Play that funky music, white boy
Jamiroquai 'Synkronizes' new album, tour
June 30, 1999
By Donna Freydkin
(CNN) - In the retro world of England's Jamiroquai, bubbly disco mingles with slick funk. Smooth jazz cozies up to fluffy pop and polished club music.
Ask the British foursome about its inspirations, and the artists -- led by limelight-loving frontman Jason Kay -- say they know a good thing when they hear it. On Jamiroquai's fourth album "Synkronized," that magic ingredient is the Bee Gees, merged with the boogie beats of disco wonderland Studio 54.
"We believe in disco funk," says drummer Derrick McKenzie. "We're fully into it. We felt we should produce and write music along that sort of line, because at the end of the day, we want to make music that we enjoy."
To create that musical Xanadu, the band -- Kay, McKenzie, keyboardist Toby Smith and vibes player Wallis Buchanan -- holed up at Kay's Georgian manor home outside London.
"We weren't pressed for time," says McKenzie. "You could start and finish when you want. You can work when you want. It's excellent. You're your own boss."
And the final product, says the drummer, is all about getting down and partying like it's -- well, you know.
"That's the message," says McKenzie. "Enjoy. Get out and party. Have a good time. We want to entertain you, but we want to entertain you in our own way."
The first single, "Canned Heat," has been out since late May. The album, which entered the Billboard album charts at 28, is currently perched at 53.
The video was shot by director Jonas Akerlund, who's worked with Madonna, the Prodigy and Metallica. The album as a whole has garnered mixed-to-positive, reviews. McKenzie says he hopes the silky beats of "Synkronized" will serve as a breakthrough in the United States for the London-born band.
"Music in England is like clothes. It's a fashion thing," says McKenzie. "But we're still doing the same kind of music we were doing at the beginning. We've just matured."
In 1993, when Jamiroquai released its United Kingdom debut, "Emergency on Planet Earth," the British band was dismissed as a one-hit wonder by the Fleet Street press. And although Jamiroquai's debut had hit No. 1 on the British charts and became the U.K.'s top-selling debut album of the year, no one took the band too seriously.
Three years and two albums later, the U.S. audience had scarcely heard of Jamiroquai -- when MTV picked up a funky little ditty called "Virtual Insanity" from Jamiroquai's third album, "Travelling Without Moving."
The album went on to sell seven million copies worldwide, and garnered Jamiroquai a best pop performance Grammy and four MTV Video Music Awards, including a best video nod for the gravity-defying "Virtual Insanity" clip.
"It was actually a good kick in the ass. It was what we needed," says McKenzie. "The fact that MTV picked up 'Virtual Insanity' and played it really heavily was excellent, because it meant that somebody took a risk in putting us on TV and plugging it. And when we went to work on this album, we just thought to ourselves, 'We don't want to let MTV down.'"
Between albums, Kay wrote "Deeper Underground" for the "Godzilla" soundtrack, and the entire band, already bitten by the disco bug, performed a duet of "Upside Down" with Diana Ross at the 1997 Brit Awards.
In "Canned Heat," Kay says, "You know this boogie is for real … nothing left for me to do but dance." In the bleaker "Black Capricorn Day," he laments that "And I'm so rarely understood. Well, I don't know what they want from me."
"Jay's writing and vocal abilities have been influenced by Stevie Wonder," says McKenzie, "but more at the beginning of his career. But this album is much more Jay, from a vocal point of view, than previous albums. He deliberately stayed away from listening to a bunch of people so he would develop his own style."
Despite a few darker messages, McKenzie says that "Synkronized" is all about dipping into the disco revival -- not to capitalize on bell-bottom nostalgia, but to pay tribute to a genre of music the band loves.
"We're all into the disco thing," he says, "the whole band, and not because there's been a revival. It's because we're genuinely interested in the disco-funk thing. We wanted an up-tempo album that we could party to. Play every track, one after the other, and just enjoy it."
"Synkronized" represents a return for Jamiroquai to its London club-scene roots.
"We're doing that party, clubby, disco thing -- so much so, that we're thinking of doing some really small gigs. That's one of my goals for this year, to do some really small gigs," says McKenzie. "They're a lot more intimate and the people there will be right into it."
He may have chances at that in the U.S. tour, which kicks off on July 4 at San Francisco's Union Square, and includes a stop in the not-so-intimate setting of Woodstock '99 on July 23. McKenzie hopes that being on the road in the States will prove to American audiences what longtime British fans have already bought into.
"We're ourselves now. We know what we do, we know we do it well and we just want it to be us, rather than somebody else," says McKenzie.
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