You would hear exciting electronic music all around the city. Radio stations such as Radio Centraal and SIS were on the speakers in clothing stores and bookshops, the sound of the city was an electronic one.
Interview Koen Galle
Photographs Claire Roggan
On the border between Berlin's Kreuzberg and Friedrichshain districts lives Belgian techno DJ and musician Peter Van Hoesen. He moved to the German capital in 2010. After having spent 22 years in Brussels, he found himself attracted by the big squares, the greenery and the infinite space the city has on offer. On his first trip to Berlin in 1997, his plane landed at Tempelhof airport, which has now been converted into a city park. Since then, he has often returned to work on music, to DJ or to visit friends. Gradually, he felt more and more at home, until he finally took the step to move. Van Hoesen explains: "The first best apartment I could find, was in Kreuzberg. I was on a busy tour schedule back then and had little time, so I just moved in. As it turned out, I quite liked the place, so I stuck around in this part of the city."
Peter lives on the ground floor of a large apartment building looking out on a park and a railway. Although rather industrial, the area is remarkably quiet. Same goes for the flat: upon entering, your heart rate immediately drops a few knots. The living room is spacious and minimalist. Striking detail: the typical gigantic rack of records is nowhere to be seen. A few hundred records lay scattered around the stereo, the living room's centrepiece with the only seat facing towards it. Where has the rest of his collection gone?
"In Belgium, at my parents' house", says Van Hoesen. "When I moved to Berlin, I selected 300 records out of my 5000+ collection to bring along with me. What use in bringing the lot of them? Records take up too much space and I love an empty house, it's where I find peace. My current rack is bursting at its seams, but I really don't want to extend it. At the moment, I’m in some kind of purification mood and it's been a real pleasure. I'm in the same process with books, by the way, I handed out sixty of them just recently. "
However it may seem, Van Hoesen's musical capital didn't exactly get left behind in his parents' attic. He has put huge amounts of gigabytes of music on hard disks, much of it being digital copies of his vinyl collection. As a DJ, Van Hoesen has been using digital files exclusively for a while now. When a new techno release enters the premises, it is immediately converted into ones and zeros. And for certain albums, especially when it concerns experimental or minimalistic music, he prefers the digital sound experience anyway. In those cases, surface noise or little audible cracks just aren't charming.
Which records cover the living room floor then? "About half of them are DJ-ing records. Others I got offered. I put them down there and really try to listen to them, but that doesn't always work out, to be honest. I also keep my own records and two copies of everything that was released on Time To Express, the label I run. Then there are a number of records that I am really attached to. Stuff from the 80s mainly, my pre-techno period. Front 242, A Split Second, Neon Judgment,… All bands who have inspired me a great deal."
Van Hoesen was born in 1970 and grew up in a warm, middle-class family in Antwerp. He was introduced to pop music through 7-inch singles and often rummaged through his parents’ record collection. He developed a knack for music and browsed the music section of every library around. After a heavy metal stint, he discovered electro, new wave and cold wave.
None of this happened in Antwerp by accident, though: “Belgium had a powerful, flourishing music scene and somehow, Antwerp found itself right in the middle of it. Except for the jungle scene in London around 1993, I have experienced nothing just quite like those times. You would hear exciting electronic music all around the city. Radio stations such as Radio Centraal and SIS were on the speakers in clothing stores and bookshops, the sound of the city was an electronic one. Mainstream radios such as Studio Brussel never gave airplay to the genre, somehow even mocked it. That whole atmosphere created a great sense of belonging to everyone who listened to electronic music. I felt at home. "
Still, the real coup de foudre had taken place a long time before that. When Telex performed at the Eurovision Song Contest for Belgium in 1980 and a young Van Hoesen and his parents saw Marc Moulin, Dan Lacksman and Michel Moers' idiosyncratic performance on television, his heart skipped a beat. "I suddenly realized that I myself was able to create that kind of music. Left aside that back then, there was nobody around the house who even remotely knew what a synthesizer was.”
