Belgium - Full Moon 139 - 01/22/08
Tales from the underground
An interview with Alain Neffe
- a Belgian winter report
Belgium hasn't been featured in more than a handful of menus here at Luna Kafé. About time then, to dwell on the musical whereabouts of Alain Neffe, a looming giant on the Belgian alternative scene for three decades, if ever there was one. On the international alternative scene probably covers his whereabouts more accurate. He was extremely active during the 1980s. He played in several underground bands; not least the international oriented experimental project Human Flesh and the vocal- and electro-pop-experimental duo BeNe GeSSeRiT along with his wife Nadine Bal. Alain also ran the highly respected Insane Music Contact that released several dozens of tape compilations with contributions from a vast number of alternative and experimental bands and artists from all over the world. Alain included contact addresses of the featured musicians on every Insane compilation. This way he created a unique international network based on snail-mail, not only for himself but for everyone interested, 20-something years before MySpace, Facebook etc. made this kind of international communication a lot easier.
Alain has been faithful - or stubborn - to his original ideas and ideals. He has kept going on the underground scene for three decades by now. His closest connections to the overground, as far as I recon, include involvement with the late Lady June's second album Hit & Myth in the mid 1990s (she was helped out by Kevin Ayers and Brian Eno on her first) and Univers Zero's comeback album The Hard Quest from 1999. He was also involved in an interesting project with Univers Zero's leader Daniel Denis that included acoustic recordings in local churches and using old church organs, but sadly never materialized (very interesting recordings were put together on a project CD-R, but at the time, no label they contacted were interested). There has been a renewed interest in Alain's many projects during the last few years. Only last year saw the release of two new CDs by Human Flesh, a 10" EP by Pseudo Code (Light) and the LP Music For The Fun Of It of old material by BeNe GeSSeRiT that sold out immediately. Recently, a compilation LP called This Is An Insane Insane World featuring the main Insane bands was released by a German label. The following is a crazy, sorry, insane - of course, attempt to sum up thirty years of alternative musical activities. This naturally and unfortunately means we've had to be rather superficial here and there.
Luna K.:Let's try to start chronologically, shall we? I guess your interest in music started early on. I know you went to gigs with Zappa and Yes at an early stage. Other favourites back then?
Alain: A lot to mention... The most impressive? Nico, alone with her harmonium, in front of an audience who came for The Scorpions or imposing respect to a bunch of punks. Edgar Broughton Band, Steamhammer, Roy Harper, The Yardbirds with Jimmy Page in front of a small audience
(40 people) in a tent on a market place in a small village, The Groundhogs playing great music on rotten instruments, Khan with Steve Hillage, Gong with Daevid Allen, Supersister, Pink Floyd in 1968 in a small theatre playing a sort of concert about one day in a man's life with stunning sound travelling all around the place, Genesis (the Trespass LP period) in a small theatre decorated with Paul Delvaux surrealistic paintings (there were 30 to 35 persons present), Gun (they played so loud that we had to listen to the gig outside the place...), Yes at the Marquee Club in London jamming with David O'List (guitar player of the Nice) or with Iron Butterfly, Comus, Tyrannosaurus Rex, Caravan, Savoy Brown, Terje Rypdal, Peter Hammill and Van der Graaf Generator (7 or 8 times), Fläskkvartetten (Swedish The Flesh Quartet) etc. etc. just to name a few.
Luna K.:Two favourite records from that period?
Alain: Yoko Ono's double-LP Fly and the first LP by Silver Apples.
Luna K.:These are mainly artists from the late 1960s and early 1970s that don't sound a lot like any of your own musical projects. Can you mention any bands or artists that have inspired you directly within the punk, industrial, alternative, experimental or electronic genres?
Alain: Inspiration?? Well, in the early stages mostly Pink Floyd in their instrumental experimentations... Ron Geesin, too, particularly "Music From The Body" that he recorded with Roger Waters. Trevor Wishart, Silver Apples, Faust, Harmonia, Neu!, Brainticket, Limited Edition by Can. But I believe that everything I liked influenced me. More essential, the place where I lived (dirty industrial suburbs in decay in a surrealistic and totally absurd country) and the way I was raised and educated.
Luna K.:When did you start to play with a band yourself? Was Pseudo Code your first band?
Alain: I started playing flute in a band with no name, trying to create a sort of rock opera in French and Latin (the Latin version was named The Cosmic Tourists or AVNI, for Abjects Violents Non Identifiables)... The band did not last. I asked two of the musicians to stay and we began Kosmose, a group improvising long pieces in the krautrock style. I played with Sic, a punk band, and with a mix of the two, named Katalepsic... I formed Cortex (French poetry and electronic music)... After that, Pseudo Code was born, together with an ex-member of Kosmose, Guy-Marc Hinant. We rehearsed for one full year before Xavier S joined for the definitive line-up. In parallel with all those bands, I recorded alone on a tape recorder and performed some gigs under the name I Scream.
