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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

The beauty of being comfortably numb

The beauty of being comfortably numb.

Interview Diederik Decroix
Photographs Noémi Boone (cover and live photo), Illias Teirlinck (Manngold in studio)

The new Manngold record is actually not all that new anymore, having been released somewhere at the end of 2016. But it blew us away and that’s the only criterion we need to reminisce without a pinch of guilt, much to the contrary.

Manngold’s story is one of passionate musicians. At first, there was the idea to limit the band to live shows and live shows only. As many as possible, stripped of any rules. And so they played. Under the flying banner of Manngold at first, then as Manngold De Cobre and now once again as Manngold. But the one thing that wasn’t part of the initial plan, namely, releasing an album, eventually did happen. MannGold de Cobre ‎– MannGold de Cobre was released in 2014 and Manngold - Manngold followed last December.

If anything, Manngold remains a live band that grabs you by the balls time and again. Because Manngold is a whole lot more than the six members whose name grace the record sleeve: it’s a collective of musicians. For each gig, the line-up is puzzled together based on everyone’s time schedule. The only thing you can be sure of when seeing Manngold live, is that you won’t be hearing the same thing you heard last time. It’s all about unpredictables and improv.

At the heart of this swarm of musicians is Rodrigo Fuentealba, a name you might have come across when checking out Gabriel Rios, Arsenal, Novastar and Fifty Foot Combo, the one band he is inextricably entwined with.

I remember that, at a certain point, I was getting worked up over the champagne not being cold enough.

Fuentealba: “It was quite nice to be a session musician for Novastar, Arsenal and Gabriel Rios. You have steady wages and all that. But the daily grind is such a bore. I got off stage after 45 minutes and I hadn’t even produced a drop of sweat. I remember that, at a certain point, I was getting worked up over the champagne not being cold enough. Mainstream and showbiz turn you into a fat, numb idiot.”

The scales tipped one night when Fuentealba sat snugly in his sofa, leafing through a newspaper and he spotted a concert ad. “I decided to dress daintily and set off to Vooruit, where Belgian record label Kraak was hosting an experimental blues night featuring, among others, Jos Steen and Jonathan Kane.” The latter was a complete aha-erlebnis for Fuentealba. “Despite the fact that there were only thirty people in the room, the band was giving it all they had. It was loud, dirty, gritty, intense. They just kept on building and every time I thought they couldn’t top what they’d just done, they went and made it even better. After the concert, I went to Kane to thank him. It became clear to me I shouldn’t be making noncommittal music any longer. And then an offer came to teach at Hogeschool PXL, offering me the financial security I needed to do my own thing where my music is concerned.”

Everything fell right into place and Fuentealba swiftly launched into a quest for companions. Manngold became a band with two drummers, a bass player and two guitarists who wanted to play as much as possible, preferably unannounced. No record, no Facebook, no MySpace. Just playing. And so they played.

In 2009 and under the influence of Peter Vermeersch, Manngold welcomed no less than eight brass players and became a fifteen-piece band called Manngold De Cobre. Not long after, the first record was a fact. Shows were booked in renown venues and festivals like Middelheim and Gent Jazz, in Belgium as well as abroad. However, touring with fifteen band members is a costly affair. So once the money ran out, the band ceased to exist and Manngold returned to a smaller setup. Now consisting of six members, the band picked their way between old and new tracks and got to work. And then the idea for a new record arose.

It is no sinecure to put six musicians, who all have parts to play in other bands, in the same room. Regardless of conflicting time schedules, the aim was to record all instruments the analogue way, at the same time, without any recourse to overdubs. Old school. Plans were made, the Invada Studio in Bristol was booked and Stuart Matthews (Portishead, Beak) was installed at the console. Fuentealba: “In Britain, the culture is just different. Punk, soul, dub, rock ‘n’ roll… all these genres are interwoven. There are no strict distinctions between them, which results in sound technician having very different ears. This made us feel completely at home. When we asked to make a guitar riff sound like the Buzzcocks, the man knew exactly what we were looking for. Because Manngold’s music isn’t restricted to just one genre. Much to the contrary: all of the band members devour music of all sorts, which resonates in a very particular sound.”

