Soulwax disguised as the band Aquazul
From stoner-rock to EDM (and back again)
By Illés Plompen
Very few artists have been able to successfully combine rock and electronic dance music. Sure, there's been a handful of great danceable rock groups (B-52's, Talking Heads, New Order, The Stone Roses, Bloc Party, Franz Ferdinand), but their music doesn't get played at raves or EDM-clubs (with the exception of "Blue Monday" maybe). And yes, on the more electronic side of things, you have acts like The Prodigy, Fatboy Slim and The Chemical Brothers, and while I enjoy a lot of their older stuff, it sounds very dated and deservedly gets a lot of flak from electronic music fans for pandering too much to the rock crowd. Which is not to say that it's all EDM fans' fault. From the electric Dylan controversy to the 'disco sucks!' movement to the countless bands supposedly 'bringing guitars back into the charts!': rock fans have historically been anti-dance, anti-technology, and therefore anti-EDM. Which, when you think about it, isn't all that surprising. Both musically and culturally, the two genres are so fundamentally different (albums vs tracks, live-musicians vs DJs/producers, alcohol vs ecstacy) that it's hard to find common ground, making it damn near impossible to combine the two genres without one cancelling out the other. This is why there's so much dance-inspired rock and rock-inspired dance, but not a lot of genuinely great dance-rock. And I consciously say 'not a lot,' because there have been some notable exceptions! And no, I'm not talking about LCD Soundsystem or some other band from DFA Records. I'm talking about the legendary, but in America often criminally overlooked, Soulwax.
Soulwax are a four-piece band from Ghent, Belgium, spearheaded by brothers David and Stephen Dewaele. The band formed somewhere in the early 90s and, up until 2018's excellent Essential mix, they've had one the most adventurous, surprising and confusing discographies of any band in the 21st century so far. In just a few short years, they went from being a shamelessly unfashionable stoner-rock group to a universally beloved DJ-act, and they've been toying around somewhere in between ever since. And as if that wasn't confusing enough, they've released their music under several different pseudonyms and side-projects, so please, take my hand as I go through the discography of (arguably) the greatest musical act the Benelux has ever known.
It all starts with the release of the 2nd Handsome Blues EP in 1995. Even as a Soulwax fan, I'm not gonna lie here. This EP is definitely the worst thing they've ever released. It's the sound of a young Belgian band trying to imitate their (mostly) American influences and sounding like an off-brand Black Crowes at best. The music itself isn't even all that bad, but the overblown alt-rock production and Robert Plant-style screams and growls coming from singer David Dewaele make the band sound so inauthentic that it's just kind of embarrassing to listen to. And to a lesser extent, the same thing could be said for the debut LP, 1996's Leave the Story Untold. Though Dewaele's slightly more subtle vocal delivery and the incorporation of acoustic guitar, piano and strings make the band sound a lot more mature, the songwriting is nowhere near as strong and colorful as it would be on their sophomore record, Much Against Everyone's Advice (1998); an improvement on every front. Not only is the production thick-as-hell and do the band deliver some excellent choruses on cuts like "Conversation Intercom" and "Too Many DJs," the songs themselves have so much more personality! And the inventive use of samples and synthesizers already hints at the more electronic direction the band would soon be taking. Think of a less artsy, more fun version of Radiohead's OK Computer (I've never been a big fan), add some heavy stoner-rock guitar riffs, and you get a pretty good idea of what the album sounds like.
Much Against Everyone's Advice was a big step for the band, both artistically and commercially: it was a huge hit in Belgium and sold relatively well in the rest of Europe and the UK. Ambitious as they are, the band tried to go global by touring relentlessly all around the world for several years. During this tour, the Dewaele brothers became increasingly disinterested in the old fashioned, macho character of the rock scene. So, to pass the time, they started DJing at local nightclubs, first as The Flying Dewaele Brothers, later as 2ManyDJs. Though the Dewaele brothers' interest in DJing and club culture came rather sudden, their love for different types of music had always been there. Their father, Jackie Dewaele, was a very successful regional radio DJ, so from birth, the brothers were surrounded by a huge record collection that included everything from krautrock to 10CC to Motörhead. This, in combination with the fact that they were already experienced live-musicians, gave them a huge advantage over your average club DJ in terms of musical knowledge. As a result, they quickly became one of the hottest DJ-acts in the Benelux, so Studio Brussel (one of Belgians' most revered radio stations) gave them and a few other local up-and-coming DJs an hour of broadcasting per week to share their newest mixes and mash-ups. They called it 'Hank The DJ', which they later changed to 'Hang The DJ.' Bootlegs of the Hang the DJ sets were gaining a big cult-following online, so Soulwax's label, PIAS, proposed the idea of releasing an album by 2ManyDJs. Obviously, the impulse was that the people at PIAS smelled money, and neither they nor Soulwax were making a dime of off these bootlegs, but I'm glad they did it nonetheless (ED NOTE: PIAS probably made a few dimes...).
Because it seems the Dewaele brothers were not taking side hustle as DJs all that seriously: not only was mocking DJ's and DJ-culture an essential part of 2ManyDJs image, they actively undercut themselves and their work during interviews, saying it wasn't that big of a deal, while constantly emphasizing their respect for 'real musicians.'