Luna K.:As far as I know, Pseudo Code is the most successful live band, in Belgium at least, that you've been involved in. How long did you keep going and how far did you reach?
Alain: It was quick and very productive. We really began in January 1980 and kept going until mid 1982. We recorded two EPs, two cassettes and contributed to a lot of vinyl and cassette compilations. We also recorded an LP that was released after the band folded. We played live mostly in Belgium and Holland.
Music for nutters
Luna K.:Then on to Insane Music Contact, Human Flesh and BeNe GeSSeRiT. What came first?
Alain: In fact, it was BeNe GeSSeRiT, around 1981... Human Flesh was created in that year, too, basically to replace Pseudo Code.
Luna K.:BeNe GeSSeRiT was and is a rather characteristic duo. Please let us know how you got started, something about what happened in the 1980s and today.
Alain: It began as a joke: Nadine was Pseudo Code's manager and we decided to record some music together for fun. I loved the result, but Nadine did not feel comfortable with it.. So we decided to take pseudonyms and release an acid red fluorescent cassette (named Best Of!), pretending we were from Switzerland. We printed absurd and surrealistic reviews of our works, spread it to the press and radios and put the cassette in consignation in a well know record shop. The contact address was at a friend's in Switzerland. Some months later, everybody in Brussels was talking about that "group from Switzerland" and our Swiss friend sent us dozens of letters from Belgian fans... Nadine was forced to admit she was the singer of BeNe GeSSeRiT. Nobody believed her!! It took months and our first concert for people to accept it. Mostly, we played live in Holland, Germany, a little bit in Belgium, even once in Norway. We submitted a lot of music to international compilations, made three LPs and two singles. Actually, we mostly participate to compilations and specific projects. Now we are recording new music for a CD release.
Luna K.:What was the idea about Insane? There were some ideological thoughts behind the cassette domination of the label I suspect?
Alain: The first thing was to try to promote the bands I was playing with, Pseudo Code, BeNe GeSSeRiT, Human Flesh, I Scream,
Subject, Cortex, Japanese Genius... I launched a sort of virtual label that was putting together compilations that were released on other
labels. For instance Sandwich Records for the Insane Music vol. 1 and Grafika Airlines for the Insane Music vol. 2 and 3. Having money problems with those labels
- they "forgot" to give me my share of the benefits - I registered the name Insane Music Contact and began my own label. I went on releasing cassettes and occasionally vinyl.
About the cassette domination. Well, it was mostly a matter of costs. I bought thousands of virgin cassettes and some cassette recorders. I could copy the tapes on demand. Releasing an LP required that you printed at least 500 copies and 1 000 copies of the cover sleeve, and everything had to be paid up front. The cassette had some good sides: if the buyer didn't like the music, he or she could wipe it out and record something else on it. Cassettes also gave you more freedom, no sensorship, and was very quick to release. They were light (less postal costs) and you could listen to them everywhere, on your walkman or
portable cassette player... You could make cheap coversleeves by photocopy, and you could do it all by yourself, without depending on factories. One could really control the overall quality. Also, they were not in limited editions, you could reproduce them anytime. To finish, the cassette might have longer playing time than an LP and be sold at a cheaper price.
Luna K.:Why the name Insane? The music wasn't that insane? Btw. we had a festival in Norway in the early 1980s with bands mainly from our local/national cassette movement. The name of the festival was Sprø Musikk Festival that might be translated to Weird og Insane Music Festival in English. I guess it might be an accidental connection here... :-)
Alain: When I was making music in the early 1970s, people told me my music was "crazy" or "insane"... When I had to choose a name for the label, I took that term, and, to be explicit, I named it Insane Music Contact. After a while, it was shortened to Insane.
Luna K.:Yes, the name of our Norwegian festival had about the same origin. How long did you keep the Insane label active and why did it fold?
Alain: I began in 1980 (with the virtual label) and it ended in 1990, I mean the production thing, because I continue to conceive and produce CDs or LPs which are released on other labels.
Luna K.:How many tapes did you release on the Insane label? Are they still available? Have you considered releasing them as CD-Rs?
Alain: 45 tapes... the cassettes are not available anymore because I haven't duplication tools or labels any more... But 42 of them have been released on CD-Rs with their original coversleeves and nice labels.
Luna K.:Can they be ordered from you?
Alain: Yes, they can.
Luna K.:There were several volumes of your compiltaion series with international artists called Insane Music For Insane People and Home-Made Music For Home-Made People. What was the difference between them?
