Neighbourhood life, art & culture
Made in Belgium Issue 10
Founder & editorial director NICHOLAS LEWIS
Underpinned by a lifelong fascination with synthesizers, the music of Brussels-based cosmic electronic two-piece AGE delights in the space it is given to grow, the vast sonic expanse within which it exists intrinsic to the overall compositions. And although the Belgian synth precursors’ earlier recordings remain some of their strongest to date, the band – fronted by Guy Vachaudez and Emmanuel D’haeyere – has continued to record together for the past 40 years now, their commitment to sparseness and restraint unperturbed by decades spent on the fringes of the scene. An outfit that distinguished itself as much by its early use of obscure gear as well as by its adoption of what they’d refer to in marketing speak as a 360 degree image (promo stickers, stage suits, a distinct visual identity – the lot), AGE’s decade-long career remains as relevant today as it ever was. We met with the unassuming local heroes – both of them teachers, although Guy is now retired, and both close friends – in a bar in the Brussels commune of Laeken to talk early influences, gear porn and having the most fun when making slideshow music.
|1980 Recording of Landscapes|
You’ve been making music together since 1977. When and how did you first meet?
We met in 1976. We both were holding a record: Irrlicht by Klaus Schulze and Rubycon by Tangerine Dream. We started talking and discovered that we both had a synthesizer, so we decided to meet with our instrument. At the time, there also was a third man - Alain, the “A” of AGE – with whom we played a few times, but he left us very quickly. We nonetheless decided to band together and kept AGE as a name – the “G” for Guy and the “E” for Emmanuel. You could say that the second AGE was born. We were in 1977.
From a personal perspective, how would you describe yourselves as individuals?
GUY: That’s a difficult question… one I’d probably summarize in another question: What lives in me? I’d say that question best defines my personality.
EMMANUËL: Interesting question. Each person is a unique universe of contradictions. On the one hand you want to achieve what the others are expecting of you or what society rules dictated to you. The establishment… On the other hand there is your deep and inner personality. For some of us it’s a huge daily struggle to follow one or the other. It took me a long time to reach that peaceful way of living my own life according to my beliefs and thoughts, but by now I can say that I’m in harmony.
In our first email exchanges, you described your music as cosmic and ambient, strongly influenced by the Berliner Schule. How did you both start getting into the genre? Who was instrumental in introducing you to synthesizer music?
We were both introduced very early to music as we often heard classical music at home, because it was the music our fathers loved and listened to.
EMMANUËL: I came to Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream after having followed bands and artists such as Pink Floyd, Yes, Genesis, Mike Oldfield, Vangelis and of course Jean-Michel Jarre. I discovered Jimi Hendrix at the age of 12. Just a few years after Woodstock.
GUY: The starting point for me was Mike Oldfield and his “Tubular bells” in 1974.
When we first met, you spoke at length of Radio Libres (Pirate radios) and more specifically Paul Verkempinck and his weekly radio show Muziek uit de Kosmos. Can you tell me more about him and his show as well as the influence it had on the scene at large?
“Muziek uit de Kosmos” was the place and the moment where this new music lived. Liquid and space ambient music free from classical, jazz, pop or variety rules. A program with synthesizer sounds and nice texts to introduce the music. It was also a kind of diary for events, concerts, news or interviews – this was way before Internet time, obviously.
|Paul at Age Studio 1981|
You also mentioned the Radio Libres as being instrumental in promoting your music as well as your concerts, some of which - like the one at Oostende’s Casino Kursaal or one you’ve described as being mythical at De Grote Aula in Leuven - were sold out at the time. To what extent did these radio shows and their hosts support your music?
You have to remember that, back in the 70s, pirate radios were the easiest way to promote the kind of music we were making. We benefited a lot by the presence of these radios in our communities – they used to play our music and even invited us in for several interviews. But these radios could only be listened to in their own neighbourhood. The stations didn’t use powerful transmitters, so their impact was both very real and rather restrained.
Music is perhaps the most equivocal of all arts and the synthesizer was the easiest way to become over-equivocal.
You also spoke at length of Patrick Cosmos. Can you discuss his influence on the scene at the time?
He very quickly reached an important place on the scene. His recordings on I.C., Klaus Schulze’s label, made him one of the musicians to follow at the time.
Who were your other musical heroes and inspirations at the time?
They were numerous. Tomita, Kitaro, Ashra, Zanov, Jean-Michel Jarre, Michael Garrison, Walter Carlos, Krafwerk, Führs und Fröhling, Michael Rother, Brian Eno, Vangelis, Tim Blake, although Tomita, Vangelis, Klaus Schulze and Tangerine Dream were definitely top of the list.
The liner notes on your first album, Landscapes, mentioned it being recorded on full moon in August 1980. It also has the rather peculiar tagline “environmental impressions digitally generated” affixed below your name. Can you tell me a little bit more about that?
