Ron Basejam is the alter-ego of UK producer James Baron, well known as the co-founder of uber-discoists Crazy P. Ron Basejam has become a code-word for a certain brand of detailed, pristinely produced disco-tech music. Full of attention to detail, serious low-end heft, and distinctive, idiosyncratic sampling.
Baron spoke with us while on a train journey (“We’ve just thrown caution to the wind and obtained a first class upgrade. Yes, that’s how we roll”), at the end of a series of Crazy P gigs, sustained by “a tub of M&S caramel crispy bites which will be accompanying me throughout this interview. Living the dream.”
The Ron Basejam back catalog is one defined by quality over quantity, employing a wonderfully broad range of textures and a seemingly inexhaustible audio palette – all rooted in disco but also in the funk. Such is the quality and range of tracks on his EPs you could take his superb five track After The Rain EP and put it together with say, last year’s The Sound of A Feeling EP, and you’d have a decent artist album, all killer no filler.
2010’s actual full length album from Ron Basejam, Deep and Meaningless epitomized his sound: experimental sampling, irresistible organic grooves, top-level production, overflowing with great ideas, delighting in the surface sheen of each individual part, the interlocking collection of instruments and samples, synths and beats meshing together in a heavy duty embrace. The affable Baron sums up the Ron Basejam sound beautifully as “Wendy-house, tech-jizz, plum-grunt with a dash of urban mythology.”
It’s a sound influenced by diverse musical heroes including “Fila Brazillia, Moodymann, Daniel Lanois, Super Furry Animals, Martin Hannett – the list goes on and on…” All artists who are noted for their attention to detail and a unique, highly personal approach to music making. Perhaps unsurprising given the musicality in his productions, Baron is an accomplished musician.
“I was brought up through brass bands so trombone was my first instrument,” he says. “I had a brilliant teacher, made all the more cool by the fact he’d played trumpet on some of the Beatles stuff. I moved onto piano from there, then onto guitar and bass which were self-taught. I’m not a virtuoso on any instrument but I can get a pleasant sound out of most of them.
“I did a music degree so was on perhaps a straighter musical path. My schoolmate Phat Phil Cooper got a job in Global Grooves Records in Chester (we were living in North Wales just down the road) and he would bring back all this amazing American house music. We’d go round his house regularly and get educated. I just shifted my focus from the music I was studying to these new exciting sounds. I bought a sampler, found a brilliant second-hand record shop and off we go…”
With Crazy P already fully established, Baron’s first release as “Ron Basejam” was in 2005 with “For The People” (Winding Road), six minutes of sublime disco tension. We asked Baron about his production approach for his Basejam tracks:
“Ron’s sound has always been routed in working with samples and I guess making a collage out of them,” he says. “I try and treat it like a trying to do a jig-saw but one where the pieces aren’t always meant to fit together. I like challenging conventional harmony and melody wherever possible but only if it works to my ears. I don’t have a go-to starting-point, it can be anything – a sample, a film quote, a chord progression even just a concept. I try not to over-think the process because I think that increases the feeling of what you’re doing. Everything goes into the tune very quickly then I’ll take a bit more of an analytical approach once I’ve had a bit of space away from the idea.”
Ron Basejam tracks are often based around a few samples but they aren’t loop records. Instead the samples are removed from their original context and stripped of their original meaning. Often subjected to extreme pitch treatment and some serious effects to get them to mesh together, it’s this aspect that is one of the most distinctive of his sound. It takes a certain artistic vision, an ability to imagine the results of what you plan to do to a sound before it’s done, to be able to see the potential in the unlikely.
“Generally, I just use my ears but also you need to be able to use your imagination and spot the possible potential of what could sound like the most insignificant of samples on first listen,” he says. “Simon Mills from Bent used to have the studio downstairs from us and I remember he used to do this great thing where he’d pick a record at random from his shelves and then challenge himself to make a tune out of just samples from that record. It’s a great method for learning to do the best with what you have in front of you, it also forces you to think out of the box in terms of how you treat the samples; for example, what if you had to make a drum kit up but the only samples you had were high-pitched bird noises how would you do it? With the wonder of how you can mangle things these days nothing is impossible.”
