Ratcliffe: People go for the obvious things, and then those sounds become a cliché. We try to escape the clichés.
Buxton: Music has always kept me going.
Ratcliffe: I think the sampler is the best thing that was ever invented.
Just a few years ago, the only suggestion that London tour books made about Brixton was not to go there. The community in southern London was one of the city's toughest neighborhoods, overrun by crack dealers and a notorious gang of Jamaican toughs know as Yardies. At one point, so many impromptu gun battles were breaking out in the area that there were more bullet casings than bottle caps lying in the streets. But in the last few years, the sound of gunfire has been replaced by the sound of sweet house music. Back in 1994, an enterprising pair of twenty-somethings named Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe started hosting a weekly club night in the basement of a run-down Mexican restaurant called Taco Joe's (don't look for it now it's no longer there). The club attracted an odd mixture of trendy clubbers, bohemians, and local bad boys who all shared a common love of the funky, gritty dance music nicknamed “punk garage” that the duo was spinning.
“The name of the night became known as Basement Jaxx,” says Ratcliffe, the clean-shaven, curly-haired member of the duo. “We called ourselves Basement Jaxx, so we decided to call the night that as well. We had no particular concept in mind, really. We were just trying to re-create the feeling of these deep, dark places in New York or Chicago. The feel of the club was a lot like how we imagined house music should be. We lived out our fantasies, in a way.”
Basement Jaxx was not singularly responsible for Brixton's makeover into a gentrified London suburb, but Buxton and Ratcliffe managed to show promoters and business owners that a club could survive and thrive in the neighborhood. Now London tour books list such nightlife destinations as Mass and Dogstar, and Brixton's Coldharbour Lane is lined with dozens of trendy bars and restaurants. Even Madonna confirmed Brixton's hipster status when she booked her first live appearance in nearly ten years at the Brixton Academy.
Although Ratcliffe and Buxton now live in nearby Camberwell, the two still remain dedicated to the scene they helped build, holding packed-to-capacity club nights at a variety of Brixton hot spots. But the club nights are more sporadic now thanks to the success of Basement Jaxx's 1999 debut album, Remedy. Boasting several crossover hits such as “Red Alert,” “Rendez-Vu,” “Jump N' Shout,” and “Bingo Bango,” the album made Basement Jaxx a worldwide phenomenon, giving the duo the opportunity to bring their punk garage to dance floors from Toronto to Tokyo, San Francisco to São Paulo.
Most acts would take several years off to regroup after such a phenomenal success story, but Basement Jaxx remained as active as ever. Even while they were touring across the United States with their DJ sets or bringing their live show to Europe, they banged out several new tracks, including the much-sought-after white-label “My Name Is Start” bootleg, which married Eminem's rapping to a classic riff by the Jam.
Early this year, Buxton and Ratcliffe entered their modest studio; they emerged a few months later with Rooty. The album picks up where Remedy left off, with plenty of the duo's lo-fi attitude, cartoony vocals, and noisy sound effects left intact. While Rooty boasts its fair share of '80s elements the Prince-like harmonies in “Romeo” and the sample of Gary Numan's “M.E.” in “Where's Your Head At?” for example this is by no means a nostalgic effort along the lines of Daft Punk or King Britt's latest albums. There are still plenty of thumping dance-floor grooves, but songs like the sexy “Just 1 Kiss” and “Broken Dreams,” which comes across like an odd mixture of Destiny's Child, bossa nova, and ska, sound as good on a car stereo as they do on the floor at Crobar.
We caught up with Buxton and Ratcliffe in Miami a few weeks after they completed mixing the album. Tanned and relaxed, the duo seemed genuinely thrilled to spend the afternoon talking about the unique brand of house music that they've concocted and the scene that grew out of some very humble roots in a basement in Brixton.
What was your goal when you started promoting your own club night?
Simon Ratcliffe: It was Felix's idea to start the club. He had done a few nights at this place in Brixton called Taco Joe's. When we started doing music together, he asked me to come along and be one of the DJs. I didn't DJ that much in the beginning. I had a home recording studio, which is why Felix and I started working together. I had decks and I'd DJ for friends' parties, but Felix had put on clubs. He knew a lot about the house scene and was a big fan of U.S. house and garage. I had a band and I was playing jazz funk and bits of jungle and hardcore.
Taco Joe's got closed down because there were too many crack addicts there and it was quite a rough area. We moved the club to different places. We did it in a church in Camberwell and a pub called the Junction. When the last album came out, we stopped doing the club, but we recently started it up again.
