Vitalic: fat beats and tall stories

Vitalic, photo by Lisa Carletta -
Vitalic, photo by Lisa Carletta

When electronic musician Vitalic, aka 33-year-old Frenchman Pascal Arbez, released his Poney EP in 2001, its thrashy guitar-tinged electrohouse sound set the tone for years afterwards. At the same time, Arbez indulged in a touch of Gallic mischief by creating outlandish fictional biographies in his interviews. The Big Issue caught up with him as he began a new European tour.

What bands have you’ve encountered recently that you like?

Last week I was in Leeds and Reading festivals and saw Deadmau5, he’s not popular in France but here in front of a really busy crowd it was spectacular. An album I’m listening to a lot is La Roux. I really love the Lifelike remixes, I prefer them to the original. It’s like French disco. And I love Major Lazer’s dancehall reggae.

When you started recording as Vitalic you made these stories, claiming to be Ukrainian and a former prostitute. Why the man-of-mystery routine? It was not planned, really. Before the release of the first album the label asked me to provide them with a biography. I thought, maybe I could fake something for fun and see what happens. I had a contract with another record company so I thought I’d try and be someone else to not upset anyone. At the beginning it was really cool, but they discovered me eventually.

Do people still ask you whether it’s all true? Yeah, people still ask me. I don’t regret it at all, it was funny.

The new album’s called Flashmob. What do you think of flashmobs? I think they’re a bit weird, a bit fun. In the UK they’ve become a bit commercial which is not the case elsewhere. I like the process – people who don’t know each other meet to do something crazy together just for a few minutes and than then go home.

I suppose once you see it in mobile phone adverts it loses something. Yeah, it’s not about performing any more, it’s about selling things

In France there’s a big underground techno scene. Did you go to raves when you were growing up? I was never really into that super hardcore sound, I liked music festivals with bands. We did used to have small free parties with 1,000 or 2,000 people which were great fun, a good size so you feel you know everybody.

Flashmob seems a bit mellower than the first album, you’ve dropped that thrashy, rock sound. Is that a conscious decision? Well, when everybody’s doing the same thing, you have to move to something different, refresh your ears.

You were quoted as saying techno is boring. What are referring to? At the time, around 2000, everybody was copying [legendary Detroit techno producer] Jeff Mills, everyone was a fake Jeff Mills. I have the same feeling now, now that electroclash, minimal sound is everywhere – it’s very boring.

Being devil’s advocate, the techno purist would say that 90s style of minimal techno influenced by Detroit and Tresor Records, it works by building up many layers of percussion into an irresistible, hard, funky groove. The electrohouse style is just a house beat with a big bassline, or a big keyboard stab. Do you think it’s too simplistic? No depth to it? I think it’s a question of taste, it’s difficult to say what’s simple or not. I think the most difficult thing is to find is a good bassline. The more you put in layers of drums and things then the more you lose the melody.

How do you play live? The bass and drums are pre-programmed, I have blocks of drum loops and bass leads. I vocode the vocals and play with the loops and use synthesisers, but I don’t play the melodies by hand.

We have the Kanye West album in the office… it’s too much. Is this the end of the vocoder? I think it’s more the end of autotune rather than vocoder. Vocoder keeps some of the voice’s frequencies, it’s different. I am a bit fed of up autotune. It’s very easy but it’s effective, that’s why it’s everywhere.

I blame Cher. Oh yes – Life after Love. Ha, I remember when I was living in Guilford…

I’m sorry. I was a student, it was great. That song was massive here, it was everywhere.

What were you studying? Economics.

So you’ve managed to avoid having an economics day job? So far. It’s more fun being a musician.

Both albums work as albums, not just a collection of singles – there are dancefloor and mellow tracks. Is there a difference in how you write them? Do they come from a different part of you? I think it’s a question of mood. It would be very difficult to write a dance track if I’m not feeling it. It’s not an exercise. I don’t sit down and say: today I will write a sad track.

The track Alain Delon particularly sounds very Jean Michel Jarre, it has that atmospheric, analogue keyboard sound. Is he a big influence? In France it’s bad taste to say you like Jarre. Many musicians admire him but will never tell. I don’t like his new stuff, it’s too cheesy, but his early work, Oxygene and Rendevous… He has a talent for programming and melody.

You track Still has a strange, Romanian gypsy, almost tribal sound to the vocal. Who is that singing? It’s just my voice, through lots of effects (laughs).

Really? Just your voice? The marvels of technology. I don’t have sessions with Romanian singers.

Someone called you the Wagner of techno. Do you think that’s a compliment? You think it’s not a compliment?

I don’t know, what do you think? Well… I’m no friend of Hitler. I don’t know if it’s a compliment, but it’s a good description at least.

Have you played any festivals this summer? Leeds and Reading, Lowlands and Pinkpop in Holland.

I keep meaning to go to I love Techno in Belgium. I’m playing there this year. I’ve been three times – if you like techno, it’s the place to go.

The thing about British festivals is you just know it’s going to rain. I saw a t-shirt at Reading, it said ‘It’s not the same without the rain’. I think you English like it really.

Vitalic plays live at Matter in the 02 Dome on November 28. Flashmob is out now on Play It Again Sam.


[This article was originally published in The Big Issue, October 2009]


Soulwax: still tearing up the musical landscape

Stephen & David Dewaele - Soulwax/2ManyDJs

Two brothers whose musical prowess fuels three different live shows return to Britain for a festival-fuelled summer as their two alter-egos, 2ManyDJs and Soulwax.

