You would be forgiven for thinking that Belgium has never really been at the cutting edge of electronic music. Long overshadowed by its German and French neighbours, the Belgian scene is most likely to conjure up fluorescent memories of the kind of pop-techno that gave “Euro-music” a bad name back in the nineties. But, prior to that, the Belgians were sowing the seeds of transgressive, pioneering rave music. Popcorn, EBM, New Beat; the Belgians were carving out influential sub-genres of synthesized music years before the rest of the continent. A recent retrospective interest in Belgium’s electronic heritage has been spearheaded not only by the overwhelmingly nostalgic outlook of contemporary dance music and documentaries like the excellent The Sound of Belgium, but also by a new wave of startlingly original electronic musicians that are channelling the raw creative energy of their musical forebears.
Roman Hiele is one of the most exciting of these talents. Only born during the tail-end of New Beat’s heyday in 1991, the Antwerp native’s almost indecipherably dense trajectories of synthetics have already been championed by all four corners of the music machine. “I heard stories very early on of people from other countries doing stuff in Belgium, and of Belgians being very embracing towards these new sounds” Hiele reveals when talking about his birth country’s influence. “It also opened my eyes from an early age to look back at Belgian history. You were being brought up with this Belgian MTV rip off called TMF. It was ravey stuff – but all from the Benelux. I think I was 5 when I started to watch things like that.” After a pause, Hiele corrects himself. “I must have been 7. But it was definitely my second year of Primary School.”
After first bubbling up onto the scene in 2013 with his eponymous debut, Hiele has seen his off-kilter electronics released on the likes of Belgium’s influential Ekster label and the forward leaning aesthetics of YYAA Recordings. There is a restlessness to Hiele’s creations, a distinct avoidance of the tropes that provide the utilitarian bread and butter that keeps the electronic world ticking. “I was motivated by my parents from a very early age to start being busy with music, so I started to play violin at the age of 5” Hiele says. What followed was 15 years of daily musical study, a formative experience in his singular approach to composition and performance. “I was playing mainly jazz, so I was busy with improvisational music – with stand-up bass then. At the same time I was also making electronic music… so it was both worlds. Going to school and studying jazz and then coming home and making electronic music.”
“It was both worlds. Going to school and studying jazz and then coming home and making electronic music”
This kickback against classification from a young age is probably what makes it so hard to pigeonhole Roman Hiele’s music. You are just as likely to hear echoes of Rephlex and Warp as you are to catch a shimmering, half-snatched glimpse of Reich or Morricone. “With electronic music it’s dangerous to get locked in. Or in a rut generally, especially when you work with a computer” he adds. “If you are playing improvisational music you listen, and you listen because first of all you are playing in a group. But I’m working as a solo musician. So I have to listen to all these ideas that pop up in my head and I have to give space and room for some of them to develop. To play with the unknown”
Hiele seems to carry over the energy of his free-form instrumental roots into the buttoned-up world of analogue electronic music, casting aside any notions of the static and almost-scientific approach that has become synonymous with technoid geeks. ”The reason that I use hardware equipment is that it really helps with my production. I can take a moment and look at the screen, but then actually focus on making music. If you are always staring at a screen, and producing or making music from that point of view, you don’t have the same sensation that you would have if you were jamming. But you don’t want to put out a record that sounds like jams – so, it’s really somewhere in between those points that you want to reach. It’s just years of messing around and seeing what comes out of it.”
“I don’t want to be overloaded with the language of other people”
That’s not to say Hiele isn’t a bit of a geek; there is nothing DIY about his productions. They reveal a prodigious level of control over his intricate, gravity-defying electronics, a far cry away from the identikit dance music of some of his peers. “I see Ableton as another instrument, but not the main dominating factor in controlling my music. Everybody’s music sounds like their own of course, but somehow using samples within Ableton brings up clichés that you could easily start to hear in lots of music.” His fierce originality is also protected by distancing himself from the live scene: “I don’t really have that thing that I need to see somebody to inspire me. I don’t want that, I don’t want to be overloaded with the language of other people. I think it’s very important to keep your brain lucid to what’s going on in your personal state of mind.”
