909originals catches up with David and Stephen Dewaele of Soulwax/2 Many DJs
Whether rocking the stage with Soulwax, manning the ones and twos as 2 Many DJs or Despacio (with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy), or running their Ghent-based studio DEEWEE, David and Stephen Dewaele have always kept things interesting.
Remarkably, this month marked 25 years since the group’s debut album, Leave The Story Untold, and the duo have achieved more in a quarter century than most artists manage in twice that. Over the past year, while the pandemic has put touring on hold, the Dewaele brothers have put out a string of releases, either in a production or recording capacity, including an album devoted to the archaic EMS Synthi 100 synthesiser, and Foundations, a 27-strong compilation to mark DEEWEE’s 50th release milestone.
You can purchase/stream Foundations by clicking here, or on the image below.
909originals caught up with the duo to chat about the DEEWEE story so far, the enduring appeal of Belgian New Beat, the importance of avant-garde maestros The Residents, and a lot more besides.
To start off, it’s been a busy year for you so far? Obviously there has been the pandemic, but what have you been up to?
Stephen: We were lucky, in that before the lockdown actually happened, we were already working on a project – I can’t tell you what it is yet, but it’s something that we’ve been working on for a long time. So we were busy for the first few months.
I guess, in time, we decided that instead of taking the same approach as everyone else, waiting to release stuff but saying ‘this isn’t the year, people aren’t going out’, we were kind of thinking it was an amazing time for DEEWEE. So why don’t we release the EMS Synthi 100 record, why don’t we release things that we’ve been working on and just see what happens.
I remember a lot of people wondering whether anybody was going to buy a record about a synthesiser, which came with a book, but then it went amazingly. People were like, ‘this is exactly what I needed’.
So, the pandemic has enabled us to finish off a lot of things that were lying around. It’s also the first time, for a whole year, that we’ve been in one place – in a studio – without travelling. We’ve been super productive. The counterpoint to that is that everyone knows that we are in the studio, so there’s no hiding for us.
Let’s talk about Foundations – the title would indicate that while you’re 50 releases into DEEWEE now, this is only the first chapter in what’s going to be a long adventure?
David: We don’t have a preconceived plan of how long, or how intense it will be, but reaching 50 releases doesn’t feel like it’s the end of anything – it feels like the beginning. The label has grown gradually over the last few years and this feels like a good point to put down a marker and say ‘this is where we are now’.
That is sort of freeing, creatively, as well, because after this it will be cool to make stuff that’s a bit different to what is on Foundations.
One of the things that struck me about the DEEWEE output so far is that it kind of sounds like ‘New Beat for the 21st century’ or something like that. It’s got that ‘The Sound of Belgium’ sensibility about it – not just because you are in Ghent, but also in terms of the tempo, the blend of electronic and real instruments. Is that accurate?
Stephen: I guess we were always really interested in in what you might call the ‘New Beat’ sound, or the ‘Belgian sound’. We always wondered where it came from, where does it originate from? We understand, socially at least, where it comes from, because we live in this town.
For example, we’ve known [R&S Records boss] Renaat Vandepapeliere our whole lives, we know which record store he used to work in, he was a big friend of my dad’s. We used to have the R&S carpet here, which used to be in their offices. So that was always close to us.
But I think that when David and me started making music, we sort of pushed ourselves away from that, because everyone was making dance music. Everybody at the time wanted to be Front 242 or something like that, but we said that with Soulwax, we’re going to make rock music, with guitars and Hammond organs and things like that.
When we started DEEWEE, the reference to the New Beat is a valid point. I think there was certainly an aspect of rediscovering that sound. It wasn’t just a Belgium thing, it was happening in Italy and in Ibiza before the Brits came. There was a whole thing going on, in electronic music, new wave, and synth pop, that enabled it to evolve into acid house and find a really cool place.
Belgium is such a small place and Ghent is a crucial part of that. We’re at the crossroads for a lot of things. Going back to Renaat, people say he’s a visionary, and we always have to explain that yes, he is a special character, but he was also very smart, because when he worked in a record store, and an American import came in, you would have people travelling from France or Germany to get it. He realised that if you had 20 vinyls, but there was demand for 200, he could press them up himself and didn’t have to wait another three or four months for the next box of American imports to arrive.
There was that aesthetic of ‘taking something very quickly and putting it down’, and playing it out, and Ghent was one of those places where you had the perfect grounds for it to happen.
So with DEEWEE, you want to be more spontaneous?
Stephen: Yes. It was like when we started DJing, we would make mixes out of boredom, because we were bored while playing the NME Tour or whatever it was. And then these mixes would be played on the radio, and you would have people coming into Rough Trade and places like that and saying ‘I heard this mix, where can I buy it?’ We realised then, ‘wow, how fast does this go?’
