AS THE XX GEAR UP TO TOUR THEIR NEW ALBUM, I SEE YOU, Oliver Sim REFLECTS ON A NEW VERSION OF HIMSELF.
It was during The xx’s residency at New York’s Park Avenue Armory in March 2014 that Oliver Sim found out what stardom really looks like.
“Those shows were crazy,” he says of their 25 performances at the former military headquarters on the Upper East Side. “The response we got, the people who came, the whole experience was mindblowing.” Each night – at an event more like an art installation than a gig – the band performed encircled by an audience of just 40 people, who watched them play in complete silence. On the last night, A-list attendees included Jay Z, Beyoncé, Björk, Anohni and filmmakers Wes Anderson and Noah Baumbach.
“Throughout the show I was facing (co-vocalist) Romy, and Madonna was standing directly behind her,” he says, reliving the moment. “Every time my gaze went up an inch, I was staring straight at her. It was surreal.”
Recognition and the sense of worth it brings is a central theme of The xx’s stunning new album, I See You. Recorded in Texas, New York, Los Angeles and Reykjavík as well as London, it sees this extravagantly talented South London trio – Sim, co-vocalist/guitarist Romy Madley-Croft and programmer Jamie Smith – fully embracing their role as global players.
“We wanted songs we could sing out,” says Sim, acknowledging the galvanising effect Smith’s solo success with the rave-centric In Colour as Jamie xx had on the band. “We feel a lot more confident now. We want people to connect with the music and with us as people.”
While its predecessors – 2009’s xx and 2012’s Coexist – only contained arrangements the band could reproduce live, I See You is full of sonic surprises. From brassy opener Dangerous and the Hall & Oates sampling On Hold to the spooked space-gospel of Test Me, it nods to club culture while maintaining their trademark emotional intensity. As we’ll discover, however, for pop’s premier wallflowers learning to look the world in the eye hasn’t been easy.
London Fields, 3 January 2017, and the sky is the colour of a flooded ashtray. It’s the first day back at work after the holidays, and a chance to catch up on the events of the last fortnight. Like the rest of the music community, Sim is still reeling from the death of George Michael on Christmas Day.
For The xx, the star’s music holds a special significance. When Sim and Madley-Croft started making music as naïve 14-year-olds at the music-focused Elliott School in Putney, an early staple of their set was a cover of Wham’s Wake Me Up Before You Go-Go.
“I’m a huge fan, we did it because that song is fun,” he says. “It was easier in the beginning not to take ourselves too seriously.”
“[Kanye West] told us that our music reminded him of Steve Jobs, who’d taken something as big as the computer and put it into a cell phone” – Oliver Sim
You sense that Michael must have loved The xx. With its minimalist beats and murmured vocals, their debut ushered in a new kind of suburban soul music: intimate, yet desolate. Sultry and seductive, the intertwining voices of Sim and Madley-Croft made the listener feel as though they were eavesdropping on private conversations as they quarrelled, confessed and made up. Yet the simmering sexual tension was illusory – both, like Michael, are gay.
Winner of the Mercury Prize and one of only three gold-certified debuts by a British band in the last decade – along with Mumford & Sons, and One Direction – The xx’s stripped-bare sound quickly became a byword for understated cool. Sampled by Rihanna for Drunk on Love, covered by Shakira and an atmospheric staple of TV (CSI, Grey’s Anatomy, Gossip Girl), their ability to express complex emotions in a simple way was summed up by Kanye West after one of the Armory shows.
“He told us that our music reminded him of Steve Jobs, who’d taken something as big as the computer and put it into a cell phone,” says Sim with a grin. “Was he right? It’s not really for me to say, is it?”
Oliver Sim, 26, has the languid delivery of a latenight radio DJ and the dashing good looks of a 40s matinée idol. Scrupulously polite, he exudes a warmth rarely found in pop stars. He’s also immaculately dressed. Today his 6ft 2in frame comes swathed in black turtleneck, trousers and boots, all by Ann Demeulemeester, giving the impression that he’s arrived off the catwalk rather than from his East London flat, ten minutes away. He modelled for Dior Homme last year, and is passionate about the relationship between fashion and music.
“I think they can feed into each other so much,” he says, citing the example of gender-fluid Venezuelan producer Arca as someone willing to push the sartorial boundaries. “One of my favourite movies is Depeche Mode 101. Seeing these English musicians walking around small-town America in fetish gear – it’s such a bold image.”
A teenage fan of James Dean – “I liked the Hollywood rumours about him; the love affairs with men, that he was a masochist” – Sim’s first pop-star crush was Chris Isaak. “I remember seeing the video for Wicked Game and thinking, ‘Now that is a cool man,’” he recalls. “I had the same feeling when I saw Josh Homme. They made me excited, made me think, ‘That’s how I want to be.’”
