The Groningen Report
STUFF. is not belgian chocolate, is not belgian beer. STUFF. is a 5-headed instrumental cyclops that takes you through a journey of mashed up grooves and eclectic sounds (written by STUFF. itself). Of course they are from Belgium. Band members are: Andrew Claes (EWI wind instrument), Dries Laheye (bass), Lander Gysellnck (drums), Mixmonster Menno (turntables) and Joris Caluwaerts (keyboards).
In Groningen, I had the very big chance to talk with Andrew Claes after the soundcheck, and afterwards enjoying an unbelievable brilliant concert, both in the Grand Theatre, December 3, 2017.
The very good news is, Germany does not need to wait so long anymore to enjoy this magically band live.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: In an earlier interview you said, your music could not exist in New York. The musical understanding is too different for that kind of music. The traditions coming from Europe are different from those ones in NYC. Can you explain that?
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: I think, beside all differences, New York is still the finest city to play contemporary jazz based music. But the thing we were pointing at, is that everybody from outside New York and the United States have this dream, like myself as a saxophone player. One time, during studying I reached the point “maybe I should go to New York”. But the question was and still is: Why? Is it because you need to become that great saxophone player there? Mostly all big and famous players started in that big scene there. But what we as STUFF. are doing, is not really jazz. I have the feeling, if you go to New York, you want to play in a jazz club. If you are in Belgium or in another country, then it’s maybe easier to get over the barriers of styles.
In New York, if you are a jazz player, you might not listen to Squarepusher or Aphex Twin, you are listening mostly to jazz! And you are into the whole jazz scene from the moment on you are entering that spot and want to be part of it. I think, it’s more the opposite in European cities. Here we came together with a jazz background, but I was never interested in becoming that big jazz saxophone player. The jazz scene is very small and right now we are much more open to other influences. The concentration of the quality of jazz is really big in New York City. If you come into a more deluded city, style-wise, it’s maybe easier to get a mix of styles, which we are trying to pursue with STUFF. actually. I was playing in another project with Zach Danziger, a New York based very excellent jazz drummer. He came to Europe and he found us and was talking about that. He said: “You can never find a saxophone player which is mostly inspired by Acid (house) Basslines”. You wouldn’t go and take all the trouble to go to New York, have an expensive apartment and play acid baselines in a jazz club. It is less likely to happen than going to a club where there are people dancing to a DJ and they say something like: “Okay, we have a spot for some live music”. And then you’re picking it, taking it over from the DJ, so you are more tempted to mix styles in a natural manner, not like “I’m gonna think about a new style”. Then it happens more natural. But there, in New York, it’s not happening like this easy, even to make a living from pure jazz saxophone playing. Other options would be playing also pop music, teaching and so on. But purely playing in a jazz quartet is very difficult.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: How did you get started?
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: I started playing classical guitar when I was nine years old. Then I moved to electric guitar and then the jazz came into my life, especially through the jazz academy where I studied, but I liked Jimi Hendrix more than Wes Montgomery. Then I discovered John Coltrane and started studying a lot at home and my neighbors told me, that might be kind of a problem, noise wise. Happily I discovered then the EWI (Electronic wind instrument) wind saxophone, which you can play with your headphones on, without any sound disturbance for others. That is how it started. I also played a little bit of electric bass on the music academy. But then I discovered this EWI has a big potential! You have Michael Brecker of course, Bob Mintzer and Steve Tavaglione playing this awesome instrument. What is interesting: there is so much unsaid on this instrument. When you play guitar you can be sure, in pop music already exist this big baggage of things that already happened on this instrument. The same situation we have actually with the tenor saxophone. When I play tenor and I listen back to what I was playing, I am sounding like someone who desperately wants to sound like John Coltrane or Wayne Shorter. But when you just change the instrument, suddenly it’s less of a problem, at least for me. I was listening to jazz music, alternative rock from the 60’s and 70’s and also for a big part to electronic music. All these influences came together in the EWI wind instrument. I started it as a practice instrument, because I could play silently, but in the end it was growing more and more towards even playing a synthesizer and then not just a normal synthesizer but even giving a little bit more expression to it. It is kind of a synthesizer where you are able to include using your breathe. This is not new but there are still a lot of stories waiting to be told on this marvelous instrument. For me this is very mind opening, a huge inspiration.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Your sound in STUFF. is a little bit weird to describe. There are critics saying, STUFF. sounds like mashed-up grooves, avant-garde-jazz-hip-hop and funk and electro, cross groove like broken hip-hop, spaced out future funk (which is originally described by Red Bull Music). What do you think?
