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Basenji on new music, collaborators and growing up on Soundcloud

20 November 2017 | 8:00 am | Camilla Patini

With each new release over the last few years, BASENJI has continued to expand his ambitions, moving from the slow and sensuous vibes of ‘Chroma’ and ‘Petals’, to the saccharine minimalism of his debut EP, Trackpad. This year, he returned with ‘Don’t Let Go’, a punchy yet dreamy Grimes-inspired tune featuring LA-based singer MEREKI, with its cover art bringing out the song’s sweet lyrics (the illustration is by Karl-Joel Larsson, an illustrator based in Gothenburg, Sweden). Not long after, he unveiled perhaps his best song yet, in 'Mistakes', featuring TKAY MAIDZA.

Being able to work with artists who have different musical ambitions to him is an opportunity Basenji welcomes wholeheartedly, and is a fact which no doubt explains his own eclectic sound, with inspiration drawn from across the board, from PC Music, K-Pop, and trance, to straight-up electro-pop. His music has earned him spots at some of the country’s biggest festivals including Splendour In The Grass, Listen Out, OutsideIn, Beyond The Valley and Curveball. He also recently played a run of shows in Europe and supported Flume on a handful of dates across America.

Now, Basenji is turning his sights back home, with some shows hopefully happening over the near future, alongside a headline slot at Sets On The Beach Festival in November. Over the phone, Basenji told me about working with new collaborators, debuting a new live show and releasing music in the age of Spotify.

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Could you tell me a bit about opening up to new collaborators – what about Mereki excited you and made you think you could make something really cool together?

I think I was in Sydney at the time but I got an email asking if I wanted to work with her when I was in Los Angeles. I didn’t recognize her name actually so I looked her up and realised that she had worked on a song that my friend had remixed. And I remember being like, "Oh, my favourite part about that song was the top line or the vocals or what she contributed." So I quickly went online and listened to more of her stuff and was like, "Yeah, this sounds like a great idea." Then I flew to Los Angeles where I was renting a studio and in one day we recorded two ideas straight off the bat, really comfortably, for two different songs - one of which became the single ‘Don’t Let Go’ and another song which I’m still working on but that I’m really happy with. This was almost a year ago now so it’s been a long time.

So does that mean there’ll be other songs with Mereki coming out soon?

Yeah, I hope so. I just need to finish this other song. It’s a very different song. She was a really easy person to work with. She had a lot of really good ideas and she could work really quickly. Like I said, we did two tracks in one day, whereas I’ve done lots of sessions where you get zero tracks done in several days. So that felt really good – she’s been a really great person to work with.

How important is working with other artists for you? Do you like working with singers or do you prefer focusing on the production side of things?

I like working with singers because singing has never been something I can do. So working with people like that is really good because they can always offer something that I can’t. It’s not like if I was a singer I’d have to be really hands on and be like, "Hey, wait a minute, don’t do that," because it’s not something I understand that well. To let someone just take the reins feels really good sometimes, especially when it comes to things like singing. I usually know what I want but often just leave it in their hands. I find that I’m rarely disappointed. I’ve worked with a lot of amazing people.

When you get in the studio with someone like Mereki do you work off each other’s energies or do you already have an idea of what you want to do?

The song ‘Don’t Let Go’, I had a feeling might be right for her. That was one of the tracks that I showed her. The other one which I didn’t really think maybe would be a track for her she ended up liking as well, and they’re quite different tracks. And that obviously made me really happy.

It’s nice to work with artists who are really flexible. It is kind of hard when you meet up with someone and they’re like, "Oh, I’m really committed to working in this one style," or, "I’m only interested in one sound." It’s really refreshing to work with artists who are like, "Show me everything, we’ll see what we can make work. I’m not really fussy about things."

As a producer, I often get myself in situations like that where I end up writing for someone and they want something completely different to what I’m used to. But I find that a really healthy exercise because you’re challenging yourself. It’s probably the most valuable thing you can do with your day.

How do you do what you do, not having a more theoretical musical background?

I’d like to think passion is somewhat as important as talent. When I was thirteen, I must have got GarageBand or something and started messing around, obviously knowing nothing about how music worked. I would just be happy if I could get the timing right in GarageBand, that was enough of a victory. And then it wasn’t until later, like the middle or the end of high school, that I got Ableton Live and started using that. But I still didn’t really know much about music theory. And then it wasn’t until the end of high school and then university that I was like, "I should start to learn some stuff." I still think as far as music theory goes, I’m not very proficient but I’m learning different pieces as I go. I don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied with how much I know.

‘Don't Let Go’ feels like a kind of natural step forward for you but with some fresh influences in there such as PC Music. What about these new sounds that have been blowing up over the last two years influences you?

