Tom Barman, frontman of dEUS and all-round bon vivant, has excellent taste. This much is evident from the impressive spread laid out in their dressing room; Gauloises cigarettes, Spanish tempranillo, chilled Grey Goose, and a bottle of 16 year old Lagavulin, a whisky that connoisseurs note is an “intense, smoky-sweet single malt, with seaweed flavours and a huge, peppery finish.” I’ve been ushered backstage prior to the band’s soundcheck at Utrecht’s Tivoli Oudegracht, and they’ve yet to arrive. One by one they drift in from the early afternoon sunshine: violinist Klaas Janzoons heads straight for the red wine, bassist Alan Gevaert engages me in a conversation about footwear, while guitarist Mauro Pawlowski is mostly concerned with hunting down some coffee. Finally, there’s Barman himself, affable and carrying several full garment bags, keen to get things started. “We haven’t played for two months,” he confesses as they stride towards the stage, “so we have to run through basically the whole set.” Two hours later, they’re still up there, playing, tweaking, honing. dEUS, it would seem, never do things by half.
Soundcheck over, we pile into a taxi and head to Le:en, an upmarket Asian tapas restaurant in a converted car showroom. The owner is, I’m informed, a huge fan who, in return for a few guestlist spots, has invited the band and their crew to dinner and drinks; so far, so dEUS. Standing at the bar, there’s a brief debate as to whether it’s too early to order gin and tonics – eventually they decide it’s not – before we retire to soak up the sun on the deckchair-strewn terrace. The mood is convivial and light hearted – coming together to perform seems to energise them – and the joshing continues later over a spread that features, among other delights, copious amounts of wine and grasshopper-topped sushi.
“You’re probably right, seen from your side, that I’ve been lucky” ‘Instant Street’, The Ideal Crash, 1999
Formed at the very tail end of the 1980’s, dEUS are the best group you might never have heard of. The cult band other cult bands love to name check, their 24-year career has been one long, stop-start roller coaster, racing past flirtations with mainstream success, near-total implosions, long hiatuses, and comebacks. Written off or ignored numerous times, Barman and his cohorts have always somehow managed to not just survive but come up smiling, another set of glorious, off-kilter tunes in tow, and I can almost hear the Gallic shrugs and casual incredulity in his voice as he recounts years spent bouncing around the indie scene and their brushes with fame. It is, I discover, quite the tale.
Born to art-collecting parents in Antwerp, Belgium’s second city and home to one of Europe’s largest seaports, Barmen grew up very much aware of the city’s rich, cultural heritage. Although his family weren’t particularly artistic, he’s sure that the architecture, museums, and the flourishing dance, theatre, and fashion scenes “all had an impact on our particular brand of art-rock.” Its small, village-style districts also meant it was easy to bump into like-minded individuals, and it was this that led to the then 18 year old booking a number of gigs alongside Wouter Bastijns, Gino Goolen, and Claude Jaccobs as the fledgling dEUS. Wikipedia will tell you this was as a covers band, but he’s quick to correct the error.
“We were just a band that didn’t have enough songs to play a show, and the couple [of covers] that we had – we did a few Violent Femmes ones – were because we needed a set. From the minute I discovered I wasn’t actually going to be a guitar player, I wasn’t going to be the greatest singer – but the two together, and writing songs, was going to be my thing – we just threw the covers out of the window.”
Janzoons joined in 1992, his violin skills and odd outfits adding an extra layer of intrigue and theatricality, and the pair are the only original members left; in total, no less than fifteen musicians of various nationalities have swam through the madness, each leaving their own indelible mark on the band’s history. Their seven studio albums and two EPs all differ wildly in style and scope, influenced by the comings and goings around each project’s inception, and while not exactly prolific, it’s an impressive return considering the band’s several fallow periods and Barman’s other great passion, film (of which more later).
But when it came to expectations for their own longevity, not only did he have no idea just how long they’d last, he had no grand plan about anything beyond “just making music and having a good time.”
