“When you travel alone, you have a certain way of functioning,” says Xavier Thomas, the Brittany-born, Brussels-based producer behind Débruit. “But then the experiences accumulate and you have nobody to turn to and say, ‘Wow, this is crazy.’ Sometimes it’s hard to tell stories when you come back because of that. The music helps you get it out of your system.”
That’s more or less what Thomas does on débruit & istanbul, recalling his trips to Turkey—including several backpacking stretches and a two-week series of sessions at the Europalia Arts Festival—for inspiration. The biennial provided a loose theme for the LP—“Imagine Istanbul”—and it also helped Thomas connect with the local musicians who contributed to the record.
“There was a bit of pressure,” Thomas says, “because I still had to convince people to collaborate. It was a little journey through Istanbul, telling people about the project and trying to get them on board.”
Several generations of accomplished singers and session players accepted Thomas’ invitation, from the Selda-inspired Gaye Su Akyol to a mischievous Okay Temiz, who made Thomas visit him three times before agreeing to work together.
“It’s a bit like he tested me,” Thomas recalls. “That was quite nerve-wrecking. He pretended he’d never heard of me—that he couldn’t remember why I was there. He’s a funny, eccentric guy.
“His studio is full of made-up instruments like copper drums, a pyramid to play samples, a mannequin head stuck in a helmet with tablas on top and LEDs in the eyes. When you walk into that place, you know something unusual is going to happen.”
With his latest electronic journal entries in mind, Thomas spoke to Bandcamp about the impact and importance of travel from his Brussels home.
What’s your earliest travel memory?
Taking a plane to Morocco. I was 7 or something, and I remember writing about the takeoff in a notebook. I went to Senegal with my parents as a kid, too. With [Débruit] in the beginning, I couldn’t afford traveling, so I studied the music of places I wanted to know more about.
Do you remember the first time you obsessed over foreign sounds?
On my [Coupé Décalé] album, I tried to micro-sample flamenco guitars. There was also stuff from Mali—the strings and kora.
Have you always been an open-minded listener?
No. We had traditional music where I grew up—records that were put in the world music section—but I was more into noisy guitars, Sonic Youth, and even more experimental stuff. As a teenager, you can only be into one thing because you want to fit into a certain [crowd]. So I liked hip-hop secretly. I can understand people making fun of you for it in the countryside, because it’s quite an urban movement and didn’t really exist around us—no breakdancing or graffiti, no MCs, no sound systems.
What was your hometown like?
How small exactly?
My village is 600 people. And the next town is like 8,000.
Did you visit other areas of France when you were a kid, or did you feel pretty isolated?
The area I grew up in is called ‘the end of the land.’ Since we’re surrounded by water, we don’t feel isolated. The ocean connects you to other places. We also have a lot of festivals and collaborations with musicians from elsewhere. Like when I went to Istanbul, I met with Okay Temiz and he’d already collaborated with a singer from my village.
What’s the first trip you took without your parents?
At 18, I got my license and went to Portugal with some friends. My first trip on my own was to Tunisia.
What did you think of it?
It was amazing. I hired a car there; we did the Algerian border and crossed the desert. Being on our own took us out of our comfort zone. There’s a sense of responsibility, being respectful, and just enjoying all the amazing Roman ruins mixed with Arabic culture. Once you start exploring, you get addicted to feeling lost and discovering things.
Before I went to Tunisia, I finished my studies when I was 21 and went to Glasgow. That was the first time I lived for a long period of time in a place where I didn’t know anyone and was experiencing a new place, language, and big city.
Scottish can sound like another language, even if you speak English.
Yes [laughs]. If you understand Glaswegian, you’ll understand every English-speaking person in the world.
How did you end up in Glasgow?
It was the European capital of culture that year, so I thought that was a good reason to go. I got my musical education there by clubbing; Optimo had their party every Sunday night. They’re still my favorite DJs.
Same here. They’ll basically play anything.
Yes! They could play “Crazy in Love” from Beyoncé into something totally different. I was like, ‘Wow—everything’s allowed, and it sounds good.’ Those guys opened a lot of doors for me.
How long did you stay there?
