Skip Matheny— currently a songwriter in the band Roman Candle and former bartender in a retirement community — caught up with Oliver Sim of The XX, before their show at the Bottletree in Birmingham, Alabama. The London-based band’s debut just scored them Britain’s coveted Mercury Music Prize.
What’s your favorite drink?
My favorite drink? Oh, that is tough- Have you heard of a rum called Sailor Jerry’s?
Yeah I’ve heard of that. But I’ve never had it.
It’s really good. It’s really sweet (laughs), but yeah. So maybe Sailor Jerry’s and Coke.
You all seem to have such a well defined visual aesthetic for your work. Does the visual aspect of things come before the writing or do you have any particular images in your head while you are writing? Or is the visual side of things something that you approach afterwards?
Actually I think the visual side comes after. And it’s more of a thing like [for this record] we left the artwork [etc] to the very last moment, just so we could listen back to the album- as a whole- and then we get kind of a visual estimate. Although we do consider the whole visual side, the artwork, I think, very important- but I think that music comes first.
Who are some lyricists that you enjoy?
One of my favorite songs lyrically, ever, would be a Lauryn Hill’s song called “X Factor.” I respect her a lot as a lyricist. I think that’s probably one of the most heartbreaking songs I know. Yeah. I think that’s one person I definitely look up to. I know Romy has a lot of love for Stevie Nicks as a writer, and her whole kind of use of imagery and symbolism.
When you three sit down to write, either together or as individuals, do you typically pick up an acoustic guitar, or a piano? Or do you start with more electrically-based instruments like synths, or samplers?
It changes. It can change a lot. I think the three of us kind of start off as very individual artists. Sometimes it’s not necessarily thinking even in terms of a song [at first], or fitting things into a melody. It’s just fitting it in things you particularly want to say, and then thinking about how it’s going to work in the song later. But yeah, a lot of the songwriting did start out with acoustic guitars –- me and Romy — and me trying to play bass on acoustic guitar. But I don’t see what me and Romy do as singing to one another, so it doesn’t matter if my input doesn’t completely fit lyrically to what she’s saying, because we’re not singing to one another. We’re kind of seeing what we’re doing as side by side, and crossing paths. So I think that allows us to be a lot more genuine. I don’t have to put myself in her shoes, she doesn’t have to do the same. And yeah, I think that when we meet up, what we do is a case of collaging really.
Does any time stick out in your memory when you were a kid, where you heard some piece of music, where you said “I’d like to make something like that?”
Yeah, bits and pieces. I’ve always had music playing in my house, although none of my family are musical. They’re definite music lovers and my Mum was like a big Talking Heads fan. My Dad was into The Cure, The Smiths, The Durutti Column, and then my sister’s into a lot of R&B. So, I don’t know. I remember seeing Chris Isaak for the first time, the “Wicked Game” video, and just looking at him and deciding ‘That’s what I want to be when I grow up. He is kind of the epitome of cool.’ But I think that was more of like a visual thing. But, yeah my mom took me to my first ever festival when I was fourteen, a festival gig. She’s a hard core White Stripes fan. Well ,a Jack White fan. And I remember seeing him up on stage and he’s such a strong front man. And that was definitely inspiring.
You all have been making music with each other since you were very young , and you and Romy sing incredibly well together. When you were beginning to write and arrange songs, did the idea of trading off vocals or singing in unison, for example, come instinctually? Or was that something that took shape over time?
We have quite different tastes in music. But I remember kind of bonding over The Kills a lot, and that whole kind of sharing of vocals. I think they were definitely a main influence [also] in that they were performing without a live drummer. Yeah they were definitely a big influence. And CocoRosie as well. Seeing them live was one of my favorite shows that we’ve been to. We saw them in Shepherd’s Bush in London, and it was incredible. Just the separation between their vocals. I think it’s Bianca, she has this kind of screechy almost un-listenable voice sometimes. But it’s incredibly beautiful. And then Sierra has this really beautiful operatic voice. Yet they somehow work together. I think CocoRosie embody something that all three of us can appreciate. They incorporate so much into what they do. They have that kind of beautiful operatic side, there’s folk, there’s kind of a lot of references to hip hop and R&B. Just kind of ticks all the boxes for all of us.
One of the strange things, to me at least, about recording music on a computer, is dealing with the temptation to keep layering track on top of track, because its easy. Your record though, is one of the more sonically focused ones I’ve heard in a long time. When you all are actually recording and listening to playbacks, do you often find yourselves muting individual tracks to aim or refine the space in the song? Does that kind of simplicity come naturally, or do you have to work to get it?
I think in the beginning it came about very naturally, not necessarily though out, in that we were just learning to play instruments. I don’t think we could have overcomplicated it even if we tried. Like that’s what we could have played, songs like “VCR” (laughs). Just from playing a lot I think we’ve become much better instrumentalists, a lot better musicians. Its just been a case of having a sense of restraint. We do like the like simplicity of songs- we’re a big fan the subtleties and [having] a strong way of putting them across, giving them room to breath. So while we were recording, some of it was recording the song, and then taking that moment to think, “Does this actually need to be here?” Then taking it out. We wanted to always play the records exactly as you hear it. So we didn’t want double guitars or double vocals.
Lastly, I’m going to mention a couple artists’ names, and if you don’t mind just say whatever song or thing pops into your mind when you hear them — even if the song or thing doesn’t have anything to do with the writer.
[hip-hop artist] The Dream.
The Dream! Yeah. Big fan. (laughs) All three of us actually. There’s a radio station here, I don’t remember what it’s called. It’s in New York and it’s just constant Dream, Drake, and Lil’ Wayne.
Oh Justin Vernon. Just beautiful, really beautiful. Again I’m a huge fan. But I’ve got a good relationship with my mom in that we kind of swap music a lot. And she has kind of introduced me to music from her generation. And I gave her the Bon Iver album and she’s gone a bit nuts with it. (laughs) He has such a heartbreaking voice. It’s crazy.