Born and raised in Liège, Belgium, Benjamin Lew came to Brussels at a time when the Belgian capital became an affordable haven for the counterculture, akin to mid-century Paris, 1970s New York, and Berlin in the early 2000s. A visual artist, writer, and music producer, Lew was the prototypical “enlightened amateur, in an almost Renaissance-like sense,” as Marc Hollander, of boundary-pushing label Crammed Discs, puts it.
Bands like Tel Aviv’s Minimal Compact and San Francisco’s art-punk troupe Tuxedomoon injected Brussels with an international cool at the time, and Lew was a focal point of the scene. Behind the counter of a popular tropical bar, he served drinks to the underground. Additionally, Lew made fanzines, designed event posters for iconic venue Plan K, and recorded a string of acclaimed but near-forgotten albums for Crammed Discs throughout the 1980s. A new compilation of his years with Crammed Discs, Le Personnage Principal Est un Peuple Isolé, released on the much-hyped Belgian label Stroom; it’s an urgent attempt to celebrate Lew’s life’s work while he’s still around.
The life and music of Lew is a mirror for many concepts of bohemian artistry. His own forays into music started with basic sketches on a Korg synth, which he would take to the studio. There, gifted friends like Hollander, Tuxedomoon’s Steven Brown, and producer Gilles Martin would help flesh them out. The results were mostly instrumental, often dramatic, and sometimes silly ambient miniatures that dabbled with Middle Eastern influences, in the vein of Jon Hassell and Brian Eno’s Fourth World project.
The release of Le Personnage Principal Est un Peuple Isolé was only made possible by the close collaboration between Crammed Discs and Stroom. As a label and collective, Stroom are best known for shining a light on forgotten releases and illuminating the life stories behind the music. In that regard, the Lew compilation proved particularly tricky. Back in the ‘90s, while he was living near Brussels’ De Brouckère Square, Lew lost his complete archive when the roof of his apartment crashed down. Almost none of his new work since the 1990s has survived, which is why the compilation focuses solely on his Crammed Discs releases. The cover art of the LP consists of scaled-up negatives of the few remaining portrait shots of Lew.
DJ and Stroom co-founder Ziggy Devriendt, aka Nosedrip, describes the release of Le Personnage Principal Est un Peuple Isolé as a personal bucket-list project. “When the first reviews came in, I thought, it should be about Benjamin. As for Belgian music, he is just my favorite, and still the most underrated Crammed [Discs] artist. He’s known amongst diggers, but on the bigger scale he’s not really known. Yet he has always been part of the larger conversation and of the whole Stroom story.”
One of Stroom’s most celebrated releases, Jan van den Broeke’s 11000 Dreams, features a track addressing Lew’s impact on the scene at the time, “A La Récherche De B.L.” Though Lew is still alive and in fact worked on the project with Stroom’s Victor De Roo, it doesn’t feel like crate-diggers’ search for Lew’s story ever stopped.
Le Personnage Principal Est un Peuple Isolé never intends to solve the mystery. Instead of trying to capture one defining sound of Lew’s time with Crammed Discs, the album presents Lew’s music in all of its conflicted, elegiac beauty. Benoît Peeters, author of the quintessential Brusselian graphic novel Brüsel, described the city’s historically odd city-planning once as complete “chaos, a multilayered, charming humbug.” And in that way, Le Personnage Principal Est un Peuple Isolé serves as the city’s perfect score, and an illustration of the way Lew’s work can’t be separated from the Brussels underground.