THE FANZINE THAT FEATURES SMALL AND UNSIGNED BANDS
Tuesday, June 29, 2010
INTERVIEW WITH THE NAMES (CHRISTOPHE DEN TANDT)
Hello dear Christophe, first of all thanks for doing this. Do you think The Names had an unique sound?
Actually, we did not spend so much time thinking about our sound. We had a very good idea about the band format we wanted to have, however: a new wave band (the term postpunk hadn’t been invented yet) with guitars and keyboards, like Howard Devoto’s Magazine. Yet, in order to think seriously about our sound, we would have needed to spend considerable time in the studio, and we had no money for that. Also, as soon as we started working with Martin Hannett (Factory’s in-house producer, who had been working with Joy Division), our sound was very much in Martin’s extremely capable hands. In retrospect, I think Martin was trying something new with us. We were probably quite different from the musicians he was used to working with, and this may explain why our sound seems so distinct now.
How do you see The Names in the Belgian scene?
When we started playing as The Passengers in early 1978, there was quite a lively punk/new wave scene in Brussels, with bands such as X-Pulsion, Streets, The Mad Virgins, Thrills, Hubble Bubble, Kläng, Digital Dance ... Belgium as a whole was very much the beach head of the British punk and new wave movement (there was an obvious contrast with the Netherlands, where post-hippie performers such as Rickie Lee Jones were big stars; same thing for France). Still, obviously, most of this new rock scene was located in Flanders and Brussels. Most of our gigs took place there. It’s no coincidence, I guess, that we never played in Liège, where old-style heavy metal was still dominant. Also, it’s essential to remember that even in the whole of Belgium, the punk/new wave scene in the late 1970s was extremely small in terms of market share. When The Talking Heads performed in Brussels in early 1978, they played to a crowd of about 250 fans (“everybody” with any punk credibility was there). When The Cure played the Beurschouwburg in 1980 (the Seventeen Seconds tour), there were about 500 people in the audience. The same goes for albums sales. In 1979, Belgian sales of Joy Division's first album Unknown Pleasures amounted to less than 1000. To us, they were “big”. The Talking Heads were huge: they had sold 8000 albums in Belgium that year!
But still as The Passengers you could be the support of your heroes : Magazine
It was indeed magical to play as supporting act for Magazine, XTC, even for The Simple Minds. The 1979 Magazine concert is one of my best memories ever. We were able to obtain these gigs through friendly contacts with the (small-scale) concert promoters interested in punk/new wave. Since the music scene was very small, things could be obtained on a friendly basis. Some of these guys are big businessmen now, so I guess things must have changed. During the short period when we worked with WEA, we obtained other types of supporting act gigs, one with Robert Palmer, for instance, which was absolutely great even if this meant playing to a very different audience.
Once a friend told me that at the archives of our national radio there might be plenty of radiorecordings left….
The only recorded radio broadcast I have in mind would be the concert we taped in 1980 for the RTBF show “Impédance.” Some of these songs were released on the Spectators of Life collection CD. A concert we gave in Paris during a Disques du Crépuscule package tour was apparently broadcast on France Inter, but I’m not sure it was recorded. The one session we would have loved to release was the John Peel session we recorded in early 1982 just before going to Stockport to record Swimming. Unfortunately, buying the rights of these four songs was too expensive for us. James Nice released them in on one of the early LTM project.
I always thought it was strange your debutsingle was released on WEA though….
It did not feel like a miracle at the time. There was a booming new scene in Belgium, and we thought it logical that record companies should be interested in the new bands. In fact, we contacted several labels before WEA, including a very unlikely one (RKM, which had had its huge success with Plastic Bertrand). We felt we could not leave any stone unturned. Recording was prohibitively expensive then (no home studio at the time), so we needed the financial support provided by record companies. The WEA people were quite correct, but they were obviously still into the FM rock scene. Eventually, it became obvious we were not suited to their business plan: they wanted bands that were at least minimally profitable.
So do you think “Spectators Of Life” was a failure?
I think this failure was largely due to ourselves: we did not have the psychological profile or the media savvy to promote this type of music (new wave rock with a commercially catchy angle ... even a disco beat, influenced by the beautiful No. 1 in Heaven album by The Sparks). In retrospect, this failure was a good thing: it left us free to do something more radically alternative, which turned out to be “The Nightshift”.
Which was on Factory, please tell us about it!
We met most of the Factory staff in 1980 and 82: Tony Wilson, Alan Erasmus, Rob Gretton, and of course Martin. As far as performers go, the person we got to see most often at the time was Vini Reilly, from the Durutti Column because we were part of the same Crépuscule tour in 1982. Ian Curtis was already dead when we went to Stockport for the first time in the summer of 1980. I remember meeting Peter Hook in the Strawberry Studio kitchen, but it wouldn’t be true to say that we actually had significant contacts with the New Order musicians. At the time, besides Martin, the Factory person we interacted with most often was Rob Gretton, Joy Division’s manager. We even had a very heated argument with him about Factory’s unwillingness to give “The Nightshift” the promotional support we thought it deserved (his argument was that Factory was above these basely material considerations). We also played with a few factory bands (Section 25, the excellent A Certain Ratio) at Brussels University in 1981. When The Names started performing again at the 2007 Factory Night, we got to meet them again, of course.
Is it true that New Order once played in your place as The No-Names as you couldn’t make it?
Yes, that was in 1980. I think we were scheduled to play in Manchester at the same time as the Swimming recording session. I don’t remember why the concert was canceled. We did play at the London Venue, though, with a few other Factory/Crépuscule bands, but that gig is better forgotten.
