Daniel Dennis (Univers Zero)
Photo courtesy of Cuneiform
By Scott Brazieal
This article orginally appeared in Drummer Dude magazine (1996). Thanks to Geert Feytons and Timo Van Luyk for the interview/translation. PSF thanks Randy Sanders, Pete Thelen, Phil Kime and David Beardsley for all of their help.
Belgium is a strange place, Being an outsider, it's somewhat of a mystery to me. Lets see if I got this straight... There are three groups of Belgians who coexist: The Flemish (Dutch), French and German. Thus, there are three languages spoken, three factions of government that fight it out under one civic circus tent, three separate and distinct ways of life that somehow survive with conflicting traditions. There is a strong sense of the Old world (Something out of a Breughel painting) and New world (Brussels is the capital of the European Community) Belgium can be both optimistically bright and horribly dark. A place of contradiction, contrast and confusion. So it shouldn't be a surprise that Daniel Denis lives and works here: As a drummer he is a powerful and ferocious player, as a man he is terribly shy and modest. As a composer, he is essentially self taught and struggles to read and notate music. Not bad for a guy who has written some of the most intricate rock music ever heard, period. He is a man of contrast and contradiction. He is Belgian in the wry best sense of the word.
Daniel's roots date back to the early '70's with the trio Arkham, who played fusion something along the lines of Soft Machine. He abandoned Arkham, to join an early incarnation of Magma with Christian Vander, which must have been something to hear. Inevitably, he figured that playing alongside Vander was a creative dead end.
"Arkham opened for Magma in a small village, Vander liked us and he asked me to join Magma," Denis recalls. "I was very happy to do this as they were very good, but I never understood my role as a second drummer. Vander's drumming was enough." Sadly, this was probably the case. Happily, the end result was Daniel making the-trek back to Brussels to form Univers Zero.
Named after a science fiction novel by fellow Belgian Jaques Steenberg, Univers Zero was undoubtedly one of the very best experimental rock bands ever. Their lineup was as strange as their music; percussion, guitar, bass, violin, bassoon and harmonium. This unique ensemble contributed to U.Z.'s one of a kind sound which can be described as a hybrid of edgy, dark progressive rock and Gothic modern classical. (Captain Beefheart/King Crimson meets Bartok/ Stravinsky) Well... sort of.
"We didn't look for musicians who played specific instruments, rather we looked for those who were interested in doing something different. This is how we recruited Michel Berkmans (bassoon) and Patrick Hanappier (violin, viola). I like to mix styles. It's difficult for me to find people who share similar ideas. Musicians are often too attached to one form of music. If you transcend it, they become frightened in some way or another. It's a shame."
The opening song "Ronde" on their debut album, 1313, was a fourteen minute piece written by Denis that oddly enough, featured very little drumming. Although it sounds as if it were meticulously penned to paper, Daniel doesn't give much credit to understanding music theory.
"I'm essentially self-taught, so I don't read music very well. My compositions give a certain spontaneity. I'm not a dogmatic mover, and I don't stick to music theory too much. I compose on harmonium, get a good idea... and think about the instruments at my disposal, how my idea will fit together. In Univers Zero, we had a classical sort of instrumentation... So it is not surprising that the music has a classical feel to it."
Denis seems to be a natural at composing music. His ability to assemble and arrange is evident in the 25 minute, "La Faulx", a gut wrenching piece which spanned the entire first side of their second album, Heresie. (This could be one of the most terrifying and darkest LP's ever made.)
"I like new soundscapes, post-atomic atmospheres... That kind of thing. I like disgusting things musically, Capt. Beefheart was really great that way. I always look for the new idea because I am not at all interested in doing the same old stuff."
U.Z. continued to bloom with their third release, Ceux Du Dehors. This wasn't quite as dark as Heresie, but just as intense and impressive. The addition of keyboardist Andy Kirk, who replaced guitarist Roger Trigaux. helped contribute to a bigger, more orchestrated sound. Daniel stepped to the foreground with an incredible display of composing and drumming.
