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Kloot Per W | Photo: Johan Reyskens
Kloot Per W | Photo: Johan Reyskens
Loes van Schaijk -

Kloot Per W: If Frank Zappa and the Beatles Were To Start Their Careers Today, They Wouldn’t Make the Hit Parade

Kloot Per W (a stage name derived from how his real, French-sounding name Claude Perwez, would be written in Flemish) is a graphic artist and a musical mastodont with a diverse and extensive discography to his name who continues to create and explore, driven by his desire to get to the core of things. "I recognize myself in the character Wistik from Frederik van Eeden's book De Kleine Johannes—I always want to know the answers to everything," he says. I wanted to get his take on my articles about the music scenes in Wallonia and Flanders, as he is a Flemish artist who recently started singing in French. What followed was not so much an interview, but rather a fascinating monologue about the absurd consequences of Belgium's division into linguistic regions, being an underground artist against one's will, musical taste, DIY, Jacques Brel, The Beatles, and how an "untamed horse" manages to collaborate with a 20 years younger producer. 

With the forest of Ardenne
Like a raging sea
And waves of green fir trees

Covered with foam when winter comes
With dunes of coal

Cathedrals raised from the bottom
Where you can hear a chorus of vibrations

The last complaint of the miners
This country is not really flat

But it's also mine

And in my language from Flanders
Some days you may hear me
Asking this strange question

This question that bothers you
Does the flat country exist?

Or is it the echo of a song?
And does this one exist?

Or is it a shadow on the horizon?
These two neighboring countries

They are also mine

- English translation of "Le Pays" (originally in French) by Kloot Per W & Dominique Buxin

Freedom of speech? Free your mind first

I am a child of the 1950s and 1960s. I grew up in Belgium where Francophony equaled wealth and intellectuality. Flemings were the majority, but we were always looked down upon as the foot soldiers, the ignorant ones. My parents raised me entirely in French for the first few years of my life. I'm a typical example of a Fleming who speaks Dutch on a daily basis but who also has one foot in the francophone world.

I come from a very progressive left-wing family that was a bit frowned upon by the community in the decades after World War II. My grandfather, who was a good welder and had been able to work a lot of overtime and save up enough money (welders were in high demand after the War to provide Belgium with water), retired early at the age of 45, bought a car and went on a trip to the south of France. And he even took it a step further: he was a caddy at the Royal Golf Club and wrote a letter to the King asking for permission to play golf for free in the evenings after closing time. It was granted... These were the kinds of things that made people in our predominantly Christian municipality think: look at those socialists, a blue-collar worker who drives a car and plays golf, who has remarried and adopted a child, who do they think they are? It was scandalous! But his point was: why can't the working class be allowed to enjoy these things if all those petit-plaisir bourgeois can? And exactly that is a common thread throughout my life: why not do things differently?

I actually try to avoid the words "left-wing" and "right-wing." In the whole anti-vax movement you see that left and right come to touch, and by the way, how can you talk about "freedom" and "civil disobedience" when you make new rules yourself? You have to do this, you have to do that, otherwise, you are not a good person... The open mind and the respect for a different opinion are disappearing from our society. Freedom of speech does not mean just insulting anyone who doesn't agree with you. Before you exercise your freedom of speech, you must first have a free mind. If you are already thinking in channels and categories, then your mind is not free.

All that's going on right now about gender and identity, I've been going through that my whole life, because I'm an androgynous person with a lot of feminine features. So when glam rock emerged with David Bowie at the front, I went to school with painted nails and eye shadow and high heels. And I wasn't gay at all, I love women—but to publicly display that vulnerability, that felt like a triumph, like a victory to me. In the early '70s, that was much less of an issue than it would be today—and we're 50 years down the road! You may think the world has become more liberal, but that's not true at all. The world has gotten worse.

Taste? No such thing

I don't believe in taste either. I think very few people actually have their own taste. Everything is constructed by marketing, and it's a scientifically proven rule: that which you hear a lot, you're going to like over time, even if at first you have an aversion to it. And mind you, I'm also guilty of sometimes succumbing to peer pressure when people tell me: you have to listen to soul and funk! Sure, I can play funk, I have that feeling, but I much prefer listening to lyrics. Why do we have to praise those black soul voices so much when I get religion from Irish folk singers? Sandy Denny gives me goosebumps more than Aretha Franklin does, it’s a bodily response...