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: We are becoming or inspired by or trying to be the next step after the taking over of the DJ actually. Jazz started out as mainly dance music and later became an intellectual artistic expression.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: As well as an spiritual expression.
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: Yes, this is also very important for myself. But I think, the spectrum of the sounds had a really big development in the 80’s, with the invention of the synthesized sounds and new studio recording techniques. Pop music and electronic music became a studio driven sound. If you listen to a pop band like INXS, there the drum sound is not natural. It’s maybe still a natural drum set, but the sound is very treated. The bands from the 80’s were not even able to play their sound in a live concert. If you see concerts of Depeche Mode or other bands from the 80’s, they had their tape recorder on stage. So they were not really playing live anymore. Later the DJ’s became part of the music scene, especially together with the techno music and trance. The people were going back into trance like they used to be in the past or in shamanism. If you now see big festivals, most of the time a DJ is the main act or the last act of a show. If you have a playing band, a rock band for example, that has to play after a DJ, who is playing deeper bass sounds, more controlled highs, mastered for the masses, then it’s really difficult to get the impact of a DJ as a band on stage. For us as a band, we were thinking like, how is this achievable. Normally you should be able as a five piece band to get more impact then a DJ.
But this is not happening. So we were thinking about a solution. It has a lot to do with the sound. You have a bass drum, but you also have the electronic very deep sounding bass drum. There is no acoustic bass drum that gives a sound like that. But nowadays, from the year 2010 on I think, the technology is becoming more fast and affordable enough to incorporate them into live music. I think, this is our starting point. To take it from where the DJ has ended. The DJ can bring this broad eclectic thing, can play all these hits one after another, the sound is really controlled. And that’s actually what we are trying to do. When we started playing in Gent, Belgium in the music club White Cat, our band member DJ Menno (Mixmaster) was actually playing sets there. We had to play our music after him and he just started playing with us then. Then we came back to the question, what jazz music is. Is it this style of music from the 20’s till the late 60’s or is it kind of a state of mind? Where you say and take contemporary music like “I Got Rythm”, some Frank Sinatra tunes, some Broadway tunes, which you all could hear on the radio in that era. That music became normal popular music and was totally different than an individual or group artistic expression which happened later. We were thinking in a jazz mind set and naturally that wouldn’t sound like jazz from the 60’s, because we are now in 2017. What kind of music do we like today? We like Flying Lotus and Plaid, some hip-hop artists, and we started just transcribing some themes making lead sheets like old school real book type things. We rehearsed a little bit, like two hours before the show and then we started out as a vehicle of improvisation, like really old school jazz vibe. But it sounds different, because this era is different. I think, when jazz started out, for me as a horn player, the saxophone was a really hip new instrument. For me the EWI is not totally new, but there is not much done on this instrument yet. It is really natural that someone like John Coltrane in the 50’s suddenly adapted the soprano saxophone. The soprano saxophone wasn’t really happening at that moment.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Avant-garde music is always coming back, even now with STUFF. When jazz came up in the 60’s, like with Thelonious Monk for example, in his time he was avant-garde as well. And he still is. He is still modern. Do you have something in common with Thelonious Monk?
