How a Bunch of Belgian Teens Rewired Techno

The link between industrial and Belgian techno were the sounds. Acid house was a great in-between for those two things. It had more of a disco-y four-to-the-floor beat that was much straighter and better to dance to, but it still had those dirty sounds, which came from the Roland TB-303. Same thing when you listen to early Nitzer Ebb; it’s techno made before the genre existed, we just didn’t call it techno then. There are lots of cross over things going on rhythmically between industrial and techno, but the reason I started making a fairly hard style of techno was because I was inspired by those really dirty, crunchy noises you heard in industrial. That’s what tied it all together.

It was us kids who were going out to see industrial music when we were 13, 14, 15 who really started the Belgian techno scene. I don’t think a lot of those old school boys like Patrick [Codenys] got really involved in techno. It was the next generation. In Belgium, we took techno and made it harder. What was coming out of Detroit was funky, clever and intelligent. We grabbed all of it and added our dirtier touch. From day one, Belgian crowds were into techno. Actually, they went apeshit. I will never forget hearing my very first release on R&S records in Boccaccio. It was called “Do That Dance” and it had a big looped guitar sound from Joan Jett’s “I Love Rock and Roll.” Frank De Wulf sampled it on “Acid Rock” and I nicked it with my sampler and made it longer. It just had this sound going on the whole time, and the place went mental. It was pretty instant because it just smacked you right in the face.

The sound was so big, people were excited and it soon went abroad. People picked up on it. Germany was pretty much the first. I wouldn’t like to say anybody was before anyone else, it just felt like it was happening in Belgium before anyone else got it. At the time, I had about 20 aliases, and we would release at least one record a week. That’s two or three tracks on a 12-inch. But we were kids. We didn’t go to bed, we worked. The best part was on Sunday nights when we’d be working in the studio until four or five in the morning and then we’d bring our tapes to the club, stick it on the reel-to-reel, play it and see how high people jumped. If they didn’t jump high enough we’d head on back to the studio and tweak it a couple more times, take it back to the club to test it again and say, “Yup, this is good, you can press this one tomorrow.”

The music didn’t require huge amounts of production and attention. It was basically find one good element, slap a beat around it, see how long you want to dance to that part and then stick it on a piece of vinyl. That’s how simple the music was back then, not that it’s that much different now. But we took it very seriously. I wouldn’t have released anything I wasn’t behind. Although when I listen to some of that older stuff now I doubt that a little. But at the time I thought, “This is tough, this is how I want it to sound.” There was definitely quality control; it was just the music in itself that was basic. It didn’t require a high level of attention. We didn’t even use compressors. You couldn’t imagine that nowadays. You couldn’t imagine that ten years before and you can’t imagine it now, but for some reason it suddenly didn’t seem to matter anymore.

But as simple as the tunes were back then they were still distinct, and you could tell them all apart. That’s a problem with techno nowadays because let’s be honest: a lot of it sounds exactly the same. Back then a track had it’s own little gimmick, it’s own little sound, something that made it that track, even if it was a silly little vocal sample. You could tell them apart. People would recognize it after one listen. Of course, there was a lot of sampling. People were always pinching each other’s sounds. I remember an interview with 808 State where they talked about how influenced they were by what was coming out of Belgium. Every record that would come from here they’d buy without even listening, take it home and sample the hell out of it.

R&S was my first record deal. For me it opened all the doors. Suddenly I had this studio I could work in with more gear then I could possibly dream to afford. Also, it brought me together with a lot of people. It was Renaat [Vandepapeliere, R&S label owner] who introduced me to Dave Angel, Richard D. James, all these artists whose music he was licensing from abroad and then flying here to hang out in the studio. It was like a whole big family. We’d fly in Jeff Mills, Juan Atkins, Dave Clarke, Mark Spoon, Laurent Garnier…I mean, I would have met these people in clubs at some stage but it all happened quite early on and you were meeting them outside of the club in the studio where you can have a proper chat about things. It brought a lot of people together. On the one hand you had Belgians dancing to new beat at 110 BPM in their clogs versus these guys from Detroit doing this crazy shit. I knew where I was going.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine and the interviews were conducted by A.J. Samuels. Read part one, part two and part three and part four of the 72 Hours in Antwerp feature. All photos by Elena Panouli.

