Home entertainment: Faithless


Faithless are a band fuelled by contradictions. They make dance music, a genre that is by nature hedonistic, but fill their songs with portentous messages about the fate of humanity. Rollo Armstrong, the band's founder and brother of Dido, is a philosophy graduate who discovered banging house music with his friend Judge Jules while at University College School in Hampstead, London.

Ayalah "Sister Bliss" Bentovim is a former child piano prodigy who is now one of the most successful female DJs in the world. Rapper Max "Maxi Jazz" Frazer is a practising Buddhist with a rather non-spiritual weakness for sports cars, although he has named his prize Ford Escort the Lotus Room.

The band seem to reflect the contradictions of the ecstasy generation itself: of feeling a profound compassion for all humanity in a field at three in the morning, and then discovering that, as soon as the chemicals wear off, so does the profound compassion. Faithless's reaction to this dilemma has been to throw in a suggestion of depth to their anthemic dance music that, while unlikely to make the world's leaders lay down their nukes and join hands in peace, has turned out to be a commercial masterstroke. Their new album No Roots received a critical mauling shortly before going straight to number one.

The contradictions continue at Frazer's house in south London, which is surprisingly modest considering the huge popularity of his band, and Frazer and Bentovim reveal themselves to be a far nicer pair than many of their more critically lauded contemporaries. (Armstrong keeps away from doing interviews.)

Frazer, a former pirate radio DJ and hip-hop artist with a deep love of the Australian primeval rockers AC/DC ("It's the riffs"), brings us a glass of champagne with a juniper berries as a gesture of welcome. He likes the Californian hippy rock band Little Feat as much as he does Grandmaster Flash or De La Soul, and as he nods his head to Little Feat's Feat Don't Fail Me Now in his chaotic basement studio, Bentovim expresses dismay at his unpredictable tastes.

"Little Feat remind me of a pig roast I went to in America," she says. "I danced with a boy who was really into the Grateful Dead, and the pig's head was the main focus of the party. That pretty much summed up the experience. AC/DC are too much for me as well, although I do like Led Zeppelin. Max is also a great fan of Todd Rundgren." "He's wicked," says Frazer of the American singer-songwriter. "He has bass lines that create their own melody, which is how reggae is structured. If you can make the bass line into a melody you are on your way to heaven."

Bentovim remains far more rooted in the music she discovered in the late 1980s; what she calls "acid house with strange, otherworldly soundscapes, sine waves and squelchy bass notes." Her musical education, prior to that, came from an eccentric aunt who travelled around the country to introduce music to children by playing the theme tunes from The Pink Panther and Dallas with her band, then encouraging the children to learn instruments themselves. "I was in her show when Miss Piggy came to conduct the orchestra," remembers Bentovim. "She's amazing - she got an MBE for her work - and a lot of people have come up to me to say how much my aunt inspired them when they were young. One famous DJ told me that it was because of her that he stopped robbing cars."

Frazer and Bentovim can agree on the music that has inspired Faithless: reggae, hip-hop, and house. "I've grown up with reggae, which tells you what to do and how to think in certain situations," says Frazer. "My mum and dad used to play a lot of ska and calypso - Desmond Dekker and the Mighty Sparrow were the two important ones. Hip-hop does the same thing; people talk about their lives through the music."

The power of music was recently revealed to Frazer when he saw an acoustic set by the great American soul singer Bobby Womack. "That was one of the greatest things I have ever seen," he says. "It was moving and beautiful, and his song Across 110th Street is the essence of soul: you can take a subject that is difficult and fraught with horror and make a lovely song out of it, because sadness shared becomes a wonderful thing. By the same token, me and my mum have always had a thing about Tom Jones. If I have 25% of the sex that that man has had I will be doing well."

Alongside Sign o' the Times by Prince and the debut album by the Stone Roses, Bentovim cites David Bowie's Hunky Dory as one of her most important albums. "It was a revelation to me when I was growing up because it's so full and whole. It's not really futuristic or otherworldly, unlike a lot of his albums, and he was young, he had just had a kid, and it sounds so fresh. That ran parallel with my love of Adam and the Ants, who were quite raw and dark, and he was talking about sex, which to my adolescent ears was pretty revolutionary."

Frazer puts on a hip-hop record by a New York producer called the Mad Professor to illustrate what it is that makes him want to do what he does. "I was DJing at a night my friend had put on when three rappers came on to find that their backing tape wasn't working. To their eternal credit, after three or four times of trying to get it to work, they did the track a capella. So they started rapping and I thought, 'This sounds about 88,89 beats per minute', and I played this record underneath their voices. If I live to be 150 years old, I will never feel more gratitude than what I felt from those three boys that night. That meant more to me than anything else I have done so far."


Interview by Will Hodgkinson

The GuardianTramp

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