JUMP & SHOUT: Basement Jaxx on New LP, DJing Approach, & UFOs
Basement Jaxx Return with Junto, a CD Informed by a New DJing Approach, Clubland’s Return to Posi-Vibes & a UFO Sighting
New York City – It’s been five long years since the release of Basement Jaxx’s last long-playing excursions into aural adventurism, Scars, and its experimental adjunct LP, Zephyr. But don’t ask Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton why they’ve been slacking.
“Well, we did have that orchestral album a few years ago,” says Ratcliffe with an exasperated sigh, referring to Basement Jaxx vs Metropole Orkest—their 2011 collaboration with the renowned Dutch pop and jazz orchestra. “And we had two film soundtracks [2011’s Attack the Block and this year’s The Hooping Life],” Burton adds. “That took a little time, you know. Between those things, the live shows and DJing, we were actually busy—quite busy!”
Fair enough, but a half-decade in the hyperactive world of Basement Jaxx feels like an eternity, particularly to fans of the duo’s idiosyncratic, pop-infused, anything-goes dance music. Still, the gregarious Buxton and the more reserved Ratcliffe neglected to mention the effort that’s probably kept them the busiest at all, at least for the past two years: The London-based DJ-producers have been toiling away in their new studio, working their latest set of dance-meets-pop tunes, Junto, released on their rejuvenated Atlantic Jaxx label in association with PIAS. It’s an album that’s a bit more pared down than some of their maximum-overdrive past work—they’re not aiming to recreate the gleeful adrenaline rush of “Where’s Your Head At” or “Twerk”—but it’s not exactly chin-stroke music, either, with the pair’ stylistic exploration, humor and sense of abandon running through the set.
For instance, there’s “Power to the People,” a triumphant clarion call that boasts vocal contributions from the until-now unknown Niara, a children’s chorus and 5,000 or so of the Jaxx masters’ fans (recorded on the pair’s last tour); the almost cartoonishly sinister trap-meets-jungle excursion “Buffalo,” featuring a great, guttural growl of a vocal from the sexually ambiguous Mykki Blanco; the bouncy, Technicolor “Unicorn,” evoking memories of prime-time Inner City; and the beautiful and emotive, ETML–voiced “Never Say Never,” featuring a sleek, festival-ready remix from Tiësto and MOTi. (In true Jaxx out-there fashion, the sci-fi video for that last cut stars a twerking automaton, created to rekindle man’s love of dancing… and sex.)
DJ Times recently had the pleasure of a sit-down with Burton and Ratcliffe in New York City, as the pair prepared for a back-to-basics DJ set at Brooklyn club Verboten.
DJ Times: I’m guessing that when you released “EP 1” back in 1994, you weren’t thinking that, 20 years down the road, you’d still be at it.
Buxton: How about you, looking back at your life? Twenty years ago, would you have had any idea what you’d be doing now?
DJ Times: Definitely not.
Ratcliffe: I think that’s the same with any of us, isn’t it? We had no idea that we’d still be doing this, but I don’t think that puts us in a unique position.
Buxton: But the fact that music has come around—and what we’re doing seems to match what’s fashionable again—is interesting. We never would have seen that coming, either.
DJ Times: Do you feel as though a lot of the music that you were making helped pave the way for the Rudimentals and Disclosures of the world?
Buxton: Well, they say so. Rudimental actually were the gorillas in our live show a couple of months ago. They’re big fans, and asked if they could dress up in the gorilla suits for “Where’s You Head At.” That was really fun, and we really like their attitude. They’re from the same background as we are, in a way. They love jungle, they love deep house… it’s really because they come from London. It’s in the culture to be into lots of different things.
DJ Times: That’s one thing that people have always liked about Basement Jaxx. They could tell you were in all kinds of different music, and your productions always refused to hew to one sound.
Buxton: That’s because we come from an island, I think. Musical society—and society in general—is a lot more ghettoized in the States, and it has been for years. I would hope that changes someday, and maybe with EDM, it is—I mean, Avicii did that country thing, right? That’s two cultures coming together, which I think is great.
DJ Times: You’ve always been proponents of that sort of thing, right?
Ratcliffe: We’ve always been about being inclusive, rather than exclusive.
Buxton: Being exclusive always seems to be a very old-fashioned notion. I’ve felt that was since I was a teenager. To me, that’s why the typical rock-n-roll band seemed stupid—it was about some egotistical character going, “Look at me!” That’s nonsense.
DJ Times: And you felt club culture offered something else?
Buxton: Yeah. That was about all of us being in a room, with just a flashing light and everybody together, just letting go. I found that a lot more exciting.
