Search The Line of Best Fit
Search The Line of Best Fit
Screen Shot 2014 07 23 at 21 53 27

XO: "The biggest dream collaboration would have to be Justin Timberlake"

24 July 2014, 10:00
Words by Andrew Hannah

For all the myriad problems with dance music’s commercial end, there are a handful of home-grown UK talents who, while also dominating the top end of the charts, are making really, really good music. Duke Dumont, Disclosure, Gorgon City and even Clean Bandit (despite a drab album) have produced some cracking tracks in the past eighteen months or so and when you add in some of the guest talents like MNEK, Jess Glynne and Ella Eyre the scene suddenly starts to look rather healthy. We can now add into that a talented teenage producer by the name of Sunil Heera, better known as XO.

Following under-the-radar tracks “Golden” and “No Scrubs” and time spent DJing, Stoke-on-Trent native Heera dropped “What’s Luv”, a storming dancefloor banger featuring the vocals of Emma Corbett-Usher and an addictive melody that simply bears repeating, and repeating. What came next was press from the likes of Pitchfork and then a slot playing his biggest gig to date, at BBC Radio 1’s Big Weekend at Glasgow Green.

With an EP set to drop in the summer, we managed to get an exclusive first interview with XO to find out more about how he got started, his love of Michael Jackson and who his dream collaborator might be…

Hi Sunil, I believe this is one of your first interviews – is that correct? Are you ready to face a lot of these in the coming months?

Hey! Yes it is. Haha, I guess we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?

We should probably start at the beginning – do you come from a musical family?

If I’m completely honest, not really. I guess my family are musical in the sense that they all love listening to music to their own taste but as far as actually writing and producing goes, I’m the only one! Kinda strange really.

What’s the first memory of music that you have?

Growing up in an Indian household, there was obviously a lot of old Punjabi/Hindi music played, and those really cringey Bollywood songs would also make frequent appearances. Aside from that, my mum used to play a lot of 80s pop music, she loves a bit of MJ, ABBA and Wham! I haven’t really got any specific memories as such but I do remember being absolutely obsessed with a Spice Girls tune once upon a time. Safe to say I was in a bad place.

Did you have a regular childhood – school, football, girls?

Ha! Yeah, you pretty much just summed up my whole childhood in three words! For me, as cliché as it is, I was always gonna have to make a choice between music and football, but a couple of bad knee injuries kinda dented my hopes of playing at the top level and music gradually became one of the most important aspects of my life.

As for education, I went to regular state schools in my home town of Stoke-on-Trent – absolutely loved high school, not so much college. And yes, those who know me on a personal level would certainly tell you that I’m highly appreciative of the opposite sex!

Did you or do you play any instruments?

None whatsoever. There was a point a couple of years back where I became familiar with playing the guitar, but that was completely self taught without any formal teaching. Plus, I was pretty rubbish. To be honest, as strange as it sounds, it’s getting increasingly common for producers to not actually play any instruments these days. It just goes to show you can make great music without having any or very little knowledge on musical theory – I’d like to think I’ve done alright up to this point without it!

Who are your musical influences? Do you remember the first artist you really loved?

This is always a difficult question to answer as there are so many and they’re constantly changing. I’d say at the moment, I feel really connected with the work of artists and producers like J Dilla, Tourist and Ben Khan.

Whilst growing up, my sister would often show me a lot of music which included all sorts of styles, jungle, reggae, R&B, hip hop and even punk rock to name a few! I guess listening to the music of artists associated with these genres, especially over the years, has enabled me to pick and choose elements from each to mould the sound you’re hearing from me today – effectively having a big impact on my music and influencing me in certain ways.

When did you become XO, and where does the name come from?

Off the top of my head I believe it was like February last year? So I’ve been working on the project for over a year now and it’s been a wicked journey so far. I wish the name had some sentimental value with a deep, meaningful concept behind it, but truthfully, it just looks cool – well I think so anyway! Although, I guess ‘XO’ doesn’t really lend itself to a specific definition which gives me license to contribute something significant towards it through my music.

You’ve only been DJing for about 18 months, is that right? How did you get started?

Yeah that’s correct! Well, since I was making various styles of electronic club music at the time, I figured that the only way to play my tunes out live was through DJing. I have a couple of uncles who were involved in the trade back in the day and so growing up around it helped me to understand it once I got to the right age. As I am with production, I’m a completely self taught DJ but I’d like to think it was a fairly natural progression.

Was it hard to get club gigs given your age?

I don’t think it was, I mean I played my first big one at 17, which wasn’t strictly legal of course but I’m certainly glad I’m 18 now, it makes my life a lot easier!

