The Groningen Report
On thursady, january the 12th – 2017 I had an interview with Robin Verheyen, co-founder, saxophone player and composer of the Belgian jazz-punk-rock group “TaxiWars”. The planning was, to meet dEUS frontman and co-founder of “TaxiWars” Tom Barman as well, but some train issues made this impossible. Robin and myself met in the evening in the very busy Artist Village, just one hour before their soundcheck in the Machinefabriek, Groningen.
“TaxiWars” from Antwerp, with saxophone player Robin Verheyen, singer Tom Barman, bass player Nicolas Thys and drummer Antoine Pierre “combines lyrics, poetry and jazz grooves with a rock intensity and reminds of a New York’s answer to hip-hop in the late eighties”, jazz writer, educator and New York concert promoter Ashley Kahn wrote.
During ESNS17 I had the big pleasure to meet and talk with Robin Verheyen for short but intense and very open 35 minutes.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Welcome and many thanks for making this interview possible tonight. Of course, it is a big surprise for me, to meet only you, but a train problem can always happen and I just hope, this won’t result in problems for your concert tonight. The last days and nights I was able to read some “TaxiWars” stories already, of course not the dirty ones.
Robin Verheyen: (Laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: I saw, you live right in New York right now?
Robin Verheyen: That’s correct. I’ve been there for ten years now.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You studied in Belgium but also in Holland and the Manhattan School of Music. One of you teachers was Dave Liebman.
Robin Verheyen: Yes, that’s correct.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You moved to New York in 2006 and you played with all the big guys already! How did you manage all this?
Robin Verheyen: When I was very young, I started meeting a lot of great musicians already. I started first in Belgium, when I was 15, 16 years old and I started playing already with all the well known musicians in Belgium. Then I started with a tour and I also met a lot of interesting people in Amsterdam. I even lived in Paris for a while. After that I moved to New York. To me it’s all about listening. I’m a very dedicated listener. And I think, every great musician can sense that, when you’re a listener. Every great musician has this ability too. When you have this quality, it is easy to make music. It doesn’t matter, what age you are. When you play with Gary Peacock, he is 78 years old now, he will be with you because he understands you follow him, that you are listening. The other thing is, you need this ability to play well on your instrument with a unique sound. That is of course years of work. For me, that was a main point of focus, I maybe committed to this for many years. I also think, there are a lot of players, who don’t do that. And this you really can hear. For me, listening is incredibly important. Marc Copland told me the same thing in the beginning, when we met, and Marc is 68 years old now. We met about 5 or 6 years ago in Paris. In the beginning of my music career, there was mostly only sound that attracted me. I think, when people go out and listen to a band, the first thing they hear is the sound. If the sound is not there, then there is nothing. That’s the really important thing to realise. Of course you also have to love to meet the right people and you have to work really hard.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: When it’s not flowing, you have to work harder.
Robin Verheyen: Yes, you have to work really hard and push and make your own bands work very well. One of my favorite stories, that really blow me away is this one: I was playing at the Jazz Middelheim Festival with Marc Copland, Joey Barron and Gary Peacock. We were almost finishing the gig and I looked to the left side of the stage and there I saw Charles Lloyd standing. He is one of my special big heroes! Later I heard, he was coming from the airport, sitting in the car, and the driver had the festival on the radio with me playing with my band. And Charles said: I wanna go there and listen. That is one of the most beautiful compliments you can get of course. When a musician of that statue likes your music very much, that he comes and stands next to the stage, and listen to you. Wow!
It just takes time because you know, at that age, you might say: I want to go the the hotel and sleep. But he came to the concert!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Recently I talked with Adam Nussbaum, he was teaching here in Groningen at the Prins Claus Conservatorium. This music conservatoire has a direct connection with great and famous musicians from New York.
Robin Verheyen: That’s right! Joris Teepe organises this.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Many really interesting musicians are coming through this link to Groningen. I talked with Matt Wilson several times already and I have to say, these musicians are unbelievable! They have so many great stories to share.
Robin Verheyen: It’s incredible. I know and love Matt as well. He is a really really great person and great musician. He went through a lot. Amazing to see how motivated he still is to do his thing.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: I read, there was a jazz magazine in France, in 2009, they said, you Robin, are one of the top leading 12 saxophone players of all Europe, among big names like Christoph Lauer and Trygve Seim.
