BIG EARS 2010: The xx

Oliver Sim and his childhood friend Romy Madley Croft of the xx began their musical partnership nearly five years ago, while both were teenagers and students at London's prestigious Elliott School (which also produced Four Tet, the dubstep producer Burial, and members of Hot Chip). There, they developed a 21st-century style of collaboration, exchanging song ideas and strings of suggestive lyrics through e-mail and text messaging. Face to face, the two life-long friends felt inhibited as songwriters, but with a digital veil between them, Sim and Croft were able to translate their mutual adolescent confusion into intimate, icicle-cool seductions.

"I think it was very natural," Sim says, speaking from a tour stop in Leeds. "I don't think we set out consciously to make any specific kind of music, or to try to emulate anyone. So a lot of the uniqueness of it was maybe just happy accidents. But it definitely came about very naturally rather than as some kind of contrived plan."

The U.K. press proclaimed the xx the new sound of young London after the release of their self-titled debut album in August 2009, and with good reason—the disc shows off the band's surprising maturity and restraint. Sim's slinky bass lines, Croft's skeletal guitar parts, and the accompanying atmospheres of percussionist/producer Jamie Smith and keyboardist Baria Qureshi (who has since left the band) favor mood, minimalism, and delicacy over big riffs or heavy studio overdubs. Stylistically, they stalk the same shadowy tunnels that New Order and Massive Attack once did, only with a softer step and fewer distractions.

"A lot of that simplicity on the record just started out as a result of our own limitations," Sim says. "As we've grown as musicians, it's become possible for us to complicate these parts and layer and fill out the sound. But at the same time, it's something we've had to be very aware of—keeping that sense of restraint even as we evolve—because we all see the value in that simpler, more direct sound."

It might seem odd for a 20-year-old to talk about his artistic "evolution," but don't forget that an awful lot can change between, say, freshman year of high school and freshman year of college. And so, while Sim and Croft managed to avoid nearly every calamity of the teen-penned love song on their debut (note the unorthodox embrace of insecurities on "Crystalised" or "Shelter"), their perspective on the subject matter has certainly changed over time.

"Some of these songs were written when we were 16, and a lot of it was coming from expectation or observations of other people's relationships," Sim says. "And now, as time has gone on, it's more a case of drawing from our own personal experiences. Scarily, it's gotten a bit darker as it's gotten more personal, too. I've noticed that."