TaxiWars: How dEUS’ Tom Barman Embraced Jazz

A lengthy conversation with the art-rock doyen...

“Jazz, but not as you know it.”

Of the many floral descriptions applied to TaxiWars and the music they make, this one seems the most apt. Tom Barman, cult indie legend and captain of the good ship dEUS, has long been a devoted fan of the genre, but it’s only over the last two years that he’s been able to scratch that particular itch with yet another new project alongside saxophonist Robin Verheyen, double bassist Nicolas Thys, and drummer Antoinne Pierre, esteemed jazz musicians all. Sharp, energetic, but with a deep sense of groove, it’s as far removed from Jazz Club clichés as can be. You might think this was all Barman’s influence, but as he tells me a few hours before the Amsterdam leg of their European tour, the others were just as keen to break free of the stuffy constraints one might normally associate with the genre.

Both last year’s self-titled debut and new album Fever are wild, glorious affairs, kaleidoscopes of styles and motifs that teeter on the edge of madness and just occasionally plunge over the edge. There’s ‘Death Ride Through Wet Snow’, carrying a smoky hint of menace, the bustling, frenetic ‘Fever’, and the slow seduction of ‘En Route’. The band swing from soft and tender to fast and furious just as readily on stage as on record, Barman as enigmatic as ever in his role of mischief-maker-in-chief. Hints of Mingus and Duke and Count break through, but there’s just as much rock sensibility at play and a mastery of mood and pacing; during quieter sections and solos Barman sits stoically at the side of the stage, smoking and swigging on a beer before whirling back into the eye of the storm.

Perhaps most impressive is the ease with which they’ve merged certain traditional elements of jazz with an indie approach to songwriting, but then Barman and his dEUS cohorts were always adept at cherry picking whatever took their fancy and making the mix palatable.

“This is not as far out of my comfort zone as you may think,” he tells me, and he’s quick to point out that at the end of the day, it’s all music, and it’s all performing. He’s clearly energised by the challenge, and enjoying the freedom that comes from flying under the radar somewhat. “I absolutely love it”, he says of the smaller scale tour, and it shows; rarely have I seen a band be so relaxed and yet so polished. Just another example then of Barman’s impeccable instincts and indie Midas touch.

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A lot of people might not be familiar with your back catalogue, and they might not be aware of your love of jazz. How did you fall in love with it?
Tom Barman: Well, the artist that made me fall in love with it was Don Cherry, and I was listening to Don Cherry for the simple reason that I’d bought my first sampler, and I was sampling; this was back in 1996. There’s no better media to sample from than jazz records because they have drum solos, bass solos, and wild breaks and so on. It was great to take loops from that and, obviously, after a while I not only listened to it because of that but because it was great stuff.

With me, it comes in waves. I love instrumental music at home – especially in the mornings – and that’s all there is to it. I love putting on a good Freddie Hubbard or, what was it this morning? Wayne Shorer. It just lights up the house; it’s as simple as that, my friend. It also puts me in a good mood, it gives me ideas, and it doesn’t impose itself too much. And, of course, there has been some fantastic stuff done like Davis, Don Cherry, and Mingus. That’s the melodic stuff which you hear in TaxiWars.

I read in another interview that you said you listened exclusively to jazz. Is that true?
Yeah, for the reasons I said. Also, I’m very lazy; if I can’t find my iPod, I just play the records that are lying there, and it’s always the same old records. I just enjoy it, and I don’t really follow it much, like ‘new jazz’ and stuff like that; every time I go to see a ‘new’ jazz band, I’m always a little disappointed. I’m not a freak either, a “trainspotter”, let alone a fucking purist; I just love the joie de vivre of it.

And so you eventually decided to try your hand at it?
My idea was five years ago, and I wanted to do something with real jazz, but obviously I wasn’t going to be crooning; or at least not all the time. And I wasn’t going to be singing old jazz because I’m not good enough to go: “Ooooh, shoobie doobie doo”, all that stuff. So, it was going to be a meeting of those worlds. Robin [Verheyen] started writing, and we took it from there.

