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Handmade In Belgium: An Interview & Quietus Mix 61 From Hoquets
John Freeman , March 22nd, 2012 03:48

McCloud Zicmuse tells John Freeman how Belgian folklore and a stolen guitar inspired Hoquets' remarkable debut album Belgotronics - and listen to the band's addition to our mix series below

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It's an unremarkable Monday evening and I'm chatting to McCloud Zicmuse, of the Belgian trio Hoquets, via the technological wonder of a Skype video link. Part-way though our conversation McCloud puts down his glass of red wine and picks up what looks suspiciously like a tin can nailed to a wooden stick and begins to play a beautiful melody. He tells me the instrument is an 'iaen-iaen', and it is part of a set of homemade musical devices that feature on the band's debut album.

Indeed, describing Belgotronics is a perilous task, but from this über-DIY grounding has evolved a 16-track, 33-minute, helter-skelter of ragged indie pop, playground rap, post-punk linearity and even smooth R&B, underpinned by the warm wash of African rhythms, having been partly inspired by the Crammed Discs Congotronics series of albums.

The three members of Hoquets (pronounced 'OK') are an American (Zicmuse, who plays the 'high hoquet' of homemade instruments), a Frenchman (François Schulz, who is on tenor hoquet) and a Belgian (Maxime Lê Hùng on bass hoquet). Based in Brussels, Zicmuse, in particular, became enchanted with the complexities of Belgian culture and its folklore. Hence, Belgotronics lovingly covers subjects as diverse as the Battle Of Waterloo, the beer-brewing abbeys of Orval, a mashed-potato dish called stoemp and 'Couque De Dinant' - a song about the correct way to eat a huge, cock-shaped biscuit. What's not to love about Hoquets?

I believe you have had a number of solo projects before Hoquets. What path led you to live in Belgium?

McCloud Zicmuse: After living in France and being on tour, and then being in Japan for a while, when I decided it was time to grow up and settle down. Having travelled around for years in a cold and unromantic way, I felt that Belgium was the country that had really opened itself up to give me the opportunity to love somewhere.

Did you meet the other band members, François and Maxime, in Brussels?

MZ. No, François was from Cherbourg in France where he used to organise a music festival and my solo project played there, and that's where we met. He was already living in Brussels but I had no idea. Maxime was here in Brussels and I would go to concerts that he would organise and find them cool. At the end of the shows, we would meet each other and that's what starts the story.

How long have you been making your own instruments?

MZ: Well, I am a lucky boy as my father is a luthier and he mainly makes classical guitars. So, as a child would help him in his workshop. But in 2007 my guitar was stolen in Lyon in France, and later in that year I had an art residency. I had no money for the residency but I had access to machines and tools. So, being a frustrated musician, I started making simple one-string instruments which I called iaen-iaens. [McCloud picks up what looks like a can nailed to a pole and plays an intricate melody]. That was a world music-inspired riff.

What is an iaen-iaen made from?

MZ: It's an olive oil tin and a broom handle.

How does it work with your instruments? I'm assuming you don't have an iaen-iaen tech when you go on tour?

MZ: No, but we normally have a sound guy who comes on tour, and that way at least when we arrive most of the time there isn't someone just staring at our instruments with a dumb look on their face. Also, we are constantly making new instruments as our instruments are constantly breaking; we constantly need new strings and new parts. It is part of the Charles Darwinism of our music. It is survival of the fittest, but with instruments.

I'm intrigued as to the genesis of the Hoquets sound – did you set out with an idea in mind?

MZ: No, the first time we practised was just Maxime and I, we were playing guitars and we started playing the iaen-iaen instrument and tapping out rhythms on some wooden pallets that were on my terrace. That's how the percussion became the roots of the music of the band - we are a bunch of beaters. Quickly, by the second practice, François was involved and he is a renaissance man in the French fashion of knowing how to do everything, or at least being confident that he can do many things. So, the basis of each song is our collective improvisation. I will start singing or rapping and then all of it comes from the beat. Given that, we are very free to play with many different musical styles and the subject matter of the songs can change. However, the style of songs we portray is, I think, coherent.

Is there a sense of being completely unconstrained in the music you create, because of the endless potential to make a new instrument?

MZ: It's a balance of being absolutely free to make music with whatever we want to – and there is a joy in the simplicity of making music with a tin can – but then the discipline of constraint because we have a limited palette, in a way.

If I think about Belgotronics there is an overwhelming sense of affection for Belgium. Did you always intend to create an 'open love letter'?

MZ: Yes. It's fascinating because Belgium is small no one cares about it, so in certain ways it has a disappearing folklore that is really quite engaging. For me, it's taking the daily experiences and discoveries about where I live – and I know for Maxime and François, it reinforces their curiosity about where they live - and making an album that becomes a celebration of our culture.

The subject matter is wide-ranging, from the Battle of Waterloo to the breweries of Orval, and even a song about how to eat a certain type of biscuit.

MZ: Yeah, the Couque de Dinant.

With this scope of culture referencing, how has the album been received in Belgium?

MZ: In a certain way it is a musical souvenir of their country. When we sing 'Couque De Dinant' we are sometimes releasing a memory that they have from their childhood, because many parents would give them this hard cookie when they were teething as babies - it was so hard they could just suck on it. At some other times, the album is like a revolutionary wake-up call to not forget their folklore, which can be stereotypical at types, but sets Belgian history and culture apart from these other grand European cultures.

The album reveals some fascinating cultural subtleties for such a relatively small country.

MZ: Absolutely. The thing with Belgium, since it doesn't have this overwhelming singular culture, even within Flemish people there are so many Flemish cultures, so someone from Antwerp cannot even understand someone from Flanders. There are a lot of different cultures here within Belgium that are larger in number than the stereotypical friction between Flemish and Walloons. Belgium would not exist without all of these crazy cultures coming together.

Outside Belgium, how do people perceive Hoquets, and a set of songs so immersed in a specific culture?

MZ: French people seem to think we are typical Belgian surrealists, with the spirit of Magritte. Their knowledge or ignorance of Belgian culture is sometimes equal to that of the Belgian folks themselves. Dutch people seem to enjoy the journey of learning new things about Belgium. In Spain, it is one of the best examples of people who just groove and dance. I can't believe I just said that.

What, the bit about grooving or dancing?

MZ: Dancing is cool; 'groove' is a word that is difficult to use sometimes.

The album title references the Congotronics series of album released on the Crammed Discs label. Who was inspired by music from Congo?

MZ: I think all of us. We'd see each other at Congotronics concerts – be it bands like Kasai Allstars or Konono No. 1 – and these groups became part of what we were listening to for years. If you look at Congotronics, it is based on the constraints and the realities of life for Congo people. For us, it was that we had these songs about Belgium, using a technology of stuff we could find on the streets, so that's where the concept of 'Belgotronics' comes from.

Belgotronics was mixed by Deerhoof's Greg Saunier. How did he become involved in the project?

MZ: Greg played for a while in a band called Curtains and they played in my living room when I was in Olympia, Washington. It was through that connection that I met Greg and over the years my solo project toured with Deerhoof. When this project came along, which is really rhythmically-based, Greg was the natural person to ask to help us out.

So, does Belgotronics represent the full repertoire of your songs about Belgium?

MZ: That's a very good question. Have we done our 'Belgium' album? I don't know. In some respects, why not be the biggest Belgian folklore band? There are still more things to discover and the new songs that we do write still have some Belgian roots. And, if we were to write love songs, then anyone can do that really.

Belgotronics is released on 26th March via Crammed Discs.