Hooverphonic “The Night Before” – Alex Callier interview
By Bob Gourley | Published on July 12, 2013
Throughout their 17 year history, the need to constantly evolve as a band has made Hooverphonic impossible to place into a particular musical genre. Their first album, “A New Stereophonic Sound Spectacular,” had a definite trip hop sound to it, but soon they began adding strings for a more lush, organic sound. They’ve continued to surprise listeners over the years, as they did on “The President of the LSD Golf Club” in 2007, where they shifted to a stripped-down, more psychedelic rock-oriented style. Hooverphonic is the type of band you should never write off if you’re not happy with a change in style–chances are that next time around they’ll sound a bit different again. The core of Hooverphonic over the years has been Alex Callier and Raymond Geerts. They’ve gone through several lead singers, with Noémie Wolfs currently on vocals. Hooverphonic’s 2010 album “The Night Before” has FINALLY been released in the US; in a Skype interview, Callier discussed the release, the band’s history, creative process, and more.
Like many of your recent albums, there was quite a delay between the original and US release of “The Night Before”–why?
Alex Callier: “For us, what changed in the last 17 years is that back in the early days, you just released an album worldwide. Sony would just put it out worldwide. Now, we really want to find the right label in every country–a label that is really convinced and enthusiastic. So it took us about a year and a half to find one that was really enthusiastic and said ‘we really really want to do this.’ And that’s why we said ‘ok, if you really want to do it, then we’ll go for it.’ In every country we do that, because we want to work with people who really are not just doing their job. We want to work with people who are really believing in what we do. So that’s why it took so long.”
Are you worried that this will lead to piracy, with fans in different countries who don’t want to wait?
Alex Callier: “Well yes, sure, but that’s the world we’re living in. We don’t care too much. It took us a couple of years to get used to the idea, but it is what it is. We still believe that real fans buy our music, people who really love what we do will buy it. And if they don’t buy our album, they will come to see our shows. It’s true that over the last 17 years, our income kind of went from selling records to more of the live side. We sell a lot of tickets here in Europe, and don’t have any [financial] problems, so for us it’s ok. Of course in the beginning, when the internet just started being very popular, it was a shock. But after a while you adapt. We just try to see everything positive–positive energy is the best thing. It’s like when singers leave the band, we try to see things positively and say ‘well let’s look for another one, an even better one.’ The reason why Raymond and I have been doing this so long is because we’re very positive and enthusiastic about everything we do.
You have worked with a few different vocalists. When looking for a new singer, do you focus on finding one who will bring something new to the sound, or making sure they can sing the existing material well?
Alex Callier: “It’s a balance. We’re looking for someone who can bring something new to the band, but at the same time….when we first started looking for a new singer, we worked with a few people on new material and it was really fantastic. And they we said ‘well let’s do 2Wicky and Mad About You and Eden,’ tracks we have to play live. Then we’d find ‘oh no, this isn’t working.’ The next step was that whenever we contacted a new singer, we did it the other way around. We started first with the old material and if that worked out, we started working on some new material. It took us two years I think before we finally found someone in our back garden. That’s the funny bit, we got more than a thousand applications from girls all over the world; Americans, English, even Russian, Polish, Italian, whatever. And finally we ended up with a singer from Belgium, which was something we didn’t expect, actually. It was quite funny. For us, finding someone who can re-interpret our old stuff, really give it a new life, that was really important of course.”
When you are writing and working in the studio, are you thinking about how your music will be presented live?
Alex Callier: “No we don’t. [In the studio] we’re like ‘ok, now we need an orchestra, a 40 piece orchestra!’ and then live we’d go ‘ok, how are we going to play this live? I don’t know, maybe we should downsize it.’ Most of the time we see the live concert as completely different than an album. And also, when I go concerts by other bands, I don’t like them to copy their albums live. Why bother? I want to see people reinterpret their work. We sometimes do a tour without strings. This time we have a 12 piece string orchestra, last time we were touring with a 40 piece orchestra. With ‘President of the LSD Golf Club’ it was just mellotrons and keyboards. So when we’re recording a track, we don’t really think about it. But, I have to admit that through the years, we’ve noticed that whenever we have strings with us on the road, the crowds go ballistic. So the strings are really important. Since last year, we’ve been been constantly touring with strings, whether it’s 12 or 40 piece, we need strings. I think we’re always going to need them from now on.”
Are there particular tracks that changed considerably from their studio to live versions?
Alex Callier: “Oh yeah, ‘Mad About You’ we did a new version of. ‘Eden’ we played for years in a different version but for the past year have been playing the original. We tend to change things. ‘2Wicky’ is quite close to the original, while for years we played it in more of a bluesy way. So yeah, every tour we try to take a couple of tracks back to the original way, and a couple of other tracks we kind of completely rearrange. Like ‘Renaissance Affair,’ which was on the 2nd album, we made a completely new version on this last tour. Every tour needs to be different, every time people come to see us, they need to be amazed and surprised. It’s like going to the same restaurant every week and if it’s every week exactly the same, after a while you’re fed up with it. So we just need to evolve constantly, I think. With everything in life, not just music, everything needs to evolve.”
Your music has been used quite a bit in soundtracks and commercials. How do you determine if you want your music appearing someplace?