Felix Buxton: In London all these clubs had become the establishment. We didn't want to be part of that so we started our own club and record label. When we first started, we sent a couple of tapes off to record companies but no one was interested. We thought it was good, but we had a friend in the music industry who said, “No. This has to be remixed. You can't put this out.” I played it to a distributor and he said, “This is great. We'll give you the money and you can press it.” So that got us doing our own thing.
We weren't worried about what everyone else was doing. When everyone follows each other, how can you be creative, expressive, and original? All the way along we tried doing it our own way. When we first came to Miami, we played a party and we had a Latin band come in and play. We didn't want to do what everyone else was doing. What's the point of that?
Why did you set up your club in your home neighborhood of Brixton instead of a more trendy area?
Buxton: It's because there wasn't really anything going on there. It was less of a hassle for our friends to get there. A club has a lot to do with the people who go there and the feeling that is created with it. Having the club so close to home gave it a real vibe. You don't know what that vibe is going to be from the start. You just do what you feel, and after a while it works out. People are very afraid of doing anything different in dance music. They want to follow the new cool style.
Ratcliffe: Brixton was a ghetto for a long time, but over the last ten years it's been chicified. Notting Hill used to be the same. Brixton isn't there yet, but it's creeping up. It's become very appealing for young white people to live there. There is a contrast between very trendy bars and drug dealers outside in the street.
Buxton: We turned on the Christmas lights in Brixton this year. It's nice because they recognized what we've done for the community.
What got you into DJing?
Buxton: Both of us have always loved music. Simon was in bands before. When I was at university, I started doing parties. People knew I was into music, so I was asked to DJ at a party, but I didn't have any records. I borrowed a bunch of records and tapes. I cued up all the tapes and I alternated between tapes and records. It was good and it seemed to work. It built from there.
I loved a lot of the music that was coming from America, from New York and Chicago, the underground house sound. It seemed to have something extra other than being just the banging club music that they were playing in England. It had an emotional dimension. It was similar to Philip Glass it was minimalist, emotional music. I thought it was great because it made me feel at one with the world and gave me a chance to reflect. I was wowed by jazz and world music, and by DJs like Gilles Peterson in England. Music has always kept me going. Every day when I was working in an office, I would listen to music on my way to work. I think that's true for a lot of people. We're very lucky to be in a position where we can create music.
How did you get into producing music?
Ratcliffe: When I was ten I was playing my dad's guitar, and I played in rock bands at school. We played covers of things like the Smiths, the Cult, and AC/DC. When I moved to London, I hooked up with some other people and started playing in a jazz-funk band. I also played guitar in that band, and we wrote our own songs. Around the same time, I bought a Fostex 4-track recorder because I wanted to write my own music. I was very excited about being able to record entire songs by myself. Being in a band is quite difficult, because everyone disagrees a lot of the time. If you have strong ideas, it's very difficult to get them done.
The songs I recorded on the Fostex didn't sound as good as a real band, but it was great for composing. The creative possibilities seemed endless. After a while I got into dance music and got some decks. I used to DJ beats to the 4-track recorder for about five minutes, then on track 2 I'd play the bass line, and on track 3 I'd play a melody. They were very crude dance tracks. I actually managed to release one of those songs. My friends helped me get some money together, and we pressed up a white label and released it. It did quite well enough for us to buy some equipment. We bought a sampler, a mixing desk, and an Atari computer with Cubase software. We still use all of that stuff, although we're now thinking of upgrading. It's quite incredible what you can do with a Mac. But at the same time we're scared of leaving what we know.
We've been in the same studio for seven years. It's pretty crummy, really it's falling apart, the desk isn't working, there's dust everywhere. We can afford to go to a decent place and get some decent equipment, but we're attached to the place where we did our records. We've finally made the decision to leave, but it's going to be quite a trauma. It's stupid, really, because you have to move on in life. You can't be scared of new things. All the success we've had and things we're proud of happened in that studio with that equipment, but we need to move on.
What are the key pieces of equipment in your studio?
Ratcliffe: The key things are the same exact things we had seven years ago. We can do everything with it. We have four samplers now: two Akai S1000s and two S3000s. We have a 24-track Spirit Soundcraft mixing desk, an Atari with Cubase, and that's it, really. We can do everything with that equipment. Beyond that we have a Roland Juno-106 synth that Felix borrowed from a friend about ten years ago and never gave back it's one of the classic house keyboards. When we started, we were trying to re-create that garage sound. We wanted to emulate Masters at Work, and the Juno-106's chords are spot on. We have a Roland JD-990, but we try to avoid using the presets. We edit our own sounds. These days a new piece of equipment will come out with all these dance and techno sounds, but within a few months of it coming out you'll hear them on adverts for perfume. People go for the obvious things, and then those sounds become a cliché. We try to escape the clichés.