Our conversation repeatedly returns to this idea of avoiding fickle music fads, or superficial fashions: “For me fashion and music is something that I’ve always had a bit of a problem with” Roman tells me. “The music itself is almost forgotten when there’s more of a focus on how the person is being dressed, or how music is made, or whether it is made with synthesizers or not. You know, all those things that create this idea of ‘cool’. I don’t want to involve myself in that.” He skirts around talking about direct musical influences; it’s clear that what guides his own aesthetic is something altogether more personal. “If I’m not there on the internet or anywhere else I don’t think that’s a necessarily bad thing, if people really like your music and appreciate it, then when you are 40 years old you can at least say that three people liked your music. That’s the essence of doing this. I’m not doing this to become the coolest or whatever, I’m really just doing this to express myself.” Hiele, it seems, is not out to please.
Roman’s hyperactive live shows alone have been enough to attract the attention of the underground. Maintaining all of the cosmic agility and manic non-conformity of his releases, they are abrasive in the very best way possible, slipping from mad acid hybrids to ambient washes in a heartbeat. Hiele rails against the language du jour of electronic musicians, the soft-focus DJ set: “Often, people after my show are like “why don’t you keep on going, why don’t you let the tracks flow into each other?”. It’s something that audiences are very used to when they listen to music… that it should be beatmatched and that it should flow into some kind of thing where everyone can “get into the mood.” For whatever reason they want uptempo music to keep on going without stopping. I don’t want to become that person that makes music in order to make people feel pleasurable, to let them settle down and become the boss over you, in a sense.”
The hypnotic control that he wields over a crowd is clear to the beholder on YYAA 006, a release comprised of an entire recording of a 2014 Berlin live show. In classic Hiele fashion it is as warm and visceral as it is technically mind-blowing (“my music isn’t really mastered so I have all these different channels coming in to the mixer that I am levelling live, all the time”) but the Belgian still has sight of the line between self-indulgence and confidence. “That’s why I have breaks in between songs, just to make it brief. Otherwise it might become too intense and you yourself lose control over it, or the audience does. A show for me would be where I am listening to what I’m doing, and somehow you also want the people in front of you to do that. Although, the context might be that it’s three in the morning when you’re trying to do this and you just know that you can’t [laughs] so you just keep on going. You’re not going to be like “NO THIS IS MY IDEA!” You’re not going to be that wanker. Which I am most of the time.”
“Those are not narratives, but bundles of energies, bundles of feelings”
At the end of May Hiele will release his third LP, Ritmische Bezinning, on Ekster. A celebration of the label’s third anniversary, the release finds Hiele distilling over a year’s worth of intense travel into its jazzy and complex songwriting. “I made this album between 2014 and December 2015. In that time I’ve been in Berlin, Stockholm, Paris, LA, Taiwan, Belgium and then in London.” This drawn-out process brought along its own pitfalls for someone who likes to dedicate themselves so intensely to music: “You have this freedom when you are working on your computer to just keep on changing everything, and not being very settled down. It doesn’t really put you in the state of mind where you can take a week off and just finish it.”
“But putting yourself in different environments and different atmospheres would give you a totally different outlook on how something had sounded the week before. So it was a good and a bad thing. The bad thing being that it took so long” he laughs. “The good thing is that these seven tracks really resonate with those two years and all the different places I have been to. It’s a very personal feeling.” Ritmische Bezinning is so dense – thematically and texturally – it does feel like a journey around Hiele’s own musical world. “I wanted to have a very dry, clear album and I think I managed to do that and still portray different ideas and different stories within every single track. Those are not narratives, but bundles of energies, bundles of feelings.”
Now based in London, Roman is closely guarded against any kind of conscious or subconscious plagiarism. He seems completely focused on making sure that his creations are his and his alone, reflecting that early Belgian spirit of creative independence as he establishes himself as one of the most resolutely original voices in the electronic underground. As we come to the end of the interview, his parting words capture his philosophy astutely: “Sometimes, you only have to listen to one album; something that was recorded in the 50s. Because it puts you in a certain state of mind that is completely unrelated to what you see out of your window. Having the past to listen to, and the present to look to, you somehow see the future. And that’s something you try to reflect in your music.”