'We wanted to avoid just making a normal record again or being just a normal band'
Twelve years. Three live drummers. One continuous take. Soulwax’s recent return after a long absence demands more than a few key numbers, but in the same urgent spirit of the way their latest album ‘From Deewee’ was recorded, it seems pertinent to get to the point quickly because Stephen and David Dewaele aren’t wasting time.
Frustrated with the slow mechanics of the industry, and the months-long process of writing, recording, planning and then waiting for a release date set way in advance, the Dewaele’s holed up in their Deewee, Belgium, studio with three drummers (Igor Cavalera, Victoria Smith, Blake Davies) and a few other bandmates to record eighteen continuous takes of ‘From Deewee”s twelve tracks before mixing one song a day in an aggressive countdown towards a mastering date they’d wilfully locked in to remove any distraction.
Taken from concept to completion in just a few weeks, it was the truest test of the instinctive impudence that’s driven two decades of the Dewaele brothers bouncing between studio albums, remixes, soundtracks and soundsystems. The Soulwax name has come to mean different things to different people over the years (despite the brother’s clear-eyed insistence otherwise) but for those who’ve been around long enough to watch the genesis of a Ghent rock band with electronic ideas evolve into all-conquering purveyors of weekends that never die, the impatience and inventiveness behind ‘From Deewee’ is exactly the kind of happy defiance we’ve come to expect from a band incapable of colouring inside the lines.
With the album on the shelves and the self-imposed deadlines just about behind them, Stephen Dewaele reflects on how ‘From Deewee’ came to pass much more quickly than Soulwax’s twelve-year hiatus.
It’s been a long time since the last Soulwax record. Why now?
“We wanted to avoid just making a normal record again or being just a normal band. And by a normal band I mean making a record, releasing it, going on tour…everything that comes with that big, slow system. Dave and I never really felt part of that because we were also DJing, producing or doing other stuff like building Despacio [a 50,000-watt sound system with DFA Records’ James Murphy], working on the Radio Soulwax app, doing remixes and playing every weekend.
So, we were doing Despacio at Coachella and had a lot of offers to play as Soulwax that summer but we hadn’t really written anything and we weren’t really a band anymore. After the first weekend, we started talking about it every day and by the second weekend, we had this idea of making a live, mobile studio with three drummers and mix tables to mix it ourselves. We wrote a couple of tracks, played some old tracks, did a few festivals in the summer and the crazy thing was it all actually started to work. It was a big challenge so when that stopped in September and people were asking us, “Hey, are you going to make a record?” we were still a little in between. We called up the band and told them we wanted to write some more but wanted to do it so that they come in and rehearse and do everything in one take. The minute we decided that plan, we had a schedule, so the next thing was to get a mastering date, then once we got the mastering date, we worked to that. We finished the record a few weeks ago. It’s amazing it’s gone so fast.”
Was the ‘one take’ idea something you’d always planned to do?
“We see a lot of music with electronics but you also see a lot of people where no-one is really playing an instrument. I think this idea of having three drummers and using that acoustic element with the electronic element was something we really wanted. The one take, on paper, is a nightmare and not something you should look forward to but I think as musicians, it’s something we’ve all learned to bypass because you can redo and redo and redo. Having the concept made us play better so the limitation of it is actually what we looked forward to.”
Was it a true ‘one take’—as in you recorded the first one and that was it?
“No. We did 18 continuous takes and we chose number 17 then from choosing that take up until the mastering, we mixed one song a day. The plan to do it like that was to make sure we didn’t have the time to get distracted or lose ourselves in endless tweaking or decision-making. For us, the fact that we’ve been able to do it is a big achievement.”
What was wrong with those other takes?
“That’s a hard one to say because even in the one we chose there are things that maybe aren’t wrong but they’re not perfect. I think it was more of a general feeling that we just liked it. Playing in a room with three drum kits is hard, especially because the way that we constructed all the drum patterns meant there are actually three motifs that then become one drum pattern. You do it knowing you only have one day per song to mix, so already in your head you’re going, ‘Oh fuck, I need to send it to mastering to get it into shops next month!'”
Did you enjoy that pressure?
“Yeah! For Dave and me, the idea of going into a studio somewhere else with a well-known producer, working on the record for a long time, having it done seven months before it comes out…all this stuff felt like it would stop us making it, so really pushing ourselves to do it this way freed us up. Nobody expected us to do this, not even the record company! And I don’t mean that in a bad way because they’ve been waiting for us to do something and we knew we just wanted to surprise people with it.”
Did that process make it easier to embrace the imperfections of the record, knowing you didn’t have the time to go back?
“It’s a hard one because it implies you’re a perfectionist and that you try and cut rules to not become one but I feel the reason we could even do this in the first place is because of the studio we built. The album is called ‘From Deewee’ because the studio was a blank canvas that enabled us to do whatever we wanted. Setting those rules has really helped push and, as you say, ’embrace the imperfections’ so that when we mix a song, we capture what that song’s about instead of getting into a conversation about what the kick drum should be. Or whether the synth sounds out of tune. We couldn’t have made this album anywhere else.”
Presumably creating it as one continuous take means that you ideally want people to enjoy it as one continuous listen?