Alain: The Insane ... compilations were without theme and with no specific length of the tracks. The Home-Made ones had a theme and the length of each track was maximum 1 or 2 minutes.
Human Flesh - now and then
Luna K.:Human Flesh was and still is a very special and very international project with you as the only common denominator. Can you tell us about it?
Alain: Here are excerpts from a 1983 interview: "The concept really began in 1981 when I bought a second-hand 8-track reel-to-reel recorder. I began to conceive a system using the machine as the centre of the group. I would invite musicians to play with me on some tracks, then ask other people to add instruments or voices months or years later. So these people could play together without even knowing each other... Being the only constant member of Human Flesh, I'm the one to decide who to add, and on which track. However, it (still) is a kind of improvisation: The musicians listen to what has been recorded so far once or twice while I ajust the sound of their instruments and add some effects. Btw, the effects are always added while recording and never during the final mix. Then we begin to record their musical part. Sometimes the result is not technically perfect, but the track possesses freshness and spontaneity. This aspect is very important to me. The hardest thing is to find the final arrangements and to mix the track. I always wait at least one year before I mix a song, until I've forgotten what it sounded like. Mixing is also a kind of improvisation for me; it must be rather quickly done. It is also a very important part of the creative process, I think. Some tracks remain on the 8-track tape for years and years before I find something or someone to finish them. Some will never be finished.
I also work with people living on the other side of the globe, people I probably never will have the chance to meet. I write lyrics in French or English and ask others to translate them into into their own language and to record it. Then I put their recording onto the 8-track and build a musical piece around the voice. Most of the time, the simple sound of the voice and the music of the language inspire me... Most of he participants of Human Flesh are friends,
they trust me and I really thank them a lot for that."
Back to 2008: Nowadays the Internet is a great way to exchange and collaborate. I've done it several times. It works well and it is very quick. You can send musical files and discuss the results, make graphic projects and share a lot of ideas. Internet is bringing back the idea of network we had in the cassette
scene in the 1980s. It's about the same, very international, but faster and with better interaction. The MySpace pages have brought me a lot of new contacts, new collaborators, new outputs and new fans.
Luna K.:What about the lyrics?
Alain: Only emotions force me to write lyrics. Years may pass without being able to write a text... Usually, I must feel unhappy, desperate or angry to be able to dare to write a single line... I write mostly in French and sometimes in sloppy naïve English.
Luna K.:EE Tapes has recently released two CDs by Human Flesh, Songs For The Victims (From A Decaying Country) and Penumbra, both
with impressive 7 inch sleeves, including recordings mainly from the 1980s and 90s. Can you tell us something about these particular recordings and why it took so long for them to be released.
Alain: Songs For The Victims is a bit harsh. The music is angry and desperate. It depicts what I feel concerning the victims of crimes. In Belgium they are not considered at all, receive no help... The "politically correct" system prefers helping delinquents, rapers, thieves, rather than protecting the victims. The Dutroux case is one of (too) many examples (Belgian serial killer who kidnapped, locked up, tortured, sexually abused and murdered several young girls - two of them were "forgotten" in his cave and slowly died). I wanted to express my disgust for the decaying country where I live...
Penumbra is more close to the spirit of the first LP by Human Flesh (from 1985), bitter sweet, nostalgic... This time most of the lyrics are interpreted by young women, for the sake of capturing the freshness, the innocence and the pure emotion. Some of them are non-professional and others well known in the world of alternative music. The tracks have been inspired by the sound of their voices and the musicality of their languages.
About the time: In the 1990s and the early 2000s, nobody was interested in that kind of music anymore. It would've been a waste to release them. Since 2005, a new interest raised in young people about the music of that period. Time had come...
Luna K.:There must be more old Human Flesh recordings in your vaults. Do you plan more of those to be released?
Alain: Yes, naturally. I am working on the third CD now. I must wait till EE Tapes has sold enough to cover their investment money. If it goes well,
it will be different from the two others.
Luna K.:In what way?
Alain: I am still not sure... In the 1980s, I asked to an Italian friend to translate some texts to Italian and get some opera singers to sing them...
It was really good, but he added a synth , and I didn't like its sound... It was impossible to "hide" it, but, actually, with the digital tools of today, I think
I can attenuate it and add acoustic instruments on it. I will try. If it works I will record on that basis.
Luna K.:The Chopstick Sisters is a sort of extension of BeNe GeSSeRiT, augmented by Anna Homler, with two highly characteristical vocal ladys in front. When did you start and what have you achieved?