I’ve said this already, many times; the speed of it was very alluring. dEUS is a year and a half of just writing the songs together, which makes it even longer – just think of all the possibilities you can have with the guitar. But with jazz, a double bass is a double bass, a sax is a sax, whereas a guitar can have a fucking hundred thousand sounds! We love doing that with dEUS, but it takes time. Suddenly I was here with these guys, making these compositions; I structure them together with Robin, I find my lyrics, I write my melodies, and ten days later there’s a record! I also like it when TaxiWars goes out on a limb, and goes to places where there is maybe a little hip-hop, but not too forced, and it goes a bit abstract. Robin is a great catalyst for that feeling.

Then there’s the live thing, which is no hassle; no hassle with computers, or loops, or backing vocals and this and that. It’s just a small, little, flexible machine as opposed to dEUS which is slightly bigger. And I’m enjoying these little clubs because I’m really close to the people, and it keeps me on my toes artistically, you know? I have to think of the lyrics and find the melodies, but it’s not with all the pressure or hassle of a dEUS record – which by the way will happen soon. Next year we’ll start to get that out of the way. It’s not that I want to stop dEUS and do this for the rest of my life, but it’s been great to fill those gaps.

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With one of your other projects, Magnus, it was ten years between the two albums. But with this one, it’s little more than eighteen months and you’ve got another album out. How come it was so quick with TaxiWars?
Well, Robin does the work at home, and he does twenty or twenty-five compositions which are not more than just parts of music that fit together; they aren’t a song. It’s such a luxury because I’m sitting in the room listening to these guys playing, and I go: “That one, that one, that one, not that one.” It’s fucking great.

That’s why we can work quicker, and hopefully there’ll be another new one next October. That’s the plan because my film is coming after that for which we will write music with TaxiWars, dEUS, and probably Magnus also.

How do you go about writing? The four of you are obviously living in different places, but are you all coming up with ideas?
No. Robin comes up with parts at home, and I just react instinctively and quickly to them. I have my iPad with me, which I have a recording button on, and I just sing lines and melodies. Then we record it at Vantage Point in Antwerp, and then I structure it; sometimes with Bram, an assistant, or CJ [Bolland]. We structure it, turn it into a song, and present it to the guys; then they play it, and then we move onto the next one. They read [music] from paper also, so you don’t have to shout chords. It’s a really quick process.

Jazz, as a genre, a lot of the classic, traditional stuff is obviously very elongated and songs meander…
That was the 60s and 70s that started that, because in the beginning it wasn’t.

No, of course. But you listen to classic Miles Davis albums and stuff, and there is a lot of improvisation, of going down this path, coming back and going down another path. But a lot of your music is very tight, like three or four minute songs. Was that a deliberate thing? Like applying a pop writing standard to jazz?
That was the idea, yeah. And live, there will be room for that, especially on the longer songs. On this album there are two: ‘Trash Metal Ballad’ and ‘En Route’. Both are six and a half minutes, and we’re definitely going to play ‘Egyptian Nights’ tonight, which has another solo. So there’s room for that, and I enjoy it; I am sitting on the side of the stage, smoking a cigarette if I’m allowed – usually, I’m not! And I’m just listening, and every time these guys play something else.

With my other projects, we tend to elaborate, but Robin is a guy who says: “Three and a half minutes good, three minutes even better! Let’s do it like this.” And they are all enjoying it because it’s fresh for them, but also different to their other things which are probably more classical or traditional.

What do you feel that you bring from your rock background to this style?
I think brevity, and a connection with the audience. With jazz, and sometimes the blues, people get lost in their instruments…not that I’m Mr “Hello how are you doing?” all the time, but that visceral connection. They also let me do the set list, so I have a build up, and I create a story within an evening, which is a very rock thing to do.

Also, I don’t dwell between the songs; just one then another, giving the people something in an hour and ten minutes that has energy.

Do you or any of the other guys feel that working in jazz – which is a genre that is far more scrutinised and even intellectualised; you can go down the rabbit hole with jazz theories – you’re under more pressure and that it’s going to be scrutinised by people a lot harder than if you were just a pop or rock band?
Not really. I think these guys are above that, first of all, and I don’t read that either. I’ve never liked purism, or people who say how music should be played. The funny thing is that TaxiWars is getting pretty good shout outs from people who are important in the jazz scene; our friend Ashley Khan has said and written some great stuff about us, and he’s saying: “This stuff is great, it’s so alive.” And that is the right way of seeing it.

