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The sound of shyness

The xx, winners of the Mercury Prize 2010, have invented an urban sound at once intimate and familia

Putney Bridge, south London, December 2010. Thick snow clings to the banks of the Thames and icicles hang from wrought-iron railings. The xx used to call this their manor, but they have been away touring the world for the past 12 months - a year whose peak came in September, when their debut album, xx, beat Paul Weller, Dizzee Rascal and others to win the Barclaycard Mercury Prize. The band's melancholic songs, with lyrics about loneliness, lust and love, have struck a chord in Britain in particular, providing the perfect soundtrack to our troubled times. The BBC chose their song "Intro" for its election coverage - and their popularity was even latched on to by the Tories, who used their music without permission at the Conservative party conference in October.

Tonight, The xx are home to do something deeply un-rock'n'roll: turn on the local Christmas lights. "They probably wanted Barbara Windsor, didn't they?" laughs Oliver Sim, the tall, handsome singer and bassist, who shaved off his old, Fifties-style quiff when the band finished touring in October.

Next to him is the singer and guitarist Romy Madley Croft, Sim's best friend since they were toddlers. She smiles shyly under her severe, triangular fringe and explains that they are here because they owe it to Putney. "Especially given all the time we spent lurking around Greggs," she laughs. The third member, Jamie Smith, who met the others in the playground when they were 11, is now one of the UK's most respected young producers and DJs. He is a quiet soul, who most often nods mutely in agreement at what his bandmates have to say.

What is striking about these three, whom I first met 18 months ago, is how humble they have remained throughout their rapid ascent. Even now, where others in their position would happily put themselves forward as spokespeople for this or that issue, The xx are characteristically reticent. This is the third time I have interviewed them, yet even now it feels like we're playing mind games. When the Dictaphone is off, they are warm and talkative; as soon as it is on, they become cautious.

Never is this more so than when we move on to the subject of politics. When The xx's music was used at the Tory conference, a represen­tative of their record label, Young Turks, posted an angry message on the social networking website Twitter. "The xx . . . didn't approve the use of their music at the party [conference] and certainly don't approve of said party," he wrote at the time.

Now, however, they quickly clam up when asked about it: Sim will only express his irritation at their name being used to confer kudos on anyone at all. When I ask if they voted, they stare at each other nervously and grimace. After a long silence, Sim tries to explain why they do this. "It's protection, I suppose," he says. "Not to flatter myself, but I know that you can influence people's opinion as a musician and I don't want to." Madley Croft nods. "Every one of us has our opinions but we are quite private people. We wouldn't want to be associated with anything."

Later, they tell me that they did vote and that they care deeply about the future of Britain - particularly its youth. But The xx desperately want to avoid being held up as moral icons or ambassadors for a generation. As Madley Croft reminds me, they made an album full of personal sentiments that they initially thought only "four people would hear".

Putney is where I first met The xx. This was pre-fame, when they used to rehearse in a tiny space under the railway arches, where sticky carpet covered the walls and empty Coke cans littered the floor. Baria Qureshi, then the fourth member of the band - whose departure last autumn Madley Croft still describes as feeling "like a divorce" - was there, too. They were all dressed head-to-toe in black, as they still do. They talked about the different artists and genres that they loved - Chris Isaak and Mariah Carey, hip-hop and dubstep - as trains rattled the walls. "That room was like a womb," Sim says now. "I miss it."

Now The xx move in a very different world. Their album recently went platinum (325,000 copies have been sold to date) and its songs have been covered by stars as various as Damon Albarn, Shakira and Orchestral Manoeuvres in the Dark. That they have achieved this success while keeping themselves to themselves is quite a feat in our flaunt-yourself pop culture. Instead, they have worked their way into our collective consciousness by inventing an urban sound that unites the emotions of indie rock with the drama of dance music.

Madley Croft is astonished at the acclaim they have received. "I'm baffled. After all this time, I just think: 'How?' We made this record for ourselves - to try to make music that all of us would like." Perhaps their success is due to the way their combined influences tick a range of critical boxes - or, less cynically, maybe the mood of intimacy and familiarity they inspire is something that people crave, especially in a world bombarded with 24-hour content.

With the music industry dominated by sons and daughters of rock's aristocracy and by privately educated musicians (according to a recent survey by The Word magazine, 60 per cent of acts that charted during one week in October had been to public school), it is refreshing that The xx come from very ordinary backgrounds. Brought up in lower-middle-class families - Sim in a council house at Clapham Junction - they went to the Elliott School, a comprehensive in Putney Heath that also counts the electropop band Hot Chip and the dubstep artist Burial among its alumni.

