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Interview: Das Pop

9th March 2009

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It’s winter in Belgium, 1987. As you watch the only black and white TV that is available in the forest, a mysterious man from Indiana is transforming your life before your eyes. His name? Michael Jackson.

Das PopYour parents have banned you from listening to pop music at home, so absorbing every second of ‘The Way You Make Me Feel’ at a neighbours’ log cabin home is leading your mind on a sensory overload.
Eyes are like saucers; the mouth is agog. Things are never going to be the same again. Not only is this music a drug, it’ll go on to change your life forever…

Bent Van Looy, front-man for the sprightly Belgium quartet known as Das Pop, is currently gazing out of his window, surveying the overcast skyline.

It’s not raining, but it is lunchtime. Across the street, he sees a school where a lunch lady in a green sweater is pre-cutting sandwiches for a young pupil. It’s a picture of serenity - one likely to be played out in schools across the UK if you looked hard enough. For now, the setting is Ghent.

It’s the same small town of Ghent that lay witness to Das Pop’s birth back in the late nineties, when the terribly named ‘Things To Come’ decided their vision of classic guitar-based pop needed a new image, and a new focus.

Once implemented, national rock competition victories and recordings in a pigeon-infested dump ensued, as did their first clutch of albums. Debut record I Love (released in 2000) and 2003’s The Human Thing cemented, then galvanised their appeal on Mainland Europe.

How did they sound? According to Bent, “They were very much pop albums, but at that time we loved to be in the studio and play around with every bit of electronic equipment we could lay our hands on, so they sound much more like pop music made in a laboratory.”

The third chapter of Das Pop’s career begins in April, with the release of a self-titled album. It’ll be their first LP to be released in the UK since being snapped up by Sony BMG imprint, Ugly Truth Records.

In comparison to their previous incarnations of laboratory pop, Das Pop is a punchier affair – all thanks to the albums’ producers, who happen to be long-term friends and international DJ aficionados, Soulwax: “Soulwax made us strip away all the easy bells and whistles and made us play like we would play in a small club. I must say they were completely right [to do that], their true character shines through a lot more, and less in this case was definitely more,” says Bent.

It begs the question; what would ballads like new album closer ‘September’ have sounded like without the help of Soulwax?

“There would’ve been strings, possibly even a children’s choir, and a middle section with pan flutes. But luckily we didn’t have to go through that,” laughs Bent, presumably after removing his tongue from his cheek.

This longing for layers of lush instrumentation may stem from Bent’s upbringing. At his home in the forest, he was surrounded by classical music. His mother played flute, and Bent played a small harpsichord, called a spinet.

Although he was too young to recall his mother playing flute, he has better memories of his own accomplishments: “I played [the spinet] in the shed where we lived, but there was no pop culture around, it was weird that that was the case.”

Do you think you would’ve had such an affinity for pop music if you weren’t kept away from it as a child?

“Who knows? For instance our friends Soulwax, they grew up in a house that was only pop music. Their father was a DJ on the radio and they had the [influential 1960’s rock group] Small Faces over as guests at the house, so they were based in pop music every day and turned out to be just as passionate - or possibly even more passionate about it - than we are.

“But definitely for me it was more of a forbidden fruit, so as soon as I could get my hands on it I couldn’t get enough; it was a passion that was unseen.”

Singer-songwriter Jont has described you as an “Incredible keyboard player”, after you spent some time together in Paris. Is the keyboard your first love?

“I started out playing drums; that’s always been my thing. It’s very hard to write songs on a drum set, so it’s good to have keys. I met Jont in Paris when I was writing our songs. I had just bought myself a Wurlitzer which I love and I spent all day playing it - Jont came by and we worked together for a bit and yeah, it was fun.

“I play keyboards now on stage since Matt has joined and I love it more every day. The [Das Pop] sound has definitely become richer now, because we have the option of bringing a piano or tambourine so it’s become more colourful, bigger.”

The “Matt” that Bent is referring to is New Zealand-born drummer, Matt Eccles. A relative newcomer to the band after joining in 2007, he completes a group made up of Belgians Niek Meul (bass) and Reinhard Vanbergen (guitar), who together have known Bent since they were at school.

