“The novelty of it faded after a while,” says 36-year-old Ratcliffe. “Initially it was wicked to play to so many people. But I don't think we'll ever volunteer to support someone again. We'd rather do our own gigs really, where people come to see us. When you're a support act everyone's always down a bit because you're building up to the main act - you're always one set before the big climax. But it's all right. We were playing places we wouldn’t normally get a chance to play - Dresden and Munich - and it's better playing there than not, you know."
“The main reason we did it was to do Germany,” adds Buxton, also 36, “because we’ve never had much success there. We thought we'd try it once and if they didn’t like us we'd never go back," he laughs. “I mean, we said no at the beginning but then they said they were going to do five nights at Wembley and we thought that would be wicked. It grew from there. And then we ended up playing Milton Keynes because Wembley Stadium isn’t finished. But it was all good."
There was one particular moment when Buxton realised it was becoming a bit of a chore.
“We did a Polish festival which had The Streets then Kanye West and then us. It was 50,000 people going absolutely nuts and we played for an hour and a half. Then we came back and it was like, oh, we've got to do Robbie again today. It just felt a bit like second prize. The gigs went well, but it was a very straight crowd - there were little families, middle aged ladies. And the annoying thing was they turned the sound down, and we weren’t allowed to be photographed or filmed. That way all the fireworks come from Robbie's show. But, you know, it's big business - T Mobile were sponsoring – it was a big commercial venture. But it doesn't feel like our home in such a commercial world."
That said, the south London-based Basement Jaxx proved they could quite comfortably straddle both the underground and commercial worlds last year when they went from being a virtually faceless dance act to a band that a lot of music fans realised they’d always liked. The first move in this direction was the massive hit single Oh My Gosh. A sugary and fun pop track, it was a Top 10 hit and a radio playlist regular.
“Maybe because Oh My Gosh did so well last year we’ve gone a bit more poppy on [latest album] Crazy Itch Radio,” says Ratcliffe. “That song is a pop track, but I think it's cool. It's a cool piece of music that’s got its own personality, its own little world. It's not cheesy, but it did really well in a commercial way, and I think we felt quite comfortable with that, in a way. Not that everything we have to do has to be like that now."
On top of Oh My Gosh proving one of their biggest hits yet, it was the first of two new songs featured on the band’s first retrospective - The Singles. The album was released in March of 2005 and immediately proved a hit thanks to it being one of those best of collections on which you know more songs than you realise.
“When it went to No 1, that was wicked,” says Ratcliffe. “Because we weren’t sure whether to do it or not. There was some feeling that it might be a bad move and it might give the impression that we're coming to an end. People see it as the sort of thing you do when you've got no more ideas, which wasn’t the case for us. But we felt that, from playing festivals around the world, we realised that a lot of people knew our music but they hadn’t joined the dots and realised the songs were all by us. Our sound is quite varied. We've had loads of singles, and we wanted, in a way, to stake our claim on them. It was a way of celebrating the last five years. And it did give us a nice little break. Coming into Crazy Itch Radio I'd forgotten how much hard work goes into an album."
Before work on their latest album started, however, Basement Jaxx enjoyed the best year of their career yet. On top of the success of Oh My Gosh and The Singles came a Grammy – the American (and much more respected) equivalent of the Brits. Then some tragic news for Kylie Minogue – that she had breast cancer – brought some good for the Jaxx. They were bumped up the line-up at Glastonbury to headline on Sunday night.
“That was wicked,” enthuses Buxton. “Primal Scream was playing before and Bobby Gillespie was going, ‘Do you want more or do you want Basement Jaxx?’ And the crowd were going, ‘Basement Jaxx!’ And he went, ‘You cocksuckers’, and got booed off stage. Which was a great start. And it just felt like all the work, all the live shows and everything we'd been doing all came together at that point, and people got to see it. Definitely the first song, going out on stage took my breath away. Not many gigs are like that.”
Basement Jaxx actually has its beginnings back in 1993 when Buxton was introduced to Ratcliffe at a Thames boat party the former had organised. Buxton was a DJ wanting to make his own music, while Ratcliffe was a man with a studio. As they bonded over a love of American house music, Buxton saw his opportunity had come.
“I had been was working for a PR company designing stuff, like brochures, nothing very exciting, for things like John West tuna, Tupperware,” recalls Buxton. “To me it was great because it meant I had a proper job where we'd have a glass of wine at lunchtime on Friday. I thought it was like being on telly,” he laughs. “But then I got made redundant from that and thought I’d give myself six months to work on the music. The money would run out after six months but if it didn’t work out I figured I’d do something else. From that point on we worked really hard, and with every EP we got more feedback and more sales each time, so I survived."
What did you think of Simon when you first met him?
