Saturday, 7 October 2006

total:spec - Basement Jaxx

Anyone catching Basement Jaxx live this autumn will not only have their senses blown away by their colourful and vibrant performance, they will also see two men who are very happy to be back at centre stage after a summer of playing second fiddle. Admittedly the first fiddle was being played by one Robbie Williams, as the duo – Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe - supported the singer during his Close Encounters tour throughout Europe, playing to crowds of up to 80,000, but still, they found the experience an ultimately unsatisfying one.

“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."

There is, however, one particular person that the duo has always wanted to work with. Thing is they can’t actually find her.

"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."

Thursday, 5 October 2006

total:spec - Scissor Sisters

With the Scissor Sisters now back in the charts and about to hit the road in the UK , it almost feels like the flamboyant five-piece have never been away. In September they released the much-anticipated follow-up to their 2.4 million-selling eponymous debut album with Ta-Dah - another collection of peculiar pop music and dirty disco that sent them to the top of both the album chart and the singles chart, with the Elton John-powered I Don't Feel Like Dancin'. The double whammy of No 1 chart placings reaffirmed the New York-based band as one of Britain's most popular pop acts, if not this country's most popular pop act.

So business as usual then for the band who had 2004's best-selling album then. But back in their native America things are a little different for the Scissor Sisters. Like a lot of US acts, from The Strokes to Orson, the band have achieved their success in the UK first, while in their own country things are taking a little longer to take off.

It's not really surprising – the United States is a place where hip hop, country music and guitar-driven pop music from the likes of Kelly Clarkson and Ashlee Simpson rules the airwaves. The Scissor Sisters don't fit into any category, let alone one of those, and in America there is little room for music that's a little experimental – not even Madonna's latest album has done well there. As such the heady mixture of the Scissor Sisters individuality, their eccentricity and their different sexualities has thus far proved a little too overwhelming for the mostly straight-laced American music-buying public to take.

“We don't care,” says the band's leading lady Ana Matronic. “In fact I prefer that we have success over here rather than over in the US because when we go home it's status quo and completely normal. I walk around my neighbourhood in New York and nobody knows what I do or who I am, I'm just another New Yorker."

That's not to say the band – also made up of vocalist and lyricist Jake Shears, multi-instrumentalist and co-songwriter Babydaddy, guitarist Del Marquis and drummer Paddy Boom – aren't trying to repeat their UK success in their own country. Throughout the promotional campaign for their first album they toured the US four times, each time increasing their slowly but surely growing fanbase.

“I think we would be disappointed if we were playing to empty theatres in America ,” says Babydaddy, “but we're not. We have such a healthy sort of, I don't want to say underground, but we have a pretty solid fanbase that feels almost a little bit cult. And we love that. That's the kind of bands we were always into - pop bands that were big in England but usually more of a cult act in the US ."

"Yeah definitely,” nods Matronic. “I think most of my favourite bands had a great deal of success but for the most part they weren't selling millions of records. Bands like The Pixies – Circa Rosa just went gold after 20 years almost. So we're in really good company as far as I'm concerned. We are an alternative band in America , which is really cool. None of us got into this for fame or celebrity, to go to these shushi parties with the red carpets."

But the band are willing to storm the red carpets of America, armed with their personality pop, neat line in intelligent and witty soundbites, and sartorial eccentricity, in order to shake up what they see as a very safe and saccharine musical landscape in the country. 

"Every time we turn on a TV in America we say to ourselves that we do owe it to ourselves to give this a try again,” says Babydaddy. “It's like, if we can do anything to push any of this stuff, this really negative, unmelodic music, out of the charts, I would love to. I don't think we stand much of a chance, but I think there's something very positive about what we do, at least relatively. I'm sure some people in America would disagree, but it’s relative to what I see happening to black culture in America , and what I see happening to what I thought was emotional or important rock 'n' roll, which has turned into nothing but angry, angry people. I just think we're doing some sort of service by at least..."

"Existing," chips in Matronic.

"Existing and having a message behind some of the music,” continues Babydaddy. “Showing that we are an eclectic group of people that are pretty confident in who they are."

It was this confidence – this sheer exuberance that came from these five forceful but fun-loving personalities and shone out through their irresistible pop music – that made Scissor Sisters such a huge success here in the UK. They were like nothing anyone had ever seen or heard before and yet they had something in their crazy concoction that everyone could relate to – they might have seemed cartoon-like on the surface, but you only had to dig just a little bit deeper to see they formed a band that was more genuine, intelligent, and emotional than many they rubbed shoulders with in the charts.

“There's so much artifice and posturing these days, in American pop particularly,” says Matronic. “I don't think that exists so much over here in the UK . But there's so much of that posturing like, 'Yeah I'm from the street'. It's like, give me a fucking break, you're from the streets of Orlando , Florida and you call your mother every night before you go to bed.

