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Smaller XX goes big with pared-down sound

Patrick Caldwell

Heavy lies the head that wears the indie hype crown.

South London's the XX rocketed from relatively obscure U.K. quartet to next big thing nearly overnight, as its self-titled debut — released Oct. 20 in North America — raked in critical acclaim and blog buzz. With 11 songs of soulfully studied, smooth R&B-influenced pop with an unwavering focus on sex and relationships, it received the coveted 'best new music' tag from online tastemaker Pitchfork. The group played to sold-out shows in the United States and thousands of cheering fans at the United Kingdom's Reading Festival.

Determined to capitalize on the momentum, the band made plans for nearly a year's worth of touring. And they played more than a dozen shows for October's multivenue music festival the CMJ Music Marathon in New York, averaging three shows a day. That meant five days of nonstop equipment setup, takedown, performances, interviews and getting around in one of the densest, most congested cities in the United States.

'That was quite an intense period of time,' says bassist and vocalist Oliver Sim, 20. 'It drove home that things like sleeping in your own house have become very much a luxury.'

There were casualties. Longtime keyboard player Baria Qureshi had to drop out of ensuing shows, citing exhaustion. The band canceled a few European gigs and announced last week that Qureshi had left permanently — and won't be replaced. Newly slimmed down to a three-piece, they'll join XL Recordings label mates and promising dance rock act Friendly Fires tonight at the Mohawk.

Despite the loss of a member who had been with the band since its formation, Sim is taking to heart the old proverb about seeing every crisis as an opportunity.

'I think we're kind of really embracing what's happened and shaking things up. Our live show was quite at a point where we were reciting the album exactly as you heard it,' Sim says. 'When Baria left we had the first opportunity in a long time to go in and rehearse and jam and work stuff out.'

For the XX, a group of friends first and a band second, replacing Qureshi was never seriously contemplated. The quartet met at London's the Elliott School and formed the XX when all its members were 16. Sim and vocalist/guitarist Romy Madley Croft had met even earlier — at the tender age of 3. Longtime friends, they began experimenting with music at an early age, as both fell in love with the art form in adolescence. Sim picked up the bass at 13 as part of his schooling.

'The thing is that for me music lessons were during normal school time. It was a class like anything else,' Sim says. 'So you'd do your math, you'd do your science, and then you'd go do your bass lesson.'

The XX developed a sound influenced heavily by the mid-to-late '90s R&B beloved by Sim's older sister — Aaliyah, En Vogue, TLC and Lauryn Hill. Haunting bass lines, spare guitar and the vocal interplay between Sim and Croft became the band's trademark. Naturally for a set of high school-age contemporaries, sex and relationships emerged as a recurring theme. And the band was encouraged by all the free time and access to the practice rooms offered at the Elliott School, which also counts Four Tet and members of Hot Chip among its alumni.

'I don't know if they were intentionally giving us time to be creative or neglecting us,' Sim says. 'But either way it worked out for us.'

The XX play with the Friendly Fires tonight at the Mohawk, 912 Red River St. www.mohawkaustin.com. The show ($12 at the door) is technically sold out.