Category Archives: Travels

My first year with Univers Zero (part 2 : studio and RIO Festival)

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Hi there again,

First of all thank you all for you enthusiasm around the first part of this story. Now with the album coming out in two days (!!!) it’s time for me to post the second part.

Back home : Gentse Feesten and Fluxx

Fluxx, Colliding Universes (© Susan Clynes)

Fluxx, Colliding Universes (© Susan Clynes)

After a week of great experiences in Mexico we got back to Brussels and split (to go home of course, don’t worry the band didn’t split up!). I took the train alone for an hour, looking at the pictures of that week, still a little high from the whole thing. The next day was my daughter’s very first little school show, I was still a little jet-lagged and the skin on my face is disintegrating from the giant Teotihuacan sunburn in the middle of it, but I enjoyed the day immensely. For a few months after that the band didn’t see each other and I focused on my last creation as an Artist in Residence (three years, one creation a year) for the Gentse Feesten (one of the biggest cultural festivals in Europe) . It’s called Fluxx, it’s some kind of live drum’n’bass/electro with a string quartet (the great Bl!ndman [Strings]), and I shared the composing job with Koen Quintyn, a young composer from Ghent who I chose as my successor as Artist in Residence. Three months doing strictly something else.

Let’s start recording

As soon as I was done with Fluxx and the concert was over, it was time to start recording with Univers Zero. To be fair we had seen each other a few times before anyway, to prepare the recording. It was time for the longest recording session I’d ever had. I was used to, like, 2-days recording sessions (those things are expensive ya know…). This one was 16 days, non-stop, every day, weekend included. We were going to take our time to do things well and without rushing. I told Susan it wasn’t going to be to heavy on her with the kid because anyway I was coming back home every evening, not late. She’ll tell you I was wrong : when I came home everyday I was so exhausted it was impossible for me to do anything. Well it is intense music.

In the studio (© Laura Di Tullio, Nicolas Denis or Daniel Denis)

In the studio with Univers Zero

First day, again, problems with my gear (among other things). We didn’t play that day. I spent most of my day trying to figure out why the midi signal didn’t send to the sound engineer’s (Renzo Gotto) mixing table. Again, I have no idea what the problem was but it did get fixed… Then I had to open up my Nord Stage to fix a key that was not reacting properly (I just had to clean up behind it). I fixed it but the problem moved to another key, so I opened again, fixed again, problem moved again, had lunch, opened again, fixed again, played a little, went home. The next days the band was so tight and motivated we ended up like 3 days ahead of schedule. Days that the band’s perfectionism of course made us catch up later. We particularly spent a lot of time on some parts of Kurt Budé’s composition “Danse Mécanique”. The attention was on every detail. What was hard with that groove was to find what exactly was the best feel for it. It has to feel extremely natural while it’s not. My left hand (organ) is supposed to play tight with changing time signatures (3/4-5/8-5/8) while my right hand plays piano in 4/4, extremely expressive and laid-back. We could do them separately but it’s important to me to get the feel of the band together. Meanwhile all of the band’s attention is on that tight-but-natural feel and we make close to 20 different takes that are all just slightly different. Again, I’d never worked in such detail before (the advantage of time here, usually we just have to be happy with the 2 or 3 takes we make… no time to do more!). On the solos spontaneity is the key though, so one or two takes max. About that, I just noticed that the only excerpt from the album on YouTube is a solo of mine 🙂 Here it is.

While it was hard and exhausting work it was also very exciting and at the same time a very nice and chill time. We were lucky enough to have some sun, Kurt cooked great lunches for us every day, that we ate in the garden, next to the roosters (sometimes maybe provoking them by eating chicken!)…

Rock-in-Opposition Festival – before our show (Romantic Warriors II, meeting people, the effect of the European Union expansion on Chicago)

In a gas station on the road

Picture I took from the ground of a gas station in France on our way to Carmaux.

Soon after that was the time to get back to work on a live set as we were invited

The concert hall in Carmaux

The concert hall in Carmaux

to play in Carmaux, France, for the Rock-in-Opposition Festival. A few days before leaving, Susan and I watched the Romantic Warriors II documentary about Rock-in-Opposition which extensively features the festival, and Univers Zero. That way we knew a little bit more about the whole movement. I strongly recommend watching the documentary, it’s brilliant! Besides, their makers are busy editing the third episode, which will feature The Wrong Object (we played a few songs for them, including my composition Glass Cubes, the first real vocal track I sing on a record, with Susan (who just rocks it!) – I challenge you to make the difference between our singing voices by the way, it seems that a lot of people didn’t manage… Little hint : the highest one is generally me :-P) Daniel left a couple of days before us and stayed there longer so he could enjoy a little holiday with his wife Chantal. Kurt went in the van with Present (which he was joining for a show at the same festival). And Nicolas, Dimitri, Jeremy and Susan and me went in a giant van with all our material (including Daniel’s drums). Susan came to enjoy the weekend with us and take pictures of our concert.

