to swap skate videos with music and meet early in the morning in Londons Southbank. We just skated together and had that world.

Now in their late twenties, the indie-electronic band is all grown up. Most known for Intro, Crystallized, and Angels, the London-based trio has been a sensation since its debut self-titled album (2009), whose intimate minimalism went platinum and won them the U.K.s Mercury Prize. But the childhood best friends were barely 20 years old then, shy, and reluctant to open up about their melancholic music. They were still so after their sophomore album, Coexist (2012)which was also a success but only a gentle expansion of their brooding melodies.

I See You (2017) marks a real transformationas individuals, as a band, as friends. In the last five interim years, the band drifted and did not see each other much. Madley Croft got engaged to her girlfriend and faced immediate family bereavements, Smith launched an awesome solo album, In Colour (2015), and Sim got sober.

Their new music is still wistful. But with a heavier dose of confidence and pop, on songs like On Hold and I Dare You, the sadness can be danced away.

TIME caught up with the xx before their gig in Hong Kong.

Your music is generally very melancholic, but I See You is noticeably more uptempo. How has your music evolved?

Madley Croft: I like that you picked up that its more uptempo. That is something we were conscious of in reaction to Coexist, which we love but was quite fragile at times. With this album we thought from the offset it would be great if we had some more danceable moments, and Oliver and I were inspired by what Jamie was doing with his solo project. It has been fun having a song like On Hold in the set where people are just dancing and singing.

Jamie, your last album, In Colour, was inspired by British club culture. How do you marry that with the really emotional songs of your bandmates?

Smith: Were all massive fans of dance music that has an emotional content and that juxtaposition is one of our favorite things in songwriting. So when it came to asking these guys to write songs for my album, it just seemed to make perfect sense.

Theres a lot of pain in your music. Do you feel that every time you perform?

Madley Croft: Yes. We have a song called Brave For You which is actually really hard for me to sing. But it is incredibly cathartic as well.

What was it like writing that?

Madley Croft: Brave For You is a very personal song to me. Its the first song [in which] Ive been more open about losing my parents and the way I kind of choose to live my life and not be sadtrying to just go forward and do things that scare me. I was trying not to write so much about heartache on this album.

Your albums single, On Hold, came out the day after the U.S. election, and you considered moving it, but decided against it. What you were thinking at that moment?

Smith: We were thinking, damn, thats bad timing, especially because the music video for that was filmed in Texas and it was very Americana based, which we love, but we also felt like with what was going on in America, it just was bad timing. We actually moved the video back a little bit just to give it some space.

Theres a lot of crazy stuff happening in the world right now. Has any of that influenced your music?

Madley Croft: Yeah the world is a crazy place right now. It has been quite extreme for me. I find I get quite anxious traveling. Touring in the U.S., and all that went on in Vegas, its definitely hard to not be psychologically affected by it going on stage. But then seeing all the people in the audience, it gives me courage. Its just amazing people arent letting [fear] win.

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