Type ‘Basement Jaxx, Glastonbury 2004’ into YouTube. The first clip that pops up opens with a steady shot of an angry pepper, the British dance act’s sinister signature motif, emblazoned across the festival’s gigantic stage in terrifying hologram. Two men [Felix Buxton and Simon Ratcliffe] twiddle knobs behind a wall of techie kit, nodding and occasionally shaking some kind of strange tambourine. Sirens sound, spotlights twirl, the watching horde heaves and hoes. The funk-driven bass line of debut smash ‘Red Alert’ twangs to life, jumping about like an epileptic cat in a sack. But it isn’t until the sight, or rather the arresting sound, of main vocalist Vula Malinga striding onto stage that the crowd erupts into a throbbing frenzy.
‘Glastonbury is such a band-orientated festival,’ Vula explains. ‘So it was extra special for us to feel really appreciated there. I had to stop myself from blubbing!’ She finishes with her trademark giggle that sounds like a stream of bubbles bursting.
It’s not surprising that the little girl with the giant lungs might sometimes feel overwhelmed by her career’s already heady heights. Following a lucky tip from a mate at music college, Vula’s first-ever gig was a two-month tour with British soul singer Beverley Knight, supporting Jamiroquai around Europe. ‘They weren’t really party-orientated,’ she remembers. ‘Most of them had their wives and girlfriends with them, which calmed them down. Although Jay had just split from [British actress] Denise Van Outen and hooked up with Heidi Klum, so I met her a few times.’
Not bad for a 20 year-old. Next up was a quick bit of songwriting with personal hero and UK house and garage producer, MJ Cole, resulting in two songs on his 2003 album Cut To The Chase. ‘His Sincere album was the soundtrack to my college days,’ Vula coos. ‘MJ is hugely talented and underrated. It was amazing working with him – and to have him repay the favour now by remixing some of my stuff.’
You see, the boombastic voice is not merely a vehicle through which other people’s melodies ricochet – she cowrote both Basement Jaxx’s top 10 track ‘Oh My Gosh’ and 2006’s ‘Hush Boy’, has been in and out of the studio with Felix and Simon working on their latest album, as well as furiously penning her own material resulting in new EP If U Want It.
It might have also surprised the Glasto-revellers kicking up mud to her rocket ‘Romeo’ rendition to know that Vula was part of the London Community Gospel Choir for six years. ‘There’s no comparison between dance and gospel,’ she distinguishes. ‘In the dance industry you don’t need half as much talent to be successful as you do with gospel, when you have to be like a vocal technician.’ Why then, make the move from thankful churches to seatbox clubs? ‘Step aerobics,’ she explains. Eh? ‘I was born in Houston, Texas,’ she continues in her thick London twang, developed after moving to the UK aged six. ‘My dad’s a musician [who counts Sister Sledge and Barry White as stage mates], so I grew up listening to all sorts of funk and soul music.’ And the grapevine connection? ‘It wasn’t until I started going to aerobics classes where the instructor was into garage and two-step that I really fell in love with dance.’
Her light-footed path into the dance industry might explain her active stage performances, as she bounces and buzzes around the stage like a rapidly deflating helium balloon. ‘I don’t think I’ll ever wear an expensive dress in a Basement Jaxx show – I’m constantly, constantly sweating,’ she kindly over-shares.
And her energetic stage antics have got her in trouble in the past. ‘There was one occasion when I didn’t come out on time,’ Vula cackles. ‘I was still trying to sing from backstage where I was getting dressed. That’s when I had to address it with the boys.’ She now has a stylist to help her fend off Felix’s quirky fashion fancies. ‘Felix is very eccentric with his ideas,’ Vula states diplomatically. ‘He once wanted me to wear a lace corset. I was like “Babe, you do know the size of me, don’t you? I’m not the kind of girl to wear a lace corset without something underneath.” So then he suggested a gold jump suit.’
But it’s this very spontaneity that won them their second Glastonbury set in 2005, stepping into Kylie’s size threes after breast cancer struck the pop squeak from the festival’s top spot. Upping the ante with more vocalist, fireworks and other theatrics, the group whooped even their own previous performance.
But not everyone was so pleased by the turn of events. ‘Oh God, we heard about that,’ Vula remembers. ‘I suppose people do different things for publicity.’ She’s talking about Bobby Gillespie’s unexpected jibe at the Jaxx. Live on stage, he called the band ‘C**ksuckers – no offence to c**ksuckers,’ before slating everyone from Kylie to the crowd itself and eventually getting booed off stage. ‘I remember us girls were like [cue thicker Eastenders-style cockney screech] “WHAT? Shut Up! Come on let’s take him! Warrrgh”, but the guys were just like “Everyone’s entitled to their opinion”. In the end I think the crowd spoke for itself.’
With such unstoppable energy, whether it’s on stage, in the gym or in a fight, her live PA with Ibiza favourite Rob Wilder should take the roof off The Apartment next weekend. ‘He’ll be doing a two or three hour DJ set,” she previews. “And I’ll do an hour-long PA on top of that, then start vibing over his instrumentals. We never have a plan, but we always know we’re going to have a lot of fun.’
Just don’t forget to upload your fresh YouTube footage the next day.
Pukka Up feat. Rob Wilder & Live PA from Vula, The Apartment, Thu March 13, Dhs85.