Three drummers, one take: the genre-smashing Belgian duo take us on a tour of their studio as they reveal their first album in over a decade
Studio Deewee sits on an innocuous side street in Ghent, but you can’t really miss it: the building’s smooth, black granite exterior makes a stark contrast to the medieval architecture that covers the rest of the Belgian city. Soulwax’s Stephen and David Dewaele built the complex with local architect Glenn Sestig as a headquarters for all of their creative endeavours, with the space functioning as a recording studio, record label office, vinyl library, and apartment for visiting musicians. It’s filled with exotic instruments, from rare rhythm boxes to staccato drum kits to a one-of-a-kind modular synthesizer from the early 1970s. And, at the heart of the basement studio, there’s a vintage Cadac mixing console from 1969, which the Dewaele brothers are currently huddled around in despair.
For the past few days, Stephen and David have been sat at the mixing desk putting the finishing touches on Soulwax’s new album From Deewee, and they’re finding it hard to keep things in perspective. A new song called “Masterplanned” is playing, its jackhammer drumbeat and twisted acid bassline reverberating across the room. Sat atop the mixing desk is an AKG binaural microphone shaped like a human head that captures sound in its left and right ears – its image is used for From Deewee’s album artwork, photographed against a reflection of Ghent’s blue sky. Stephen, the older of the two brothers, is perched on a sofa at the back of the room, while David – dressed as always in a tailored suit jacket and skinny tie – is stood next to the monitors. As the song draws to a close and the rapidfire drum roll intro of “Missing Wires” begins to play, Dave turns to Stephen: “How did that sound?” Stephen puts his head in his hands. “There are so many things I can hear wrong with it,” he sighs.
Time is against the Dewaele brothers: they have just five more days to finish mixing before the whole thing gets sent off to mastering. They were up until 4am working on it the previous night – if they miss their deadline, the album simply won’t come out on time. Yet it’s a crisis entirely of their own design: From Deewee was deliberately made as quickly as possible, its 12 tracks recorded in a single take just nine days earlier. It maybe shouldn’t come as a surprise that the band chose to work this way: after all, it’s been over a decade since Soulwax released their last studio album, and they needed to get it out of their system.
It’s important to distinguish Soulwax from the Dewaeles’ arguably more recognisable project, 2manydjs. When Stephen and David formed Soulwax back in 1995, they could broadly be classified as a traditional rock band – but for a whole generation of music fans, the Soulwax name is perhaps more synonymous with the era-defining remixes they released during the early and mid-2000s. 2manydjs, on the other hand, is the name the brothers perform their party-starting, genre-smashing DJ sets under. “People have been asking us about the new Soulwax record for a really long time,” says Stephen. “I don’t feel like we were particularly keen on doing the same thing again.”
It’s fair to say that Soulwax haven’t repeated themselves since they released their last studio album, 2004’s Any Minute Now. In 2005 they released Nite Versions, an alternate version of Any Minute Now with its songs reconfigured for dancefloors. Then there was their krautrock and kosmische-inspired band Die Verboten, who recorded an album together in Ibiza. There was Radio Soulwax, the audio-visual DJ mix series the brothers launched in 2011. There was Despacio, the ambitious club speaker system they built with LCD Soundsystem’s James Murphy. And there was Belgica, the 2016 that Soulwax soundtracked by inventing 15 fictional bands and recording songs in wildly different styles.
“People have been asking us about the new Soulwax record for a really long time. I don’t feel like we were particularly keen on doing the same thing again” – Stephen Dewaele, Soulwax
Working on Belgica provided the initial catalyst for From Deewee. “There was a scene in the film where three drums play together,” says Stephen. “I think that was our way of testing the ground a little bit. Could this work?” One of From Deewee’s defining characteristics is its sense of rhythm. The album was recorded with three drummers, Iggor Cavalera, Victoria Smith, and Blake Davies, with the idea sparked after their previous sticksman Steve Slingeneyer left the band. “We had to find someone else to play with,” says Stephen, “and then I had this idea: ‘How about we just have a lot of drummers?’ I think we understood that if you have three people playing drums, they have to be complementary and they can’t play the same thing, so you actually deconstruct the pattern.”