“I remember seeing the video for Wicked Game and thinking, ‘Now that is a cool man. I had the same feeling when I saw Josh Homme. They made me excited, made me think, ‘That’s how I want to be’” – Oliver Sim
Equally inspired by the look of 90s R’n’B artists The Fugees, D’Angelo and En Vogue – “I’ve never seen wearing black as a goth thing, to me it’s chic” – his own signature look is central to The xx’s carefully cultivated image.
“The xx do simple things very well,” explains Imogen Snell, creative consultant at label Young Turks. “They’re consistent and there’s a wonderful confidence to that. Oliver personally has a wide appeal. He’s confident, charming and beautiful, but also has a wonderful gentle sensitivity – as well as being incredibly down to earth and kind.”
If Sim appears to have been born with impeccable taste, blame his parents. Raised in a council flat in South London by his mum (a social worker) and father (a charity administrator), he was encouraged to express himself from an early age. His dad – a fan of Talking Heads – brought him his first bass, while his mum took him to his first gig, The White Stripes at Brixton Academy.
Friends with Madley-Croft since nursery school – their parents were close – it was natural for the pair to play music together. Both cripplingly shy, they would initially exchange song ideas by email, with no ambition, at least on Sim’s part, to take it any further. “I left school thinking I wanted to be a nomad,” he says, almost wistfully. “Free-floating. Of course things didn’t work out like that.”
Signed by record label XL at 17, The xx were internationally famous while still teenagers. “We had no idea what was going on. We were thrown into it,” he says, recalling a rabbit-in-the-headlights showcase at New York’s CMJ in October 2009, reviewed by Pitchfork with the words: “Their live presence is not exactly dynamic.”
“We were promoting the album and we just didn’t have the answers,” he remembers. “Where does the simplicity come from? Where does the space come from? The truth was that those things happened through mistakes, who we are as people, and our own limitations.”
“I learned that I need something: not a routine, but a structure. Being idle is not my friend. I did a lot of regrettable things…” – Oliver Sim
When The xx’s global touring commitments finally came to a close in 2014, Sim suddenly found himself at a loose end. “It was the most anti-climactic feeling,” he says, running his fingers through his hair. “We’d been on the road for so long with a tour manager looking after us and telling us where to go and suddenly I didn’t have that.”
With Madley-Croft temporarily relocating to Los Angeles and Smith promoting In Colour worldwide, Sim filled the void by plunging headlong into the capital’s nightlife. “I wanted to celebrate being back in London – get a bit of life in me,” he says, choosing his words carefully. “I wouldn’t change it, but it wasn’t necessarily successful. I learned that I need something: not a routine, but a structure. Being idle is not my friend. I did a lot of regrettable things…”
This self-destructive side of his personality reveals itself on I See You. “Am I too needy, am I too eager?” he sings in Say Something Loving, while the spectral Replica hints at an uncomfortable reconciliation. “Twenty-five and you’re just like me,” he sighs. “Is it in my nature to be stuck on repeat?”
While he doesn’t go into details, it took private interventions from his band mates to make him seek help. He’s been off alcohol for a year. “I’m in the programme,” he says, referring to the 12-steps of the AA. “I go to meetings. It’s fine. But I’m still figuring out how to celebrate.”
Spending an hour with the sparky, energised Sim, it’s clear sobriety suits him. He enthuses about Duncan Macmillan’s 2016 play about addictive urges, People, Places and Things and cites Trumbo – about blacklisted Hollywood screenwriter Dalton Trumbo – as the last film he saw; his New Year’s resolution, he says, is to “read more”. Being clean has also brought some unexpected bonuses. When The xx played across Europe in December, it was the first time he’d played live without having had a drink. “Booze took away a lot of the nerves but it also dampened the highs,” he explains. “I’m not sure if it’s a spiritual thing, but when I’m up there it’s really intense. The connection with the audience is the strongest thrill there is.”
It’s time to go. But there’s one last thing. Rather than play arenas in support of I See You, Sim explains they’re deliberately playing smaller, more intimate venues, including a record-breaking seven-night run at Brixton Academy. For Sim these shows will have a special significance. “I can still remember staring Jack White in the face,” he says, recalling the thrill of seeing The White Stripes there at 14. “Those are the things you don’t forget. The album title is a message to the fans, saying that we can definitely spot them when we’re on stage.”
For Oliver Sim – songwriter, musician, model, A-list magnet and all-round pop visionary – it’s all about recognition. He says goodbye, offers a firm handshake, and strides away down the corridor. He’s got people to see.
Hair Anthony Turner at Art Partner; Make-up Thomas de Kluyver at Art Partner; Set design Emma Roach at Streeters; Photographic assistants Lex Kembery, Matthew Healy, Simon Mackinlay, Dougal MacArthur; Styling assistants Reuben Esser, Rhys Davies, Steph Francis; Hair assistant Claire Grech; Make-up assistant Joel Babicci; Set design assistant Warwick Turner-Noakes.