Do you use any drum machines?
Ratcliffe: We've never had one, actually. When I first bought my sampler, I was given a free floppy disk with some 909 kick and clap sounds on it. That's what we use. I think that the original equipment has a much richer sound, but we've never gotten around to doing that.
There seem to be a lot of found sounds on your records, such as ringing cell phones, honking horns.
Ratcliffe: If the phone rings while we're working in the studio, we'll record it. We've recorded entire conversations. We work in a business center and it's quite noisy during the day. Lots of delivery trucks are driving around. We'll hear things like a truck's beeping reverse warning, put a microphone out the window, and record it. We've used those sounds on a couple of tracks. Once we were recording a track and a police car drove by. The siren was in tune with the song, so we decided to keep it. We keep our ears open for anything.
You can hear a lot of different elements in your music. Your music is very soulful and song oriented, yet it works on the dance floor too. Was it your goal from the beginning to take more of a vocal approach?
Buxton: This album has more vocals than we initially planned. I always like to hear a song, and I want to know what that piece of music is about. There is no easy way to express what you want to say without vocals. Dance music has become so tracked in a groove that it doesn't go anywhere. Our reaction to that is we want to say something, to express ourselves, instead of minimizing our music to a basic groove, which is a bit monochrome.
Some club music sounds great when it's played really loud in a club, but when you go home and listen to it quietly, all it can give you is a vague memory of that other experience. You should be able to listen to good music quietly at home and get the same experience over and over again. We're trying to marry the feeling you can have at home and in a club.
How do you record vocals?
Ratcliffe: We have a little sound booth in our studio. We use an Audio Technica mic that cost about £250 it's supposed to be a cheap version of a Neumann, but it does the job. We usually record the vocals to DAT. We'll play the backing track and record the vocals to DAT, and then we'll sample off of that. It's a very time-consuming and laborious process. That's one reason why we want to get a Mac. You can chop things up and move them around it's so much easier. We're looking forward to progressing to that stage just to save ourselves some time.
The harmony vocals on “Romeo” sound a lot like Prince.
Ratcliffe: I'm a big fan of Prince. Some people have said that there is Prince-like feel on several songs, but we didn't make a conscious decision to sound like that. I'm pleased people think that, because he was my hero. Kele Le Roc did the harmonies blind. I had her sing a bunch of different harmonies separately and recorded them on DAT. We took each separate take, put them together, and hoped that they were in time. That's not the best way of doing it. With multitrack you can hear what you're doing and get it right. But we like taking risks like that. We used a compressor to enhance the harmonies, and I put some chorus on it to make it sound rich.
So many DJs and producers are obsessed by technology. I can understand that. It's like getting a new mobile phone. It's an exciting, sexy new object and you want to touch it and get to know it. Some pieces of equipment can help your sound, but when you hear some of the work by these producers who are all into technology, their music doesn't necessarily sound any better. Neither of us is all that great with technology. I probably know a little more about equipment since I come from a musician's background as opposed to Felix's DJ background. Felix is happy to put down a track as it is, but I will go, “No, we have to put some compression on it.” But I'm not obsessed with technology. I think the sampler is the best thing that was ever invented. Most of our sounds are samples that are pitched low or high, modulated, or played quickly. Samples are wicked. You can take a sample off of an old classical record and play a hardcore riff with it. Sounds can change immensely when you play with them.
How do you choose the samples that you use for your songs?
Buxton: “Where's Your Head At” has a Gary Numan sample in it. We were going to DJ in Ibiza, and we were looking for some records to play. We'd been record shopping and there was nothing around that we liked. We just went into the studio, and I had a CD of that song. We did another track with a Gary Numan song that had a bit of a Destiny's Child a cappella. We developed the idea a bit further from that and had an acetate made.
There's a sample in “Broken Dreams” that is off an old Spanish holiday record that I picked up in a charity shop. There's a Chic sample in “Just One Kiss.” We used an Earth, Wind and Fire sample in “Breakaway.” We tried getting rid of that sample, but the track didn't feel the same without it. It's just a bit of atmosphere in the back, but it completely makes the feel. It's the same thing as using a certain instrument. For example, you can do a track with an old, klonky piano, and it creates the atmosphere for the whole track. Samples are like that.
