TORONTO – Basement Jaxx aren’t usually associated with restful breathers.
But the high-energy British electronic dance innovators have in fact been more or less dormant the past five years, the longest break between full-length recordings of their long career.
Over that five-year span, the pair watched from the sidelines as EDM exploded — and as longtime friends and cohorts in the chrome-plated pair Daft Punk mined platinum records and Grammy gold.
Such headlining success has eluded Basement Jaxx over their 20 years together. The pair has won a Grammy, but never THE Grammy, and they’ve had hits — most notably 2001’s adrenaline rush “Where’s Your Head At?” — but they’ve done so somewhat anonymously, with a tough-to-pin-down sensibility dedicated to globe-trotting and genre-hopping.
It’s led to joyously spontaneous creations like their latest album, “Junto,” out Tuesday. But their lack of a defining visual or aural esthetic might have hurt the duo when it comes to building a mass following.
“It hasn’t helped us at all,” said Felix Buxton during a recent promotional whisk through Toronto. “It’s just, like, made people confused. ‘I thought Basement Jaxx was some black girls. Who are Basement Jaxx anyway? Because I’ve seen a couple videos of different people in different styles on different songs.’
“From a marketing point of view, it hasn’t helped us at all.”
“As far as a picture or photo,” chimed in partner Simon Ratcliffe, “yeah, some helmets or something — “
“Would help,” finished Buxton.
“Would REALLY help,” agreed Ratcliffe.
Indeed, marketing dance music to American audiences seems to succeed most often when a hit tune is tethered to something tangible, like an engaging singer or an outsized gimmick (Daft Punk’s robotic getup; Deadmau5’s various headwear).
Basement Jaxx’s shows never lack for visual fireworks, to be fair. Their current tour includes a ballet dancer and a huge robot, and of course the gorillas were a visual calling card — Prince Harry and Mike Skinner are among the fans who have donned the suits, for what it’s worth.
But maybe the duo would be more famous, paradoxically, if they’d worn the suits? And done so again and again?
“We’re a bit late, aren’t we? They did it years ago,” mused Buxton, referring to Daft Punk. “And people mocked them in the British press. I mean, the British press mock people anyway, for any reason, but they stuck to their guns. And in a way they’re always very much about keeping their esthetic and doing the Japanese animation or whatever for a whole album.
“They’ve always been about the concept, which is fine. They love that idea of making a thing that fits into the modern media world, etc. So we’ve probably been a bit more organic in a way that we walk through the door, stumble over something, which makes a reaction somewhere else.”
In 2009, the duo unleashed an avalanche of material in a way they describe as somewhat haphazard.
The separate albums “Scars” and “Zephyr” amounted to nearly 85 minutes of new music. They also amounted to the end of Basement Jaxx’s recording contract with XL Recordings, and to hear the pair tell it now, there seemed to be some mutual fatigue fogging that relationship.
“The ‘Zephyr’ one we actually initially stuck on with ‘Scars’ (as a double album), and the record company said, ‘Don’t do a double album because that’s a bit Spinal Tap. You’re going all progressive. People will definitely not be interested,'” recalled Buxton. “So we put that out afterwards, and I think we basically agreed that no one would market it or anything, but at least could it be available? That was all we asked. It can exist. That’s it.
“It didn’t seem to be fashionable. And actually after that, the orchestral album, (2011’s) ‘Basement Jaxx vs. Metropole Orkest,’ that wasn’t marketed either, because that wasn’t fashionable.
“It was a time to not worry about fashion and what people wanted and just do some things.”
So Buxton “moved house,” read a book on feng shui and spent probably a month sifting through a roomful of vinyl and disposing of thousands and thousands of records. He assessed and tossed away knick-knacks and souvenirs accrued over 20 years of touring the world, and perhaps that process influenced the album’s restless globalism.
Every track practically features its own style, marrying their pop house to sounds from Jamaica, Chicago, Brazil, London and Houston. As has been the case on experimental past efforts, some measure of cohesion is achieved because of a common mood, one of joy and optimistic adventure.
“(Music) seems pointless unless it’s doing something positive,” Buxton said. “It’s very easy to do miserable music. I think people who make dreary music and make it moving and give a certain beauty to it — I think that’s brilliant. I don’t know if we’ve ever been able to do that. With Basement Jaxx, we’ve never seemed to crack that kind of a more Massive Attack, Radiohead vibe of it can be sad and depressed, but somehow there’s a beauty that comes out from it.
“With us … the joy of life has always been at the core. That’s always been the heartbeat of the Basement Jaxx thing.”
Ask about many of the songs and journey with Buxton through his notions on the connectedness of the universe or cheerful interpretations of the chaos theory.
Some songs, however, have simpler origins. The album’s gentle waterfall of a closer, “Love is at Your Side,” was written by Ratcliffe for his seven-year-old daughter. She’s not that interested in the duo’s music, he notes, though generally their stuff — high on energy, short on attention span and open to anything — resonates with the very young.
“We’re big with toddlers,” Ratcliffe nodded. “‘Jump and Shout,’ which was on our first album, was huge with the toddler community. Very popular.”
“I know one friend’s kids, his very small kids, they like Elvis and Basement Jaxx,” agreed Buxton. “Which is pretty cool.”
“Except,” replied Ratcliffe, “Elvis sold more records.”
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