INTERVIEW + WORDS BY AIDAN DALY
Belgian quintet STUFF. call themselves 'a five-headed instrumental cyclops' – a pretty apt description once you're inside their semi-unhinged world of free-wheeling synths and wonky, stuttered beats. Their roots are in jazz, but their compositions pack an almighty punch of different styles, with momentary leaps into acid house, synth-wave and the nether regions of experimental hip-hop all featuring on new album Old Dreams, New Planets.
We stopped by with Dries (bass) and Andrew (saxophone/windsynth) before their high-energy gig at The Camden Assembly to talk about the new album, their production techniques, and why they are not a jazz band...
So first off, what’s your background? How did you all meet?
Dries: About five or six years ago Lander, our drummer, invited us to do a jam session The White Cat club in Ghent. It was really fun, so we did a monthly gig there for about two or three years. It was more of a club setting – we never played before midnight. Everyone just brought some pieces and we’d jam bits of music together.
Your debut album didn’t come out until 2015 though, right?
Dries: Yeah - at first we jammed for about two or three years, then some compositions of our own grew out of those jams.
Would you say the sound you’ve developed is dependent on this original late night context then?
Dries: I think so, because the people that came to the shows were there to dance. Also there was a DJ before us (which was most of the time STUFF.'s DJ, Menno) and we’d just jam out of his last song and mess around with it.
Andrew: Yeah, the vibe of jazz in Belgium among young people is much more open and tolerant towards bringing in elements of electronic music. It’s really alive in Belgium. In Antwerp we have a lot of guys experimenting with these kinds of sounds.
Who should we check out?
Andrew: We can give you the names of our other bands!
So you’re all in a lot of other bands too?
Dries: Yeah everyone’s in loads of bands. It’s nice. There’s an interesting collective in Antwerp called Granvat. They make ambient music, lots of interesting new angles with improvisation. There’s also this huge band doing acoustic drones called Vvolk. It’s all improvised but it’s about very slow tempos. There’s another collective band we both play in called Aan. We improvise with new production tools and how to use them in live music.
Andrew: It’s Dutch for ‘on’, like the ‘on’ switch. It’s a little bit more in the direction of STUFF. As STUFF. we try to get the sidechain sound or the gated sound, but we approach it as individual musicians, it’s not like we’re interlinked with cables. But that’s exactly what we’re trying to achieve with Aan. We’re actually getting the production techniques only available in the studio and getting it on stage so everybody’s midi-synced.
Yeah – listening to the new album, a lot of the time it sounds like you’re almost intentionally disguising a live band as electronically produced music.
Andrew: Yes, that’s it! We try to get the electronic sound, as if it’s actually coming from one head but we’re five heads! We try to take it further by giving it the element of interplay that doesn’t exist when you’re composing or producing on your own. We tried first with jamming because that aspect isn't there in produced music, but now we’re more into this compositional mode where we really try to go for the sound and we really need to have a notion of what’s going to happen to get the sound right.
Dries: The special thing about STUFF. is that it brings the human element and the electronic element together. With Aan it’s something different – it really is the electronic element!
"We want to create the STUFF. experience from your sofa!"
How did the new album, Old Dreams, New Planets, come together then? Was it a case of writing compositions from the beginning or did it grow out of jamming in the same way as the debut?
Andrew: It was a little bit different. We had a month-long residency at De Singel in Antwerp, so we had the opportunity to write some new material for this seated show – the focus was more on composition. We played some concerts with this new set and then we went back to jamming to try to make the new sound fit with the club or festival setting.
It sounds a lot harder, harsher even, than the debut album. Was this a conscious shift?
Dries: I think it came out a bit rougher. It just happened, it’s not conscious – just the take. Some of the songs that sound rough on tape might be softer live. We always try to make a distinction between how it sounds on the album and live – it’s a different medium.
Andrew: We want to create the STUFF. experience from your sofa! You’re not always listening to it at a loud volume, or headbanging or drinking beer. We try to angle the production to get two distinct sounds which are actually about the same thing, but sound different because the medium is different.
"There’s almost no solos anymore, they used to be there. It’s more about the collective overall sound"
Having said that, there are a lot of soft moments on the album. In fact there's a lot happening stylistically... What were you listening to when you wrote the album?
Dries: Everyone kind of listens to everything. That’s always the trouble when people try to define what STUFF. is, it’s just a bunch of stuff! We all studied jazz but everyone is listening to electronic music, pop rock, hip-hop… We weren’t consciously listening to one or two electronic albums. We'd just be like “check this album out” to each other or whatever. I guess we listened a lot to Syro by Aphex Twin and Lone, so that comes in.
Jazz styles are intersecting with a lot of club-ready sounds at the moment. Do you see yourselves fitting into this wave?
Dries: We started out more on the jazz side but now we’re maybe less into that. I wouldn’t say electronic but I wouldn’t say jazz either. Studying jazz is what binds us together but after that you kind of leave the studying thing and get into your own vibe. There’s almost no solos anymore, they used to be there. It’s more about the collective overall sound.
"It’s not because of our music that we’re not a jazz band. Jazz is a way of playing not a way of sounding."
It can be quite easy, lazy even, for journalists and critics to simply label something jazz. And a lot of musicians are actually rejecting the label because they don’t feel it actually describes their music, as they’re taking from so many different elements.
Andrew: I don’t think STUFF. is a jazz band. We don’t like to label ourselves as a jazz band because what we’re doing is not jazz. For me, you have the historical concept of jazz and then you have the way of playing jazz. And with STUFF., even the way of playing is not strictly jazz. With our other band Aan, the way of playing is really strictly jazz but it sounds hopefully, in our good moments, a little bit like Autechre in the ‘90s! But what’s happening on stage is not that different from a free jazz band.
Dries: Jazz is about freedom for musicians. With Aan, we use the tools of electronic music but it’s 100% free improvisation. Part of the problem is that in the academies jazz became almost conserved. People think of jazz and they think of swing or bebop or something, but it’s way more than that. That’s why I also don’t feel we’re really a jazz band. We just come from that place and we have certain elements.
Andrew: And with STUFF. there's maybe an element of improvisation but it’s so tight, it’s more of a group effort. To have the strongest group sound we really have to know what’s there. For me it’s less improvised, but it’s not because of our music that we’re not a jazz band. Jazz is a way of playing not a way of sounding.
Old Dreams, New Planets is out on Sdban Ultra now.
Pick up your copy here.