When Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe formed Basement Jaxx in the mid-'90s, electronic dance music was a niche genre in their native England, and was almost entirely underground in the United States. Two decades later, their sort of genre-bending, highly energetic dance music has become the default sound of mainstream pop, and EDM has grown into a massive and highly lucrative part of the live music economy.
Though Basement Jaxx has never enjoyed the sort of major crossover success of their contemporaries in Daft Punk and The Chemical Brothers, or their artistic descendants Disclosure and Calvin Harris, the duo has a devoted cult following in the United States on the strength of iconic singles like "Where's Your Head At," "Red Alert," "Good Luck," and "Romeo." BuzzFeed News caught up with Felix Buxton just before he and Ratcliffe head out to play three rare full-band concerts in the United States — the Hollywood Bowl in Los Angeles on June 28, the 9:30 Club in Washingon, D.C. on June 30, and Manhattan's Central Park on July 1.
It's been almost a decade since you last played in the United States with your full band, as opposed to playing DJ gigs. What keeps you from doing that sort of big-spectacle show in the U.S. more often?
FB: Basically, demand and cost. We haven't had a hit in America, so people aren't aware of us. Why would anyone want to come see us if we're not on their radar? I mean, we have hits in the U.K. and Japan, but not in America.
In your experience of coming to the States going back to the late '90s or so, how has the response to your music and, more broadly, your type of music changed?
FB: Basically, electronic and dance has become world pop music. When we first went to the States in the '90s, it was very underground, it was kinda like a new scene. Ourselves and Daft Punk, we were very in awe of America and its house music, and the whole kind of culture that came from Detroit, from Chicago, and New York. It was a whole scene about unity, and the spirit of house.
What do you think changed about the United States that caused this music to become more of a mainstream thing? I've noticed that if you go to festivals, all the sort of macho, jockish guys who would've been there for hard rock stuff in the past are now all coming out for Disclosure and Skrillex.
FB: That just happens when music becomes mainstream. If you look at hip-hop, that became mainstream, and you had the Beastie Boys and it crossed over to a white college audience, and that happened with electronic music as well. America wasn't interested in the roots of house music because it was too black, it was too gay, it was all these things, and now it's made very sanitized and white.
Do you see your music as being part of that lineage, with the original house music?
FB: Yeah, I guess so. When we started, the name Basement Jaxx was very much in reverence of Trax Records and early Chicago house. It was trying to emulate that sound, and do our version of it. I think with new bands, like Disclosure or Rudimental, they're all fans of us and what we were doing but also of the music we were inspired by, which comes from reggae sound systems, soul music, house music. I think in England, people are probably switched on to that anyway, and quite well educated in it.
I think in the United States, there's not as much understanding of the history of dance music or electronic music, and a lot of things that come out now that sound like they could've been made in the '80s or '90s will sound very fresh and new to people here, with no particular context.
FB: That always happens with fashion, doesn't it? When things get presented to a new audience and they all think it's new. That's just the way it is. If you played some new electronic music for house heads from Detroit or Chicago, they'd just think it was like something from 20 years ago. There's nothing new, but it's new to some people, and that's now a mainstream audience and the music gets played on pop radio, where it never used to. I remember when we first went to America, they were a bit confused by our music because they said they didn't know which genre it should go in. It had pop elements, and black music elements, and it had rock elements, and they just said it didn't really belong anywhere. But things have changed a lot since then because of the internet.
It's funny, the way they were describing your music then could now sorta describe Taylor Swift's most recent record.
FB: Yeah! I don't see electronic and pop as any different now. You know, Rihanna will do a track that's got some trap in it, or house music. With Lady Gaga, I really thought, Well, pop music is kinda finished now, pop has eaten itself. Because everything is reprocessing the same ideas. And I think with electronic music, what's fashionable now is reprocessing ideas a second time around. That happened with disco, it happened with punk, it happened with rock. Rock's been around for ages, and that started with the blues in America and The Rolling Stones sending it back to America like, don't you think this music's good? But it was all there in America anyway. Things just get repackaged and become more palatable to people. Good music often starts in underground culture and then comes to the surface.
Do you ever feel disappointed that you were ahead of the curve, and couldn't be at the forefront of this music becoming much bigger?
FB: I feel like we were on the forefront of it, in England. We played the O2 Arena at Christmas, and that's one of the biggest arenas in the U.K., and we do the full live show and have an audience. But in America, that hasn't happened for us. But that's the way it is, and there's no point worrying about it or thinking, Oh, I wish people had said we were more important. It's very dangerous, making your happiness based on success and fashion. I know the media cares about all that, but I try to ignore that world anyway.
Did you ever feel competitive with your peers, like, say, Daft Punk or Underworld?
FB: I think so, but like with Daft Punk, when they first came to the U.K. and we supported them on their tour there, they were into the same records we were into. We were inspired by that, and part of a scene. None of us were trying to be in the pop charts; the pop charts back then were pretty crap, generally. It wasn't something you aspired to because that wasn't where the good music was. We were into this culture and it was really exciting. In New York, there was Armand Van Helden and Roger Sanchez, and it was this great underground scene. We were all too excited by the music to worry about the charts, and worrying about the charts seemed a bit cheap. With Daft Punk, it's really only in the past few years that a lot of people have heard of them. But a lot of their music wasn't about hits, it was underground and cool. Which is the same with us.