Maxi Jazz Interview

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Maxi Jazz talks to London Calling about the musical influences of his youth and his new post-Faithless project.

Maxi Jazz achieved international success with the band Faithless, who have recently played some reunion concerts. His new album with Maxi Jazz and the E-Type Boys marks a complete musical departure from Faithless while returning Jazz to his years as a teenage music fan in 1960s Croydon. London Calling caught up with Jazz just before the band's mini-tour, which includes a date at London's The Village Underground.

Long before it was a trendy literary genre, Maxi Jazz was an exponent of flash fiction: “When I was bored at school, quite often I’d just get this piece of A5 paper and write a story. And the story had to have a beginning, a middle and an end, by the end of the page. There was no turning the page over - the whole thing had to be finished in one page.”

Jazz has held onto a couple of these micro-stories. In the back of his mind is the idea that he will write more. He describes a piece of unexpected prose that appeared while writing the lyrics for the final Faithless album The Dance (released in 2010) at his mother’s house in Jamaica. He had adopted his usual writing method of letting the music play while he played on a games console: “And then an idea will come to you while you’re playing pool or trying to get round Brands Hatch in your virtual racing car. You stop what you’re doing, pick up your pen and paper and write.” During the first of these creative fugues he found something altogether different coming from his pen: “It was a story about a king who had lost his daughter and he had his soldiers searching for her. I think I was about 10, 12 lines in and I suddenly realised - hold on, this isn’t a fucking song, man. Stop a minute. But then I read it to my mum later on that evening and she goes ‘What happens next?!’ So I figured, oh right, maybe one of these days I’ll finish that story, maybe write a few more short ones. If I write a long, long, long novel I’ll get bored.”

The stories Jazz likes best have an open ending; one that forks into various paths. It has been pointed out to him that this is a quality that he brings into his guitar playing: “I didn’t know but apparently my chords are suspended and diminished chords. They ring, they ring and hang over and leave this - almost like wine aftertaste is the way I describe it.” Jazz taught himself to play guitar: “I only play what I like or what sounds good to me - and then you build it up and it reveals itself to you. Then you go, okay, I wonder where that came from... but I like it!” His influences are diverse and his connection to his guitar shapes his instincts: “I don’t have any way of determining what’s going to happen when I pick up a guitar, it will come out the way it comes out. I’m not trying to make guitar music or hip hop music or whatever it is.” Jazz’s new project is his first album with the E-Type Boys, a sound he describes as ‘chunky funk’. “It’s bluesy without being blues, it’s funky without being funk, it’s got reggae baselines all over the place and liberal dollops of jazz are in there.” The press release announces the project as a return to Jazz’s pre-Faithless roots. What are his roots?

“There was one other black family in the early 60s in Croydon within about three or four miles of us. Everyone at school was into pop music or rock music so that was the first thing I learned to love. Then about 14 or 15 years old, I’m starting to meet people who are [introducing me to] Dennis Brown, Bob Marley and James Brown. When I first heard James Brown I thought, hold on a minute - this is pretty boring isn’t it? It’s five minutes on the same groove, pretty much. But then again, you have to remember I was hearing it through my little transistor radio. As soon as I heard it in a club I was like, ‘Oh my God! What’s this?!’ So my roots are pretty much the whole spectrum of music that you would listen to on a given day on the radio.” His favourite band of all time is LA country rockers Little Feat. “They have one of the funkiest rock rhythm sections that have ever existed. They play country licks on a bottleneck guitar. I have a slide guitar player in my band because I love Little Feat so much and I love that sound...” He impersonates the twang of a bottleneck guitar. “Beautiful.”

In fact, Jazz’s love of all the music he used to listen to as a teenager (he compares it with “comfort food”) was suppressed during his pre-Faithless DJing years (“I would only buy those records that I could play out and make money from”). It was the pressures of being in a globally successful band that brought him back to his first musical obsessions. “I would make CDs of the old music I used to listen to when I was growing up. I’d have that on in my hotel room and calmly wind down. I began to realise - actually, I still love Steve Miller, Todd Rundgren, Sly and the Family Stone, J. J. Cale, The Meters, all that stuff. It was just amazing music for me growing up. The E-Type boys is an expression of me just wanting to do that stuff that makes me happy.”

Jazz credits his success to his Buddhist beliefs. “In the early 90s I was trying to be a musician and absolutely nothing was happening.” Just like Angela Basset’s Tina Turner in What’s Love Got to Do With It, it was chanting ‘Nam-myoho-renge-kyo’ that turned everything around for him. “The only reason I’m a Buddhist is because it makes sense. It’s not unreasonable. It’s not fantastical.” He stopped believing in God at the age of nine when he heard about the Aberfan disaster, in which 116 school children were crushed to death. His mother’s explanation, that “the ways of God are difficult to understand”, did not hold water for her son. “If you’re basing your life on fact and law rather than superstition and hearsay, then you’re far more likely to have a successful life and a fulfilling life than if you’re listening to a lot of old bollocks about...” He stops himself: “I’m not even going to get into that.” The “fact and law” Jazz is referring to are informed by the teachings of the Buddha, and he specifically draws attention to the concepts of cause and effect (“There isn’t a religion in the world that doesn’t mention ‘as you sow, so shall you reap’”) and Esho Funi, the belief in the interdependence of the inner self and the outer world.

“If you honestly believe that the world is a difficult and dark and dangerous place, your world can only be dark and difficult and dangerous. If you then see the light, change your mind and think - it’s a wonderful world full of beautiful people - you then allow your world to show you that side of itself.” Buddhist teachings are at the centre of Jazz’s lyrics for Faithless and in his new work. The Faithless lyric that he feels best expresses his message is from a track called ‘Tweak’. Jazz recites the lines: “Welcome once again to the ceremony / Briefly, this is my testimony / I see genius in everybody / To perceive it in yourself is the difficulty”.

Maxi Jazz and the E-Type Boys play The Village Underground on Monday 7th December. For more information and to book tickets, see website.