Matt’s arrival invigorated Das Pop, who had been hamstrung by Bent’s previous position as drummer and singer. The sheer amount of energy needed to do both on a nightly basis was putting Van Looy under serious strain.

Bent explains: “I loved doing it because it’s like driving and speaking at the same time, I think it’s very compatible, but of course physically it was a bit rough. Not that it’s any less rough now; I expected it to be just standing on stage holding a mic, but it tends to be not as easy as that!”

Das Pop have a liberal approach to cowbell usage. How do you plead?

“(Laughs), I think it’s a healthy part of the drum set, and it just makes everything a little less serious. We were once in Spain, and when we got off the plane we realised that we had forgotten the cowbell, so we rang the promoter and asked if he would be able to locate a cowbell. He didn’t speak English very well so he didn’t really understand what we meant, and after ten minutes of trying to explain, he goes: “Ah! The steel bell of the beef!””

“Keeping things a little less serious” appears to be a cornerstone philosophy for Das Pop, even down to the lyrics. Keeping in line with the traditional pop song, which, if you haven’t already gathered, is the Das Pop modus operandi, songs sing in the main about love, and have no need for over-analysis:

“I think love is the easiest thing to write about, and also I have an enormous belief in the pop song as a thing on its own and I think most great pop songs are unashamedly about just that,” says Bent.

You’ve mentioned before about creating the perfect pop song – have you made it yet?

“There are songs - when you are sitting around having dinner at the radio and ‘Underground’ comes on; you look up and go ‘wow, this really works well’, so that’s great. It’s when you can sit back and listen to a song you made from a distance, that’s quite rare. Usually you crawl away and cringe behind the cupboard.”

Are you your own worst critic?
“Oh yeah, there’s definitely that. I think it’s very hard. After the songs are freshly recorded you have to listen to them, it’s like a honeymoon between the band and the song. Afterwards, you can see all the flaws and what could’ve been better and then you just never listen to them again. Unless they just come on the radio, it’s really surprising because they lead another life on stage obviously, but then if you hear the recorded version after a while it can be very, very strange.”

There are limits to pop, though. Speak about the Eurovision Song Contest, and things change tact. Whereas his band are trying to encapsulate the essence of good natured, quality pop music, there’s a definite feeling that this yearly coming together of cultures is nothing more than a freak show of its former self.

Says Bent, “I think it used to be quite fun, because it was – probably because there weren’t that many other fun things around at the time. I remember going to see it when I was fourteen or something at my Aunt’s and it was fun because you could see hexagonal shaped drum kits, and men with enormous mustachios, so it had something rather sweet and innocent about it whereas now it’s almost like bad pop pornography.

“It’s become a travesty, the songs first of all are very bad. Before, maybe 85% of the time they were bad, but now they’re all incredibly dreadful, and everybody now looks like they are now auditioning for, like I said, a porn film - not that I don’t like my nudity, but this is just another ballgame altogether.”

So, what of the idol of young Bent? Michael Jackson’s reputation, health and dignity has been kicked – rightly or wrongly – to the kerb and dragged through the dirt for years. Would he want to see a return from the King of Pop?

“I would love to see him make a comeback, but the thing is with people like him is that they tend to surround themselves with the wrong counsellors - I think that’s been the problem for a long time, says Bent.

“I think artistically on a personal level there’s a job to be done. The person that made Michael Jackson, Michael Jackson is, of course, Quincy Jones. He was his producer and Michael Jackson needs to work with someone with vision.”

Bent still gets an indescribable feeling when he hears a Michael Jackson track. The magic of his childhood has stayed with him, and continues to inspire and drive him forward into the future.

Meanwhile, tabloid reports still circulate as to the health of ‘Jacko’. Rumours arise on depressing regularity over his well-being. Zoom lenses blur one pixel together with another to allege, whilst one of the best performers of all time retreats further away from the public eye, unable to cope with the scrutiny.

For now, it seems, it’s up to fans like Bent to be the ambassadors for pop.

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