David, you were talking about laying down a marker, and that whatever comes afterwards might be different? So you are evolving with the times, in a way?
David.It’s not like we’re going to make a drum and bass album. But we might [laughs] . It’s more the case that you can work on an album for a year, and once that’s done and out, it’s cathartic. It’s out of your system, it‘frees you up’, in a way.
With DEEWEE there’s kind of a consistent, coherent sound, and that’s probably just because it all comes through us and this mixing desk. I think, what would be nice, is to expand on it – not to radically change it, because we love the sound – but to get away from making tracks just so we can DJ them out.
Before we built the studio, we were making tracks to play out at the weekend, but then with DEEWEE, we were making music that wasn’t solely for this purpose. It was liberating in a way.
It’s interesting you say that, because obviously nobody has been ‘playing anything out’ over the past year. So you’re a couple of years ahead of the game in terms of making ‘dance music for home listening’?
Stephen: It’s been a very weird year. We’ve done a couple of remixes, and when a lot people ask us to put remixes together for them, it has a functionality – so that people can dance to them. So with something like the Fontaines D.C remix (of A Hero’s Death), it’s for the dancefloor, and of course when we get back to playing in a club, we will play it. But we’re in a different time at the moment.
Actually, with one of the remixes we’ve just done, the only reason we did it is with the idea that we will be able to play it at Despacio in a year from now. We are projecting it onto something – we have a reference point to go to. That’s been really helpful for us.
It’s a very stylish label, and you’re obviously committed to using analogue equipment and things like that. It seems like you’re trying to create an identity for the label, almost like a Factory Records or KlingKlang Studios?
Stephen: They are both amazing references! The only thing is with Factory Records, we hope we’re not as good as them at losing money.
You’re cultivating local artists as well – that’s a big part of it?
Stephen: With Factory, you would have had Martin Hannett as the in-house engineer, and I guess we have myself and David as the in-house engineers here. But it goes further than that; it’s about people coming here, and the interaction we are able to have with them.
We wanted to have a place where people could come along and experiment, and feel free to make mistakes. Because, today, as a young artist, the first time you come up with something, it has to be amazing – boom! We came from a time when we were trying things out at gigs, and they weren’t always 100%, but nobody would hold it against us. Nobody was recording things and putting them on the internet, and getting immediate criticism.
I feel that now, there’s a lot of external pressure on artists and young people, and I feel with the studio, we wanted to try to make a space where people could try things without having pressure from outside.
A lot of music that comes out these days is very commercially minded and overproduced – and then you have something like the EMS Synthi 100 album, which is completely the opposite, stripping things down to one synth. Was that a reaction, in a way, to the overproduced nature of the music industry, or what was the concept there?
David: I don’t think it was a reaction against things being overproduced, but there are certain things that Stephen and I tend to gravitate towards when it comes to music. You mentioned Factory Records, and with that label, there were a lot of contradictions, and things that didn’t really make sense. We’ve always been attracted to those contradictions, and things that don’t really feel like they fit in anywhere. That’s something we want to try to create when we make music here.
With a lot of stuff that’s around now, it’s not that it’s overproduced, it’s more that it feels very ‘safe’. With something like the EMS Synthi record, there were going to be mistakes, because it’s an old machine – it’s not perfect. If we replicated it on a computer, it wouldn’t have any imperfections, and it’s the imperfections that interest us.
It’s interesting you say that. I just bought tickets to see The Residents, who are playing in Dublin for the first time next February. A band like that would never be as big these days, there’s too much experimentation going on?
Stephen: We’re really big fans of The Residents! We’ve always loved the aesthetic of hiding behind the eyeballs, and what they did with the Commercial Album. Actually, one of the artists that is here on DEEWEE, Bolus Pupil, his dad is an avant-garde cartoonist, and he’s grown up with The Residents. For him, listening to The Residents is like other people listening to Abba, and he has a musical language that’s been guided by stuff like The Residents.
Even with tracks like Kaw Liga – it’s avant garde, but you can play it at a festival to 6,000 people. I remember when David and me put it on the 2 Many DJs album, when we were clearing the tracks, we got an email back from them and they said that we could use it, but only if we provided copies of the album for their fan base.
David: They told us, ‘we need 100 CDs so we can give them to our fans,’ which was pretty amazing.
Stephen: Sometimes, in popular culture, you have these accidents – okay, maybe not accidents – but these cultural shifts, in which the worlds of the mainstream and underground come to the surface and become the norm. Acid house is an example of that.
This month marked the 25th anniversary of Leave The Story Untold, which is where it all started for Soulwax. A lot of other groups would have stuck to the same formula over the years, but it’s sort of like the Soulwax story has been a series of chapters. 2 Many DJs was a chapter, Nite Versions was a chapter, and obviously there’s been some intermixing. Obviously it’s been important to you to keep changing the formula as you go along?
