Soulwax Creates a Fictional History of Belgian Pop

Soulwax by Rob Walbersphoto by Rob Walbers

“We went to the set, and they would play the song, and I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit. This is real.’”—Stephen Deweale

Roughly five minutes into the soundtrack to Belgica, a new film documenting the rise and fall of a club in Ghent, Belgium, comes the stark, shadowy “How Long” by the Shitz. The song fuses the tension of Magazine with the panicked crescendos of the Pixies, feeling like another lost classic, rescued from the dustbin of history. But there’s something you should know about The Shitz: they don’t exist. Neither do Light Bulb Matrix, Burning Phlegm, Diploma, or any of the other acts that turn up on the Belgica soundtrack. All of them are inventions of David and Stephen Dewaele, the Belgian duo known as Soulwax, created expressly for the film. The club — called Belgica — is based on a real bar in Ghent, and the breadth of music the brothers created for the soundtrack is an accurate representation of the real Belgica’s wide-ranging taste. “The stuff that went on in the actual place was even crazier than what’s in the movie,” says Stephen. “You’d have a singer/songwriter up first, and then you’d have a Neil Young cover band, then after that you’d go into hip-hop. I think a lot of people went to the bar not knowing what they were going to see, but were open-minded about whatever they would get.”

The club on which Belgica is loosely based was owned by director Felix van Groeningen’s father. Initially, van Groeningen had only asked the brothers to provide a handful of songs for the film. But the more they talked about the project, the more the concept ballooned. “All three of us didn’t fully realize what we were getting ourselves into,” laughs Stephen. “Felix would be like, ‘It has to start with a generic blues guitar kind of thing, and it has to end somewhere electronically.’ That’s the musical journey he wanted in this movie. Then he would say, ‘I want one of the guys who comes to the bar to be part of an indie rock band,’ and we’d say , ‘OK, cool, so that’s one band.’ And then in some other scene he wanted guys with tattoos who were a bit more rockabilly. Then we’d sit down and write a song he’d ask, ‘What does this band look like? What do they listen to?’ It was an interesting way of doing it.”

The assignment was a natural fit for the Dewaeles. Since their earliest days, Soulwax has built a career on cross-wiring genres that don’t, at first pass, seem like natural fits. Their work as 2ManyDJs is frequently head-spinning, creating a space where Dolly Parton, Nirvana, Skee Lo and Basement Jaxx can share songs. It’s a gleefully omnivorous approach to crate-digging, suggesting that genre borders are arbitrary and imaginary, and that the only proper response to the question “What kind of music do you like?” is “Music.” The way Stephen explains it, their evolution was a slow process. “On the first Soulwax record, we were really into Kyuss and Monster Magnet,” he says. “But you would go out to these places where they were playing a lot of techno, because that’s where girls would be. I think it slipped into our subconscious.” On Belgica, the duo explore all of their musical curiosities one song at a time. The duo created 15 fictional bands for the film’s soundtrack, encompassing everything from punk to disco to Turkish pop.

It’s the last of those that is arguably Belgica’s standout track. A dizzying number with a rhythm pattern that spatters like oil in a hot skillet, “Çölde Kutup Ayisi,” credited to “Kursat 9000,” is a spot-on replication of Turkish techno’s snakelike synth lines and bulbous bass. “In Ghent, we have a huge Turkish population,” explains Stephen. “And in that bar, it was really normal to have a mix of all kinds of people. We started looking for someone to sing it in Turkish, and we found this kid who was born in Ghent, but is of Turkish origin. We played the song for him, and he said, ‘I really love the melody, but it’s not Turkish. It’s Arabic. There’s a difference in tonality.’ So we changed it a little bit. And we didn’t hear the difference, but he said, ‘OK, it’s Turkish now.’ And he recorded the vocal in an hour.” When it came time to take the songs out of the studio and on to the film set, Stephen remembers feeling a palpable transformation. The friends and associates they had hired to play their music seemed to go from stand-ins to the real thing. “We went to the set with The Shitz, and they would play the song, and I remember thinking, ‘Holy shit. This is real.’ It was an important thing for us. And it was important that we recorded the music live, that it was played live — that what you hear was really played there. Too many times you see club culture in film, and it feels fake. We wanted to get past that.”

The upside is that Belgica works not only as a soundtrack to the film, but as a standalone album: a survey of a scene that was once alive, as played by bands that never were. The project was so inspiring that many of the artists involved were reluctant to let it go. “Most of the people who are in the bands were like, ‘Can we do more?’ But for me, it’s a done thing. If some of these people want to become the Shitz, or anyone else, they’re more than welcome to. They can take the name and have fun with it. For us, this was an exercise to see if we could do it. We’ll do some other stuff now.”

 

 

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