My theory is: A good song should consist of a strong melody, a strong rhythm, and a great story. If any one of the three is missing then the song will limp a bit. I generally really like that Stax period of soul, Otis Retting and Sam and Dave and the like, because those lyrics were about a little more than just "Shake your bootie and dance." I don't care about that, I'm not a dancer. I can equally enjoy prog rock, switch to The Ramones two seconds later, then right on to Bob Dylan singing "Masters of War" with 500 lines of lyrics, and I love reggae—I try to get something out of everything. But usually, that doesn't correspond to what is the prevailing "taste" at the time, or I’m 10 years ahead of the game, like with the Velvet Underground... When everyone suddenly started listening to that banana record en masse, I had already been a fan ever since I got Loaded from a friend whose father had bought it in the United States and found it boring—but I immediately and instinctively knew that there was something special in those songs.

And I'm not saying that to be pretentious, it just moves me and I recognize it because I'm always searching for something. When I say I don't have a broad taste I mean I'm very strict and particular about what I like. It could mean that I like a certain song, but I would dismiss another song that is almost identical, just because one little detail is different. 

More mainstream? Less meaningful

When people say to me they're "a fan of Queen," I think: are you, really? Have you paid attention to Brian May's guitar parts, and have you noticed how their bass player John Deacon is suddenly out of the picture after 20 years of the band consisting of the same four musicians—or is it just the frontman's flamboyance and the hype around it that attracts you? The more mainstream that something becomes, the less meaningful it becomes.

The second LP that I got in my life was in 1969: Led Zeppelin I. I can't listen to it anymore, although I know that I approve of it 100%—hearing "Stairway to Heaven" twenty times a year is just too much. It's a perfect song, but it has got callouses on it from being overplayed. So I go looking for new, sometimes extreme things. I can watch a performance by Fred Frith for 2 hours as he finds possibilities on the guitar that nobody has done before, playing with drumsticks between the strings, with sand over the microphones and so on, making loops of it... 99% of the people would probably not be able to stomach that, but I much prefer that over having to listen to "Bohemian Rhapsody" once again. In the end, all of Western Europe listens to the same 3000 songs, forever and ever and ever... 

Then take the Beatles, the most important pop group of all time: until this day, all pop music is still indebted to them. The difference between what the Beatles did in 1963 and in 1968, that's only 5 years, that's "She Loves You" and The White Album—something like that has never happened again. 

Thinking about music like that doesn't make me popular. It's just that for me, music is not about boozing and hitting on women, you know?

And here's another unpopular theory of mine: the last original music, that you can label as "new," was made in the mid-'80s with British synth-pop. After that, everyone has been looking back. Most people don't understand that and they think I'm making a value judgment. But I'm not saying that music after 1985 got bad! As much as I am a fan of the White Stripes and everything else Jack White did after that, it's a revisiting, not an innovation. Hip-hop is stagnating, too—it was created by 2 samples of Gary Numan and Kraftwerk that were rearranged 20 times by Afrika Bambaata in the late '80s, and 40 years later, it's still basically the same 801 808 snare drum and those end claps.

Belgium? An artificially composed country with a clear language border

Just a brief history of Belgium. In 1830-31, someone had to come from Germany to create a country that was supposed to be a buffer between the Germanic and the French regions. Before the European community, all those states in Europe have been beating each other's heads in for thousands of years and then after WWII, someone had the genius idea of "What if we all just work together?" And okay, it's geographically and historically the only place on earth where there has been relative peace for 70 years and where the standard of living is quite high. And this has bred a generation that has no memory of these things, finds it all very annoying, and wants to tear all of that down again. Which is very stupid of course.

There is a clear language border in Belgium and it was established a very long time ago: the French-speaking part is up to where the Romans got in their attempts to conquer the Germanic tribes, and the Flemish-speaking part is where the Germanic tribes were. Brussels, which is basically the only real big city in Belgium, is becoming a state in itself because it is an international community with many ex-pats. 

