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Jamie xx Is All Ears

The producer and DJ behind the xx has struck out on his own in search of the perfect beat

As a child, Jamie Smith periodically traveled to the United States from his native London to visit his grandfather, a minimalist printmaker who lived next to a giant glue factory in New Jersey. Smith can still remember one of the trips, how he ventured into Manhattan with his parents and grew transfixed by a blues busker outside one of the subway stations. At this point, the only music he’d been exposed to was his parents’ record collection, and he remembers this event — his first time watching music performed live — with unusual clarity. “I must have been very young,” he says. “I stood there for a long time.” His parents bought him one of the busker’s tapes, crystallizing an experience that foretold Smith’s quietly powerful future.

If there is one thing that encapsulates Smith, the understated producer and DJ of the minimalist trio the xx, it’s this tendency: to act as an innocent bystander to music, to quietly and breathlessly soak up whatever is happening around him, and, ultimately, to transmit that spellbound sensation in his own reflective and emotional songs. When the 26-year-old Smith talks about his experience with music, he rarely speaks to the thrill of recording or performing, only to the excitement of being an inspired witness. The stories that connect the dots in his musical history are those of watching and listening, not of creating.

“We once went to Utrecht together to go to a rave, and we spent 12 hours together,” says Caius Pawson, head of the label Young Turks and Smith’s manager. “And I don’t think he spoke once.” Instead, Smith moved around the room, noticing the way the music sounded in different corners, observing the way the DJ interacted with the crowd.

“I don’t think it’s a shyness, but an interest in other people,” Pawson says.

Smith tells me more stories like this over coffee at his hotel one morning during a March trip to New York, where he’s stopping over between performances in the American South and the big stage at Coachella. This week, he’s promoting his much-anticipated debut solo record, In Colour, and he’s doing all of the extracurricular necessities — the interviews, the photo shoots, the Photoshopping of the album art — by himself for the first time. As a group, the xx are known for being particularly polite and soft-spoken, but even among his bandmates, Smith is a wallflower. “Remarkably quiet,” says Pawson, who’s spent as much time with Smith as anyone in the last five years. Read or watch an interview with the group and you’ll notice Smith receding to the background, letting his friends Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim do most of the talking. Smith exemplifies the idea that the best listeners are typically not the best talkers.

Which isn’t to say that he’s standoffish. When Smith arrives in the hotel’s café this morning, freshly showered and wearing a suitcase-wrinkled black T-shirt and black jeans, he’s cordial and thoughtful. He speaks calmly, and stares down at a fixed point on the table most of the time. Like his music, Smith is measured, and he is patient when he speaks. He takes long pauses that make it seem as if he’s lost his train of thought just before easing back into his answer. Right now he’s explaining why — after years of existing quietly in the background of his own band, lurking happily behind the DJ booth — he’s releasing a proper solo album, which he previously said he wasn’t planning to do. The press photo he’s using for In Colour is the first I can remember in which he’s looking directly into the camera’s lens. For someone in a group as beloved and successful as the xx, a solo record is a gesture of independence that feels antithetical to the essence of Smith’s work, which is unflashy, reserved, almost accidental-feeling.

“I guess with time came some confidence,” Smith offers. “And also, I just had all this music I’d made that I couldn’t finish.” Forcing himself to plan a record was a way to cultivate self-discipline. “I needed some sort of … ” he says, taking one of his extended pauses. “Something to help me finish. I decided an album would be that.”

Smith says he’s happiest when a new idea first bubbles out of him, but struggles when he tries to add structure and technical polish to the concepts. Classical rigor doesn’t come easy — he abandoned drums, sax, and piano lessons as a kid. The technical aspect is difficult, too: “For some producers who are technical-minded, making the song sound good is easy, and getting the emotion into the song is harder.” For Smith, who says he’s prone to swings between extreme happiness and sadness, creating the emotional atmosphere of a track is the natural part — it’s probably the reason he chooses to remix highly emotional work from other artists. “I’m a mess. My house is full of records, and my computer … I can’t find the things that I want,” he says. “But it usually seems to work out.” His records are clear, patient, and expert-sounding, but even at this stage in his career, he expresses a level of self-doubt that extends beyond simple humility: “I don’t feel like I’m very good at making music.”

In Colour — a vivid album that puts Smith at the forefront of experimental dance music — reflects this messiness only in that it’s filled with ideas. Whereas the xx treat quietude like a competition, the albums hovering deliberately on the brink of silence, Smith is more comfortable working with dynamics. In Colour uses the tension-building gestures of the xx — the hushed vocals, the motionless stretches, the intimate sparseness — but only to help amplify the throbbing catharsis of the songs. Pulling nostalgic sounds of the U.K.’s rave heyday into unconventional song structures and layering the songs with elements like handclaps, steel drums, a cappella, and Afrobeat samples, Smith creates a textured tour through the world of British dance music that feels reverent of tradition without being stiff or unapproachable. He’s not a revivalist so much as an appreciator, and it almost sounds as though he’s resisted going too deep into the history of his influences to prevent his music from growing too dense, too referential, too inward-facing.

“I have this romanticized idea of dance music in the ’90s, because obviously I was way too young to be a part of it. So I have this rose-tinted idea of it. I have this idea of it being a very special time,” he says. “But I still don’t know that much — I can never remember any names of seminal artists.” On a single from last year, “All Under One Roof Raving,” Smith used snippets from a 1999 experimental short film about hardcore rave culture (“Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore”) and adopted signifiers whose origins he might not even be able to trace. The song carries a sense of homesickness; it’s mournful. While Smith felt the song was too literal and too indulgent in trends to include on the album, much of In Colour shares its tone.

