Basement Jaxx - Tales From The Basement
Basement Jaxx, the UK house duo responsible for club anthems such as Red Alert, Rendez-Vu, Romeo, Where’s Your Head At- and Do Your Thing, are returning to Australia to headline Future Music Festival. 3D’s Cyclone spoke with Simon Ratcliffe, the “studio boffin”.
One of dance music’s best-loved acts is plotting a comeback for 2009. Three years on from Crazy Itch Radio, Basement Jaxx – Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton – will present their fifth album. But, first, they’ll tour Australia again with a new live show. “We gotta finish the album in the next three weeks, and then we’ve got February to rehearse the show, so hopefully we’ll be bringing you lots of new music,” says Ratcliffe, ordering a breakfast latte in his local café.
Basement Jaxx are survivors. They outlasted the backlash to a corporate dance culture at the end of the ’90s. Indeed, the Jaxx recast themselves by sagely pre-empting the 2000s’ hybridisation.
The Brits were established in underground house circles when they put out their debut, Remedy, in 1999. They’d developed Atlantic Jaxx Recordings earlier in the decade with cult club tracks like Flylife. Together with Daft Punk, The Jaxx brought a new energy – and eccentricity – to house. Even the US pioneers gave them props. Basement Jaxx consolidated their crossover status with Rooty, comprising the ubiquitous Where’s Your Head At-. On 2003’s rebellious Kish Kash they moved away from ‘funky house’, creating a punky urban mash-up – reconciling garage with two-step. Grime MC Dizzee Rascal featured alongside goth queen Siouxsie Sioux. The Jaxx won a Grammy for the album but, ironically, lost their US deal. They then returned with the underrated Crazy Itch Radio.
Buxton, tapping into surging regional music subcultures, had discovered Eastern European folk-dance (he assembled the comp Gypsy Beats and Balkan Bangers with DJ Russ Jones) and this permeated the album. Once more, Basement Jaxx chose unusual vocalists, among them Swedish RNB chick Robyn, who’s since reinvented herself as an electro starlet. She sang the Balkan-flavoured Hey U, the duo’s most recent single. “It’s a slight pity that more people didn’t hear the track we did with her ’cause I think it’s really good,” Ratcliffe regrets. He won’t accept credit for Robyn’s reappearance on the pop scene.
More than The Chemical Brothers, Basement Jaxx have maintained their credibility. Like Madonna, The Chemicals often seem to be chasing ‘cool’ associations (was anyone convinced by their Klaxons collab-), yet the Jaxx are cutting-edge. Ratcliffe is unable – rather than reluctant – to describe the vibe of their upcoming LP. “I can’t really tell you because we haven’t gone for one sound,” he explains. “It’s lots of songs, there’s lots of music – we’ve got a double-album’s worth of music. We’ve gotta try to work out whether we can release two records or just one.”
Basement Jaxx have reportedly liaised with Aussie Sam Sparro – and Ratcliffe rattles off other guests: Yoko Ono, Yo Majesty!, Santogold... However, they were unable to lure a dance icon. “The one person who we were trying to get for this album, as we did for the last album, was Grace Jones. She’s still eluding us. She’s hard to pin down.”
Basement Jaxx travelled to New York as well as Berlin to record. And it could be Berlin that provides a clue as to their sound in 2009. Ratcliffe has long harboured a strange fascination for the German city – ever since viewing the film Christiane F (and reading the book on which it’s based) – but the Jaxx were attracted as much to Berlin’s electronica. “We just thought, ‘We’ll go and check it out, get away somewhere, go and check out a different city.’ I really loved Berlin. The modern minimalist sound is something that intrigued us ’cause it’s very different to what we’re known for doing – [with] the space they have in their sound – and we went there just to try to get an idea of why they do that and how.”
Basement Jaxx feel vindicated “to an extent” by the now common cross-fertilisation in dance, but it’s generated challenges. “It’s made it harder to know what to do next, ’cause a lot of people are doing what we used to do 10 years ago. But it’s really good that people are doing that.”
Aside from remixing, Basement Jaxx have also produced artists over the years. “We do get asked to work with people a lot,” Ratcliffe affirms. They collaborated with the ’NSyncer JC Chasez. Their last major client was zany ’80s divette Cyndi Lauper, whose dance Bring Ya To The Brink was favourably contrasted to Madonna’s try-hard Hard Candy. “We were honoured to work with her,” Ratcliffe raves of Lauper. “She’s a real character. She’s got a really strong Queens accent. She’s a bit of a nutter!” Otherwise, the duo have been surprisingly low-key. They’ve circulated club music of their own on Atlantic Jaxx. And they remixed Adele’s Cold Shoulder. Ratcliffe, Basement Jaxx’s studio boffin (Buxton is the ideas man), is looking forward to more remixing after their album is completed.
In the past Ratcliffe has expressed boredom with contemporary dance, Buxton also being the DJ (and enthusiast) of the pair, but in 2009 the former is sanguine. The Jaxx not touring as a live entity last year, they’ve both re-embraced DJing. Still, ask Ratcliffe what he’s currently listening to and he doesn’t immediately cite a dance artist. “I’ve been listening to a guy called Geraint Watkins who used to play with [English rocker] Nick Lowe. He’s a kind of bluegrass-y musician. I think he’s Welsh, funnily enough, but his music is Louisiana-influenced. With dance music, I listen to all kinds of stuff. [But] there’s just so much music out there – too much music! It’s so easy to do stuff... It’s shitloads of dance music – and it’s overwhelming.”
Ratcliffe rationalises his occasional ambivalence. “Both me and Felix have always been critical of [dance music] ’cause, in the world we’re in, it’s good to be critical. There’s a laziness, and a lot of back-patting, in [dance], so it’s good to be honest and to have high standards in music and in what you do. That’s why we’ve always been quite critical of dance music, because we want it to be as good as possible – ’cause it can be a beautiful thing when it’s really good. I like the Baltimore stuff. I like stuff that’s made with an underground approach. It’s not been overproduced and that [music] has attitude and it’s not too musical – I like stuff that has a bit of sexiness to it. Some dance music becomes too rigid – too clinical. So, yeah, I’m excited about dance music. But, at the same time, I’m just overwhelmed by how much of it there is, and how easy it is to make a decent-sounding record, so we’re striving to do different things with it.”
WHO: Basement Jaxx
WHAT: Future Music Festival ’09 through Stomp / Play Future Music Festival, Royal Randwick Racecourse / Enmore Theatre
WHEN: Saturday 14 February / Saturday 28 / Tuesday 3 March Saturday 14