“There’ve been so many incarnations of dEUS that you can’t really speak of a vision – the people who were in it created that more than someone saying: ‘We want to make loud, noisy pop’. So when Klaas joined, his sound was very specific, Rudy [Trouve]’s sound was very specific…important for where it was going, you know? Stef [Kamil Carlens] had his kind of bluesy roots, Jules [de Borgher] never hit the drums hard, he had a very light touch…it was always the people that created where it was going to go.”
Where it ended up was an eclectic mix that defied categorisation. Full of shabby charm, their early work had a raw, outsider’s edge. Skeletal blues gave way to howling guitars, dripping with distortion; simple acoustic songs were barged aside by crashing, angry slabs of noise; poignant love stories segued into existential lyrical asides that recalled Tom Waits and Captain Beefheart. It was the sort of unorganised lunacy that should have peeled the enamel from your teeth, and yet somehow ended up revealing a deep, inner beauty. “Art-wank,” wrote Pete Paphides at the time, “but as a big fan of art and wanking, I make no apologies for proclaiming dEUS the most refreshing guitar aspirants of 1994.”
“And there’s always something in the air, sometimes / Suds & soda mix OK with beer” ‘Suds & Soda’, Worst Case Scenario, 1994
After the skewed, jagged Zea EP, the band recorded their debut proper for Bang! Music, a small Walloon label founded by Damien Waselle and Christophe Waeytens. Worst Case Scenario was later picked up by Island Records, mainly on the strength of ‘Suds & Soda’, a typically demented song that swings from chaos to grace and back again for five dizzy minutes. Re-released last year, the album came packaged with a revealing documentary that charts the album’s genesis, Island’s attempt to mould them into the "next big thing”, and the subsequent relentless touring and pressure which threatened to completely derail them before they’d even got going.
It starts with him quoting the late, great François Truffant: “He once said something great about films,” he animatedly explains, shirt unbuttoned almost to the navel. “‘Everything you’ll do in your career is in your first film.’ Well, a record’s the same.” It’s not really the sort of thing you expect to hear from a rock musician, I say.
“It’s a very interesting concept, and a great quote,” he replies laconically.
But does he still believe it’s true, after everything they’ve achieved?
“Oh yeah! It’s all there; we still have that noisy bit, we still have the pop side, we still have the experimental side, albeit in different guises. We want to groove, to make some noise, and to move [people] with soft sounds, and that’s all in Worst Case.”
Another subtle undertone in the film was the unspoken expectation for them to move to London – or pretty much anywhere that wasn't Belgium – and their steadfast refusal to do so. In fact, they’ve never lived anywhere other than Antwerp, a move that some would consider, at the very least, as placing a limit on possible success. Were they never tempted?
“There’s is a simple explanation for that,” begins Barman. “From the minute we made our first album we were travelling, so we never felt we had to rub shoulders with anybody because we were already doing it when we were in London, New York, Berlin or wherever. Also, in every big town, you get this incestuous thing where everybody starts sounding the same after a while. We were travelling so much that leaving Paris or leaving London is just the same as leaving Antwerp; you’re on the road. That, and it’s also very central; it’s not like it’s on the other side of the world. How did you see that Klaas?”
Janzoons, who up to now has been diligently following the conversation and sipping on that gin, agrees.
“We never felt the urge, and I never even thought about it. We never had the impression that Antwerp wasn’t a place where you could build something up. All of us were very open-minded music wise, we were in contact with people from other countries, and there were lots of foreigners hanging out. So I had the feeling that we could build it up perfectly from there.”
Barman shakes his head, ruefully. “I remember the guy from Island in America asking us: ‘When are you coming to live in New York?’ And we said: ‘Well, not now!’ It wasn't that we had anything against those cities, clearly not, but it was just never…”
“Do you think that was an arrogant way of thinking?” interrupt Janzoons.
“No, it was more arrogant of those cities to think: ‘Of course you have to come and live here!’ It wasn't arrogant on out part, and nor was it a negative thing; it just didn’t come up because we were always abroad anyway.”
