Belsonic: Basement Jaxx back in the zone
Electronic duo Basement Jaxx have always been a hard act to pin down. The band's lack of a striking public image has meant that for more than a decade a certain mystique has shrouded Londoners Simon Ratcliffe and Felix Buxton; even the reclusive Daft Punk have their instantly identifiable robot get-up.
And then there's Jaxx's ever-changing output, which can be difficult to keep up with, from early radio-friendly club stompers like Where's Your Head At to their more ambient last album Scars, released in 2009.
Jaxx may well have come full circle now, though, if this year's comeback single Back to the Wild is anything to go by. The track, a first taster of a forthcoming untitled new album, is all rolling African drums, frenetic computerised beats and party-inducing lines like "Let's get naked".
It's the latest in a long line of Basement Jaxx numbers featuring guest vocalists, this time Korean singers Miss Emma Lee and Baby Chee. Previously, esteemed and diverse acts like Yoko Ono, Lily Allen and Dizzee Rascal have popped up on Jaxx albums, only too eager to collaborate with the heralded duo and thus boost their own credibility. How does this translate to a Basement Jaxx live show, though, especially as the band kick off Belsonic at Custom House Square next Friday? Surely they can't just call up Ono, for example, and see if she fancies a little trip to Ulster?
"When possible we'll get the guests up on stage with us," answers Simon Ratcliffe, one half of Jaxx, on the way to his King's Cross studio after dropping his daughter off at school.
"Emma and Baby Chee will be coming to Belfast. Or the Seoul sisters, as we call them. Because, you know, they come from Seoul. With all the collaborators, you embark on a journey together, constantly trying to work out what you're trying to say. And then there are other times when we just make it up on the spot, where we're not at all sure what we're even attempting to do."
Basement Jaxx have always been a band intent on sonic exploration, using both physical instruments and programmed sounds. "Variety has always been of utmost importance to us," stresses Ratcliffe, as he mentally transports himself back 15 years to the start of Jaxx's career.
"Even in those days, if we released an EP with four songs on it, one would be a straight-up 'banger', one would be experimental, one would be all vocal and one would be completely leftfield. There are so many possibilities. That's still the way we do things."
It's fair to say such experimentation may have worked against them, though, at least commercially. Ratcliffe points to two other electronic acts that came out of Britain in the Nineties as examples of bands that have played it safe and gained superior album sales. "I know, and I understand, that a lot of people will buy a Chemical Brothers CD or a Prodigy CD because, with them, you know what you're going to get. You expect certain things from those bands and that's why you buy their records. Basement Jaxx have never been one-dimensional; we're always musically ambitious and open-minded."
Before making their comeback on the live circuit last summer, Ratcliffe and Buxton hadn't performed in front of a crowd for two years, bar the odd DJ gig. While they were both engaged in other projects, those wilderness years for Basement Jaxx were somewhat disorientating, explains Ratcliffe.
"For a while I think we were reluctant to compete with all that stuff that was coming out of the dance scene," he says. "We needed to re-gather our thoughts, take a look at the music industry and see where we fitted into it. Now, though, the sort of music we play and the way we go about doing it seems to be kind of 'in' again, if you know what I mean.
"Things departed from our comfort zone for a while, with a lot of people just wanting to hear 'bangers', but we're feeling good again now."
Talking of 'bangers', the time has come to discuss arguably Jaxx's most accessible song, and definitely their most well-known, Where's Your Head At, from their second album Rooty, which broke into the top 10 of the UK singles chart and became almost ubiquitous due to its appearance in a rather infuriating CBBC advert. Today, as is often the case with musicians eager to draw attention to their entire back catalogue rather than merely their most famous song, Ratcliffe evidently has mixed feelings toward the track.
"It's just that ... for someone who doesn't know us very well, but has heard Where's Your Head At, they'll buy an album of ours expecting 10 Where's Your Head Ats," he sighs. "I mean, with us, you still do know what you're going to get, to an extent. If you like our spirit, our attitude, our world, then you're happy to go along with it." He pauses for a moment before adding: "We are what we are."
French electro giants Daft Punk made a point of using physical instruments upon making their triumphant comeback this year, and railed against EDM (electronic dance music) producers that create entire albums on their laptops. What did Ratcliffe make of this bold stance?
"Well EDM now is almost like factory produce," he ponders. "It's churned out so much; it can be very exciting the first time you hear it, but less and less so on repeat listens. I really admire Daft Punk's bravery; they decided that was what they wanted to do. If they'd done an EDM album it would have been like 'Oh, f*****g hell, this again'. Maybe their album has opened up a whole new world for people who enjoy their soulful sound, you never know. Dance music has gotten so much bigger, so now it has to appeal to everyone; it has to be 'bang, bang, bang', all the time."
They may not be the most immediately iconic musicians, but throughout their career Basement Jaxx have delved into all areas of electronic music, leaving them in the perfect position to decide what elements they want to incorporate into their act. This eclectic mix will be on glorious display next Friday, and, who knows, Jaxx themselves may even inspire a fresh generation of pioneering electro-heads.
"Felix and I both believe that dance music should be soulful and beautiful," concludes Ratcliffe. "I think that the genre will grow in this way; it will become more human, more sexual, more loving. The shuffle and the shake will come back into music, and we're very comfortable in that world."
BEST OF BELSONIC ...
- Nine Inch Nails, Wednesday, August 21 – this 'industrial rock' outfit, fronted by the inimitable Trent Reznor, have released seven studio albums in their 25-year career. A new record, Hesitation Marks, is due out next month. In 2004, Rolling Stone magazine placed Nine Inch Nails at number 94 in their list of the 100 greatest artists of all time.
- Jake Bugg, Friday, August 23 – the 19-year-old Nottingham man (right) has enjoyed a whirlwind time of late, releasing two albums in as many years to general acclaim. Having toured with Noel Gallagher and The Stone Roses, Bugg takes up a headline slot here, with support coming from local pop act Silhouette as well as Nina Nesbitt and The Courteeners.
- Suede, Saturday, August 24 – having reformed two years ago, Brett Anderson and co will bring their collection of hits to Belfast, including Animal Nitrate, We Are the Pigs and new song Hit Me. Support comes from James, who scored many hits in the 1990s.