Softly spoken South Londoner Jamie Smith, aka Jamie xx, sits hands in black jacket, ankles crossed. We shake hands on the sun’s flood through the top window at XL’s HQ—it’s an unusually bright day in West London as Smith’s busy winter turns brightly toward an even busier spring, both for his band, The xx, and his solo work. Smith looks and sounds a little fatigued—he’s just finished his first solo LP; he’s working on a ballet; and he’s about to head over to BBC Radio 1 to lay down a session. There’s still a giddiness beneath the surface, though—and I suspect Smith would much rather be making music than talking about making it. And he doesn’t look the type to nap.
As one-third of the Mercury prize winners, The xx, Putney-born Smith creates beats and produces; as Jamie xx, he remixes, DJs, scores ballets. A life in music began at school where fellow band members Romy and Oliver first nurtured their talents by ducking class. What was it about the Elliott School that birthed a handful of this generation’s leading dance acts? “I don’t know—but it wasn’t very good,” he says. “It was a horrible, massive comprehensive [state school], not a music school. The only place you could hide if you were skipping lessons was in the music rooms. So we went there and played.”
Now The xx is preparing a hideaway into the studio a third time for their next album—but before that, Smith is hard at work finalizing a ballet score commissioned by the Manchester International Festival, ahead of its world tour. This adaptation of Jonathan Safran Foer’s ‘book as artifact’ Tree of Codes will see Smith collaborate with choreographer Wayne McGregor and artist Olafur Eliasson in an abstract imagining of the book’s cut-up/cut-out montage. It may be the ultimate in seemingly unadaptable texts, but for all that, perhaps this incarnation of contemporary dance isn’t miles away from Smith’s musical roots.
“It’s a nice balance, and it’s been quite freeing,” he says, “because it’s more like writing a story in music than having to concentrate on concise structures, which I’ve never done before.” Tree of Codes isn’t exactly what you’d call readable, he admits, at least not in the traditional sense. “The book itself is visually enchanting, and the music’s based on the structure of the pages and how the words are cut out to look like rhythms.” As Smith shuffles on the sofa, I recall the Jackson Pollock line: “My concern is with the rhythms of nature.”
The festival organizers expect him to turn in his work any day now, he chuckles, but having just completed his debut solo record (to be released this summer), Smith is relaxed. Having the opportunity to make a 20-minute backing track for a ballet, “essentially a stream of consciousness,” he says, has given him a reducing valve for the debut-solo angst. “I was just pouring everything out—all the frustrations of trying to finish a record—back into making music again, which was really satisfying.”
Perennial change seems Smith’s most comfortable mode. “I just want to do more stuff that helps me learn and progress. If I want to keep doing what I’m doing, and what we’re doing as a band, you need to progress,” Smith says, simply. “Otherwise there’s no point.”
The sun begins to set through the upstairs as Smith speaks of the two intertwining worlds he straddles as both a pop name and as a DJ: the disorienting sphere of commercial mania on one side, and what appears to be the more appealing underground on the other. “The whole pop world is very odd,” he says, speaking of collaborations with household names. “It has its place, but I don’t necessarily like it. There’s just a lot of people involved in making one three-minute song.”
His 2011 collaboration with the late Gil Scott-Heron on We’re New Here suggests perhaps a harbored interest in the political—a third, as yet unearthed, sphere. Smith is reluctant to deal in ‘messages’, he says with sincerity. “That was Gil’s least political record. It was mostly about his family. When people ask about my personal views in interviews, I don’t like to say. I don’t think I have the right—that anybody else should take on board what I have to say, just because I make music.” But he can’t resist: the first inflection comes when he speaks of the demise of his old high school. “They’ve turned it into a private academy now, owned by some big company—and it’s maybe even worse than it was,” he says wryly.
Does he see dance as apolitical? “It is political in a way, especially in London—the clubs and the nightlife. Clubbing especially is being taken apart because all these venues are getting closed down to make room for another apartment block, which people who actually grew up in London can’t afford to live in.”
But forcing the electronic scene underground is only charging it up, whether it desires the political or not. “The great thing about dance music is that it evolves—it’s all about the city. It’s a very urban thing, so it moves with however a city evolves. It’s been a bit stagnant in the UK and in London for a while, but because there’s all this shit about London changing and Soho being destroyed, there might be some sort of movement where people take it on themselves to start in new places further out that will thrive again.”
The people will have to start working it inside out. Again, I think: Pollock (“I work inside out, like nature”). Smith says he hears Tottenham in north London is the ‘new spot.’ “Then a new, exciting dance scene will happen. That’s what I’m hoping anyway.” I say I’m hopeful, as a former-resident, that something might revitalize what’s now an ailing and failing area—but gentrification is creeping in there, too.
It seems the scene is more upbeat in the US, according to Smith. “It’s going from being very commercialized—people who like all that Skrillex-type stuff—to people discovering better electronic music. It’s exciting seeing students come to my gigs there, or seeing people listen to underground dance music from Europe and loving it.”
He’s about to go do that himself now, heading to the BBC. We stand and I go to leave. “Even though dance music is political now, it’s not the reason I make it. I do it because it makes you want to dance, and I like to dance.” We shake hands again and I think: never mind the Pollocks. Electronic is our new nature.