Worst Case Scenario is, like Britpop and the two albums (Parklife and Definitely Maybe) that cleared its passage from subgenre to cultural juggernaut, currently celebrating its 20th anniversary. There’s been much gnashing of teeth and vitriolic revisionism over exactly what Britpop meant – or didn’t mean – culturally, aesthetically, politically, and to what extent its shadow still looms over modern notions of counter-culture and what’s left of the music industry. Barman and Janzoons have an interesting take on the time; caught up in the turbulence as bemused outsiders, their musical ideas – and perhaps their foreignness – saved them from the decade’s worst excesses and being sucked into the vortex.
That’s not to say they didn’t have their fun, and being a strange group on a major-owned indie certainly gave them front row seats to the circus. Barman is on record as saying “the 90’s were our generation’s 60’s…it was the best fucking period to be in a band,” a sentiment he still believes in. “There was money, there were possibilities, there were big companies who were giving bands time to develop…Island did that with us, certainly. It was the time when the underground went to the upper ground, the time of Nirvana and so on. I’m not saying I’m nostalgic, but if you ask me ‘Was it an exciting time to be 22?’ I’d say: ‘Oh yes!’”
Amidst all the reissues, remastering, and reinterpreting of the nineties’ “Concorde, coke and cash” ethos – even Shed Seven’s three albums are now available as deluxe, 2CD packages – it’s a shame more goodwill hasn’t been found for those on the fringes who were heading in genuinely interesting directions; “Everyday our bank account asks: ‘Where is the revival?’” notes Janzoons with a wry chuckle. With the nostalgia industry in full swing, most commentary centres around the sense that the wrong music won, and that giving in en masse to three-chord pub rock relegated far more deserving acts to the margins, nothing but a quirky footnote to the lad largesse that so dominates the history books.
Barman concedes that “Oasis had a couple of really good ‘poppy’ songs,” and “I’m a huge fan of Blur because Damon Albarn is obviously the best songwriter the UK’s had since Paul McCartney,” but they’re not sympathetic. There’s a hint of annoyance that, back then, Oasis were merely their peers, another newly hyped band trudging round the clubs of London with a gaggle of gurning A&R men in tow.
“I remember being in England one day, for promo or something, and someone from the label said we should go and see this band [Oasis], they were gonna be the next big thing,” says Janzoons. “So we went and thought: ‘Oh no……’” He mimes a face palm, virtually spitting: “…this is not the future!’ It has its value, of course, if you look back in time, but there was a new sound coming up and I think that’s what people heard in us. They thought: ‘This is new, this could be the next thing’…and then Oasis bulldozed over everything and took it back in time, just an old school, Beatles rip-off.”
“You gotta be your own dog, you know? You gotta go sniffin’ in your own turf” Intro to ‘Fell Off The Floor, Man’, In A Bar Under The Sea, 1996
My own introduction to the band came later at University, in 1997, courtesy of one of my new flatmates (coincidentally also called Tom). His battered CD of their second album, In A Bar Under The Sea, opened my provincial ears to a whole new spectrum of music and possibility, and sound tracked many a drunken discussion about how a rag-tag bunch of Belgians could be so effortlessly cool. More accessible that their debut – but only just – it featured Barman’s first piano ballad, ‘Disappointed in the Sun’, and another track, ‘Gimme the Heat’, that made judicious use of gorgeous, swelling strings. It also followed the My Sister=My Clock EP, a sprawling mess of cacophonous noise and song fragments where thirteen “tracks” were squeezed into just one, physical track, necessitating a listen from start to finish to pinpoint parts worth repeating.
“A very continental idea” admits Barman, and such determination to succeed on their own terms continued with In A Bar; the lead single, far from being one of the ballads or ‘Little Arithmetics’, a lovely little indie-pop number that eventually found its way onto Chris Evans’ Radio 1 Breakfast show as Track of the Week, was ‘Theme From Turnpike’, a dark’n’dirty dirge that sampled Charlie Mingus and scanned like a modern day Kerouac for the heroin generation.