Former BBC Radio 1 top DJ and tastemaker Zane Lowe describes Smith’s music as tasteful, tough, and heavy at once. “Jamie found his own sound very quickly on record. This is why people respond to his beats so passionately,” he says. “He understands the lineage of U.K. dance music, but he’s pushing it forward.”

The album strikes a sweet spot that’s especially difficult to find at a time when novice DJs and producers are proliferating and ’90s dance-music revivalism has run wild. In Colour manages to be wide-eyed without feeling amateur, skilled and informed without feeling ostentatious. There is plenty of anxiety and melancholy and self-seriousness in this music, but joy and relief are the overriding forces.

“He’s a very positive character, with a very positive energy. You can tell he’s enjoying himself,” Pawson says. “It’s not like he’s sitting there tortured.”

To bring his ideas together and make them feel like a lucid piece of work, Smith again had to listen. While playing festivals with the xx, he’d gotten in the habit of bringing a recorder with him and taping ambient activity. As he was working on the album, he began carrying the recorder with him to clubs in London and leaving the tape running.

“I wanted the album to feel like coming in and out of the club, transitioning,” he says. “It’s also just really fun doing that on a night out — it’s like taking photos, except you can actually experience the whole night again.”

Bits and pieces of these recordings — backroom murmurs, sidewalk chatter, ecstatic exclamations — line the seams of In Colour. This effect, along with some careful oscillations of volume, produces the illusion of moving through the hallways of a dance club in unhurried solitude. It’s an album for shy clubgoers, fortifying the idea that dance music needn’t always be about dancing.

Parklife Weekender 2014 - Day 2Andrew Benge/Redferns via Getty Images

Smith knows the experience of the shy clubgoer well. As a teenager heavily into skateboarding, he was exposed to electronic music early, and began to sample his parents’ soul and jazz records using a couple of hi-fi tape decks. Later, he came upon a free CD in a cereal box with home-DJing software on it, and started tinkering. At the time, the kids around him in London were mostly into drum and bass — a sound Smith describes as “too hectic.” Once he was old enough to go to clubs in London, he wasn’t interested in partying; instead, he ventured out alone and stood quietly, simply observing DJ sets. “I never even drank much,” he says. “I used to go and see Four Tet, and I’d just be on my own and stand in the back and wait until the whole night was done. And then I’d go and talk to him about records.”

Smith was a student at the Elliott School, a once-well-regarded London institution that counted musicians from Hot Chip and Four Tet, as well as Burial, among its alums. But by the time Smith and his bandmates arrived there, the school’s (purely coincidental) electronic music moment had passed, its prized headmaster had quit, and its quality was disintegrating. “There were too many kids for the amount of space there was,” Smith remembers. “That meant you could kind of sneak off and you wouldn’t be noticed as much. And the music room was a really good place to go when you didn’t want to go to class.” He and Madley Croft and Sim would escape to this space and play music. “I’m happy I went there for that reason,” he says.

The xx rose quietly and quickly, and after they released their second album, they were big enough to headline giant festivals. They were invited for a residency at the Armory in New York in late 2013. Smith spent his nights in Williamsburg, and every time he drove over the bridge into Manhattan, he’d listen to Hot 97. “It was perfectly fitting,” he remembers. These drives made him want to create his own version of the music he heard — the type of exuberant, catchy rap songs that get played on repeat on American hip-hop stations. From there, he took a sample from the Persuasions’ “Good Times,” which he’d discovered on an old a cappella record he’d found in Detroit, and began soliciting verses from singers and rappers he liked.

“I’m terrible at smoking weed, so I kind of dread working in that world,” he says. “I was quite happy to be able to do it over the Internet.” What resulted from these back-and-forths was a song called “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times),” the ecstatic pop centerpiece of In Colour, featuring a hook from Popcaan and two verses from an especially excitable Young Thug. It wouldn’t sound at all out of place on the radio during a summer car cruise, and it burns the somber fog off the album.

It also points to Smith’s greater potential. If he desired, he could work as a background figure in mainstream pop music. Given the rise of the xx and Smith’s lauded collaboration with Drake and Rihanna on Take Care, and his early breakout remixes for artists like Adele, a logical next step could mean another leap into a bigger arena. Or not. “There are some things [in the works], but it’s always very uncertain whether or not it’ll happen,” he offers casually.

What he’s most looking forward to — and what brings him the most obvious joy in conversation — is a forthcoming Wayne McGregor ballet for which he’ll be creating music. It’ll debut in July and come to New York in September. He’d initially planned to write clubby music for the ballet. But now he’s doing what he does best: sitting back and observing.

“After seeing them dance, I got much more interested in the dancers — the physicality and the power,” he says, explaining that he’s considering taking a more traditional route. “I don’t know anything about ballet. I’m learning.” 

This piece has been updated to correct information about Jamie Smith’s grandfather. He lived next to a glue factory, and did not run one.

Carrie Battan (@cbattan) is a writer in New York.

Filed Under: Music, Jamie XX, The XX, Caius Pawson, Young turks, Oliver Sim, In Colour, Dance Music, Romy Madley-Croft