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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Sven Van Hees

The record distributor would tell us over the phone exactly which records were being shipped, and sometimes I would travel to the airport to get my copy directly from the plane.

Interview Koen Galle
Photographs Thomas Sweertvaegher

Losing a court case pertaining to the publishing rights to your own music and ending up having to sell part of the record collection that’s your pride and glory, it happened to Sven Van Hees at the beginning of the millennium. But when the clouds cleared and the heavens smiled kindly on him again a few years later, he simply went out and bought back all of his precious black gold on Discogs – or on one of his travels to the United States. It typifies Sven's passion for the medium and music in general. He never really had a backup plan. It was either music or bust. Only in the last few years has he started to realize exactly how special it is that he has actually managed to make a living out of his passion. Starting off as a radio DJ for Liaisons Dangereuses, on his way to playing clubs all over Belgium and far beyond, before finally culminating in his iconic lounge and chill-out albums, Sven Van Hees has always had music coursing through his veins.

As a pubescent teenager Sven managed to find his way into Antwerp's public radio station SIS. In 1985, he and host Paul Ward started the now legendary radio show Liaisons Dangereuses, a project that turned out to be the work of true pioneers. The two packed the show full of tunes that could otherwise only be heard inside clubs – an earmark that earned them a huge following of fans, some of whom went as far as driving to parking lots that where in range of the local radio station, in order to catch the broadcasts. Sven found his inspiration in peers like Patrick Gypen, a fellow Antwerp DJ and graphic designer who was responsible for the sleeve of Technotronic's iconic world hit Pump Up The Jam. By way of Sven's sister, Gypen's mixtapes full of American disco ended up in his tape deck. Sven also lists John Van Looveren – who often played in Antwerp's Ancienne Belgique – as one of his bigger influences. “I went to the AB as much as possible, just to listen to the records they were playing there. Then when I took up DJing myself, things started going really fast. Not too long ago I found one of my appointment books from back in those days. Sometimes I was playing up to nine sets in a single weekend. I knew my records by heart and played them until they were completely battered and worn out.”

Sven quickly turned out to be a big influence for other DJs himself. “We would play a record on Liaisons Dangereuses and the day after everybody would go out to get a copy of their own. One time, we decided to play a Mel & Kim record at 33 rpm – instead of 45 – and give it a fake artist name. The next day, quite some people were cursing under their breath in the record shops around town.

USA Import’s beers were the best bargaining device. We were basically digging for records in a bar.

The record shop Sven frequented most was USA Import - a gathering point or even clubhouse for DJs and music freaks. Sven's studio was right around the corner so at times it would almost seem like he lived there. “Their beers were the best bargaining device. We were basically digging for records in a bar. Even big international names like Richard Dorfmeister and Derrick May used to drop in unexpectedly. It was a little world of its own, and I felt right at home.”

To this day, Sven gets excited when the talk turns to the new shipments of records that used to come in on Thursdays and Fridays. “The distributor would tell us over the phone exactly which records were being shipped, and sometimes I would travel to the airport to get my copy directly from the plane. If you missed a certain release, chances were pretty high you would never find that particular record again. Provided you knew the name of the song, of course, which was not always self-evident. Mobile apps like Shazam weren't around yet and most DJs – including myself – taped off the labels on their records to protect their secrets.” But Sven was almost part of the furniture at USA Import and the fact that he was a radio DJ also made him a privileged customer. However, Sven is keen to point out that these privileges also had their downsides. “There was quite a lot of garbage being released – often from Belgian producers – so in exchange for all the amazing records I was able to get my hands on through USA Import, I had to also play some of the trash on Liaisons Dangereuses. I used to crank those records through in little five-minute mini mixes. Thankfully, that was enough to keep everybody happy.”

These days Sven has traded in the hustle and bustle of the city for a well-lit bungalow in the middle of a green municipality in Antwerp. He mainly buys his music during the nighttime – alone behind his laptop, when everybody else in the house is fast asleep. “I still buy a lot of new music but only in digital form. It’s a lot cheaper. Also, I only play digitally at festivals and clubs nowadays. I still buy vinyl, mind you, but only old records. When CDs started taking over the market, a lot of good music was lost – simply because record companies didn't believe in it and refused to release it on CD. The idea that the internet made every piece of music available at the drop of a dime, that's a big misconception. Finding that type of music still poses a challenge I'm eager to take on – digging up those long-lost records.”

That woman on the cover of Calypso? That’s me!

Sven has a photographic memory, which he says is not only helpful when making music – more specifically when understanding its structure – but also when he's digging. Cover art is the most straightforward way to identifying a record. Well-preserved albums that look enticing have an advantage in Sven's digging philosophy, although he does admit that sometimes the ugliest sleeves can contain the most beautiful music. Artwork also plays an important role when it comes to his own releases. The sensual cover of Calypso – his celebrated 2002 album – has an anecdote attached that wouldn't look out of place in the annals of Belgian music. The seductive apparition adorning the cover is not a woman but – hold on to your seats – Sven himself! “I got the inspiration from that amazing cover of She and I from Gap Mangione. I suppose my Adam's apple is the sole indication that something isn't quite right, but the whole thing was so well done – I actually used to get a lot of questions about the pretty lady on my cover.”

The vinyl collection has a central place in Sven's living room, right next to his studio and his turntables. He often spins records to get inspiration for a recording session but he might also do it to entertain his daughter on a Sunday afternoon. She loves to dance, and he loves to play records for her to dance to. “At least that way, she'll get the right groove right from the beginning”, he quips. “Music and vinyl are such a huge passion for me, they form the red thread that winds through all my life experiences. Seriously, these records are like the slideshow of my life. That doesn't mean I still play all of them. Chris Rock once said that 'whatever you were listening to while screwing your first girlfriend, you're going to love it for the rest of your life.' I have also experienced the opposite of that. Some records I have played so many times that I can't stand to hear them anymore. Rock To The Beat by Reese for example, or Strings Of Life by Derrick May. I'm literally sick of hearing them. So it goes both ways. But one thing is for sure: my love for vinyl will never fade.”