“We were stubborn motherfuckers and we still are,” laughs Barman at the memory. “But that’s why we have fans twenty years later; they appreciated that and they still do. It may not have given us stadium rock freedom and two swimming pools in the backyard, but it has given us longevity. And that song was used in The Sopranos, so you know…”
Being independent, and taking no shit, is clearly a point of pride. “Bands in America and the UK, they work within a tradition. They’ve seen friends from school succeed or fail, and it’s in their DNA to either avoid all the trappings, or dive right into them and all that. That’s not the case with us. When somebody from the record company came to say: ‘You have to cut 45 seconds out of ‘Little Arithmetics’’, we went: ‘Fuck off!’ In a way, maybe that was a bit naïve but it also has it’s own proper value, and not an insignificant one either. It doesn’t mean we were adverse to success or that we avoided it, of course not, but it wasn’t in our nature, or something that we grew up with, to listen to people saying: ‘At that point you have to do that, and then you have to be this’ – it’s just not for me. I look at bands who started out with us like Placebo or Coldplay, I see their stadium shows and I can honestly say to myself I could never behave as a front man like they do; ‘Hello, how is everybody doing? I hope the kids are fine!’ It’s just not my style when I’m on stage, but that’s what you have to do when you get to that level. So there’s this inherent block involving the question: ‘Am I a mainstream entertainer?’ And after all these years, I know I am not. On the other hand, there is the paradox that you sometimes write songs that could lead to that, and that’s the lot of dEUS.”
“Who could tell the story better? / About the things that I went through” ‘Disappointed In The Sun’, In A Bar Under The Sea, 1996
Over any long career, there will inevitably be bumps in the road. dEUS have nearly imploded twice, and despite being settled since 2005, have still churned through a Spinal Tap-esque number of musicians over the years. Through all the turmoil, Barman and Janzoons have soldiered stoically on, an indie-rock Jagger & Richards whose stories and musical legacy have become inextricably entwined. The revolving cast around them puts me in mind of the Mark E Smith quote: “If it’s me and your granny on bongos, it’s The Fall,” and I ask what has kept the two of them together, and firm friends, for so long.
“My ego is not big enough for me to want stardom, or my own group,” replies Janzoons. “Nope. Not for me. I’m fine where I am and have no reason to leave.” Even the myriad changes haven’t affected what he sees as the core of the band. “It was formed in its definite way of how we sound and how we are in the 1990’s. Any new people coming in knew what we were, and that they’d never have a chance to add something totally, radically, different. There’s a solid base which is not just me and him…I’m sure I could leave and dEUS would still be dEUS.”
I’m not so sure. Janzoons, while tasked with the majority of the keyboard and synth work these days, is most famous for his violin, which he wields in typically uncharacteristic style. (“He trashes it and puts these effects over it,” notes Barman. “It’s very effective.”) Whirling across the stage like a crazed dervish, the most obvious comparison – in fact, the only one I can think of – is with The Bad Seeds’ Warren Ellis, a similarly left-field musician whose presence is, in many ways, just as fundamental to his band’s appeal and enduring success. Barman concurs, joking that “Ellis did something similar with the Dirty Three, but Klaas was first!”
“Cause it’s so hard / To keep the dream alive” ‘Hotellounge (Be The Death Of Me)’, Worst Case Scenario, 1994
Barman’s bandmate was also the one constant, calming presence during their darkest days. Although the pressures of constant touring and new-found attention led to several departures after Worst Case Scenario, they came closest to completely imploding in 2004, back on tour after a four-year hiatus. Their freewheeling ways may sound great in abstract, but so much time apart and numerous personal distractions all came to a head one messy day in Edinburgh that led to a cancelled gig and very nearly the end of dEUS.