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Front 242 Pioneer Describes the Early Days of New Beat

Belgium is a sort of cross on a battlefield. Also, the “capital” of the European Union is here. There are the highways, too, and apart from flows of traffic, these were also the media highways in the early ’80s that were very interesting for sampling. We were among the first ones to have TV channels from all over Europe, and that shouldn’t be underestimated in terms of importance. See, I like Anglo-Saxon music, I like reggae music too, but I’m not a Rasta guy, I’m not American, I’m not English. So although I appreciate that stuff, I don’t really feel it.

In my opinion, you look for what you have inside. We called our style “electronic body music” because the body is also the brain. It’s not only about groove, swinging and dancing. It’s enjoyable but it’s also mental. Our body is also a great instrument that uses the senses. I think when you work with a machine you create an interface between yourself and the machine. I could symbolize this by a big arrow from the machine to you and you to the machine. You try to understand and manipulate the machine and try to get something out of it. The machine is giving it back to you.

In the early days the interface was very tough, very difficult, very mathematical, very hostile to the human body. The body needed to make an effort intellectually and emotionally to create. At the time, this notion of interface, to imaginatively manipulate the machine, was extremely complicated, mainly because there was no aesthetic for it but also because the manuals for those machines were terrible. It was a fight all the time. The notion of the body was important for us, especially live because we were one of the rare electronic bands that had a very physical presence, like D.A.F., for example. It’s not like Kraftwerk with some guy standing still behind the machines.

When I was 18 I would go to a club called Cinderella in Antwerp. It was an amazing place with a David Lynch atmosphere. This was the club that would have all the transvestites from the red light district arrive at two, three o’clock in the morning. There was leopard print on the walls, velvet couches and they’d play only glam rock like Roxy Music and Bowie. Eventually it switched to post punk and new wave, and during that time Antwerp’s fashion designers haunted the club. You could tell that the spirit of these people was feeding from those musical genres. I was going out to Antwerp because it always was a city where there was a lot of fun, a lot of clubs, a lot of animation. It was a city that would live until six in the morning, no problem. So there has always been a sort of dance culture, a night culture in Antwerp.

However, when we were starting out, electronic bands at the time were kind of meek—ABC, Spandau Ballet types. And other electronic bands that were successful like Depeche Mode were kind of quiet on stage. There was no muscle behind electronic music, although you could easily put distortion on synthesizers and have really tough sounds. When you listen to industrial music it’s very tough. So we wanted to force things with the military outfits for instance, and try to make a break through. People could identify with us more easily because that army gear was cheap and easy to buy.

Regarding the press, you will not find a lot of positive reviews of Front 242 between ’81 and ’85. Most people hated us. But generally in the early ’80s there were many Belgian bands and interesting things happening in Belgium, so Swedish, French and Spanish people would come to Antwerp and Brussels to look for records and buy stuff, the same way you would go to Kings Road in London to buy your punk items.

But when new beat DJs started out, they would take a 242 track and play it very slow, so it was flattering in a way. It’s also a different way to listen to your music. Now it’s true that compared to what we were planning on doing in our lives, regarding electronic music and research and trying to find sounds and directions or structures, new beat was a quick artistic approach because the productions were made in a day. We would take two years to make an album.

It was a different world, but I enjoyed it very much. Nights at the Boccaccio in Ghent were a blast. What I like is that it goes to the primal core of the electronic music genre. New beat is leisure. It’s fun. But we never collaborated with new beat artists. We never changed our style of music because of it; we wanted to keep our integrity since the first day. See, if you take the English language, it’s based on consonants like, t, k, p; that’s why it’s more rhythmic. French for instance is based on vowels. It’s more poetic and lyrical. That’s why you have those Italian and French songs that are more melodic and you have English songs that are more rhythmic. But it’s all mixed here. You take what you want.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine and was compiled by A.J. Samuels. Read part one, part two and part three of the 72 Hours in Antwerp feature. All photos by Elena Panouli.