Hm, that's a really interesting question. ‘Don’t Let Go’ was most directly inspired by the artist Grimes. And a lot of people have drawn that comparison. I did worry about that when I was writing the song. I didn’t want it to feel derivative. I knew in my heart that I wasn’t copying any specific song, like, I wasn’t stealing the songwriting or lifting specific ideas, but I knew it generally did have the feel of one of her songs, maybe something off one of her old albums, not Art Angels, her new album, which is amazing.

I really wanted to capture the spirit of her album Visions and I think it kind of does. It feels maybe a bit less lo-fi than some of her music; I wanted to write something a bit punchier, something with a stronger structure or defined and repeated ideas. Nothing that felt as dreamy as the stuff on her album, Visions.

If I could turn back time I would probably still write this song. It did feel kind of hard writing a song that felt like the artist Grimes, but then if I listen to her album every week or so it’s going to happen eventually. You have to get ideas from somewhere; everybody’s music is derivative in some way. You just have to pay attention or try to figure it out.

Can we expect more Grimes-sounding stuff in the songs you’re working on now?

No, I don’t think so. A lot of songs I’m writing, people will compare them to artists I listen to. To me, that’s not great; I’d rather people just be like, "Oh, that sounds like one of your songs," but to be honest, I’m just a product of my influences – that’s the way all musicians work. I think I’m taking ideas from other places but I feel like I’m doing it loosely. I think people will, with my next release, draw comparisons to other artists but I think the style will be very much me.

What are your thoughts on the next wave of electronic musicians? How do they differ from when you were coming up, back when Wave Racer and Cosmo’s Midnight were huge? Things have changed now – do you find any other up and coming artists exciting?

That’s funny… Are you calling me old?

No [laughs]

You have to assume that I’m fragile. [Laughs]

Sorry [laughs] – you have fans that would know you from a couple of years ago.

Yeah, that’s weird. I’ve had people at shows who have been, "Oh, that song of yours – that was my high school jam." And I’m like, "What the fuck?" I must admit though, it kind of hurts. That was before I understood music. Everything was a mystery, especially pop and house music. Contextually, I just didn’t understand it. The whole DJ culture was a complete mystery. I’d seen bits and pieces of documentaries on YouTube but it was all kind of fascinating. Rock bands and stuff – as much as there were bands I liked – were never something that particularly excited me; my whole life I’d seen people with guitars and drum kits and singers and bass players and that was really exciting for that particular music but it’s so familiar. DJs are incredibly boring to look at but I always find their music texturally more engaging because I’d be like, "I don’t even know what sounds are going right now."

When I go to an electronic show, sometimes it’s just a person up there with a laptop. Audience members are definitely wanting something more to engage with nowadays.

Yeah, 2015 was an interesting year for me because that was when I realised every laptop DJ was trying to get a band or instruments on stage and every band was trying to get a laptop on stage; a lot of successful artists want that hybridised electronic and live show.

The unfortunate thing was that a lot of laptop producers made their live shows really tokenistic by putting some controllers that didn’t really do anything or hitting a drum every seven or eight minutes to make it look like a live show but without doing anything that was a true commitment to performing. I’m not trying to sound jaded or anything but that’s something that I’m wary of moving into the future, because a lot of laptop producers like myself do these kinds of disingenuous live shows. I think I just want to be a DJ. Moving forwards, I think it will be me just DJing and a massive lighting and visual show.

I read that you’ve teamed up with Sam Whiteside and Finn Boyle for your headline show in November*. It’s been a while since we’ve last seen you perform, so what are you hoping to achieve with this next form of your performance? How will it differ from young Basenji shows?

I’ll be playing more of my own music than ever before which is a nice thing to know. I have a lot more stuff that I’m excited to play than I ever have.

It’s been really fun, I’ve been working with Finn Boyle who is a videographer from New York and he’s creating visual content. That will be one part of the show – projector and visuals – and the second part will be a modular lighting rig which is being designed by Sam Whiteside. He’s really taking the rein on things; he just did a thing at Soft Centre. That’s as much as I’ll say for now I think; I don’t want to go through it all in detail because that will take the fun out of it.

You’ve spoken about how you think about the look of a song before writing it. Is this still something you do now? What about music lends itself to the visual side of things?

Oh yeah, definitely. More and more I just think about how all the songs will be fitting together. When I used to make music, I was just happy if I made a song that I liked. Whereas now, I’m kind of thinking, "Oh, this song will be appropriate for playing after this song," or, "Could I take parts from song and put it into this song?" I’ve been spending a lot more time thinking about how everything will fit together and it often just feels like filling the gaps like, "Oh, this song would be a good bridge between this song and another one," or, "If I maybe edited this track I could make these two fit perfectly," which is interesting because it’s a completely different way to work, but it also kind of just makes me anxious that I’m focusing on a lot of things. It’s something I have to be paying attention to, for better or worse.

