Basement Beats

 
 

Simon Ratcliffe of Basement Jaxx discusses album artwork, Electric Picnic and iPhone-wielding hippies with Ciara Fitzpatrick

“Electric Picnic… I’m trying to think, I’m just trying to put myself back, ‘cos my mind’s a bit jumbled.” Simon Ratcliffe has some trouble remembering if he caught any other acts at Electric Picnic, where Basement Jaxx were main stage headliners on the Sunday night. His uncertainty is understandable, given that he and Felix Buxton, the other half of Basement Jaxx, have played two festivals every weekend since June. Electric Picnic was the last stop on their festival circuit, which saw the duo play to audiences as far away as the Jisan Valley Festival in Seoul. Ratcliffe describes Electric Picnic as “wicked, yeah – that was really good. The crowd were good; I think the night… it had been raining a bit I think, so they probably had to battle through it a bit, but we had a great time. That’s the last show for us of this festival season, so, yeah, it was a nice way to end it.”

Basement Jaxx have blazed quite a trail since the release of their first full length album Remedy in 1999, scoring worldwide success with hits such as ‘Red Alert’, ‘Romeo’, ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ and most recently ‘Raindrops’, which Ratcliffe reports to go down best when played live: “That seems to actually be a highlight. Which is nice.”

The house/electronic duo from London formed in 1994, and set up their own record label called ‘Atlantic Jaxx’, which still exists today. Setting up their own label was the only way the band could get their music released at the time, according to Ratcliffe, “Cos nobody wanted to sign us, so it was just do it yourself really”. The band was eventually signed to XL Recordings in 1998, currently home to Sigur Ros, Radiohead, M.I.A. and Dizzee Rascal, but they didn’t pull the plug on Atlantic Jaxx. “We kept Atlantic Jaxx going just for releasing more low key stuff by us, stuff that was less commercial, or stuff by other people… just things that we thought people should hear.”

Last week saw the duo release their fifth album and their first for three years, Scars. Ratcliffe describes their new opus as having “the kind of cross-section and the sort of ranges of flavours we’ve always had on our records. It’s maybe a bit more melancholy than some of our albums, but at the same time it’s got enough sunshine, I think, to bring it up – so it’s a balance of energies.”

The new album sees the band work with a diverse range of artists, including Sam Sparro, Kelis, Santigold, Chipmunk, Lightspeed Champion and Yoko Ono. Ratcliffe describes working with the latter on ‘Day of the Sunflowers (We March On)’: “We weren’t sure whether she’d be difficult or not, I don’t know how easy she would be to take on our ideas; but she was fine.” The band didn’t have much music for the track at that point, just some basic chords to give Ono a key to sing in. Felix had written words that were “very in her style… it was very free thought in a way, like writing lines without thinking about what the next line’s gonna be.” The lyrics, thankfully, met with Ono’s total approval.

“Remixing is good if you’ve got a great song there… that’s half the problem really”

basement jaxx 2The band have been serial collaborators over the past decade: Lily Allen, Robyn, Dizzee Rascal, Siouxsie Sioux, and JC Chasez of N*Sync have all made appearances on tracks; but it’s the largely unknown Meshell Ndegeocello for whom Ratcliffe reserves most praise, for her work on the Kish Kash album. “I think we felt quite honoured to have her, because that was the first time we felt like we’d worked with a proper inverted commas ‘musician’… she’s kinda soul, jazz; she’s an amazing instrumentalist.”

As well as releasing their own material on XL and Atlantic Jaxx, touring and Djing, the band have also found time to remix other artists’ material, most notably Missy Elliot’s ‘4 My People’ and Daft Punk’s ‘Phoenix’. Ratcliffe prefers creating Basement Jaxx’s music to remixing other artists’, even though remixing is often a more straightforward process. “Remixing is good if you’ve got a great song there… that’s half the problem really, half the battle.” Usually other artists look for a club version of their song which means that, for the duo, “your path is carved in a way. You know what you’ve got to do.”

However, when it comes to making Basement Jaxx tracks, it’s not as clear cut: “I mean a lot of problems with Basement Jaxx is that we don’t quite know what we’re supposed to do, or we think we should do, or what we want to do, because we tried so many different styles and we’re known to be quite diverse. It’s always hard making up our minds what direction to go in.”

The direction the band took in 2004 proved to be the right one, as the duo won a Grammy Award for Best Electronic/Dance Album for Kish Kash. Ratcliffe describes their win as “a surprise” and reveals that he very nearly didn’t go to the awards ceremony. “I didn’t really have much awareness of the Grammys to be honest, I wasn’t sure if it was something for music or for film. I get confused with these awards things.” Luckily, however, Buxton felt the two should go to the ceremony, where they were among stars like Andre 3000 of Outkast “and God knows who; basically the top musicians in the world from every department, every category. I thought, ‘Wow, this is pretty good.’”

The pair also blagged their way into an afterparty – “I mean, you have to blag so much” – and found themselves among Quentin Tarantino, Nelly and Usher. “We felt like tourists watching it all, you know. But that was exciting, yeah. We had a good night.”

The same night as the Grammy win the pair also met legendary producer, and now co-chairman of Columbia Records, Rick Reuben, in a little pizza place. “We were about to leave, and then we said, ‘Hey, who’s that in the corner?’ And there’s this huge bearded man, by himself at a table in the corner, just eating. And we went up to him and said, ‘Hey, we just got a Grammy and we’re big fans’, and shook his big squishy hand. That was nice.”

“We went up to him and said, ‘Hey, we just got a Grammy and we’re big fans’, and shook his big squishy hand. That was nice”

Basement Jaxx have reportedly had a royal fan dance on stage with them, if rumours are to be believed. This summer a story ran in The London Paper declaring Prince Harry to have danced on stage in a monkey suit, at the O2 Wireless Festival in Hyde Park. Ratcliffe neither confirms nor denies this rumour: “We’ve been asked if we could just not say yes or no either way… He wasn’t there, and he might have been!”

Basement Jaxx seem to recognize the importance of their image and how it’s communicated to fans, whether it is through videos or album artwork. Ratcliffe says that the videos “are very important; obviously you’re in the hands of a director, and they’re going to make something that’s going to represent you around the world, so it’s a very delicate subject.” For the memorable ‘Where’s Your Head At?’ video, directed by Tractor and featuring the bands’ faces morphed onto instrument-playing simians, Basement Jaxx were already big fans of the director so “we just let them get on with it, basically… Most other videos we have don’t have quite so much trust and faith in the director.”

The artwork for the new album is bright, colourful and features an owl’s head on a human body – cross-species morphing is evidently a recurring theme – brightly attired in a variety of items with a tribal feel, set against a mountainous background. Ratcliffe explains the artwork: “It’s basically the world today being a mish-mash of cultures… everything’s a hybrid, everything’s interconnected; like music, a lot of music we hear is tribal, but it’s got this modern sheen on it.” He goes on. “There’s a thing coming out now: hippies with iPhones, you know? It’s this modern world today. I don’t know what I’m trying to say but that seems to represent the world, and hopefully our music at the moment is the colour clashes that go on that record cover.”

A mish-mash of sounds, the album looks set to be another hit for the Jaxx and will keep their fans them dancing in a perpetual summer, though more and more raindrops will undoubtedly fall.

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