"There's something very punk rock about Scissor Sisters at this time," she continues. “Green Day is the biggest American band right now and bands like Sum 41 and Good Charlotte are on the charts and we are not. So we're the punk, we're the outsiders. At this point, with fucking Avril Lavigne out there, it's more punk rock to make disco and it's way more punk rock to dress up than it is to roll out of bed in your jeans. I mean, there's artifice involved in what we do too, but it comes from a really honest place. It's not like somebody saying to us, this is what you have to project in order to become successful. The success was more or less an accident."

She's not kidding. The success of the Scissor Sisters' first album took everyone by surprise – from the band to the record label to the media and the public. It enabled them to join an elite set of artists who had sold over two million copies of an album in the 21st century – the others being James Blunt, Robbie Williams, Keane, Dido, Norah Jones and Coldplay – artists which, of course, Scissor Sisters has nothing in common with. It enabled them to play Glastonbury twice in one day, be the first band to pick up all three international awards at the Brits (at last year's ceremony), and work with the likes of Kylie Minogue and New Order. Most recently it enabled them to be one of the few bands to hold a (sold out) comeback concert in Trafalgar Square. In fact, such was the unexpected success of the band, that people have actually leveled accusations of it being manufactured at them.

“If I was not in Scissor Sisters,” says Matronic, “and saw a picture of this group of people, I'd be like, 'Who's fucking bright idea was that? Not a record company, that's for sure'."

"That's the most offended I think I've ever been,” continues Babydaddy. “There's a lot of like fan criticism, or people hating us, I don't really care about that, but we've had a couple people say we were put together by a record label, and we're just like, who in their right mind would put this together?"

"'You know what this world needs?'” says Matronic, mimicking a record company executive. “'A weird traditional pop band fronted by an insanely flaming homosexual and a drag queen stuck in a woman's body. That's really going to sell.' What?!? No record executive in their right minds would ever think to put us together."

But of course the Scissor Sisters was a bright idea and has sold, by the million. That bright idea began to form in the minds of Shears (real name Jason Sellards, originally from Arizona ) and Babydaddy (real name Scott Hoffman) when they met at college in Kentucky, where Babydaddy grew up. Shears, who was attending another college in Los Angeles, met Babydaddy when he was visiting a mutual friend there and the pair hit it off immediately. Not long after they moved to New York, and Babydaddy, who was making dance music, enlisted Shears to provide vocals. They would perform at electroclash nights in Brooklyn, but it was only in 2001, when two planes went into the side of the Twin Towers , that they decided to make a real go of the band.

“We had talked about it before then but I think that was definitely a kick in the ass," says Babydaddy.

“The nature of any sort of catastrophe makes you examine your life and what you're doing,” adds Matronic. “All New Yorkers did that after September 11. Everybody thought it really could be that we don't have very much time left here so what are we doing? Let's figure it out and have a go at it. I think that's why we've been seeing a lot of bands from New York make it big since then. There's been more of a push and a drive to do something creative."

Shears and Babydaddy met Matronic, originally from Portland , Oregon , one Halloween at a cabaret night she hosted in Manhattan . Matronic was dressed as an 'Andy Warhol reject' and Shears as a 'back alley abortion' – they quickly became firm friends.

Del Marquis, (real name Derek Gruen, from New York ) had to be coerced into joining the band. He knew Shears before Shears knew who he was as the singer dated one of Marquis' best friends, and for a long time Marquis just knew Shears as 'The Stripper', a name he acquired thanks to his 'day' job as a go-go dancer at some of New York 's gay clubs. Shears invited him to see his band perform at London gay club night The Cock, and Del didn't much like what he saw. But after much persistence from Shears he changed his mind when he saw them perform again some months later. 

Paddy Boom (real name Patrick Seacor, from Boston ) was the last to join. He had been drumming in New York for some 15 years and, he says, was getting to the point where he was starting to think about trying a new career. Then he saw an ad for a drummer and thought he'd give it a shot. He's never looked back.

“Del 's the only one who's actually from New York , the rest of us moved there,” says Matronic. “Anybody who moves to New York , regardless of whether they're from America or not, moves there as an immigrant. So there is an immigrant mentality and mindset of: let's take what little we have and make it into something grand and big. I think that's something we all possess in this band."

Despite shortening their original name – Dead Lesbian and the Fibrillating Scissor Sisters – they received no interest from record labels in the US , so they came to the UK. Signed up by Polydor – home of artists as varied as Girls Aloud, Ms Dynamite and Ian Brown – they were initially lumped in with the never-actually-very-hot electroclash scene thanks to their pounding electro cover of Pink Floyd's Comfortably Numb. But quickly they became a mainstream concern thanks to the more poppy likes of Laura and Take Your Mama. Hit single Mary – a platonic love song about Shears' relationship with a friend of the same name, who this year tragically died of a brain aneurysm – showed their sensitive side, while the final single from the band's debut album – the disco floorfiller Filthy/Gorgeous – only served to sell more copies.

"I think what our success was mostly down to was, at the end of the day, there was a really good album,” says Matronic. “That's the thing about British people that has really struck me - they don't care who makes the music. If the song is good they'll listen to it and buy it."

"They don't care if it's Crazy Frog or whoever," says Babydaddy.