Not very long—a year and a half or something. It seemed long, because you experience a lot at that age.
Then you moved back to France?
Yes, I went to live in Paris for five or six years. That was where I started DJing and producing my first self-released record.
Tell me about the first time you went to Turkey.
The first time I went was with a backpack. I spent three or four days in Istanbul. Have you had a chance to go there?
It’s really funny because It’s like three hours from France. So the travel part seems short for landing in such a different culture—Istanbul, a beautiful city with hills and water all around, and this crazy history. I don’t know how to explain it. When you’re in Istanbul, it’s like you’ve emerged into something—you’re in it, and there’s no way out. It’s quite a weird feeling. There’s a flow and a sound to the streets you can’t ignore.
What did you do on your first day there this time?
Istanbul has the best handmade cymbals in the world, so I wanted to record in a factory. They’re far away from the city, though, so I found a shop that sells them. The guy was really friendly. He had a backroom to try the cymbals, and he said I could record as many as I wanted while we drank coffee and talked. That’s why there’s quite a lot of cymbals on the album.
Did you have any loose ideas heading into these sessions?
I had a direction I wanted to head in—something a bit cold, like electronics from the late ’70s. Before going, I listened to a lot of Turkish music so I could be comfortable with the scales and general aesthetic. I didn’t want to discover things on the go, because I was aware I wouldn’t get many chances [recording people].
In most cases, did you capture raw recordings and then manipulate them at home?
Yeah. That was the idea. Because I didn’t want to influence them towards something that wasn’t [meaningful] to them. I didn’t want the older guys to feel like they needed to sound a certain way or play in a Western style. It was more about rhythms and mood.
And you weren’t trying to make the record sound ’Turkish’ either.
No! I’m aware of my limits. Studying Turkish music for two months doesn’t mean I can actually play it. In all of my projects, I never claim to be doing music from a certain place.
What’s something that sets Turkish music apart?
Tones some people would hear as the wrong note. For example, on the intro of my album, Murat [Ertel] is playing saz. There’s notes between the notes basically. There’s something about the time signature, too. Let’s say there’s a loop. With most music, you count to four and then you’re back on your feet. Well, with Turkish music, you count to six or five, and it feels like the loop isn’t complete. It leaves you hanging.
What’s one of the coolest Turkish instruments you got your hands on?
Murat had quite a lot of cool stuff in his studio, like a drum machine and saz. Straight away, it’s like, ‘fuck, yeah!’ because we don’t have those kind of tones. And at the same time, you don’t know what to do with it.
What are some ways Istanbul surprised you?
It’s more modern than I thought. I was there during Ramadan and you could barely tell unless you went to a traditional religious neighborhood. Most of the city was outdoors, with shops and restaurants open like usual. I also knew Turkish people were very nice, but not so nice that they would walk five minutes out of the way to help you.
What were some of your top cultural takeaways—your favorite food, architecture, neighborhoods, etc.?
I liked Cihangir and Kadıköy for the cafés, food, and terraces. I love watching the scenery from the Galata bridges—the boats, the fishermen. I enjoyed going outside in Tarabya a bit, to chill, be closer to nature and the bosphorus, and eat a goat milk ice cream. The architecture is also amazing; there are a lot of beautiful mosques and palaces everywhere…It’s not just about the city and the musicians I met there. It’s about the whole experience—the city being this imaginary collaborator. Every encounter was a journey.
Fear of political tension and terrorism keeps many people from visiting Istanbul and Brussels. How did spending an extended period of time in those cities help you see past the headlines?
It’s actually very abstract to me, as I didn’t see anything with my own eyes. There are a lot of horrible things happening in the world; I don’t consider it any more dangerous here. Istanbul is a very modern city in many ways and Brussels is one of the most tolerant, multicultural, and open-minded I know. I love these places for that; unfortunately these might be some of the reasons they were targeted.
Have you considered leaving Brussels in light of its recent attacks?
Not for those reasons. More to leave Europe or Western-minded countries for personal reasons, and feeling tired of politicians and governments making terribly selfish decisions that innocent people pay for in the end. I don’t even like the notion of a country or nation; it rarely brings people together outside of sport.