So, without PIAS, 2002's mash-up masterpiece As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2 might've never seen the light of day. And that would've been a shame 'cause not only is the eclectic mix of underground gems and pop classics on a As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt. 2 a total wet dream for music geeks. It's also one of the very first mash-up albums that manages to go beyond the novelty of lazily mixing a rap acapella with a well-known rock song or a rock song with a synthpop track or what have you to create something that can be enjoyed as a standalone piece of art for the duration of an entire record. Not that there aren't any rap-rock/electro-rock mash-ups on As Heard, but even with those the execution feels so much more refined and tasteful than your average Girl Talk song. Take a track like "I Wanna Be Your Dog": the barbershop quartet vocal loop contrasts beautifully with the dark synth-bass groove, and when Iggy Pop's vocals suddenly appear midway through the track, you realize you've been listening to the chord progression of The Stooges' "I Wanna Be Your Dog" all-along. It's clever things like that, that set 2ManyDJs apart from almost any other DJ-act until this day.
But 2ManyDJs-mania had a flipside to it. Cause while the Dewaele brothers were making tons of money DJing all around the world, Soulwax was pretty much inactive and it seemed the band would never release another album. And when they finally went back into the studio to record Much Against Everyone's Advice's long-awaited follow-up, it turned out to be a very slow and arduous process. This could be attributed to a couple of factors. For one, Soulwax hadn't performed or practiced much since 2ManyDJs had taken off, so suddenly trying to write and record a whole new record probably wasn't the best move for the band in hindsight. Plus, now that the Dewaele brothers were this immensely popular, critically acclaimed DJ duo, there was a lot of speculations on where they would go next. Would this new Soulwax record be a 'return to form' for them, or was Soulwax becoming a full-fledged EDM act?
When the appropriately named Any Minute Now was finally released in august 2004, it fell somewhere in the middle, which made the album a bit of a mess stylistically. There's a handful of great tracks on it - "Any Minute Now," "Krack," "NY Excuse" - but on the whole, the album feels forced and kind of overproduced. It seemed that not even the Dewaele brothers, being well-versed in both rock and EDM, could combine the two in a way that felt natural, while appeasing both audiences.
Tired of the difficult recording process of Any Minute Now and disappointed by the lukewarm reception it got when it was finally released, Soulwax made Nite Versions, a 'remix-album' where the band re-recorded and remixed all the songs from Any Minute Now and mixed them together like a non-interrupted DJ-set (although a non-mixed version was later released for the digital market). And at the risk of overselling it, I'll say that (besides the first two LCD Soundsystem albums maybe) Nite Versions is the greatest dance-rock record ever released. Around the mid '00's, a lot of rock groups were trying to be 'down' with the rave kids, but musically, it rarely went beyond a verse-chorus-verse rock song with some extra drums and cheesy breakdown near the end. Soulwax, on the other hand, actually know how dance music works. They know how to build a groove and keep the dancefloor moving, while still adding enough live-instrumentation to give the music a rockist edge. While, on the surface, Nite Versions mostly sounds like a cold, robotic EDM album, there's a certain energy and liveliness to it that makes you feel like you're listening to a live-band (even if you're not, for the most part). The best example of this is the track "E Talking," which starts with a minimal techno beat and gradually builds until the heavy, distorted bass-guitar groove kicks in and you find yourself banging your head like you're listening to a Motörhead song. And then there's "Another Excuse (DFA Remix)," a collaboration between Soulwax and DFA Records' James Murphy and Tim Goldsworthy. The track grooves even harder than the original and sneakily references both Liquid Liquid and Frankie Knuckles' "I Feel Love," making it one of the most DFA things I've ever heard. But if there's one song that really steals the show for me, it's "Krack." The loud, distorted synth-bass riffs sound fresh and exciting even fifteen years later, while also being reminiscent of Belgian new beat and acid-techno music from the late '80's. It's almost like - after years of aping British and American rock bands, Soulwax were finally embracing their Belgian heritage and making the best music of their entire career as a result of it.
To the band's surprise, Nite Versions was extremely well-received by fans and critics, so instead of doing a world tour for Any Minute Now, they decided to go on tour as 'Soulwax Nite Versions,' playing the remixed versions of the songs as a live-band. Though this demanded a lot of flexibility and physical endurance from bassist Stefaan van Leuven and drummer Steve Slingeneyer (since the songs on Nite Versions are a lot longer and extremely repetitive), the tour was a huge success and established Soulwax as one of the Benelux's strongest live-acts.
In the years that followed, the Dewaele brothers kept Soulwax's name in people's mouths, by constantly putting out excellent remixes of other artists songs, including Gossip's "Standing in the Way of Control," Justice's "Phantom Pt. 2" and LCD Soundsystem's "Get Innocuous!" Most of these remixes were compiled on the 2007 album Most of the Remixes. After that, Soulwax decided to kind of pick the fruits of their labor by producing for other artists and engaging themselves in numerous self-indulgent side projects.
And while for most artists, this would pretty much mark the end of their career in the eyes of their fans, the quality of most of the work has been so high that Soulwax are still a very relevant band in the Dutch and Belgian music scene. There also became Die Verboten (a kraut-rock inspired jam band) and created Radio Soulwax (a free smartphone app offering 24 original 2ManyDJs mixes with visuals provided by the Dewale brothers themselves). And of course, there was the Belgica soundtrack (for the independent film of the same name where Soulwax created fifteen fictional bands to each contribute a song to the album, each of which is supposed to represent a different era in the history of the Belgian music scene.
In 2017 Soulwax finally released another 'proper' studio album called FROM DEWEE, which was quickly followed by the more dancefloor-oriented Essential mix in 2018, showing that even in the latter part of their career, the band is still torn between the worlds of rock and EDM. Ultimately, that's their greatest strength, because, over the years, there's been plenty danceable rock and rock-inspired dance, but at the end of the day, it's always clear where the artists' expertise really lies. With Soulwax, it's both.
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