Alex Callier: “We are selective. We don’t want any political party using our music. And of course nothing that could harm people. So it’s sometimes a bit difficult. We’ve given our permission to car companies, and cars of course can harm people. But they’re not supposed to! But if there were a firearm brand that would like to use our music, I think we would have difficulties with it. For the rest… if it’s alcohol it’s fine, we’re not too difficult. But the music needs to fit the product. If they were asking about ‘Mad About You’ for a diaper commercial, I’m not sure. We like the more luxury stuff, which it is most of the time. I guess our sound is kind of luxurious because of the orchestra and you hear that it’s an elaborate sound. A 40 piece orchestra is also an expensive thing, so I guess that’s why a lot of the more luxurious brands like to use our music.”
What have you been up to since the original release of “The Night Before”?
Alex Callier: “We’ve been touring a lot for ‘The Night Before’ and recorded a live DVD and album. So that took us a while, and now we’ve started the recordings for a new album. We’re only in the recording phase and we’re looking to finish it by fall. And then we’re probably coming to the States in October to do some gigs. After that we’re going to release the new album in Europe. It’s kind of funny to release an album in the States and at the same time be recording another one. It’s very schizophrenic, but that’s how it goes these days. Also, with the live performances, in ’96 when we started off you worked for two years on an album and then toured for two years and then went back into the studio. It was more separate. Nowadays, we keep on playing live constantly, even when we are in the studio. Back in the early days we’d never do that. Recording an album, we’d never play live, it was like ‘leave us alone.’ These days we’ve got to be more flexible. But everything has its pros and its cons. It’s good to keep more open minded. You could say maybe you’re less focused, but on the other hand sometimes when you go back into the studio [after live shows] you’re even more focused.”
When you play live while recording, do you perform any of the music that you’re working on?
Alex Callier: “Oh no, we don’t. We’re always very anxious about it. Because the moment you play something live, it’s on the internet. So we’re very picky as to the right moment to play something for the first time. Usually, we don’t play something live before we release it. But then again, maybe we should change that. Maybe in the US we should try some of the new stuff.”
Do the live shows have any influence on the music that you are recording?
Alex Callier: “Yeah, because we really wanted some more uptempo stuff live, more uplifting tracks. That’s why when we got the idea to start making an album, we decided it would be a bit more uptempo. My brother is a big fan of what I do, and when he heard the demos said ‘Alex, you made a happy album?’ And then I said ‘Yes, I did.’ My brother generally likes melancholic music and he said ‘I have to admit, it works. It’s really strange because I normally don’t like happy music.’ So we succeeded in making a happy album that is still loved by melancholic fans. That was the big attempt, and the big challenge.’
You recently ran a contest to find people with interesting houses that you could record at–have you recorded at any of those places yet?
Alex Callier: “Yes, we already recorded at two places. One was an old mansion in France, and the other an old mansion in Belgium. It was fantastic, I never want to go into a studio again! [laughs] The vibe was incredible, so much atmosphere. It completely changes the way you think and record. It’s fantastic. We don’t want to use digital reverb, just natural reverb, so we’re doing the most crazy stuff in these houses to capture all the natural reverb of the house. I was quite amazed that so many people reacted, from all over the world. I was always thinking ‘I would never have a band in my house!’ But the people were very sweet and very open minded. It was really great to do this. After 17 years of making albums, we wanted to try to find another way of recording. So that’s how we got the idea to record at peoples’ houses. Nice people, nice houses. Next is recording in an old factory, and then an old country house with caravans in the back yard.”
When did you perform last in the United States?
Alex Callier: “It was 2002, so eleven years ago. But it’s not because we weren’t busy, we were touring all the time. Coming to the States with a big crew and a big orchestra is a lot preparation, and it costs a lot of money. Before, we had tour support, record companies gave us money to tour because they knew it would sell records. Nowadays, they don’t give you tour support anymore. Coming to the States for us is really a big risk, but for this album, with the good reactions, we’re definitely going to come for a couple of shows. If a lot of people turn up we’ll do more shows, and maybe we’ll end up touring again like we used to.”
Have improvements in musical technology over the years had an effect on the way you work?
Alex Callier: “Definitely. The fact that ‘The Night Before’ was mixed at my house, that wasn’t possible [when we started]. We’d always have to go to the studios with big mixing desks. Now we can mix at home in ProTools. Recording the new album at people’s house is so much easier [than it would have been in the past]; you take a computer, some pre-amps, and some good microphones and you’re recording. Definitely technology made it easier to record. I’m not saying that it sounds better. I still am convinced that old mixing desks [sound better]…we were just watching a movie about Sound City, the David Grohl movie about the studio. You see that old Neve desk. We worked on a similar Neve desk in Belgium, and sonically, it’s a fantastic thing. On the other hand, the sonic advantage is little and not many people would hear it. The flexibility you have with recording at home with a computer … the difference [in sound] doesn’t make it worth going to expensive studios all the time anymore. We still use them sometimes. When you record with a 40 piece orchestra, I can tell you, you have to go to a studio! But you can do so much at home. Especially with ith the demo phase; the demos are so much more elaborate already. When you hear our demos, they give you a full picture of how the track will sound. So yes, the way we’ve worked has change a lot over the last 17 years.”
Is there anything else that you’d like to add?
Alex Callier: “We’re very excited, and thrilled, that we can come back to the States and play live again. It’s been too long. We see on our facebook page that there are a lot of Americans. Our American fans are very important to us, so we want to share with them the real strings.”