On going solo, The xx, Gil Scott-Heron

Jamie XX is the cover star of the June issue of Clash Magazine (read all about it HERE), below you can read the full transcript of our lengthy with the man known to his mum as Jamie Smith as he talks about solo material, Gil Scott-Heron, The xx's second album and the state of the UK electronic music scene.

So you’re just off the plane from Israel where you were DJing. But when did you start?

I always played instruments when I was younger, but both of my uncles were DJs so they gave me a pair of turntables when I was 10 and I started from there. But I never played gigs for a long time. Then I started to DJ at a bar in Camden, this was before The xx, one bar was called Lock 17 and the other one was called Under Solo – then I was DJing soul and jazz,

Your DJ career has really taken off. You must have played most the major towns and cities… what picture would you paint of Britain’s dance culture in 2011?

I think a lot of people are open to a lot more stuff than just UK sounds, which I have been discovering more and more. I have been playing less UK music, but its music that has been spawned out of the British scene. But here you can really go deeper into weird genres that people haven’t heard before but they are still into it, which is nice. In Europe I have found that people are way more stuck, hung up on one particular sound, usually from their region. I think when people come and see me play in the UK they expect me to play lots of garage and dubstep but I have been trying to get deeper and deeper into 10 minute long house and techno and electro tracks. It’s way more fun for me to DJ that sort of stuff, to get way more into it – to dance with everyone rather than just play hit after hit, doing spin backs and cuts.

I can imagine when you started getting booked as ‘Jamie xx’ lots of people would have been expecting you to play loads of indie music?

Yes. That’s dissipating now really. Though there was one gig a few months ago when they put The xx on the bill but it was just me DJing, But that’s not good for the club, nor for me because no-one gets what they expect.

Your debut EP is coming out on Numbers, and you’ve been up to Glasgow to play. What was your experience?

I really, really loved it actually. I didn’t realise there was such a big scene and that Numbers went back so far under different names. It was great to hang out in Rub-a-dub records and just listen to music. Overall it was a little bit lairy (laughs), like I got a full pint of beer thrown at me!

I think that’s a compliment in Glasgow!

Yeah, but while I was DJing and it went all over my records. (sighs) but that’s part of the fun. Then we went to an amazing house party afterwards.

What other cities have you really felt there’s a good vibe?

Manchester is always great, really enjoy playing there. They have a leading club scene. Sometimes I enjoy it more than London for clubs. Here, if you want to hear a lot of different music in one night then its lots of long trips around, that are very expensive. But in Manchester its really close, and there loads of great clubs. Bristol is always great. I’d never really enjoyed playing in Leeds much but last night was really good, in fact it was up there with the best gigs, it was at The Mint club. I started playing new UK stuff like Hessle Audio, tried to play some Leeds producers then just techno and house before bashment at the end (smiles shyly). I find northern crowds more responsive than London crowds, and I try to play classic stuff, or at least music that doesn’t matter that its old, it stands the test of time.

Have you developed a few close relationships with other DJs for sharing stuff, swapping killer tracks?

Yeah, well Ramadanman came down last night, it was great to hang out with him, he gave me a bunch of new records. I’ve been hanging out with Sam Floating Points a lot as well.

So what do your uncles say now that you are a globe trotting DJ?

I think they are proud uncles but I am not sure. I don’t really see them very often anymore. They both still work in music, one of them works at a radio station and for MTV whilst the other one lives in New York and still DJs playing latin and soul music.

What was the greatest advice they gave you?

(Laughs!) I am not sure they gave me any advice. I looked up to them though, I remember I went to see my uncle DJ in a club when I was like seven years old, it was really cool to be there, to experience something like that in new York at that age. I think it might have been in the Cake Shop

What about your parents? Were they into music?

Well, they were a bit past the DJ age. They really don’t get it. But my Dad played drums and they both loved music. All the first music I heard was them playing their old jazz and soul records. Eventually I inherited, or rather stole their record collection.

UK scene: If you were charged with giving the UK dance scene a health check, what would be your diagnosis?

I like the fact that it’s so convoluted now. It seems like there isn’t even a thread to follow now. Most recently you can tell that Chicago House has been a massive influence, with Joy Orbison’s latest release which is completely hard house, its great! There’s loads of stuff on Hessle Audio now as well that’s very ‘jukey’. I think as well that after Ramadanman / Pearson Sound came out with his best stuff then a lot of producers got hung up on that and tried to follow his style too much. I don’t think that was a very good thing, it was a great thing for Ramadanman but not for everyone else. I think there was a period last year when Juke was getting really big so everything was getting boring, but we have come away from that now. Also there was a period when James Blake was blowing up then there was a lot of people trying to imitate him, and it may always go like that.