“I didn’t really think much at all,” smiles Buxton. “He was a guy that had some equipment and seemed to know how to use it. I was keen to get ideas down and I worked with him a couple of times and he seemed to be able to get things to work fast. It was very much about getting the music down rather than anything else. But, you know, he seemed like a nice guy, cool, reasonable. He could understand where I was coming from."
Buxton, however, made more of an impression on the relatively introverted Ratcliffe.
“I thought he was a very positive person,” he says. “A person you feel very good being with. And, yeah, very loud in many ways. He's a real full-on character - very, very persistent. We probably wouldn’t have worked together if he hadn’t badgered me about getting in the studio and doing stuff. I was happy working on music on my own, but this was his one chance of doing something. He was very persistent, and he still is."
They got the name from the club night they started in the basement of a run-down restaurant called Taco Joe’s in Brixton. They made Brixton their base of operations (although they now both live in nearby Camberwell) because, “there wasn't really anything going on there,” says Buxton. “And it was less of a hassle for our friends to get there. A club has a lot to do with the people who go there and the feeling that is created with it. Having the club so close to home gave it a real vibe.”
After a series of EP releases on their own Atlantic Jaxx label, they released a couple of singles, Samba Magic and Flylife, on different labels. Flylife made number 19 in the charts and garnered interest from XL Recordings, home of The Prodigy and Badly Drawn Boy. After signing with them, success really began to kick in, with hits like Red Alert and Rendez-Vu.
But Basement Jaxx retained their credibility throughout their commercial success. Not only did they continue to run club nights in Brixton on and off, but they were also very choosy about who they worked with. They turned down remix opportunities for people like Britney Spears and Madonna, and were also fussy about the vocalists they chose for their own music.
“We look for character more than anything,” explains Buxton. “Honesty, sincerity, a good voice that moves you and doesn’t seem plastic, which is definitely what you see on Pop Idol. I want music to actually speak to me, to talk about how I feel in this world. We've been asked to remix a lot of people who don’t do that for me, and a lot of artists have asked us to work with them. The worst example is probably Posh Spice," he laughs. "It's the pop nonsense which we don't want to do."
"Grace Jones we've had on the list for a few years,” says Buxton. “We're still waiting for her. Her manager doesn’t seem to know where she is and she seems a bit bonkers. But she’d definitely be good. We tried to get in touch with her for the last album, and this one, but no one can track her down."
Where on earth is she?
"I don’t know,” laughs Buxton. “I saw her on TV about a year ago. She was on Oprah doing warm-up exercises and was making noises like a cow. I just thought, wow, it would be amazing to get her in the studio, and also she's a great singer. She's got character and she's very intriguing.”
These days, Ratcliffe and Buxton say the DJing side of Basement Jaxx plays a decreasing role in what the band does. Ratcliffe, never much of a ‘people person’, he says, has retreated from it completely. But Buxton, up until the band went on tour with Robbie Williams, was still holding a night in Brixton called Inside Out. And despite their claiming otherwise, Buxton’s DJing did play a certain role in the gestation of Crazy Itch Radio. Once again their fourth album is a heady collection of different styles of music, all put through the Jaxx mixer to produce their own distinctive sound. The most striking tracks are the country-tinged current second single Take Me Back To Your House and the Balkan folk pop monster Hey You!
“The country thing,” explains Buxton, “came from when the singer Martina came to the studio. We wrote the song with her and she was wearing cowboy boots,” he laughs. “And she's from Canada, so it just came from that.
“The Balkan thing started because we put out an album on our label called Gypsy Beats And Balkan Bangers. It's music that came to my attention and I thought it was really cool. That came from DJing really and doing the club in Brixton. I ended up getting into that and playing a track and people were really reacting to it, like, ‘What’s this? It's really different’. And there's new DJs doing that in Eastern Europe – taking this traditional sound and giving it a twist. I said to Simon when we were doing the album that it would be great to have one track that has that sound, because I really like it and it sounds great in a club. It’s got a rawness which I think has been missing from the, I don't know, very carefully examined records, shall we say, that have come out. They’re very manicured. But this sound has got a real spirit to it.”
Basement Jaxx have always been about pushing things forward, testing the boundaries of dance music, and music in general, and coming up with something that can be embraced by the masses with ease. From recreating the deep house nights of Chicago and New York in the basement clubs of Brixton, working with alternative icon Siouxsie Sioux and former boybander JC Chasez on the same album, through to their current love of putting traditional Balkan sounds into the clubs of the UK, it’s clear that Basement Jaxx will never succumb to the pressures of commercial success and start to repeat themselves for a quick buck.
“I've still done DJing on the side just because I want to keep an interest in that music,” says Buxton. “And like, when we were doing the Robbie tour, it was a night off to get into a dark dirty club and play some banging tracks that weren't all nice and pretty and were a bit all over the place. It’s better when it feels like exciting new music."