The Silent Insurgent - Jamie XX Interview

The hushed man of electronics
Jmie xx by Samuel John Butt for Clash Magazine
Your mum used to say that it was always the quiet boys you need to watch out for. But Jamie Smith, AKA the hushed man of electronics in The xx, is getting louder and louder.

The xx ripped through our record collection two years ago with a spacious, naïve and beautifully distanced debut. Since then Jamie has grown into a role that as a self-confessed shy boy, he never thought he’d dreamt of playing.

On the eve of his debut solo single (released on the increasingly essential Glasgow label Numbers) we caught Jamie as he emerged fresh off the plane from a DJ gig in Israel and midway to rehearsals for The xx’s second album.

At this juicy crossroads we both sat down in Dalston to give Britain’s bass culture a health check, and run the rule over the endless revivals before delving into his fears that The xx may have lost its vital innocence ahead of writing their sophomore effort.

“When the second xx album drops I’ll miss DJing,” quietly ponders the twenty-two-year-old. “But I really enjoy both sides of the performance, and I never thought I would. I was the quiet kid at school. I never imagined I would be getting up in front of people and playing sets.”

Jamie famously attended Elliot’s Secondary in London, also the proud educators of Hot Chip, Burial and Four Tet, and from this list we suspect the dinner ladies have been shaking in some special ingredients to their culinary creations. Just like these above alumni, Jamie is obsessively engaged in tinkering with the DNA of our thriving dance scene.

Britain’s bass culture is restless. It’s also unnervingly sensitive. Not since the early-’90s when rave splintered so categorically into separate genres has there been so many fledgling sounds to mingle within. Since the ground zero of acid house in 1988 our shores have witnessed an eternal search for a reformatted beat. Now in 2011 we see genres such as funky, juke, future-garage, dubstep, grime and dubbage all slithering and mingling in each other’s shadows and imperceptibly influencing this network of cousinly niche.

Rarely before has our scene lacked such rigidity, or has it been so keen to mutate so quickly, and, fascinatingly, seldom has it defied any sort of description as we have now. Post-dubstep anyone? Fuck off!

“Well, I like the fact that it’s all so convoluted now,” agrees Jamie. “I like how quickly it all moves. It seems like there isn’t even a thread to follow now. There is just so much music out there. I definitely can’t listen to enough. I like the fact that in two months I can go into [Shoreditch club] Plastic People and between the two occasions the music has evolved already.”

One thing is for sure: Jamie Smith is at home in a nightclub. He’s a regular punter at FWD>> and a repeated performer at London’s bass-video-blog-wet-dream that is The Boiler Room; a weekly and exclusive private club session, tactically deployed on a Tuesday evening during pub hours and featuring a who’s who of current bass manoeuvres.

Ironically, Jamie’s creative input into the spaciously arranged xx album brewed the force that unleashed a calm breeze of influence that now blows through clubland two years later. In January Clash’s cover star was James Blake, who deployed his equally quiet revolution in electronic music, adding if anything more space to his throbbing sub-bass epistles. Add in the pregnant pauses of Darkstar, the low-flying intimacy of Pariah and the sparse genius of Actress and there’s a silent wave of sway that now engulfs Jamie as he stands on the dance floor in his beloved Plastic People.

Yet he and his band members remain at a loss as to why listeners were so keen to embrace their serene music, which was so against the noisy trend in August 2009: “We don’t know,” Jamie admits. “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 ten years that it was refreshing to have something that’s not purposefully produced to sound like it was made in a bedroom. Rather it was ACTUALLY made in our bedroom.”

Whatever the cause, Jamie’s MPC sampler has subtly triggered ripples that have brought back new exciting music to his own ears borne from others’ hands. As such we take a quick health check of some his influences found emanating from the nation’s clubs, cars and headphones recently.

First up: was Jamie ever into grime? And where does he stand on it now? “Definitely,” he concurs. “I was listening to grime more then dubstep a few years ago, stuff I heard at [the Brixton club] Mass 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 Rinse FM dudes - so he collected old grime records and he gave me PILES of great grime vinyl. They are so nice to have! Even (DJ) Martyn, who plays a lot of house and techno, has started playing old grime, just a bassline and beat; it’s really deep stuff. It’s like the new deep house.”

Grime had a funny experience over the last twelve months. After many had said the genre was on its knees, it hit the glitz of the charts. Propelled by the fame of Tynchy Stryder, its Radio 1-sponsored acceptable face, a host of others found success such as Tinie Tempah, Skepta and Chipmunk.

So what future does grime have going into the summer of 2011? “I think it has a massive future,” he nods. “But not in the underground. All the people that were doing grime did it because they loved the mainstream stuff. There were so many people trying to make rap music, and it’s 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.”

Secondly: where does he stand on dubstep? Is it over? “I think the word ‘dubstep’ is over. You can’t really say ‘dubstep’ anymore without there being certain connotations. But there is still very innovative half-step music out there, but I don’t think it’s called that anymore.”

Over the last two years, and since The xx crept into our ’pods, the biggest trend (or fad perhaps?) to reap its way through dance music (though predominantly only in London) was the tenuously termed genre of UK funky. Spawning dance moves like the ‘Head, Shoulders, Knees and Toes’ or the ‘Migraine Skank’, it certainly struck a nerve with school kids. But its legacy looks fragile; its busy tribal drums are perhaps just a symptom of a house revival surfacing in an incongruous spot. And Jamie wasn’t impressed either: “I think it’s pretty much over. Some of the better records influenced some deeper music, like with the whole Soca rhythm thing,” the youngster admits. “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, it’s definitely fading out.”

Words by Matthew Bennett
Photo by Samuel John Butt


Read the full interview with Jamie XX in the new issue of Clash Magazine, out now. Read more about the new issue HERE.

Access the digital version of the issue HERE and subscribe to Clash magazine HERE.

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