Twenty years ago, the house music scene was on fire. The diversity of the after hours crowd was remarkable: a rainbow coalition of people in wide-leg pants and fitted vests happily mingled, danced, got high and had TMI sexual encounters. Black, Asian and Latino gay men snorted cocaine with straight white dudes from suburbia in the middle of the dance floor, and in an infectious, disco-inspired, bass-heavy trance-inducing haze of drugs, alcohol and sheer bliss, some folks would rip off their clothes and dance around to the supportive applause of a large, sweaty crowd of strangers.
On first listen to Junto, the seventh full-length album by Basement Jaxx (out August 25), old house heads will instantly remember those times. Meanwhile, the younger set — some of whom might have been conceived at one of those parties — will be amazed at the range of the delicate textures, guaranteed to make you not only dance, but experience an infectious brand of freedom. “The sound of the album is back in fashion,” says Simon Ratcliffe, one half of the veteran UK production duo. “When we first started, we were paying an homage to the techno music and all the great producers from the Chicago house scene. Now the sound has come back.”
Ratcliffe and his collaborator Felix Buxton have expertly tapped in to the musical and cultural unification found within house’s golden era and added their own twist, incorporating a bevy of diverse dance music influences – including the Brit-centric, jungle throwback of “Buffalo in the Basement.” “The music brings me right back,” sings ETML in “Never Say Never Again.” This positivity can be found within the soulful and lighthearted beats, and the bevy of guest singers provide more substance than what is found within the current EDM craze.
“’Junto’ [pronounced ‘hunto’] is Spanish,” Ratcliffe explains. “In America, you guys should be quite good at saying it, as there is more of a Spanish population here, but in England, people just pronounced ‘june-to’ and apparently the way we are saying it is totally wrong! But it comes from the song ‘Power to the People.’ There is a side project at www.powertothepeople.fm, where we are encouraging people to visit the site and upload their own version of the song, in any style, in any language. We’re trying to get as many as possible. There was a version done from Paraguay, so it’s a Spanish version, and there is a line in our song ‘we’re all in this together.’ And when they did that line, they translated it and ‘junto’ was the word ‘together.’ And when we were thinking of an album title, we were initially thinking of calling it One or Unicorn, but someone said ‘junto’ and it symbolized what the album is about. It’s about everyone coming together and doing something good for someone else and how that goodness is spread among a diverse set of people. And for us, Junto sounds more exotic than just saying ‘together!’”
Unbeknownst to the duo, the five years between Junto and its predecessor — 2009’s Zephyr — worked to their advantage. A massive studio relocation and a yearning to try out other creative projects — including making an ‘experimental’ live album with the Holland-based Metropole Orkest and scoring two films, one being 2011 indie hit Attack the Block — meant that with Junto, they were re-entering the musical landscape at precisely the right time. “People were saying to us, ‘You should get on it because your vibe is like, ‘in’ and the thing with music is, that you have to do something that’s relevant,” Ratcliffe explains. “You can do music that might be amazing, but the music that works is not just music that is good, but it somehow taps into a zeitgeist; it somehow taps into something that everyone is feeling. It’s the right sound at the right time. It’s not just our music, which is meaningful and good, but it doesn’t matter if it is not speaking to that language at that time. I think that if we were going to have a time to come back, now is it.”
The experience of working on Attack the Block was a welcome respite from the duo’s usual routine. “It’s very different to writing an album, where anything is possible, and it’s endless — you’re trying to get something hooky and meaningful and dense. It was a totally different way of writing,” says Ratcliffe. “There was a whole process that we didn’t have to get involved in, of organizing the clips and figuring out what went where. What we had was everyday, for over a period of two to three months, we’d get an email that would say, ‘we need something for this.’ Sometimes there would be a brief discussion and even some temporary music just to give us an idea of the pace – whether it was orchestral, or eerie and then we would replace it with our own, or sometimes we would incorporate that into what we were doing but generally, we would just write it. And it was great! It was the closest thing we’ve had to a normal job, where you’re given your brief and there is a deadline, send if off, and on to the next batch.”
Both Ratcliffe and Buxton grew up in Brixton, a district in South London that’s densely multiethnic and is currently experiencing extreme gentrification. The duo says that despite the rough edges (“I moved away two years ago after being mugged twice,” admits Buxton) their musical influences come from the neighborhood. “Since that time were have traveled the world, and all the different cultures and experiences we’ve had, we had actually experienced on one little street in Brixton,” Buxton explains. “I was recording in Paraguay for the album, in India and Africa, Nairobi – they are the kind of people that you would have in Brixton, but it was interested to go from where they were from, so that definitely differs your mindset.”
“A lot of people have said that the music feels like there’s an aggressive tension,” adds Ratcliffe. “That definitely came from being in Brixton. But that was one of the reasons why I wanted to move studios a couple of years ago. I’d hit a wall of twisted darkness, but as a place, [Brixton] changed to a hip and happening place. But then the hipness moved away for a bit and then you still have the problems, but without the dynamic, bohemian excitement.”
“From one point of view, it’s now safe, and the market, which had been shut down is now alive and there are now people milling about, “ says Buxton. “It’s hard for people who have been stuck in an area, that was really tough and rough, and then it changes and becomes gentrified. But it is for the greater good, it’s safer and people are generally becoming happier — but for people who suffered from living there, the change is hard.”
When the duo was recently in North America to promote Junto they coordinated DJ appearances with their press junkets, but hope to come back with their full live production, which includes some 35 people. While it’s expensive to embark upon such a feat, the chance to bring a variety of people together would be worth it. “There is still a division between urban music, i.e. ‘black’ music, which includes R&B, and then different mutations of those things, and then you have electronic music, where a lot of the producers are white producers,” says Ratcliffe. “I think (younger) bands like Disclosure or Rudimental, which is like a new incarnation of Basement Jaxx, are multicultural, colorful bands, and it’s a real collection of shapes and sizes and colors, and it is very celebratory and unifying.
“Maybe that’s what we do too, as our live show is very multicultural and colorful as well,” he adds. “So that’s where the unity thing is where we’re at right now. The last album is more somber and more introspective, and this one is more looking out into the future and more hopeful.”