Is dubstep over as a genre?

I think the word is. You cant really say ‘dubstep’ anymore without there being certain connotations. But there is still very innovative halfstep music out there but I don’t think its called Dubstep anymore. There is a guy called Object from Leeds who makes really classic, old dubstep but makes it really well. He’s good.

Who else has got your ear at the moment?

I also really like Koreless from Glasgow, he was who I was hanging out with when I was up there. His music is really really simple. Its pretty much just vocal samples and standard 808 drum arrangements. But its beautifully done and with a lot of space, he has his own sound even though its really simple. I really like Blawan, and there’s a girl from Montreal called Grimes, I saw her at SXSW, it was so homemade but so great.

What trends aren’t you liking at the moment in clubland?

I really don’t like the way that the whole US pop scene are taking their influence from Rusko and angry dubstep. Though he has done well out of it. I have always been surprised at how when I am DJing in the less obvious American cities then people react really well. Places like Portland, Boston and Philadelphia rather than LA or New York or Miami. Those first places I always had a really good time and they especially reacted to weird rhythms. Maybe this is because these rhythms hit the bigger cities first and they were over them, whilst in the smaller places the people savoured them more. Or maybe because more independent music comes out of smaller places… I don’t know.

In the UK, do you feel that trends and music moves too quickly?

No, I like how quickly it all moves. There is just so much music out there. I definitely cant listen to enough. I like the fact that in two months I can go into Plastic People and between the two occasions the music has evolved already.

I feel that things are given enough time to be truly appreciated these days. Everyone is so quick to drool over the latest trend.

Yeah, but that is bound to happen these days, especially with in the digital age. I think the best music still emerges at the top.

Can you name 10 or so producers that you are loving at the moment?

- Koreless
- David Ramadanman
- Ben UFO
- Grimes
- Jai Paul
- Sampha and Koreless
- Youandewan
- Greenwood Sharps
- Dafid Ifans

Were you ever into grime?

Definitely. I was listening grime more then dubstep a few years ago. The stuff I heard at (the club) Mass…. Like the first stuff I heard in Brixton was when I first started going out. They’d just play grime instrumentals, which is what dubstep evolved out of. And our tour photographer, Jamie James Medina used to photograph the whole grime scene, all the RinseFM dudes, so he collected old grime records and he gave me PILES of great grimes vinyl’s. They are so nice to have.

Do you think grime has much of a future now?

I think it has a massive future. But not in the underground, All the people that were doing grime did it because they loved the mainstream stuff. There was so many people trying to make rap music, and it hard for people to get to that point. But they are finally there, at that massive place, I think Wiley pretty much invented that whole sound, and he needs to have more credit.

How do you feel about UK Funky?

I think its pretty much over. Some of the better records influenced some deeper music, like with the whole soca rhythm thing. And there’s some good house music going about now with those same rhythms but I always saw UK Funky as having cheap production. I never really got into it.

I could never fully believe that funky was the next chain in the lovely line of evolution that had traversed hardcore, jungle, garage, grime then dubstep.
It’s just a side element to it all, its definitely fading out. Though DJ Kismet, doing dubbage, that all came out of UK funky. Their dubbage parties sound really cool, though I cant get in because you have to be over 23. I’d really like to go.

How do you feel about dancehall or lack of in the UK?

I am just completely surprised that it hasn’t taken off here. Still people aren’t doing it. Harmonic 313 did a couple of records at that tempo with those rhythms, whenever I play them in a club it always goes off. My Adele remix got quite big so I was expecting more DJs to be playing more stuff like that, but no.

Then we have house music, which you seem to have a growing appreciation of.

I think that happens to all DJs. I got into house like most other people, going to club and wanting to have a proper dance. I love the 4/4 rhythm and making something interesting around that structure, that same standard thing that’s in every house track. It way more hard to make something unique that way than already having an interesting rhythm to start with. So when you hear something good, then you know it’s really good.

Its amazing to see house still today keep re-infecting scenes. Like Julio Bashmore seems to have gotten the whole of Bristol into House!

Yeah I DJ’d at this warehouse party a few weeks ago that was all house and techno, Floating Points and Fantastic Mr Fox were both playing but it was a weird crowd, loads of dreadlocks, it felt more like a cyber rave, it wasn’t what I expected but whatever…. It’s all good music.

And then there’s garage, and you seem to be driving a bit of a revival in this area with your productions?

