With a life time of synthesis to his name, a third solo album under his belt and the evolving Sendai collaboration bending the rules of what’s considered to be functional dance music, Belgian sound artist Yves De Mey is profiled by James Manning.
Like something out of a spoof heist film, I found myself telling a taxi driver at Kraków’s John Paul II International Airport to get me to Manggha Museum of Japanese Art and Technology. I’ve just landed for Unsound festival 2015 and I’m in a rush to witness at least some of the first performance taking place there that night. This edition of Unsound famously played on a theme of ‘Surprise’ in a move pitching to challenge collective expectations of the festival experience. Indeed, the first act I was cutting through the lowly lit Kraków streets to see was a secret. Rumours were passed around the cab ride with a fellow punter that it would be the sinewaves of Emptyset rattling the walls of Manggha’s lower level performance space. The room, however, was in fact filled with the delicate yet wholly visceral sounds of Yves De Mey.
With long limbs outstretched over his desk of controls (can of coke to his left) the Belgian artist is a dominating presence on stage. As it transpires, unbeknown to everyone in attendance that night, De Mey’s surprise performance was a sneak preview of his then-unreleased Spectrum Spools album, Drawn With Shadow Pens, “with a ton of new sounds added,” I’m told. It’s since been released with De Mey delivering a nine-track LP of challenging modular constructions, with each production said to have taken days to patch only to be recorded in the single take. The Belgian sound artist also expresses to me he doesn’t consider himself a dancefloor producer, “occasionally stuff happens,” he says, but as I found out that wasn’t always the case even if his music is regularly bent towards being abstract.
With history working in sound design for theatre, film and TV, you could say De Mey is a freelancer by day and his own producer by night. His solo music has appeared on labels like Semantica, Modal Analysis and Opal Tapes following what some might consider a surprise album for Sandwell District in 2011. With close friend Peter Van Hoesen, De Mey makes music as Sendai and together the pair established Archives Intérieures in 2013. To date the label has released Yves De Mey’s Frisson EP, Sendai’s second album Geotope, reissued John Elliot’s rare Imaginary Softwoods album, The Path Of Spectrolite, and provided the platform for Peder Mannerfelt to release one of last year’s best and unique albums, The Swedish Congo Record. Furthermore, De Mey makes ferociously unhinged dance music as Grey Branches,
De Mey’s love of waveforms materialised at the age of 12 when, with a little help from his parents, he bought his first synth: the famously complicated Yamaha DX100. “It’s a synthesiser with one of the most complex synthesis techniques in the world, what do I know,” he says thinking back to that purchase, “only now, 30 years later, do I start to understand how it works,” he adds. “At that age I was an incredibly big fan of Depeche Mode.”
During the years he learned to make “the sound of a helicopter,” or “the sound of the sea,” on his synth, De Mey could be found playing the organ or drums in garage rock bands, like his first: The Lonesome Crocodiles. “I didn’t come up with that name so I’m not to blame,” he jokes. “I never took any classes for drums,” De Mey tells me before explaining he was in an industrial duo with a guitar player. “I was just programming beats and stuff and we played together for two or three years and then at a certain point he said, ‘I can’t follow your beats anymore.’”
“It was like a break up point,” De Mey explains, “an epiphany.” De Mey adds he felt like, “yeah, I’m on to something that no one else can follow, cool, let’s do this.” It was around this time De Mey went on to established himself as Belgian breakbeat maker and drum and bass enthusiast Eavesdropper. “When drum and bass came into fashion I totally fell in love with it,” he explains, “especially the UK variety, more of the tech-stepping stuff; Ed Rush, Optical, stuff like that.”
“I made a few tracks and sent out a demo to a national radio station and they picked it up and played it from cassette, really old school,” he remembers. De Mey’s initial music as Eavesdropper made its way around Belgium and up came the chance to take part in a ‘breakbeat opera’ which doesn’t sound as cheesy as you might think (Jori Hulkkonen’s Acid Symphony Orchestra anyone?). As I’m told, three Flemish literary writers, whose books De Mey admired, would recite text over his soundscapes and breakbeats in an opera staged during a “very dark period of Belgian history,” that De Mey says, “really dominated the main focus of the opera… Kids hidden in basements and stuff like that.”