So we’re not afraid. I think if you come to a TaxiWars gig, you’ll see it doesn’t take itself that seriously. I mean, artistically it has got to be good, but it’s not the chin-stroking kind of….fucking around, it just ain’t. It’s a rock show almost.

“I liked the way you went to the middle eighth chord on the little riff…”
These guys are above that. They get more criticism than I do, they’ll get: “Great guys, but do you really need the rock guy?” I’m sure they get that. And I sometimes hear it from my friends too: “Great Tom, but he’s really playing a lot of saxophone…”

But I think the general idea you get from TaxiWars is that it’s a fun band, it has energy which could come across as a bit dated if you were to do it like rock, a bit punky. Imagine if I were to play a song like ‘Fever’, or ‘Death Ride Through the Snow’ with guitars. They would still be good songs I think, but the saxophone does something, the way it has this kind of rawness which we haven’t heard that many times on a guitar. Maybe it’s that.

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Reading a lot of the interviews and reviews, the one word that keeps being used is ‘punk.’
Yeah, well ‘punky.’

Kind of like a punk version of jazz. Written with punk rules; “We don’t give a fuck.”
I like that.

One particular review I found was in Flemish, but I ran it through Google Translate, and it said: “TaxiWars is like a reanimated corpse, and you find out that the body still has balls!”
[Laughs] That is very juicy.

It is Google Translate, so I don’t know if it’s quite accurate, but I thought that was quite nice.
Yeah, it’s just about the energy. So many people come down either dragged along by their girlfriends or boyfriends and saying: “Oh, that kid Barman is pretty cool, but I don’t like jazz.” Then after they’re like: “Oh, is that also jazz? I like that! That’s cool.”

It’s not really standard jazz. The first thing I heard last year was the single, which was ‘Death Ride Through Wet Snow’…
Which is pretty suicidal.

…and it doesn’t really sound like a jazz trio.
Again, we had the single from the last album, which is really kind of like a French jazz tune from a 60s movie.

Even listening to the new album, there’s a real sense of groove about it that you don’t necessarily get from a lot of jazz.
Like the good stuff, yeah! That’s the input, you know? For example, ‘Bridges’; this was again a composition where there were three or four more parts, and I just went: “I’ll have that! I don’t need all the rest; it’s great Robin, but I don’t need it!” Then he went: “OK, sure.” He was completely cool about it. He doesn’t say “Oh man! I worked on that…”

So, I took it home, and I knew exactly what I wanted to do. I already had a song line; I put the bass and drums there, so I can sing, I hear the melody and do the solo, then give it back to them, and it was a pop song. That’s what they expect from me. So at least I have something to do. [Laughs] Which is nice.

Have you seen the film Whiplash?
Yes. Jazzer’s don’t generally like that film. I thought it was OK, not that good, but jazzers really hate it! They hate it because they don’t believe it and they’ve been to schools like that, and so they don’t believe it to be real. Also, the boy almost gets better and better grades the harder he hits, and of course that’s bullshit, you know? Let’s Get Lost would be a much better film. Look at anything from the 70s or 80s; they’re great jazz films, but Whiplash is not one of them.

There’s a song in French in this album. What is that keeps drawing you to write in that language?
That song ‘Shout’ is in Parlando; so a talking voice, not rap. In English, it’s funny how the languages work. God knows I love English but, for some things, French is better. In English it would become pedantic, it would be like me just talking. In French you have the Gainsbourg connection – I get it, I don’t mind – but there’s a way you can talk without it sounding pedantic, so that’s why I went to French. Simple as that.

Do you have an affinity for some of the jazz poets, the likes of Ginsberg and all that stuff? For that seedy, smoky world?
The funny thing is that I’m a huge American writer fan, but the Beat Poets just completely pass me by. I’ve not read one Ginsberg or Kerouac. Burroughs I have – Tales Of A Mad Man or whatever – but that’s not really my thing. I was much more with the Cormac McCarthy’s and the Philip Roth’s, Norman Mailer too.