Well, its always interesting because there was never any US music that used the garage rhythm, they never got into 2-step, and I always liked it. But I haven’t been listening to that much new garage. I loved going to record shops, trawling through white labels and finding tunes that you have no idea who even made them. I like to drop a couple of those into a set. I find it interesting because its NOT 4/4 but still really danceable. It has a lot of R+B influence, I got into R&B through Ollie in the xx.

Were you aware of how big UK garage was the first time around?

Yeah, I had a good friend at school whose sister was really into it. He bought me a few big records like ‘Body Groove’ by Architechs, really poppy garage. Which now sounds great. Back then I wasn’t too sure. But now I al really glad that he got me all these original records that I have.

I think people may easily see you as one of the producers keen to bring it back with the rhythms you use. But its not deliberate?

No, not really. I don’t really think about it. I find that if I think about my music too much when I am making it then I completely lose the plot, I begin to hate it then I have to get rid of it. The only stuff that I put out I have made quickly, whilst the stuff I have been working on for months I know that I will never finish them. Unless it flows then I’ll hate it eventually. The good stuff comes out quick.

So how long for example did it take to make the Adele remix?

Like, two days? But that was because that vocal was so strong. When they played me the track when I was on tour I instantly knew what I was going to do, I could just hear it underneath.

Are you aware of any other modern producers that are as keen on garage rhythms as you?

Hhhm. Not really to be honest. I was aware two years ago but I feel that now its done. And that now an old, good dubstep revival is happening, like I said before.. people playing really good, old grime instrumentals. Even Martyn who plays a lot of house and techno has started playing old grime, just a bassline and beat, its really deep stuff. Like the new deep house.

You seem to have a very good understanding of cycles and the flow of generations. But do you feel that the cycles and revivals are happening too quickly now?

I do feel that, but maybe that’s because I am young and haven’t lived through the first cycle. I am sure there are cycles WITHIN the cycles! From collecting albums you are aware of a broad sound, but I think if you grew up within that sound then it would be different. Like if I grew up within the late ‘60s and ‘70s during the whole soul music thing then there would be whole sections that seemed quite distinct from each other.

Another generational / cyclic experience would be your Gil Scott Heron remix album, which went very well. How do you feel about it five months on?

I was amazed at how well that went. I just thought that it was going to be another remix and I wasn’t expecting them to promote it like my album, so I was really happy with it. I haven’t listened to it since it came out though. I was just happy that Gil liked it enough to put it out.

I was interested to read that you were very keen that the album was 50% you and 50% Gil Scott. This, even now you’ve pulled it off, seems a little bolshy! Was Richard Russell involved in that decision?

Well, like with all my remixes, I wouldn’t be very happy if I just messed around with someone else’s sounds. I need to do something with it that I am proud of, that sounds like me, that has an element of the original. I have never been into remixes that sounds just similar, so I wasn’t going to change that for Gil either. Richard’s album complimented Gil in a certain way. I wanted my album to be completely different.

What did Richard say? What were his words as he handed over his baby?

We were at an exhibition where someone had made an installation of our album, I was really drunk and we spoke for about an hour. That was the main dialogue. But I can’t remember what we were saying. He did say before that the xx album did influence the production of his Gil album because we were in the studio at XL when he was in the studio at home with Gil, so we’d hear bit of his album and he’d hear bit of ours. And that’s why he asked me to produce the remix album, we were all completely involved.

Had you spoken to Richard much before this?

Yeah, I don’t usually get on that well with many people, or rather I am not often that able to talk to people, but with Richard I really can. I suppose we are into the same music, we just get each other.

Were you aware of his history as a producer?

No, not at all. I mean I knew about the Prodigy and the rave side. I didn’t know his records and his DJing.

I think for a lot of younger people Richard’s working with Gil Scott really opened up his past as a producer and how crucial he was in the hardcore scene. Which used to have a bad association. I think people are much more accepting now that hardcore was a crucial moment in British dance music.
Yeah, there’s a club on my road in Brixton called 414 that still only plays hardcore from the 90s that is open every Friday and Saturday till 10am. It’s fun to go to sometimes.

What was the most scary element to working on Gil Scott Heron’s LP?
I didn’t think about it, if I started thinking too much it wouldn’t have worked. I listened to what Gil was saying on the album, but I couldn’t think about who he was or what had done in the past. It was only after that I had finished it, that I had met him and he had heard it that it dawned on me, so I did it naively - which works. And it works for The xx as well, working in a naive way. We didn’t have a clue what was going on when we made that record.

What was the most surprising thing?

Um… just how well it was received. And how willing XL were to make it a massive thing. XL are to blame, in a big big way for our success. They really love music, completely. I don’t think there are that many labels that are that genuine.

What was it like hanging out with Gil on a person to person level? What were you preconceptions? And what was the reality?

