Look back in colour

DJ chat

Look back in colour

Although he’s best known for playing guitar and percussion with the minimalist rock trio the xx, Jamie xx — born Jamie Smith in London — grew up steeped in dance music and was a DJ in bars and clubs at the same time the band was taking off. Now, with ‘In Colour’, his first solo album, Smith, 26, is tapping a broader tonal range than the xx’s severe palette allows. “On my own, I become very self-indulgent and go off on tangents,” he said.

‘In Colour’, out recently from XL Recordings, looks back fondly at the sounds of dance music’s past without slavishly imitating them, an approach signalled last year by Smith’s single All Under One Roof Raving, which builds its rhythms softly over samples from the 1999 short film Fiorucci Made Me Hardcore, a chronicle of British dance scenes from the 1970s to the 90s.

As a club DJ, he’s eclectic, prone to rangy sets that highlight his own favourite styles — older soul and disco — as well as a more recent smattering of headier electronic fare. He recently spoke by phone from his home in London about his musical upbringing and his old rave ghosts. These are excerpts from the conversation.

Why did you leave All Under One Roof Raving off the album?

That track was just a moment in time to me. I made it quite quickly for the summer last year, for festivals. There was a feeling I had at the time of missing home, so that’s why I wanted to make that. I wanted this (solo) album to be less about a time and place and more about me, I guess.

There’s a sense of looking back at older music and dance parties you’d missed out on.

That’s the fabric of my youth, my musical history — even the stuff I wasn’t old enough to go to, was still something that interested me since I can remember. I loved London so much — the music that migrated to London, all the different cultures that exist there.

In England in the 90s, pirate radio was the way dance music trends took off. Did you listen to it?

I remember listening to it when I was 8 or 9. Often driving around London, going home from school or going to a friend’s house after school. It was obviously very raw, and at the time I didn’t know about the music, but I liked the vibe. (Soon) I was buying records and had a small collection of two-step garage and some speed garage records — the really poppy stuff you could buy in big record stores like Virgin Records.

What were some of the parties or clubs you were hearing about?

The first proper night I went to was the jungle (and) drum and bass raves in Brixton. We’d usually end up going early, because we were underage and had a better chance of getting in when the club would be empty. (When) I was about 17, I wanted to go to Mass or Plastic People to hear dubstep. I was into it because of the amount of sub-bass in it. It made you want to dance, or at least nod your head and shuffle about. I was making music and was DJing in Camden (Town) at that point, but I never played any of my music to anyone, really. I was just happy to have a job where I could play records, so I was playing soul and jazz.

As the profile of the xx has grown, so has the electronic dance music scene. What kind of differences do you now see between the fans of your DJ sets and fans of the band?

More people that generally wouldn’t go to see the xx might see the xx now, and more people who generally wouldn’t go see a DJ play techno all night will come and see me now. I’ve had a lot of conversations with really young, enthusiastic Americans about dance music and what they’re loving about discovering it. It’s really interesting to see — in America, especially — that the scene is opening up so much. I’m probably having more good gigs there than anywhere else, really.

How will you tour for the new album?

I’m not going to play gigs as Jamie xx. I’m just going to DJ. I’m not comfortable
performing my songs on a stage. It’s not something I think I’m particularly good at.

What will the sets be like?

At a club or a festival, I try to work in a lot of my own stuff and play clips of it so as not to be boastful, and also because I feel kind of awkward playing my own music. For a small club set, which I seem to be doing less and less of, I’ll generally play a bit deeper and take a few more risks. I want to play the most fun stuff that I really like and that’s really innovative. But really, I just want to make something that works as a journey, so I’m not too bothered about playing the newest unreleased stuff that nobody knows.

Do you dance while you DJ?

I’ve found that when I watch DJs who love what they’re doing and they’re dancing to the music, it makes you want to dance more. That’s a natural thing for me to do anyway, except when I’m playing my own music — then I find it awkward, but I try and make myself anyway.

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