The xx On Growing Up Without Growing Apart

Jan 6, 2017

Maintaining a long-term relationship can be difficult, but Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith have managed to do it — and they've become megastars in the process. They make up the band The xx, and they've been making music together since they were kids.

The band's two singers, Croft and Sim, met in preschool in a London suburb when they were only 3 years old. "They had music classes, and I remember sharing a xylophone in that music class," Sim says. "I've also got pictures of it, so I'm sure I'm building memories off a picture."

Croft says another old photo of the two of them sticks out to her. "There's one of us standing on a bench as if we're sort of on a stage. Oliver's on the side that he stands on [when we perform] and I'm on the side that I stand on, which is quite a beautiful coincidence, I think," Croft says.

Their friendship with the third member of The xx, producer Jamie Smith, began a bit later, when the trio was 11 years old. The three formed a tight-knit and insular crew.

"I was starting out a new school, and Romy and Oliver had come to a new school as well," Smith says. "There were only a few people there that I liked, so I was quite happy just to stay us. I think just keeping your closest friends around is the best."

The trio released its debut album, xx, in 2009, and has sold millions of records since then. All three bandmates have grown in different ways: Smith released a solo album under the name Jamie xx; Sim gave up drinking; Croft got engaged. Now, the group has a new album called I See You coming out Jan. 13.

Croft says one song on the new record, called "Test Me," touches on the challenges of close friendships. She says the lyrics describe "a sort of hard time in our friendship, between Oliver and I — and a time when all three of us were quite distant from each other emotionally and geographically."

But Croft says those challenges led to some important changes. "It sort of represents a new time of us actually talking about things rather than just pushing them down, and I think that was a good thing," Croft says. "Sometimes we would say things to each other in the music before we could say it to each other."

Croft, Sim and Smith shared these and other stories with NPR's Ari Shapiro. Hear their full conversation at the audio link.

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ARI SHAPIRO, HOST:

Growing up without growing apart can be difficult for anyone. We're going to talk now with three people who have managed to do it. They've been making music together since they were children and become megastars in the process. I'm talking about the band The xx.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "SAY SOMETHING LOVING")

THE XX: (Singing) Say something loving. I just don't remember the thrill of affection.

SHAPIRO: The trio is Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith. The two singers, Romy and Oliver, met in preschool in a London suburb when they were only three years old.

OLIVER SIM: They had, like, music classes, and I remember sharing a xylophone with Romy in that music class. And yeah, I've also got pictures of it. So I'm sure I'm building memories off a picture.

ROMY MADLEY CROFT: There's one of us standing on a bench as if we're sort of on a stage. And Oliver's on the side that he stands on, and I'm on the side that I stand on, which is quite a beautiful coincidence I think.

SHAPIRO: The two of them met Jamie when they were much older - 11.

SIM: We met on the induction day before school even started. And we were - yet we were in the same art class, and we sat next to each other.

JAMIE SMITH: There you go. I didn't remember the specifics.

SIM: Yeah, I remember exactly.

CROFT: So handy - Oliver's memory is just so helpful to us all (laughter).

SHAPIRO: As adults, the awards have rolled in. Their first album sold millions of copies and inspired other bands. And all three of them have changed. Jamie released a solo album. Oliver gave up drinking. Romy got engaged. Now the group has a new album coming out next week called "I See You."

(SOUNDBITE OF UNIDENTIFIED THE XX SONG)

THE XX: (Singing) Just your love, just your shadow, just your voice...

SHAPIRO: I wanted to know how these three have managed to grow up without growing apart - turns out it's a lot like any long-term relationship.

CROFT: We've probably spent more time together than we have done with our own families (laughter) in the past five years.

SMITH: This is Jamie. When I was starting at a new school - and Romy and Oliver had come to a new school as well - I don't think I wanted to hang out with that many people. There were only a few people there that I liked. So I was quite happy just to stay us. I think just keeping your closest friends around is the best.

