Indiepartment, Platoo & Grazer Spielstätten präsentieren: BALTHAZAR
From the first few bass notes of opening track ‘Fever', it's clear that Belgian indie stalwarts Balthazar have changed. After months of writing in "all kinds of directions, with nothing good happening" according to co-frontman Maarten Devoldere, it was the song that, when finally finished and arranged, gave them direction and set the tone (and title) of their fourth album; honest, playful, and shot through with the carefree abandon of two artists who work as one, completely at ease with themselves and the collective they've built.
It hasn't always been an easy ride for Devoldere and Jinte Deprez, his best friend and songwriting partner since high school. Propelled onto bigger and bigger stages by 2012's Rats - an album influenced by classic pop and full of Gainsbourg-esque swagger - and Thin Walls, the groove-laden, grizzled indie-rock follow up that landed three years later, the duo grew weary of the demands made of modern successful bands. "Everything started to become too much of a routine," explains Devoldere. "We were becoming too much of a well-oiled machine, which didn't feel spontaneous anymore." "There was a lot of pressure," concurs Deprez. "And a lot of people dependent on us. We needed to step away from that."
And so step away they did, to their own lives, passions, and solo projects. But there was never any doubt they'd reunite for Balthazar. In fact, their solo successes hastened the urge to write together again, both curious as to how their newfound maturity and broader musical horizons would spark against each other.
"We rediscovered our respect and adoration for each other through those projects," says Devoldere. "I saw J.Bernardt perform and I was like: ‘You talented motherfucker!' If we're next to each other on a stage..." Deprez was equally as impressed. "When I saw Warhaus live, he really surprised me. You think you know someone after years and years, but I was like: ‘Where did you get that inspiration from?'"
Reconvening, both tried to impress each other and threw themselves into writing sessions. There was no concrete plan or idea; simply a desire to better their previous work and, says Deprez, "to tell a new story with Balthazar." Devoldere "wanted it to be lighter", mentioning the "freshness and timeless quality" of Talking Heads as a reference point. Deprez agreed, feeling that the previous records were "slow, and a little melancholic. I wanted it to be less serious, with more rambling on our instruments...just having more fun really."
Both have a unique approach to creativity - "Maarten writes songs and then sees how we can dress them, whereas I write a lot of conceptual demos to try new arrangements and everything," explains Deprez - yet their respective skills compliment each other perfectly, and as the sessions progressed they inspired each other to new heights not just as composers, but as vocalists and performers too.
Together, they're a creative force greater than the sum of its parts, switching roles and mixing up their personalities to the point it's not clear who's responsible for what; here resides the true power of Balthazar as a collective. They function as one, and as the sessions for Fever progressed, they harnessed this power to fire their imagination and focus on the magic that happens when they're together.
Scores of songs were written - some classic Balthazar pop, others "a little chipper" - but nothing felt right until ‘Fever' arrived, and gave them a reference point. "It felt new for us, and something we hadn't done before," says Devoldere. "One of the reasons we titled it that - and used it for the album - is the fact that we turn the temperature up. It became a warmer record, and it feels more Southern in a way, with a certain kind of grooviness."
Opening with a rolling, languid bass riff, ‘Fever' is a slinky sunset jam that chronicles falling for a "rich kid" who's "topping the charts". A lone, swooping string motif adds drama to its funky bustle while Devoldere and Deprez caddishly deliver a sly dig: "You say your money means nothing to you / But to be honest, your money was all that I knew".
They're on record as saying the first two Balthazar albums are from the head, with the third, Thin Walls, from the gut. Where does Fever come from then? "This one's definitely from the hips," laughs Devoldere, and there's a sinuous, graceful quality to the rhythms and melodies. From the art-jazz feel of ‘Roller Coaster' and ‘Wrong Faces' to the sun-dappled tropicalia of ‘I'm Never Gonna Let You Down' and ‘You're So Real', these are songs for the lovers and dancers - the sax solo on the latter is so seductive it's practically horizontal.
Gone is the feeling they have to prove themselves to the world and stuff their songs with clever references and tricks. "Go with the flow and just try," says Deprez of their newfound approach. "Nonchalance," adds Devoldere. "Both Jinte and I have a taste for pop music, and while we always wanted to be The Velvet Underground, to be honest, we've always been more like the Beatles."
Alongside producer Jasper Maekelberg - who they credit with helping "find and sculpt our sound" and being the catalyst for new ideas - Devoldere and Deprez have achieved precisely that in writing from the heart, and Fever is a testament to their growing maturity, both as vocalists and songwriters. You could say it's leaving youthful indiscretion behind, or simply the feeling of being more comfortable in one's own skin, but they've redefined their own musical relationship and the importance of the band they started as teenagers.
Fever stands as a defining statement, and with Simon Casier (the crispy bass player who released two albums as Zimmerman), Michiel Balcaen (the drummer who released an EP as Rosenahl, and an old friend) and Tijs Delbeke (the multi-instrumentalist who is new to Balthazar) reuniting to hit the road once again, so begins an exciting new chapter for a band who are just getting started.