Don Delillo?
Don Delillo, yeah. I read a couple, not the last one. I see the point, but that is again a cliché in itself, and also a bit of lazy journalism if people write that. Do you know what pisses me off? That they say: “So, we have a jazz band and Tom is like talking, shouting, or doing slang poetry.” On this album, there are eight songs that are completely sung from beginning to end. For the first one, I can see it; it was 50:50. But on the new one, 80% is sung, apart from ‘Fever’ and ‘Controlled Demolition’.

So no, I’m really not inspired by that, and I also think it’s quite dated because it is the 60s, and we’re not in the 60’s anymore. I’m sometimes more inspired by Dutch writers, which I don’t translate obviously, but I use that turn of phrase into English. Of course, Cohen will always be there, and the literacy of Cave will always be there, but not the Beats. It would be too obvious, and I’m not from there, you know? I’m from Antwerp.

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One thing I am curious about is working as a solo artist. Are you quite structured in your life and say: “Right, I’m going to sit down and do some stuff.” Or do you have to wait for inspiration?
No, no, no, no. You just work.

But in that sense is it quite easy? Do you find it a simple thing like being in TaxiWars mode and then in two weeks time saying: “Oh, I’m going to write some stuff for dEUS?”
I do it all the time. This is not as far out of my comfort zone as you may think; this is completely in my comfort zone. I mean, listen to ‘Death Ride’ and listen to ‘Turnpike’…so I don’t have a problem with that.

We’re going to make an EP with Magnus, so there were moments where I was working on TaxiWars, doing a couple of demo’s, then radio with TaxiWars, and then CJ said: “I’ve got a new song.” So the next day I was writing for Magnus. Enjoying the song, finding a melody, getting excited…it’s all the same. I mean, you don’t congratulate the plumber because after he’s fixed your shower he does the kitchen, do you? It’s all part of the job! That’s why TaxiWars is important for me also, because I may not be working with dEUS at the moment but I’m still practising that muscle, you know? And that’s important.

Like you said, in London you are playing to ninety people in packed clubs, proper underground venues. Do you find that quite inspiring and energising? A lot of people in bands don’t really get to go back to that.
I love that. Absolutely love it.

A lot of artists, once they reach a certain level, even if they wanted to they couldn’t go and play somewhere like that because they just can’t, it’s been set. But you get to go back and see the whites of their eyes.
Yeah, and maybe they want to maintain that level too. On the other hand, let’s not exaggerate; if it’s dEUS in London then it would be the ICA which is seven times more people, but it’s hardly the O2 or anything like that. But if it’s a small place then it has got to be full; I’m not going to tell you that I don’t mind [if it’s not]. I just love the playing, and I love the flexibility at the beginning of it. The guys are probably setting up now, and I’ll just pop in after this to do the sound check, go off for dinner, then play.

I love the other one too, let’s be clear – this is really a low budget kind of touring that we do, but it has its charms, and we get along, and we are going places. We went to Japan and played in tiny jazz clubs to maybe build something up there. It’s expensive as you know, but it keeps you grounded and it’s a different energy because you have people literally right there, so conversations happen. If somebody shouts then you can respond to them. It’s fun, and you need that.

So, you already mentioned plans for another album next year.
Yeah, Robin is going to start writing and we’ll do the whole thing again, and then we can audition [for a new guitarist] and start writing with dEUS. Actually, I’m going to start writing for dEUS in February / March time, and Magnus is releasing an EP in January; it’s almost done. Those are the near future plans, but I really hope we can do a third album before the film comes out.

Is this going to be a thing with all three bands, you want to keep them all going at the same time?
Oh, Magnus is going to be on a lower pitch I think. I’ve got to be realistic; the film is coming up and something is going to have to give, and that will probably be Magnus. But with TaxiWars, we feel we want to keep going. With the European tour we’re on now, we’re hoping to catch the eye of some promoters for festivals next year.

We want to have a good summer, and that’s really the ambition. We did one in Poland, and it was great. It was like a normal lineup that you see; a band from the 90s, a couple of rock bands, and then we arrived with a double bass and a saxophone. But the tent was packed, and people just loved it so we want to do more next summer. That’s the plan.

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Words: Derek Robertson

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