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A New Beat History Lesson From Record Shop USA Imports

A few months ago we revealed the first monologue from the five-part 72 Hours in Antwerp magazine feature, a Belgian history lesson from techno producer Peter Van Hoesen, and this week we’ll roll out the remaining parts one at a time.  This installment features an interview with the Pascual family, who are pictured in the photo above; going clockwise from the top, its members are José, Frie, Daphne, baby Lucien and Nikolai. José and Frie founded the influential new beat and Belgian techno record shop and studio USA Imports, and the family is also responsible for the printed slipmat. If you owned a slipmat with graphics in the ’90s, dollars to donuts they printed it.

Frie: José and I met partying on the Belgian coast. Every weekend we would meet there—he came from the south of Belgium, and I came from Antwerp. I remember he was leaving one discotheque and going to another called Groove. He and his friends turned around and followed us. We were going to a lot of soul and jazzy soul parties in Ostend, where we danced the jive, which was fun to watch. The music was all about totally obscure jazz, R&B and funk records, and around 1969, the club Popcorn opened, where they played similarly hard to find soul records but which were slowed down to be a bit sludgier, so everybody could dance together. It was slower than rock, more like northern soul in the U.K. But popcorn was the first genre to properly slow records down. This goes from the late ’60s to the early ’70s. All of the records were hard to find and all the artists were American: Billy Butler, Motown, jazz instrumentals like Horace Silver’s “Song for My Father.” Then it branched into cha-cha-cha, which the DJs also always slowed down. Of course they also hid the labels, so nobody would know what the tracks were. It was incredible.

That’s when the record stores sold vinyl by auction. When José and I became a couple, we would buy lots of rare records, and that’s when we decided to open our shop. But in the French-speaking part of Belgium, they didn’t play American or British records, which is why José and his friends came to Antwerp—to listen to those records, James Brown and all that stuff. Back then he didn’t know any of the record titles—I knew all the titles! But once we started the record shop, José would go into the clubs with all of his records and sell them to DJs as special “USA imports.” And the name stuck to our shop, which we opened in 1973 in Antwerp, so José and I could live together.

This was also the beginning of the popularity of Barry White, whose records we had exclusively in Antwerp because we bought them from the U.S. At some point there was a strong overlap between popcorn and disco as club music, so that’s also what we sold. Every week all of the owners of the discotheques in the city came to the shop bringing gin, whisky and orange juice. We had really big speakers, I mean really big, and it was as loud as a disco in the store. It was a party everyday, and this made us very popular. But an important development for us was the first 12-inch. There was lots of publicity for the better sound quality and what it can do for your speakers. The Salsoul label always put on the label, “Warning! This song can blow your speakers.”

José: At the time, all of our contact with foreign labels was done on the phone. They would literally play the record into the receiver: “Groove one? OK, I’ll take 35 of those. The second track? No, I’ll pass.” Our phone bill was 100,000 Belgian francs! This was 40 years ago, so we’re talking around 2000 euro. Because our specialty was dance music from the very beginning, we played a central role in new beat, both selling records and producing them ourselves. The music we started selling became electronic around the time of Kraftwerk, although before that I would also consider Pierre Henry to have played an important role. We sold all of his EMI records. When the DJs started to play it, we sold everything. Human League’s “Being Boiled” was an important one. The bass sound in the beginning worked perfect with the lasers in the club.

Daphne: But electronic dance music was a bit after. I would say it started with Front 242. That was an important foundation.