How do you match beats with the various samples you use?
Ratcliffe: Sometimes it works straight off. A couple of times we have gone into a studio where they have a ReCycle program. Even then, sometimes it doesn't sound quite right. Sometimes things sound better when they're slightly out of time, like the loop in the background of “Everybody Be Somebody” by Ruffneck. It was kind of wonky, but it had a charm to it. It sounded funky and cool. If two kick drums are really out of time, we'll chop it up, which is quite painstaking.
You have done a variety of white-label bootlegs, like “My Name Is Start.” Since a lot of people know that you did them, have you ever gotten into any trouble?
Buxton: Paul Weller from the Jam knew about it, but he was cool with it. We just make a few thousand copies and we stop at that. Loads of people want to get it, and the shops all want it, but we want to make something special for the DJs. Most artists are cool about it as long as masses and masses of the records aren't being sold and the remixes aren't appalling. Then again, if it was tacky and awful they'd probably go, “Put it out. I want to make some money.” [Laughs.]
Ratcliffe: I hope a lot of kids went out and bought Jam records from that. We did that track exclusively for DJ purposes. It would be nice to release that track properly, but we didn't try clearing it because it would be too difficult. I'm very proud of that track, and it would be nice if more people could hear it.
Your records are more than a collection of dance songs. Do you think about arranging the complete package as an album?
Ratcliffe: We love good Chicago-style tracks with crude kick drums, bass lines, and vocals, but we're hungry for more. A lot of house music stops at a certain level. It's a bit lazy in a way. We try to make things richer and more dramatic. We try to make things as complex as possible not just for the sake of doing that, but to push it as far as it can go. If there's a space, we'll fill it unless that space is really effective. We're fans of house music, but I'm also a fan of rock music and Felix likes a lot of old jazz and soul. We've been influenced by music that is played by bands. With house music you don't have that. We're trying to combine the two to get some spontaneity and diverse selection of sounds, yet at the same time we're not ashamed that our music is electronic.
Buxton: On the whole we just work on individual tracks. After we have a few tracks completed, we try to figure out how they will work together. We arrange the order at the end, and we may decide to do another track quickly because we need something to complete the right feel for the album. “Crazy Girl” was done a couple of days before cutting the album. And the last track was done the day before we cut the album. We needed something to mellow down at the end. We had this vaguely reggae-ish groove that we wanted to build a song for, but it never seemed to work. We just sang something over it, and it was what we needed.
Do you have certain singers or a certain type of voice in mind for your songs?
Buxton: Most of our songs start with basic lyrics and an idea. We'll start working on it, see how it's doing, and if it's not working we'll try doing a completely different song on the other end of the spectrum just to see where the singer's voice works and sounds interesting. There are a couple of songs that didn't make it on the album that we had loads of vocalists come in to do. We tried it differently each time and it still didn't feel right. I originally sang “Romeo,” but it sounded like John Lennon. We thought we could give it an entirely different feel with an R&B vocal. What's difficult creatively is figuring out which is the stronger way to go. You just have to go in one direction and keep pushing until it feels right.
Who writes most of the lyrics?
Buxton: I do more on the lyrical side. Simon is more into production and playing instruments like guitar and bass. I'm always coming up with themes and lyrics.
Your lyrics are a bit melancholy.
Buxton: If a song is going to take you somewhere, it needs to have a bit of antagonism. Otherwise it doesn't say anything. It's like being here in Miami. You could meet a woman with the most perfect body but not find her attractive. The human experience isn't just about being happy. You can only be completely happy if you have a sense of what sadness and fear are.
There's some tension and drama in the lyrics as well.
Ratcliffe: We try to tell a story. We put a lot of our personality and character in there. After a while it does get boring just producing house tracks all the time with the same thing. When we started, we thought house music was the best thing. We wanted our music to be like that. We're quite ambitious musically. We want to do something new and express ourselves. At the same time, we're not singers or pop stars. We're producers and we don't want to be pop stars, but at the same time we want to say more than other producers. We want to say something about ourselves and how we're feeling. We're in a middle ground.
It's strange for us to do interviews. When we did the promotion for Remedy a few years ago, we had our first bout of being in the limelight. We started meeting a lot of pop stars and discovered that they're a different breed. They want to share their lives. They sing about their pain and joy. They live their lives out in the open. We don't exactly want to do that, but we do want to express ourselves. We want to stay producers we don't want to be seen too much. At the same time, we want to express as much as possible with our music. We want to be seen for our music, and that's it.