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Matson on Music

Music news, concert reviews, analysis and opinion by music writer Andrew Matson.

September 21, 2010 at 8:28 AM

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Interview: Jamie Smith of The xx

Posted by Andrew Matson

jamie smith-thumb-608x456-14633.jpg
The xx at Sasquatch! 2010, L-R: Romy Madley-Croft, Jamie Smith; photo by me

"Fantasy" by The xx


"Islands" by The xx


Note: The xx's upcoming concert at the Paramount is part of the hard-touring group's last lap for "a very long time," says their publicist, after which the trio will repair to its native England and write a sophomore album. Another note: Jamie Smith told me when he was making rap music, which he used to do before he was in The xx, two albums that really inspired him were "Deadringer" by RJD2 (the man who made the "Mad Men" theme song) and "Endtroducing" by DJ Shadow. Cool, huh?

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Following a Mercury Prize win in the UK earlier this month, introverted London trio The xx is now officially world-famous and playing Seattle for the third time in a year, performing at The Paramount Theatre Saturday, Sep. 23.

The xx came out of nowhere in 2009 with mumbling noir&B for the Millenial generation, a sound the world didn't know it needed.

Because debut smash album "xx" really was that good, and also because it struck a left-field/likable balance that makes some pop music inherently fun to recommend, "xx" still has legs.

Quiet, non-singing member Jamie Smith is the group's rhythm section and unsung sonic architect. He stands behind a black podium with white X marks on it in concert, pecking at rubber pads and freely stitching drum and bass patterns that snip, crack, and boom.

Seattle music fans might recognize Smith's real-time technique from local hiphop act Shabazz Palaces, or Kanye West — both of whom play MPCs (digital samplers with press-able pads) live.

On the phone from across the ocean last week, Smith said he was unaware of either instance of live MPC use, but spoke about how he got the idea to do what he does.

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Congratulations on winning the Mercury Prize. How does it feel to be a household name in England?

Um, I don't know about household name, yet. But it's nice to be appreciated for what you've done.

Can you talk about your personal musical experience before The xx? I read somewhere that you made hiphop tracks and mixtapes...is that your background?

Yeah, initially it was just listening to soul music. Then I got interested in hiphop, because of the samples that were borrowed from soul music. That inspired me to start making beats, and that's what I did for The xx, for the live show, and then eventually joined.

How do you consider your full role in The xx? On stage, you're obviously the guy who controls drums and bass, but you produced the album, too, right?

Yeah. I guess I see myself more as a producer. I'm not exactly — none of us are exactly — born for the stage. So that's always a bit of an effort, and something we have to work at. But the production side of things, that all happens very naturally.

Which instruments do you control on stage with The xx? Two MPCs and a cymbal?

Three Akai MPCs and a Kaoss pad, and a cymbal, and we have one song with a drum, now.

Where did you get the idea to play an MPC live?

I got an MPC for my 18th birthday, and I went to a rehearsal with the xx and played along. I didn't know how to use it properly, didn't know how to use it production-style, so I just played it live. It was only after the fact that I realized a lot of people don't actually play it like that.

So it was just a convenience thing? You didn't have any philosophy about humanizing the beats?

No. I mean, they asked me to drum for them, but I wanted to do something original, because I thought their sound was so original. So I guess that's another thing to do with the MPC.

Oh, they initially asked you to play a traditional drum kit?

Yeah.

Where do the sounds in your samplers come from?

I create them from sampling my record collection. I usually layer ten samples to get a sound.

So you're really finding the sounds just like a hiphop producer would.

Yeah. I love doing that.

Can you talk about the specific bass sounds that you use and also how they're used in "Stars" and "Fantasy"?

In the set, and in the album, there's not actually that much sub bass. But the fact that we don't use it that much makes it a lot more impactful when it comes in. When we were making the album, that's what I tried to do. To use it sparsely, but use it a lot.

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