It’s about an hour before Belgium’s finest musical export Soulwax is due to headline at Philly’s monster Making Time party at Transit. And with the Klaxons and Bonde do Role on the bill as well, it’s an understatement to say the place is packed. Onboard Soulwax’s luxury tour bus, the rock ‘n’ roll debauchery manifests itself in the form of . . . watching old movies and drinking tea?
Disarmingly down-to-earth, congenial, and good-humored, Stephen and David Dewaele — a.k.a. 2ManyDJs, half of Soulwax, or Stef and Dave, as they call themselves — are reluctant heroes of today’s electro-indie music scene: absolutely passionate about all types of music, innovative at every turn, yet generally dismissive of their influence and popularity. They are international deejays best known for pioneering the mash-up; founding members of a rock/electro band now on their fourth album release; producers who have remixed everyone from Daft Punk to Gorillaz to Robbie Williams. As I’ll soon find out during our conversation, their list of roles is growing at a rapid pace.
You’re on a tour leading up to an appearance at Coachella. How have things been going so far?
Stephen Dewaele: It’s cool. It’s got its ups and downs. I really miss being home. We were in the studio before we left, finishing off the Klaxons remix [“Gravity’s Rainbow”] and some other things. It was just exciting to be in the studio and make things. On tour we seem to waste a lot of time doing nothing and watching movies, which is fun, but . . . I always think it sounds really arrogant when somebody goes, “I want to go home; I don’t like traveling,” when you can travel all over the world and you get to stay in really good hotels. But it’s just missing home, seeing your friends, having a coffee, privacy — things like that.
You’re specifically promoting Nite Versions. How did the idea for that album first come about?
SD: When we finished [Any Minute Now, their third studio album], Flood, who was the producer, said, “You know, it would be kind of cool if you guys would go back into the studio and redo everything.” Then he told us about how Duran Duran rerecorded different versions of songs in the studio because they needed a bigger intro for deejays to play in nightclubs, and that’s why they called it Night Versions. I kind of liked the idea of a rock band going back into the studio, redoing the original stuff and making it ready for clubs. We did it in two weeks. There was no emotional attachment [to the original songs]; it was like, “Let’s kick out this part, just keep this part and this part.” It was really liberating.
We actually never intended to play it live, but one rehearsal we started playing one of the Nite Versions we’d done, and we were like, “Whoa. Wait, this could actually be fun.” We prepared twenty minutes live, which we played at Fabric in London. People went nuts, and the ball kept rolling.
We wanted to go into clubs and play as a live band, a little bit like a Trojan horse. At a club, people are on drugs or they just go out to dance or they go to pick up people — it’s a completely different environment from a rock gig. We wanted to go in there and have people go crazy. We’d love to come to a point where people won’t know what we’ll do and we can surprise them.
The Soulwax albums that predate 2005’s Any Minute Now are in a pretty different vein from your more recent work.
SD: It’s us being a rock band. We’re rock-heads — rock-heads who use electronics. I think we’re really good at crossing the borders, in the sense that we can be a rock band but we don’t care if it’s with a synthesizer or a sequencer or a guitar. I think we’re really good at soaking up a lot of things, then making them our own. With the first records, we were trying to be a rock band and trying to get out of the mold, and now we’re completely gone over the line, which is nice.
When did you first make the transition into dance music and deejaying?
SD: I’ve been deejaying since I was twelve. Steve [Slingeneyer, Soulwax’s drummer] and I started deejaying together just for fun. A lot of touring is sitting around waiting, so we would always end up going to parties. There was always shitty house music or somebody playing just hip-hop, and we’d always go, “Can we play?” We played everything, and we kind of made our own little thing. Then Steve got married [to singer-songwriter Tracy Bonham] and left for New York, and I didn’t have anybody to deejay with. Then my brother came in and it turned out really good. I was like, “Again with my little brother! Damn!” [laughs] I think from then on it was this cool thing where we’d play a lot of old records and we’d mix really fast between two records. People would either be like, “Wow, that was cool!” or they’d be really pissed off and be like, “It’s house music! You can’t do that! You can’t play the Stooges with Salt-N-Pepa!” and we’d be like, “Yeah, we can. We just did it!”
2ManyDJs are generally recognized as godfathers of the whole mash-up “movement.” How did that come about?
SD: When I was younger and I went out, people would play French music, then go to new wave, funk. . . . They’d play a lot of things. It wasn’t as segregated as it is now. I think a lot of youth culture has been marketed to be really segregated — you have to wear this, you have to like this, you have to read this magazine. When I was younger, you’d have all these bands that crossed over into fields that they would never do now. The Stones would never make “Miss You” if they hadn’t been influenced by disco. Now it’s really hard for bands to adapt themselves to different genres without sounding really contrived. The music industry has changed so much — bands don’t have the liberties to experiment, to make a weird record. You have to make one record, and it has to work. If it doesn’t work, you’re off the label.
