From band member to producer to in-demand solo act: much has changed for Jamie xx. But his tireless hometown keeps on calling.
London club culture has long been the stuff of musical lore. From the days when northern soul swept the nation, to the explosion of Caribbean immigration and the rich sound system ethos that was in turn integrated and adapted, to the acid house and ecstasy epiphany, the brooding trip-hop soundtrack to bleak inner-city pressures, all the way forward to the garage and dubstep sounds that blossomed out of the cracks in London’s less desirable streets in the past 15 years – the city traditionally shakes to the sound of bass.
Jamie Smith is one of many contemporary musicians to have absorbed these rich rites of dance, whether he experienced it first-hand or in some shape or form down the line. Over the past five years, the London born and based producer has slowly but surely moved in larger, louder concentric circles in the music world as a result of his growing oeuvre that spins these musical and cultural movements in his own resonant, resolutely contemporary silhouette. And for a notoriously softly spoken, demure producer type, he’s made a near-inescapable amount of noise.
First emerging from behind the boards, barely out of his teens, with The xx’s breakthrough debut record xx, Smith broke out from the group under the Jamie xx moniker to produce remixes for artists like Adele and Florence and the Machine, to DJ solo, and eventually to produce a collaborative record with legendary hip-hop beat poet Gil Scott-Heron shortly before the latter’s death. Productions for Rihanna and Alicia Keys followed and then, when one of his productions for Scott-Heron was co-opted by Canadian teen heart-throb Drake for the title track of his all-conquering Take Care album, Jamie xx went from lurking in the shadows with his acclaimed but gun-shy band to the iPod of every after-school sing-along, booming out the windows of every jeep in Brooklyn, to pop radio the world over and to the top of the charts, all with the flip of a beat.
Fast-forward to 2015 and Smith is out in the open, well and truly beyond the monochromatic safety zone of The xx, and is now blasting across the entire spectrum with his debut solo LP, In Colour. A paean to the sounds of London’s grimy streets and holy clubs, transmitting from the pirate radio stations and being mixed in the city’s hallowed DJ booths, In Colour glows with a melancholy ecstasy buzz, celebrates with joyous hands-in-the-air euphoria, and wallows in introspective post-club comedown, a salute to every phase of a long night on the town he calls home. Shimmering with steel drums, rumbling with dubstep bottom end and moving with the voices of his bandmates in The xx, it’s a fitting tribute to the sound of London’s eternal underground.
Speaking just before the release, Smith explains that in spite of the almost universal praise he’s received for his prior work, both solo and with the band, on the occasion of the first Jamie xx album he’s not immune to self-doubt. “I’m in limbo at the moment because it’s not out yet,” he says over the phone from Hackney. “It’s a weird moment in between where some people have heard it and a lot of people haven’t, and I’ve been sitting on it for such a long time. I’m really excited to get it out, and nervous.”
Flying completely solo presented challenges he’d yet to encounter with The xx, such as knowing when to let go. “It was hard to finish things, because I had nobody to bounce ideas off or just like, let me know that I was heading in the right direction. I could always carry on doing stuff but there comes a point where you just have to let go. I don’t think it would have been very beneficial for the record or my mental health to carry on working on it. Basically I got to the point where I was driving myself too mad to continue.”
An enduring allure of club culture has been its all-inclusive nature, be it in terms of people coming together on the same dance floor, or in the shape of a welcoming, supportive scene. For Smith, this came with his introduction to South London’s burgeoning dubstep set. “When I was just old enough to be able to get into clubs, or at least try and get into clubs without ID – I was probably 16 or 17 – there was a lot of exciting stuff happening in London,” he recalls. “In terms of dubstep, proper dubstep, that came from London, not whatever it is now, and it kind of felt like I was a part of it. I grew up in the area in South London where it all came from, so we were starting to be able to go to these clubs like Mass, or Plastic People, and feel like a part of this very exciting scene in club music.”
While his position within the scene has certainly changed, Smith hasn’t strayed too far from the floor. “I (still) spend a lot of my life in clubs, whether it be when I’m working, or going to see friends play, and I love it still. I think to me it’s an important thing to do to go out, to enjoy listening to music, and dancing, it’s just a natural thing. As I get older it’s changed slightly. When I was 16, 17, I would go on my own, not even drink, and just stand at the back and listen to the music, which I still do sometimes, but now it’s become more of a social thing too.”
Despite the opportunities to travel the world and experience foreign sounds and cultures that his work has afforded him in the past few years, along with an audible calling for him to spend more time stateside in collaboration with the hip-hop world, if anything, Smith’s ties to London have only strengthened. “I don’t want to take it for granted because I do have an incredible time when I go away on tour, but I just know that I’m going to miss it a lot when I leave. I have a sort of romanticised view of London whenever I leave it; I love it when I come back. The heart of it doesn’t change much, and it’s always nice to come home to something that’s familiar, but when I leave I have this romanticised idea that it’s like the most exciting place in the world and all my friends are having an amazing time, but now they’ve all got nine-to-five jobs and it’s not actually like that. But I don’t think I could live elsewhere.”