It isn't the state equivalent of the Brit School, however, says Madley Croft, who thinks her school's influence has been overplayed in the media. "A teacher from Elliott who had never even taught us said how great we were. It's a bit annoying. We were left alone, more than anything - although I'm sure that helped us in its own way."

After leaving school, they signed to a small indie label, Young Turks, which had the financial backing of XL Recordings, home to Radiohead and the White Stripes. Unusually for a new group starting out in the modern record industry, the band was given time and space to develop. They decided on the name "The xx" because it suggested so many things - chromosomes, kisses, pornography and even their ages - each pushing 20 - at the time of
the album's release.

By day, they worked in chain stores such as Costa and Uniqlo, making their album at night. Sim and Madley Croft would record their vocals straight on to their laptops at home, trying not to wake their parents; Smith mixed the songs in a tiny room under the XL offices in Notting Hill. Its dark, moody sound deepened as a result of this nocturnal process. It is no coincidence that xx ends with songs called "Night Time" and "Stars".

Although the album received good reviews, the bigger boys in the media didn't get The xx straight away. Radio 1 didn't seem very interested in playlisting their singles and the NME didn't think that they were cover material. Even after I accompanied the band in November last year to New York, where I watched fans queue outside for returned tickets and Courtney Love fight her way backstage to meet them, I was told by an NME editor that they weren't quite "right" for heavy coverage. The xx were not conventionally glamorous, after all, nor were they interested in pompously touting themselves as the next big thing.

But by March 2010, strengthened by constant touring and some astonishing live gigs that were lit by the band's simple, black-and-white, x-shaped light boxes, the band sold out two nights at the Shepherd's Bush Empire in London. That month, The xx finally got their first NME cover, which blazed, without irony, that they were "the most underrated band in Brit­ain". What's more, their music was pricking the ears of television music programmers, whose choices of soundtrack material are now highly influential in the music business. The opening track from xx, "Intro", was picked up for a BBC general election ident that ran throughout the spring. Its menacing notes complemented the BBC's smoke-clouded images of British hospitals, schools and soldiers perfectly. In May, the band was invited to perform live at the close of BBC2's Newsnight Election Special.

Looking back, Sim is amused by the brief period in which "Intro" became "the Rocky theme tune of politics". He was impressed by Jeremy Paxman, too. "He's quite a smooth guy," Sim laughs, noting that the presenter even played Smith's electronic drum pads just before the band's soundcheck. But they did the show largely out of curiosity, he adds. "You're asked lots of times to be on Jools Holland but only so many to be on Newsnight."

Then, after a triumphant performance at the Glastonbury Festival, came the Mercury Prize, the shortlist for which was announced in July. Due to a policy of avoiding reading their press - Sim tells me that the most he will do is occasionally flick through the scrapbook of cuttings his father keeps - they were unprepared for all the media attention, particularly after they were named the bookies' favourites.

As a member of the Mercury judging panel, I had spent the summer listening again and again to xx. Much as I tried to fight temptation, the other shortlisted albums often sat forlornly on my speakers. Each time I listened to it, I found something new: the gorgeous, building drones in "Fantasy"; the vast silence and space in "Crystalised"; and how the rough edges of Sim's voice rubbed against the sweetness of Madley Croft's.

At the award ceremony, which took place on 7 September at the Grosvenor House Hotel in London, I was worried about how the band would react when they won. I was relieved to see them accept their prize with warmth. My lasting memory of that night is seeing the trio head off into the night with their arms tightly around each other, and yet, true to form, they admit that they would have preferred to have been somewhere more modest.

“We'd hired a bar nearby for our friends and family," says Sim, "where there was a big video screen which played the announcement live. Our soundman recorded what happened and we watched it later - my mum there, running past the camera, crying, as if England had won the World Cup."

Through the summer, and The xx's post-Mercury autumn, the band's confidence appeared to grow: in live performances, Madley Croft would sing more boldly, Sim developed an onstage swagger and Smith began experimenting with different rhythms and textures. And Madley Croft revealed, to a small online magazine called Tourist, that she was gay. "I outed myself to the whole world on my friend's tiny little blog," she says shyly. "I forgot that everyone could see it. I'm proud of having a girlfriend; it just doesn't have anything to do with my music." Sim, who was also described as gay in the band's early interviews, has said nothing since about his own sexuality, and that is unlikely to change.

