Basement Jaxx don’t come to the States very often. The London-based duo of Felix Buxton and Simon Radcliffe has always had trouble booking shows at American venues, and so a lot tends to happen between their U.S. gigs; the last time they made it to our shores, in 2006, dance music was still lurking on pop culture’s fringes and Buxton and Radcliffe were belatedly touring behind the Grammy-winning Kish Kash with a stage-stuffing, 18-person-deep clusterfuck of a live show. This November, when they finally return, they will have far less. The Balkan brass band will stay home, as will the emcees and the singers and the percussionists and the flag-bearers and the the acrobats and the fire-eaters (kidding!). Instead, Buxton and Radcliffe will be DJing at Santos Party House this Saturday, November 7, and that ought to be insane enough.
To honor the occasion, the Voice recently spoke with Buxton on the phone about his obsession with pre-Giuliani New York, the rumors that his group might be done, and their much-discussed disc of ambient music.
Let’s start with the subject of New York. I heard an interview you gave with Pete Tong over the summer and you were talking about how all of your early Basement Jaxx activity–the parties in Brixton, the information you put on your earliest press releases, even your name–grew out of this mental image you had of the New York underground. What did you imagine?
Actually, I went there in ’93, and what I found was exactly what I’d imagined. I got there on the first day, and I found some flyers for Kenny Carpenter, this underground house and garage DJ I’d heard of, who was playing somewhere on Sunday night. I went straight there, and it was all kinds of kids from Brooklyn, all in hoodies, waiting on the queue, and there were no white people there at all. I went to the front of the queue, and I said, “Hello, I’m from a music magazine in Britain,” I made up some bullshit, and they let me in. My friend was a bit worried, but it worked out.
We went into the place, and there was one room where they were playing jazz dance and bits of hip-hop, and people doing jazz dance, doing the splits, like a street jazz dance. And there was this other room, where Louie Vega was spinning instead of Kenny Carpenter, and me and my friend just stood next to the booth and watched all these people breakdancing. And it was wicked. The room was really dark, really good bass bins, the sound system was a bit better than the ones in London.
The thing that I’d built up in my mind, it did kind of exist. It’s because we were buying our music from the States. All the records were talking about the deepness and this vibe, of breaking down the barriers of society, this unity, and the struggle of the fringes of society. It spoke to me because I grew up in a little mining village in England. I felt like I was on the fringe, because everything I ever heard or read about was in London.
But how was that different from what was going on in London? In that same interview, you said that all of the dance music coming out of Europe and England was, as you put it, “a bit shit.”
How eloquent of me. I remember, around that time, going to buy records in Black Market Records, which was this underground shop where lots of DJs went. I was looking for American garage and stuff like that. And I remember there was a track I heard on the radio, some kind of pirate station, and I went there trying to get it. They told me they’d only gotten two copies, and they’d kept one, and sent the other back because no one was interested. And I was like, “Well, that’s the stuff I want to get!” In the UK, the initial rave thing had gotten over [its early, happy feeling]. The smiley face badges got put away, and a lot of DJs started doing loads of cocaine, and a lot of the music got just very hard and wooden. And it just seemed like progressive music. That was the style that had gotten hip, and I just found it to be really ugly and cold and it didn’t uplift me at all. I mean all the speed and ecstasy didn’t reach me. I was already into it without all that, anyway. I was really into acid–the music–and I didn’t even drink then, because we only had enough money to put petrol in the car and go and get into the club. We didn’t have any more money! [laughs] But we’d get in and just dance all night, from the moment we got in, and drank tap water.
So let’s talk about the fact that you’re finally coming back here! The last time you came here was in 2006. Are we ever going to see you again?
[laughs] Uh, I dunno. We didn’t have the best experiences with our record company over there for a while–and then we won a Grammy, and people over here were like, “Oh, that’s great, fantastic!”–but really, the record company in America didn’t seem to know what they were doing. It seemed very hard for our music to fit in over there. I think things have changed a bit now. But when we last went over there, dance music was thought of like, “Oh, that’s just gay music, and it’s so the opposite of rap music!” And we were very conscious of all the boundaries, and the fact was that we didn’t really fit into any of them except, slightly, alternative. And slightly rock and slightly rap and slightly dance.
In America’s defense, things have gotten a lot better since then.
