dEUS were formed more than 20 years ago in Antwerp, becoming the first Belgian indie band to sign to a major international label. They garnered international acclaim for their debut album Worst Case Scenario, which welded Tom Waits’s bar-room blues to Pavement’s off-kilter college rock. Following two more albums for Island, the band took a four-year hiatus before reconvening in 2004. Their latest effort, the impressively noirish Following Sea, follows just eight months after previous album Keep You Close. Apart from violinist/keyboardist Klaas Janzoons, frontman Tom Barman remains the band’s only constant member. He still lives and records in Antwerp.
Goedendag Tom. Most bands tend to start slowing down once they enter their third decade, whereas you’ve just released your second album in eight months. Why the haste?
Well, I guess we wanted to break the mould of our way of working. Keep You Close was quite an intimate and dramatic album but we had a couple of songs that were completely different. You can perfectly well write a sad song and a happy song in the same day, but they don’t necessarily fit on the same album. So I said: “Why don’t we just crawl out of the tour bus straight into the studio and make another one?” As an exercise, we wanted to see if we could work a little bit less meticulously and maybe gain a different spirit, something more nonchalant.
Following Sea feels markedly grittier than Keep You Close, almost as if it’s a reaction to its predecessor …
We’ve always been an eclectic band in the sense that a good song is a good song, whether it’s based on a loop or whether it’s folky or noisy rock. So going in a different direction feels natural for us. I was also fed up with singing about myself. I was getting a bit too painful. I just needed to take a sidestep, hence the different subject matter on this one.
You’ve embraced the third person to the point where some of the songs on Following Sea seem almost like pulp fiction narratives. Were you reading a lot of Raymond Chandler?
Actually a lot of them come from me reacting to the news. The Give Up Gene comes from reading about the Italian cruise ship that sank. There’s even one song in which I quote an article from your newspaper. [Hidden Wounds contains excerpts from an Erwin James’s article about the alarming numbers of ex-servicemen in prison.]
Are you the kind of songwriter who finds yourself sitting in a bar or backstage at a concert, observing people and working those observations into your songs?
Very much. But I’m not really a storyteller – unfortunately I don’t have that big an imagination. There always has to be a personal angle for me. But I do enjoy watching people. I’m obsessed with people’s mannerisms and the way they use language, and for my songs I always try to find something that goes a little bit deeper than just what I saw.
Do you have a favourite people-watching spot in Antwerp?
Well you know, we actually have a specific verb in Flemish for sitting on the terrace and having a beer, it literally translates as “doing a terrace”. And the terrace is always the perfect spot, you see life walking past. But I’m not like a voyeur or anything – I can see into people’s living rooms from where I am and that makes me very uncomfortable!
In the sleeve photos for Following Sea, you all look a lot leaner and meaner than in the picture on the back of Keep You Close. Was that a deliberate attempt to adopt a new image to go with the change in musical direction?
That’s probably because they’re unpolished, unphotoshopped tour pictures and we all look a bit rough. It’s not deliberate. Although the photographer who followed us on that particular tour is actually a film-set photographer and what I love about his work is that he’s an aesthete who can also adopt a rapid-fire guerrilla style. So you get these intimate portraits that also look quite filmic.
Why did you decide to sing in French for the first time on the album opener Quatre Mains?
I got stuck on the melody. It was a pretty dancey song with a film noir kind of feel, so I went: “Fuck this, I’m going to try it in French.” I guess I was a bit apprehensive because it’s a beautiful language that I associate with Gainsbourg or Léo Ferré, or our own Jacques Brel. But in the end, it worked.
Presumably you would have grown up bilingual?
Yes, although I refused to speak French for a long time because the people who spoke French in Antwerp were the posh ones – it was a bourgeois language to speak if you were Flemish. I could speak French but I refused to do it public, which led my mother to believe I was some kind of dimwit. It was a kind of adolescent rebellion.
Is there still a big cultural divide in Belgium between Flanders and Wallonia?