"Exactly,” nods Matronic. “Although we do have a bit of an issue with that. But if it's a good song people will buy it. But also what really helped us, and propelled us to No 1, was our live show, and people realising that it wasn't this studio entity, this studio record. It was something that was terribly honest, and when you came to see it live, it all made sense. It was like, okay, these people are really serious about entertaining, and creating an atmosphere that people can get involved in and feel a part of. It wasn't until Glastonbury that our record went to No 1 and I think it was by virtue of people seeing us live and seeing us play on the telly. It's just because we love to put on a good show. And there's definitely groups out there who put on good shows, but we actively reach out to the audience, and seek their participation. It is a mutual exchange of energy and enthusiasm.”

She's not wrong. One gig in particular that this writer saw, at London venue Astoria, saw the band suffering from technical difficulties with Marquis' guitar. Instead of ruining the show it actually improved it vastly as both Shears and Matronic were forced to entertain the crowd with an impromptu stand-up routine based around a dodgy American soap called Passions that they loved. It went to show just how important Matronic is to the mix, despite, on the surface, seeming to be little more than a backing singer for Shears.

“That's the magic about me and Jake performing together on stage,” says Matronic. “We have huge personalities and that's what makes it frantic and crazy. It's two things coming together. A friend of mine, when she saw us for the first time, said, 'You guys are so great because one second you're brother and sister and the next minute you're lovers and the next you hate each other and then you were mother and son and then back again'. She said there was a really dynamic powerplay between the two of us, which we've definitely cultivated.”

But two years of touring took their toll and, while on stage you wouldn't have known that the band were becoming tired of doing the same show over and over, as well as tired of each other and more than a little homesick, off stage they were weary.

“If you have 14 people on one tourbus, it's going to get old after a while,” says Matronic. “And after a year of playing the same set and the same songs your mind starts to wonder and you're like, what am I going to have for dinner..?”

Did you argue a lot?

“Nooooo!” exclaims Babydaddy.

“No, we love each other,” coos Matronic.

“But we had our moments,” says Babydaddy.

“We definitely had our moments,” nods Matronic. “And still do. But we got really good at arguing. We would be like, I'm pissed off at you, and this is why I'm pissed off at you, and this is the thing that is really at the heart of it that maybe I need to get over, but this is it. And then the other person would do the same thing and then we'd agree to disagree and try and learn something about the other person, then leave each other alone for a while.”

Once the touring was over they headed back to New York and what Jake recently described in one interview as an “almighty comedown”. Any thoughts about making more music were left at the back of their minds for a period of time while they adjusted back to normality and a less demanding and adrenalin-fueled routine.

“We all felt that disorientation,” says Babydaddy. “Like, what do we do today? We were on this schedule for two years and then we didn't have any schedule at all."

“And for a long time I was completely unable to give anything,” says Matronic. “I just felt like I needed to stay at home and watch movies and read books and take things in, because I just felt like I had spent so much time projecting outward that it was time to collect myself. It was difficult. You return to a house that you know is yours but you don't feel connected to. You return to friends that you know you love but you haven't been in their lives - there's s a lot of stuff that happens when you're gone. It was a good six months before I even felt like I had reconnected with my friends.”

Work on Ta-Dah started long before this, however. Just a few weeks after they returned to New York , in fact. They insist this was nothing to do with any record company pressure to follow-up and capitalise on the success of Scissor Sisters as quickly as possible. They say the pressure came from within their own camp more than anything. Coming from the Scissor Sisters, this is perfectly believable.

“Our record company is really amazing and haven't and do not put pressure on us,” says Matronic. “They've learnt to let us do what we want to do.”

“They know that we're our own biggest enemies," agrees Babydaddy.

In what way?

“Well we just had the itch to get back out there and they knew we were working as fast as we could. We just got right back into it - we wanted to make a great album. They checked up on us but they were smart enough to know that a great album is better than a timely release.”

“And also one of the, I won't say problems, but one of the challenges of this band is that we have five really staunch individuals who have varied taste in music. We will fight about music a lot. I'll say U2 never made as good an album after The Unforgettable Fire, and these guys will be like, what are you talking about? It's those very divergent opinions you get in the studio and there are songs that Jake loves and Babydaddy loves that I don't like at all. And vice versa. My favourite song on the album is probably somebody else's least favourite. It's constantly a balancing act.”

“If you think it's hard for us agreeing what to play on the bus stereo,” says Babydaddy, “think about what it's like deciding what songs we're going to play every night for the next two years.”

Now of course, the album is done, on the shelves and being played in bedrooms and on car stereos across the country, as those that fell so hard for the first album try and develop a similar relationship with the second. That love is still there, as the joint No 1 positions at the top of both the singles and album chart proved. And as the public rediscover their love for the Scissor Sisters, so the Scissor Sisters are rediscovering their love for performing to that public.

“I can't wait,” says Matronic of their impending UK tour. “Just being able to play our own shows will be great. Festivals are really amazing but they are their own thing and I'm really looking forward to having a crowd that comes to see us and we get to create that whole world that they're in for those few hours.”