DJ Times: But wouldn’t you say that your live shows have a bit of rock-n-roll to them?
Buxton: Well, there’s definitely a bit of spectacle to them! [Laughs] But I would say what we do is more in line with theater than with a typical rock show. We’re giving you something to look at, but it’s not about an ego; it’s about our whole thing.
DJ Times: What do you think about the brand of spectacle that EDM shows give their audience?
Buxton: The EDM shows seem to be a mix of going to a fairground, going to an aerobics class and going to a dance party, which is fine. It’s a… new thing, I guess.
Ratcliffe: Musically, it’s obviously not what we do. But sometimes I’ll hear a bit and think, “Hmm—that’s really inventive.” It’s futuristic. And it will hopefully lead people to check out other kinds of dance music.
Buxton: Exactly—it’s a gateway drug!
DJ Times: You’re in town for a DJ gig. What is your DJing methodology nowadays?
Ratcliffe: It’s simple: USB key with rekordbox [and Pioneer CDJ media players].
Buxton: It’s pretty much the opposite of our live shows.
DJ Times: And how about musically? The last time I caught you—which was admittedly years ago—you were gleefully bashing one great track into the next for the duration of your set.
Buxton: I think we’ve been slightly affected by DJs like, say, Luciano. He’s got a great way of mixing, with three loops going at the same time. It’s a kind of a techno mindset, so it’s probably less a mix of different styles. It’s definitely less R&B and hip-hop, which always used to play a part on our sets. R&B and hip-hop became mainstream pop music, so it’s become less appealing to us. We try to stay away from corporate music. But we still mix things up a bit.
DJ Times: You’re new album, Junto, has just come out. Was there any overarching plan for this LP?
Ratcliffe: We wanted to be quite simple, and stay away from getting too clever. We didn’t want to overdo or overthink anything.
DJ Times: It does sound a bit more stripped-down and direct than some of your more recent work.
Buxton: I think that comes from seeing what works as DJs over the past few years. Things had gotten more minimal, and kind of stayed that way to some extent. Like, the songs that work the best in Ibiza are the ones that have one noise, a kick drum and a crackle sound. When we first started hearing that kind of music, we were thinking, “Well, what are we gonna do? Our stuff will never fit in with that.” We always have so much stuff in our music. So this album is an attempt to meet people halfway. We consciously tried to not put too much in there, so that people can deal with it.
DJ Times: The sound of Junto is still a long way from that of minimal techno, though.
Buxton: Yeah, that’s run its course a bit, hasn’t it? I think that now it’s kind of circled back to the way things were when we started. You can play a Latin tune next to a drum-n-bass tune into a house track—which is exactly what we used to do back in the Remedy days.
DJ Times: Which must make you very happy.
Buxton: It’s like, “Phew—what just happened?” [Laughs] We’re back to the same point where we were!
DJ Times: The album title has a pretty strong significance for you, right?
Buxton: Junto is Spanish for “together.” It’s taken from the song “Power to the People,” which is about togetherness and the fact that everything is connected. The whole theme of the album is about seeing those connections between people, and breaking down the barriers between people.
DJ Times: That’s been a common Basement Jaxx theme, hasn’t it?
Buxton: I think so. It’s very much what we were thinking about with Remedy, for instance—music to heal, and to give you good, positive vibrations… which is actually the opposite of what a lot of dance music has been like over the past few years.
DJ Times: In what way?
Buxton: A lot of it has gotten so noisy and twisted, like, grrrrr! And we’re more like, well, that’s not very appealing. It doesn’t seem to make sense in 2014. We’re just trying to say something positive, and not be ashamed by it. I’m allowed to say that I want to be happy!
DJ Times: Felix, did I hear that you had an epiphany of sorts that was inspired by the sighting of a UFO?
Buxton: Yeah! Though I don’t know if Simon wants to hear about it again…
Ratcliffe: It’s so boring! [Laughs]
Buxton: But here goes. We had moved into our new studio about two years ago. We had been there maybe a month, and out the window, me and a singer who was there saw a metallic, shiny flying saucer kind of thing. It was just kind of still. We were like, “What is this thing?” We both took out our phones and took pictures; but unfortunately, the evidence was a bit splodgy. After that, I spent a lot of time trawling the internet, finding out everything I could about UFOs. This was also 2012, around the end of the Mayan calendar, when a lot of New Age people and spiritualists were talking about the Age of Aquarius and the duality of society, like how male-dominated society was begin to feel the female influence. I was reading about all of this—and how, in higher dimensions, Krishna and Jesus and Mohammad all exist—and definitely saw crossways and pathways between a lot of things. I was actually quite relieved. There seemed to be some kind of semblance of order. But the main thing that I got was the letting go of understanding. I think I’ve learned that the reality out there is the reality we create, rather than that reality creating us. We always feel like we’re victims of reality, but we have it in our power to create reality.
