Interview: Balthazar

Gabri: Welcome to Edinburgh, can you introduce yourself?
Maarten: I am Marteen, and I play in a Belgian band, Balthazar, and we’re playing a show tonight at the Electric Circus.

G: Is this your first time in Edinburgh?
M: No it’s the second or third time, well I remember we played a couple of years ago in support of the The Local Natives in the same venue, we got good memories from the city!

G: In April you were in Glasgow, how does Edinburgh compare to Glasgow?
M: I should say something kind right? Mmh, it’s much more beautiful, Glasgow stinks!

G: If you don’t mind we’ll start with some political questions. As last year there was the Scottish referendum for independence, what is your view on the matter, coming from Belgium, which is a country with its own distinct national fronts?
M: I can’t answer for the UK, but in Belgium, for me personally, because it’s such a small country I like it the way it is, I wouldn’t separate it.

G: So do you feel more Flemish or Belgian?
M: European, I guess

G: Well that’s my next question, what is Europe to you with all that is happening now?
M: It’s not a very pretty place to be right now, it’s kind of a disaster. But the reason why I say ‘European’ it’s because culturally that’s what we are here for. It’s kind of stupid to say ‘Belgian’ because Belgium doesn’t have a really strong tradition on its own. It has some French, English and German. It’s a mix of everything, that’s the Typical Belgian.

G: Well as a typical Belgian, how does it feel to come and tour the UK and America? Do you feel like you’ve made it?
M: No, especially the UK, it’s a hard nut to crack. I don’t feel like we made it everywhere, but it’s going good. We work quite hard to take every step we take. We play lots of shows every year, so it’s not like we get it for free. But that’s most fun because you know what you are working for and if it grows gradually you can enjoy every step you take.

G: In November you will be playing Forest National in Brussels, a quite large arena. How does it feel for a band at your stage to play arenas and the Electric Circus in the same tour, where tonight there will be 6o people in the audience?
M: It’s kind of a mind fuck. But when we play really big shows I just imagine there are only one hundred people, mostly with the lights that bright you. If you start thinking about all the people that are there, you get too concentrated because you don’t want to fuck it up and in a way you stop making music, you just play the right notes. It’s all self-deception.

G: What do you think about when you’re on stage, what goes through your head?
M: In the best scenario you think about the songs you are playing and you get into the stories you are telling, that’s how it should be for every musician. But it’s not always like that, sometimes you play boring shows and you don’t always get the perfect vibe. In those cases I think about where I put my car keys, you know, practical stuff… but not tonight!

G: What is the craziest thing that’s ever happened to you as a band or personally on tour?
M: The most spectacular thing is when we played in South Africa at a festival where the stage was on a lake and the audience was on the other side of the water. In the middle of the show the stage broke down. It cracked and the whole back-line, including us, slid into the water. We lost an electric guitar, which we couldn’t find any more, but we finished the bass-guitar out of the water. It sounded completely different afterwards.

G: Well you already had a pretty distinct bass-sound…
M: That’s the bass that fell into the water. It was a good accident, I guess.

G: If you had to explain to a deaf person in written words, what your sound or your music feels like, what would you say?
M: I would just tie them up to the subwoofer of the bass system. They would feel it…

G: What do you do in your free time while on tour?
: Every tour has a theme for me. I always need to do something in an obsessive way. Sometimes on tour I only read, and I do that whenever I have a free minute. Or when I run, I only ever run. But the strange thing is that I can’t do both in the same day, like read and run. This tour I’ve been making music…

G: Wasn’t it Thin Walls that you wrote on tour? How did that work for you?
M: It’s not ideal. We always wrote at home and we needed solitary state. But we toured so much with Rats that we didn’t have the time any more. So after a year of touring, Jinte and I decided to start writing new material on the road. We just had to put ourselves to the task and all it takes is creativity. On the tour-bus for example we were all packed together, and I wrote a few songs in the toilet of the bus . People were knocking telling me to come out, but I wouldn’t be ready yet.

G: What are such songs?
M: Probably Dirty Love, because it kinda smelled in the toilet. And I looked For You.

G: In the past few years we’ve seen bands like The Who and the Rolling Stones touring for their 50t birthdays in the world’s biggest arenas. What do you think of this and do you as Balthazar, see yourselves playing music in forty years’ time?
M: I think it’s a good thing, but you can only do it when you have a legendary career, and of course I hope we can do that, but if no one turns up to your shows then… I am a big fan of Leonard Cohen and he’s old! His shows are awesome and I don’t think he should have stopped twenty years ago and in a way it gets more ceremonial as he’s such an old man. And even Mick Jagger dancing around, it’s kinda cute at his age, it’s very romantic that they keep going until they fall dead.

