“Over the years, one of the things we’ve thought a lot about is that dance music has got this way of bringing lots of people together that wouldn’t necessarily come together,” say Robin and Simon Lee. “And that is a body of one, to connect with each other.”
The Faze Action duo are brothers who practically speak at the same time; they’re constantly in union, questioning, pondering, interjecting and finishing each other's sentences. Today they’re agreeing and encouraging each other in the virtual board meeting being held with DJ Mag via a conference call. We’re in an available room at Juno Records headquarters, the part time place of work for both of them — Simon applies his skills in the distribution department while Robin goes in once a week to write equipment reviews, which affords him the pleasure of playing with synthesisers all day.
“It’s a big table with white boards everywhere. I feel semi-important,” Robin jokes, describing the scene of our interview.
And so the pondering begins. Next year Faze Action will be able to mark their monumental 20th anniversary. Which naturally poses the question, have they considered this already, and how do they plan to celebrate it?
“We thought we’d keep it quiet,” laughs Simon. DJ Mag gets the impression the duo could be shying away from the fact. “Now you mention it,” continues Robin, “maybe we should try and do something.” Cue a ‘back in time, screen fades and eyes stare into the distance”-type snapshot...
After signing up with Nuphonic Records, it was their much-lauded 1996 release ‘In the Trees’ that really started the ball rolling in their pursuit of mixing up house with African and Latin influences, while at the same time dipping into jazz and Balearic territory and generally playing their part in the creation of some downright timeless dance music. Revered by amongst others, Gilles Peterson, Horse Meat Disco, Todd Terje, Jarvis Cocker and Carl Craig, who reworked their seminal tune in 2007, along the way Metronomy, François K, Crazy P and Femi Kuti have deployed their remixing skills. But would it be even remotely possible to nip their style of music into a nutshell, to define and pinpoint it?
“Organic disco,” they both reply in unison. Well that was easy. “It’s a really good question and one that we find difficult to answer, but I think the answer lies in the function of what the music is for,” Robin leads. “For example on the album there are some tracks that are clearly dance tracks, in the disco genre. And there are some chill-out [tracks].”
Their laid-back approach is infectious and heart-warming, much like their latest album ‘Body of One’. This is their fifth studio album and it’s a beautiful nine-track listen that cleverly fuses funk with soulful disco and boogie. Much laughter ensues at the question of how long it took to make it since the previous one. “There’s a five-year gap. We usually release singles before. Whereas with this one we decided to leave it as a full volume of work, so you get the whole picture together,” says Simon.
“And then we’re going to release the singles,” confirms Robin. Top of the list will be opening track ‘Prisoner of Love’, a bright, joyful toe-tapper rinsed in the kind of bass slapping that harks back to punk funk bands Quando Quango and A Certain Ratio.
Also coming out as a double vinyl album release through their own label FAR (Faze Action Records), ‘Body of One’ could well be their best yet. It’s a work of refinement and soundscape know-how and it’s allowed them to bring together many of their previous vocalists and collaborators for the project. Re-recruiting Zeke Manyika who performed on their second album, ‘Moving Cities’ and who has been involved with the likes of Orange Juice, The Style Council and Kate Bush — not just for his singing talent but also his drumming abilities.
“We got him to do a lot of African music for that album and this time round we’ve got him singing in English. We really like the fact that we can tour with him, he’s got a great presence live and we missed him, and it’s great to have him back.” Mary Moore joins them once again, having previously collaborated on their last album and their ‘Tribute To Arthur Russell’ compilation with Yam Who?. “She’s kind of part of the team,” Simon reveals.
Second track in, ‘Stuck’ is sung by Chris Woodhouse, an ex-Juno employee who features on a couple of other songs on the album. His soft, alluring vocals weave along with Robin’s notable cello performance, that the entire track is actually built around. “We thought it would be fun to limit ourselves on one of the tracks with one instrument. So all the sounds, pretty much all of the sounds on that track come from the cello,” Robin explains. Even the drums are the thrums of him slapping the back of it, and are combined with Simon’s conga playing skills. So how does it work when they’re writing songs? “I’ve always been more of a DJ, music collector. I come up with a lyric, idea or a chorus and Robin will go ‘yeah, that could work’,” says Simon. Robin will then try to write a verse. “We like all our old classic analogue stuff as well as classical instruments,” Robin chips in.
BACK TO BACK
Recreating old disco sounds plays a massive part in the make-up and overall shape and form of Faze Action. Both brothers DJ, although it’s Simon that’s the main record collector.
“I used to buy everything that came out every week but now I’m kind of a little bit more choosy. I buy a lot of stuff, new wave, funk, disco, house, right across the board really.” When they play together it’ll be a three or four each type deal, maybe half hour each depending on how it’s going; if one of them is rocking the dancefloor more than the other he’ll let his sibling carry on. “I’m just a pretender, I steal all his records,” Robin reveals. “I like all the records that Simon buys, so I listen to them and try and figure out how it’s possible to create those sounds.”
Performing live will be the ultimate test in bringing their organic disco sound to life. And it’s one they’re aiming for in the early summer with a show lined up on 4th May underneath London’s Westway. Although having previously toured the world with Groove Armada, the stage is already set for Simon and Robin to present their album with an eight-piece band. “It would be nice to do Glastonbury again, we did that in 2001, we just like playing live,” says Robin. “And DJing as well,” adds Simon.
But how do they feel they fit in with the current dance music scene and culture at the moment? “Well we sort of fit into that whole Loft culture. The David Mancuso sound,” Simon explains of the 40-year-old New York club that in recent years has impacted on the duo. Famed for mixing up a wide range of music with underground disco and eclectic styles, it matches their own take on the scene. “Who would buy our records?” Robin ponders. “Well hopefully everyone would. Obviously when you’re making music you want it to reach out to as many people as it could possibly reach out to. But I suppose where we come from, where we fit in specifically, the Loft culture is the closest thing,” Simon tells DJ Mag.
It’s no exaggeration that their sound is comparable to the stuff of legends, although they might well baulk at the notion. But DJ Mag has one last question to beg. Did they realise that ‘Body of One’ has a theme of love that runs through it? “I suppose that’s a very good point, because we’ve sort of avoided love,” Robin starts. Tending to put a limitation on themselves not to write love songs, this time round, perhaps with the benefit of nearly 20 years making music, they were ready to approach the subject. “And again it comes back to this idea of people connecting with each other, dance music, that’s what music can do, music’s great for getting people together.” Robin concludes.
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