Britain's foremost purveyors of dirty house anthems have a startling new sound! IDJ grabbed a notebook and headed to the Hammersmith studio of X-Press 2...
X-Press 2 have always been three of dance music’s more unlikely superstars. A trio of geezer-ish DJs from London with an unhealthy passion for house music and a healthy appetite for hedonism, they’re hardly the most obvious candidates for superstar status.
By their own admission they’ve never courted chart success or stardom, choosing instead to concentrate on making the sort of unashamedly heavyweight house music that really only makes sense in smoke-filled clubs at three in the morning. Even their hookiest, catchiest tracks have by and large been tough and uncompromising. Crowd-pleasing cheese-mongers they ain’t.
Despite this, Rocky, Diesel and Ashley Beedle still find themselves in the domain of dance demi-gods, up there with the likes of the Chems, Basement Jaxx and Mylo in dance music’s top tier. Yet X-Press 2 have never toured with a band, played festivals or released a series of acclaimed albums. Their place at dance music’s top table was instead booked thanks to a string of impressive singles – floor-friendly tunes that rapidly became house anthems.
And what anthems. The early ’90s muscley sweatiness of ‘London X-Press’ and ‘Muzik X-Press’. The heads-down, hands-aloft thump of 2000’s ‘AC/DC’. The hooky, turn of the millennium tribalism of ‘Muzikizum’ and ‘Smoke Machine’.
Oh, and ‘Lazy’, the David Byrne collaboration that became the anthem to end all anthems – and the first “quirky vocal deep house record” to make the UK Top 10. Yep, if there’s one thing X-Press 2 do well, it’s anthemic house – big, bold, brash, ballsy house, with bloody great silver-plated bells on.
Imagine iDJ’s surprise, then, when we received a call back in September telling us that X-Press 2 had a new sound. A warmer, softer, brighter and more uplifting sound, seemingly poles apart from their previous laddish, late-night tribalism. A sound bathed in shimmering Ibizan sunsets and Mediterranean sunrises. A sound more Shoom than Sound Factory, more Pacha than Sasha. Yep, X-Press 2 had gone balearic. We simply had to find out more.
So here we are, four months later, squeezed into the trio’s cramped Hammersmith studio, for a world exclusive playback of the new X-Press 2 album, ‘Makeshift Feelgood’. There are a number of tracks yet to be finished and nothing has been mixed down as of yet, but there’s enough material for us to get a good idea of what the final LP will sound like.
So far, none of the material has been played to anyone outside the band’s immediate circle, and even their press officer, perched at the back of the studio on a spare record box, has yet to hear it. Because of this, there’s genuine excitement in the air – a strange feeling that we’re about to hear something special. With everyone settled down, Rocky gestures over to their engineer, Greg, and the playback begins.
Ever aware of our journalistic duty, iDJ frantically scribbles down notes, trying to make a record of the sparkling, multi-coloured sounds bursting from the speakers. Our first impression is that there are a lot of pianos: not cheesy, hands-in-the-air early ’90s riffs, but sweet, sweeping intros, blissful breakdowns and emotion-charged solos.
There are horns, too, of the sort that evoke memories of classic Weatherall productions and Adrian Sherwood dub-outs rather than rousing funk stompathons. Jangly guitars, slap bass and squidgy synth basslines also make an appearance, alongside trippy effects, disco strings and atmospheric chords. The beats are varied in style and tempo, from the Tiefschwarz-y chug of ‘Give It’ to electrofunk, classic house and even abstract minimalism.
Over the rainbow
Perhaps the most notable thing, though, is the amount of vocals. Unlike their largely instrumental first album, ‘Muzikizum’, ‘Makeshift Feelgood’ is absolutely jam-packed with vocal tracks. What’s more, there’s an almighty array of featured guest vocalists.
As well as the previously revealed Kurt Wagner of Lambchop (whose distinctive Dixieland drawl adorns previous single ‘Give It’), ‘Makeshift Feelgood’ also includes vocals from Tim De Laughter of psychedelic indie types The Polyphonic Spree, Rob Harvey of The Music, Anthony Roman of fuzzy punk-funkers Radio Four, the Peech Boys’ Bernard Fowler, and the little known ’80s pop band Kissing The Pink.
If ‘Muzikizum’ was detached, steely and soulless, ‘Makeshift Feelgood’ is a emotion-rich, bright and breezy – a kaleidoscopic trip in rainbow-tinted sunglasses. It’s balearic, all right. It’s also very, very good.
