The Brno Music Marathon Festival will include a world music scene for the first time this year. In addition to the award-winning Bosnian singer-songwriter Damir Imamović and the female vocal group Kata from the exotic Faroe Islands, the group Spilar from Belgium will perform in the Biskupský dvůr venue on Saturday 14 August. Its first album Stormweere reached number eight on the World Music Charts Europe, the official partner of the scene and compiled by leading radio music writers from across Europe, last November. We interviewed Maarten Decombel, one of the founders of the group.
I’ve read that Spilar is a band of musicians with experience in various genres from classical to folk to jazz. So how did the group come about?
Spilar is a relatively new band. We were formed about two years ago, but it was the result of a two to three year process before the group crystallized into what it is today. There are five of us, but three of us have known each other for a long time because we have been playing together for fifteen years in another band called Snaarmaarwaar. That is mainly an instrumental group, which has in its repertoire both our own compositions and folk melodies from Belgium. For many years however we dreamed of doing more with songs, but we didn’t really know how to do it. Everybody knew Snaarmaarwaar as an instrumental band, so we thought about changing the name or starting a completely different project... And in the end we decided to keep the original trio, but at the same time to invent a new band based on it, playing and singing songs in the Flemish language, i.e. songs from the area where we live. When we were discussing exactly how to handle it, I thought of my younger sister, who has a very beautiful voice. So I suggested to my bandmates that I call her and invite her to a rehearsal. The very first time we met, it all fell into place quite naturally. We wondered how it was possible that we hadn’t thought of it before. For about a year and a half, the four of us searched for a suitable repertoire and tried out different possibilities. When we were almost done with the album, we realized that the songs lacked a rhythmic foundation, and that you can invite a guest drummer on a recording, but we couldn’t play live with four people this way. And so we invited a fifth member to join the band, jazz drummer Louis Favre.
If I understand correctly, you started working with your sister only in this band...?
Yes. We’ve really never worked together like this before. Of course, as children we sang or played together, for example at Christmas or at various family gatherings. Only once, when her best friend was getting married, my sister asked me to accompany her on guitar, she wanted to sing a few songs at the wedding. It was only then that I realized what a beautiful voice Eva had. But really – apart from some family celebrations – it was the first time we played together anywhere.
You both sing well, you and your sister, and you can apply it in doubles and solos. How do you decide who sings in which song?
This comes quite naturally. Most of the songs on the album were created by my sister and I trying to sing them together and trying to find the best way to sing each song. Only when we both liked the result did we bring the song to the band and then we worked on the arrangement with the other bandmates. In most cases, however, it was a deliberation between us two siblings as to whose voice was better suited to which song. Somewhere it was also decided by the theme of the song and its story, for which a female voice was more suitable.
In Spilar you play folk songs, your own original songs and song covers. Yet I feel like it all goes together. Did you have any boundaries at the beginning, where to go and where not to go?
The basic idea when choosing the repertoire was to select songs that are typical for Belgium and specifically for Flanders. With the trio Snaarmaarwaar, which I mentioned at the beginning of the interview, we played not only Flemish songs, but also English songs. And when we were performing abroad, for example in England, I thought it was a bit silly that I, a Belgian, was playing English songs to an English audience in England. That was the exact moment when I realized I should speak for myself. For example, it will never be interesting for me to hear a Czech band singing songs in English about what happened in England. I am interested in your Czech songs with stories that are typical of your country. So we decided that the basis of our repertoire would be songs from Belgium. Then came the second stage – deciding whether to go for folk songs or to write our own repertoire. In the 1960s and 1970s, several singers were active in Belgium and created a new standard for modern folk music and for songs in the Flemish language. They no longer sang about what happened in the 17th century, but focused on urban life or the political scene. In the end, we decided to combine all this and set our repertoire very broadly. So we wrote our own songs and we play very old songs from the 16th century, for example. And we also recorded an arrangement of a song by Jacques Brel, whose work is part of our Belgian code and in a broader sense fits into what we can call Belgian folk. This is how we gradually put together the “puzzle” of our repertoire.
With Jacques Brel, it’s clear to me that you know his songs from recordings. But what about folk songs? Where do you draw from?
On the album we have for example a very old song called Suver maecht. I remember this one from my childhood from a tape of Christmas songs our parents had at home. A Dutch singer sang it there. So it’s a Christmas song that my sister and I have associated with our childhood memories. Other compositions were found in old manuscripts. I live not far from Bruges and there was a collector there in the 1960s who used to visit old people and record the songs they remembered from their youth and which they had learned from their grandparents. He then wrote these songs down and published them and we drew from his collection. Other songs were found on recordings of folk groups that were active in Belgium in the 1980s or 1990s. So inspiration comes from all sides, for example from musicians who were active when we were just starting out. So it all arises very naturally.
You are a band from Belgium and you sing mainly in Flemish, often folk songs from Flanders. So do you consider yourself more of a Belgian or Flemish group?
That’s a good question, but the answer is very simple. It’s about language. You probably know that there is no Belgian language. We sing in Flemish. Belgium is divided into two parts, or more precisely three. Flemish is spoken in the north and French is spoken in the south in Wallonia. Between these two areas lies Brussels and then we have a very small area where German is spoken. It is true that, in a political sense, there is tension between the two main parts of Belgium, and people often talk about Belgium in this way. But when I say, for example, that I feel Belgian and Flemish, it is practically the same for me. The fact that three languages are spoken in Belgium and that it is actually made up of three cultures is a great asset for us.
I also asked because on your album you also have a French song Germaine...
We included this Walloon song on the album because it is simply beautiful and tells a powerful story. People think of Spilar as a Flemish band because we sing in Flemish, but it’s actually a bit more complicated than that. We sing mostly in the dialect of Ostend, and even people who live only forty kilometres from the area we draw from will not fully understand the lyrics of our songs. So I consider Spilar to be primarily a Belgian band and then a Flemish band, but for most listeners we will be primarily a Flemish band. But I still stress the one “package” of three cultures and languages that make up Belgium.
Your sound is mainly based on acoustic instruments like guitars, mandolin, mandola... But you also use synths and electronics. How do you manage to balance the acoustic and electronic components?
That’s a good question. It took us a lot of time; we were looking for a balance between the different instruments for maybe three years. And today we’re glad we didn’t rush it. When we were thinking about what our band would sound like in the end, we had a period where we didn’t see each other for three or four months. This allowed us to think things through carefully, and when we met again a few months later, I could say, for example: “We talked about this last time, but I’ve been listening to some interesting recordings in the meantime, and I think we could get some inspiration from them as well.” So it was a long and arduous process to find the perfect sound for us. It really took a long time, in some ways it was like what they call “slow cooking” – like putting ingredients in a pot and cooking them for four hours to get the flavours to distribute properly. After this slow and long process, our guitarist Jeroen, who was also the producer of the album, decided on the final form of the songs. Well, he was in charge of many important technical and musical decisions for the whole band. When we had different opinions on a matter, it was Jeroen who decided which direction the outcome would take. Often we were surprised and even delighted by the results.
More than a year has passed since the release of your debut album. Is there a new repertoire coming out?
The album Stormweere was released in April 2020, one month after the start of the global pandemic. So we have played very few gigs so far. Now the live playing is slowly starting, new inspirations are coming. For example, we recently gave a concert in a church in Belgium. And it’s while traveling to performances with my sister that we think about our new repertoire. We talk about what some of us have heard and what we could rehearse with the band. So it’s slow again, but I think in about two years we could start preparing the next album.