Yeah, they have! The big r&b and hip-hop thing is doing what hip-house was doing 10 years ago. It’s definitely changed. I don’t know where we fit in, in the grand scheme of things. I don’t know who wants to know about what little niche we fit into. I’d love to do a big proper live tour of the States. We did gigs in LA and New York, and the response was amazing.
So the problem was with the rest of the country?
When the album [Kish Kash] was out, it seemed like nobody could get our record in shops in America. They were holding it back because they wanted to get Jay-Z numbers, and they kept trying to turn it into a hit, and they were messing around, and finally we were like, “Well, when’s our record coming out?” And they were recommending things like, “We could get the seminal DJ Roger Sanchez to do a mix!” and we were like, “We’ve known about Roger for about 10 years! You’re just so behind!” And yeah, it didn’t really happen. And for us, we just thought, “We’ve got loads of fans all over the world. We’ll just go where we’re wanted.”
I want to talk a bit about the fact that you’re doing a DJ tour this time, as opposed to the big 20-person extravaganza you usually tour with. Isn’t it nice that you get to keep things simple?
Really, I’d much rather bring the whole live show over. It’d be quite expensive, just to have 18 people traveling around. We headline rock festivals [with that line-up]. We just got back from Japan and Korea and Sweden. The thing is, we can’t operate on that scale [here in America], so we’re going to have to reconnect a bit. The DJing thing isn’t something we do all the time. To me, the live show represents our music more.
Talk a bit about DJing, then. How do you and Simon DJ together? Does one of you work the mixer and a sampler while the other selects records? Do you do rock-paper-scissors to see who gets to pick the next track?
[laughs] Generally I kind of start off in some direction, and then we’ll settle into some house music. Then we play more or less back-to-back.
So there’s no danger that one of you will take the set off into some weird place?
That’s part of the process, anyway. It doesn’t really matter. At the end of the day, we’re playing club music, and we don’t often do anything so radical–I mean, maybe for a minute, it depends how into it people are–but we’ve been doing it long enough that we know what to do. Plus, if people are on loads of drugs, all they really need is a kick-drum and some breakdowns, anyway.
I enjoy DJing. I DJ by myself, and doing it with Simon, we’ll have a drink before and try and invite some people on stage with us, either to do some MCing or play drums or something. And actually we got invited to do a DJ thing at Ibiza, and we went down to see Danny Tenaglia, and I was his MC for like an hour and a half, which was great.
Your album deal [in the UK] with XL is up, so I have to ask. What’s next for you guys? Is Scars going to be the last Basement Jaxx record?
No idea, really. The plan is to take a couple of months off and then decide what to do. I mean, at the moment, Basement Jaxx is alive and really healthy. Like, we just got back from Korea, where we headlined a rock festival, and it was the first time we’d been there. And after I walked off the stage, I thought “This is so great. People are so grateful.” And we gave them a really amazing show. Things like that just make me want to carry on. That’s a whole aspect that we never planned on when we started making Basement Jaxx years ago.
Everyone I know is talking about that ambient disc of material. Is it still coming out?
Yeah, it’ll be coming out about a month after this record comes out. We’re finishing it this week, just kind of putting it all together.
Was that at all inspired by the Tate Track you did?
There’s a version of that track on there. We’ve always liked doing that stuff, and people over the years have said, “Why don’t you do more of that soundscape stuff? We really like that, but it’s never really been popular, generally. At the beginning of this album, we thought, “Let’s do a load of it anyway. We’ll put it out, and if no one likes it, whatever, then we’ll do a normal record too.” And so that’s what we did.
One last thing, then. A lot of Basement Jaxx songs, even though they tend to be very musically crazy and jam-packed, are often very straight-forward, lyrically. Is it important that your songs have, at their heart, a simplicity to them?
I dunno. I think that the key in life is trying to work out the simplicity. And to me, with songs, I think what I want is understanding, almost at a philosophical level. It needs to be a simple thing if it’s going to hit me deep. Because even though our songs are quite complex and there are lots of layers, I want the ultimate truth of them to be very simple. The battle with that is so it hits home, emotionally and artistically. Because it’s always easier to be a bit arty and tangential, but to actually do that and have some emotional integrity, to capture something that is a truth, is a lot more hard.
Then, taking it back to the soundscape aspects, do you try to evoke those same simple things without words? Or was the aim there to create more of an auditory head trip or environment?
There’s only a couple songs that have vocals, so I suppose without vocals it’s a bit easier. It’s easier to tinker around and express things without words. It’s like doing an abstract painting: You can throw in loads of colors and shapes without having to be as precise.