A lot of people have been asking, “Why are you guys still going on tour?” For us, it’s the only way that we can actually support the band. That’s how you make money these days — you’re not making it from selling records anymore, unless you’re Jay-Z or P.Diddy.
Do you think what you’re doing is helping to change the music scene?
SD: No, I would never say that. Last year we were apparently one of the biggest-grossing bands in Europe, which was a bit weird for me. Everything we’ve done [has been] because we like music, and we’ve always been able to not be too dependent upon other people to do what we have to do. But the more I hear other people’s stories and I see stuff, it’s still a very dodgy world. A lot of people get ripped off. A lot of people sign off their publishing or give up money. You really have to take care of that stuff and make sure that you own your own stuff, that it’s yours, not somebody else’s. They’ll pay your tour support and everything, then it’s like a really bad bank loan when they come back and say, “Our interest rate has gone up thirty-five percent.” You’re like, “I’ve been sitting on a tour bus for four years and I worked my ass off!”
I think everything that’s going on now with the Internet is really good also, because a lot of young kids now know how to do it themselves, they know how to reach out to other people, they know how to bypass the whole chain of events. It’s a really exciting time.
How do you feel about all the “illegal” music downloading going on?
SD: There are a lot of bootlegs going around, which I’m not making money off of. But, on the other hand, I’m kind of happy that people can get to all my music and that it’s getting around. A lot of people think it’s bad, but if I’m a kid and I can access for free all this stuff that I’m interested in, I’m gonna do it. What I’ve seen is that a lot of these kids really get into the stuff — they actually pay money and come and see you live; they actually buy the record afterward, because they’re really into it. I guess the industry has to rethink how you market music or what music is.
How are deejaying and remixing different from playing live for you?
SD: I still do not understand the concept of having deejays on a stage. I think it’s really ridiculous — it’s just two guys putting somebody else’s music on and mixing it. We don’t do any choreography, there’s no weird breakdancing, there’s nothing. But I like doing it. I think it’s a sort of sad enthusiasm [laughs]. I’m just excited about playing music, listening to or manipulating or writing it. It’s the same thing with remixing. It’s fun to go in and have somebody else’s stuff, without any preconceived ideas — just tear it apart and completely do different things with it.
What’s your take on today’s electro scene?
SD: I’m really fed up with everybody playing the same thing. The set I’m going to play tonight or tomorrow night . . . I know people are going to dance, but I’m pretty sure that a lot of these tracks we’ve been playing the last two years are tracks everybody is playing now, like a lot of the Ed Banger stuff. The thing that bothers me is that nobody else is doing something different. If people would do twenty more things, at least it could get more exciting again.
It’s been weird for us, because in Europe a lot of people have been really happy that we’re playing because they’re getting so fed up with minimal music. Everybody’s playing minimal in the southern parts of Europe. I get bored with minimal — you have to take a lot of drugs to be able to freak out to eight hours of minimal. In every genre, there’s really good stuff and bad stuff, and ninety percent is just B.S. I remember when we started out, everything was exciting, the whole spirit. Now it’s all narrowed down again.
[David walks in: “I wanted to make a tea. Can I make a tea first and then join in?” He exits the room.]
Wherever I go, deejays tell me, “I’m playing this bar so I can only play this kind of music,” or “I go to that club and I have to play Ed Banger stuff,” or “I have to play hip-hop.” It’s kind of frightening actually. It becomes something that people use, like “I’m opening up a bar, so I need this kind of music.” The music’s not important anymore.
There used to be a rule that if you played with people, you’d never play their music or remixes [that night]. The last seven or eight months, it’s gone crazy — twenty minutes before we go onstage, people play our music. It’s become this thing where maybe there’s not enough of that music around — people end up playing the same things the whole time. While I’m saying this, I’m just thinking there’s gonna be kids making new stuff, so it’ll be exciting — something new will come out of this. Things move really really fast.
That’s the good thing with the Internet. We make a new remix, I send it out to Erol [Alkan], I send it out to Tiga, and within two days everybody’s heard it already because you can download it. I like that.
[David comes back in without tea: “I don’t know how to do it with coffee machines . . .”]
Some people have called you the greatest deejays in the world. Do you spend time before gigs figuring out what songs work well mixed together, or is it a completely spontaneous process?
David Dewaele: We haven’t prepared once. Never ever.
SD: If someone asks us to deejay in a small club, we’ll end up playing other stuff that we wouldn’t normally play for big crowds. That’s when it gets interesting. We’re like, “Remember when you did that and that? That was kind of cool.” So many of the mixes you play that work well are things that you try out that become habit. Actually, in Auckland we just reversed all the mixes that we ever did — there’s stuff that we know follows something else, but we completely did everything in reverse.
