The two-man duo of Felix Buxton and Simon Ratclie, out of the Brixton district of South London, England, has been crafting dance music rooted in House but incorporating pop, hip hop, dancehall, and Afro-Caribbean styles for 20 years.
While they belong with the other great two-man British dance acts like the Chemical Brothers and Groove Armada, Basement Jaxx’s music also has crossover appeal rooted in the fact that the production team prefers to write songs that could stand on their own, whether played on a single acoustic guitar, fully produced, or played with the large band that backs Basement Jaxx when they do their live performance gigs rather than simply DJing.
The act helped define house music of the late ’90s through the mid-2000s, scoring Number Ones on the U.S. Dance chart with tracks such as “Rendez-Vu,” “Red Alert,” and “Bingo Bango.”
Since releasing a stellar singles collection in 2005, Basement Jaxx has entered what could be called their “mature” period, releasing cohesive
albums and even branching out into film scoring by teaming with Steven Price for the music on the 2011 British indie-sci-fi sleeper hit, Attack the Block.
The seventh Basement Jaxx studio album, ‘Junto,’ came out in August, and is followed by a tour with the group’s stage band.
1. The stage show for your last tour was quite impressive. When you start touring for to support ‘Junto’ this year, are you going to try to top the last one?
Buxton: You have to always try and make progress and get better and slicker, and I suppose it’ll suit the new material, as well. In a technological way, it would be lovely to advance the live act, but that’s all to do with cash. How much can you pump into the show? Part of that is how well the album does. Everything’s so related.
2. Do you have a regular band you work with and keep together?
Ratclie: Yeah, three of our singers have been with us for over a decade, and the drummer. There’s a strong core.
3. Is the stage show very technical or are you running everything live? Are you working with any sequencing onstage?
Buxton: We’ve just got Logic playing backing tracks, and we’ve got live instrumentation: drums, percussion. We’ve got DJing and live band at the same time. Ratclie: Keyboards, guitar, brass—all on top—and then about five vocals.
4. In the 20 or so years you guys have been DJing and producing, things have progressed so much that computer power isn’t much of a problem anymore. What do you think about the current state of making music? Do you like how it’s advanced technologically?
Buxton: It’s miles easier. If you think about when we started, getting the beats to sound a certain way—now you’ve got thousands of beats already done, and you can manipulate them and technology just keeps jumping forward. It’s exciting; it’s really good. I think that what 10-year-olds will be doing in five years’ time will be amazing. That’s what’s exciting. One thing I heard about recently is a helmet a scientist in England is working on. It takes your brain patterns, your thought patterns, and uses it to sync up to music creation. The idea that people can think their own music, and think melodies—they’ve actually proved that it works. So maybe we won’t be doing this at all; everyone will be creating their own music, which is amazing. I do want to find out more about it. I thought with our album we should really try to get that involved somehow, because that’s real, new technology and really exciting. That could be like when vinyl first came along or when people first had the radio. It could be a massive step in the way that we get creative and perceive things, and also for everybody to get involved.
5. When you write music, do you often just hear something in your head so that a helmet like that would be perfect for you, or do you more often sit down and tinker with melodies until you have something?
Ratclie: Both, really. Sometimes you’re just playing around, something comes along and you just persist with it. Other times you have a very clear idea of what you think it should be, and it might be a bass line or a melody or a beat or rhythm, and you start with that.
6. Do you write along with the band, or on your own?
Ratclie: We tend to write on our own. We’ve got three possible working rooms in our studio now, so sometimes together, sometimes separately. Then we bring singers in and might try several singers on one song. Buxton: On this album we’ve got more collaborations with other people than ever before. So it was writing a song with someone else. But I think a lot of dance acts often just get someone who comes in and does a top line. We’ve always been more like a band in the fact that we create the songs, which could be around the fireside
7. A lot of the album’s songs sound like it was a party in the studio, with a ton of vocalists and musicians. Do you record big groups of people at once or track individually?
Buxton: Generally individually. One track, “Mermaid of Salinas,” developed over two years, and [guitarist] Andrea [Terrano], he came up with the melody, and then kind of a smooth guitar ri. We took his original file of that guitar and embellished it, looped it and used that as the beginning of the process. Then a trumpeter was coming past, and he did like half an hour of soloing. Then I spent like a month or something editing [laughs]. [Engineer] Duncan [Brown] cleaned it up in the end. So that’s one part of it.
Then the song actually develops around these parts, because you get really good parts and then it’s kind of like doing a patchwork or a collage.
You just keep on adding layers. Then Andrea was around my house, and I was saying the song should have a melody and a vocal on it as well. He said he wasn’t very good at writing songs, because we were trying to tell the story of the Mermaid of Salinas: Basically he went into the sea and he ended up making love with this woman who was a stranger. So we sat together through every emotion of this experience and got the melody.
Then we did a DJ set somewhere else and he did a live acoustic version and went o going all Flamenco-y. Luckily someone had filmed it on a camera, so we had a record of what it was, and then that piece led to adding a bridge. So that song over two years kind of grew and grew and grew.
8. What’s your studio space like?
Ratclie: We moved there two years ago. Before that we were in just a room basically for a decade in Brixton. That was starting to leak and fall
apart, so we decided to find somewhere nicer. We got a place with a mixing room with an SSL desk, a writing room, and a vocal booth.
Buxton: One of the main things we got back that we had in the beginning was a window. Often studios are dark and all sealed o. Where we moved, the writing room can have the window open, and you don’t need to play music loud to have ideas. So that’s why one room is specifically for mixing; you can pump it up, and it’s completely soundproofed. The other room is a bit soundproofed.
9. How often do you work in the studio?
Buxton: Every day. Ratclie: Five days a week. I try not to work weekends if possible.
10. When you are working in the studio, do each of you gravitate toward your own roles, or do you both work on everything?
Buxton: With Simon, he gets two bars to sound like a track. For me, I’ll do the whole thing, and I’ll play it to Simon, and he’s like, “I can’t hear a thing of what’s going on.” I can hear a whole song that’s all in there, but it sounds like a mess. So it’s kind of like the elements are more important to me than the way it sounds. Obviously it has to sound good, but that’s the way my mind works.
I think generally our music-making process has always been very much a mixture of organic and electronic. So we could be in the studio playing some live instruments; it might be playing the furniture, because it sounds good making a noise. And then processing that, and using synths in the box and things from outside. And then if it sounds good when that train goes past, let’s put the mic out the window and record that.
Everything is just sound, and then you try to make that as quality as possible. ‘Cause we’ve always had lots of layers, and that just builds a picture.