DJ Times: Did all that have any influence on the creation of Junto?
Buxton: Well, because of all this, we were originally going to call the album make.believe. But then we found out that Sony already had that! [Laughs] But the whole idea of “if you believe something, you can make it happen” was very much a part of Basement Jaxx. Maybe it got a bit lost along the way, but it’s a big part of us again. But about the UFO… friends have told me not to bang on about that too much, or else people with think you’re crazy.
DJ Times: But obviously you don’t care.
Buxton: Not at all! But I have learned that there are so many people who don’t have opened minds. People can be very cynical.
DJ Times: I think one of the reasons that people like Basement Jaxx is your lack of cynicism.
Buxton: And that’s even though we operate in a cynical world. Hip culture has always been about being cynical, and it’s hard to battle against that. For me, it’s a real love-hate thing—I love fashion, for instance, but I also hate all the nonsense that goes along with it.
DJ Times: You mentioned “Power to the People” earlier. You have a special project revolving around that song, right?
Buxton: Yeah, we have a project called Powertothepeople.fm. That’s where people will be able to contribute their own version of the song—whatever style, whatever language. The thought behind it is to show that we really are all connected. There’ll be a player that allows you to have four elements playing; there might be the verse sung in Turkish, the chorus sung in Indian, the beats will be from a Detroit trap producer and the music from… I don’t know…. maybe a whistler in Venezuela?
DJ Times: And you’ll be releasing an all-new version of the song using all these components?
Buxton: We’ll be taking whatever’s in the player, mashing them all together, and then doing a charity release on the International Day of Peace, which is on the 21st of September. This all ties in with the idea of making your own reality; it’s putting it into practice on some level. It’s a way of letting people all over the world—people who aren’t part of the pumped-up Rihanna-style commercial-music world—and connecting them, and letting them show what they can do.
DJ Times: You’ve always used a lot of interesting characters for vocals on your albums, but one of the most interesting music must be the multi-sexual artist Mykki Blanco, who raps her way through the trap-jungle hybrid, “Buffalo.”
Buxton: Mykki came about through our friend Sinden. He’s been working with Mykki a bit, and told us, “Hey, she’s great—I think you should check her out.” He sends us a link, and there’s this video of a guy—very confusing! But it was a very cool video, that one with the face on the head ["The Initiation”]. Mykki just seemed like a really cool, interesting character, expressing another kind of perspective on things. He actually never gave us a second verse; apparently, according to his manager, he disappeared in the desert! I thought that was very biblical.
DJ Times: And there’s ETML on “Never Say Never”.…
Buxton: He’s new meat! He’s just left school, really
DJ Times: But you can tell already that he’s going to be a star.
Ratcliffe: He sounds sincere, not overproduced at all. He’s not singing at you, if you know what I mean. He’s got a fragility and an innocence that’s hard to fake.
Buxton: We actually originally envisioned a tougher voice for that song, and his voice has this gentleness to it—it really ended up working well.
DJ Times: When you work with vocalists, is it a fully collaborative process? Or do you always have something specific in mind?
Buxton: For “Never Say Never,” we just gave him the song, he sang it, and we said, “Yeah, that sounds good!”
Ratcliffe: It was one of the most straightforward processes of anything on the album. Some of the other songs could have gone in so many ways that it was kind of difficult to figure them out.
Buxton: Really, there’s always some collaboration going on, even if you think you know exactly what you want. If you ask someone to sing a song in a certain way, they’ll say, “Well, I can’t really sing it that way” or “I can’t hit that note,” so you’ll change the melody a bit. That’s just an example. Our work process is quite organic—we’ll go in a certain direction, and if that’s not working, we’ll go a bit to the left or a bit to the right. That’s the truest way to work.
DJ Times: This was all recorded in your new London studio, right?
Ratcliffe: Yeah, and it’s nice. We have a kitchen area, which is lovely. And a shower, which is also lovely! We have a mix room with an SSL desk in it. We have a really spacious, proper vocal booth. It’s all properly soundproofed, with floating floors and everything—and there’s a writing room! It was a concrete shell, and it was designed to our specifications. It’s a proper studio—which you would think we’d be used to. But we’ve never had one before.
Buxton: Don’t forget the windows.
Ratcliffe: Yeah, we have a great view of the city—you can see St. Paul’s Cathedral and The Shard [s[skyscraper]br>Buxton: And UFOs!