I don’t know what we’re going to do tonight. Actually, talking about it makes me anxious now.
Are there any other deejays who you think are doing something groundbreaking?
DD: There’s really no nice way to say this, but I think deejaying is just overrated. It’s really not that hard.
SD: We’re the worst people to interview by the way [laughs].
DD: It doesn’t seem like a big deal for us. The only reason we still enjoy it is because we have no respect for it.
SD: We travel and we do festivals, but we have nothing in common with [deejays like] James Holden or all these people who take it really seriously. We lose our headphones every time — we always have to ask somebody if we can use their headphones. It’s not because we have contempt for it: We’ll go to a bar today, and if somebody’s playing bad music, I’ll probably end up behind the decks playing because I like making people dance — but I don’t rate it as highly as a band playing live.
DD: Deejaying has gotten so much more attention that it should. It’s just people playing records. But I don’t think we’re in a position to criticize any of this. Whatever people want to do, you just have to adapt. There’s definitely a change between what’s happening now and what happened ten years ago, but I wouldn’t say it’s necessarily bad or good.
SD: I don’t think it’s changed that much . . .
DD: I think it has, man. Most kids now just have a laptop and two decks and they want to deejay.
SD: Even if someone makes [music] in his bathroom or in a band, it’s talent to me.
How do you weigh in on the great debate: vinyl or CDs?
SD: Vinyl any time of the day, but it’s so hard to be traveling, so we’ve been using more and more CDs, and now we’re kind of getting used to the Pioneers. For deejaying now, I think vinyl and CDs are great — you actually can do almost the same thing. Vinyl sounds better . . .
DD: Whatever works, you know. People are too stuck on vinyl.
SD: We have too much vinyl. It’s insane. It’s a social handicap. I collect like crazy, but I’m not gonna sit here and go [whiny voice], “Vinyl is the best thing in the world! No CDs!”
DD: Laptops sound really thin, but compared to a band playing live on a stage with songs talking about their emotions, with deejaying there is an exact purpose: to get people to dance. It’s a very practical thing, as opposed to discussing whether you should use a Fender Stratocaster or Telecaster to get an emotion across. You can’t really do the same with vinyl or CDs or Serato. In the end, it’s whatever it takes — if you need to sing into a mike to make people dance, then that’s what it should be.
Do you think the fact that you are brothers is the reason you work so well together?
SD: We hate each other . . . [laughs]
DD: I love him, but he hates me.
SD: There’s something that musically seems to work. He really likes Glenn Miller and all that stuff — I’m not joking, he really likes all that stuff. Whereas I’m really into —
SD: Amongst others [laughs].
Unlike a lot of your contemporaries, you seem to lack an image. Was this a conscious decision?
SD: People always tell us that we’re too accessible. Actually, I’m in awe of people who have an agenda who can do it really well, like artists who say, “I’m only going to do this” or “I’m gonna not talk to people.” I wouldn’t know how to do that, I really wouldn’t.
DD: It seems weird to us.
What’s up next for you?
SD: We’re making a movie. The idea is to do something where we project the movie as we play as a band. It will be a documentary meets something staged, a mix between Stop Making Sense and something nobody has done before. It’s really ambitious. It’ll have all the bands who’ve been playing with us the last four or five years — Tiga, Erol [Alkan], the Justice guys, [James] Murphy [of LCD Soundsystem] — talking about us. It kind of explains what we do as 2ManyDJs, what we do as a band. . . . It’s kind of confusing for a lot of people, but if you see the movie you see what it is we really do, all the personas we have. I think it will come out on DVD, but we’re also going to try to play them in the cinemas.
And when we will hear some new music from you?
SD: We have a new band that we started up with Riton. We’re a “fake” German band called Die Verboten and we make Krautrock. We wanted to do a tour of Japan and that’s it. [laughs] It’s really different from everything else we’ve been doing. I don’t want it to be anything like dance music.
DD: The average length of a track is twenty-seven minutes.
SD: It’s become something that we didn’t expect it to be. It’s turning into another monster.
We’re also working on a remix album that will have all the Soulwax remixes we’ve done for other people — I think that’s going to come out in September.
We’re going to do a remix for LCD [Soundsystem], start working on some new Soulwax stuff, and a 2ManyDJs record also. It seems like everybody is doing the same thing at the moment, and it’s interesting to see if we could do something else. If we make a new Soulwax record, it won’t be like Any Minute Now and it won’t be like Nite Versions. If we make a new 2ManyDJs record, I don’t think it will sound like any of the other 2ManyDJs records we’ve done. I think it’s something in us — we always have to kind of go against ourselves.
DD: Everything we’ve been doing has failed miserably in terms of never having been on the David Letterman show.