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: It’s really tricky, because I think it is far too early to tell and it’s also not in my position to judge that. At least in Belgium we had really nice attention and even I can maybe give it the word “hype”. For us it’s like, how are we going to continue and keep things fresh. So that we can come out of this hype and become somehow settled or more firmly in the music scene. But if we were really avant-garde, I think it would be the same question. Avant-garde is a term for music to come, maybe in ten years. We are maybe edgy but maybe in ten years the format we are following is becoming mainstream. Then, in ten years from now, if that happened, then we were avant-garde, because we were there before this music style became mainstream. Then there is the question, how much influence do you have on the music history? I am not interested in that. History is writing itself and if people will tell in about 20 years from now, they were inspired by how I am playing the EWI in my particular way, then for sure I had some influence. But for now it’s much too early to tell.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Then it’s up to me to say, it is avant-garde!
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: (Laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: When I saw some of your live videos on Youtube the last nights, I got the idea, you could become the new Snarky Puppy, but then the new European way. But of course, also other ideas came up. You could become the new Zoviet France! If I can say this, Zoviet France was very important for me 20 years ago. But now I need a new important influence, this could be STUFF.!
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: Thank you! I think Belgium or this part of Europe, even Groningen here in The Netherlands is a very important city for the Dub scene actually and this sound that became EDM (Electronic dance music), which is actually even rooted in Groningen. In Antwerp and Gent we also have a big scene, we had already a big scene of electronic music, techno music and music to induce trance. I think in the US and even in the UK, where there is the more artistic kind of electronic music, like the IDM scene (Intelligent dance music), which is more UK based. I think especially in Belgium and Holland we have this culture of programming like: “We are not organizing a party with that one techno DJ, no we are doing a party for ten days long. With only techno DJ’s, where you can really go deep inside this kind of music”. In that way the US are more eclectic and they have more problems with getting people in this one mind set. That is maybe our advantage in compiling styles, which we want to use as an inspiration. Maybe we are already a little bit further on excepting the other side. Because we include rock music. In jazz music right now there is fusion going on with bands like The Bad Plus. There are also bands and artists with a more melodic idea like Brad Mehldau, who played some tunes from Radiohead and also Aphex Twin. It is a big advantage being from Europe, where everything is so very accessable.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Can you please tell me, what the message is of your sound and your music? What do you want to say?
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: We do, what we feel. We are not busy with being contemporary, we are just trying to be whatever happens or may lead us. If we then take some steps back for looking at what we are actually doing, then for me it is the same trend that should be happening even more in society. For me music is always a little bit like one step ahead of social changes. The last twenty years including today, there are a lot of cross influences from different cultures. If you go to the street in Antwerp, you see streets where everybody has a different nationality, really everybody. There are so many different nationalities. To talk about rock music, pop music, jazz music is the same then saying, ‘this is a Somali guy’, ‘this is a Moroccan guy’ and this we just don’t like. We try to be like checking out some bad Somalian music, but also some great Somalian music. There is some really shitty French music but there are also some big French artists, which are really inspiring. That’s what we want to create on stage. We are taking these influences from all these different styles, we try to make a new style out of it and we hope, this happens to society one day as well. That there are not just jazz players, pop players, ‘you are a Moroccan, you are from whatever’ but that everybody can say: “You are a nice guy” or “I don’t like you”. You don’t have to like everybody, but there shouldn’t be boundaries in styles, styles in the broader sense like the way you look, the way you maybe smell, where you’re from, all those things. That is our message, like being really eclectic but also trying to find out things. People now have difficulties to describe what we are doing. But I think, we are slowly arriving being recognizable. It is something, it is not like a patchwork, it’s STUFF. But STUFF. is a combination of patchwork. This is our message.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: It is not a secret, that a lot of brilliant stuff is coming from Belgium. Not just chocolate and beer, but also brilliant music. All the time, again and again. Do you know, what the secret is about Belgian music? Why there is so much brilliant music coming from that small country? And where are you from actually?
