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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Nicholas Lewis (The Word Radio)

When I just discovered the joys of vinyl, I bought almost my entire collection of CDs anew on vinyl.

Interview Koen Galle (translated by Charline Stoelzaed)
Photographs Thomas Sweertvaegher

“I was just about to record my show for NTS last night. That's always about the time she starts chirping like a maniac. Guess she likes to show off.” Performer in the matter is a yellow-brownish parrot flying freely around Nicholas' home, enjoying pit stops on every single cupboard around before returning to her cage at simple request of Nicholas' wife. Apart from the bird, it's the humungous rack full of vinyl that makes for the centre of attention. At the same time several pieces of art scattered around the house catch our eye.

Same goes for the toys of the youngest Lewis descendent, the snazzy house plants, the tail-wagging dog or the synthesiser, seemingly left abandoned on a chair. This is a collector's home, that much is certain. “It's genetic. My mother used to keep everything at hand and my father was an avid collector of Belgian art. Similarly to my parents I also caught the collecting bug through basketball magazines, photography books, CDs and so on. I still have all of them up in the spare room. At the moment, I'm mostly into vinyl though.”

Collector's rage

At the same time, Nicholas tries his best to keep clear from the well-known concept of collector's rage, as he's no stranger to the point where it all starts getting a teensy bit obsessive. “When I just discovered the joys of vinyl, I bought almost my entire collection of CDs anew on vinyl. I especially didn't want to miss out on copies of my favourite hip hop albums. Kool Keith, A Tribe Called Quest, Mobb Deep, Dilated People and the likes played a major role during my musical adolescence. Or take Wu-Tang Clan, I wanted every single record they had released. Not that I’ve spent that much time actually listening to them, though, I just couldn't contain myself.”

“Nowadays I don't spend any money on whims anymore. In order for music to deserve its place in my collection, I really have to want to listen to it over and over.” Still, it's hard to curb the collector's gene. Proudly, Nicholas shows us a series of records by jazz label Actuel. The label's characteristic white album sleeves with framed pictures feature names such as Archie Shepp, Don Cherry and Art Ensemble Of Chicago. “This label means a lot to me. The majority of these records were produced in Paris during a very short, but highly productive period, when a lot of amazing jazz musicians were in town together rather by coincidence. One day, I'd like to own them all.” 

Napster days

Nicholas describes himself as late-bloomer. Only since recently — he's thirty six — he feels as if he has found his way around musically. But what an amazing track course led him to that point. As a teenager the house and techno sounds by Brussels' Fuse or Ghent's I Love Techno festival appealed to him strongly. When he turned eighteen, Nicholas moved to London, the capital of the culture that always held a strong influence on the Lewis' household. Thanks to his Indian mother and German father and stepfather, Nicholas was brought up as an English native.

In London's progressive scene and culture, hip hop and house suddenly appeared a lot less incompatible than they did back home in Brussels. Thanks to the samples and sources of inspiration of hip hop producers, he discovered jazz and funk. But at the time, there still wasn't much vinyl to be found in Nicholas hands. “Those were the Napster days, you know. I downloaded anything I could get my hands on which seemed even remotely interesting. Or I went to HMV, one of those gigantic British megastores. They allowed you to return the CDs you bought and didn't like, so I transferred every track to my computer and brought them back to the store afterwards. That came in rather handy!”

After graduating in international business and marketing and working briefly in London, Nicholas returned to hometown Brussels when he was twenty six. It was during that period in time that he started to get serious about collecting vinyl. Nicholas takes us through his highly personal musical evolution, neatly focusing on one specific genre at a time. “Hip hop got too commercial on me when Eminem and 50 Cent became a big deal, so I started digging into funk. Otis Redding, Curtis Mayfield... I was crazy about that stuff.”

“After that I went through a compilations phase. I bought tons of them. I'm still very fond of them today. In came a remarkably intense jazz period. Which in turn was followed by an Indian period when I was researching my mother's musical roots. Through American-born DJ The Gaslamp Killer I got hooked on Turkish sounds and so it went on and on. I like to set out a framework first and then get in deep. You could say that me needing that kind of defined structure is my German side.”

It's a Belgian thing

Nicholas’ love for anything that reads “made in Belgium” serves as a structure too. One mustn't look far to see where he gets it from. His father collected Belgian art all his life and as an expat, his mother always took a genuine interest in her second home country. When Nicholas returned to Belgium in his late twenties, it was his love for magazines that inspired him to launch his own. Already back in 2008, The Word Magazine saw the light as his take on a country he once again had to familiarise with after eight years of living in the UK. The magazine's tagline? Neighbourhood life, art and music made in Belgium. It's exactly that angle that would lead Nicholas on his further musical discoveries.

“Thanks to the magazine, I often got in touch with Belgian musicians and their stories. I found myself inspired time and time again. I developed a sensibility for music by Luc Van Acker, Anna Domino or Plastic Bertrand which you could buy at flea markets for peanuts. I got to know Dominique Lawalrée's music, a Belgian composer who released mostly during the seventies and eighties. I got in touch with him for the magazine and was able to meet him. He gave me a couple of his records as a gift, they still mean a lot to me today. I found out that he taught music at the school where I took classes for over twelve years, though I was never taught by him personally. He made some recordings with his students and used them on one of his records. I could even recognise the sound of the coffee machine from the teacher's lounge.”

The Word Radio

Nicholas' collection caters to his needs in different ways. As a listener and music lover, as a magazine publisher, but also as a host of his radio show on London internet radio NTS. “Adventures in Belgian music” reads the show's description on the website of the latter. Nicholas puts his home grown focus into work to promote everything and everyone of Belgian quality to the rest of the world.

From the first of December onwards, Nicholas will be adding a new chapter to his quest. On Friday, he and his partners will launch their very own radio under the straightforward moniker of The Word Radio. The channel will serve as an extension to the magazine's universe, to be listened to on the world wide web. Nicholas speaks proudly of this choice. “We already have more then 100 residents lined up, all Belgian or Belgium-based, who will host shows on a regular basis. My very own musical heroes such as Crammed Discs, Les Disques du Crépuscule, and even Dominique Lawalrée are joining in, along with so many other amazing DJs and music freaks. Can't wait!"

Name: Nicholas Lewis | Occupation: The Word Magazine editor-in-chief, radio host | Age: 36 | Where: Elsene | #records: +- 3000 | Genres:  Hip hop, disco, boogie, funk, jazz, punk, new wave, classical, afro beat, psychedelic - pretty much everything except folk (and even that’s not entirely true)  | Dj aliases: Nope, mostly because I’m not a dj | Favourite record store: None in particular, although 6-pack Records in Zurich has made quite a good living off me. | Equipment: 2x Technics SL1200mkII, Allen & Heath mixer | Classification: by genre | First ever record: Ofra Haza, which my mum bought for at the flea market | Digitized: no | Collection listed on Discogs.com: yes | Favourite record sleeve: Starter - Starter