Soulwax (Credit: Rob Walbers)
David Dewaele on the role of robotics in music and recording an entire album in one day...

Belgian electro-pop trailblazers Soulwax have awoken after a decade or so stuck in standby mode.

This down-period might have been more active than most, with the central Dewaele brothers touring as 2manydjs, Despacio (with James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem) and, well, Soulwax itself when it took their fancy. However, given that their last original studio album was 2004's 'Any Minute Now', it's safe to say that the release of recent record ‘From Deewee’ marks a proper return to the musical frontline for the sharp suited synth-botherers.

Soulwax were never known for making things easy for themselves and this is no routine release. Recorded in one single take after two weeks rehearsal with three different drummers, the latest record was the offspring of ambition, experimentation and looming deadlines.

“We had a date by which, if it wasn’t all recorded and mixed and sent off, there would be no vinyl release, no digital release, no anything. So a lot of that process came out of necessity,” explains singer and co-band leader David Dewaele. “We had to start at the end and think backwards to plan every second of our time, because there was absolutely no leeway. The process took about two weeks, but we only had two days where everyone was in the studio together. I think we managed the whole thing on the 18th take.”

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A lot of that process came out of necessity...

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Despite such a stress-inducing recording process, the band have no regrets about taking such an unorthodox approach. "I think whether it's a year or two weeks you’ve spent perfecting a record, your feelings about it are roughly the same," David muses, "It’s easy to say ‘this is how it should have been’, but ultimately that’s how it was at that time. And that’s it. Once it’s done and once it’s out it doesn’t belong to you any more."

In many way's 'From Deewee' has the same advantages and disadvantages as a live album, capturing the band at a very short, specific stage in their career and preserving it in amber for all to see. "There is no definitive version," as David sagely puts it, "there’s just that performance”.

He also points out that, due to the unique way that the record was created, audiences at their live shows basically get to see the album’s recording process recreated in full with the same personnel, equipment and setup they used back in their studio in Ghent, Belgium. “It’s three drummers facing off on either side, with us in the middle on machines,” he explains before descending into a deluge of audiophilic jargon about how they map the sound of the different kits on stage to pan differently depending on where you are in the audience.

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David’s use of the term ‘machines’ instead of ‘instruments’ pretty much sums up the group’s approach to artistry. He and his brother are never happier than when testing the capabilities of musical technology and disappearing down the synthetic rabbit hole in the pursuit of new ideas. In fact the group would have loved to compose an album to be entirely performed by machines, if only that pesky Aphex Twin hadn't got there first. "It excites us trying to find new ways to do unique things with these machines," he explains, citing fellow eccentric gent from Ghent Godfreid-Willem Raes (creator of and composer for the largest robot orchestra in the world) as one of the innovators they most admire.

But the most impressively machine-like aspect of Soulwax’s sound in 2017 isn’t the bleeps and bloops of the band’s considerable electronic arsenal; it's the aforementioned drum trifecta.

First on their new percussive roster is the heavy-hitting Igor Cavalera of metal trailblazers Sepultura, not a musician you’d immediately associate with the nerdy synth-rock of Soulwax. Also on sticks is Vicky Jean Smith, who played with The Big Pink, Ipso Facto and M.I.A. “She’s kind of on the other end of the spectrum to Igor, who is just this incredible machine,” explains David (to whom human drummers are merely the motors that power a larger contraption). "She brings a real, for want of a better word, groove. She’s every bit as powerful as Igor but her beats are more swung than programmed." Completing the rhythmic troika is Turbowolf's Blake Davies, who David describes as "kind of in the middle" of the other two's stylistic extremes.

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She brings a real, for want of a better word, groove...

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Performing as a poly-rhythmic outfit allows the album's songs to neatly segue into one another as the trio pick up each other’s beats and add subtle embellishments, or take it in turns to build up towering 'pass the parcel'-style fills. This complements 'From Deewee's non-stop nature, its origin as a single take making it sound almost like one long robotic symphony. This is, in part, due to the Dewaele brothers’ long running side-hustle as 2manydjs. David admits that the record "is almost more like a DJ mix than a standard album. We planned the position of the songs way in advance with the way each one would transition into the next in mind.”

Despite the many lessons he and his brother Stephen have learnt since Soulwax last released an album, David is adamant that there's no reason his band couldn't have made a record like it back in their early 00s heyday. “On a technical level anyone could have made this album!" he laughs, "but I guess you always need a set of circumstances to make a specific album, and given there was a decade of difference between us in 2017 and the version of us that released ‘Most Of...’ I’m sure that affected the nature of the album we ended up with in some way.”

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Make it all about the records...

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After a jawdropping showcase of this unusual live performance at M.I.A's Meltdown Festival, Soulwax will actually only play one other UK Festival: Bluedot Festival at Manchester's Jodrell Bank Observatory. Given that it also merges together science, technology, music and a healthy passion for discovery, this seems like the perfect fit for a group dedicated to using scientific means to expand their sound palette. Having the festival next to the famous Lovell Telescope seems particularly apt to David, as “a lot of the identity of a festival comes down to location".

But despite their serious geek credentials, Soulwax would never curate something quite so conceptual themselves. “We tend to hang out with nerds," David admits, "But we’re not as smart as the guys who create stuff like that, if we were to curate a festival we would probably just make it more of a vinyl fair. Make it all about the records.” Sure Soulwax might be studio tech-wizards again, but as the 'From Deewee' track acknowledges, their singer has become a deejay, and that's a tricky transformation to come back from.

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Catch Soulwax at Blue Dot festival, Jordrell Bank this weekend (July 7th - 9th).

Words: Josh Gray

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