Last year, Stephen and David put the idea to the test, writing a set of new songs from scratch and getting a band together (which additionally included Laima Leyton and original Soulwax bassist Stefaan Van Leuven) to tour them around Europe’s festivals. The live element was key. “We live in a world where everything is laptops and machines,” says David. “The energy during a live performance is at its peak with a drummer. So multiply that by three, and it’s three times as much excitement.” From Deewee was a way to capture that excitement, using exactly the same setup, musicians, and machines that they used on the road. Still, it doesn’t sound like a ‘live’ album in the usual sense. Instead, it’s perhaps closer to the process of the Dewaeles’ idol, synth pioneer Giorgio Moroder – after recording Philip Oakey’s vocal for “Together In Electric Dreams” in one take, Moroder allegedly remarked that “the first time is always best.”
Music factored into Stephen and David’s lives since the day were born. Their father, Jackie Dewaele, made his name as a radio presenter under the name Zaki; growing up, their house was always full of promotional records from music’s biggest artists. Like his sons, Jackie also kept a lot of projects on the go, whether moving from radio to television in the mid-1980s, writing books, or starting his own radio station above a bar, where local DJs like Belgian new beat legend Frank de Wulf and Renaat Vandepapeliere of iconic rave label R&S Records would stop by to spin.
Being close to the music industry had other benefits, too: a family friend who worked PAs would take Stephen, then aged just 13 or 14, to local concerts, where he was exposed to cult Euorpean artists from D.A.F. to Liaisons Dangereuses. Jackie’s broad-minded music tastes helped inspire his kids, too: “Our dad would listen to The Residents and to Bruce Springsteen,” Stephen remarks. But though Jackie was receiving the latest promos from music stars, what he wasn’t getting was music from new independent artists. Thankfully, a record shop in Ghent filled that gap. “Renaat was working at the store,” recalls Stephen. “They’d sell Rough Trade stuff and the Virgin Prunes – and then crazy electronic stuff.”
“The energy during a live performance is at its peak with a drummer. So multiply that by three, and it’s three times as much excitement” – David Dewaele, Soulwax
David and Stephen are five years apart. “We didn’t really grow up together,” says David. “We had completely different lives.” Soulwax formed when David was 18 and Stephen was 23. Stephen, at the time, had already started a career as a television director. Both of them had separate bands on the go, but there was something Stephen had wanted to try. “I had a band with two other friends going on, and Steph wanted to sing,” David says. They formed when rave was kicking off in Belgium in a big way – not that it impacted their early sound too much.
“We really liked Kyuss and Monster Magnet and all these bands – it was super underground at that point,” says Stephen. “I think this idea of being with a bunch of guys making really loud music seemed like good fun.” The brothers would drive to Holland to see these bands play, often to crowds of just 50 people. “Of those 50, I could still tell you who those people are now,” says Stephen. “It was like a little niche of people who were into electronic music, but who were also like, ‘Wait, there’s other stuff as well!’” Soon, the band were working with one of their heroes, Kyuss and Queens of the Stone Age producer Chris Goss, who produced their debut album Leave the Story Untold. It was an appropriate title, as its heavy rock sound didn’t really hint at the direction Soulwax would take in the future. “We discovered something in us that I think was already there that we didn’t know,” Stephen says, “We were at the mixing desk. Chris Goss was supposed to be mixing it, but me and Dave were holding faders. I think we realised we didn’t want to be a rock band. We started having fun.”
In 1998 they released their second album Much Against Everyone’s Advice, and they started taking things into their own hands in the studio. “We started to go, ‘Oh, we can do things ourselves!’” Stephen recalls. “In the 90s, it was very much: ‘Are you into techno or are you in a rock band?’” adds David. “The album was our version of trying to blend the two in a way that seemed to work for us.” By this point, Soulwax were playing shows with Muse and Coldplay, but unlike those artists, they went in a sideways direction rather than following the commercial route. “We’re our own worst enemies,” says Stephen. “We end up getting bored really fast, so we end up sabotaging ourselves. But maybe that’s the thread through everything that we do. It really does apply to every little project we’ve done so far.”