Frie: But with new beat, like with popcorn, it was all about looking for rare records that nobody could find. Max Berlin? You couldn’t find it! And here in Antwerp there was the discotheque AB—Ancienne Belgique— where Dikke Ronny was DJing on Sunday. And all the DJs from Ghent and Brussels came to see what he was playing. We knew what he was playing from other clients, so we were lucky. It all started in Antwerp, even though people from Ghent might tell you otherwise. Of course, one of the most important discotheques for new beat, Boccaccio, was in Ghent. But that was later.

José: The big time was Saturday. It was impossible to come into the shop because it was completely full. People would line up waiting in the street with food and alcohol.

Nikolai: There is the classic story of how new beat started, how DJs played 45 rpm records at 33 rpm and pitched up +8 on the turntable. That was Dikke Ronny. What people don’t know is that it was an error. He was too fucked up, and that’s why it was too slow. True story!

Frie: We preferred the beginning period of new beat because later, for me, it became too commercial. New beat in the beginning was mainly instrumental tracks, not like the productions they made later on Antler House. Those labels made thousands upon thousands of productions. We sold it because the people wanted it. It’s what was being played in the discotheques. It started in Antwerp, went commercial in Ghent and it then came back to Antwerp to die. So you see what was really going on.

José: With new beat it was that classic combination; you have the music, the artist, the look and the dance. It was the same with rock and roll, the same formula as Elvis and punk.

Nikolai: The clothes were a big part. People were wearing bomber jackets with these patches stitched on of cemeteries and tombs or old pictures of their grandmother, sepia tinted images of old people dancing. Ecstasy was the main drug. Huge tablets of ecstasy. They would steal the emblems off of BMWs and Mercedes and wear them as necklaces. Also they would bring suitcases to the club, like silver Samsonites. And they’d dance with a suitcase.

José: Cocaine used to come in from Studio 54 in New York. Two or three people risked the journey every week to fly there. Also they would come back to the shop on a Monday with cassette recordings taken from New York radio. For me this was fantastic because these tapes would include promotional copies of brand new records that we couldn’t hear otherwise in Belgium. I’d catch these tracks one month before the release; so every day these cassettes arrived I’d be phoning New York to order them.

It’s not uncommon in Antwerp for entire families to do back-to-school shopping at Raf Simons’ pop-up shop.

Frie: There was always a lot of sexuality in the music but some of the new beat labels really pushed it. All the young people followed it and over time the crowd got younger and younger. So there were all these DJs who helped start new beat but when it became too commercial they naturally moved on to something else. And they automatically came to techno, gabber, hardcore, and especially terrorcore.

Nikolai: There again, the same thing: the Nike Air Max, the bombers, the certain styles of dance. The entire package of the looks, music and dancing was part of those genres too. There were certain class distinctions between them. Terror was like the intellectual alternative to gabber; it was for the really weird ones that needed this extreme music to get calm. The dress code of hardcore techno from our point of view as a 17-year-old child was like…

Daphne: …white, working-class, suburban. These scenes were a way of life for people. There were these huge parties for terror music. There would be 10,000 people wearing the same clothes doing the same dance. In a way it was beautiful to see. You had the DJ on the stage; he was like the god, and all the people were dancing the same dance toward the DJ. It was rave but more…uniform. See, at first the DJ was a small thing, unknown. Then he was on a stage with fire and lasers.

The early ’90s was a crazy time in Belgium. You had these extreme new styles and trance, but remember that this is also the same time as Nirvana. Growing up in a record store was pretty specific, but for us it was normal. I was a kid or an early teenager and you had all those colorful people around. Those beautiful guys also! All of the DJs, they looked beautiful. We came back from school to this. See, we listened to electronic music as kids, but I had a period as a teenager where I listened to grunge. There was a time when I was into rock music because I wanted to rebel against the techno music of my parents!

Frie: We came home late when the shop closed at 7:00 p.m. and then we would eat together. Afterwards, we’d watch television or something.

Daphne: Or we would listen to tracks Frie and José were going to release over and over again—CJ Bolland, Pink Poodle, Christ of Noise. Though in the beginning, it was new beat artists like Confetti’s, Max Berlin…

Frie: Yes, because we ran a recording studio also, out the back of the shop. But years passed, things changed and the record store closed in 2009.