Robin Verheyen: Yes, I was really flattered by them and their statement. That was a surprise for me, seeing that. Of course, it made me very happy. I know some of the journalists, who work for that magazine, but I never lobbied! (We both are laughing). Definitely not. It’s great, when you get this kind of recognition. Then you think also, that all the hard work was a good investment. Of course, sometimes, no one sees you, and it’s fine too. (But in this case, they did.) Sometimes, even when you don’t get rewarded, it makes you work even harder and you become better. I mean, I definitely don’t have the intention to think I am the best or anything like that. I just want to become better every day. I try to learn as much as possible from all kind of different people. This project “TaxiWars” is a very good example. Especially the co-operation with Tom Barman. I didn’t know so much of the music of dEUS before we started. When I was a teenager I might have heard one record and I remember, I liked it but it wasn’t like the sound of my new direction, you know? But when we met, some years ago, I recorded a bit for Magnus, it’s an electronic music project and I directly felt, we shared the same kind of vibe and a really strong vision of music and making plans together. Working together now for the last three years I learned a lot. In a totally different way than I would learn from any jazz musician. Tom has a very organic approach to work with music. That is actually very similar in its way to any jazz musician, but it really comes more from the belly and that is great. We musicians, with all the schools where we learn about music, we start getting intellectual. Then to work with somebody who is based in the feeling for music and the vibe, that brings you back to what’s really essential in music. Our co-operation made me much stronger and my other jazz productions too. Because now I can find that same energy or that same vibe in all the other projects as well. Even though the music can be very different.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You are also one of the founders of “TaxiWars”, together with Tom. Tom is organising the singing parts, the lyrics and you are composing the music most of the time?
Robin Verheyen: Well, usually how it goes is, I come with ideas about music, I write a hole bunch of tunes. Then we get together, we rehearse, we play all and listen again and we start looking how to combine all in the best way. Sometimes he finds it, sometimes not. Then we drop it and continue differently. Usually for an album we have about twenty songs and there are twelve left then, twelve are used.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: That’s already a lot!
Robin Verheyen: Yes! Of course, the longer we play with the band, the better I know the band and the better I know Tom, the better I know how to write for the band. Right now, it is a bit strange, because two of us dropped and I can feel better what the band needs. Sometimes you have a song, that is a bit more difficult and the band just needs some rehearsals. We know the songs first of all needs to be played well, before Tom can actually judge, like: oh, there is something we can do! We work together and Tom has just a very smart way of getting into these tunes. Sometimes they are pretty simple, sometimes they are very complex, but he always fits in to them very well.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Can you describe the sound of “TaxiWars”? What is exactly happening in the music?
Robin Verheyen: I think, from the music perspective, I was of course influenced a lot by living in New York and its downtown world there and all those different angles. But the same time also I never thought particulary about composing rock music. But just thinking about writing for the band makes me write differently. It is hard to describe the sound, it is for sure not traditional jazz what we do. It is kind of a huge mix of different things, maybe in a way it is jazz and funk, because it can really hit you in your face. A lot of the songs we do are shorter, 3 to 4 minutes long.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Really that short?
Robin Verheyen: Yeah! It starts and it ends in a boom! With this we get people to dance. There are moments, it can be abstract, but there are also moments, where its grooving and people are dancing. then there is the exception to do longer versions too like we did on our album Fever. There are 7 minutes long versions as well. The beginning of the project was focused on doing short songs. Still I think this is mostly the case. But sometimes you write something and it just needs the kind of space to breathe. Then you have to follow the music of course. Those songs work really well on the album and this kind of gives the album room to breathe.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: There are also lyrics in your songs. I heard, that the message are about conflicts and problems. That is the basis of all lyrics in “TaxiWars”.
Robin Verheyen: Well, Tom could explain this better than I do, but what I can say…
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Now it’s up to you and I give you space for the dirty jokes!
Robin Verheyen: Exactly (laughing)! I think, the first album was mostly based on the whole story of “TaxiWars”. That’s how the name came up and it was more Tom’s way of storytelling about everything that can happen when you are traveling as a musician, being in a cab, all those different stories come together. The second album is more personal, in the sense that there are more personal conflicts and love songs, there is for example one song Tom wrote for his girlfriend. In the song “Egyptian Nights” Tom describes a fight he had with one of his close friends. Other stories in our albums can be more abstract and they do not have to be necessarily about a certain thing. That’s to my opinion the part of the jazz vibe in our music. To have that freedom. Poets can do so too. You have different interpretations of something and every moment can be different. It’s a rare thing, to improvise with lyrics on stage. But sometimes it happens. Those moments, when you feel something and you just go for it, which is beautiful. We have this kind of freedom that still everything can happen on stage. Every night is really different. Even when we play almost the same music, there is in the sound still freedom for things to be different, like creating space for improvisation.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: What for you is the magic to play in this band?