The cover and the text were the idea of Paul Verkempinck, who came up with it on the last day of the recording session. In 1980, Klaus Schulze recorded Dig It, his first digital album, and we suspect it had had an influence on Paul when he wrote the tagline.
You recorded Landscapes in three days and, to this day, cannot listen to it anymore, despite it being some of your stronger work in my opinion. Why is that?
Three days to create the right mood is way too short. What’s more, the engineer had never recorded that kind of music. It was very hard, if not impossible, to get him to understand what we wanted and how we worked. The hardest thing though was remembering how we played during rehearsals and reproducing it during the recording session. The monitoring was dry, free from effects and we used to play with reverb immediately, even to record. In fact everything was live when we played at home. And here, all the instruments were recorded separately.
Your follow-up album, 1990’s Escales, also talks of a spatial environment. Can you explain this fascination with space, the cosmos and the environment?
The spatial environment we were talking about was a technical device we used to create depth and width during the mixing process.
During our meeting, you also touched upon the idea of constructing an image for the band, something you mentioned being very important in your earlier days. Can you talk to me about the kind of things you did to develop your look and what it included?
For all our concerts, we wore the same clothes. It was for us a good way to give the image of musicians anxious to show their common aim and it was also a way to avoid distraction. When the artists have the same look, you don’t look for differences and you focus on the music.
I’m particularly enamored by your logo. Who designed it?
A fan who wanted to show what our music meant to him. We found the result remarkable and we used it as often as possible.
The first and second album’s front cover artwork differs radically from one another. Can you talk to me about the people you collaborated with for the artwork design?
EMMANUËL: My first wife was pretty good at drawing and painting. While we were working on the second album and the concept of Dimensions, we talked a lot about the program of the music. One day, she showed me her project and, well, you could say that our ideas had found the right shape and colours. For the back cover, a colleague photographer took the pictures. We still often walk there. It’s a lovely place in the big park close to the Atomium.
Who would you say were the people instrumental in your careers?
Our respective families for starters. We also appreciated the interest of some of our colleagues and from radio hosts. But one person, a colleague, who asked us to make music for a slide-show, let us understand that we could very well exist on the back of the small world of synthesizer music fans. Now, to be honest, for each of us it’s the second man of AGE who was and still is instrumental.
Your first two albums, Landscapes and Dimension, were released on Gamm Records. Can you talk to me about your relationship with the label and how it initially came about?
The studio where we made our first recordings worked with Gamm Records, but we were not bound to them. We didn’t want to work with a producer, preferring to remain free. For instance, the cover of Landscapes we accepted was in a certain way already too much. We didn’t want to be on a particular label’s roster or in a specific circle. In a circle, you can grow up very quickly and disappear if your newness doesn’t recur. The examples are numerous. We have never been big, but we still exist.
When we met, you were rather vocal about not wanting to share your music and revealed a rather anti-music industry streak. Would you agree with this and, if so, can you expand a bit on this notion?
The music industry is there to promote what sells and, in order to do that, you must make concessions when you start. For the music industry, money is important, not art, but all the musician wants to do is making his music, the one he has in him. To give you a metaphor: A small plant may need a prop although using one doesn’t change the plant. But the music industry often changes young artists’ music and that’s not for us.
Let’s talk gears. You both seem to be quite the nerds when it comes to synthesizers, every album released accompanied by a detailed list of the instruments used to record it and back in the late 70s that’s no small feat. How, when and why did you learn synthesis?
We list all the instruments used because we like reading that information with other artists so suppose it can also be interesting for the people who listen to our music. As far as synthesis goes, we learned it simply by using our instruments. The user’s guides were different before. Today, when you buy an instrument, you sometimes have hundreds of pages of explanation! So, we tried, took a lot of notes and spent hours going through all the features. Why did we learn synthesis? Because it fulfilled an old dream of mankind (we assume), being able to create music not only with notes but also with new and original sounds. Music is perhaps the most equivocal of all arts and the synthesizer was the easiest way to become over-equivocal. Our desire was to give the biggest freedom ever to the listener who was ready to explore his inner world.
When you test an instrument in a shop or when you play one that isn’t yours, you realize that you only greet him… If you want to tame it, you need much more time.
What’s your prized possession? Where do you go to buy your gear? What’s your prized possession? Where do you go to buy your gear?
The prized possession is often a question ofperiod. Today, we both have an incredible instrument. A Korg Triton for Emmanuel anda Korg PA 500 for Guy. But we remember a few other ones such as the Korg PS 3100, the PPG or the Roland Jupiter 4. On the other hand, themost prized innovation was without a doubt the the MIDI standard, which allowed for theinterconnection of all synthesizers as well as thefirst multi-timbral synthesizers that were able to play different sounds at the same time. We’d useto buy them in several specialized shops around Brussels, sometimes even going directly to the distributor to listen to special instruments. For instance, when we bought the PPG, you first had to order a personal configuration then, once that was done, someone from the company would bring it over from Germany in the back of his car.