Being on Factory was that a good thing for the band? I mean Factory is often New Order and the rest zero…
There are indeed two sides to this issue. Factory did have a very big reputation, and we were absolutely delighted to be able to record for them. There is also not a single doubt that we would have been unable to make this type of music (and indeed have this type of sound) if we had worked with a Belgian producer (we did record a few titles with Belgian sound engineers, and the result was decent enough, but less radical than the Martin touch). On the other hand, in business terms, Factory was a small, fairly non-professional outfit. They mostly survived (probably in spite of serious financial hardships) thanks to the enormous prestige of some of their bands, chiefly Joy Division of course. This prestige gave them a level of media access other small labels could not possibly have.
And then there was Les Disques de Crepuscule, how was that?
Again, our priority was to make the music we wanted to make. Anybody who helped us do so was our friend. In our view of things at the time, there was in fact no clear division between Factory and Crépuscule. Remember that Crépuscule people (Michel Duval, Katalyn Kolosy ... ) were in charge of the Factory Benelux label, which released songs by Factory bands (A Certain Ratio, The Durutti Column, I think). Shortly before we recorded Swimming, Michel Duval asked us if we wanted to release the album under the Factory Benelux imprint, which he thought we might find more appealing. We opted for Crépuscule, because we thought this was only fair to him: he was the person handing out the money and Crépuscule was his label. He deserved the credit. This being said, it would indeed be an overstatement to say that those small labels were a happy family. I remember that when we took part in the 1982 Crépuscule Tour (“A North to South Dialogue”), there was some degree of competition among the bands (notably with Paul Haig, who played excellent music, but was a bit of a show-off). Within Crépuscule, the bands with whom we had the best contacts were Marine, Tuxedo Moon, and Vini Reilly. In fact, the best musical contacts we had were with non-Crépuscule Brussels or Belgian bands: Kläng, particularly (Claude and Alain Ongena, Denis Ruffin, our former guitarist Robert Franckson): if they had chosen to move to London, they could have become a great new-wave pop band
And before I forget, how was it to work with Martin Hannett?
Martin was certainly not the easiest person to communicate with, yet he was definitely not out of his mind. He was extremely imaginative, very determined in his production choices, but unfortunately not always very gifted at sharing what he was trying to do musically with the musicians themselves [if you want more information about the way Martin worked with us, check out this previous interview: http://users.skynet.be/fa948594/namesgreenley.htm] The sad truth is that he was suffering from a very serious drug addiction which killed him eventually. When I saw Anton Corbijn’s beautiful Control, about Ian Curtis’s short career, I was struck by the fact that a lot of the people mentioned in the film are dead (Martin, Rob Gretton, Tony Wilson).
I sometimes think “Swimming” is the best Belgian album ever…
Best Belgian album ... I love to hear this. Interestingly, the situation was a little more complex at the time. First of all, we were not entirely satisfied with Swimming ourselves. The album was recorded very quickly (six days ... again, on a shoestring budget), and there were a few problems in the initial stages: Martin asked us to record the drums in a very surprising way. This slowed us down a little bit. Also, we were not too enthusiastic about his choice of mixing the vocals relatively low with regard to the rest of the arrangement. There was also the fact that the music we were making was no longer favored by the media in late 1982: the postpunk wave was ebbing; people were far more interested in neo-funk stuff (Allez Allez) or in the so-called “new romantics” (the ghastly Duran Duran). In retrospect, it is a pity Swimming was only our first album: It should have been our third, at least: Michel, who composed the song, was extremely prolific, and since 1978, we had gone through several sets of songs in different styles. My chief regret is the fact that we never had the opportunity to record the set of songs that immediately preceded Swimming—those we played on stage in 1981. Even though I do like the Swimming material, I think those songs were better than those we ended up recording. Long after the 1980s, we still discovered concert tapes (recorded live on a walkman) of excellent material we had almost totally forgotten. Some of these songs are featured on Spectators of Life. Add to this the fact that in Belgium itself, we were not regarded as a “legitimate” alternative rock band ... too serious, not enough attitude, no tattoos or obvious addictions ... It is only thanks to the more recent Internet fandom that we came to realize that our early-1980s material meant something to far more people than we had imagined. The wonderful efforts of James Nice, who reissued our material on CD, really must be underlined here. Thanks, James: without you, we would be next to nothing ...
So, in short, to come back to your question, by the end of 1982, we felt a little out of time. We were happy to sign off with one of our favorite songs ... “The Astronaut.”
As for you, Christophe, you decide to leave The Names. Why is that?
The main reason why I left The Names in late 2009 was simply that I found the whole business of rehearsals and live gigs too stressful physically (getting old ... hauling 60 kilos of gear, etc.). There were also artistic tensions, indeed. I had the feeling Michel wanted to steer the band towards a tougher kind of music to which I would have had very little to contribute and which I’m not sure The Names are ideally suited to play. We had a few arguments about this during the mixing of the 2009 album Monsters Next Door. Still, I find it very courageous of Michel, Marc, Laurent, Eric, and Christophe Boulenger (the new keyboard player) to go on playing. Ironically, one of the chief benefits of resuming the band’s activities in the 2000s has been to draw attention to our 1980s material: we have never been taken so seriously as in the last few years. Conversely, we were quite disappointed that the new album—Monsters Next Doors—was all but ignored: we thought it was a good effort. As far as my own activities go, I must divide my time between academic projects (I’m writing a book on contemporary realism ... Michael Moore, Zadie Smith, David Mitchell, Robert Altman ...) and songs that I develop at home in the very basic home studio I have put together in the last few years. These are instrumental numbers, sometimes entirely sample-based. Still, given the lack of time, I’m not quite sure whether this will lead to anything ...