“It was close,” admits Barman. “Craig [Ward] had left, then he’d come back, and Danny [Mommens] had come back too. There was lots of drinking and other stuff, and it was our annus horriblis. Craig just walked out, Danny kept the whole bus awake for a night, and I just completely flipped. It was a very tense situation…”
Seeing your ambitions, friendships, and what has been your life for the last ten years crumble before your eyes can’t have been easy, and there’s a softness in his voice as he speaks. Turns out it wasn’t just steely determination that pulled them through; the love and goodwill of their fans also played a crucial role.
“There was an incredible anticipation for the album [their fourth, 2005’s Pocket Revolution] that I hadn’t felt, and nor was I really interested in it; I’d made a movie and an electro record, while Klaas had built a family and was minding his own business back home. It was really hard in the studio, but once it was done, the way that European tour sold out in no time was so heart-warmingly life affirming that we thought: ‘Let’s do this, forget about the bad times, and really go for it!’ We did, and we’ve never looked back.”
“In all that I will say / In every move I make / You’ll see that I don’t fake” ‘Bad Timing’, Pocket Revolution, 2005
The leap to maturity suited them well. While there are those who bemoan the smoother edges and the lack of manic inventiveness that made them such a refreshing alternative, they’ve since delivered three more solid records that hew much closer to rock with a subtle twist that anything that could be called “avant-garde” (a tag they actively hate). Barman, now 42, resembles your favourite jovial, bohemian uncle, the one that no one begrudges his leather jacket, four-day stubble, and rock star shades. He seems settled into an indie elder statesman guise, and wears it well; his distinctive delivery may be a little rougher around the edges and more world weary, but it’s still unmistakable.
His approach to song writing has also changed, although perhaps it’s more accurate to say it mirrors his personal mood and circumstance. Barman interviewed Nick Cave for Belgian TV in 2008, and while learning guitar, rock history, and his film work all predictably crop up, the most interesting part is their discussion about lyrical inspiration, and Cave’s assertion that he doesn’t need personal drama to write, he just works at it. Is this an approach Barman can sympathise with?
“It depends. Around the time of The Ideal Crash I discovered confessional song writing, then I got disgusted by it and changed; Pocket Revolution was just too much. But I’ll never be a storyteller like Johnny Cash or Cave because I just don’t have that kind of imagination; it has to have roots in my life, then I can take it off into tangents. I cannot invent – that doesn’t interest me because I have no emotional liaison with it, and I need a personal spark. But then I can sing about a sea captain who grounds his boat on a sandbank, kills twenty-five people and then flees the scene [Following Sea’s ‘The Give Up Gene’, inspired by the Costa Concordia tragedy] – I can make the personal link with the anger I felt [then] and the absurdity of that situation.”
“I wanna speak to the captain, about libations and sex / I bet his loft is amazing, twice as big as the next” ‘The Give Up Gene’, Following Sea, 2012
Music is not Barman’s sole passion, nor is dEUS his only outlet; he’s heavily involved in film and broadcasting. A student at Brussel’s prestigious St. Lucas film school until dropping out to focus on the band, he’s directed several music videos and one feature length film, 2002’s Anyway The Wind Blows. He has two more in development that he hopes to finish over the next few years – “One is a ‘noir’, the other is a kind of psychological drama, both in English. I’ve just signed with a producer, and he’s actively looking for finance” – and never one to rest on his creative laurels, he’s planning to write and direct both of them.
He’s also musically active outside of dEUS, as are most of his bandmates (guitarist Pawlowski is currently a member of, or contributing to, no less than six different acts, alongside numerous solo projects). There’s his recently formed jazz trio, improbably called Taxi Wars – “It’s saxophone, bass, drums, and me on vocals and shouting. There are some melodies, some cover versions, but it’s mostly saxophone compositions” – and his better-known dance collaboration with CJ Bolland, Magnus.
“That started because I didn’t want to look for a guitar player [for dEUS] after Craig first left in 2000. But I was itching to do music and going out a lot, and I met CJ while DJ-ing – we just clicked. We had the idea of doing something electro, and we had a great time doing it.”