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: The drummer and the DJ are from Gent and the rest including myself is from Antwerp. If I may speak about my own hometown Antwerp, if I’m correct, there are more different nationalities living in Antwerp then in New York. It’s a small harbor city but it’s the next big one to Rotterdam, it is the number three of the largest container harbor cities in the world. That is one important fact, there is a lot of movement already in Antwerp. The other important fact is, we don’t have a strong sense of identity. Like you told, there is a lot of brilliant stuff coming from Belgium but we are not really proud of all the Belgium greatness. We do not have a strong tradition like that, our tradition is to incorporate other traditions and to be not so fond of our own. Then we are not really big talkers. It’s more that everybody has its own space. That’s my opinion.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: When you started to work with STUFF., you improvised on loops from samples. For my idea, just to think about this, it’s just great! It can be really energizing. How did it feel to work like that and what’s the difference now? Now the music is completely composed?
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: It was a very important first phase to get to know what STUFF. is at that moment. We really had that thing, to try many things out but for me, it was my first band where I was really playing 100 percent only the Electronic wind instrument (EWI).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Sounds interesting, electronic wind!
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: Yes (laughing)! Now actually we do the same, but we start writing our own samples first. That’s the only difference. And still, if we are not inspired or if we play a lot like nowadays, we are still listening to samples and then someone maybe comes with an eight measure. Another important thing is, because we play on samples, the great division is, we don’t take a computer as a true clock. We do not play with the sample, we are playing the samples. Then the sample can stop. Like a hip hop band, you see a lot of MC’s with a DJ and he plays with the clock. We do it the opposite direction. The DJ is actually playing the Acapella, only the vocal part and is sinking in real time and we are playing the beats. We just do it the other way round. That’s another very important phase, that we went through. It’s just the opposite. The things we saw happening in the hip hop scene, like with one turntableist and one MC: All the attention goes to the singer. It’s important to not be a slave to the computer clock. If you have something going on with a beat, then the drummer is actually forced to follow the computer. In an organic mindset I’m more thinking, our timing is right and the computer is just not moving. If you see old pop music, it’s really normal, when you go to the chorus to go a little bit faster and when you go back to the verse, you slow down. But there were ten or fifteen years where everything had to be on the click track and you don’t have that anymore. That’s really weird.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: This is new! And avant-garde!
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: (Laughing)!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What inspired you the last seven days to make your sound a little bit more rich?
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: I have been an insomniac for a long time, from when I was 12 years old until 18. Then I discovered this audio visual stimulation technology, which is actually a brain wave device. It use glasses with LED’s and it strobes LED’s. You have to close your eyes, you have also headphones and it takes you in a kind of guided meditation, but on a really abstract level. It takes your brain frequency really down until you fall in sleep or you go to meditate the natural way. Since the last 6 months I’m going back a little to this insomnia state and I searched the internet and noticed they have a new model. That one I bought and that is what really inspired me now. Even when I travel in the van I can take it with me and it is a really powerful meditation which is really nice. It is difficult to stay focused or relaxed in this busy environment. Then it’s just really inspiring, when you are able to explore these different head spaces without taking any hallucinogenic drugs or something, it’s a biological thing happening, something in between of hypnosis and meditation and it is really much inspiring.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: I noticed, STUFF. made music for a fashion show, for Dries van Noten and his men’s summer show 2018. Please explain!
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: Dries likes our music, he heard our record and he contacted our manager. For his show he used a piece of Miles Davis and asked for two songs of our album. Then he organized someone to connect these two components. It’s not like they play our tracks, but they made a special mix or melange of our music for his models to work with. I’m flattered, I love it!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What do you like the most of each other in the band?
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: Everyone is a really different personality with a different background. But we all have one goal, which is to make STUFF. as good as it can get. This means also, we do not force anything or any member at all. This creates the space, where magic can happen. We all together, this five piece band is working like one unit, which is post-individualistic. We decide as an individual but it’s better to be none individualistic, because the collective will benefit from that. It is an individual choice, but it’s not an individualistic choice. Everybody, regardless what the other thinks, has this abstract focus which is really something special. Everyone from this group absolutely respects this.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What do you want to find in music?
