In advance of Basement Jaxx's appearance this Friday at Public Works, we caught up with one half of the duo, Felix Buxton, during some downtime in the studio. We chatted about DJing, music production, and what happens when you've been in the music business for over 20 years. The results were quite interesting and surprisingly candid — read below to see what he has to say, and make sure to catch the duo on June 26 as they headline Public Works with a genre-spanning DJ set.
[jump] What are you up to in the studio? Are you working on something new?
At the moment, I'm working on Andrea Terrano, he's a friend who was on “Mermaid of Salinas.” He's a guitarist — kind of a Latin guitarist. I'm producing some tracks for him, for his album. Simon's producing some pop thing for a friend of his at the moment. Basically, a couple of things for our label, some unfinished tracks. And then we're off next week, so it's just bits and pieces — a 75-year-old man from Brixton, I just recorded him a couple of days ago. It's just a piano and a voice. Just little bits and pieces, I don't know where they fit in, but I hope they see the light of day.
When do you leave — next week?
Yes. We're off to Mexico to DJ, and then San Francisco.
Will this be a world tour type situation?
Ahh, no. We're just doing a few gigs. A few DJ sets and a few live shows. We were trying to get the live show to San Francisco, but the nearest one now will be L.A., I'm afraid. Our drummer couldn't be there that day, and the logistics are so expensive — we have 18 people with us on the road.
Right, I understand. Tell me about your DJ sets — how do you approach them?
Well, let's see. San Francisco, we played recently, and it was great. [Our upcoming gig] will be really good because in a way, you'll get to hear us playing the underground music we love, and you'll hear things — like, well, what I'm working on at the moment, actually. I was doing it for Ibiza, which is our next DJ gig, and you will hear what I'm working on, things that the world hasn't heard. We like to DJ them out, see how people respond. Just basically playing good underground dance music that we love and want to dance to. Staying true to the tradition of jacking body music and all that. Nowadays, I think our set has probably changed because of the nature of mixing — how you can play four tracks at one time, you can be a lot more creative.
Have you guys taken advantage of any of this new technology? What's your setup like these days?
We just use USB sticks, but we make rhythms, vocal sections, and various things — we put them together and make new things live. Loads of a cappellas, effects, things like that, but it's still got an experimental edge to it.
I was intrigued by your recent XLR8R podcast, where you had a lot of a cappellas layered on top of other tracks. Is that something you like to do when you're DJing out?
Yeah, definitely. And compared to the old days, you'd have heard the a cappellas out of time, going “wuh-wuh-wuh!” up and down. Now everything's a bit more sorted, but luckily — we still seem to manage to make some mistakes, so the human factor is still there. [laughs]
You guys have been at this for 20 years.
I know, I know. I don't know where that time went. I'm definitely due — Simon's got a child, and he's done a bit more growing up, so that's on my list of things to do. You're kind of catching me in my last hurrah, hanging out with the youth.
Things have changed an awful lot since you started, right? Since you started out as a club night?
With our music, definitely. [Back then,] it was just a hobby. I was working in an office in the daytime, and using the photocopy machine to print tickets, and taking them round the pub, for the parties — it was basically just friends and stragglers off the street who ended up coming originally. We used Basement Jaxx as a name for the party because, well, it seemed like a good name. [laughs] It was actually Italy and America that picked up on our music first. And then the live show kind of became its own thing, [we had] a lot of success with the music, and we've just kind of been busy, gone 'round the world. And 20 years seems to have come and gone. I feel very grateful and blessed that we were able to do all of this without compromise, to still do experimental stuff — I was doing something a few weeks ago, doing an a cappella choir for a blind-awareness event. That was great, writing music for an a cappella group — with the choir singing in the audience, blindfolded. But, you know, being able to do stuff like that, and being allowed to be creative — I think a lot of people want to be creative in various fields, but they get stifled. And I really cherish that freedom.
It sounds like when you guys are DJing, you kind of get to cut loose a bit.
Definitely. It's really nice. We're feeling that we can be true to what we're into, which is great, and that's exactly why our last time in San Francisco was so great. It just seemed truthful, which was nice.
Where are you guys finding inspiration these days? What's moving you, as far as music is concerned?
Well — club music is kind of more or less the same as it was twenty years ago. [laughs] I'll still play stuff out that I was playing when we started. All that's come back again — all the old house, people wanting that raw house sound as a reaction against the overproduced, “poppified” house music. But I listen to any kind of music from all around the world — I've been listening to a sound-healing course recently, to try and learn more about the nature of sound. I've been listening to some of that, it's all acoustic, drums, and gongs. Transcendental music. I've always listened to cosmic jazz and things like that. Loads of things.
I was listening to some pieces off your recent album, and there's a whole slew of influences in there — from different parts of the world, different sounds. Is that a conscious decision on your part?
It's actually not really. It's just kind of what happens, because the music — well, personally, the stuff I listen to will be things like Chinese bell music, Indian music, and anywhere I go, I pick up music that's like the “real” music from a certain place, and that all feeds back in. We're very global now, and all these things interest me because they're from a different background than I'm from. So, basically, I'm learning about the nature of being human.
Do you ever get the chance to dig for records when you're traveling?