De Mey’s time working in theatre and creating installations coincides with what he calls ‘the Eavesdropper years’ (2000-2009) which saw him, “start out as a bedroom drum and bass producer and end up doing scores for a rather high-end dance and theatre performances.” During this period he released albums and scores on his own short-lived Knobsounds label to other music for Belgian outlets called Morse and Downsall Plastics. A piece of music De Mey remembers fondly was a 1998 remix he did for London label iLL which he proudly points out in retrospect also featured a Boards Of Canada remix. Furthermore, one of De Mey’s final records as Eavesdropper was released on Van Hoesen’s Foton Records.
De Mey moved to Brussels in his 20s and it was then he met Van Hoesen and discovered the Belgian capital’s “amazing sub-culture and underground scene.” De Mey explains: “When I moved to Brussels there were lots of things going on, and it was much more improvised in a way, also a lot easier to get in touch with people, it was a very diverse scene. The parties in Brussels were much more rowdy and underground, very exciting actually.” De Mey adds, “that’s where I had the feeling I was slowly starting to enter a scene, no matter how big or small it was at the time, there was the feeling people were actually doing stuff.”
The first record to come out under De Mey’s own name was the Lichtung album released by electronic minimalist Richard Chartier and his label Line. “The music that was going to be released was so different,” De Mey says of that LP, “soundcapes with guitar and things like that.” He remembers thinking, “since the music is so drastically different, maybe now is a good time to change my name because I got kind of sick of this Eavesdropper thing,” he says. “Back in the day it was fun how it relates to my name, but the joke grew old and I got older as well, and I was like, well, maybe I should do it under my own, and it probably sounds a lot more exotic as well.” This is true, the name Yves De Mey wouldn’t look out of place on a fashionable Parisian high street.
It could be said Yves Dey Mey ‘the artist’ broke through in 2011 with release of his Counting Triggers album on Sandwell District. “I never really felt part of this whole Sandwell District thing because obviously it’s Dave (Function) and the other guys, so I’m kind of the odd one out, which is cool,” De Mey feels, then jokes: “I also felt very guilty because it felt in a way my album was the end of Sandwell District… I’m to blame.”
Alongside Rrose, De Mey was the final artist outside of Regis, Silent Servant and Function to appear on the label which shut up shop in 2012 after a venerated decade of music. “I was a Sandwell District fan anyhow, but I was honestly very surprised they wanted to release that album,” De Mey says. “I mean they did a bit more experimental stuff with Rrose, but still it was dancefloor banging stuff,” he adds, “but when I sent my tracks to them and they got back to me they said we want to move slowly into a more experimental direction and we love the idea of it being done with the modular stuff.”
Each track of De Mey’s newest album, Drawn With Shadow Pens, is made by a single patch on his modular system. “It takes a few days of patching to get the sequences going right,” De Mey explains. “I don’t want, so to speak, to sell it as a modular album, because it might be too trendy to say,” De Mey feels, “but I wanted it to be spontaneous in the recording, and I did a few takes and kept the mistakes, so it’s kind of a jazzy way of working with it.”
“It gave me a better understanding of my studio making this album which is nice, and especially a certain part of my studio being this modular thing,” De Mey adds. “I’m not going to do a second album like that, not at all, no. I did it and it’s been fun but I also noticed that working on the live set now I’m adding sounds to it, I kind of rehashed it all and programmed new sounds digitally to go with it.” He’s using these original tracks as a mainframe in his live sets, “but there’s going to be lots of other stuff going on as well.”
Performing live as Yves De Mey or Grey Branches may be what defines his sound, but he’s also a very special kind of DJ. I’ve been lucky enough to see him play twice, once at Berlin’s Ohm club with Peter Van Hoesen as Sendai Sound System and in Paris among a fluctuating crowd at the Ambient Stage during last year’s Weather Festival. The latter set can be found online and while De Mey admits that “there were hardly any people there, for various reasons; the cold, Ben Klock playing 100 meters down the road: I totally loved it.”