While touring the album, they’d DJ aftershows at local clubs, introducing the world to an early iteration of 2manydjs. At one UK show, at Dingwalls in Camden, they met a young DJ named Erol Alkan, who invited them to his Monday clubnight Trash. They were surprised to find their record boxes were almost identical. “He would have a Daft Punk track in there, but there would also be the Velvet Underground,” says Stephen. This sort of DJ dilettantism would lead to the Dewaele brothers’ next project, their first 2manydjs commercial mix. As Heard On Radio Soulwax Pt. 2 mixed up everything from The Stooges to Lil Louis, popularising the mashup genre in the process (a tag that the brothers quickly eschewed) and going on to be cited as one of the best DJ mixes ever recorded. As they toured the world’s clubs, they also made longstanding friends in NYC in James Murphy, Nancy Whang, and other members of the DFA family.
“We’re our own worst enemies. We end up getting bored really fast, so we end up sabotaging ourselves” – Stephen Dewaele, Soulwax
So when it came to recording a new Soulwax album, things didn’t necessarily go so smoothly. “2manydjs was going really well, and everything that we did would take on a life of its own and was instantly connecting with people,” says Stephen. “And then we were in this studio making dark music. We’d go back outside to this crazy world where everyone was having fun. It was weird.” Though they enjoyed working with legendary producer Flood on Any Minute Now, the process was long and draining, and the music wasn’t the wild genre mashup that many fans expected given the Radio Soulwax mix – it wasn’t until they revisited it for Nite Versions the following year that it started to make sense to people. “There are amazing things on that album,” says David, “but the process of it left us feeling frustrated. When it came out, it was at the very end of the music industry machine era: you had to be on MTV, you had to be on Radio 1, you had to do the NME interview, you had to play for them at the Barfly. It didn’t work for us at all, especially seeing as we already had this parallel life with 2manydjs.”
Since then, they focused on their remixes – often titled ‘Soulwax Nite Versions’ – which were revered in the scene during the ‘blog haus’ era of labels like Ed Banger and Kitsuné. 2manydjs went on to even bigger successes in this environment, eventually releasing a mixed compilation of Soulwax remixes. By 2010, they’d developed their 2manydjs tour into an audio-visual extravaganza and were headlining stages at rock festivals and being asked to close for arena-sized acts like Depeche Mode. “We always saw our audience get younger and younger,” David says. “In the first year after we put out the compilation album, we thought it had peaked. And it just didn’t stop.” In retrospect, it’s easy to see these shows as a precursor to the EDM movement that would explode just a couple of years later, something that never sat entirely well with the brothers. “Something happened where every club would have a VIP section where people pay money to look down on other people,” says Stephen. “It’s big money; music becomes the last part. We just didn’t feel it.”
From Deewee wasn’t the first time Soulwax attempted to record an album during these years. “There were a few false starts,” David admits. “Something else would come up; it gets put on the backburner for a month. And then a month becomes six months, and then two years. And then someone mentions it again, and you make a few songs, and then it just doesn’t happen for whatever reason.” A big reason was Studio Deewee itself. Soulwax had previously occupied a “slowly disintegrating” DIY space elsewhere in Ghent, but at the start of the decade they decided to start from scratch. Finished in 2014, the studio is a shrine to pop music, housing the brothers’ 60,000 vinyl records (and a room to digitise them), an incalculable number of instruments (all hooked up so that they can be recorded from anywhere in the building), and music memorabilia (be it obscure Todd Rundgren VHS tapes, rare David Bowie artefacts, or The KLF’s The Manual). They even launched a record label, Deewee, to release music produced or mixed in-house by friends and family. From Deewee is really the only title that the new album could have had.
Later in the evening, Stephen and David are eating dinner around the conference table in Studio Deewee’s vinyl library. The television is turned to that night’s football match between Ghent and Tottenham. Stephen has a lot invested in the game, not only by being from Ghent but from supporting Tottenham’s rivals, Arsenal – he even owns an obscure 45 single for the team. They’re joined by Stefaan, their engineer Phil, studio helping hand Oliver Geerts (who records music on the label with The Future Sound of Antwerp and Asa Moto), their publicist, and Stephen’s girlfriend. It’s a reminder of how important the studio is as a social space, a place where the Deewee extended family can come together. “People come up to us,” says Stephen, “and they say, ‘Oh my god, you guys are amazing, you’re legends!’ But at some point, it’s like: okay, but we’ve been doing this so long and I don’t have kids. I don’t have a house.” He motions to the room. “I built this, which is insanity, but there’s another side to it too.” Unexpectedly, Ghent end up winning the match 1-0, and the room erupts. Stephen and David finish off their wine, then head back to the basement to continue working on the album.
Lead image by Rob Walber