AUSTIN, Texas — The breathy back-and-forth vocals and simmering erotic tension that suffuse the debut album “xx” by the British indie band The xx might lead you to think that singers Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim are more than just friends.
That’s not the case. But Croft and Sim have been extraordinarily good friends for as long as they can remember.
Actually, longer. “We’ve been friends since we were 2 or 3,” says Croft, who grew up with Sim in London’s posh Chelsea section. “We have photos of us hanging out at day care. It’s sweet to see.”
Or, as it’s been put by Sim, who plays bass and coleads the trio, which includes Jamie Smith: “Romy’s like a sister to me.”
It’s a bright Austin afternoon, and The xx have just flown in from New York. The night before, they performed their subtle and sexy “Islands” on “Late Night with Jimmy Fallon.” Though the trio didn’t perform with the Roots, the house band’s drummer, Ahmir “?uestlove” Thompson, tweeted approvingly about Smith’s hands-on drum machine skills.
The trio, who generated some of the biggest buzz among South by Southwest’s 1,700 acts, have shown themselves to be masters of musical restraint and connoisseurs of modern R&B (hunt down their non-album covers of Aaliyah’s “Hot Like Fire” and Womack & Womack’s hit “Teardrops”).
Before playing four SXSW shows and squaring off against Margaret Cho in a Spin magazine ping-pong tournament, Croft and Sim walk into the closed 18th-floor restaurant of their hotel, overlooking the Texas capitol building.
As always, they’re wearing all black and long chains around their necks, Croft’s adorned with a medallion she picked up at the Museum of Modern Art in New York. A graphic arts student who’s put university aside for now, she designed the band’s logo — a bold white-on-black x.
The name “was always an aesthetic thing,” she says, as Sim talks simultaneously with a New York radio reporter. “It doesn’t have a meaning. We just like x’s. We made the name before the music, and I like that it’s ambiguous and people can read into it if they want.”
Croft and Sim started making music — independently, and then together — at 16, a few years after Croft became “obsessed” with music.
“I really loved the (L.A. punk) band The Distillers,” says the sultry-voiced singer. “I had posters of Brody Dalle all over my room. I had fair hair then, and I dyed my hair black.”
She went to a show at the Brixton Academy featuring The Distillers, Eagles of Death Metal, Peaches and Pretty Girls Make Graves, which was “a real eye-opener.” She and Sim started listening to the Pixies and the British duo the Kills, who “were very inspiring to Oliver and I. They had two front people, and we always felt very equal.”
Croft checked out the Velvet Underground her father gave her. (He died last month; when she’s not on the road, she lives in London with her stepmother.) “I started to play guitar and sing along, trying to get the timing right. I was always very shy about it, and I still don’t feel very comfortable about it, singing in public,” she says.
The xx’s debut is marked by a highly disciplined simplicity. Their song “VCR” evokes David Bowie’s “Heroes.” “Infinity,” whose sinister, reverb-drenched atmospherics recall Chris Isaak’s “Wicked Game,” brought their quietly thrilling, packed-to-the-gills show at the Mohawk Patio to a cathartic crescendo.
Their tendency toward Raymond Carver and/or Steve Reich minimalism was not part of the original plan. “The simplicity in the beginning came from being not very good at playing our instruments,” Croft says with a smile. “I was teaching myself the guitar. We all didn’t know that much. When we made a song, we weren’t like, this is simple. We were like, this is our song!”
Over time, simplicity became a strategy. “We have these unwritten rules,” she says. “Everything we record, we want to be able to play live. We never want to have backing tracks and stuff like that. It was never intentional to have a minimalist sound or for there to be a lot of space in the songs. But I do like not overcomplicating stuff.”
After playing in London, the band was approached by the Young Turks label, which introduced them to producers, including Philadelphia’s Diplo. “We met him on a couple of occasions in London. Once we went walking around at the Notting Hill Carnival. He thought it was funny how much we liked bass. He called us bassheads.”
With Smith producing, though, the band decided to go it alone. “We realized we didn’t really need anyone else,” Croft says. “We already had the sound we wanted. So in a roundabout way we went to other people to find out we liked what we already had.”
Since their debut xx came out in August, the band has found that plenty of other people like them, too. They made many critics’ best of ‘09 lists (including this one’s). And in a true measure of success in the modern music business, the band’s songs persistently turn up on TV. They’ve been on the Apolo Anton Ohno AT&T ad during the Winter Olympics (“Intro”), “Gossip Girl” (“Crystalised”), and “Grey’s Anatomy” (“Islands”).
“It’s nothing I ever expected,” Croft says. “We weren’t self-promoting, even with people at school. We weren’t like, ‘Hey, we’re in a band, look at us!’ ... I’ve seen a lot of things I thought I’d never see. We’ve toured the whole world, and I won’t even be 21 by the time we’re done. It’s amazing.”