Interview With Laurent Leemans

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A couple of months ago I reviewed ‘Driftwood’, the very well crafted and intricately performed 4th album release of The Imaginary Suitcase, the musical pseudonym of Belgian guitarist Laurent Leemans. With a career in music that now goes back almost 25 years, Leemans has much of interest to say about why and when he began to make music, bands he has been involved with, and what is happening in Belgian music today.  A talented and committed performer, Leemans is also an engaging conversationalist and here in his own words is a story that will resonate with a lot of musicians and others, whether from Belguim or anywhere else. – Jon Gordon

About what I take into the studio, my gear is an Seagull Artist-Studio series 6 strings acoustic, a Seagull S12 acoustic 12 strings, a Les Paul junior, a Gretsch electromatic 12 strings electric, and a Fender Frontman amp. For recording and mixing, I use a Tascam DP08 (I find the sound has more depth than when I record on a computer). I’m a firm believer in good gear makes good sound and in the “cheap is expensive” motto.

I used to be a sweet and charming boy, until this fateful day in the spring of 1986, when I first heard Echo & the Bunnymen’s track “Bring On The Dancing Horses”. Suddenly realizing everything my dad had told me about rock & roll being the exact opposite of art and the quintessential expression of the death of civilization was crap (sorry dad, I love you but you really should have taken your blinkers off, to remain polite), I launched myself in the thorough and soul consuming task of becoming the greatest fan of The Smiths, The Jesus & Mary Chain, And Also The Trees, The Mission and Nick Cave (among others) you could find in the village I used to inhabit at the time, not far from Namur, Southern Belgium.

