Basement Jaxx have done it again, steering their wildly eclectic discography in a direction no one really expected or thought possible. The Brixton duo – Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe – who have already enticed their listeners up to the heady, unfamiliar heights of P-Funk dance (Red Alert), samba house (Bingo Bango) and jazz-swing jam (Do Your Thing) with impressive, crossover success are now tackling all things orchestral.
The idea, in fairness, came from Jules Buckley, chief conductor of renowned contemporary ensemble the Heritage Orchestra and orchestrator for Dizzee Rascal, Brian Eno and Razorlight. Buckley has serious pedigree for modern classical music and for giving sounds as diverse as jazz, hip-hop and dubstep an orchestral backbone; his highlights include working with Massive Attack in 2008 to rework Vangelis’ iconic Blade Runner film score.
When he approached the Jaxx over a year ago his loosely-formed idea was to re-interpret their distinctive back catalogue for live performance, but where concert programmes subsequently developed, so too did studio recordings (including new standalone ‘pieces’) and a full-length album – due out next week.
“Jules’ proposal sounded cool” Buxton reflects “and we were like, ‘why not?’. But it was a pretty open-ended request so there was ample opportunity to thrash out the creative details and make sure the world of Basement Jaxx fit well in this new context. We were adamant about it not being a gimmick; I’ve seen plenty of pop bands marry their dance beats or breaks with classical on a superficial level and the results have sounded a bit damp, a bit softcore. Our project needed to be genuine, to stand up…”
Buckley pulled in the Metropole Orkest, a 60-piece orchestra and 20-voice choir based in Dutch municipality Hilversum (the Netherlands’ ‘media city’) for whom he is guest conductor, and set to experimenting – principally alongside Buxton.
“Basement Jaxx were top of my list in terms of collaborating on something; I was chuffed when they came back so quickly and said yes” Buckley confesses. “Of course their music is really visceral. There’s a lot of information to digest which made revising it a big challenge. It was massively out of Basement Jaxx’s ballpark, which really is saying something when you consider the variety of their output. I could see the excited glint in Felix’s eye when we first started scoring but there remained a real sense of ‘where are we taking all this? and ‘how will this end up’? As such, we recorded a number of versions of certain tracks. It was a great big test bed of a thing; the unpredictability of the process made the final results more powerful and authentic.”
A truly boundary-breaking album, then, Basement Jaxx vs Metropole Orkest, is out now, followed hot-on-the-heels by two concert performances at London’s Barbican Hall July 14th and 15th. The project is finally ramping up; does Buxton worry, on any level, how it will go down with regular Jaxx supporters and, indeed, clubland? It is, after all, Basement Jaxx’s biggest deviation to date - too large a sonic leap perhaps?
“I was panicking a few months ago” he admits. “We were giving a one-off concert in Eindhoven and just before it I started thinking ‘who is coming to this?’ and ‘who is this for?’ But we had a sell-out crowd, made up largely of students and young people. They really embraced the performance and that, I think, says something about how the internet has made all types of music and musical ideas accessible today. There’s less segregation and more interest in fusions of scenes; people’s tastes are broadening and because of that they’re not happy with the same old beat time and time again. They need more and Simon and I are in a good place to try and deliver it.”
Creative aspirations aside, it seems the logistics of the project also strongly appealed. “The bargain-hunting Leicester boy came out in me,” Buxton laughs. “Jules had easy, inexpensive access to the Metropole… the logistics all covered, and it seemed foolish not to take advantage. Normally, working with orchestras is costly and a nightmare in terms of timings; it puts you off trying anything like this. That’s not to say we’ve done all this for the sake of it, but the invite certainly came at a good moment.”
In truth, Buxton, Buckley and ensemble have slaved over several long months to create a tangible, engaging sweep of music; it’s clear from talking to both Jaxx man and conductor that their research for this classical-club clash has been as painstaking as it has liberating. Thanks to their deeply-considered vision Bingo Bango is now impactful waltz; Hey U, stomping Balkan march; and Where’s Your Head At? a mesmeric exercise in Baroque harpsichord-playing. Elsewhere, veteran Jaxx vocalist Sharlene Hector fronts Lights Go Down as gloomily atmospheric ballad, and Buxton offers a new Mozart-inspired piece Mozart’s Tea Party. It’s all remarkable stuff.
“At the end of the day it’s just different sides of the same expression. Basement Jaxx’s influences stretch from Larry Heard to someone like John Coltrane; there’s so many ways you can communicate the same feelings and emotions to an audience” Buxton says. “Classical music does have a completely different aesthetic to dance but you can bring the two worlds together, as long as you’re aware of those differences.”
Buxton’s on-stage role at the Barbican next week should crisply illustrate that point; he sees himself as DJ for the Orkest, a digital conductor if you will....: “The beautiful thing about the Metropole is that they’re effectively wired up for their concerts; it means I can mix their various instrument sections live, as I would mix different sounds live for a more conventional gig. It worked well in Eindhoven, I was able to bring the bass up, for example, to really emphasis particular passages of music… a DJ’s approach to conducting!”
It’s sadly inevitable perhaps that Buxton will be turning his attentions to a final Jaxx album once these classical summer stirrings have wound down. Despite Basement Jaxx’s clear-cut reputation for game-changing, there is a sense from Buxton that the name (and the expectation of that name) is beginning to limit what he and Ratcliffe might possibly do next.
“In Basement Jaxx’s current form there’s definitely room for one more album – tunes for the dancefloor with those characteristic twists” Buxton explains. “But Simon and I want to leave the name in tact; we have a bunch of other big and very different ideas, and it feels like another alias or set-up will allow us to more easily create them, rather than confuse or undermine the Jaxx stuff.”
Basement Jaxx have been in full inventive flow since 1999’s pioneering debut album Remedy – a follow-up to years of smart under-the-radar EP releases. Five further long-players have followed, including Rooty, Kish Kash and latest outing Scars, and a gradual change in the boys’ outlook on dance music; an outlook that has reached tipping point this year not only via the Metropole Orkest but major Brit flick Attack The Block, for which they’ve supplied the soundtrack.
“Pop really has eaten itself” Buxton states. “The ideas we had when we started all those years ago are being recycled in today’s charts but everything sounds so ‘corporate entertainment’ now. We’re being swamped by Lady Gaga and a million similar Euro-pop-dance records; they’re dumb to the highest degree. We do sometimes get tired of our own stuff but that, really, is the path of the artist and you have to work through it. Muhammad Ali put it best - ‘what you love destroys you’; music can be a difficult process but an incredibly rewarding one if you’re able to regularly step back, see the bigger picture and nurture your creative instincts accordingly.”
Words: Ben Lovett
Basement Jaxx vs Metropole Orkest is out now Atlantic Jaxx Records.
Concert performances at the Barbican Hall, London, follow July 14-15.