J'Ceux Du Dehors was my favorite U.Z. record, we played together for a long time... almost lived together while we worked on it. Everyone's energy was present. The only part I was not completely satisfied with was the mix. The drum sound was not thick enough to me, but even if I had the time and money to remix it, I wouldn't. The sound is inherent to its era."
Playing such radical music in a commercial world is not so easy, and if that weren't enough, Daniel somehow managed to work within an endless revolving door of different musicians and instruments.
Because of the changing personnel, each U.Z. release had a different characteristic sound, from one another, with every one being just as challenging and impressive in its own distinct way. Looking back, this in itself is really an amazing thing. Dedication was obviously not-a problem for Daniel.
After Ceux Du Dehors, they continued for six more years, releasing three additional records. Their last, Heatwave, was released in 1986. As all good things must come to an end, Univers Zero eventually disbanded.
"I found myself alone with all of the responsibilities of the group," Daniel admits. "Composing, getting the concerts together, the finances, ... we had no management at all. It became too much."
During this time, Daniel danced with two other partners: Art Zoyd, a French ensemble who provide soundtrack and live accompaniment for ballet and silent films, and Present, the group Roger Trigaux started after leaving U.Z.. He recorded numerous albums with both groups though these days, his primary role is to play concerts with them. Separately, the two groups couldn't be more different: Present demands Daniel's full fury in executing their brash, complex patterns. When joining Art Zoyd onstage, he uses electronic pads in a creative use of electronic percussion.
"My main thing is to work live with Art Zoyd, though I only play what they write. We've done the live music for two silent films of F.W. Murnau, FAUST and NOSFERATU. Soon we will be performing another film soundtrack, Sorensen's HAXEN." I can't help thinking that this may be constricting for him especially recalling his days with Vander in Magma, but Daniel doesn't seem to mind.
"Art Zoyd has good controlled discipline, with very strict composition. When they work in the studio, all the percussion is programmed, so I don't collaborate on this level. All the sounds are predetermined by Thierry (Zaboitzeff, bass) and Gerard (Hourbette, piano) They are mostly piano and other sorts of percussive sounds."
So what about Present?
"Roger asked me to play live with them permanently, but it is difficult because of ' my commitment to Art Zoyd. I will continue to perform with Roger until he finds another drummer." (5uu's drummer Dave Kerman, featured in our last issue, played the recent Present tour this past winter)
Whew! And if all of this work wasn't enough, he has two solo CD's: Sirius and the Ghosts and Les Eaux Troubles. These are much different than 'anything else he has done, which isn't surprising, Daniel always seems to be looking and moving forward, both as a composer and as a drummer.
"Since I'm self taught, I believe that listening is important. 'My favorite drummer is Tony Williams. He can play so many different styles and even when he plays traditional music, you can instantly recognize him. I like John French, (of Capt. Beefheart) and also Mitch Mitchell (Jimi Hendrix). Mitchell plays within the music, not just rhythmically... He goes beyond that. .1 like King Crimson's first drummer Michael Giles, his precision and placement is very good. Also, I enjoy Charles Hayward from This Heat ...Of Christian Vander and Robert Wyatt as well."
"I use Gretch toms with an 18" bass drum. I've had these since 1975. 1 also use another bass drum as a floor tom. My snare is a Sonor that I bought from a friend. Furthermore, I use Zildjian cymbals which to me are like fine wine... The older they become, the better they get. In addition to those, I also have a 28" China Formosa Cymbal. I like to play this kit because I think it gives s a unique sound."
Through all of this, Daniel continues to march on. His third solo CD is due out soon and he's even pondering the notion of reforming Univers Zero.
"There is a coordination problem with Andy Kirk. He wants to reform as well but has some time limitations. I really miss performing live with Univers Zero, ...our energy was great. It would be good to give people a chance to see this again."
I couldn't agree more. Let's see now... How will I get to Belgium?
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