Music For A New Society: Use Knife Interviewed

Richard Foster meets Belgian/Iraqi outfit Use Knife to discuss their all-embracing vortex of a sound, anti-violence, the essential link between politics and art, and breaking down barriers

It’s a roasting September evening in downtown Rotterdam. The three playing members of Belgium-based band Use Knife – Stef Heeren, Saif Al-Qaissy and Kwinten Mordijck – sit outside theprogressive arts centre, WORM. Soundcheck has gone well; their setup takes some time and effort, as the trio play behind three separate, ceiling-to-stage white sheets onto which artwork from the fourth, non-playing member – visual artist, producer and musician Youniss Ahamad – is projected.

The preparation is worth it; I had seen Use Knife on the cavernous main stage at Trix in Antwerp in February and was blown away by the sheer scale of their show. There, Ahamad’s projections shifted and slid in gigantic form in front of us, reassembling to the beat and suggesting new ways of expression as the juddering mixes of synthesised rhythms and plangent vocals swept over the audience. There is nothing half-hearted about Use Knife as a live act. You get the distinct feeling that each member is totally energised by this iteration of their collective art. A Belgian article dubbed their sound “electronic outsider music,” yet for me it is an all-embracing vortex that allows those experiencing it a chance to plunge, headfirst, into a hypnotic state that veers between a dreamlike trance and a sensual workout.

In Antwerp, people sucked in a sound that drew on venerated and contemporary Western underground music alongside various iterations of traditional Arab music culture. Most excitingly, as it unfolded, the music created an uncertainty as to what may happen next. Their song structures trigger a palpable wait for a “hidden reverse”, whether emotionally or sonically, reverses that originate from a number of cultural sources. This is the key they use to unlock us: a quick shifting of viewpoints allowing a wider emotional release. In a review of their second record, The Shedding Of Skin, this organ had already picked up on an equally critical aspect of Use Knife’s work: their potential to be a regenerative force, socially and culturally. To be “a living, breathing, singing, and dancing proof of a better path forward.”

Heeren and Mordijck were previously members of Kiss The Anus Of A Black Cat, purveyors of a powerful form of alt-folk grimoire that slowly uncoiled its message through long drawn-out, electro-acoustic compositions. According to Heeren they switched to a new alter-ego, Use Knife, after exploring electronic pathways built on analogue and modular synths that felt out of step with their previous music. This music found its public form with their first release, the Tropentarn EP, early in 2020. They met Al-Qaissy, a refugee from Iraq, during auditions for a dance performance in Brussels around the same time. As Covid-19 wreaked havoc, Ghent Art Centre Viernulvier got licence to organise musical research residencies, with artists working together behind closed doors. Heeren and Mordijck invited Al-Qaissy to Ghent to work together for a week. Things clicked, and half the music heard on The Shedding Of Skin was made. After this residency, Mordijck looked to incorporate visuals; not only to reflect the new music’s nature but, “more importantly,” to illustrate a merging of two cultures.

Heeren: “We asked around in our network and people dropped the name of Youniss Ahamad. So an email was sent and a new element took form.”

Away from their screens, and sitting on WORM’s terrace, their personalities take shape. Singer Heeren is without doubt a driven man. Engaging and very loquacious, he also has a restless air, often looking into the middle distance when answering. You can imagine him steering a skiff around coastal waters. His opposite is found in Mordijck, whose unassuming and modest demeanour hides a strong and very precise moral sense. If Heeren navigates by mood, it seems Mordijck resolutely uses the compass and charts. Polite, quiet, and using his smile as his calling card, Al-Qaissy is initially happy to take a back seat, waiting to add a point where necessary. I ask, misquoting a John Cale title, whether they wanted Use Knife to make the music for a new society? Mordijck gives his view like slapping a winning playing card on a table: “You can’t divorce politics from art. […] When we worked together with Saif, that was already a political thing.”

Heeren concurs: “Allée […] we are political in a way, but our music stands above any barriers and reaches out to people, and that in itself is political. I’m maybe saying it a bit too poetically, but it is really important.”

The name Use Knife also has a political hue. Heeren says that it’s taken from a lyric by David Tibet’s Current 93: ‘The stars spell grammar or use knife.’ Which the band see as choosing words and connections against violence and polarisation. Heeren: “Use Knife stands against all the violent threats facing our worlds; the rising of powerful radical nationalist movements in the Western world but also the many dictators and the violent aftermaths they cause in the Middle East or elsewhere.”

As noted before, their music is not a remote or sanitised exercise in socio-cultural box-ticking. Use Knife’s story is one of meetings, understandings and accommodations. More dramatically, it is a story of a migrant fleeing from war, crossing the Mediterranean and nearly drowning, being arrested in Hungary and Germany, and then being arrested in Belgium. Stupidly, unthinkingly, unpardonably, I ask Al-Qaissy how he arrived in Belgium. Laughing, Saif answers “When I came to Brussels I went to prison. There was no time to think, ‘Where am I’.” Stef and Kwinten are quick to support their pal.

Heeren: “It’s not getting off the train, it’s hiding in the bushes from the cops, it’s that kind of story.”

Mordijck: “And they told him to go back, but luckily he didn’t.”

