Q&A with Basement Jaxx

Surviving swings in dance music's popularity by placing the song above the beat

London’s Basement Jaxx has survived radical swings in dance music’s popularity by placing the song above the beat.

WHO KNOWS about Basement Jaxx? Your mom does. Well, she may not know that she knows them, but if “Where’s Your Head At?”—the 2001 international hit shout-along anthem that has starred in a billion commercials and television interstitials—started playing, she’d recognize it. And if the ’70s-inspired soulful dance smash from 2003, “Good Luck,” came on, she’d even like it. But enough about your mom (for now). The point is that if your mom knows Basement Jaxx music, pretty much everybody does.

The two-man duo of Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe, 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 on August 25, and is followed by a tour with the group’s stage band. Junto stays true to the normal Basement Jaxx celebratory vibe, including straight-up vocal house like “Unicorn” and “Never Say Never,” as well as a big injection of Latin and Afro-Caribbean flavors fit to cause a street festival’s worth of people to move their feet on tracks like “Power to the People,” “Rock this Road,” and “Mermaid of Salinas.”

With dance music again enjoying a spike in popularity in the United States, the time may be right for Basement Jaxx to reclaim the top of the dance charts. The duo can certainly still pack midsized US clubs, as it did at San Francisco’s Public Works in July, where the crowd included as many early-twenty-somethings as aging ravers, and even a couple of moms.

Before the show, we sat down with the guys and their engineer Duncan Brown in the chic and trendy Clift Hotel lobby for lobster tacos, truffled mushroom flatbread, and a talk about Basement Jaxx’s recording and performing methods.

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.

Do you have a regular band you work with and keep together?

Ratcliffe: Yeah, three of our singers have been with us for over a decade, and the drummer. There’s a strong core.

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.

Ratcliffe: Keyboards, guitar, brass—all on top—and then about five vocals.

It sounds like it’s not entirely technologically foolproof, but you’re basically running a live show. It’s not like you’d be screwed if the computer shut down.

Buxton: We have had the power go out before.

Ratcliffe: It has happened.

Buxton: Yeah, but we had a mic that worked. We ended up having someone play guitar and just had a couple of vocalists. And that’s all we had for a show, which is great! We’ve got people who play rhythm, so people can hit whatever is around—even if it’s hitting a microphone.

Is that the worst disaster you’ve had onstage?

Ratcliffe: It’s pretty close, actually. That was quite a bad one. There was a period where Felix was singing through a vocoder on the track “Raindrops,” [from Scars] and the computer kept crashing. We found out subsequently that the laptop was not designed to be used [that way]. It was a very basic Mac laptop, and it didn’t have enough power, so the [engineer] we had a while ago, he should’ve known that, really. We trusted him to know what he was doing, and it turned out it just wasn’t powerful enough. It happened a few times. It happened on a live TV show, as well. So basically [Felix] would sing, and then you fuse his voice through the MIDI programmed notes, but then it would just crash.

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.

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?

Ratcliffe: 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.

Do you write along with the band, or on your own?

Ratcliffe: 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.

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 riff. 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 off 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.

What’s your studio space like?

Ratcliffe: 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 off. 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.

How often do you work in the studio?

Buxton: Every day.

Ratcliffe: Five days a week. I try not to work weekends if possible.

Do you always have the next project in mind when you’re working?

Ratcliffe: When we decided to do an album, for the last two years that’s been the primary goal.

Buxton: And then there are mixes of various songs if we’re DJing out, like a dub version that would be good to play this weekend, or Andrea the guitarist is always turning up with little bits and asking what we think. So we may do a couple of hours editing what he’s got and just helping other people with stuff, as well.

Do you create versions of tracks to play out that are different from what’s on the albums?

Buxton: Oh yeah. We play lots of versions. At the moment, on our USB stick there’s like “Blue Flute 7,” “Blue Flute Miami,” and there’s maybe a mastered file and a re-edit. With the live show, that’s the same, as well. The last year, the “Power to the People” song has changed quite radically from a year-and-a-half ago. It’s actually got a different vocal melody and song on the top, and different backing music. I mean, it still goes “boom-boomboom;” it’s a 4/4 track.

If you’re not in the studio, do you do much work on just a laptop or an iPad?

Ratcliffe: I’ve done bits, but I���m not very good without fiddling on the keyboard. I like having keyboards and all the options. But a lot of people do work like that.

Buxton: I do a lot of ideas on the computer at home. Often actually, because I haven’t really got any good instruments on my computer, sometimes I’ll just actually tap the rhythm, and I’ll do it all by mic. I’ll just do layers, and it’s an absolute mess for anyone to listen to. But at least for me, it’s simpler. I do kind of orchestral bits like that at home. I’ve got things I’ve been working on for a few years now—just a couple of hours listening over something and playing in really bad sounds. In a way, it shouldn’t matter what sound it is. I know electronic music is often fueled by the sound, but the core is what’s moving you. Melody for me is the prime thing that moves me.

If you’re doing those orchestral bits, are you looking to do more scoring work?

Ratcliffe: Film scoring, I’m interested in doing. We’ve done two. It’s a slightly different experience, ’cause obviously, you’re being told more what to do; you’ve got more restrictions, which are quite good in a way—quite liberating.

Buxton: And generally most films, they have a lot of three-note [themes]; you can do work for tension, you know. Warren Brown, who helped us a bit on the album; he’s an engineer. He was working on Dawn of the Planet of the Apes. I was saying to him, “really, the music was just ‘bom-bom-bom…’” ‘Cause it’s like when the monkeys come and they attack and you have the tension strings or whatever—nothing really there—and then everything going “bang-bang-bang.”

Ratcliffe: But there’s tons of producer packs for film, so they’re all pretty good, and amazingly recorded.

Buxton: And he said the main thing for this movie, they got an old grand piano, and they put loads of screws and nails in it, which is like, if you really listen closely you can probably tell there’s something in the timbre.

Buxton: A lot of the process of music, part of it is just doing it yourself, even if it does sound like a sample pack. There’s something in there that you put a bit of your vibe in the way you do it. It’s not as perfect as a sample pack, but that’s why you notice it. It’s the imperfections that make us click into something.

It sounds like you’d be comfortable working with whatever tools are in front of you, or do you have favorite software you prefer to use?

Ratcliffe: It’s just what we have. We have all the Native Instruments stuff, we use Omnisphere, we use samples, a lot of soft synths. We do have a [Roland] Juno-106 that we use occasionally, which we always used. That sound’s kind of come back into fashion, so we have been using that. We haven’t got a ton of software.

Buxton: Duncan worked with us for a couple of years. The fact is, he’s new-school, so we wanted the next generation. Basically it’s, “Duncan, have you heard of anything that’s any good out there?” That’s what I do. And also, “how do you use it; how does it work?”

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.