Robin Verheyen: One thing now, which is very unique, we had the opportunity to play more than 150 gigs during the last two years.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: It sounds, you are a really succesful Rock ‘n’ Roll band!
Robin Verheyen: Yeah! And that quality we have to sound like a real band. That’s a really big thing. When we went to the studio for recording our second album, the band was so much more confident than we were during the recording of our first album. The whole scene became telepathic, things just happened and we went for it. For me, these magic moments are the most incredible ones I can have on stage with other musicians. Playing with others, where you can completely loose yourself in the music. When you just play without thinking about anything anymore. When this happens and you are in front of 2.000 people, that’s magic!
One of the most remarkable gigs we played last year was when we played on the OFF Festival in Poland near Kattowice. A great festival with a lot of alternative rock bands that played there but also more unknown bands. But the polish people are always very willing to discover new things. The tent where we played was packed and I’m sure, half of those people never heard of us before. But they all were totally with us and they were a very young audience. That is one of the most beautiful things, with this band we can reach really young audiences and get them to really appreciate jazz or get them to learn that jazz can be like this, like our way. There are so many forms of this music, it’s not just this or Kenny G. or whatever they think jazz is.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: TaxiWars‘ music is very much a rythmically sound.
Robin Verheyen: Absolutely, right. It has that pulse and the energy, people can dance with. They can get into the groove. Sometimes these things are complex, but people do not stop grooving, because the sound has beats that are more unfamiliar. In the end all those things do not matter at all anymore. That’s why I think me and Tom have a release process, because we both are big fans of that grunge and spiritual players of the sixties, like Archie Shepp or John Coltrane of course and even Wayne Shorter. There is always this raw expression of energy.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: It’s kind of the cry for freedom. The black jazz and the free jazz come together there!
Robin Verheyen: Yeah! But even, we do not want to copy those gentlemen. We, the white guys from Belgium try not to sound like anything like that. But it is part of my life, of our life! Even how I grew up and with whom I played until now in America and around. So it is part of who I am also and it just comes out in a different way. It’s all about this vibe and the energy being there. And I think, people can feel that very well.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: When you put elements in music together, like punk and jazz, then you know, you can dance. You know, you can give yourself totally to this music, to this energy. There were also groups like James Blood Ulmer or Odeon Pope and their energy is amazing electrifying.
Robin Verheyen: Right! It’s great music and whenever we play on a jazz festival or in another jazz setting, we always try to start and put the jazz away (laughing). You can get up and you see people all the time moving in their chairs. Then it’s time to get up! (Laughing). Do not be afraid to get up! People can really feel this special experience. I mean, even music programmers want to get rid of the whole idea, even in the classical music, that people have to sit still in their chairs during a concert. For some degree for certain music I do enjoy that. Then you need kind of absolute silence to be able to listen to something. But is doesn’t have to be necessarily the only way to appreciate music.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: How do you compose for “TaxiWars”?
Robin Verheyen: I write a lot of tunes with the piano but I also write on the Fender Rhodes. For the first album I wrote songs just before rehearsing, like in the middle of the night, even while traveling by plane. Airplanes actually are a good place to write music (laughing). After such a situation in a plane we had a rehearsal the next day and we tried all and Tom said: Okay, let’s do it. There are a lot of different ways to write for this band for me. I always think first about the musicians of the band, what makes them sound good and their particular qualities on their instruments and how they play. I think, for any composer it is important to be aware of them. I just finished a project on music from Bach, The Musical Offering (Das Musikalische Opfer). The premiere will happen next week. After this concert at Eurosonic I’m traveling to Belgium and we will start rehearsing (laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: I hope, you will not mix all the sounds!