SHAPIRO: I think it's easy for people to assume that one grows up and remains friends easily. But I mean when I look at the lyrics to your songs, it doesn't sound like it's been easy at all.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEST ME")

THE XX: (Singing) I don't know where I went wrong. Tell me should I see someone.

SHAPIRO: Romy, you wrote a song called "Test Me" on this new album. Is it about each other?

CROFT: (Laughter) Well, I guess I kind of feel like we've got to a place where we're comfortable to say that that specific song is about each other. In the past, we've really not wanted to share the sort of the ins and outs of what the songs mean to us because as fans of music, we've really loved having the lyrics of other people's songs as our own and fitting them into our lives.

And - but with a song like that, it sort of just came out I guess that that was written by me about a sort of - a hard time in our friendship - between Oliver and I - and at a time when all three of us were quite distant from each other emotionally and geographically.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "TEST ME")

THE XX: (Singing) I'll take it out on you. It's easier than talking it through. Test me. See if I stay. How could I walk the other way?

CROFT: It was very cathartic to write it. And it sort of represents a new time of us actually talking about things rather than just pushing them down. And I think it was a good thing.

SHAPIRO: Do you think that's one of the things that's enabled you not to split apart - is the decision to talk about things rather than push them down?

CROFT: I think that we have really struggled with talking about things. On one hand, knowing each other for so long I think you build up this sort of intuition, which is incredible when making music. And there's so many times we don't even have to talk, and it sort of is understood.

But I think in terms of our personal lives, you can almost end up assuming things about each other. We've had to really work at that. But I think that writing the songs, sometimes we would say things to each other in the music before we could say to each other.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A VIOLENT NOISE")

THE XX: (Singing) If I'm beating every hand away, no one stays. I've got so cautious.

SIM: Songs like "A Violent Noise" definitely - it's one of the earliest songs on the album. And I wrote it while we were still touring "Coexist." So it was...

SHAPIRO: The previous album, yeah.

SIM: Yeah. I think it's a lot of - a big thing that I've been sort of facing is adulthood. We spent most of our 20s just really go, go, go, go, go. And then coming home from - and kind of wrapping up our second album was our first opportunity to kind of be still and be home. And I think just - this age of 25, 26, 27 is quite a fight-or-flight, really kind of dealing with yourself age.

SHAPIRO: At the risk of getting too personal - and if you'd rather not discuss this, that's fine. Oliver, is this a song about sobriety?

SIM: Maybe the beginning's because it was at a point where I was still kind of fighting my side that I was still drinking successfully. It's just kind of the idea of, you know, am I celebrating, or am I escaping?

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "A VIOLENT NOISE")

THE XX: (Singing) Not to feel - am I too high? Am I too proud? Is the music too loud for me to hear? Now I go out, but every beat is a violent noise. (Unintelligible) with every beat comes a violent noise.

SHAPIRO: When you perform on stage, there is such an intimacy that comes across listening to the music, watching you perform. It's obviously not a romantic intimacy. Oliver and Romy, you're both gay. How would you describe what that intimacy is?

CROFT: I mean, I guess one thing that comes to mind, which is maybe - I think there's, like, so much support and confidence that comes from the three of us being up there together. And that's informed the way that we perform.

When Oliver started moving a bit more - you know, when I realized that, that sort of encouraged me to start doing it. And then Jamie started moving. And then the fact that we're all there together - I think that's something I really cherish.

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "HOLD ON")

THE XX: (Singing) I don't blame you. We got carried away. I can't hold on.

SHAPIRO: Well, it's been a pleasure speaking with you. Thank you so much for your time.

CROFT: Thank you very much.

SMITH: Thanks very much.

CROFT: Thank you.

SHAPIRO: Romy Madley Croft, Oliver Sim and Jamie Smith are The xx. The new album is called "I See You."

(SOUNDBITE OF SONG, "ON HOLD")

THE XX: (Singing) I thought I had you on hold. Where does it stop? Where does it stop? Where do you dare me to? You've got the body. You've got the body to dare me to. Where does it stop? Where does it stop? Where do you dare me to? Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.