LONDON - Sitting in his favorite East London cafe, Jamie Smith is nervous. Tonight, he will headline his biggest ever show as Jamie xx at Brixton Academy.
“I’m enjoying playing live on my own,” he says, “but it’s stressful. People are there to watch to me as well as listen. I know for a fact watching a DJ who is charismatic and dancing makes me want to dance and get into it more. Once I’m into it, it’s fine. But walking onstage and instantly being into it, that’s the tough bit. I live on nerves, basically.”
Such a statement won’t come as a surprise to anyone who has followed Smith’s career with any degree of scrutiny. As a founding member of The xx, he was thrust into a limelight he was unprepared when the band’s magnificent self-titled debut became the year’s alternative soundtrack. In a rare example of the Mercury Prize judges finding themselves simpatico with critical opinion, The xx walked away with the 2010 award. The abiding memory of the night was Smith and bandmates Romy Madley Croft and Oliver Sim, all recently out of their teens, visibly recoiling in discomfort at the media’s glare.
During this period I interviewed The xx. None of the trio was in danger of winning storyteller of the year, but Smith’s shyness was particularly chronic: He barely looked up, let alone spoke. The idea of him shedding wings and flying solo was fanciful in the extreme.
But what was only emerging at this time was Smith’s ear for production. Within a year of “The xx,” XL records boss Richard Russell teamed Smith up with the late Gil Scott-Heron to rework the soul legend’s comeback album “I’m New Here.”
“I only did it because thought it would be under the radar, naively,” Smith says. Instead, the startling electronic makeover was the first sign he wasn’t “just a guy from an indie band.” Now 26, having remixed for Adele and Radiohead, produced hits for Drake and Alicia Keys and with a brilliant debut album, “In Colour,” to his name, Smith has flourished into something much more than that self-deprecating description.
As a result, the difference in his demeanour is stark: Awkwardness nowhere near as acute, our conversation flows with greater freedom as we share pots of tea.
“All this has got a bit easier,” he reasons. At times, he’s even humorous. “My manager is very good,” he deadpans when accounting for his success.
Still, his solo career is a happy accident borne out of a desire to make use of unfinished tracks he’d accumulated.
“The way I played this was I had an idea it would be a mixtape, and not having too much pressure helped me get stuff done. I think if I ever had the idea (of making a solo album) at the beginning it would have been too much.”
From the very outset “In Colour” displays his growing self-assurance. The kaleidoscopic cover, in stark contrast to the monochrome design of The xx’s artwork, deliberately sets out that he has “more confidence in what I’m doing, that it’s more rounded” and the music within reinforces that claim. A potted history of London’s club culture, “In Colour” is a perfectly pitched manifestation of the raving experience with a nuanced journey that takes in dance-floor euphoria, back-room melancholy and the solitude found in the communal.
“Those are things that make my heart go when I listen to music,” he says. “I try and make things that evoke that feeling.”
Smith’s curiosity in DJing began at 10 years old when his uncles, themselves DJ’s, handed down turntables to him. It seriously took a hold when Smith first went to London’s innovate club Plastic People in his mid-teens. There, he would “just watch and listen, take it all in” more so than indulge in drink and drugs. “These days I can do both,” he says, grinning.
His interest in taking dance culture’s past to try and shape its future — “That’s how all dance music works, things progress and then something else comes from that” — is nothing he tries to hide. “In Colour” was heavily influenced by Mark Leckey’s short film exploration of dance history, “Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore,” and is peppered with samples of early-’90s pirate radio, illegal raves and club chatter.
What scenario did he imagine when creating “In Colour”?
“I try not to imagine it in any situation,” he says. “What normally happens is, when I make something I love, I’m in the studio on my own having the best time ever. That’s the moment it reminds me of, that moment when something clicks and it works.”
It sounds like he prefers that to the end product.
“Oh yeah. The finished thing is awful, it’s so dull by the end and you’ve mixed it and whatever,” he says. “The moments of inspiration are the best. They don’t come often. There’s a certain sort of happiness. I guess it’s the purest. It’s nice when it’s not shared with anyone.”
It makes you wonder how on Earth he copes when faced with pop superstars like Drake across the mixing desk. Not so easily, as it happens.
“It’s so hard to work in that world,” he says. “You make an album and you don’t have control. And I need control. I’m working for them as a producer. You’re doing your best, you do your best at all times, but you’re working for them. It’s a kick up the arse. You have to do good stuff quick, so it helps me learn. But it’s not comfortable.”
Smith says he’s at his most relaxed with Sim and Madley Croft, who both feature on “In Colour” at the expense of his famous collaborators.
“I always wanted them on it,” he insists, “they are the reason I could do it. They are the easiest people to work with for me. The best stuff comes out through us. I’ve collaborated with other people, but it always works best when we work as a threesome. The hardest thing was getting them to do it.”
“Because every time we made a song we liked, they wanted to keep it for The xx. But they are fine. I’m very busy all the time, they have time at home and live their lives. That’s what they need. But I need constant stuff to do.”
Because he’s easily bored? “Just restless.”
With that, he’s away to check up on his week-long pop up record store Good Times, a venture brought over from New York, which is opening tomorrow. As we’re leaving the café, he once again intimates that the prospect of Brixton Academy has him daunted. He needn’t have been anxious: a two-hour journey of jubilant highs and introspective reflection, his DJ set has 5,000 souls transfixed. Tokyo will be treated to similar this week when Smith returns to Japan.
“I love the clubs (in Japan), there’s so much attention to detail and the best sound I’ve ever heard. And they are all like that. I don’t think there’s one club in London that’s like that.”
Jamie xx plays Akasaka Blitz in Minato-ku, Tokyo, on Jan. 13 (7:30 p.m. start; ¥5,500 in advance; 03-3444-6751). For more information, visit www.jamiexx.com.