The first album Landscapes was made with the use of more than 10 synthesizers, sequencers and effect units … Can you take us back to the time of the recordings?
We had a very complex set up. An instrument was not compatible with another one and the MIDIdidn’t exist yet – we’d have to come up with these self-made devices to connect the instruments. And when we say connect, we mean allowing an instrument to influence another one by playing synchronising patterns. Our instruments had no memory for sounds back then, all we had was a book with all the settings to re-create the sounds. It just was another period and way of making music.
Were all the synths you were working with at the time yours? When did you buy your first synthesizer?
We’ve never worked with synthesizers that weren’t ours. It is important to live and sleep with your instruments, although perhaps not in the same bed. When you test an instrument in a shop or when you play one that isn’t yours, you realize that you only greet him… If you want to tame it, you need much more time.
Where would you find this kind of synthesizers in Belgium back then and how were you able to pay for these pieces of equipment back in the 70’s?
It was, and is still, our passion. Buying the first instruments was hard. After that we followed the evolution, sold some instruments, bought some new or second-hand ones, earned a little with concerts, sold a few records to our mothers. You have to be resourceful but, more importantly, live with an understanding and patient wife.
You were kind of precursors in Belgium when it comes to analog and digital gear. Did you ever feel the need to leave your synthesizers aside and opt instead for the endless possibilities of a computer?
In the 80’s we started working with a computer we used an Atari to compose. Today, we alsowork with a computer, but only for some pieces.The computers are really complex and withoutlimit. But a musician needs a physical contactwith his instruments. What’s more, the endlesspossibilities are perhaps in us. The computerallows you to make what the program can make.It is a fantastic tool elaborated by an even morefantastic one, the human brain.
I’d like to discuss your approach to composing, performing and recording? Who does what, and how does an album take shape?
We both make music in our own studio. We shareour pieces, listen and compare notes. And little by little a concept appears. Then we start recording with all the instruments, which is pretty hard in a small room but we like being close! It’s the best period, new ideas, reciprocal actions,impulsive acts, failures and a few brilliant ideas –everything is is possible. Most of all, we take ourtime. After the recordings, we start the mixingand work on the cover and texts. Everything
is shared and subject to change until we are inagreement.
And, unless I’m mistaken, Guy your brother Marc was credited with drums and percussions on the first two albums … Do you still record with him?
My brother also played on the single Singapore,Symphonie pour la Terre et la Mer” and on some pieces of “Escales”. After that we didn’t really play together anymore.
There was 12-year period, from 1999 to 2012, where you went blank. Why, and what were you doing during this period?
Our last release Beyond was a flop and we felt that a break was necessary. It was a quiet period, but we still met up every day as we worked in the same school. During that period we became both self-sufficient, meaning we were able to technically finalise our own productions. So we didn’t actually stop composing, exploring and adapting the material, we just took a public break. Plus, Emmanuel produced a solo album (Quinte Sense - E-light) and I worked on a musical philosophical tale (Les flocons de Lumière).
Can you talk me through your studio set up and recording space as well as your recording process? Who does what?
After Landscapes, Dimensions and Singapore we decided to record at home. We bought a Tascam (8 tracks) with noise reduction (DBX) and we mastered on DAT. Today, we use two multitrack-homestudios Korg D3200 (32 tracks each) and The mixdown and master are made with these machines. The effects come from the synths, the D3200 and FX Lexicon. Guy loves mixing, so he does that part, and Emmanuel) mostly works on the sound design architecture as a starting point for composing.
Can you pinpoint a few memorable moments in your career?
The birthday cake cake after a concert in the Planetarium in Brussels was a special one. The band was celebrating its 10th anniversary, Guy’s wife surprised us with a cake and we blew out the candles while the public sang and clapped. It was cute. Another memorable moment, if not more dramatic… On the way back to Brussels after our 1980 concert in Oostende, Guy’s sister and her husband had an accident. They’d been hit by a drunk man who couldn’t even talk or walk anymore. They managed to get out of the hospital a day later, but their car and a few of our instruments were destroyed. Good thing we had a good insurance policy and were able to buy new instruments.
In time, how do you wish your music to be remembered?
It’s not important to be remembered in a way or in another. What’s important is what the music does to you at the moment of listening to it. Our music could be seen as path but who knows where it leads to? We refuse to foreshadow a destination. Every listener will make his own way and reach his secret garden. We see our music as an opportunity, an immaterial vehicle. And who remembers something immaterial?