The first successful pop and rock bands in Belgium came from Flanders. But they are more or less glossed over in Wallonia. That's very strange. They are two separate countries with two different structures. The cultural experience is also different. If you switch from the Flemish to the Walloon radio station, you find yourself in two different countries. Wallonia is much more rock 'n' roll than Flanders, there is still a great interest in everything American. Flanders has always been "kleinkunst" [a genre specific to Dutch-speaking countries, often with sociocritical lyrics in the native language and performed in theaters and cabarets, ed.]

Flanders sets the bar very high for itself and is a bit incestuous; artists are discovered there when they are only 10 years old and there is a whole system in place to further their careers. The Flemish radio works with quota—a certain percentage of English, a percentage of Dutch, and a percentage of French—which I think is totally wrong... they should just play good music. And of the French music they play, hardly anything is from Belgium: they usually play the popular artists from France, like Gainsbourg, and recently Zaz or Christine & the Queens. 

But in Wallonia, it's even worse, because absolutely no Flemish records are played there. A few groups such as dEUS or Stef Kamil Carlens's bands can make the crossing, but for the rest, all the big Flemish acts that fill arenas in their own region suddenly turn into total nobodies 10 kilometers across the language border. And that all makes me think how absurd it all is in such an artificially composed country. 

I have always tried to overcome that, also with Polyphonic Size, which was one of the first new wave bands in Belgium in 1979. We wanted to combine the songwriting of The Beatles with electronic music. In those days, when we didn't have computers yet, that was very difficult, everything had to be worked out in detail. And those synthesizers were still sensitive to temperature: if you went outside with them, they would be half a tone lower... But anyway, the band consisted of 2 Flemings and 2 Walloons, typically Belgian, you could say. We got a record deal from Virgin France and Jean-Jacques Burnel of The Stranglers took care of the production. And guess what? We were successful abroad, but in Belgium the band didn't catch on because we didn't fit any of the pre-established categories: were neither fully Flemish nor fully Walloon, with an English producer and a French label...

Working towards an album with French lyrics

I know I'm one of the very first artists in the world to have played live with tapes in the '80s in a rock 'n' roll setup and with a punk group attitude. But nobody cares, because I'm just a Belgian, you know. The world has no idea what Belgium is. To the world, one half of Belgium is just an extension of France and the other half an extension of the Netherlands. But how it works in practice puts such a big stop on creativity. I have a friend who writes books on social issues, particularly about Brussels, and he says he can't get his books translated into French. Why? There are no Walloon publishers and in Paris nobody is interested in Belgian affairs.

It's really two totally different worlds, even three if you include Brussels, and I have feelings for all three of those sides. And suddenly I saw the absurdity of singing in English. Look, an accent in itself doesn't hurt, that's not the point—Nico with the Velvet Underground had a German accent but that made it just as beautiful. But I think that all the lyrics of all the rock and pop groups of Belgium and the Netherlands combined only use 2000 English words. And then when it's the 2001st word, it comes across as artificial. 

My bandmate pianist Jan Hautekiet once said to me, "Kloot, your French, it's so good, so alive!" That made me think. French is such a rich language, it sounds poetic right away, whereas German always sounds militaristic, and Dutch sounds contrived. Dutch is a convenient language to speak, but it is not pretty. Okay, there are a few artists with good Dutch lyrics—such as Thé Lau and Boudewijn de Groot from the Netherlands and De Mens and De Kreuners from Belgium—but it repels me personally. When I sing in Dutch, it feels like I'm putting on armor, it feels a few levels lower, it really doesn't suit me. For my new record with the Kloot Per W Group (Jan Hautekiet, Rudy Trouvé, Mauro Pavlovski, Pieter van Buyten, Jo Moens, Jan Blieck) the plan was to push some boundaries anyway. So I decided: from now on, I'm going to sing in French. It started with one song on the album Insider/Outsider with Mauro Pavlovksi. After that, I released the single “Je t’ai toujours aimée” (a re-take on a Polyphonic Size hit from the ‘80s) and the EP Nuit Blanches, which got good reviews particularly in the UK, where the whole Belgian and Flemish/Walloon context is irrelevant and people just take the music for what it is.  All this was a form of preparation for the album I’m currently working on, which will be completely in French.