David: Yes, because one thing that we learnt very early on, in the late 90s early 2000s, that in the music industry, there was a ‘mould’ you had to fit in to. You had to do a video for MTV, and you had to play NME Tours, and all this stuff. It was like a straight jacket to us at times.
Early on, we learned – by mistake I think – that if we were really excited by something it would eventually lead to success, even if it didn’t seem to have any immediate path to success. So around 15 years ago we said maybe we should just focus on things that we think are fun and exciting. That’s the currency. It’s not a case of ‘where you fit into an existing world’, it’s a case of where can you do the stuff that you are excited about. That’s also the stuff that lasts longer.
Perhaps its one of the reasons why we have a longer trajectory, because we’re always going for the things that excite us, musically.
There was a bit of a gap, of six or seven years, between the end of Nite Versions and the start of DEEWEE. What were you doing during that time, did you need a ‘career reset’?
Stephen: I think at around that time, we started working on the Radio Soulwax app, and that took a lot of time; also we were DJing a lot, and travelling the world. Also, we started building the studio, which took three or four years.
David: Nite Versions came out in 2005, and ended up having a really long life, until around 2009, with Part Of The Weekend Never Dies. Then we started DJing with visuals, and that lasted until around 2012/2013, which is when we started to build the studio.
Stephen: These things kind of overlapped. It wasn’t like we took time off – ok, we took time off with the band, I guess. People were asking ‘when are you going to do another Soulwax record‘, and once the studio was ready, I think we were ready.
As soon as we put the mixing desk in, we got the offer to do the Belgica soundtrack, and then people started coming to us to ask ‘hey, could we record our punk band here?‘. There were all these ideas, and that was the impetus for us to say ok, let’s go. When we started to put together Foundations, we couldn’t believe it had been five years already, it feels like it has gone so fast.
You mentioned Despacio a while back. That was one of my top clubbing experiences of the past decade I reckon. I saw it at Electric Picnic – Blur were playing the main stage, but I wasn’t really feeling it, so I headed into Despacio for a few hours while it was quite quiet. It was incredible.
Stephen:That was a really amazing one, because it was a bit chilly outside, and we had asked our friends in Ireland if we could do a barbecue outside the tent. They had brought in all this really amazing food, and I remember we were coming in and going out of the tent to eat barbecue. We loved it, we had a really good time at that one, and I think James [Murphy] did as well.
We were going to do four or five Despacio shows last year, we were going to do New York and LA, we were going to do Sonar. These things didn’t happen, but hopefully they will next year – as I said earlier, we’re already making mixes to play at it.
One of your current projects is DEEWEE TEEVEE, what’s that about?
David: Over the past five years, we haven’t really opened the door here. It’s been a very closed off environment, and sort of a hideaway. I think with the pandemic, and the compilation coming out, and the fact that there have been no parties, we wanted to shine a light on some of the things that were coming out, and do it in our own way.
I don’t think we’ve been particularly excited about doing livestreams of things like that over the past year – DEEWEE TEEVEE is kind of like our version of it.
So if the pandemic hadn’t have happened, we would have seen DEEWEE tours and things like that?
Stephen: Before the pandemic, we were doing these DEEWEE Nights – small gigs where the invite was a t-shirt that you had to wear on the night. We did them in Belgium, in Paris, and it allowed us to put artists like Charlotte Adigéry on. It was the kind of night that we could do whatever the f**k we wanted.
We would really put some thought into it – we had a special sound system for it. It wouldn’t have worked for 1,500 or 2,000 people, it was the sort of thing where you would have 300 or 400 people, and talk and get to know people.
Lastly, 2 Many DJs is around 20 years old now. Has it reached the end of its lifespan, do you think; is there anything else you can do with it? Obviously from a money spinning point of view, it’s a good revenue earner.
Stephen: It has never run its course, because it was never supposed to ‘be’, in a way. Even if 2 Many DJs had never happened, there would still have been parties at which myself and David would be DJing. We’ve never been the guys that danced, we were the ones that made music for other people to dance to.
I guess with 2 many DJs, I don’t think it will ever run its course. We’ll keep doing it, maybe the size of it will change. For a lot of people, it’s sort of this ‘legendary thing’. We still get a lot of offers in, and financially for us, it’s been amazing, as you say. Thanks to 2 Many DJs, we can do things like the Synthi record, and we can play in Ibiza or some weird festival in the middle of Europe.
With 2 Many DJs, you can play Fontaines D.C. to some mad Spanish techno heads, and they will be like ‘what the f**k was that?’
[Thanks to David and Stephen for taking to us. Foundations is out now, and can be purchased here. Main photo by Rob Walbers]
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