Sometimes his tunes contain samples from quite disparate sources yet they hang together as though they were made for each other. “Again it’s all in using your ears and fucking about with pitch and time,” he says. “It’s a real buzz when you hit on something like that.”
So if the governing concepts of Baron’s studio approach seem to be experimentation, trusting your ears and attention to detail, once he’s hit on a good idea how does he achieve his sound? Obviously, there’s some sampling going on but what about favourite studio kit he just can’t do without?
“Well the Soundtoys collection of filters, effects and pre-amps is an absolute must,” he says. “Modeled on the best analogue kit the filters will beef up any drum loop, the delays can get proper trippy. It’s rare I do a tune these days without getting them involved.
“If I had to choose one thing it’d be the trusty Roland Juno 106. It’s a great work-horse but really versatile too. And those choruses…”
“We Walk To War” dropped last year on Delusions of Grandeur and was present in many end of year top tune lists. We wondered how it came about?
“I had the sample at the beginning floating around for ages but couldn’t get anything to stick on it. One of those situations where you get a fantastic 8 bar loop that you could listen to for days but it takes you a while to actually find out how to develop it. In this case, the big vocal sample that comes in halfway through was the catalyst, it gave it some direction. Then it was just a case of adding some musical elements to bring it all together.”
And what about his opinion on his own back catalog?
“My favourites either tend to be attached to how the process worked for that particular tune or based around not quite believing I’d done it myself. The White Lamp ‘It’s You’ remix took a few hours to make and was like an out of body experience (this was probably helped by the fact I was feeling pretty loose). ‘Into My Life’ was two bottles of red wine and feeling completely heartbroken. When I listen back to it now I can’t quite believe it’s me singing…”
“Into My Life” is actually a good example of Baron’s idiosyncratic approach. An electronic house piano ballad in 4/4 swing time, impressionistic opening a la Kind of Blue-era Miles, strolling b-line, meandering Moog solo, jazzy chord changes and a smooth vocal from Baron himself.
“It’s 4/4 but just in common swing time,” he says. “I’ve used this timing a few times over the years but it doesn’t go everywhere. It’s obviously pretty jazzy and laid-back but very effective if you’re feeling smooooth!”
Likewise “Keg” from 2015 is another distinctive discoesque Basejam production that stands out from the crowd: it really doesn’t sound like anything else.
“Pure sample cut up piece, that,” he says, “using tiny elements spread across the sampler and experimenting with the programming to give it that cut-up feel. I stuck a huge wobbly analogue bass-line on it there you have it!”
There’s something of a “no-nonsense” approach to Baron’s approach, a workmanlike element to how he talks about his music, and his production ethos has a whiff of practicality to it. It all gives an insight into the workmanship required to create the glittering disco-balls of audio delight he produces.
“I don’t overthink things when a tune is being conceived,” he explains “I just roll with it and try to think as freely as possible. Give it a few days, have another listen and I’ll generally know whether its got legs. Failing that I’ll get Toddy’s (Chris Todd from Crazy P) ears on it and get some feedback.”
Baron is down to earth about his distinctive musical style. “I couldn’t nail it down to one aspect. I guess its a combination of knowledge, experience and taking bits and bobs from your influences then trying to make it interesting on the ears.”
Leaving Mr Basejam to enjoy his train journey in peace, we sign off with a final question: What might you be doing if you weren’t a producer?
“I was a criminal solicitor when we were doing the early Crazy Penis stuff but I certainly wouldn’t have carried on with that, it was awful.
“I don’t know… Dog walking? Spiritual advisor?”
No doubt the dog walking/spiritual advisor industry’s loss is house music’s gain. Looking ever forward, James Baron/Ron Basejam has a clear vision of the future ahead:
“Have you seen Logan’s Run [Iconic, dark mid-70s sci-fi film]? It’ll be like that but with better music. And less hallucinogens.”
Ron Basejam photo by Ric Kelly.