Having been a resident in the North for nearly two decades, it has been painfully apparent for most of that time that a small number of bands have cast a long shadow over any wannabe local musicians of an indie persuasion, seeking to evolve the sound from where Messrs Brown, Marr and Gallagher left off. Barring the odd exception, no like-minded UK outfit has really been able to set the world alight since those heady days a couple of decades or more ago.
Ironically, as this music slowly permeated further afield, it’s been overseas audiences who’ve soaked it up, taking up the mantle, reinterpreting the sound and giving it their own stamp, repeating the feat British bands did half a century earlier with post-war American blues music.
This is where Belgian quintet Balthazar come in, consisting of Maarten Devoldere (Vocal/Guitar), Jinte Deprez (Guitar/Vocal) Patricia Vanneste, (Violin/Keys/Vocal) Simon Casier (Bass/Vocal) and Michiel Balcaen (Drums), they’ve been making critically acclaimed music for the best part of a decade now. Previous album ‘Rats’ was very well received in their home country and follow-up ‘Thin Walls’ sounds closer to (our) home than our continental cousins, a hybrid of kitchen-sink indie with a vaudevillian twist, giving us a big old sound to get to grips with, there is certainly plenty going on here.
Downtempo ‘Decency’ sets the scene, opening the band’s third album, easing the listener in nicely as lush strings combine with staccato piano, giving a decidedly urbane feel, leaving you eager to find out what’s going to happen next…….or in this case ‘Then What’, the title of track two, a more straightforward but equally alluring rocker.
‘Nightclub’ is a louche chugger, opening with the line ‘Crippled by this Raw Desire’ as the band start to succumb to their hedonistic tendencies. The desolate ‘Bunker’ serves as the perfect antidote, then ‘Wait Any Longer’ is a beautifully chilled slice of jangly guitar, suddenly augmented by more heart-warming strings when you feel the song has nowhere else to go. ‘Dirty Love’ is dark yet comforting in equal measure whereas ‘Last Call’ is a quintessentially indie road-trip of a song, right down to the subtle organ in the background. Indeed it is here that the album’s title is hidden in the lyrics as we fade away beautifully to delicious vocal harmonies merging with extra-terrestrial keyboards, marking the album’s high point. ‘I Looked For You’ has a fuzzy Beatlesque twist, ‘So Easy’ is a throwaway front parlour break-up song leaving us to conclude proceedings in bombastic drawn-out fashion with ‘True Love’.
‘Thin Walls’ is a most accomplished album likely to further widen the band’s appeal.
We managed to catch up with Balthazar and pump them thoroughly as they were waiting for the first vinyl pressing of "Thin Walls" to cool.
What music first inspired each of you to think “I can do that”?
First of all, we never thought 'I can do that'. But rather 'I want to do that'.
We all feel for the first record of the Velvet Underground & Nico. It's an inspiration for each of us individually and as a band.
How does the Belgian music scene differ to the UK?
I'm not that familiar with the UK music scene, but I guess any music scene in any country is similar to one another. Starting a band, playing in bars, writing more songs, playing more, making a record, etc.... But one main difference might be that us Belgians don't have to compete with the Beatles being an iconic native band. Our biggest export product in music is probably Soeur Sourire.
How did you all first cross paths?
Actually we're all related. Patricia's uncle is married to Michiel's aunt, etc... There is a family related link between all of us. So are paths crossed when we were very young, at the playground during the summer of 1999.
When did you first start playing together?
The five of us, as we are the band now, started playing together in the spring of 2014. Before that we've been playing together with our former drummer since 2008. And even before that Maarten, Jinte & Patricia started up the band.
Any formal musical training?
Patricia and Jinte started studying the violin in music-school when they were still children. And we almost all studied music of music production at the conservatory back in Belgium. And off course we all watched the movie 'School of Rock'. We do this every year. It's the only good way to see what the best study methods for music are. Jack Black is our favorite teacher.
What were the first tunes you learned?
Maarten: Sleeping In My Car - Roxette
Jinte: Enter Sandman - Metallica
Michiel: Zombie – Cranberries
Patricia: De Eendendans -Mozart
Simon: Scar Tissue – Red Hot Chili Peppers
The Boatman was the first song the five of us played together. It was the first tune we
rehearsed when Michiel joined the band in 2014.
How does ‘Thin Walls’ compare with ‘Applause’ and ‘Rats’ in terms how it came
together and collective final verdict?
Because we wrote it on tour, the music from Thin Walls is more spontaneous in its songwriting as well in its arrangements.
Song writing process – How do Balthazar songs normally take shape?
Is the process similar for each Balthazar song?
How did you come to write and record the songs on Thin Walls?
How did the first material come about?
Top secret... Even if we wanted to tell...
Which band members are involved with writing music/lyrics?
Balthazar sends us new songs every month. We have no idea where they come from. And we rehearse them, and record them, and in the end we let Balthazar decide which ones to put on the new album.
What triggers a song idea?
In Belgium we have a store that sells song ideas. Every now and then we buy some notes or chords.
Balthazar’s 10 year anniversary just passed, how do you compare yourselves to then
I think we were just kids when we started out. I hope we haven't forgotten to be kids over the years. But luckily we have Michiel in the band since last year, and he's only 22, so he's keeping us young. Except Jinte finds it makes him feel older.
Do you (ever/still) get nervous before playing live?
Does Jack Black ever get nervous before playing live? I don't think so. So neither do we.
But I think the right word might be 'excited'. We get excited before a concert. That's a
different, even better kind of nervous.
Who do you think your fans are, and have they stuck with you throughout the band’s
Each year in winter we go on a cruise to the North Pole with the whole band and our fans. That's our way to thank the fans who were there from the start.
Name a current band/artist that excites you.
Who is the next band/artist you’re planning to see live?
It will probably be one of our support bands on the tour. Hopefully we'll get to see some great bands this summer on the festivals as well. I heard Tenacious D is touring again?
What are the plans for Balthazar in the next 12-24 months?
Well, our album will be released at the end of March, so then we start touring, playing
festivals, promoting the album. Seeing the world.
Is there any advice that you would give to other bands/artists starting out?
Watch 'School of Rock'. Asides from the inspiration you'll get out of it, it's a funny movie. Jack Black is what true rock and roll is all about.
How do you balance your music with other stuff in your life?
Life is music. Music is life.
If you could be any superhero, who would each of you choose to be?
Maarten: Jesus Christ
Michiel: George Harrison, the drummer of the Beatles
Patricia: Mega Mindy
Simon: Jack Black
Any last words?
'Rock!' quote from Jack Black
Email question and answer session. Questions put by Mike Price
Album Review - Mike Price
Thin Walls is released through Play It Again Sam on March 30th