The best purchase I made last year was a wifi radio. Now I just as easily listen to BBC Radio 6, for instance.

Fuentealba teaches at PXL and presses his young students to understand that there is much more out there than what you hear on the radio. “Sadly, there is little room for innovative music on our Flemish radio stations. We are usually told that our music is not radio-friendly enough. Too wild, too loud. So what? Is it not the duty of the public broadcasting serivce to select all sorts of music? From blatantly commercial to hermetic, experimental — and not to banish the latter to the wee hours of the night but to actually actively promote it? Listeners and viewers can really handle a thing or two during daylight hours. If it works on BBC 6, then why not here? It’s as if your song is automatically warded off from the radio if it’s either too long or too short, if it doesn’t have a chorus or if the guitars are too loud. Nonetheless, there is a large audience for this music. An audience that still buys records and goes to concerts. An audience that listens to Sun Ra, TV On The Radio, Bowie, Mayhem, Crass, Kid Congo, The Ronettes and King Tubby, all mixed up.”

“That being said”, Fuentealba concedes, “radio, and especially StuBru and Radio 1, remain extremely important for a band to be able to play. Once you’re picked up by these stations, clubs are more inclined to book you because they can expect a larger audience. If you’re not on the air, things are harder and you’re entirely dependent on the goodwill and the audacity of those in charge of programming. The written press equally spends too little attention to the musical diversity in this country. A lot of Belgian bands who are being lauded are in fact imitations of bands from abroad: we have the Belgian Editors, the Belgian White Stripes, the Belgian Amy Winehouse, the Belgian Mark Lanegan, the Arcade Fires, the QOTSAs, etc... These bands are okay, but they don’t gain any foothold abroad, precisely because there already exists a better version of what they are doing. Sadly, these are the bands who make the airwaves and set the tone.”

There aren’t any sexy Belgian bands anymore

Fuentealba: “A lot of Belgian bands are drawing on the same elements: melancholy and pathos. ‘Pop music with hooks.’ Few aim for the gut, using energy, intensity, drive and sex. There aren’t any sexy Belgian bands anymore. Music needs a certain level of menace, of intensity. After a show, people need to feel like they’ve left this world for just a moment. Cocaine Piss, for instance, just do their thing for fifteen minutes. Then they get labelled as hip, they’re are all over the mainstream media and the audience expects the singer to still jump into the audience every time and scream in their faces. I’m curious to see where this band will end up.”

The skeleton of the songs is my work. Then the other band members top up the frame with lots of colours.

Fuentealba: “We’re very satisfied with this record. We wanted to make music that shakes you up, like The Buzzcocks, The Damned, MC5, The Ex, Eric Dolphy, Mats Gustaffson and Fifty Foot Combo. Our two drummers are airtight and Bruno, the bass player, is the spine between the drums, he is where the pulse originates. The skeleton of the songs is my work. Then the other band members top up the frame with lots of colours. That’s how I prefer to work, I need that dynamic and this interaction while creating, but also when recording. The live takes needed to be loud, which the studio was perfectly set up for. It was the perfect spot for us to record.”

With the recordings in their pocket, the band went to see Mike Keirsbilck at 9000 Records. Fuentealba: “We made a very clear deal with 9000 Records. They support us, but we are in charge. Which means it is still a lot of work for us, too.”

For the sleeve and the management, Jaagbaar lends a helping hand. Fuentealba: “In the music world, they’re still a little-known name. But not only did Jonas and Rien take care of the artwork, they also thought about the bigger picture and helped us out with the practical stuff.”

Manngold is Rodrigo Fuentealba (guitar), Philipp Weies (guitar), Bruno Coussée (bass), Kwinten Mordijck (synth), Matthias Standaert (drums) and Karel De Backer (drums). As a collective, however, they often work with talented folks borrowed from dEUS, Nieuw Zwart, The Germans, Rape Blossoms…

Go and see these guys live. They’re golden!

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