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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Musicians Are People Too

If you dig a little deeper in the dirt, you’ll be met with a certain darkness.

Interview Diederik Decroix
Photographs Wouter Rabijns

The dreaminess of Air and Blonde Redhead, the contrarian corner of The Flaming Lips and witty experiment of Sonic Youth. Actually, those are their words, not ours. But sometimes, it’s better to quote the wise than to burden you, lovely reader, with a flurry of nonsensical descriptions of the interviewee du jour.

Seated on our bench today is Pieter-Jan Decraene. Describing him as Rhinos Are People Too’s front man would be a grave injustice, as he rules over his band like a self-appointed despot. Hitting the shelves on February 24th is Hello From The Gutters, the band’s first long player, out on Zeal Records. 

It’s important to ponder what path to follow.

As opposed to their fellow Nieuwe Lichting laureates, RAPT have taken their time after the cheers of praise had faded. Out of these procrastinations, Decraene distills a valuable lesson for his successors: “Put out your awarded single as quickly as possible.” Furthermore, Decraene insists on downplaying the importance of big deals and contracts. “It’s much more important to ponder what path to follow, and this takes time.”

“Winning the Nieuwe Lichting contest was rather enlightening to me”, Decraene recalls. “The high of being victorious shouldn’t be underestimated. Winning was the start of a quest: who am I as a musician, as an artist? I decided to quit my studies in order to concentrate on this quest.”

This soul-searching materialized in the form of an EP at the end of 2015. Straight after this release, Decraene started working on a full album. He had a clear concept in mind and was determined on making every detail fit into his master plan.

It’s movie quiz time

Decraene is a man who likes to take matters into his own hands. The record sleeve, for instance — the kind you’d like to put up on the wall, next to your other paintings — is the fruit of his labours and his only. Decraene installed a trial version of a graphic design software programme and managed to finish the design before the test license ran out.

The title, Hello From The Gutters, might be the one thing not to have originated in Decraene’s lively blobs of grey matter. It is in fact the opening line of a letter written by serial-killer-gone-pyromaniac David Berkowitz to the New York Daily News.

There’s a lot more references being strewn about. Most songs on the record in some way refer to a film fragment or a character. Spoiler alert! Ariel is about Red Dragon, Hear The Night hints at Donnie Darko, 031230051165 is in cahoots with Pierrot le Fou, Dead Birds, well, The Birds, obviously, and, just like Alt-J’s Mathilde, Last Dance is all about Léon.

The imaginary city where all the aforementioned characters live is what you see displayed on the picturesque record sleeve. In Decraene’s mind, it’s not quite the place you’d want to spend your time, which accounts for the slightly dystopian artwork. 

If you dig a little deeper in the dirt, you’ll be met with a certain darkness.

If the EP sounded like a wall of reverb, the full album has more room for snappy yet playful experiments with psychedelica, lo-fi and noise-pop elements. The happy-go-lucky tunes on this record don’t quite fall in step with the slightly darker or philosophical lyrics.

Decraene: “That was a conscious choice. I didn’t want it to go all apocalyptic overkill. The contrast between both universes is important. The album reflects the atmosphere of a children’s party where one of the children appears to be dead in the gazebo, but no one seems to have noticed. On the surface, everything seems jolly. But if you dig a little deeper in the dirt, you’ll be met with a certain darkness.”

Writing and producing are yet other facets of Decraene’s need to keep in control. “I write and produce the tracks simultaneously. For me, these things go hand in hand. A song does not merely consist of a set of chords or lyrics or a vocal. It’s about the coherence and the atmosphere between them.”

“The sound palette plays an important role as well. I spend a lot of time at Studio Jupiter with Koenraad, experimenting with new ways to use instruments. Of course, it comes in handy to have someone in the band who runs his own studio. It allows for hours of experimentation, which probably sounds utopian for most bands.”

“I often write songs without touching an instrument. I only pick up my guitar when I get to the next stage. I don’t excel in playing any instrument, but I get by on guitar and synths, so I play and sing everything myself. I usually add a drum machine later on, or I do some cutting and pasting with samples.”

I wanted to mimic a Japanese karaoke film.
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 “When this record was finished, I started looking for some new band members. So now there’s the original cast of Loes, Ewout, Koenraad and myself, and through Koenraad at PXL Music we found Dennis, another drummer, and guitarist Guillaume. We’ll probably add a seventh band member to the live setup.”

“That will be interesting: it’s been a year since we were on stage and back then, these songs didn’t exist yet. Whatever happens, our live show will be one big party, both musically and visually.” Decraene is a big fan of The Flaming Lips, so that should give you some direction of where he’s headed.

Whether the live show will be anything like the L.A. Confidential video, remains to be seen. Even here, Decraene followed his DIY ethics. “I wanted to mimic a Japanese karaoke film. I’m rather amazed that it’s not too obvious we did everything ourselves.”

I try and direct everything. Like a dictator.

The hilarious band pictures, like everything else, are a part of Decraene’s overall concept of the record. Decraene: “It’s not like no one has any say, but I do try and direct everything like a dictator.”

“We’ve just started on songs for the second record. I’m in doubt about the best way to handle things and whether or not to involve the band. I can’t help but notice that working alone is what suits me best. That being said, I’d like to add some chaos to the process for this second round. I think the exchange will create some happy accidents.”

For a dictator, Decraene does make rather nice music. He’s the soul of his band and the reason why we’re sure to run into him again in the future. Us and an bunch of nature-minded NGO’s who rightly agree that Rhinos Are People Too.