Considering Basement Jaxx’s globetrotting diary, it’s something of a shock to have pinned one of their members down to a record company office in West London.
Felix Buxton is at XL Recordings today. His brief: to discuss the duo’s new album Scars, how it came about – and the increasingly far flung destinations he and fellow Jaxxer Simon Ratcliffe have been playing of late.
He begins to tell the story of the album’s gestation. “When we set out to do the album it was going to be one lot of dancey, Basement Jaxx stuff and another of Pink Floyd-ish stuff. We started doing the chill out sort of stuff as a means to get into music, because we’d been doing a lot of festivals, and club music was about being very minimal, kind of dark and a bit dull.”
He was unimpressed. “That didn’t seem to be a very inspiring way of making music, as it didn’t seem relevant and you never had any vocals, and that seemed to be the way club music was going at the time.”
The answer, it seems, was rock. “With doing rock festivals, we felt more at home in that area,” says Felix. “We were still DJing, and interested in the dance side of things, but with the music it felt like club culture was limiting. We got to the stage where we felt we could do anything, so we did just do music of all types, and made about 45 tracks.”
Then the selection process began. “A lot of them, say 10 to 15, were quite chilled out, so we separated them with a view to putting them all together as a soundscape thing. We’re still gonna put out a soundscape, we’re actually finishing that very soon, so that’s going to come out in a month or so. It’s an extra half hour of music, about eight tracks, but it’s all one piece of music.”
Artistically, as is the Jaxx way, other people were involved. “One of the first things I wanted to do,” he says, “was go and talk to Yoko Ono in New York, just as a creative thing, to find out her views on life, the universe and everything. I’d come across bits of her artwork that she’d done recently, and it seemed to me very emotional and beautiful, and we’d heard that she was a fan of our music. It seemed there was a bit of synchronicity going on there, so I just wanted to go and talk to her, even if it was just an interview and perhaps put her voice over something, so that was a basic plan.”
Gradually the scope broadened. “Initially I was just going to go off by myself and have a creative holiday, and then Simon decided to come. So we thought we may as well get a studio in New York, and that became the beginning of working with Santigold. We then thought we need to find some people that live in the New York area, so we got a drummer and a bassist that we’d heard of, on old Latin and house records, and a bunch of vocalists. So we didn’t really know who was going to come in and what was going to happen.”
These disparate people did all come in. “With Santigold we’d become aware of her stuff, and knew she lived in Brooklyn, and we also met Lil’ Louis, who had been away from music for a couple of years writing a book about love. He was really pleased to come in, but he’d gone out with Santi’s cousin or something, so they met up and there was a bit of funny situation there! We also saw Armand Van Helden, who we know, and he took us out.”
Clearly the Basement Jaxx way is not to stay rooted to their Brixton/Camberwell borderlands. “I think we’re easily bored! We like a lot of different styles. I see it like food, now we’re sophisticated beings and enjoy cuisine from different countries with various styles, you know. It’s the same with music – you’ve got different emotions and different moods, and so many cultures rubbing shoulders with each other around the world. To me that’s the way the world is now, I suppose I’ve always been like that. Maybe it came through my dad, he used to listen to Japanese drumming music, and Hawaiian music and that. So that always seemed quite normal to me, it makes life more interesting.”
Is it safe to assume living in Brixton has helped in that sense? “That was definitely true of our early stuff, but in this album we were conscious not to have Brixton as an influence, because we felt we’d had that. Now we’ve travelled around the world it feels different, so we went to Berlin for 10 days, then to New York, and then to Bath in the countryside. So we weren’t in Loughborough Junction or Brixton in the same way. A lot of people had left the building where we were, and it was quite grey and depressing, so we thought we needed to make a change, to progress things, as it was quite heavy. I had a lot of turbulence in my personal life, and there wasn’t much light at the end of the tunnel there.”
So they’ve been out and about, visiting new destinations with the live show – of which Korea has been the most striking. Felix becomes noticeably more animated. “That was a real surprise because we didn’t know how it was going to be. It was just an amazing reaction, we were gobsmacked. We did the song Hot ‘n’ Cold, which was never a hit in Europe, and that’s a really big tune over there. It’s really weird playing a song you never play at all, and people going nuts for it! So it was great, a really good experience – that and Fuji Rocks, who said that was the most people they had had on the last night of the festival.”
With so much touring and so many live dates, has it been tricky for the duo to get the same buzz, to keep it fresh? “Well this year we did Korea”, he says, “and also St Petersburg. I’ve been wanting to go there for years, so it’s a bit of a list of places you haven’t been. It makes you more nervous at the same time because it can go either way, and that tension keeps you alive, it stops you from getting bored. We’re saying yes to more interesting gigs, because you see bands who get fed up and tired of doing the same gigs, and it’s like ‘you don’t have to do it, so shut up – you’re lucky to be doing this, and we don’t want to see you moan!’”
Doesn’t he ever moan? “I suppose I’m always conscious of that, we like to say yes to gigs that will be interesting. The Wireless gig, I really enjoyed that; we had Prince Harry standing around at the edge of the stage and he was saying it was the best gig he’d been to!”
It’s a long way from the Jaxx’s underground origins with the likes of Fly Life, Samba Magic and their celebrated remix of of Lil Mo’ Yin Yang‘s Reach. Of that, Felix recalls, “We were recording fireworks out the window of the studio, and Simon was there with a microphone hanging out while I let off fireworks on the ground!”
At the time, house music was very much at the forefront – but it was never their intention to restrict the flow. “On Samba Magic as I recall I think the B-side was a slow kind of funk track, and we always tried to use it like that, like the records in America would do. I loved the original as a jazz track, and this was about getting the same vibe but being able to DJ it in a club. I still like both sides.”
How does he maintain so many irons in the fire? “Yesterday we were doing a DJ mix thing, and did an underground house mix of Quirk off the album, and it’s getting back around to an old school style now. We’re enjoying doing underground mixes like that at the moment. We always thought there has to be one track you can play at a peak time in a club, mostly to make sure someone bought it!”
Sometimes that means going against the grain. “On the last album Kish Kash we were completely going in an opposite direction to fashion, as club music had gone to a very minimal stage, and we did the opposite. Take Me Back To Your House had a Cossack dancing video with banjos and that, it was completely opposite – and that’s what Lily Allen‘s doing now. Unless you’re fashionable and giving it an image, people are a bit scared because it all seems too different.”
But isn’t that what people want from a favourite artist? “It is, though if you’re doing it and people just aren’t getting into it then it seems a bit of a waste of time. It’s not just to make us feel good, and maybe I feel a responsibility because we’ve got thousands of people out there. You want them to have a good time, even if it’s you that’s feeling shit! It’s the process and we’re carrying on doing what we’re doing.”
He finishes by reflecting on the fact that Basement Jaxx have just made the fringes of the Radio 2 playlist for the first time. “It’s annoying sometimes how people think rock music is cool and intelligent, and with dance music it’s just ‘turn up the bass!’ and we’ve never just done that. C’est la vie!”
And with that he’s off. The day after our chat it’s announced that XL Recordings and Basement Jaxx have parted company, seemingly a mutual decision. With their musical independence and a broad horizon before them, the future direction of Basement Jaxx can scarcely be other than worth keeping an ear out for.