Robin Verheyen: Exactly (laughing)! Like that I really was also thinking about playing with a prepared piano and Bach has a very specific universe and things he did. I really try to think of how I can make him sound good and how I can bring the music to this quality. From the first moment on, when they proposed this project to me to do, I knew, I would love to do something with this music very much, but it took a while to figure out, who the musicians were that I wanted for that project. I wanted to do something unique, not just to sound like a bunch of sounds related to Bach. I think, even a lot of classical composers today are much more aware of that. They talk to people in ensembles when they write chamber music and really talk to the musicians personally. All the great composers, like Shostakovich, he composed this really famous cello concerto and he wrote it for Rostropovich. I know, they both had many many conversations about how to do specific things with the cello, “is this too difficult” or “how can we go into it”. And I’m sure he was thinking of Rostropovich‘s sounds. I think it’s really important for a composer, just to be aware of that. Who is going to play the piece. It is a specific thing when you write. I had the case some years ago, when I wrote my first big scale classical work. I was supposed to have a classical singer, her name is Claron McFadden but I couldn’t do it. Then I had to find somebody else. It was not easy and I’m very happy with Katrien Baerts, she is a great singer and she lives in Amsterdam. It was a great job with her, but there were one or two songs in it, which was clear, it wasn’t written for her. You know Claren McFadden? She is an american singer based in Amsterdam and she’s in Europe definitely one of the top ten, like opera singers. She is very flexible and she also has a really good knowledge of the blues. So, there were things in my work, that were really specifically with that blues background in mind, of course, when you give it to a completely classical singer, that part gets all. But then I had to re-work on it a little bit and it was fine. But it is very strong, writing for somebody.
We had a few instances in this band “TaxiWars”, for one gig we had to replace the drummer or the bass player, because of some schedule conflicts. It’s not easy, it’s never easy, especially when you have played more than 150 gigs together. Then when someone new comes in and just has to be in there, it’s an almost impossible act. And all becomes very different. Which of course we can accept. In such a situation it becomes a different gig, a different vibe and it’s always very complex and hard. In a pure jazz context it’s a little easier to do that together. Then we just play the music different that gig. But in general, you can’t change music too much. It’s a different approach.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: How is the situation for you, before you have a concert, just the few minutes before you go on stage. How are you then?
Robin Verheyen: It depends. With this band, the “TaxiWars”, we always stay together just the four of us in the last five to ten minutes before we go. We sit there in the dressing room, stay not necessarily quiet, but we are all focusing on the gig and sometimes we go and check some little details of the setlist. If we want to do something different than the night before. For me, I have to do some warm-up things on my saxophone, I play some wrong tones and stuff like that, just to get the sound going. That’s something, I do.
Now I have to talk about dirty jokes (laughing). About funny things that happen backstage, unexpected sometimes, even afterwards. Our drummer mainly did a nice montage of moments of our last tour, like a little dream clip. All the crazy stuff that happens to us, a pretty good laugh. Touring is really intense. When you are on the road for a month and you are playing every day and you are traveling every day, it is of course physically exhausting. So, you need to have that kind of humor for being able to laugh at each other, and it changes every couple of days, when someone else gets to be the one (laughing)! That is cool! We have to be able to kind of be hard on each other and laugh. Tom and myself love to have a coffee and a Calvados and then we start.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: You will have it tonight too?
Robin Verheyen: If they have Calvados, then probably yes (laughing).
Bernd Ihno Eilts: I also want to talk about your videos. Who creates them?
Robin Verheyen: Tom is working on our visual works, he is a movie director. Of course, I’m not afraid to give my opinion, but I do trust him and I know, he has a really good taste. The first video we did, he directed too and he had that strong idea. We talked about it and I like it, it was basically based on the video footage of Miles Davis playing So What, with Coltrane, that kind of broad camera angle with a camera looking over the musicians. We wanted to create a vibe in a different way, with a little audience in the clip and it looked really great and I was very happy with the result. I think, it is a different way for people to get to know the music.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: In these times we need video’s a lot!
Robin Verheyen: Exactly! It keeps people with it, because everybody knows, it’s a pretty short attention span, so they put on a song and after one minute they start to skip and so on (laughing). But having a video helps! It gives a different kind of focus and I think, it is a good thing to do. It is a great opportunity to do this work with this band and to approach it that way.
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Thank you very much for telling me all these dirty moments!
Robin Verheyen: (Laughing) It was my great pleasure!! (Laughing again!!) Come to us after the gig, if you can!
Bernd Ihno Eilts: Great idea, thank you very much, we will take some pictures later!
Robin Verheyen: Sure! My pleasure!
Upcoming concerts: May 14: Jazz Festival – Roeselare, Belgium. July 7: Pohoda Festival, Trencin, Slovakia. July 9: Les Ardentes, Liege, Belgium. July 10: OLT, Antwerp, Belgium. July 15: Super Bock super Rock, Lisbon, Portugal. July 18: Paleo Festival, Nyon, Switzerland.
Interview: Bernd Ihno Eilts
Photography: Zoltan Acs