For me, this guardedness adds depth to The xx's confessional songs, suggesting that extra­ordinary emotions lurk behind such ordinary lives. Perhaps that is what their fans most respond to: how they articulate the drama and power of that inner life.

Back at the Christmas market in Putney, it's nearly 6pm. Hundreds of local people are gathered to watch them flick the switch, including Sim's father and old friends who find the whole business hilarious. The three friends walk on to the stage as their host counts down to zero and then turn the Christmas tree behind them all silver and gold. Sim politely thanks Putney for having them, wishes everyone a merry Christmas and poses for pictures with Madley Croft and their fans. Smith hides behind a marquee, looking sheepish.

Tonight is The xx's last press engagement for the near future and, as they leave, they engulf me in bear hugs. They must be relieved to be stepping off the promotional treadmill, but their warmth feels sincere all the same. They are not a band about pop's flash and burn and they never were. They understand, you can tell, that there is no place like home. l

This article first appeared in the 20 December 2010 issue of the New Statesman, Christmas Special

Almeida Theatre
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Rupert Goold: “A director always has to be more of a listener”

The artistic director of the Almeida Theatre on working with Patrick Stewart, the inaccessibility of the arts, and directing his wife in Medea.

Eight years ago Rupert Goold’s Macbeth made his name. The critics were unanimous in their praise, with one calling it the “Macbeth of a lifetime”. Goold’s first Olivier Award soon followed (Enron won him a second in 2009, King Charles III nearly won him a third last year). It was a family triumph; Lady Macbeth was played by Goold’s wife, Kate Fleetwood.

Now the pair has finally reunited and Fleetwood is his undisputed lead. She is playing Medea in the Almeida’s latest and final play of its Greek season. Directing your wife is one thing. Directing her in a play about a woman who murders her children because her husband abandons her is another. And it’s been harder than Goold expected.

“You live with someone every day, and they don’t age because the change is so incremental, and then you do something together and you realise how much you’ve changed. It’s like playing tennis with someone after eight years: you’re completely different players.”

As it is, Goold thinks the director-actor relationship is inevitably fraught. “There is an essential slave-master, sadomasochistic, relationship,” he says. “The incredibly complicated thing about being an actor is you’re constantly being told what to do. And one of the most damaging things about being a director – and why most of them are complete arseholes – is because they get off at telling people what to do.”

Goold doesn’t. He’s as amicable in person as the pictures – bountiful hair, loose jacket, wide grin – suggest. And when we meet in the Almedia’s crowded rehearsal rooms, tucked away on Upper Street, 100 yards from the theatre, he’s surprisingly serene given his play is about to open.

He once said that directing a play is like running towards a wall and hoping it becomes a door just before the curtain goes up. Has the door appeared? “It’s always a funny moment [at the end of rehearsal]. Sometimes you do a show and it’s a bit dead and the costumes and set transform it. Then sometimes it’s perfect and the design kills it.”

We meet shortly before last Thursday’s press night, and he can’t tell how good it is. But it “certainly feels quite private. The idea that loads of people are going to come and watch it now feels a bit weird. You bring a lot of your sense of relationships and parenting into it.”

Goold has always argued that the classics wither without intervention. So in this revival of Euripides’ 2,446-year-old play, Medea is a writer and her husband, Jason (of Argonauts fame), is an actor. “But it’s not really about that… it’s more about divorce, about what it means to separate.”

“It’s about the impact of a long-term relationship when it collapses. I don’t know whether there is a rich tradition of drama like that, and yet for most people, those kind of separations are far more profound and complicated and have greater ramifications than first love; and we have millions of plays about first love!”

Every generation discovers their own time in the Greek plays. Goold thinks he and playwright Rachel Cusk were shaped by the aftermath of the 1970s in interpreting Medea; “That’s the period when the idea of the family began to get tainted.” And when critics praised Oresteia, the Almeida’s first Greek play and a surprise West End transfer, they compared it to the Sopranos.

Yet there is something eternal about these plays. Goold says it’s the way they “stare at these problems that are totally perennial, like death,” and then offer answers that aren’t easy. Medea kills the kids and a mother rips her son to shreds in the Bakkhai (the Almeida’s predecessor to Medea). Where’s the moral compass in that?