“I would love people to listen to it as one take but I’m a realist in the sense I understand the way people listen to music, buy music and enjoy music is very different to how I do it. I think to ask people to listen to 50 minutes continuously would be suicide but we had to make it like this, it was how we had it in our heads. I don’t want to put a dogma on people and say, ‘You have to listen to it like this’ but ideally, you’d listen to it in your car; listen to it in a moving way. If people want to break it up, be my guest. When we made it for CD, it’s continuous but for vinyl, we must break it up, so there are limitations to the way you put it out. Artistically, that can be heartbreaking but this is more of a recommendation than a demand!”
In terms of the music being split over vinyl, does that break the any narrative the album might have or was the intention that each track should stand alone too?
“We haven’t done too much press so far but there was a guy in Japan who was like ‘This is a concept album!’ and I was trying to explain that maybe it is in terms of the way we recorded it but not in terms of us creating some magical land within the record. Narratively, no, the songs can live on their own but the way we constructed it, it starts in one place and ends in another. I hate it when people say, ‘It’s a journey’ but there is a musical narrative we try and keep there. I’d be lying if I said we know where a song is going to end up. We’re really bad at explaining why we create these things so I’m always in awe of those deeper explanations.”
Listening to ‘From DeeWee’ there’s a definite shift from where you were previously…
“You would think that Dave and I made a conscious decision not to do that but that’s also not true. To be fair with you, maybe I’m lying a little bit because we don’t want to go back to a sound we’ve already done. It’s coming from a place of experimentation of three drummers and three mixing desks and cheap mics—it’s all pushed us to the sound we have now. If it would have sounded like an old Soulwax thing, I don’t think we’d have finished the song, and there were times over the last 12 years where we tried making something and went, ‘That sounds like Soulwax, no it’s not right’ and we didn’t even finish it. We always censor ourselves in that respect whereas some producers might be like ‘No, don’t throw that away!'”
I remember listening ‘Much Against Everyone’s Advice’ in 1999 and then the shift in sound that followed over the last 18 years or so. It feels like different bands are playing each record…
“That’s a compliment! We didn’t want to be the same thing again and we’re very wary of changing our musical identity that way. When we did ‘Any Minute Now’ we quickly made ‘Nite Versions’ and then we started playing that because we really liked this idea of being a rock band that played acoustic instruments but would go into dance environments to play and see if people reacted in the same way you would to a DJ.
I remember we played Bestival and we were supposed to play as Soulwax but when we walked out and looked at the crowd we were like, ‘No, no, no; we’re going to play Nite Versions tonight because it’s going to go off!’ I remember Dave, one of the second guitar players told us he didn’t have a part in it but we hadn’t even thought about it— it was just the idea we had the freedom to be something else. So, for ‘From Deewee’, from finishing it just a few weeks ago, it’s so fresh that just doing these interviews and playing a few shows, by the summer, we might be ready to do something else. For us, it’s not so much about trying to reinvent ourselves, it’s always been more interesting to see how far we can go in different modes.
That crossover appeal always seemed to be the magic of acts like yourselves, Erol Alkan, Rory Phillips, James Murphy etc. from the early 2000s…
I know for Erol and James, myself, what we have in common is that we’re all indie-rock kids. We all play instruments but I remember when Dave and I were touring, something clicked in our heads when we were doing these crazy mixes. I’m talking before mash ups and all this stuff became a fucking horrible thing, we did one with Kraftwerk and something else, and Erol and I went to Rough Trade. We were standing there, no-one knew who we were, and these two A&R guys came strutting in and were like ‘Hey, I heard this thing mixing Kraftwerk…’ and the guy at the counter didn’t have any idea but we were like “Damn! This is moving fast, this is amazing!” We’d only made it a few days before and it had been picked up by a station or someone on the internet, so at that point, as an artist, it allows you to think about whether there’s a more direct way for you to engage with an audience. That’s always stuck with us, that idea that maybe we don’t have to be a normal band in that traditional way; maybe we don’t need to care about the NME or Radio 1 playlists, maybe we can create our own thing? So, if someone wanted us to play a techno club in Poland, I’d do it with pleasure…but I’d still try to get some Velvet Underground in there.”
Twelve years between the last Soulwax album and ‘From Deewee’ is a hell of a break, even with doing everything else. Is there a bigger plan for Soulwax now you’ve returned?
“The next thing for us is the live show in the next two weeks. That’s the next thing. Then I think just through making music with these people or the moments of boredom on tour, something will come out of that. I’ve no idea what it is but having no plan has served us amazingly—it’s vital for us. There’s no direct plan for Soulwax in the future as to whether we’re going to make an album because we’re proud of what we’ve done now and are looking at how we can take this to a different level, live. Talk to me in six months and I might be in Jamaica making a dub record! Hopefully not.”
How do you see the live show playing out? Is it a chance to push for that one continuous take?
“We’ve already been asked a few times whether we’re going to rework our old stuff: no, we’re going to play our new songs but we might play some old things but we’re not going to go back and redo those. No-one’s going to be happy with that. We would love to just play the record but our agent was like ‘Guys, you can’t just do that for 48 minutes.’ There are definitely going to be gigs where we’re going to try and do something different but there also might be some special ones where we play it through…with a twist. The way we play live, we made a blueprint of the way everything was recorded in Deewee, so whenever we play, we can roll out the carpet and everything has be in the same place. That thought has been there from the start but now we have the material to do it. The question for us now is: when and where?”
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