“The furthest I got was getting my hands on an electronic organ. My parents heard around a bit and a few weeks after, we had one of them at home. The sole condition was that I would attend music academy." And so it happened. Van Hoesen learned to play the electronic organ by playing Elvis Presley covers and Viennese waltzes. Soon enough, he started connecting the organ to a guitar amplifier to transform sound with the built-in drum patterns, much to his parents' annoyance.
As a Brussels university scholar, Van Hoesen took his first steps as a DJ at student parties in the infamous BSG hall. He became one of the resident DJs with a mix of slightly more popular music to start the evening off, before switching to house, acid jazz and techno. Van Hoesen was especially intrigued by the latter and started organising his own parties. He quickly became a key figure in the Brussels underground techno scene, which paved his way internationally. In 2006, he released his first techno tracks on Berlin's Lan Muzic and only two years after that, Van Hoesen was ready to launch his own label: Time To Express.
Van Hoesen is a warm-hearted host who asks as many questions himself as he answers. The records he puts on offer an excellent insight into his broad musical taste. From the Psychedelic Sanza compilation of the Cameroonian musician and singer Francis Bebey, to the American disco funk of Aurra, or deep electronics to doze off to. While making coffee — an act implying a slow press which Van Hoesen treats accordingly — barren drone music echoes through the room.
"This one is not something you put on carelessly", Van Hoesen smiles. "I adore music that has no structure, when no one bothers to care about the arrangements and the atmosphere is crucial. This is a record by the Japanese Yoshi Wada, which was released in 1974. He built an installation with long wind instruments and a couple of musicians spent almost two hours creating strange, harmonic sounds with it. A lot of elements found their way into my own work."
Japanese culture would continue to strongly influence Van Hoesen's music. In 2011, he released an ode to the Labyrinth Festival in Japan on Time To Express. We're talking about a beautifully designed gatefold featuring the festival photographer's images and music by Van Hoesen and a number of befriended musicians. If success could be measured by the demand price on discogs.com, this records would turn out to be the most successful one in the history of the label.
Whether he would ever consider a reissue? "I am often asked to, but I refuse. Of course, I'm not exactly happy with the record being that expensive, but I guess that is a matter of supply and demand. The album was intended as a special artefact for people who truly experienced the Labyrinth Festival and I am not willing to smudge the original concept by suddenly hitting the presses once more."
Despite decreasing circulation and budgets limited to a break-even, vinyl still holds a special place in Van Hoesen’s life. "Within the vinyl industry, we maintain this philosophy where you deliver an object that carries music but is also a work of art. A record is a total experience, both finite and limited, but that's its beauty and value at the same time.” Times have changed, though, Van Hoesen won't argue with that. For one, after a vinyl release, he doesn't sit on it anymore for six weeks to distribute the music digitally, too.
And then there is his own digital library, where he keeps years and years of musical playtime. Van Hoesen likes to keep it there so it wouldn't take up all the physical space in his life. "I'm currently transferring all of my CDs to hard drives, so I can get rid of those too. It really feels like spring cleaning in order to make my life lighter.” Just then the bell sounds and a delivery courier is at the door carrying a box with three copies of Van Hoesen’s latest record, a collaboration with Donato Dozzy that was released on the Dutch Dekmantel label. Van Hoesen seems pleased with the result and slips a copy into the hands of the photographer and myself. "A gift, consider it a memento for the day. They would only take up space here anyway!"
Name: Peter Van Hoesen | Occupation: DJ, musician, label owner | Age: 47 | Where: Berlin | #records: +- 5000 | Genres: Techno, house, experimental electronica, new beat, jazz, drum & bass, jungle, weird country & western, metal, dub, acid jazz, pop, West-African folk, Arabic music, recordings of Gamelan music from Java, contemporary classical, r’n’b, krautrock, indus-trial, punk, new wave, cold wave, post punk | DJ aliases: Peter Van Hoesen | Favourite record store: Tower Records, Tokyo | Equipment: Technics SL1210, Avantgarde Acoustic Model 3 amplifier, KEF speakers | Classification: a bit of a mess at the moment | First ever record: Abba - Money Money Money (7 inch) | Digitized: yes | Collection listed on Discogs.com: nope, tried once, didn’t work out | Favourite record sleeve: La Muerte - Peep Show