A CHAT WITH: DIRK SWARTENBROEKX
aaamusic | On 09, Nov 2015
Dirk Swartenbroekx is a musician from Belgium who embraces a variety of genres, from lounge and jazz to house and alternative rock. Best known by his dance project Buscemi, his DJ sets and remixes, he is always open to new music challenges. AAA Music journalist Agnessa Yermakova met Dirk Swartenbroekx – aka DJ Buscemi – on an unexpectedly sunny Belgian day to have a talk about his unique path in music.
Where did you study music? And how it became your profession?
I started doing music when I was 16-17… just as a hobby, making records on a tape-recorder. And I studied in a music school; I can read notes. My first instrument was a bass guitar and then acoustic guitar and I’m autodidact for piano. As for studio recording: I also didn’t do any studies for it.
But music is not my main education; I’m a journalist in fact. I studied Latin and Greek at school and at the age of 18 I entered university for a law degree. This first year of studies was extremely boring and I mostly partied and had fun. I realised that this is not for me and stopped going to the lessons after a while. And then I started to think ‘What else can I do? I like to read newspapers so maybe I can be a journalist and that should work fine’. So I went to Antwerp to study journalism and after that I started to work in a newspaper. It was the beginning of the Internet, the pioneer days, and we were the first in Belgium to have a website. There I specialised in new media, covered culture events and music gigs. But that was a minor part of my job, for the rest I was doing some normal news – national and international.
At that time, I had started with my music and I couldn’t combine night life and travelling with my day job. So I quit journalism for music and from my thirties I make a living from this. Now it’s already 15 years or so and I don’t do anything else.
What was that final point where you decided to quit work for music?
I was really bored with the newspaper work and I didn’t want that 9 to 5 job; to wake up early and to follow the hours. And I can’t stand to have people over me who say what you have to do. I’m a bit anarchistic in my character and so that was the best thing to do – become your own boss and just try to live your own life without everyday working for some company. And I could already play a lot as a musician. The core reason why I quit my job was because music is the main goal in my life; it was always at the first place.
How did your family react when they learned that you quit your stable job for music?
I started with punk music in ’81-’82, there were a lot of punk bands in Belgium back than and it was really a scene here. It was really experimental music and my parents never expected that I would making a living from this. So they always said: ‘You have to study because you will never get anywhere with your music’. They got crazy when they knew I quit my job for music. But now they are really happy that I made it.
How did you transfer from punk music to Buscemi (which is your most successful project currently) with its lounge bossa nova sound?
I’m a bit crazy, I like all styles of music, I even like death metal. And I’m forming a way to accept a lot of styles that I like.
I started to buy music when I was 14 and I bought a lot of jazz, like old-school jazz – Charlie Parker, John Coltrane, Dizzy Gillespie, Miles Davis. I also bought a lot of bossa nova stuff so I already came to know this kind of music as a kid. My passion for Brazilian music started just because of the bad weather in Belgium, I needed some sunny music. I like batucada, I like percussive music. I like dance music and Brazilian music is so rhythmic. And I really like foreign cultures, I like to travel, meet people. That’s the main thing I guess – I always liked travelling a lot.
In 1996 I made a first record under Buscemi project. It was first released in London and appeared on BBC radio. So it all started there, not in Belgium and very soon it went all over the world without much of promotion. In my days, when I came out with Buscemi there was not much Latin music combined with house than. And it started to be sold without a lot of publicity. Soon after I was playing it all over the world and for the next ten years I was constantly travelling. As for the last 4-5 years, I mostly play in Belgium and in Holland.
You also make Balkan-style music and remixes. What was your way to get into this culture?
I played in Serbia one of the first gigs long ago and I met some people there who gave me to listen to some music from Romania. And then I started to listen to more music of that kind and I copied some things from the style to my music. Like, ‘Sahib Balkan’ is a mix between Balkan music and Middle-Eastern music. I combined the sample from some Beirut song with beats and Balkan horns. I like to work with music as if it’s a bit of pop-art. You take some sounds and you make something else out of them.
What about your alternative music projects? Is it a way to switch off from dance music, which you play a lot?
I have a dark side and a sunny side in my music. Sunny side (Buscemi) is more mainstream and dark side (Radical Slave, Azure Mortal and other projects) is just for fun.
A lot of people like my music as Buscemi but they really don’t like my other projects, it’s difficult for them to accept all that I’m doing. If you let dance club culture people listen to Radical Slave or Azure Mortal they say this is crazy. As for me, I never cared about it. I did all kinds of music I wanted to do but some people – they just don’t get this approach.
The dark side is my favourite music but it’s not easy to do it and I couldn’t live from this alone. Radical Slave is dark rock and it’s really noisy, aggressive stuff. And if you see Radical Slave video clips you’ll find there all dark things from sexual perverse till death. Not everybody likes this. But we want to do this because we like to do this – just for fun. We played very hip venues with this project and we enjoyed doing it but now it’s stopped in a way because the other guys and I – we all have different projects. But may be, next year we will record again.
