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A Quietus Interview

Laid Wide Open: dEUS Interviewed
Chris Roberts , September 29th, 2011 07:14

Chris Roberts takes a trip to talk to dEUS in arboreal splendour. Main picture by Olaf Heine

To get to see dEUS play a nocturnal acoustic set in an enchanting forest on a remote island more than ninety minutes off the coast of Holland, you travel for thirteen hours by car, plane to Amsterdam, train, bus, ferry, bus, walk. You see trams, Van Goghs, windmills (more modern wind-turbine than cute picture-postcard), sailboats, sunsets like Turners, the sea, the sea, the sea.

Arriving with a sense of proud, weary achievement onshore the Dutch island of Vlieland, where a big sign saying The Great Wide Open denotes terra firma, you immediately get lost and are directed down “the big dark road”. You walk down the big dark road where the only lights spookily approach you at waist-height and are those of bicycles. Eventually, having glimpsed the main festival, which looks like a fairground co-designed by Alexander McQueen and Pee-Wee Herman, you see a field full of illuminated butterflies on poles – they’re an artist’s impression of tulips, it turns out – then stumble into a glade lit by fairy lights with a medium-sized stage, whereon Belgian band Deus play. With a bigger show on the main stage set for tomorrow night, Deus (correctly written as dEUS, but it’s going to annoy me, and you, if I keep doing that) play the softer, quieter numbers from their catalogue tonight. It’s tender and beautiful and, in the double-strange context of its location and our transcendent fatigue, a little magical. They play 'The End Of Romance', a part-spoken, part-sung, shuffling, understated tragedy from their new album Keep You Close, which is a front-runner for my track of the year.

“That was the first time we’ve ever played it”, singer Tom Barman tells me. “I announced that in Dutch though, so how could you know? I guess lots of the album is looking back on events in my life, sometimes with a little bit of remorse. And that’s one of them. It’s the story of me travelling to a girl in Israel. We had a thing going; it was far away, so it wasn’t easy. And we were going to see The Rocks Of Petra, which are one of the seven wonders of the world, I think. But we never got there. And that’s the story. The rocks have become a symbol of the unattainable. That’s it.”

Many of your songs are about love won or lost. Mostly lost.

“Yes. Doomed desire. That, and time. They’re the things I mostly write about. I mean, I’m 39 now, so I should give up the illusion that I’m ever going to have any other subjects. It’s always doomed desire and time and love. That’s just what I gravitate to.”

When you said, “I’m 39 now...” then, for a worrying moment I thought you were going to say, “So it’s time I wrote about something else”...

“It’s too late for that!”

You have to like Tom, with his convincing, unforced, bohemian air, his shades pushed back on his head and his chain-smoking and his shirt too small and his copy of Jonathan Franzen’s Freedom on the table and his willingness to do whatever anyone asks of him, from a Saturday afternoon DJ slot in blazing sun to late-night DJ slots on successive nights to photo shoots and videos, and his relentless bonhomie in the name of his cause. The name of Antwerp-based Deus has built over two decades, from their 1994 debut album, to their comeback in 2004 after a four-year break, to 2008’s Vantage Point. Keep You Close is, despite the band’s suggestions that it’s more intimate and yielding than its predecessor, a robust, big rock album, with the smart twists and turns of a Bunnymen and the art leanings of a Tindersticks. Barman’s lyrics throughout elevate it way above the generic, while the soul and fire-in-the-belly of a tight, talented band who can make dynamics dance at their will are abundantly evident. Will it serve to push them on?

“We have never made stadium rock”, laughs Tom, very mildly offended. “Deus is in a funny situation now. If, say, Foo Fighters go into the studio, they know what they have to do. They have to play to 40,000 people so they write songs they can play to 40,000 people. For us, touring for our own dates and festivals, it’s one night 500 people then the next 15,000 then the next our songs need to be multi-functional. They need to work in all possible environments. Yes, we like big melodies, choruses: that will always be the core; that was our beginnings. But I think Vantage Point was quite modern and compressed, a bit “macho”. This time we wanted to do something warmer. Softer. Orchestration. Marimbas. It’s more introspective. If Vantage Point was a statement, Keep You Close is a question. The title sums it up. We’re being more fragile. It wasn’t the best period in my life when I wrote the lyrics for this. I threw the title out to the guys and let it grow on them, and it survived, so...”

Deus more than survive the rigours of The Great Wide Open, blasting out a much rockier set of old and new songs to an appreciative (not far off homeland) crowd of around 3,000 on the second night. Everyone’s stoned by now. It’s great; Tom pulling star-shapes, working his cigarette like a proper front-man, the men in black around him cool as cucumbers and darkly dignified. Maybe an afternoon on the beach helped. The island of Vlieland, is, according to Wikipedia, “made of sand dunes”, and for once that cast-iron source isn’t far wrong. In glorious sunshine the affable Dutch make the most of sand, sea and shady woodland where the trees are the green of emeralds. Kids are everywhere: if this was a British festival it’d probably be Latitude. With more bikes. And exquisite pancakes. Laura Marling, Crystal Fighters and Bonobo are among the headliners. Deus are here because, “Kings Of Convenience raved about this festival”, says Tom. “They said it was one of the funnest and nicest, and everything they said was true. The boat trip was great, the reception. Y’know, a lot of festivals only want to get bigger and bigger, and it just sucks the soul out of it.” The hard-to-access location of Great Wide Open suggests it’ll remain an unsullied, well-kept secret awhile longer. For hordes to descend on this sparsely-populated green sanctuary and its idyllic beaches would be notionally sad. After the music stops, everyone clambers en masse across the dunes – great training for the calf muscles – and lights bonfires on the sand, around which Dutch people who couldn’t give a damn if you think they’re hippies sing and dance. As Brits, we ask each other, with stage irony, if we’re “feeling the vibe”, which sort of hinders any chance of us really doing so, but it was probably there.

“We always enjoy this”, enthuses Tom. “It’s not work! I mean, Prince is 52 and he still does it.” We talk about the sad death of Last Tango In Paris actress Maria Schneider (subject of a Deus song, on which Guy Garvey guested, on Vantage Point), with Tom talking of “those moments that are so eternal – the magic of cinema.” No less a presence than Greg Dulli (Afghan Whigs/ Twilight Singers) provides guest vocals on the new album. “We’d met a couple of times, and he was in Antwerp, so I said, “You got time tomorrow? You wanna come to the studio?” He said, “Sure.” I said, “You wanna sing?” He said, in that big growl, “I’d be fuckin’ honoured.” He delivered, with that gritty soul power of his. Hopefully he’ll join us onstage sometime – he was going to at Pukkelpop, but you know what happened there – and then we’ll blast those songs out.” Deus recorded too much material to fit on the album and the residue will emerge at some stage: some is “shockingly poppy” and some is “grooves and wildness, like Can meets LCD Soundsystem”.

Our boat pulls away from the fantasy island; the long, interesting trek home begins. Deus’ journey moves on. Literate, durable, motivated, never flavour of the month, they’re the most admirable kind of band. They continue to work worldly wonders as they search for those rocks.