Alain: No, it's a real specific project, where I am not very active musically. We met in 1990 during a women's music festival in Aachen, Germany where both BeNe GeSSeRiT and Anna performed. A reciprocal admiration quickly evolved into friendship. In 1996 we decided to organize a recording session with Anna in our home studio. We were really surprised by the results and Nadine and Anna decided to form a duo. Some months later I agreed to join. I am mostly the producer and discrete musician in addition. My aim is to emphasize Anna's and Nadine's voices. They are the basis of the project, very complementary. Anna's is warm and melodious. Her way is very musical. Nadine's is abrasive, sometimes violent. She tends to "destruct" Anna's melodies. On stage the two of them are just like chopsticks. Anna stays almost motionless and Nadine moves. All three of us love Asian food, especially the dishes eaten with chopsticks. The titles of the tracks of The Chopstick Sisters' mini album are favourite dishes from the menu of our favourite Vietnamese restaurant.
Anna lives in Los Angeles. We can only rehearse, record or play live about every second year when Anna comes for short trips to Europe. When we record, we work really efficient. Both "sisters" have well developed skills based upon improvisations. Onstage they use small instruments, all sorts of toys, diverted objects. I make electroacoustic loops and play a hybrid instrument made from an old electric guitar.
Luna K.:Something happened in the mid 1990s. The cassette technology was outdated. And you went into some kind of hibernation, or what?
Alain: Exactly. I continued to record, slowly but surely, waiting for the next wave to come.
Luna K.:As you said, there have been a new interest in BeNe GeSSeRiT and Human Flesh in recent years with several releases with old and new recordings. How come? Is it a turn of the tide? Are some of the trends/spirits today similar to the ones in the 1980s?
Alain: I really don't know... I think there are a lot of young people who feel nostalgia of that long-forgotten era, when people invented the sounds that is part of a lot of pop music now. When people did it with cheap small tools. Some say they discovered it in the collection of their big brothers, even fathers, and were surprised/delighted by the freshness and spontaneity.
There are also older people who rediscover their own youth. Some told me they were not "ready" for that sort of music at the time. By now they are willing to discover what they missed back then.
Maybe there are other reasons. Fashion...? Personally, I must admit I am not fascinated by that 1980s music... I prefer 2000s underground or music from the 1970s. Go to MySpace and you will see and hear great bands and individuals playing great underground music.
Luna K.:Are there someone in particular you want to recommend?
Alain: Yes..., just go to our MySpace pages (at the end of the interview), click on the pictures in the "My friends" list and listen!!! Well, I must tell you how I proceed... I invite only the musicians I like, musicians who have put several tracks on their MySpace pages. When you click on their pic, you are led to their site and you can listen to their music, and sometimes download it. A sort of virtual compilation again.
Luna K.:Is your approach to making music different today compared to 25 years ago?
Alain: There are no essential differences, except I try to record the music with more care now. I also try to avoid the rhythm boxes, because everybody uses them. I tend to record more acoustic music since electronic stuff is so easy to make these days. Maybe I have lost a little bit of the excitement, but I can still be passionate when I find something new or unusual. I mean something I was unable to do in the past. My dream is to be able to sing, play an acoustic guitar and harmonica at the same time, just like the Bob Dylan of the sixties. Well, it's not easy to sing and play the harmonica simultaneously...
Luna K.:There has been the occasional live performance with BeNe GeSSeRiT in recent years and rumors of new recordings. Any forthcoming releases or gigs with BeNe GeSSeRiT or any other of your projects?
Alain: About gigs, well, I feel too old for it. It's so tiring! And I have had my share of concerts... In 2006 we made a special performance, playing with Philippe Curval
(science fiction author; he has written about 60 books of novels and collections of short stories) in Nantes, France. This was to celebrate the release of a book of short stories together with a CD where BeNe GeSSeRiT and Human Flesh have some songs.
We are ready to play with The Chopstick Sisters, but it's hard to get Anna over here. The organizers have to pay her an airline ticket from Los Angeles.
Projects? Always!! A BeNe GeSSeRiT CD with lyrics by Charles Baudelaire will hopefully be released in 2008 on Le Jardin Au Fou label in France. An EP by Pseudo Code will be released in Japan. Maybe a live LP of BeNe GeSSeRiT, some film music, the next Human Flesh CD, a new BeNe GeSSeRiT etc. etc.
Luna K.:Thank you, Alain! I've heard rumours of the Baudelaire project for a long time. I do indeed hope it and the others you mention will see the light of day soon!
You might get in touch with Alain by e-mail.
Some relevant Internet pages:
The Insane Music Contact page,
The Insane MySpace
Alain's MySpace page,
The BeNe GeSSeRiT page in
BeNe GeSSeRiT's MySpace page,
EE Tapes home page,
Some more information on the Chopstick Sisters,
Homler's home page.
Copyright © 2008 JP