Another Excuse: Soulwax Interviewed

Another Excuse: Soulwax Interviewed

The Dewaele brothers look back on 15 years of ‘Nite Versions’, the album that taught the rock kids how to dance...

In the post-genre landscape of 2020 it feels funny to look back on a time when different styles of music were largely delineated and ghettoised, but at the turn of the Millennium this was still very much the case. You had your bands playing rock and pop music to people who liked rock and pop music, then you had your DJs playing electro and club music to people who liked electro and club music. Occasionally one would influence or sample the other, but to the wider public they were treated as separate worlds.

Then along came two Belgian brothers who loved The Stooges and Nirvana just as much as they loved Daft Punk and The Chemical Brothers. By day Stephen and David Dewaele played in the indie rock band Soulwax, but by night they cast aside their guitars to become 2manyDJs. While both of these projects found relative success in the early 00s, just as likeminded acts like LCD Soundsystem, Peaches and The Knife were starting to blur the boundaries between dance culture and the emerging indie rock scene, it wasn’t until the release of 2005’s ‘Nite Versions’ (a collection of remixed tracks from the preceding year’s ‘Any Minute Now’) that the Dewaele brothers successfully managed to reconcile their two identities and create something that sounded just as home on a sticky dancefloor as it did at the main stage of Reading & Leeds festivals.

While viewed as something of an oddity upon its release, 15 years and countless accolades, tours and headline sets on, ‘Nite Versions’ is universally viewed to as one of the landmark albums in that early 21st century sea-change that encompassed dance-punk, electroclash, electropunk, punk-funk, new rave and every made-up genre between. The two brothers, who have been sharing a COVID-19 bubble in their Gwent-based studio for the entirety of 2020, took a rare break from creating music to look back on what the oddly cobbled-together album meant for both their career and the scene at large.

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Why re-release ‘Nite Versions’ now instead of on the 10th or 20th anniversaries?

David: It’s a record that’s hard to find on vinyl. We were getting a lot of requests from people and copies were reselling for a lot of money over the years, so it seemed like the obvious thing to do. We mentioned it last year but, knowing how long it takes to get vinyl sorted, it only came into fruition this year. Stephen: I also think that when it came out PIAS never really saw it as a full album, so it wasn’t serviced as one! I remember we were a little bit frustrated by that, so maybe they were also a little bit like, “Ah, maybe we need to give this a proper release”.

Not many bands find themselves in a situation where an album of remixes is perhaps the most seminal and important record of their career. Do you view the songs on ‘Nite Versions’ as being the definitive versions?

S: Definitive? There’s no such thing! There would be no ‘Nite Versions’ if there’s wasn’t ‘Any Minute Now’, and I think it’s clear now that making ‘Any Minute Now’ put the spotlight on the fact we were somewhat in limbo between dance music and rock music. We still wanted to be a band and make songs and have long intricate sessions and so on, but Flood (who produced the album) always had it in his head to make something like ‘Nite Versions’. We were maybe like ‘Oh, is this a cop out?’, but we ended up doing it superfast in a couple of weeks.

Dave always says that maybe we ‘dumbed it down’. That’s putting it a little too crudely, but it did mean taking out some of the song elements and simplifying it for the economy that we that we had started for ourselves: we would make a remix, play it as 2manyDJs, someone would play it on XFM or Radio 1, and you would go to Rough Trade the next day and people would be like, “Where did that come from?”. We loved it, the speed of it, the directness of it. As a band we had to go tour, do press… we had a very rigorous system you have to go through waaay too slow, and for us we reacted against it, so ‘Nite Versions’ was a little bit our way of going ‘Hey, maybe we could merge these two worlds?’.

D: Bear in mind also that we’re talking about a very different time here, having to think about getting your video on MTV and stuff like that!

By 2005 you were both already well regarded for your work as remixers. How did you find remixing your own music?

S: That was a hard one because I think we’d never done that before. It was easier for us to take music from somebody else and make something out of that. With the remixes we would hear a track, adapt it for our DJ set, the next day burn it onto a CD or dubplate, play it and instantly know what we needed to add, which we were good at. For our own music we had to apply the same thing, but we were emotionally invested into the songs.

So we needed the seven or eight months between ‘Any Minute Now’ and ‘Nite Versions’ to get to the point that we had emotionally detached ourselvess from all those songs that had taken six years to get into place. Then we could go, “Yeah, but the cool part is this” and take that and emphasise it.

Why open the album with a rock-orientated play on Daft Punk’s ‘Teachers’?

S: If you look at the people we’re still really good friends with who back at that point were our kindred spirits: Erol Alkan, for whom we played at Trash all the time, James Murphy, with whom we played in New York and hung out, Nancy Whang (keyboardist in LCD Soundsystem), who was part of our family, we were all hanging out making ‘NY Excuse’, which was a literal excuse for us to all be together… We were all indie rock kids who liked electronic music, and so to flip a track like ‘Teachers’ into a lot of the rock influences that we liked seemed normal for us, because that’s who we were. And still are!

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Did you still see yourself as a rock band?