Rock-in-Opposition 2013 poster

Rock-in-Opposition 2013 poster

RIO Festival is quite a special thing. People come from all around the world for it, to that former mining site in the middle of nowhere, for bands that are totally unknown to the general masses. But that’s how great their dedication is to that music. It was a chance for me to meet lots of fantastic people – some of which I had already met online – and Susan and I felt at home. We arrived at night, had a couple of drinks and went straight to bed. The next morning unfortunately I was too nervous (Dimitri had warned me it was important to be on top with this concert because it was a demanding and knowledgeable audience, as well as some promoters… Pressure was the word) and taken with the installation and everything to go and see the other bands. Susan however caught Cheer Accident‘s show and photographed them (she had no zoom so for their concert as well as ours she was running around, climbing on everything she could, and the result is just awesome). She fell in love with their music. I just was able to see 15 minutes of it and understood indeed that they set the bar high. We met these fantastic people/musicians later and their drummer/leader Thymme Jones gave us a DVD of his TV-show back in Chicago. We watched it in the van on our way back, jeez what a crazy act, reminds me of Andy Kauffman’s stuff, you never really know if it’s real and you laugh at the total absurdity (about “the effect of the European Union expansion on Chicago”). I was also happy to see cd’s of The Wrong Object and SH.TG.N, two of my other bands, for sale there (and even someone with a Wrong Object t-shirt!), and to finally meet in person the Leonardo Pavkovic who released these albums for us on his label MoonJune Records in New York. Unfortunately I ran into him while I was literally running to my soundcheck so we just exchanged a few words and planned to talk to each other later but that never happened. Next time i saw him he was busy with The Soft Machine which is the band from his roster he accompanied there, and after that I didn’t find him again.

During and after our show (technical issues, interview, great community)

Faust's chainsaw

Faust’s musical chainsaw

I found it exciting to find Faust‘s chainsaw and masks on stage before we installed ourselves. Our concert went well, appart from some technical issues (little fight with the light guy who just refused to follow our light plan and ended up doing nothing like what we wanted – which got Daniel and his wife angry ; floor tom falling appart in the middle of the show). All in all that might even have helped the energy… Right after we were done we had to run to the public interview (first time ever for me). I hate talking in public so you can bet this wasn’t an easy task for me. Luckily of course it was mostly Daniel and Kurt they wanted to hear so I didn’t have to talk too much. Dimitri and Nicolas just stayed in the audience (Dimitri was late because he had other business to attend to and Nicolas really didn’t want to participate so he walked with us to the table but stopped in the audience and took a seat!).

Kurt and I (© Susan Clynes)

Kurt and I (© Susan Clynes)

After that everything was just fun and games, meeting this whole great community I just found out existed, having drinks on the terrasse, releasing the pressure and seeing a few gigs. On festivals like these I always want to see everything but when I play myself I just can’t : before the show I’m too nervous and focused, after the show I’m too saturated and I need to release the pressure and talk to people). Anyway I did catch a bit of Poil‘s show which was great, in the line of Mr Bungle and Le Singe Blanc. I also saw a part of The Soft Machine which I didn’t want to miss but did anyway… It was a little out of context to have such a straight forward jazz band like this there, plus I’m a giant fan of the Robert Wyatt era and didn’t really know what they were doing nowadays so you can imagine my surprise. Great quality blues/jazz rock though, just not the moment for me.

Quickly said, kudos to Michel Besset for the organization of this amazing festival I recommend to anybody looking for challenging music in a great atmosphere.

After : mixing the album

Univers Zéro's new album coming up!

Univers Zéro’s new album coming up!

I’m not going to get into the details for the rest but after we got back it was time to start mixing the album, again 2 weeks of uninterrupted work by mostly Didier de Roos and Daniel. I did pass by once to listen and make sure I was satisfied with the way they treated my sounds mostly. Didier has the most amazing mixing studio I’ve ever seen, and a great talent. You’ll hear it on the album : he did amazing work! Now I’m just looking forward to see the album, and get some reactions. It’s coming out in Japan (where our new label DiskUnion/Arcangelo is based) and the rest of the world (where there will be distributors of course) next wednesday. I hope you’ll enjoy it!

Thanks for reading, cheers,

Antoine

PS : I updated the first part with a video compilation of excerpts from what we did with the avant garde silent films in Mexico, and a video from a composition of mine we played at that same concert!

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My experience as a 27 year old fresh member of 40 year old cultband Univers Zero (Part 1 : Joining for Mexico)

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“How do you feel about becoming Univers Zero’s new keyboardist ?”

Univers Zero

A little more than a year ago I was offered to join then 39 year old cultband Univers Zero. We were in Marrakech, Marocco, on our honeymoon when my bride Susan saw I had a new text message. As I was packing my luggage to fly back home, she told me to quickly come and check my phone, I was going to be happy about what I’d read. “How do you feel about becoming Univers Zero’s new keyboardist ?” was what my friend Dimitri Evers – the band’s bass player and my ex-fellow musician in (S)hhh (my very first band) – had sent me. I called him from Marrakech airport, as soon as I could, very excited.