Except there is a twist in Goold’s Medea, and it’s not one every critic has taken kindly to. It was enough to stop the Telegraph’s Dominic Cavendish, otherwise lavish in his praise, from calling it “a Medea for our times”. Nevertheless, the reviews have been kind, as they often are for Goold; although The Times’ Ann Treneman was vitriolic in her dislike (“Everyone is ghastly. The men are beyond irritating. The women even worse.”).

In theory, Goold welcomes the criticism. “I’d rather our audience hated something and talked about it than was passively pleased,” he tells me ahead of reviews.

Controversial and bracing theatre is what Goold wants to keep directing and producing; as the Almeida’s artistic director he is in charge of more than just his own shows. But how does he do it? I put a question to him: if I had to direct Medea instead of him, what advice would he have given me?

He pauses. “You’ve got to love words,” he begins. “There’s no point doing it unless you have a real delight in language. And you have to have vision. But probably the most important thing is, you’ve got to know how to manage a room.”

“It’s people management. So often I have assistants, or directors I produce, and I think ‘God, they’re just not listening to what that person is trying to say, what they’re trying to give.’ They’re either shutting them down or forcing them into a box.”

“Most people in a creative process have to focus on what they want to say, but a director always has to be more of a listener. People do it different ways. Some people spin one plate incredibly fast and vibrantly in the middle of the room, and hope all the others get sucked in. It’s about thriving off of one person – the director, the lead performer, whomever.”

“I’m more about the lowest common denominator: the person you’re most aware of is the least engaged. You have to keep lifting them up, then you get more creativity coming in.”

It’s not always simple. When actors and directors disagree, the director can only demand so much, especially if the actor is far more famous than them. When Goold directed Macbeth, Patrick Stewart was his lead. Stewart was a movie star and twice his age.

“Patrick’s take on Macbeth… I didn’t think it should be played that way. I’d played him as a student and I had an idea of what he was.”

“But then you think, ‘Ok, you’re never going to be what I want you to be, but actually let me get rid of that, and just focus on what’s good about what you want to be, and get rid of some of the crap.’”

Goold doesn’t think he’s ever really struggled to win an actor’s respect (“touch wood”). The key thing, he says, is that “they just feel you’re trying to make legible their intention”.

And then you must work around your lead. In Macbeth, Stewart was “a big deep river of energy… when normally you get two people frenetically going ‘Uhgh! Is this a dagger I see before me! Uhgh!’ and there’s lots of hysteria.”

“So we threw all sorts of other shit at the production to compensate, to provide all the adrenalin which Patrick was taking away to provide clarity and humanity.”

Many people want to be theatre directors, and yet so few are successful. The writers, actors and playwrights who sell shows can be counted on a few hands. Depressingly, Goold thinks it’s becoming harder to break in. It’s difficult to be discovered. “God, I don’t know, what I worry – wonder – most is: ‘Are there just loads of great directors who don’t make it?’”

 The assisting route is just not a good way to find great new directors. “The kind of people who make good assistants don’t make good directors, it’s almost diametrically opposite.” As for regional directors, newspaper budgets have collapsed, so they can no longer rely on a visit from a handful of national critics, as Goold did when he was based in Salisbury and Northampton. And audiences for touring shows have, by some measures, halved in the past twenty years.

Theatre has also evolved. When Goold was coming through, “There were not a lot of directors who felt they were outside the library, so for me to whack on some techno was radical! Now it’d be more commonplace.” New directors have to find new ways to capture our attention – or at least the critics’.

But the critics have changed too. A nod from a critic can still be vital in the right circles, but the days when critics “made” directors is long over. “I remember Nick de Jongh saying, ‘Oh Rupert Goold, I made him.’ Because he’d put Macbeth on the front page of the Standard. I owed my career to him, and in some ways I did! But it's an absurd idea, that would not happen now.”

“It’s all changed so much in literally the past three years. There was a time, for better or worse, when you had a big group of establishment critics: de Jongh, Michael Billington, Michael Coveney, Charlie Spencer – they were mostly men – Susannah Clapp. And if they all liked your show, you were a hit.” (“They could be horrible,” he adds.)

“Now I get more of a sense of a show by being on Twitter than reading the reviews.” It’s “probably a good thing”, Goold thinks, and it certainly beats New York, where a single review – the New York Times' – makes or breaks plays. But it’s another problem for aspiring directors, who can no longer be so easily plucked from the crowd.

It’s no longer a problem Goold needs to overcome. His star could wane, but he seems likely to be among the leading voices in British theatre for a while yet.

Harry Lambert is a staff writer and editor of May2015, the New Statesman's election website.