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Belgium: The Vinyl Frontier

Trouble comes in threes. So does BRUTUS.

It’s fine to have a little mystery

Interview Diederik Decroix
Photographs Geert Braeckers

As far as playground loves go, this one sure has outlived any expectations, both in duration and grandness. Stijn Vanhoegaerden and Stefanie Mannaerts once started a school project by the name of Mowgli. Later on, Peter Mulders was tricked into some ménage à trois action and ta-da: BRUTUS was raised to play some knife-tricks under the spot lights.

After having chucked out a single and having toured the bejezus out of themselves, BRUTUS treats the masses to some much craved-for bread and games. And oh boy, are these three coming on strong. Burst, as their first album is called, is tight as a blood-thirsty tick.

Yes, this is a band containing men sporting guitars and not-quite-so-shaven stubble, the kind even to be reasonably expected to feature some ink in interesting places. Yet live, all eyes are on drummer/singer Stefanie. “When I joined the band in 2014, we planned on adding a singer to the line-up. In the meantime, I took to singing every now and then, during rehearsals.” Stefanie lived under the assumption that this was a temporary solution, until Peter and Stijn cajoled her into multitasking full-time. “At first”, Stefanie says, “Bearclaws was an instrumental track. I was supposed to add some vocals, but I kept putting it off, presumably because I wasn’t ready yet and lacked the guts to do it.”

Stefanie: “Peter will tell you that Stijn and I write the gist of the songs, but that’s not true. We often sketch the guidelines, like the melody, the chords and the arrangements, but Peter is the one who is able to take a step back, look at things from a distance and come up with just the right instrumentation. That’s equally important, at the very least.”

Burst contains eleven tracks. Horde II has already been released as a single and Julia will sound familiar to the proud owners of BRUTUS’ first cassette demo. Stefanie wrote the lyrics for nine out of eleven songs. “We receive a lot of questions concerning the lyrics on our Facebook page”, she says. “I think we should make a video with lyrics one of these days, as a joke, since no one seems to understand me. I don’t mind though. When recording for Rumours, another band I play in, I was reading Hannah Vandenbussche’s lyrics and I thought ‘Oh, that’s what she’s saying.’ I’d been singing those same songs in different words for two years.” Peter: “Stefanie can say so much with just a melody and a note, more than with words. Of course, there are admirable singer-songwriters out there, but we’re not really among them. We’re musicians, not poets. That’s why we don’t include the lyrics on the record. It’s fine to have a little mystery.”

“If I had to sing to you in a public space for a recording” Stefanie admits, “I’d chicken out. I even had trouble singing with Stijn and Peter around. And then, with Pieter-Paul, suddenly it was a piece of cake.” Whenever she ran into Pieter-Paul Devos, front man of Raketkanon and Kapitan Korsakov, Stefanie would pick his brains about the vocals. “The vocals of certain songs were bothering us. So when we were thinking about how to deal with producing the record, it seemed like a good idea to call in Pieter-Paul. I would never be able to walk this path into the unknown with a complete stranger. It had already taken me two years to be able to sing before Peter and Stijn. But Pieter-Paul and I seemed to be on the same wavelength. He would immediately understand when I needed some space. No one could have better counselled me on my singing.”

“We’d emailed Jesse and he seemed to be immediately enthusiastic. When he replied using sushi emojis, we thought, okay, this dude is as right up our alley. This is the one.”

The band was intent on recording at GAM studios again, but when they put together their wish lists for producers, one name appeared in each and every list: Jesse Gander. Stefanie: “We’d emailed Jesse and he seemed to be immediately enthusiastic. When he replied using sushi emojis, we thought, okay, this dude is as right up our alley. This is the one.” Peter: “White Lung and Japandroids are bands with just one guitar, like us. Jesse had made that one guitar sound just right. That’s why we went knocking on his door.”

Stefanie: “The passion for music that man exudes is just contagious. He lives only for his music and his projects. After the recordings, we lived at his place for a week.” Peter screams: “I want to go back!” All three members are particularly lyrical about their time in Vancouver and their collaboration with Gander. “He was not only our producer, he was our personal guide”, Peter recalls. “He helped define the sound of the guitar and the drums. He was also the one to make the call after testing a bunch of different singing mics. We’d appoint Jesse as a referee whenever we couldn’t make a decision. We worked really hard, but we had just as much fun. I’m quite sure that can be heard on the record.”

One day, I’ll write my memoirs about my days with Stefanie and Stijn

Things used to be nice and quiet. In 2015, weeks before Record Store Day, the schedule for BRUTUS remained frighteningly empty. No sulking was done though, as BRUTUS promptly decided to organise their own feat and conned a Tattoo Store Day. At a friend’s tattoo shop, they played their new single on repeat and true fans were invited to get some BRUTUS ink. Who’d be that crazy, right? Well, eleven boys and gals have shown tremendous courage and are now stamped for life, adorned with tattoos designed by the band. Branding done right.

Peter: “It’s odd that it’s been almost a year since we recorded the album. Before that, we played loads of concerts and festivals like Desertfest, Dour and Boomtown. We were on a roll, unstoppable.” Stefanie: “Björn (Ampersand / Toutpartout), Steven (Toutpartout) and Thomas (Devil in a Box) advised us to take a break, though. That mini sabbatical hiatus allowed us to mentally prepare for what’s to come. Because it’s kind of crazy, all these things that are planned to happen. We’ve never been this busy. It’s a good thing Peter is our Master of Deadlines, because Stijn and I are just a bunch of headless chickens.” Peter: “One day, I’ll write my memoirs about my days with Stefanie and Stijn. I’m respectively nine and seven years older than they are. That might have a little something to do with it. Two years ago, Stefanie didn’t even own an calendar. Good luck trying to plan anything!”

Burst will be distributed through Hassle Records, who raised hands in praise as soon as they heard the first demo. “Being signed on Hassle immediately has an impact”, says Peter. “We’re being noticed by British radio stations and magazines, so hopes for some gigs abroad are on the rise.” Stefanie chimes in: “If this keeps up, we’ll end up losing our day jobs. There’s not much family time either. But the drive between the three of us is unbelievable. BRUTUS is the one band we’ll do anything for. No matter what.”

BRUTUS will soon play at a concert hall near you. Ear protection is advised.

Peter Mulders: Bass
Stijn Vanhoegaerden: Guitar
Stefanie Mannaerts: Drums & Vocals

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