Gimme Somethin' True: An Interview with Basement Jaxx
After a decade of making revolutionary house music, the Jaxx's Felix talks to PopMatters about working with Yoko Ono, taking that first step towards marriage, and the creation of their latest album, Scars
For the past decade, UK dance duo Basement Jaxx has been a force to be reckoned with. Fully embracing the post-millennial generation with their brand of elaborate-yet-accessible house music, the Jaxx (Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe) helped define a new variety of music marketing by exposing (some would say exploiting) their hit "Where's Your Head At" through the mediums of television and film, while still creating one of the decade's most renowned, forward-thinking music videos (you remember it: the one with the monkeys that had human faces). During a light-hearted and sincere conversation, PopMatters talked with one-half of the dance masterminds, Felix, about the duo's spiritual journey of creating Scars, the current implementation of Auto-Tune in pop music, and their chance to work with some of yesterday and today's most inimitable artists.
Much of Basement Jaxx's critical acclaim is based on their first two recordings, Remedy and Rooty as the definitive exploration of the duo's sound, but one would be sorely mistaken to disregard the band's recent output. Scars, the group's latest album, is a forward-thinking collection of songs, and the duo remains just as in-tune with the current trends of today's popular music as they ever were. But as we've seen in recent years, the direction of current music is deeply rooted in the past.
"There weren't that many things that we thought 'Wow, this is incredible new music!' I think I noticed after we got back from the tour, I took a couple of days off just going around London to the hip shops and I realized everyone was playing old music. I said to this girl who was about 20, 'Why is there no new music around?' She said [that] there's no good music anymore, [that] everyone brings in music from all over the different ages." Felix contemplated. "There is so much good music there so people are looking back rather than looking forward. Besides dubstep, when we started the album, there didn't seem to be any new music. We didn't know quite where we were going."
In recent years, the duo has looked to one the avant-garde's elder leaders for advice -- not only about music, but also about their surroundings, and how to become inspired again. "One thing I wanted to do was go talk to Yoko Ono. I was interested in her wisdom on life, the universe, and everything, probably because she came up in the peace and love generation and with me it would be the English acid-house generation. I was a part of that with a belief that love can save the day, and whether that's just hippie naivety or whether there's any depth to it." Felix, obviously compassionate about Ono's ideals, continued on about her reactions. "She seems very much alive. The track we did with her, 'Day of the Sunflowers (We March On)', we were talking to her about a sunflower army and positive force. She's really creative still, and very much living. She still strongly believes in her principles without being a bit of a fruitcake, which is great."
Along with looking back, the duo still makes an effort to look forward, enlisting some of today's creative forces such as Santigold and Amp Fiddler. Hearing "Saga", one can hardly believe at how the conclusion was reached on who was to sing the track. Felix explained, "I was with my girlfriend at the time, walking to the studio in the morning we were having a bit of a row. About 'You may be having a holiday, I came here to work, get off my back' sort of thing. So I kind of went to the studio in a foul mood. The groove existed, and then I thought that kind of energy suited the mood I was in. Then I just sang the song in the studio then, and I just put it down quickly. Then Santigold came in when I was doing that and listened to and said, "I love that, I'd love to sing that!" So we said 'Great, you'd sound a lot better than I would!' Every track we do is kind of a slightly random approach as to how we get there."
Slightly less entertaining is how the duo arrived at "A Possibility", one of the albums finer moments with British neo-jazz sensation Amp Fiddler. "That sample is [of a band called] the Shadows: they were around in the '60s in England. I probably listened to them when I was very young. They were instrumental guitar music, and they did things like 'Apache' and songs like that. Definitely people like Arctic Monkeys have a bit of a feel like that to them. There was one song I liked in particular I took to the studio to loop it. When Amp Fiddler was in here, that was the one that he really liked, and we wrote something with him." Felix later explained his ethos towards the foundations of the Basement Jaxx recording ethos. "With a lot of stuff, we just do it. Some of it is a bit too challenging or not interesting, and some of it with time you come back to it a couple weeks later and ask yourself if that's any good and whether we should finish it. The problem is finishing things, that takes discipline"
One of the more interesting, as well as controversial, aspects of today's popular music is the implementation of Auto-Tune. Basement Jaxx have been no stranger to the recording technique, having taken advantage of its futuristic sound for almost a decade now. "We did it on our first album, actually 10 years ago -- so we've always stayed away from it since then," Felix adamantly proclaimed.
"On 'Raindrops' we left it on there, because I kind of sang it initially, kind of a bit badly. The Auto-Tune we put on there to make it sound more or less right, it wasn't the finished vocal. We actually tried a few other people singing it and it didn't sound as good and didn't have the same feeling to it, so we left it how it was. We were a bit worried about using Auto-Tune because it is a bit of a modern cliché, but it sounded good so we just left it. I think its great people are using Auto-Tune, I think some of Lil' Wayne's material sounded really fresh, and he made it sound a bit different. Everyone doing it though, its like everyone doing anything, it gets a bit boring."
Basement Jaxx have plugging away the better part of ten years non-stop. With the aging of recordings comes the aging of the musicians behind them, which audience's can sometimes forget. Rather than planning their next big move after the initial madness of Scars dies out, it's more of a personal life on the agenda. "I'm going to take a couple of months off, then consider our next move," Felix said, almost excitedly. "We've been really busy for about 10 years. For me I want a little bit of time, and I want to sort out my home life and my love life. Marry some girl or something, that's on my agenda! Once I've done that I can get on again. Simon, he's had a kid and he's made steps toward that already, which I haven't quite yet -- and I think I'm quite old enough now."