We’re not yet halfway through the playback, and already iDJ has a whole stack of questions – like, why balearic? “We got older and we wanted to make more money!” Rocky deadpans, much to the delight of the other two.
“We had to work out what direction we were moving in, and first and foremost we wanted to concentrate on songs,” Diesel reveals, above more giggling from Ashley and Rocky. “We did a bit of soul searching and tried to work out how we’d come up with a record like ‘Lazy’. Where did it come from when we’d spent the last ten years making dark club music?
"We realised it must be our balearic roots. Once we’d realised that’, we thought maybe we could go more in that direction – that we could feed off our other non-house influences. Those odd rock records, or pop records, or disco and reggae. That mix of styles and sounds was the essence of balearica.”
Rediscovering your balearic roots has become a big thing in dance music of late. With ‘first wave’ house DJs like Danny Rampling beginning to hang up their headphones, a whole generation of clubbers has begun to look back to what turned them on to dance music in the first place.
To some it was Italian piano house or rave, to others disco, boogie or old skool US garage. To X-Press 2 and many of the veteran London house set, it was the balearic sound of the mid-to-late ’80s – that multicoloured mishmash of early house, garage, pop, trippy rock, disco and pretty much anything else that was being played in Ibiza’s clubs at the time.
‘Balearic’ has since become something of a dirty word in some quarters – many a terrible record has been excused criticism due to its ‘balearic’ qualities over the years – but the sound itself is slowly making a comeback. X-Press 2 are certainly not the first to try and recapture the blissful trippiness and ecstacy-driven sunniness of balearica – Lindstrom & Prins Thomas’ recent debut album, for example, was balearic in the very best sense of the term.
“You could be really cynical and say the reason that the whole balearic thing is coming back is because no-one’s really exploited it enough yet,” Ashley Beedle laughs. “Or you could say that people need reference points, and sad to say, we’re running out of them. There’s nothing really new coming through now, so perhaps it’s just time for balearica again. Dance music is cyclical – we’ve had the new wave and electro stuff, now it’s balearica. Maybe it’ll be classic US garage next.”
Aside from balearica, ‘Makeshift Feelgood’ features a far wider array of influences than any X-Press 2 record yet. Whereas ‘Muzikizum’ was more or less a straight-up big room house set, this time around iDJ can detect disco, jazz-funk, synth-pop, electrofunk, downtempo, electronica, punk funk and minimal. While dedicated followers of the trio will express little surprise – X-Press 2 has never been the greatest barometer of their personal influences, unlike perhaps their mid-’90s Ballistic Brothers project – for outsiders it seems like a huge turnaround. It makes you wonder how their traditional DJ fanbase will react.
“I think it’s going to be interesting to see how people take to it,” Ashley muses, leaning back in his chair. “I don’t think it will hit people straight away. I’m hoping it’s going to be a grower – one of those albums that’s successful by word of mouth. That’s how I want it to be.
"It’s a listening album rather than a collection of club tracks, which ‘Muzikizum’ was. Hopefully a few more girls will like this one. We won’t be totally abandoning DJs, though – there’ll be a few limited things for the clubs as well as the album, and we’ve already made extended club mixes of most of the tracks.”
As the album continues to play in the background, it occurs to iDJ that making such an obviously ‘musical’ album must have been a tricky task, particularly for a trio more used to producing relatively simple club tracks. Perhaps that explains the almost four-year gap since ‘Muzikizum’…
“We’re not a rock band – we can’t just go into the studio and knock out a whole album in two months,” Rocky muses. “It just doesn’t work like that. With ‘Muzikizum’, we were on a bit of a roll, and we basically just made a load of singles and stuck them on an album. There was no big masterplan. This time round, we’ve been thinking a lot more about what we want to do, and why, and how the tracks will fit together.”
Ashley nods in agreement.
“One of the things we’ve done this time is step back from the tracks a bit more,” he says. “Most of the tracks we’ve left for a few months at a time, checked them again and made tweaks and improvements. There are still a few tracks like that – we like them, but the groove isn’t quite right.”
There’s little wrong with the grooves on the tracks iDJ has heard. Of the tracks we’ve heard so far on the playback, not one has been a duffer. In fact, we’d rate them amongst the best things X-Press 2 have done in their career to date. One track, ‘Witchi Tai To’, is particularly memorable.