Stephen and David Dewaele hit the radar after being largely responsible for reinventing the remix when, as 2ManyDJs, they dismantled over 40 records and rebuilt them by mixing riffs and vocals from different tracks. Their triple-gold 2002 album As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt 2 neatly vaults across decades and genres, from Peaches to the Velvet Underground, from The Stooges to Salt ‘n’ Pepa, from Lil Louis’ house classic French Kiss to Belgian ravers the Lords of Acid.

These days such musical mashups appear every other week on bootlegged white labels, but the brothers spent two years embroiled in what must be the world’s most dedicated act of licence clearing. From 114 chosen recordings, 62 of the owners refused permission and 11 could not be traced. Even the cover artwork caused a legal wrangle after the owner complained of his photograph being mashed up along with the music on the record.

Speaking from his hometown of Ghent in Belgium, Stephen says: “I don’t think we could ever make a record like that again. It was pretty special, at a musical level and on a clearing level, it’s something no one had ever done before.

“Musically it was at the right time, a lot of dance music was still house music, very anal about itself in my opinion. We were just rock kids, going hey, this is fun, but we just don’t want to groove out for 12 minutes, we want to rock for one minute and then move on to something else.”

But even before their 2ManyDJs radio shows, albums and DJ sets, the brothers had been working hard at Soulwax, their bluesy sometimes almost psychedelic rock band whose sound has become gradually more infected with dirty electronic sounds and dancefloor beats, from their 1996 debut Leave the Story Untold, to 1999s breakthrough album Much Against Everyone’s Advice followed by Any Minute Now in 2005.

It’s a combination popular enough to have found favour with most indie rockers over the last decade, from Franz Ferdinand to Interpol.

How did a Belgium rock act end up spearheading an invasion of electronic dance rhythms into tight-trousered guitar music worldwide?

“Out of boredom, really,” he says. “When you’re in a band you play live but waste so much time before and after just hanging around. We’d support other bands and we’d be free so we’d ask the DJ, who most of the time would be playing house music, if we could play, and most of the time they’d be happy. We wanted to hear something different. We need the chaos.”

It is Soulwax’s standout remixes of the likes of Justice, Klaxons, LCD Soundsystem, Hot Chip and The Gossip that has put them in such high demand.

Stephen says: “The electronic sound has always been in us, from the very first Soulwax record. We grew up on stoner rock, but even then we were interested in using electronics. We just never have imagined 2ManyDJs would have become so big, or that our remixes would become so big.”

In fact, their native Ghent hosts I Love Techno, a massive technofest every year in November for 35,000 ravers, and is the home to pioneering techno label R&S records, so their love of dark electronic noises and pulsing rhythms comes with a good pedigree.

“That Frank de Wulf [leading Euro techno DJ], he’s a friend of mine,” recalled Stephen. “I lent him all my Kraftwerk records when I was 15 when he had a radio show. I bumped into him the other day, and realised I keep forgetting my hometown is at the heart of techno.”

He adds: “For us, I really love DJing, playing music live, writing music and producing music for other people too. I’m very lucky that we’re able to do all these things with a fair amount of success,” he laughs, “because we never planned on it.”

And the chance to see the before and after effects of their treatment has not been missed – “We used to play the original Gossip track [Standing In The Way Of Control] before anyone else, we’d DJ and see everyone go nuts on it. We thought, this is a rock track with a dance feeling to it, but it just needs to get beefed up. We remixed it for no money and when you see the result it’s really gratifying.”

This month sees the release of Part of the Weekend Never Dies, a “film-slash-documentary” of the last three years touring around the world, part live show and part behind-the-scenes footage featuring some of the bands Soulwax gigged with: Erol Alkan, Tiga, Justice, Busy P, So-Me, Peaches, Kitsuné and Klaxons.

The full Radio Soulwax tour sees Stephen on guitar and vocals and David on keyboards play alongside Stefaan Van Leuven and Steve Slingeneyer as the Soulwax live band. They belt out not just own rock tracks but also their many successful remixes of other artists and the work they have done remixing themselves, Nite Versions.

Released in 2005, Nite Versions is a dancefloor-friendly re-imagining of their third album Any Minute Now with a hat-tip to the 12” mixes of the 1980s, which bands like Duran Duran called their “night versions.”

“It’s hard to remix your own music,” Stephen says, “it’s a bit of an exercise, but we managed it in two weeks after we just got our head round the fact that you can’t be too precious about it.”

How do you feel about other people taking the cutters’ knife to Soulwax records as you do to theirs?

“I’ve got no problem with people remixing our records, but nothing has made me stand up and go, wow. But, no problem, they can do whatever they want,” laughs Stephen.

“We’ve been bootlegged so much, there are whole record labels full of radio DJ sets that we’ve been doing. It’s so easy with modern technology, who am I to stop them?”

With talk in Britain of the government implementing a tax on internet users to cover illegal music downloads, it’s clear that the music industry is experiencing a seismic shift that Stephen acknowledges is pulling in different directions.

“I think the revenue for bands is shifting to live gigs, things are changing and we have to go with it not try and fight it. I mean, a lot of publishing contracts are not the best in the world, they’re based on old ideas and ideals. But I have no problem with people taking music, fucking it up and making something new—unless they get a number one with it!”

Soulwax play at Get Loaded in the Park on Clapham Common, Bank Holiday Sunday August 24.


[This article originally appeared in The Big Issue]