It was pretty scary watching him, and he looks like a scary guy. But when talking to him, he’s really nice and down to earth. I didn’t speak to him for that long. I don’t think that he gets on with many people either, so it was a bit hard for me to speak to him. He gets on with Richard really well, which is why the whole thing worked.

Much has been made over the last 2 years of the space that’s opened up in music. The xx have been credited for paving the way for a new era of pop music that is as reliant on silence as it is for noise. Do you feel that your solo work fits into that as well?

I think people who are fans of the xx could be fans of me but its not necessarily connected. But its really hard to talk about your development of sound because as an artist you just don’t really think about it. That’s how the music comes about. When ever you try and talk about the music, to try and pull meaning out of the music then it doesn’t really work. But maybe our album did open up the door somewhat for James, but still, he had that whole other side, that was completely original, its amazing.

I am just loving how sparse pop music can be now. I never saw it coming.

Yeah, but you can still hear that part in old Factory records releases and stuff from that era. I just think it might be another revival under a different name.

Why do you think the public have been so willing to embrace subtler music that several years ago they would have spurned?

We don’t know. We have no idea about this. We are very appreciative of the support but we can’t understand why the public has embraced our music so deeply. Maybe because there was so much over production going on in the last 10 years that its refreshing to have something that’s not purposefully produced to sound like it was made in a bedroom. It was actually made in our bedroom.

What have been the conversations with the other two about the second album?

We haven’t really talked about it. We just started making music again. We have studio just down the road, a cave with no windows, and just two amps. We wanted a really simple set up again so we didn’t over do it. It’s going slowly but well – like the last one did.

The last time we spoke you told me that the first album was written late at night, sending parts on messenger and working closely but also apart.

That’s pretty much it. We all start separately and then send bits, then we come together in the studio and the song completely changes. So we have been doing it like that pretty much the same this time, except without having to go to school! And that’s a fact that I hope things will move a little more quickly. And that gives us more time to work on exactly what we want to do.

How do you see the second album differing? Are there any words that sum up the collective feeling?

Oliver has this bassline that he’s been playing where he can change between the sound of the first album and the sound of the second album – and it gets slightly darker. And maybe more dance influence in there.

How do you feel that you have changed in the last two years as an artist?

I feel like I know what I am doing way more. But that may not be a good thing since the naivety of the first album was a really big part of it. Now also I am open to a whole new world of music that I probably hated before. Now I love it all, the last two years has made me a lot more appreciative of all of that music.

And how would you say you’ve changed as a person?

I’m lot’s more confident. I am able to talk to people slightly better.

Were you really shy before?

Yeah, I think so. Well I know I was yes. But not with my close friends. Before I didn’t really meet that many people. Now I meet….. SO MANY people.

Do you worry that all three of you had something so concentrated, isolated and focussed – but after two years of travelling around the world and being opened up to so many new things may damage that voodoo you mange to attain?

Yes. That is the worry. (pauses) but we had a short break in London where we lived like we would have if it were three years ago. We acted like kids, because we didn’t get that before. We just went away on tour. So we had a break, and found time to get back to our normal lives. And it worked out I think, we are back together making music that we really like and we’re not considering other people.

How do you feel the other two have changed as people?

Ha… I am not sure we’ve changed as people towards each other. Looking at the world I think we have just grown up a bit.

How would you say your song writing has changed?

Well, Ollie and Romy, lyrically they have sort of swapped! Romy used to be quite mystical and Ollie was quite straight up and literal. But now they seemed to have crossed paths and now they are doing opposites, which might affect again how the next record sounds.

What are your ambitions now as a song writer?

I just want to do stuff that I have never done before, that was my motto at the start of the year. I want to work with some people that I really like and make some pop music, act as a producer. I want to make my own music as Jamie xx and then make a second album that sounds like The xx should. This Numbers release I made last year, so it’s been a long time coming out. And it feels quite old to me now. Next I want to do a bunch of consecutive releases that sound like they are progressing. I want to do an EP that sounds exactly where I am right now.

What gives you the most anxiety these days?

Phew. Finishing music really. I have been thinking too much about it really, I have been finding it really hard to finish music. But not as The xx, that’s been flowing really well. So I think I need to concentrate on The xx and leave my own music for a while.

What your biggest fear?

Not sure, I guess having to go back to setting up your won stage. Something stupid like that again. Going back to doing really small, horrible gigs where people don’t listen to your music. Again. But if it didn’t work out then I don’t think we’d go back to that. We would just start to make different music


This interview appears in the current issue of Clash Magazine, out now. Read more about the new issue HERE.

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