Soon a few scores arrived for the first rehearsal, on December 18, 2012. I had about a month to prepare. What gave me most trouble was making sounds close to these of a harmonium, pipe organ, and horns, with my Nord Stage’s Hammond organ and synth, and the song Phobia from the album Rhythmix (never performed live before). I was nervous for the first rehearsal but I was ready. I was however going to have to expend my setup to the use of a laptop because it was necessary to have a real good harmonium sound, among others. I hadn’t yet considered it because I simply had never done it before and thought they were looking for self made sounds more than replicas of acoustic instruments. Also I didn’t own a laptop.

After that started the real work : Daniel Denis sent lots of new scores he and Kurt Budé had composed especially for Mexico’s Cineteca Nacional concert with short avant grade silent movies. And I had a whole bunch of new things to learn : a new way to play, a new way to feel rhythms (often two at the same time), a new way of setting up sounds. I had never worked with a laptop on stage before so I had to figure out how to setup the midi system, and change sounds without having to touch the computer. Daniel came to my house once to check out the sounds with me and choose together. I redesigned a few things in accordance with the needs of the music (like expending the harmonium sound to the full range of a piano). And damn I practiced. Constantly. I wanted to master the repertoire to feel completely at ease. And good I did because that seemed to be the expectation : on the first rehearsal already everybody knew their parts almost perfectly. All we worked on on rehearsals for four months before the Mexican tour was musicality and sound. And perfecting what was not perfect. And day after day, I was testing different setups, different sounds. One problem I faced was the impossibility to turn pages on my sometimes 25 pages scores (extremely difficult to learn by heart). So I went out and bought an iPad and a pedal that turns the pages for me… Solved all my problems.
I’d never played with such a professional, nice, dedicated band before. And damn was the music good and the experience rewarding!

Mexico’s Teatro de la Ciudad : first show, soundcheck panic, bass player arrested

At the Teatro de la Ciudad, Mexico

At the Teatro de la Ciudad, Mexico

After four months rehearsing intensely we flew to Mexico for a couple of shows and had a total blast. Here I am for my first show with them and it’s 1) Mexico 2) In the Theater of the City for a lot of people who 3) know the music and I suspect are waiting to see if the change of line-up really was a good idea. Imagine the pressure… I had asked to install our material in the morning so I could make sure everything is ok with the back line and transfer the presets from my laptop to the Nord Stage they had rented for me. Good I did because nothing worked. I had made backup of my presets to load them there, not knowing that the midi settings weren’t a part of it. And I didn’t remember how I did it. I spent a big part of the day trying to fix it, and while I was preparing a stupid B-solution suddenly I hit a button or God knows what I did but everything worked again. I wrote all the settings on paper and finally was able to have a beer with the band. I meditated for an hour before the show and felt astonishingly chill during the whole thing and really enjoyed it. This is extremely fun music to play once you know it. Right after the show Dimitri was arrested for drinking a beer on the street, right outside the backstage. Around us were hundreds of Mexicans drinking cocktails (there was an outdoor cocktail bar). But apparently drinking alcohol on the streets is illegal. Especially if you’re European and the cops think you might have money. He negotiated the price for his liberation and we went back to our hotel.

Mexico’s Cineteca Nacional : avantgarde silent films and dedicated fans

Soundcheck at the Cineteca Nacional, Mexico (pic by Jeremy Trossat)

Soundcheck at the Cineteca Nacional, Mexico

The next day we played in the Cineteca, had a blast again, and in the afternoon new guitarist in the band Nicolas Dechêne and I visited the house of Frida Kahlo which I’d been wanting to see for years, and happened to be right next door. It was a weird, totally unexpected experience, to have to spend an hour after the show taking pictures with fans before we were able to pack our stuff and go celebrate. But I appreciated the devotion of Univers Zero’s audience. Nicolas and I already had a foretaste of that on our first day in Mexico, before our first ever show with the band, when we visited, together with Jeremy Trossat our sound technician, the Ministry of Education where Diego Rivera painted murals for years. Our guide, for some reason, asked us if we were musicians. When we said yes he answered he knew a band from Belgium, it was called Univers Zero. “Is that you ?” We ended up taking pictures with the guy during our visit, while we hadn’t even played with the band once on stage yet!

Day off : No sunblock at Teotihuacan = bad idea

On top of the Pyramid with Nicolas, getting red.

On top of the Pyramid with Nicolas, getting red.

For one of our off days our dear friends Carlos and his son Carlos arranged for some of us to visit Teotihuacan and it’s pyramids. It was amazing but here’s a bad idea for you (don’t try this at home) : meditate and sungaze without sunblock. For weeks after we came back home I looked like a zombie with my face’s skin hanging and disintegrating. Before we flew back, Young Carlos explained to us what Univers Zero’s music meant for him, and how it pushed him to dare to go for his dreams. There you know why you’re doing this job.

In the next episode I’ll you about what happened after Mexico, the recording session and Rock-in-Opposition festival.

UPDATE : Here is PART II !

Cheers,

Antoine

PS : Here’s a video compilation of excerpts from what we did with the avant garde silent films in Mexico :

… and a video of a composition of mine we played at that same concert :