Did you have any peers around you in Stoke doing the same thing that inspired you? Or was it a case of wanting to follow in the footsteps of the big names?

I mean yeah, there’s a couple of local DJs, producers and artists who are extremely talented, some of which haven’t caught their break just yet, but I’m positive they will in time. Generally though, and I don’t really like saying negative things about where I’m from, but Stoke isn’t exactly the best place in the world to look towards for inspiration at times. So I guess because of that, I looked further afield in the direction of artists who were doing great things, I think that’s helped me massively as a growing musician.

Are you at college as well as making music? What are you studying?

I actually finished exams and my final year of college quite recently after two years of juggling education and music – unevenly I have to say! I studied A Levels in Psychology, P.E. and Graphic Design – glad to see the back of them if I’m brutally honest, can’t wait to work on new songs, especially as now I have plenty of time to do so!

Can you tell us a bit about “Golden” and “No Scrubs”? Was it hard to put these together given it would be the first time anyone’s heard your own music? Did you put pressure on

With these two tunes in particular, I didn’t really think about that at all. The great thing about producing the tracks was that I didn’t expect them to be received in the way they were, I just made them for fun. It was really flattering to hear from a few producers and DJs afterwards complimenting the music and asking for new material.

Your music has been picked up by Pitchfork, Radio 1 and loads of other places – does that positive feedback give you confidence, or are you a confident chap anyway?

Yeah, some of the support I’ve received over the past year or so has been phenomenal, so of course that in itself gives me a massive confidence boost going forward - it’s really rewarding to know that people are appreciative of what I do as XO. I’d like to think I’m a naturally confident guy, although I do believe it’s important to keep myself grounded.

“What’s Luv” is amazing, it really is. How did you end up working with Emma? Do you write the lyrics or do you leave that to the vocalists?

Thanks so much! Me and Emma were actually good friends before we initially decided to work on something together. I usually get a feel for the style of vocal that I think would be beneficial towards a track as I’m producing it and I’m very particular about the sound I want to portray. In this case, I thought Em’s voice would be perfect. There’s no set procedure when it comes to writing lyrics but I do find myself writing top lines as I go along these days, “What’s Luv?” and “Holdin’ On” were really natural and I had input on the song writing with both Emma & Bobby (RobLaw).

You played One Big Weekend – is that your biggest show to date? How did it feel to be there with the likes of Katy Perry?

Yes. 100%. It was a genuine honour to be playing at such a huge event amongst some of the biggest artists in the world right now. It was quite surreal if I’m honest, I played at the same time as Ed Sheeran which is still difficult to get my head around – will not be forgetting that day in a hurry!

Did you grow up listening to the radio and shows like Dance Anthems?

Whenever I did listen to the radio growing up, it’d be stations like BBC Radio 1, so obviously, a lot of pop music – especially in the day. It wasn’t until my early teen years where I started to discover new music for myself through grime and dubstep, eventually discovering I had a real soft spot for dance music in general. Of course, I’d been brought up around a lot of house, garage and drum & bass too, but I didn’t really appreciate in the way I do now.

You’ve got an EP coming after the summer – what can we expect from it? More vocal collabs?

I have! Really excited to show everyone! Indeed, another vocal collab which features upcoming talent Leo Kalyan - available to all ears around the world very soon. Essentially, this EP is about me expressing myself in a way which hasn’t necessarily been heard just yet.

Song writing has also been an important aspect and I’ve been working hard to create intelligent, relatable concepts that will hopefully resonate well with the listeners. Collaborating with the likes of Leo & MNEK has definitely helped me to do this.

When you hear you’ve got support from people like SOHN, MNEK, Cyril Hahn….it must be exciting – are you keen to work with people like that? Do you have a dream collaboration?

Yeah for sure, they’re the artists I listen to on a daily basis too, so if there was any possibility of working with just one of them I’d undoubtedly take the opportunity to do so. There are a lot of people I’d love to work with one day from the likes of Jai Paul to Nile Rodgers. Although, the biggest dream collaboration would have to be Justin Timberlake – didn’t expect that, right? He’s the closest thing we have left to Michael Jackson in this world and to work with him would be simply incredible. Justin, get in touch!

Aside from the EP, what’s coming next for XO?

Hopefully a load of dates for people to catch me play around the UK! Also, maybe a couple of free downloads as and when, other than that, I’ll continue to work on material over the summer period and collaborate with exciting new artists.

XO plays for Radio 1’s new Dance Channel on 31 July, available to stream live via the BBC Radio 1 website. His debut EP will be out soon.

Share article

Get the Best Fit take on the week in music direct to your inbox every Friday

Read next