Power to the People: An Interview with Basement Jaxx

Many Jaxx fans were surprised by the relatively-straightforward nature of the duo's latest effort, Junto, but the way Felix tells it, it's a deliberately unexpected move from the Grammy-nominated duo.
Basement Jaxx
Atlantic Jaxx / PIAS

Some Basement Jaxx fans, when asked, could easily whip together a collection of the super-insane, mega-fun rarities that the noted UK dance duo have unleashed on albums, EPs, and singles over the course of their 15 extraordinary years releasing music, culminating in one of hell of a funky playlist that will surprise just as much as it excites you. No really: find a Jaxxhead and ask them. All parties will benefit from this casual gesture.

Yet most casual Jaxx fans can be forgiven for missing one slightly off-the-mark rarity that was released in 2009, the same year that their epic Scars LP came out. No, it wasn’t one of their off-beat collaborations with the likes of Cyndi Lauper, JC Chasez, or Dev Hynes. No, it also wasn’t some obscure soundtrack placement that only hardcore aficionados found out about. Instead, most people missed the fact that in 2009, following the massive campaign to promote Scars, a lot of fans missed out on the fact that Basement Jaxx actually released a whole entire album.

“Well, Zephyr we did at the same time as Scars,” Felix Buxton tells us, “[as] we were very keen on kind of doing a double-album. And then it’s just one of those things: you feel [you’re in] your progressive rock phase. It’s very Spinal Tap to do a double-album, and acts [sometimes] take themselves too seriously, so we were at that point [where] we want to take ourselves seriously; and also we also always enjoy doing the soundscape stuff.”

He goes on to note that “some fans and people have come and said that they love that side of things, so we thought ‘Well let’s actually just do an album that’ll be all of that.’ The record company, XL, didn’t really have much interest in this, so we just kind of did that and decided to put it out, very much for ourselves, and I don’t think it was a marketed to anyone, so that means that the world was never told it existed. So we said [that] we didn’t mind so long as we could press some CDs and it was available. We didn’t try to push it to anyone or say ‘It’s a new direction!’ It just kind of … existed.”

Yet the quiet campaign for what is, easily, their most unexpected album is what ultimately lead to the creation of Junto, their latest set (and first full-length in five years): a stripped-down, straightforward affair that serves as a sharp contrast to the kind of wall-to-wall insanity that marked their other four-on-the-floor classics like Rooty and PopMatters #18-ranked Album of the Past Decade, Kish Kash.

Yet even without label support (which, quite frankly, the duo was getting used to, having been dropped by their then-label Astralwerks a mere week after Kish Kash received a Grammy nomination for Best Dance/Electronica Album, which they later won), the experimental nature of Zephyr began wooing over a whole different set of fans, much to Buxton’s surprise. “A couple of months ago, in Ibiza, [at] the airport, I bumped into Louie Vega from New York and he was saying that he listens to that album all the time on his iPod, which was amazing: to think that people actually want to listen to it. And also we were in Japan in some bar and they were playing it there and it sounded really good. It’s very nice that it’s come to exist but it’s nothing to do with the public face of Basement Jaxx that we’ve got known for.”

Unsure of what exactly to do with the positive reaction to an album that barely got promoted (Zephyr peaked at #236 on the Japanese albums charts), the duo’s first new music in years arrived in the form of “Back 2 the Wild“, an otherworldly banger that seemed to exist on the more extreme planes of maximalist dance music, garnering a mixed reaction from fans and DJs alike.

“‘Back 2 the Wild’ we did as kind of house track to fit in with the world,” Buxton starts, “and everyone found it really left field and everyone said, ‘God it’s really kind of quirky and arty and weird,’ and we were like ‘That’s us trying to do something straightforward!’ So in a way, it’s great, and it goes down so well live, but it ended up falling a bit more into the ‘arty’ bracket. I didn’t mind at all: that’s great for me, and with ‘What a Difference Your Love Makes’, in a way, it was kind of a classic ‘Jaxx treatment’ but it seemed kind of ‘too nice’ for the world. In a way, it was too soulful. Maybe in a year or so everything would be fine. I mean, we’re really pleased with that record, but it’s almost too clear and hopeful — the world’s not that helpful yet.”