The next step was obvious: in 1990, I started a band with two friends. Moïse et les Manches de Pioches (Moses & the Pickaxes Handles) in which I held the bass guitar and yelled was a totally ludicrous punk band that would have made Stiff Little Fingers sound like Genesis… M&LMDP did two gigs in Anseremme and in Verviers, downed a lot of pints and had TREMENDOUS fun.
When Moses crossed the Red Sea and this joke was over, I tried to set up a more serious band with several people, among whom Stefan Platteau (currently playing in Carabett and in Nook). It did not work out, but Stefan was nevertheless crucial for he introduced me to the members of the Namur band La Vierge du Chancelier Rolin, who were looking for a singer after their vocalist had left the ship in 1992. LVDCR were a quite ambitious sextet that could not easily be defined. Major influences were sure enough And Also The Trees, The Legendary Pink Dots, Penguin Café Orchestra, Philip Glass, Michael Nyman or Wim Mertens, each member took on vocals in turns, they had fiddle, classical guitar and fretless bass, all uncommon stuff among Belgian bands in the early 90s, they loved to experiment with song structures other than the usual chorus/verse and each time it was technically possible, they enhanced their live shows with slide shows and short films.
LVDCR quickly became a critically acclaimed band and became the “great white hope” of Walloon rock. The first album “Eva King” in 1995 received praise and many shows followed, including support-acts for Miranda Sex Garden, And Also The Trees, The Legendary Pink Dots or The Breath Of Life. That’s when things started to go sour… Egotrips, wrong choices, bad management and lack of support from the record label all conspired to bring the band to an end. LVDCR flatlined from 1998 until the announcement of the official demise came in 1999. Today, La Vierge is still a bit of a cult band in Namur.
In the autumn of 1996, while LVDCR was going through what I thought was just a quieter period, my friends Benjamin Delforge and Yannick Sterpin offered me to join their Celtic folk band Ceilí Moss. Taking it as a mere recreation, I said OK and 18 years later, Ceilí Moss is still alive and kicking, planning its 20th anniversary tour in October 2014 and the release of its 5th album in the spring of 2015. CM started as an average “Drunken Danny Rover Of The County Down In The Jar” Irish band but evolved into a rampaging folk-rock outfit, somewhere between The Pogues, The Levellers and Louise Attaque, to put it short. Today, I smile sheepishly when I think of how snobbishly and pretentiously I told Benjamin and Yannick they should not expect their project to last, while La Vierge was going to be bigger than U2…  Ceilí Moss, though always remaining under the mainstream media radar, has since then become a safe bet in the Belgian folk scene, has released 4 self produced albums and played hundreds of gigs in the Benelux and Northern France, including most of the major folk festivals and some support-acts for a.o. Jaune Toujours, The Paperboys, La Varda, Camping Sauvach, S-Tres or AedO. Not bad for a recreation.
I am one of the main composers in CM, but of course, some of my songs were not selected as they didn’t fit in the Moss sound. I toyed with the idea of releasing them on my own, but found all sorts of good reasons to procrastinate (expenses, probable lack of interest from the public, my own limits as a musician, …) until in 2010, I bought a portable Tascam to work on demos at home. No harm in trying, I recorded a dozen Ceilí Moss sweepings, put them on the internet… and nothing happened. Deservedly, because “Laurent Leemans & the Imaginary Friends Ensemble” is a clumsy, tacky, seedy and way too amateur record. Except for the song “The Last River To Reach The Sky”, I hardly can listen to it today.
A false start, but no useless attempt. First, the virus was in, then I loved the idea to name a band “the imaginary something”. So The Imaginary Suitcase was born. This name evokes the weight of all the hopes, dreams, fantasies and expectations we carry on our backs (the imaginary backpack doesn’t sound as good for a name). In January 2012, “Here’s To Those We Could Not Save” (just an ironic wink to the songs I didn’t select to be on it), a 7 songs demo CD, was out and quickly gathered praise from the blogosphere in Belgium. The first gigs had taken place in the previous months, in small venues in Brussels, Liège and Antwerp. I fondly remember being the guest of US singer-songwriter Jessica Kilroy in Brussels in april 2011. Very awkward at first to be alone on the stage for the first time in my life and realising that if I screwed up, there wasn’t going to be a very skilled accordionist, fiddler or guitarist to make sure the audience didn’t notice. What a delicious fright!
Gathering confidence, I carried on and one year later, the second album “Putting Things On Top Of Other Things” (a Monty Python’s Flying Circus quote). Edgier, tighter, in short, better, it received a lot of positive review from blogs and zines in Belgium, the Netherlands, France and even some in the USA. High on excitement and a composing spree, I released “Full Moon Fever” 6 months later. Perhaps a bit too hastily, as some songs on it wobble dangerously and sound below their potential. I’m nevertheless extremely proud of it and more and more bloggers seemed to agree.
Lessons were learned and when “Driftwood” came out in march 2014, it was exactly the album I wanted it to be. Where it’s awkward (“A Plausible Lie”), it’s deliberate. An extensive tour of Belgium ensued and this time, I had folks being my support-act ;p. Of course, mainstream media continue to totally ignore my stuff, but I can live without their love. I intend to release another big EP or short album in December 2014, but I’ll have to pause live shows for a moment, as Ceilí Moss is on the way up again and will require most of my time and attention in the coming months.”
My influences? Well, most are Anglo-American actually… I am a TREMENDOUS fan of everything Morrissey has ever done, with or without The Smiths, Nick Cave up to “murder ballads” (his recent albums I find weepy and boring), Suzanne Vega, Patti Smith, Echo & the Bunnymen, 16 Horsepower, The Doors (Jim Morrison being I think the ultimate rock singer in history)… Though they could hardly be seen as musical influences, the radicalism of Killing Joke, Nine Inch Nails or the Dead Kennedys is also very dear to me.
Non-Anglo-Saxon influences I could mention would be Noir Désir, a French band akin to the Gun Club or 16 Horsepower. IMHO the best rock band France ever produced, until their singer got nailed up for having beaten his girlfriend to death… Since then, I can’t enjoy listening to their albums the way I used to.
In Belgium, it is almost high treason not to love Jacques Brel. And as a matter of fact, I do, but I’d say such intense and gut wrenching renditions I’d rather consume in homeopathic doses.
The Nits are a Dutch band that writes perfect pop songs since 1978. I see them as the best catchy melodies craftsmen since the Beatles and the Kinks.
I’m a great classical music afficionado, but except for Erik Satie, I don’t think it has influenced my songwriting very much. Except perhaps in the sense that I care about good orchestration and arrangements. I rarely do naked vocals/guitar songs, most of the time I’ll feel an urge to add something more. I don’t (yet?) feel confident enough to do the full monty like Gambles (my most recent musical crush) does.
I forgot to mention Alan Stivell, the godfather of the revival of Britanny folk music. He’s a harpist and singer and on the continent, he was crucial in making folk music un-superannuated in the 70s.
I also could have mentioned Dominique A, crafter of minimalist songs since the 90s, who has discreetly but surely built a rock solid reputation: One of the few French singers who successfully managed to escape from the obligatory Gainsbourgian way of writing. (more about that below)
Wim Mertens is a Belgian composer whom you could sum up as one of the most interesting heirs of Philip Glass. I really like his “ligne claire” melodies when he’s at the solo piano. His orchestral works are more diverse, sometimes excellent, sometimes a bit too avant-garde to my taste.
Bérurier Noir was a French punk-hardcore band from the 80s. Could be compared to the Dead Kennedys for the music but also for their radical political views: One of the most memorable concerts I’ve ever witnessed!
I never liked French chanson that much actually, most of these people bore me to death (to remain polite) with their literary pretention, most are terminally bad singers and the music is most often desperately simplistic. I know Gainsbourg is an icon, but that’s one icon I never understood why he’s so worshipped. I think he has done great harm to French pop music by imposing (unwittingly I guess) a certain style of writing that has become a dogma.
There are a few bands from Belgium that I greatly like, though most are too recent to be an influence:
Lonely Drifter Karen, a band from Brussels, a bit as if Luna Lovegood from Harry Potter made pop music
dEUS: the band that changed it all for Belgian musicians and made them credible abroad:
Daan (hard to define guy from Antwerp, electro-pop with a twist):
Flying Horseman (sort of a mix between And also the trees and Wovenhand)
A bunch of friends of mine also worth a listen:
Floatstone (sort of a white Keziah Jones)
Seesayle (Cat Power meets Kate Bush)
The Monotrol Kid (Belgian Damien Rice)
Carabett, my best friend’s band (Tindersticks with Amanda Palmer on vocals):