Yeah, but I do that less and less, just because I've got so many piles and piles of records. I've got more than enough vinyl of every style to listen to. [laughs] That's why I'm interested in natural sounds and trying to get back to the core of it.
What do you guys look for for new inspiration when you're writing new Basement Jaxx material?
Anything, really. The track I'm working on at the moment, my friend Andrea's track — we've also been asked by this Japanese band who we perform with, to do a track — so what I'm working on is going in three different directions, and it might becomes three different songs. I've put two versions down, and now I'm working on a DJ version, which you'll hear out in San Francisco. It's hard — it's very happy, melodic music, so we have to kind of make it acceptable in the sneery club world. But I think that's good — it's important to have happy music, to uplift, to surprise people. That's good for people.
It sounds like you like to play out new versions of tracks you're working on when you DJ, and see how the response is.
Yeah, definitely. That's how things develop. The last album definitely happened like that. Like “The Mermaid of Salinas” — people who, in the industry, dismissed it as kind of a “Latin Basement Jaxx-y thing” — but people love it, so we kept it. Everything from the album we play out, and we've got different versions and mixes.
I think it's great that you're both still DJing after all these years, still doing that. I feel like [DJing] is a foundational aspect of electronic music, and I think it's important to stay connected with it.
Yeah, well, I intended not to. [laughs] By this stage of life, I thought I'd have moved on. But it's still there, and I still enjoy it as well. This week I was DJing at this thing early in the morning — Morning Gloryville.
Oh yeah. We've got those here in San Francisco, too.
Yeah, I kind of mentored the girl who set those up here. They started a new one in South London this week. I really enjoyed that, but it's like — getting up at six in the morning, drinking green juices, doing yoga. I think it's great, though. Good vibes.
Did you have a chance to explore San Francisco last time you were here?
Well, I always go for a little walk, and try and see some things — I remember last time I was there, I saw a kind of Veteran's Wall, with a peace poem on it. That really touched me. I always try and have a little walk around to see some interesting things. Some DJs just kind of go in, and go out, but I always try and grab a little bit of culture. Last time I was [in San Francisco,] I went to a gospel church on the Sunday morning after we DJed. I think I was a bit jetlagged, and I went in and saw this amazing gospel choir with voguing on the stage, too. The woman started out by saying, “You might be white, black, yellow, Hindu, Buddhist, Christian, it doesn't matter — you're all welcome here.” And that's a great philosophy to see in action. I found the whole thing very inspiring. I found myself there, hugging strangers from all around San Francisco [chuckles] and then went and got on the plane in the afternoon. I think it's always important, wherever you go, to go and do something where you don't know what you're getting into and see what happens. I always try and do that, and last time, it worked out really well. I think I was close to tears, maybe I was a bit jetlagged, [laughs] but I was so touched by the whole thing and the generous spirit of San Franciscans. It felt like the old San Francisco was alive and well there, crossing over with modern spirituality and club vogue dancers, while they were singing.
That sounds like such a quintessential San Francisco experience.
It really was. Well, I thought, You can't get this in England.
How do you feel about London these days?
London's …. still a very international city, you know. Very expensive, getting more and more expensive. People are coming up from abroad, and buying up the city center. Which is also making it safer, and cleaner. Kind of what happened to New York a few years ago is happening to London now. I mean, kind of… club culture, we're in a different time now. The club culture [in the past] was a kind of reaction to what was going on in culture generally. So in a way, some people say at the moment, culture has become very bland. But in a way, that's safer. And that means it's bland.
It's interesting that you say that club culture used to be about challenging the status quo. I feel like as time has gone on, it's become so much more incorporated into the mainstream that that isn't necessarily the case anymore.
Yeah. House music now, in England, is this kind of pop [thing] … one eye on marketing, one eye on media. Which is a different thing than it used to be. Having said that, there's still a very alive and healthy underground scene here. But it's also bangin' pop music, as well. A funny story: I was talking to one of the gentlemen from Gorgon City a couple of days ago, and he's over in America a lot. And he was saying that in America, [the media was] talking about Disclosure and Gorgon City, that they [these two duos] created this sound called garage [laughs]. And they said, What is this garage sound? Where does it come from? And I just felt so sad for all the creators and people who started this music in America. It's so unfair. But, you know, it's just kind of been … made clinical, produced by predominantly white people, and it's all kind of made acceptable, you know. Not that — Disclosure and Gorgon City are great, they're all nice guys. But it's just kind of … it makes me annoyed that the American media can be so dumb and unaware. That they don't know about what's been happening in their own cities, they show no interest. [House music] was really kind of outsider's music, when we were first in the States, definitely. It was in the fringes of society. And that's what I loved about it. It was about the unity of people who weren't invited to the ball, you know? And that's what was great about it. There was a real sense of community, and we were made to feel so welcome.
When you DJ, do you feel like the opportunity to educate your audiences a bit, and draw links between different sounds?
I think we do that, yeah. But it's not a very conscious thing — we must play one thing from that year, from that place. But we actually automatically do. Because it still sounds good. There's brand new things, there's very old stuff we'll play. Some very old acid, I've been playing out lately, stuff that I never found the first time around. It's amazing — you'll play it, and some 18-year-old will come up and say, “What's that track? It's amazing.” And it came out before they were born. That's so great.
Basement Jaxx play Public Works Friday, June 26.