In the '80s, Polyphonic Size had received good reviews for our French lyrics written by Dominique Buxin, so I partnered up with him again. I myself write sketchy French. Dominique adds very nice specific French words that I would never have come up with myself. He was also the one who came up with the idea of turning Jacques Brel's "Le Plat Pays" around. 

All of Jacques Brel's Dutch lyrics were written by a Dutchman, not a Flemish-speaking Belgian. And the same goes for the comics Tintin (Kuifje), Spirou (Robbedoes), and Gaston Lagaffe (Guust Flater). Those were not translated into Flemish but into Dutch. It is a different choice of words that are sometimes foreign to us, so I preferred reading those comics in the original French. Now, Jacques Brel was a French-speaking Brussels native who knew that his music would score in the Netherlands because in those days the Dutch had an obsession with French chanson. And he has the audacity to sing about Flanders and claim it's his country? So I thought, I'll turn that around completely. "Le cathedrale de Bruges," I made that into trees, the cathedrals of the Ardennes forest. With this song I say: it is my country as well because I feel quite Belgian. Neither Flemish, nor Brusselian, nor Walloon, but a mixture of everything.

An untamed horse with an open mind

The producer Pascal Deweze is 20 years younger than me, but we connect. I used to be an untamed horse and always wanted to do everything myself, but this time I had decided: I'm not going to play anything, I'm just going to sing and focus on the lyrics. I went into it with an open mind, saying to myself: you're working with a producer, so listen to the guy, do what he says. The idea was to make a "Rick Rubin record", meaning completely live, no cutting and pasting with Pro Tools, everything has to be real. Pascal was not afraid of turning the tables completely, like: we are going to do this in a totally different rhythm or tempo, with a different approach. Sometimes I was a bit hesitant because his proposals seemed to deviate completely from my demos, but at the same time, I was so glad and impressed that someone had actually listened to my music and took it seriously. He was trying to find the strength at the core of each song, convinced that a good musician with good musical feeling should be able to make it come out, whatever the circumstances. At the end of it all, I realized that everything I had valued about my demos, all those riffs and melody lines, was still present in the final product—just performed differently. And that was such an enriching experience for me.

And now we're at the point where that non-artistic side of things has to kick in, and of course that's always a big gamble. In 10 seconds, your whole product that you've been working on for 2 years can just be put in a pile and forgotten. And that's what I have the hardest time with. I've done so many things and tried so many things and every time it comes down to this. I want to be appreciated by as many people as possible, just like everybody else, but when you see the artificial things that are created for that... It's all just a game, the music itself and the musicians are just a necessary evil for all those others to be able to do their job. And I'm stuck in an underground position against my will. In the '60s, underground music could make it to the hit parade. The Beatles, with The White Album, were simultaneously the most commercial, the most artistic, and the most progressive of all. If someone like Frank Zappa were to start their career today, he'd never achieve the international status he had then, with such intricate, rebellious, "left-handed" music. I witnessed that in my formative years, and it's ingrained in me. Nowadays, there is a niche for everything. I don't want to be a niche—my world is from left to right and everything in between, a kaleidoscopic world where schlager, reggae, and death metal are allowed to coexist. Every genre of music has something it is brilliant at... I want to mix everything together that is good—and I think that happened with this record because Pascal Deweze is such a skilled producer who listens and is full of good ideas.

Tagy Kloot Per W Claude Perwez Le plat pays Jacques Brel Rick Rubin Paul Deweze Belgian artrock francophone music Nuit Blanches Polyphonic Size All Eyes on Flanders All Eyes on Wallonia and Brussels

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Loes van Schaijk
Originally from the Netherlands, I'm a singer-songwriter and instrumentalist (double bass, guitar and bodhrán) based in Prague, Czech Republic. I have many years of experience touring the European bluegrass and folk scene with bands such as Red Herring, Svaťa Kotas Band, and p…