“I absolutely prefer playing that kind of set rather than playing to people who have to dance,” he says. “I don’t want to be a functional DJ and that’s the ideal location to play weird, wicked stuff you totally love and hardly ever have the opportunity to hear out loud.” His Bee Mask selection from that set provided the night with one of its special moments which I bring up. “It became a very emotional point at that time, of course it’s a beautiful track and at the same time it’s a revelation,” De Mey says. “It’s fun to play those sets because you do things that are unexpected.”
I also bring up his set at Ohm. “It was incredibly fun,” De Mey starts. “Maybe there were some expectations from people because it was Sendai and blah blah blah,” De Mey says referring to those expectations as negative. “It’s going to be heavy and dark,” he says as if facetiously imitating a grumpy punter. “We played disco, we played reggae,” De Mey points out.
Functional, or functionality, is a word that creeps up several times during our discussion especially when it comes to speaking about his Sendai collaboration. Together he and Van Hoesen form a futuristic project that makes bombastic, undefinable body music treading a fine line between what’s considered experimental and suitable for the dancefloor. Experimental dance music, perhaps. “When we do something for Stroboscopic Artefacts it has this dancefloor feel,” De Mey explains, “but at the same time the stuff we do as our own releases – Geotope and A Small Divide – it has nothing to do with the dancefloor whatsoever. I think we are turning towards avoiding dancefloor music in the future.”
“Peter is partially a dancefloor producer,” De Mey continues, “so when we work together it’s pointless to add dancefloor to dancefloor.” De Mey describes Sendai as a playground to experiment with sounds and arrangements that may not suit the traditional idea of what’s meant to be played in a night club. “We love to challenge each other,” De Mey says of his studio time with Van Hoesen. “We never have an argument, we can just say, I don’t like what you did there, and it goes straight to the trash no discussion whatsoever, and all that’s left at the end is something you are both extremely happy with, or at least interested in, and that’s a very nice way of working together.”
Van Hoesen is based in Berlin and De Mey in Antwerp, but he reaffirms this suits Sendai just fine. “For us, it’s the ideal way of collaborating… It’s very exciting to lay the foundations of a certain track and then send it over to Berlin and see what happens to them when you get them back.”
“We’re not making it very easy for ourselves, especially with the new stuff that is coming up as well,” De Mey says. “It’s pretty intense, and it takes ages to finish something,” he adds with an extenuated accent on the word ages. “In the first six months of last year we actually cooked up a full album and we were listening to it again in August, we threw 60 per cent of it in the bin, but that’s cool, we don’t even regret it,” De Mey is quick to remark. Playing live as Sendai is a big challenge too he says, with the pair often using sound check as a time to rehearse.
Playing live on stage De Mey says, “it’s free in the sense there’s a few basic things running and they can be modulated and modified all the time and then just through communication we decide, OK let’s throw in this and let’s do that and see how long we can stretch that moment.” De Mey continues, “if you just abandon the idea of making a techno record then of course you can do whatever you want, but then of course we all carry around our own background and history in music.”
“I mean OK, the garage band was playing organs so that wasn’t really rhythmic, but then playing the drums or programming the beats for a metal guitar player, stuff like that has always been rhythmically driven, probably from the heritage of listening to too much Front 242,” De Mey says, somewhat mocking the Belgian band being a typical cliché of influence. “So for me there’s always been this continuous thread of working with rhythms,” he explains, however De Mey adds, “sound is more important than the form and structure of what you want to get out of the music.”
“For me, heady music, so to speak, challenges me on an intellectual level because I don’t need the physical work out of music. This is no judgement whatsoever – there’s lot of great dance music, I mean I can listen to dance music without the need to dance – but sound design comes into play, rhythmic structures and stuff like that, so then again, in a way, it tickles my intellectual pickle,” De Mey says, doing his best to keep our conversation from sounding too self-righteous.
“The thing is, as a member of the audience, you can choose whether a certain element of the music works as functional for you. I’m not the club goer, so I don’t dance or anything, but I always find something I can tap my toe to, so that’s the functional element.”
Interview by James Manning
Drawn With Shadow Pens by Yves De Mey is out now on Spectrum Spools
Yves De Mey on Juno
Header and coke can image used courtesy of Camille Blake
Weather festival image used courtesy of Brice Robert