D: Now it is unthinkable to be in the position where something is either electronic or band-based, because everything’s made electronically, even with rock bands! But back then that was a thing, so with ‘Nite Versions’ we wanted to have something that we could play as a band, strip it down and still have the same impact as our DJ sets. It would be lame if we showed up and played electronic music and everyone was clapping nicely in-between tracks and then afterwards we’d DJ and people would go crazy, we needed something that had the same impact.

S: The second gig we did as ‘Nite Versions’ was at Fabric, and we did it mid-set at one in the morning. The whole place was dark because we’d said to the venue ‘Don’t put the any lights on us, let people think it is still the sound system going.” It was a really interesting thing that we pulled it off.

D: When we started doing 2manyDJs, even the name itself is quite… rude! That was our way of showing how ridiculous we thought the dance world was, even though we thought that the rock world was just as ridiculous. But weirdly it was the dance and electronic industry or music world who were super receptive to everything that we were doing who said, “Yeah! Come in, break the rules, yes! Break down all the walls, we love it!”

S: Because I think generally on every level it was more of a progressive space to create music or release music or to find music or to experience music. I think for a band in rock or pop music at that point it was becoming a big beast that was eating itself.

Did you find that there was more of a rulebook in rock music?

D: There was a whole mould, you had to start off at Dingwalls have your NME feature and play a session for XFM and then Steve Lamacq’s going to do an artist spotlight thing… It was all stuff that we were not good at. When we tried to fit in that mould we were horrible, but when we tried to make our own rules we like, “Oh this is great, this works for us” and it seemed to have a bigger impact!

Do you see ‘Nite Versions’ as being a crux point for this change?

S: I think for us that ‘Nite Versions’ was an assurance to us that we were doing things on our own terms now. When we tried to be like other bands and play to… I mean, already those two words ‘music’ and ‘industry’ shouldn’t go together! But once we go into that whole system then we don’t seem to function.

How did you start playing this remix album live?

S: We asked to play at Pukkelpop. Normally they’d put us on the main stage so we were like “Nonono, we would like to play in the dance tent”. We thought it could go really badly because the crowd were just there for DJs, but we killed it, people were going nuts! Then there came a point where we were headlining Bestival as 2manyDJs, playing as the band Soulwax and also doing ‘Nite Versions’.

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Were the boundaries between your different projects starting to break down at this point?

D: At that point yes. Our manager was the first one to make us realise that there was this finnicky line that we had been walking where we were like “No this is 2manydjs. No this is Soulwax.”, and he told us, “Guys, they just come to see you”. So we thought, well OK, why don’t we do these tours where we play as a band, travel with all these people that have been coming up with us, like Vitalic and Justice, and then DJ at the end?

S: One night would start at 10 and end at four in the morning. It was pretty intense!

D: But at that point it seemed normal. It was especially fun because we did get to bring a sort of travelling circus with us.

S: It ended up being a seven year long worldwide party where we played all over the world. And a little bit of that, when you think about it, maybe does precurse the superstar DJ lifestyle that we see now. James (Murphy) always says that we were responsible for that.

So the 12 year ‘break’ between ‘Nite Versions’ and ‘From Deewee’ didn’t really seem like one to you?

D: No way! Remember, prior to ‘Any Minute Now’ the way things worked was that you would live off the sales of your music and tour to promote that. Then when ‘Nite Versions’ happened we were just the right band at the right time, because the industry was shifting to, “No, go and make some money playing live, because no-one’s buying records anymore and these records that you’re making are only there to promote you playing live”, so there was like a twelve year gap where we didn’t put out any music, even though we made loads. I think that at that time we thought “Oh, we don’t have to put out a record, because look! Our career is going amazingly, we’re headlining and playing everywhere!”

S: Yeah, and the idea of going to the record company and going through that whole motion again, we were just like “Oh please no!” And we were also building (their studio) Deewee and running our label and doing all that other stuff.

It’s never nice to be pigeon-holed, but looking back now do you feel the labels of ‘electroclash’ and ‘electropunk’ were suitable descriptors of your music?

S: No no no! And if there’s one thing I’m proud of it’s that we outlived indie rock, we outlived mash-ups, we outlived bastard-pop, we outlived electroclash, we outlived punk-funk…

D: Nu-rave!

S: And we outlived EDM, because now I don’t think there is anything there at all.

D: OK, so electroclash is not the right word, but it is true that there was a zeitgeist thing between what DFA was doing, what we were doing and what Erol was doing. It was new, it was strong, and, because of the intense amount of touring, we got to hang out way more than we would have before or after. With James and LCD sometimes we’d spend three weeks in Australia just hanging out every day, listening to music! There was an intense five-six year period where our social life was extremely all over the world.

And not only was that stuff new to us, it seemed like it was new to most people around us, because in 2004 that part of the industry didn’t really exist yet - you had your music clubs and then you had your nightclubs, they were kept completely separate. By the end of that tour in 2010 it was completely normal for Justice to headline a tent at Coachella, whereas in 2004 it would have been impossible. There was a whole industry dedicated to just this, a part of the industry that was new and now.

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The 15th anniversary edition of 'Nite Versions' is out now.

Words: Josh Gray

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