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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Mittland och Leo

When I am at home, I’m often in the studio making music for myself – completely different stuff.

Interview Pieter Colpaert
Photographs

It’s fair to call Milan Warmoeskerken Belgium’s hardest-working man in show business. If he’s not making music as Milan W. or C. Young, he’s performing with Flying Horseman, Beach or Condor Gruppe. One of his most exciting musical projects, however, is the one he has going with his creative and romantic partner Joke Leonare – half of graphic design studio and record label Jj funhouse. A result of their shared passion for synths, drum computers and all things electronic, Mittland och Leo manages to make melancholy sound both funky and exotic. Their marvelous first full-length record Optimists came out in 2014 and already had its first reissue the following year. 

Mittland och Leo is not just a creative partnership - the two of you are also a couple. What came first: the band or the relationship?

Milan: The relationship. Mind you, I’ve been playing music for a very long time. When we met, I was studying music and playing in different bands, composing my own songs. At one point, we started making music together. Joke needed some music for a school project, so we started playing together. Mostly experimental stuff – soundscapes and such. Then at one point, Ultra Eczema asked us to make an alternative version of La Bamba for a compilation record.

Joke: We made a Casio track on a small keyboard, which went down really well. The label then asked us if we wanted to do a 7”. That’s how we got started. The only trouble was, when Myland and Lion got released, we quickly started getting gig requests, but we only had the four songs on that 7”. We had become a live band practically overnight, so we were forced to rethink our whole operation and start making music more frequently.

How do you guys separate the band from your personal life? How does that work? Do you decide when to rehearse, or does that happen spontaneously when you are both at home?

Joke: We usually have to decide it beforehand – if only because Milan plays in a bunch of different bands, and his instruments have the tendency to be all over the place. We have a little studio at home, but it’s important to decide on a specific time to rehearse. That’s the most efficient.

Milan: It’s not just because I’m playing in different bands though. When I am at home, I’m often in the studio making music for myself – completely different stuff. When we decide to make music as Mittland och Leo, we need to arrange to set up the instruments and really come together as a band, instead of just hanging at home.

When I am at home, I’m often in the studio making music for myself – completely different stuff.

Optimists was released on Joke’s own label: Jj funhouse. How did that come about?

Joke: I studied graphic design with my friend Jozefien (Gruyaert), who is the co-founder of the label. We worked together on a group exhibition once – our first collaboration. It went so well that we decided to keep working together and also create a platform for others: Jj funhouse. When Milan made his first album as C. Young, we decided to also make it a music label. It was sort of obvious that Mittland och Leo would also appear on it.

Optimists is a collection of electronic music with lots of organs, synths, drum computers, etc. – but all with a very warm, organic sound to it. Is most of it recorded analogue?

Milan: Most of it is, yes. I think that is the most interesting approach for Mittland och Leo: we record every instrument separately. We are more or less a band of synthesizers. We play those synths together, rather than making sequences. I prefer working with the intuitive workflow of synths and drum computers. It’s easier to actually write a song that way, instead of just sitting behind a computer. The fact that there are actual keys and buttons that you can work with makes it easier to come up with melodies and ideas.

Joke: We stumble upon a sound that is interesting, and decide if it needs a bit more of this or that. That might happen less when you’re programming a computer. I think it’s more intuitive - to jam a little on whatever’s there.

One of us will try some chords, while the other tries to create a melody around it, until someone goes “that sounds good!”

So when you’re writing songs, do you start with a beat or a melody?

Milan: Most of the times, it’ll be a beat, or a bass line. Other times, when I am trying to focus my musical thoughts on Mittland och Leo, I will start looking for melodies and hum them to myself, sometimes recording them on my cell phone. It’s a mix of different things, but whenever we get in the studio, we usually start from scratch.

Joke: I’d say we usually start with a beat and let it loop for a while. One of us will try some chords, while the other tries to create a melody around it, until someone goes “that sounds good!”

Your songs are quite poppy and catchy, so I’ve caught myself thinking: add some dreamy vocals and you could have a Beach House or Washed Out song on your hands. Has that also crossed your minds?

Milan: Not really, to be honest. I’m a little wary of using vocals in my music or even in electronic music in general. It’s so determining. It really puts a very specific stamp on a song. But yeah, who knows: at some point we might try to write a hit. For laughs, when we’re totally out of money.

Joke: I don’t know if we’d still sound like Mittland och Leo if we did though. Also, if you want to use my voice, you’ll need a whole bunch of effects. (laughs) We’ve never written a song where we felt we needed vocals, and I don’t think they’re missing from our music. There’s a lot of music that I really love, and then the vocals set in and they spoil the entire song. I often prefer the B-side – the instrumental – to the original.

We haven’t used vocals because I think it’s a lot more original to not be the umpteenth band making electronic music using vocal delay

Milan: We haven’t used vocals because I think it’s a lot more original to not be the umpteenth band making electronic music using vocal delay. Everything we do in our music really originates from the instruments, and I like to keep it that way. It makes the music more suggestive.

Joke: That’s another thing: lyrics can tell a whole, rather unnecessary story.

Do you consider the commercial aspects of making music at all with this band?

Joke: If we would be thinking commercially, we would need a different label, management, etc.

Milan: It’s also not what we care about. I am not interested in doing well or being big in Belgium. We’d just be another band with a manager and a booker, trying to play the same festivals, writing poppy songs because otherwise the radio wouldn’t pick us up. I want to make the kind of music we like, and I truly take pride in being independent and being able to do things the way we want.

Milan, I know you also play in Condor Gruppe – a very different band, although I hear some of the same krautrock, psychedelic influences. Is there a lot of overlap between projects? Like ideas or melodies you’ll come up with for one band but then end up being used for a different project?

Milan: Not really. I try to keep the best ideas to myself. In a band like Condor Gruppe, Michiel (Van Cleuvenbergen) makes most of the music. My task, as a musician, is to add to his songs by playing my part and looking for the right sound. If there is some overlap or any similarities between the bands, I think it’s mostly because Michiel has so many different influences and we listen to a lot of the same music. He also buys a lot of records. But Mittland och Leo and Condor Gruppe are two completely different bands, and my part is also very different. In Condor Gruppe, I play guitar. In Mittland och Leo, I play electronic instruments.

You release a lot of stuff on vinyl, and nothing on CD. Do you consider yourself purists?

Joke: On Jj funhouse we also release music on cassettes, and I would never say never to a CD. But vinyl is a more unique and interesting medium. It requires some time to copy, you have to know how to handle it, and it’s also much nicer to create artwork for – there’s a lot more space! So for me, a vinyl record is a more special object than a CD – one I cherish more. Mind you, we also buy CDs, for holiday routes in the car, or simply when something isn’t available on vinyl.

Milan: Vinyl is just more interesting. Not necessarily for the sound, but for the fact that you’re actively involved in listening to music. People will take time to look at the sleeve and read whatever’s written on it. When you play a CD, seventeen songs in a row, you can forget you’re listening to it halfway through. Which is okay when you’re in the kitchen or you’re just playing some music in the background, but when you play something on vinyl, that means you’re really listening to it.