Even while eclectic tracks like the classic house-leaning “Unicorn” and “Mermaid of Salinas” wound up making Junto‘s final cut (and pre-release teasers “Galactical” and the incredible “What a Difference Your Loves Makes” were relegated to bonus tracks on Junto‘s Deluxe Edition), it was still obvious that the Jaxx weren’t entirely sure on what a 2014 album from them should sound like, especially given the narrative that dance music took in a post-Aughts world:

“[To the] general media, that’s who we are: it’s this old-fashioned kind of idea that you’re kind of scratching records the whole time and it’s all about baselines. It’s kind of quite dumb — a bit like EDM, actually. But in a way, that’s kind of the dance stereotype for a lot of people, even now, which is odd given that there is so much music out there and how much things have developed. And I think when we did this album, we wanted to do something we could play in our DJ sets, have some new material for our lives shows, and basically [something] for Basement Jaxx fans, to give them something they can revisit that’s still ‘Basement Jaxx’. We made the decision to not be too tangential, to not be too left field, and to kind of communicate to our audience. So keeping, in a way, for it to relate to the club side of things, to keep it simpler and sparser — which, for me, I find very difficult. [laughs]”

To remedy the situation, the duo decided to look at what was popular now, “[trying] to fit in to what’s around and what’s happening,” Buxton tells us. “We had Nick Worthington, who A&R’d our first record, and he came in and helped us a bit and listened to stuff on this record and basically he played us the new dance stuff that’s doing very well on the radio and said ‘I think this is kind of your guys’ stuff, but not as exciting.’ So we were listening to it and we thought ‘Well we could do something that fits alongside this material,’ ‘cos also a lot of the new wave of house producers and electronic artists in the UK have kind of called us legends, so really [Junto] was to do something that kind of sat alongside other stuff and basically did what we did before but also make it a bit clearer and cleaner.”

“Also,” he adds on, “the idea that some of our early stuff was dirty and edgy — that’s kind of not de rigueur anymore, which is fine, and I’m very much into the idea of wanting to do something clear and transparent — a fresh page. I definitely feel like after 2012, the idea that we were into this kind of new era of pure accidental cynicism and dirt … I feel like we could leave behind, and I think that’s a really positive move, and I like that about a lot of new stuff.”

Thus, for Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe, Junto retains the group’s signature melodicism but shies away from the overcaffienated twists and turns which has come to define their post-Rooty sound. It’s the group’s “pop” album, which itself is a left turn, given so many of their previous records could be branded as a bonkers brand of “hyperpop” all its own. “The thing for me is that the idea of like, faithful corporate entrainment is so dull and unimaginative,” Buxton opines, “it doesn’t excite me. I always have a love/hate relationship with pop music. Some of it I love: I love melody and I love catchy tunes. But I also hate stuff that is contrived and [has] this modern fascination with bling and sex — I don’t know. It’s all fine, but it’s not what I want to do. With this album, our album was to make something powerful and to put something out in the world that we felt described the inclusive nature of our music but didn’t push people too far.”

These days, when Buxton is busy DJing massive gigs or working on his PowerToThePeople project for the Peace One Day ceasefire charity, he’s able to do so because he isn’t wasting his time worrying about a simple thing like regrets. “I don’t believe in regrets,” he notes, “they seem a waste of energy. If something is wrong, you need to fix it or make moves to understand the pain and the difficulty. All we experience is valuable: it gives us understanding and helps us grow as people. We should learn to treasure these life lessons.”

But for a man who is this year celebrating the 15th anniversary of the Jaxx’s iconic debut album Remedy, does he have any accomplishments he remains particularly proud of? “Pride?” he starts, “I see that as quite an ugly trait. I think the greatest moments are anything that’s the summation of a lot of work and effort; blood, sweat, and tears. Putting on a concert with the Metropole Orchest for two nights in the Barbican London with 70-piece Orchestra, 30-piece choir, singers, dancers including contemporary (Lil’ Buck who is now famous), and classical. Hearing my first Baroque creation (called ‘Mozart’s Teaparty’) and great re-interpretations of the Jaxx catalogue was a highlight.

“Also, our last show at Bestival festival in UK and Fuji Rock Festival this summer have been two of our best shows — so they are a highlight. Receiving thank-you cards from fans saying our music as pulled them through difficult times. People saying a song was used at their marriage. Our first live show in Korea at the Jisan Rock Festival, The Hollywood Bowl, DJing the first time in Chicago. Meeting Airto Moreira. So many highlights. We are lucky to be able to express ourselves in our work — but I see it as work — our contribution to the world. To inspire, move, and uplift people. To spread good vibrations and open mindedness …”

And really, when listening to any of the iconoclastic, ever-evolving works of Basement Jaxx, that open mindedness leads to all the good vibrations you could ever need from dance music itself.