G: Do you want to do that?
M: Yeah… although I wouldn’t jump around like Jagger, I am afraid.

G: Do you know what direction you aim on taking after Thin Walls?
M: No, no, not at all. Not at all. But it’s just too fresh, we released a record half a year ago. We have some songs written but it’s all about the sound and the concept that we need to find, we don’t want to repeat ourselves. It always takes a year to find out what the new concept is going to be. However it’s good not to think about it the first months, as you need to get some distance from the last record before you start working on the next one.

G: Wonderful, moving on. A little bit of a weird one. In a parallel universe where Balthazar didn’t exist, what do you, Maarten, see yourself as, if not a musician?
M: Mmh, I would probably be a butcher. Why? Because I like blood I guess. But yeah, I guess I could be doing lots of stuff, running a bakery or something.

G: Well then when did you know that you wanted to be a musician and live from your art?
M: Pretty early, I think 15. I met Jinte when I was 17.

G: How did you meet?
M: We were both busking on the same shopping street where we grew up, but on different sides. At first we didn’t know each other and we’d give each other competitive looks. I used to think ‘who is that guy, and is he earning more than me? Fucker!’ But then one day we started talking and it turned out we each had five songs we played on repeat and it got quite boring, so we decided to join forces, play ten songs and do harmonies!

G: Were you already playing originals or covers?
M: I was only playing Roxette covers. I still do it, for people’s weddings… but the concept is that I only play Roxette songs.

G: So when I get married you come play at my wedding? Any Balthazar songs?
M: Of course, and you can select your own Roxette songs, I can play them all. And no, no Balthazar.

G: So you met when you were 17, and how did it move from there? You took seven years to record your first record, why?
M: Yeah we wrote lots of songs, ever since puberty. But we didn’t want to release a record before we really found our own sound. We didn’t want to be comparable to an existing band. But then one day we wrote this song for Applause, I guess it was Morning, and we knew it worked. So we wrote all the other songs for Applause in that arrangement. It was very conceptual, and it was very important to us that we sounded like Balthazar.

G: Can you tell more about The Boatman. What is it about?
M: It’s an old song. Jinte came up with the chorus first and then I wrote the verses. We then made a thousand versions of the song, like a disco and singer songwriter version. And then it ended up the way it’s now. The lyrics are about making mistakes towards a girl, and you kinda burn your bridges, but there is always a way to get back, although it’s probably the worst idea.

G: So do you get bored of the song now, having played it for 10 years?
M: No, we still enjoy it. The thing is that after a while, when you play the same songs loads of times, you start focusing on the smallest details or your performance. There are only a few songs from the first record that we still play live and I guess it’s only the classics that survive the years. We’re kinda proud of them and we still like to play them.

G: Great! Now on to another funky question. If you, as 28-year old now, had only once chance to travel back in time to witness an historic event, what would it be?
M: I would love to see my own birth. Me coming out of my mother…

G: … out of all the possibilities, you could go to Woodstock if you wanted, but you choose that… how come?
M: No, fuck that! I get to see my own birth…I don’t know, it’s probably because I want to be a butcher.

G: Back to normal questions, favourite film, band and album?
M: The film… Jurassic Park. It’s connected to my youth. It’s a family film for me. In a way it excites me more to see a classic blockbuster from my youth then a super quality new film. The band… well, Velvet Underground. Album, Histoire de Melody Nelson by Serge Gainsbourg.

G: What band, existing now, or historical, would you love to tour with and see live?
M: Well in a way, when we play festivals and we see a great band putting up a great performance it kinda sucks! Like Tame Impala for example, then I don’t want to go on stage any more, it kills the motivation. I mean they are such nerds, in a good way (laughs). Then maybe Roxette then .

G: Awesome, to end we’re going to play a little game. I will say a word and you will have to answer with the first thing that comes to mind! Ready? Go. Scotland
M: the skirts

G: Abbey Road
M: Beatles

G: Boatman
M: The devil

G: Rome
M: Caesar

G: Leffe Blonde
M: Belgium

G: The Great Gatsby
M: Fitzgerald

G: Bunker
M: Hitler

G: Lighthouse
M: Virginia Wolfe

G: Skrillex
M: Funny hair

G: Wine
M: Hungover

G: Angela Merkel
M: Mutty

G: Facebook
M: Fuck… library

G: The moon
M: Pink Floyd

G: The Who
M: Rotating arm

G: Last but not least, Balthazar
M: Balthazar… . PASSION.

Raise your glass to the night-time and the ways, to choose a moon and have it replaced.

Interview by Gabriele Zatterin.

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