Oh, it’s huge. We don’t look at the same TV channels, we don’t read the same papers. It’s strange. dEUS were lucky in that we were accepted by the French-speaking part straight away, but I know a lot of Flemish bands whose success stops at Brussels. It’s always been this way, and it’s getting worse.
Is that a frustrating state of affairs for the average Belgian?
Of course, there’s a very sensitive issue in Brussels to do with French-speaking people who come to live in Flanders and want to have their communities speak French, and it’s quite an explosive situation. But if you’re not from Brussels, you’re like, “Come on, it can’t be that hard to live together!” Having said that, I can get pissed off with my friends from the south of Belgium who cannot speak a single word of Flemish, yet they want to learn English, or Italian. And that is sometimes infuriating, that you do not try to speak the language of the other half of the country. But that’s on a personal level – it’s never more than just a bit irritating. It’s not something that’s very important in your daily life, but the political side of it has poisoned the atmosphere in this country and people are fed up with it. They want solutions. There’s a big misconception that all Flemish people are separatists. You have a hardcore of 10 or 12% who want that, and the rest just want solutions.
So how were dEUS able to bridge the divide?
It’s more that when we started off, we were doing well in the whole of Europe. And so I just went to the French-speaking radio stations and did my interviews in French. But it’s definitely not a given that if you do well in Flanders that you’re going to do well in both sides of the country.
You’ve always stayed in Antwerp. What are the best things about living there?
You have everything that a big town has, only it feels like a village. There are great museums, there’s a fine tradition of art in the town. And it’s a port town, so I guess there’s an openness to it that I like. I’m not sure I would be the person to stay in the same place too long, but because I’m away a lot on tour, it’s always nice to come back to Antwerp.
Is there still a music scene in the city?
There used to be, but like in every town they’re completely expelling everything that reeks of rock’n’roll or nightlife out of the centre. People call the cops the moment a guitar chord is struck. All the nice pubs where we started out playing at the beginning of the 90s, they’ve disappeared. Our mayor is basically turning the town into a shopping paradise. It’s very clean. So it’s hard for young bands to find a place to play and make a noise. Obviously I’m not going out as much as I used to, but I would say there’s a rawness that has disappeared.
Do you have a window on to what’s left of the Antwerp music scene from your Vantage Point studios?
Oh yes, only the thing is, of course, the local bands always ask me when I’m in a bar and I say: “Sure you can have the studio!” So we haven’t made any money from it yet … It’s all to the credit of our violin player, Klaas, who bought this building in a rough neighbourhood in town about 10 years ago. There’s actually also a venue downstairs called the Pekfabriek, which translates as the Tarmac Factory. It’s one of the last raw, uncommercialised places where you can still have unexpected parties or gigs.
Have you spotted any promising new bands coming through Vantage Point or Pekfabriek recently?
Well, we always tend to take Belgian bands on tour with us. My favourite band at the moment are called Balthazar, who are releasing a second album in September. They’re a great live band: great singer, good songs, liquid melodies. They’re going to have a great future.
You’ve been working for the last few dEUS albums with Antwerp’s own techno pioneer CJ Bolland. How did that relationship come about?
The funny thing is we’re almost exactly the same age and our paths crossed so many times before we knew each other. We were always in different worlds but now we can really appreciate what the other is doing. He was always around in the vicinity of the studio doing his dance tracks, so now he helps us with keyboards and programming. Sometimes we have these nocturnal jams and I’m telling CJ: “There’s a really interesting part in this 20-minute jam, can you do something with it?” Then two weeks later, when I’ve completely forgotten about it, he comes back with something great. That’s the kind of relationship he has with dEUS. I also have a side-project with CJ called Magnus. We did one record in 2004 and now we’re close to finishing the follow-up. It’s much lighter and dancier than dEUS – CJ hits me with a couple of beats and then maybe I’ll compose a melody and go looking for collaborators. For me it’s the perfect excuse to work with musicians and singers outside of the group. There are a lot of great things about being part of a band but it’s also quite limiting. With a studio project, the sky’s the limit. You can have an Inuit choir over electro beats.
Sam Richards, The Guardian