What about your label? How much of a say do they have?

The most valuable thing Future Classic does for me personally and is also something I really enjoy, is organising people for me to work with, like the situation with Mereki. It’s great to have a room full of people that I can reach out to and be like, "Hey, I’d love to work with someone new – is there someone you’d recommend?," and they send me a list or something, which is something that would be quite hard to organise myself. Usually they’re pretty hands on with my releases; they’ll often have feedback or advice or opinions. They’ve been great to work with the past few years that I’ve been working with them.

Future Classic have always had a great insight into what is going to be huge way before it blows up, and that’s helped the Australian electronic scene by elevating artists to levels that might not have existed without them having taken a chance. In the electronic climate now, where it’s really oversaturated, is it harder to pick out gems in the masses?

Yeah, electronic music is intensely oversaturated but I think that’s kind of the fun of it. Where five or ten years ago it was enough to be making electronic music – that would be impressive enough – now, the standard is a lot higher I think, which is fun in a way because it means an artist has to do something different to stand out. Back in the day you could get booked being a DJ just because you were a DJ. But now you need to have an edge or push yourself a bit harder.

The whole world of promotion is not something I find engaging at all but I do find it interesting when artists go the extra mile in their music and do something different and challenging. I think that’s exciting and I think that is a product of the over-saturation of electronic music; it is inescapable now. People do have to try a bit harder to stand out and I think that’s really interesting.

It’s strange for me being an artist that worked on SoundCloud a lot, and now that platform is kind of trailing off. A lot of artists moved to Spotify now, which to be frank, as much as I like as a platform, isn’t as engaging as SoundCloud, because SoundCloud is more community-based. Spotify is just a streaming platform community. I mean, it’s great – Spotify works – but that’s been a big change for me.

For example; a really simple, trivial thing, but I used to upload songs to SoundCloud and there’s a comment section so you can instantly see feedback. Some of them are pretty banal or crude or whatever but you can see how people feel. You get recorded feedback of people saying stuff. Spotify doesn’t have that. I can check my songs on Spotify and it tells me how many more plays my songs have but it’s not really qualitative data, it’s just quantity of plays, which is different for me because I grew up on SoundCloud, which would be a really public space where your songs kind of felt exposed or something and open to critique, whereas Spotify seems a lot more passive, just people pressing play. Or not even that, just people listening to a playlist. It makes you wonder how valuable plays are on Spotify because it’s so non-committal. Chances are, someone’s just listening to your song in the background. Half a million plays doesn’t really mean anything if no one’s actually listening.

The way I use SoundCloud is that I follow specific artists who I know that I love, and I might see something they’ve commented on or liked and I go and listen to that.

Yeah, I still do that and I’ve been doing that for a long time but feel that one day I might not be doing that. Do you DJ?

I’m learning at the moment.

I only used CDJs for the first time a year ago I think. Even though I’ve been doing this for a long time, I’d never actually had an opportunity to learn.

Any advice?

The two hardest things is actually having a USB with all the songs on it, which is a nightmare in itself and can be really confusing. So, you usually have ten USBs and you’re like, "Fuck, which ones have which playlists?" The other hard bit is just time. You can’t get good at it the first time you do it. It’s about playing at a hundred places and fucking up lots, and doing the wrong thing.

My first DJ set I ever did I fucked up really badly at the start because of some button not being on. I have CDJs at home and in the comfort of my own home, it’s pretty easy to get everything right, but it’s when you start playing shows all around, that’s when you do all the learning.

This is probably less serious than the other ones but you’ve come a really long way in a relatively short space of time. Have you had any pinch me/I can’t believe that happened moments?

I wish I had a really good anecdote right now but I don’t. It is always surreal getting on a plane, like an international flight to go somewhere to Europe or LA or something and being like, ‘I’m only on this plane because a few years ago I said I was going to be a musician’. I left university (I didn’t study music at university) and I thought, ‘What do I want to do?’. And I was like, well, music is the only thing I’m passionate about. But again, not having that theoretical training in music, it was just kind of a shot in the dark. I was just like, "I’ll start calling myself a musician and see if it works." And so, it is big when I’m playing big shows and playing around the world and working with artists I admire. I’m like, imagine if I finished university and wanted to do something else – I wouldn’t have any of this. That’s always been strange.

*Basenji's November headline show has been rescheduled to early next year. Keep up  to date with him here for future show announcements.

'Don't Let Go' ft Mereki and 'Mistakes' ft Tkay Maidza are both out now via Future Classic.

Image: Supplied