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: For me it means, I play for a certain reason. Because music comes to me. I am not active searching for another band or another concert. If the universe wants me to play, I play. That’s my only focus. I will accept, whatever comes. My only focus is that I trust, I might put someone else on fire when I play. Then he or she also gets it, like a wow effect. Then this person could realize: “Maybe the world is as eclectic as these strange guys on stage. Maybe I should enjoy it!” That’s what I want, as a musician. As a band, we want to grow, that’s our main focus. Growing without changing our initial plan to never sell out, never do something because it would give us benefits in some materialistic way. That we can grow without burning ourselves, because that can be like a threat for your creativity.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What kind of person are you in private, when there is no music around?
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: I am programming a lot. I make my own synthesizers and create new possibilities. In my private life I am searching for the goal of life actually (laughing)! I’m more into meditation, even prayers. I want to find out what’s this all about. I’m inspired by and want to be, even in a very short time if possible, like my heroes are. If I hear Prince or Bob Marley talking, or when I hear Wayne Shorter in an interview. They are all talking about the music but it’s really clear for me, it’s not what they play, it’s all about the individual background, that makes someone play like they do. John Coltrane too is a big inspiration. He studied the notes and I studied the notes too, but then, when you open the album “A Love Supreme” you discover a big long text inside. What it’s all about, it’s so magic! It’s about God! So, everybody talks about “A Love Supreme” and the beauty of its music. But the message is really clear in your face, what’s this about. I’m focused to not going around that message anymore. I have the impression, our culture right now is really going and walking in a big circle around this message. Instead of reaching it and entering it. What are they afraid of? It’s really nice to hear some music historian talking about “A Love Supreme”, but it must be really more inspiring to search an interview where John Coltrane is talking about it himself. Then it’s a totally different story. I see this with a lot of people actually. This is what’s happening in my private life. Then I want to become a great father, because I became a dad 7 month ago.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What advice would you give your son, when he becomes ten years old? Could you give any general advice to people, who want to be successful in life or in music?
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: In my personal believe system, we are more like bees and we all have our place. There are some energies that push us to make choices, which actually we as individuals don’t want to make. My advice would be: Get to know what you want to do. I think, deep down everybody knows what he has to do. If everybody would do that, we would have people, who are working in a bar, people, who are cleaning the floor, people who are cooking and people, who play music. Interesting for me is, that I do not really want to be a touring musician. But it happened that I am. So I have to do this, even if I don’t feel like it. But I feel, this is my purpose. I think, everybody has this purpose and it shouldn’t be something from the post-Elvis kind of society, where we say something like: ‘Wow, those musicians or actors are great, maybe they are even gods’. That is just bullshit. If everybody got to know what he or she really wants, the world would be a fantastic place. But there are mostly older people who say: ‘You have to drink this, you have to wear this, you have to be a doctor, you have to be a musician, you have to be famous, you need a lot of likes on your Facebook’. But that’s actually not coming from themselves. Even the way we discover advertising and stuff like that, it’s about the people who think it should be, it’s more a wish, but not reality. That really defuses our mind, so we don’t know, what we really want. That would be my advice. Take enough time to get to know what YOU really want. Then everything would become clear and maybe even easy.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Thank you very much Andrew!
STUFF. / Andrew Claes: Thank you!
For more information about STUFF., please check: www.facebook.com/STUFF.isthebandname/
Photography by Zoltan Acs.
Interview by Bernd Ihno Eilts.
December 19th – XJAZZ live, Kantine am Berghain, Berlin, Germany.
December 23rd – STUFF. With Geroezemoes. Afterparty: Chase The Nomad.
Muziekclub De Zwerver, Leffinge, Belgium.