Will it be some kind of a concert improvisation or something more studio-related?
No, it will never be studio. And it’s not really improvisation – it’s half improvisation. We did maybe three rehearsals and worked out a basis of the tracks so that we had a set-list. Then we worked a little bit more through playing it live. Our album Damascus was recorded on two first live gigs we had with it and then I got a tape from the sound engineer. So it’s all live, there’s no studio involved. We just played it live, on stage, recorded it and then I did some tricks in the studio to make it sound a bit better. And I think this works best with Radical Slave because we don’t see each other much, we only came together five times and we shot in these five times two videos, some press pictures and that’s it.
One of tracks for your other experimental music project, Azure Mortal, was actually recorded more than 20 years ago. Why did you decide to revive it?
When I was 18-years-old I made two cassettes under the name of TTF – Tom’s Toilet Foundation (a very stupid name but I was a kid, you know). And then 2 years ago I had a phone call from an experimental label in Belgium that releases old tracks from the 80s. They really liked one of my tracks which I released when I was really young and they wanted to re-release it. They said that this track is a hit on YouTube but I didn’t know anything about this.
So that’s why I thought that I should listen to my old material again. I found this track which is based on a dialogue between Humphrey Bogart and Lauren Bacall from the movie called Dark Passage. It was recorded just with a microphone from the video and then I added some sounds to it, really primitive – one channel for the dialogue and the other for the synthesizer. And I was told that it was good enough to re-release under Azure Mortal because it sounds timeless.
If this 18-year-old guy who made experimental music (whom you once were) would have a chance to meet you at the stage you are now – what would he find most surprising about you?
The most surprising is the fact that I can live from my music and have already for 15 years. It’s incredible and I would never expect that since I was already happy when I made an album at the age of 22-23. Belgium is a small country and I would never imagine that I would travel the world with my music.
I was always told that I would live a normal life, just go to normal work. And I’m happy that I’m quite independent and can do what I want to do. I don’t have a manager even, I’m on my own. And now I can live at night. All that is really important for me.
Are there any negatives at all in your current life or it’s perfect in every way?
Everything is going really well but you never know what can happen next year. My life is a bit like one without regulation. Now I have a lot of work, I play a lot and I like to do what I’m doing now. But my other life is very complicated since it’s not easy to develop stable relationship with my lifestyle.
What other genres did you try or would like to try in your music?
Azure Mortal is something really new for me, that’s a thing I’ve never done before. Its music is all based on low frequencies.
I also had a Ramones style single with a group called Chop Chicks! Besides, we made an album with jazz pianist Michel Bisceglia called Jazz Works. I also worked with Michel on an imaginary soundtrack for a silent film Man with a Movie Camera by Dziga Vertov. I saw the first movie by Vertov when I was 20 and I was really blown away because of the early film techniques. I didn’t know that it was all happening in 1920’s – it looks really modern. So I proposed to Michel Bisceglia to make music for this movie. Afterwards we did twenty shows with classic musicians for this project and this film was displayed above us. It also exists on a CD and it’s like Soviet silent movie meets experimental jazz and some Balkan music.
And next year we are going to do a new imaginary soundtrack project for a silent movie. This time it will be Nosferatu from F.W. Murnau. That was also my idea since I like horror movies, it’s my favourite genre.
Is there a movie that you wish you had written the soundtrack for? As if you’ve seen it your way and would like to compose something different…
Yes, it’s In the Soup from Alexandre Rockwell. That’s a really great movie. I would like to make a soundtrack for it or for the early films of Jim Jarmusch – Done by Law and Stranger than Paradise. I really like independent movies from that period, it’s my favourite stuff. Done by Law is amateur in a way but it’s really fantastic. I’m a real fan of movies. That’s what I would like to do in future – to make music for a big movie.
Do you think you will ever concentrate on dark music instead of Buscemi-like music? Or even quit your sunny side for alternative music?
Yes, possibly. Not now but maybe later. Now I really like that kind of thing in my life – to play in clubs. I like dancing people and stuff. But when I get older and grimier, more bad-tempered it may be nice in a way to play only this kind of music when you are 65-70.
What are your top three albums currently?
I would take albums that I really like for my whole life already. The Lounge Lizards – Voice of Chunk, Basement Jaxx – Remedy, and Miles Davis –Ascenseur Pour L’échafaud. That’s the soundtrack he did for a film noir called At a Lift. That’s a cult album and it’s my all-time favourite album.
Can you name your three main sources of inspiration for writing new music?
First thing is travelling, second is jazz and its lifestyle. And the third thing is movies.
Anything else that you would like people to know about Dirk Swartenbroekx?
I’m impulsive, anarchistic but very friendly. And if I didn’t choose for the music, to jump into insecure life than I could be a different person now (complaining about everything or spending all day long in front of TV). I think I have only one message for the people. You have to do what you like to do because you only live once. And according to my life it works ok, otherwise I would be not that happy.