Nikolai: The Internet didn’t kill it but the fun went out of running the store. Then there was the rise of CDs and later MP3s. So I said, “It’s normal that this is happening, I’m not going to fight it because it’s impossible.” I would be stupid to tell DJs, “Guys, you have to keep buying vinyl!” They pay ten euro for a record and they only play one track off it. So why not pay 99 cents?

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine. To read more from this issue, click here, and click here to read Part 1 of 72 Hours in Antwerp, which features a lesson in Belgian history from techno producer Peter Van Hoesen. All photos by Elena Panouli.

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Inside the New Beat Documentary <i>The Sound of Belgium</i>

In Belgium, we’re not very proud of our own culture, so why would you make a movie about our electronic music? Because the only original music that came of Belgium was electronic music. If you didn’t live that scene, you don’t realize its importance. And in Belgium things are different, which is an important aspect of my documentary, The Sound of Belgium. You see, in most societies, if you want to go to the most famous clubs you go to the capital, and after that probably to the center of town. Most of our clubs were in the middle of nowhere.

Also, years before electronic music even existed, people in Belgium were dancing to mechanical, automated sounds. For days on end. There is a small town at crossing highways where roads from Antwerp to Germany and Brussels to Holland all meet called Zandhoven. Along these roads there were six or seven huge spots for people to stop and have a snack and a drink. And all of them had a loud, powerful self-playing organ.

Now, the organs produce an analog sound, but it’s digital music: There’s paper—music roll—being fed into the machine, and if you look at the early versions of Cubase, it looks exactly the same. So there was already this tradition of dancing to the straight synchronized beat of these organs, which I would argue is a very subconscious influence, this very measured organ beat. And it’s important to make this connection, whether you like organ music or not, because EBM, new beat and techno—all of this followed from this mechanized tradition, and it’s unique to Belgium. Most of the dance halls also stayed open the whole week and throughout the whole weekend.

It was a prosperous time in the ’50s, and people had money to spend. And it was the beginning of the notion of partying to mechanized music kind of endlessly. This was the ’50s, mind you. And back then a record player was not loud enough for a crowd of dancers. But these organs were loud. Most other documentaries about electronic music were from a very British perspective but they don’t have a clue about what happened next door in Belgium, and I don’t blame them. New beat happened 20, 25 years ago and still no one had made a documentary about it. I haven’t even found a book. The first decent piece of writing that was written about it was done by an Englishman, Bill Brewster in Last Night a DJ Saved My Life, and the new beat story is in the same chapter as Ibiza.

Years ago Ibiza and Belgium were pretty similar. It was the same blend of music and the same desire for a mixture. Except the only difference is in the Ibiza music you hear the sunshine and in Belgian music you hear the rain. And even though no one seems to talk about new beat, it has influenced the world in ways you wouldn’t expect. I took a trip to Mexico and when I went record digging, three-quarters of the electronic music I found there was Belgian new beat! Also, I remember in the early stages of researching for the movie, I watched a documentary about British jungle music. There was one famous DJ, Fabio I believe, who was saying, “We started making this jungle because we were fed up with being conquered by the Belgian stuff.”

And in the early ’90s, UK music was all Belgian stabs with the big beats. The English just started copying these sounds. Take the label XL Recordings: their first records are reissues of Belgian tracks. If you listen to the first Prodigy tracks the Belgian influence is obvious. Like, “Charlie” for instance. The only thing is that there’s something different in their way of chopping up the breakbeats, and Belgian music is somewhat more militaristic, like EBM—which comes from music and national history. The point is that music doesn’t change by itself. Society and technology change music. Self-playing organs and new highways connecting roadside dancehalls; these were the main ingredients to our electronic music and dance culture.

This article originally appeared in the Winter 2014/2015 issue of Electronic Beats Magazine and was compiled by A.J. Samuels. Read part one and part two of the 72 Hours in Antwerp feature. All photos by Elena Panouli.

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