Al-Qaissy: “I didn’t want to go back. But coming to Belgium was at first a strange feeling, for sure. But I am always positive: I often say, ‘OK, good things will come.’ When you think like that it’s often okay. But that [journey] was a bad time, because I passed through so many strange moments. Some people went back, other people got sick and couldn’t continue. Because it’s not easy.”

Unsurprisingly then, theirs is an organic, spontaneous way of working that is subject to a patient and resolutely human process of exchange. Heeren: “That’s true. With the Viernulvier residency, we rehearsed together, and we improvised, and made our recordings from that. They are all long jams in a way, but even with the studio work we remained true to the organic first idea.” (The band continued this process in WORM’s Sound Studios a week after their gig, where they laid down Al-Qaissy’s percussion and gorged on Arp2600s, Korg PS3200s and Oberheim Sems for the first time. Demo drafts of new music were conjured up, upon which Al-Qaissy improvised with percussion and vocals.)

So is music the main glue between the three of them?

Mordijck: “Maybe also the talking, too, non? Though, I don’t know if Saif always likes what we do!”

Heeren: “Yes, talking. Because we are friends.”

Al-Qaissy is quick to affirm this. Given what he’s been through, communicating to create positive work seems to be the main driving point for him: “I like Stef and Kwinten, I can’t work, or make music with people I don’t like. Some musicians turn their feelings off, but always, my music comes from the inside. This is the point for me. We speak as friends, and after that you can give what you have in the studio. For me, what we do is a story. For all the strange moments I had; I put them in the music.”

Heeren adds his and Mordijck’s perspective: “We just talked with Saif, about him coming from Iraq to Europe and arriving in Brussels, and us with our very privileged white background. I think you really need to feel each other’s point of view when you make music. And you think a bit longer about how someone reacts from another culture when they make music with you.”

Mordijck concurs: “You have to respect each other. We sometimes say in the studio, ‘Can you do this thing you did again, Saif?’ because for us it’s new.”

Use Knife live at Viernulvier, photo by Paul Lamont

Al-Qaissy doesn’t always find it an easy task to combine electronic music with his percussion and singing. He sees this as a case of adapting to different musical backgrounds, but a lot of the time, “it’s like that [clicks fingers]. My grandfather is a singer. Maqam is a type of music [where] you don’t need to study the music, it’s where you grow up and you just pick it up, and it comes if you have the talent and the voice. It is a literal singing through time.”

Use Knife’s creative assault is, of course, multilayered and, in a live setting at least, unthinkable without the visuals. (Though once experienced, this aspect also creeps into the mind’s eye of the listener.) This is the province of Antwerp’s Youniss Ahamad, who has roots in Iraq and Ivory Coast. Drawing inspiration and making stills from the paintings his artist grandfather made, Ahamad also painted some subject matter himself, recorded whilst painting, and worked those into the visuals. The loose, interpretative way of working again led to old and new worlds coming together.

Heeren: “The only thing we said was, we wanted to project both a Western and Arab world.”

Mordijck: “We really wanted to see that combination: you have this background with Youniss’ grandfather, and the analogue versus the digital and the acoustic versus the electronic. Stef listens a lot to Muslimgauze and you hear that in the music, of course. And when we met with Saif we instantly imagined all these possibilities and thought, ‘we can build on this.’”

Originally used as a backdrop for Heeren and Al-Qaissy, using the screens went through the same communal, collaborative process as other elements of their art.

Heeren: “I think the light technician said ‘let’s try to put the screens in front of everybody.’ It was much more intense.”

Mordijck: “I certainly didn’t want a backdrop. Youniss came up with this elaborate explanation about how we could use space and depth better, using three curtains.”

Heeren: “There wasn’t that much thinking about it; we just hung them out in front. It gives a lot of freedom as well. There is much less stress being in front of the audience and I also think we give energy to people.”

This combination of audio and visual work melds diverse and traditional ideas and attempts to forge something new, and allows the audience to feel, or to be part of, a wonderfully fluid, egoless proposition with no barriers or boundaries. Even with their dramatic set up, there is no suggestion of any distancing, or self-aestheticization. During a take on new single, ‘Sowieso F * ed’ at an intense, near-delirious gig at WORM, Heeren steps out from behind his screen and paces through the crowd, lending a transient human form to the projected visual metaphors for change, chance, possibility.

Use Knife’s fluidity and openness has extra resonance given the peculiar nature of Belgium, a multi-layered, intricately structured country, created as a buffer state, whose current modi operandi invite “complete disorder” in Heeren’s eyes. Specific governmental, institutional and media policies have gradually led to a hardening of the language barrier. For instance, the capital, Brussels, has 19 squabbling mayors. Flemish bands are funded to promote Flemish culture, and Brussels’ Botanique venue gets government funding for Wallonian acts to support headliners; “so it’s very difficult for a Flemish band to support.”

Heeren: “I think it would be very nice if it could stay the same country in the future. I hope that a Flemish-Wallonian divorce will never happen because it is a very interesting mixture. It’s so disappointing that there is so little communication between the two parts.”

Use Knife’s new single ‘Sowieso F * ed’ is out now along with a new T-shirt depicting a design by Lebanese graphic designer Farah Fayyad. proceeds go to the Gaza Crisis Appeal of Oxfam International

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