The xx producer steps out of the shadows with a thrilling reimagining of British rave culture
For someone who treads so softly, the music of Jamie Smith has already made a huge impression on contemporary pop. At just 26, the Londoner has spent the past six years living what many would perceive to be a fantasy life in which everything he turns his hand to – the two albums with his schoolfriends in The xx, his distinctive remixes, his satisfyingly eclectic DJ sets – is greeted with critical and commercial acclaim.
As a producer, he has dabbled with high-end pop, allowing his woozy tracks to be sampled by Drake and Alicia Keys, and composed a score for a modern ballet at this year’s Manchester International Festival, in addition to taking on a commission from the National Gallery to soundtrack a painting from its collection (he chose a neo-Impressionist landscape by Théo van Rysselberghe).
But it was 2011’s full-length We’re New Here, his inspired reworking of Gil Scott-Heron’s swansong I’m New Here, that first suggested Smith, then 21, could articulate his own feelings in an original and heartfelt way. Edging uneasily into the spotlight usually occupied by his xx bandmates Romy Madley-Croft and Oliver Sim, Smith transformed Scott-Heron’s inner-city blues into a different kind of streetwise sadness, one informed as much by the minimalist melancholy of The xx as his love for vintage soul and disco, and British house and techno. Propelled by Smith’s hazy skip’n’shuffle, the old soulman’s NYC love letter became a misty-eyed London rave-up, ultimately providing Smith with a blueprint of sorts for In Colour.
Amongst all this, Smith today finds himself a central figure in a trend in dance that romanticises a golden age of rave, as a generation of producers – Burial, Joy Orbison, Lee Gamble – fetishise old-school jungle mixtapes and look to YouTube for nostalgic footage of beaming ’90s clubbers, under the illusion that most innovations in electronic music were dreamt up and executed while some were still in primary school. Rather than attempt anything radically new, In Colour – the title a dig at the xx’s none-more-black look – celebrates Smith’s blissful version of the past, and the results are frequently glorious.
Having set out his stall with last summer’s “All Under One Roof Raving”, a homage to UK clubbing that weaved snippets from pirate radio and artist Mark Leckey’s cult 1999 video piece, Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, around his trademark steel-drum-laced groove, Smith perfectly captures the anticipation and rush of the rave with “Gosh” and “Hold Tight”. “Gosh” in particular is an absurdly thrilling album opener with a surging bassline that appears to lasso the listener and drag them willingly to the dancefloor, encouraged all the way by a London MC chirping “Oh my gosh!” Equally uplifting is “Loud Places”, essentially a meatier xx number sung by Madley-Croft into which Smith has stitched the colossal chorus from Idris Muhammad’s 1977 hippy-disco classic “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This”; a cheesy move, arguably, but one he pulls off with aplomb.
Madley Croft also sings “SeeSaw”, a loved-up Boards Of Canada sunrise moment Smith produced with his friend, Four Tet’s Kieran Hebden. Not to be outdone, Oliver Sim smoulders on “Stranger In A Room”, perhaps the album’s weakest link, while the dancehall bounce of “I Know There’s Gonna Be (Good Times)” finds Atlanta rapper Young Thug and Jamaican star Popcaan exhorting positivity on a lithe Smith cut quite unlike anything else on In Colour. Smith rolls out the steel drums for “Sleep Sound” and “Obvs”, which lollop along tastefully, the latter a couple of pineapples away from being a calypso version of “Moments In Love” by Art Of Noise.
Before In Colour, one might have characterised “Girl” – the closing track here – as the definitive Jamie xx jam, a rolling, quasi-garage, mutant shuffle evocative of The Field or, further back, Akufen. What In Colour reveals is the sheer scope of Smith’s skills as a songwriter and producer. The xx on ecstasy: not a bad idea at all.
Naming tracks “Gosh” and “Hold Tight”, do you romanticise a ’90s
UK rave scene you were too young to be part of?
I do do that. I think that’s how all dance music is, it tends to be retrospective. Even stuff that’s ‘future’ isn’t really. But what I liked about those phrases is they’re old English phrases. “Oh my gosh” is a very old English thing to say and then jungle MCs started to say it in the ’90s. I like that more than it being a reference to ’90s dance music. I like its general Britishness.
Would you say In Colour is a very British dance record?
Well, London is a big part of what I think about when I’m making music, just because I love it and I’m in it all the time. The record was also made all over the world and I’d like it to not just have a London influence.
How did “Loud Places” come together?
The chorus is from Idris Muhammad’s “Could Heaven Ever Be Like This”. I had several versions of “Loud Places” but I was struggling with it. Then I listened to that record that I’ve loved for so long and the lyrics seemed to make perfect sense with what Romy was singing. So I tried it and it was like a eureka moment.
You have been recording the new xx album in Iceland, Texas and Los Angeles – is it nearing completion?
I’m not sure. I’m really happy with everything, but can’t really tell how far we are along. It’s nice to have so much time.
INTERVIEW: PIERS MARTIN
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