A trippy, far-out fusion of midtempo house, jangly psychedelic guitars and eyes-wide-shut balearica featuring vocals from The Polyphonic Spree’s Tim De Laughter, it’s a future hit single in waiting. As it plays, Ashley nods along enthusiastically, while Diesel seems deep in thought. Maybe he’s making mental notes for the forthcoming mixdown…
“We were doing this gig in Japan with Andrew Weatherall, Sasha, Tim Deluxe, Kraftwerk and other bods,” Ashley grins. “We’d all arrived early so we could go shopping in Tokyo. When we were in HMV Weatherall came up to us and started talking about this CD he was buying.”
“He said ‘you’re going to want this, it’s well balearic’, and handed us this Harper’s Bazaar album from the ’60s,” Diesel interjects.
“He told us to listen to this track called ‘Witchi Tai To’, because it was a little bit of heaven. Obviously if Weatherall’s saying that, you listen! So I went back to the hotel and listened to it. He was right – it was fantastic. Really psychedelic and dreamy – two minutes of pure beauty. So when we got back to Britain I suggested we record a cover of it.”
But that was only the beginning. “It didn’t take us long to do the music, but we still needed a vocalist,” Diesel continues. “Someone suggested Tim De Laughter, which we thought wasn’t a bad idea since The Polyphonic Spree are very psychedelic. When we finally managed to get in touch with him, he was really keen to do it – it turns out the original ‘Witchi Tai To’ is his favourite track of all time!”
‘Witchi Tai To’, with its almost nursery rhyme quality, is slated as a possible lead single. Another potential single is ‘Don’t Make Me Wait’, a noughties cover of the Peech Boys classic featuring the original vocalist, Bernard Fowler. X-Press 2’s version of the boogie classic pits updated electrofunk synths, bass and beats against atmospheric pianos, dubbed-out horns, and a simply spellbinding re-sung vocal from Bernard Fowler. It’s a club smash in the making.
“This all started when I bumped into Adrian Sherwood in the street,” Ashley reveals. “He was with Bernard Fowler from the Peech Boys, cos he does a lot of stuff with Adrian for On-U-Sound, and he introduced me to him. I was like “oh shit, you better grab the moment!” so I asked him if he’d like to be on our album, and he agreed.”
Diesel picks up the story: “We sent him some music and asked him for a vocal, thinking we’d be doing a totally new track. We waited, and waited, and eventually this CD came through the post with a new vocal to ‘Make Me Wait’ on it. But it wasn’t the same as the original – it was like a downtempo soul version, and the lyrics were slightly different.
"Originally we’d not been that keen to just do a cover, but since what he’d given us was a bit different, we thought ‘yeah, we can do this’. His vocal performance is unbelievable – as good as, if not better than, when he originally sung it all those years ago.”
The album playback moves on to ‘Enjoy The Ride’, one of four collaborations on ‘Makeshift Feelgood’ with obscure ’80s band Kissing The Pink (the others, ‘Light My Soul’, ‘The Answer’ and ‘The Last Man’, have yet to be finished). As with many of the other tracks we’ve heard, there’s plenty of pianos, as well as some class slap bass, a bizarre but brilliant ‘aquatic’ rhythm (think minimal, but more jazz-funk), cosmic chords and a great half-spoken, half-sung vocal. When the chorus comes around Ashley starts to sing along enthusiastically.
“The collaborations with Kissing The Pink came about after we filled in for Seb Fontaine on Radio One,” Diesel explains. “They wanted us to do a half-hour balearic mix as part of the show. One of the tracks we picked was ‘Big Man Restless’ by Kissing The Pink, which is a balearic classic. A week later we got an email from Matthew Roberts of King Unique, who is mates with the guys from Kissing The Pink. They’d heard the balearic mix and wanted to know whether we’d be interested in working with them.
"We agreed to meet up with them, and it was quite mad – they’d always been a band we liked, but we had no idea they were still around. Apparently they’ve written loads of massive hits you wouldn’t expect them to have – they even wrote ‘Let’s Get Ready To Rumble’ by Ant & Dec!”
Rocky and Ashley start giggling again. “We were absolutely rolling about when they told us that!” Ashley exclaims. “They’re really into dance music, though – they were absolutely chuffed that we were into their stuff.”
And with that, the playback is over. iDJ is impressed, but how will the dance buying public react? We have a sneaky feeling they’re gonna love ‘Makeshift Feelgood’ – it has the feel of a ‘Screamadelica’ for the noughties. Either way, X-Press 2 are certainly ‘Movin’ On Up’. “If this record doesn’t do that well, it’s not the end of the world,” Ashley chirps. “We all still think of ourselves as DJs rather than producers anyway!”