Ten years after debut album The Body Gave You Everything, the pair have finally got around to making another. “It’s called Where Neon Goes To Die, and it’s me and a bunch of friends on guitars, stringed instruments, and keyboards. It’s out at the end of September, and when we do it live, we’re gonna have Tim [Vanhamel] from Millionaire and Jinte [Deprez] from Balthasar playing. I’m really excited about it.”
“Maybe I’m made for roaming, or floating around in shackled dreams / It’s not about where you are going, but where you feel you already should have been” ‘Eternal Woman’, Vantage Point, 2008
Before all that, there’s the small matter of tonight’s and tomorrow’s shows, the last two dates of dEUS’ 2014. Each will be different – tomorrow’s is billed as a sit-down, semi-acoustic show, although Barman laments that the poster isn’t quite correct: “We’re just playing the quieter songs is all” – and are supposed to mark a new chapter in Utrecht’s music scene. Theirs will be the last standalone show at Tivoil Oudegracht, a grand old balconied venue that’s been sold off for redevelopment, and one of the first at Tivoli Vredenburg, a brand new, custom built venue incorporating five separate rooms, a nightclub, and all the modern accoutrements one would expect from a state of the art music facility.
I ask if the shows are some kind of thank you to fans, a chance to see the band doing something different, but the real reason is far more prosaic.
“It was more of a joke than ran completely out of hand,” explains Barman. “We opened somewhere in Holland about a year ago, and it was so much fun; we didn’t have a record out or anything, but they really wanted us and we said: ‘This could be a new career, opening new venues’. And what do you know, we suddenly got four or five offers to do exactly that! Here, they were also closing one down and asked us if we wanted to do that too, and we did. It’s a great way to spend a period that would otherwise be quiet – we get to rehearse and play, whereas normally it’s always touring, no playing, touring, no playing. So this is just fun.”
Live, they’re just as vital and energetic as they ever were. “We have fans that are now 50” notes Barman, and I meet several, but there are plenty of young faces in the sold out crowd too; they know all the words and pogo appreciatively to ‘Roses’, ‘Bad Timing’ and ‘Little Arithmetics’. There’s one fan, Christian, who’s seen them over 100 times, and someone so moved by the climax of ‘Instant Street’ that he starts waving his crutch manically above his head, precariously balancing on one leg. It’s the kind of manic delirium they revel in and, surrounded by the fans they invite backstage after the gig, they're in their element; looking to the future, they have no reason to slow down or call it quits.
“I think if, as a band, you survive a certain period then you can go on forever,” says Janzoons. “Why not? The times change, and the world changes, but you get influenced by modern things and you go on. It keeps the fires burning.”
Barman is coy about what exactly when their plans might crystalise into something definitely, but he confirms that tentative work on album number eight has already begun. “Following Sea is two years old now, so we are slowly getting it done in the studio and slowly working on the next one.” They’re not sure about the direction it will take yet, but he does have some ideas. “We still have a very soft album that we’d like to do, but it’s too soon for that. I think the next one will be songs like ‘Quatre Mains’…but it could be completely surreal, or night songs, or completely instrumental – our musical style will always change. Five years ago we were writing dramatic, personal songs but I feel, on a personal level, I’ve finished talking about me for three or four years, which is fine; it’ll be something new.”
As they head off into the night to a favourite local bar, loyal friends and family in tow, Barman’s earlier response to a question about their status as indie legends and all they’ve achieved is put neatly in context; celebrating past glories is just not his style. “Believe it or not, there are still places we’d like to go that we haven’t been, like Japan or South America. I don’t want to fall into clichés, but this band feels young and we still all get along. Of course, sometimes we don’t, but we still want to work and give everything we’ve got. And in the long run, that’s what counts. Is there anything I’m ashamed of? Is there anything I said or didn’t do my best on? No! I always gave it my best, and as long as you can say that to yourself you can continue.”
On into their third decade they march: older, wiser, more focused than ever.
As I said, dEUS never do things by half.
Photography by Susana Martins.