In light of what he has accomplished in a relatively short period of time, Antoine Guenet could be considered a prodigy of sorts. To be involved, currently, in several cutting edge progressive bands – SH.TG.N, and The Wrong Object – working on a solo project and putting together yet another progressive band at the age of only 25 is an already-impressive resume by any standard.
Being the leader, keyboardist and second vocalist for MoonJune Records recording artists SH.TG.N – with the recent release of their debut album, and the many other projects – keeps Antoine a very busy man, of late. His bandmate in The Wrong Object, Michel Delville, recently caught up with him for a little Q&A:
Q: Hi Antoine! In spite of your young age, you are one of the most prolific musicians on the Belgian musical scene. The sheer range of your recent projects is astonishing and your qualities as a composer and a performer are earning you the respect of many of your older colleagues and peers. Could you tell us a little bit about your musical background and how it has influenced your compositions and performances?
To say I got started with music at the age of 11 (the age I took my first piano lessons) would be missing the point. I was already busy with music way before that, only I wasn’t playing it. Some of my classmates in primary school got me into the music of Nirvana when I was 8 and that was my first musical love. From then on I started listening intensively and carefully to music, getting to know it, like it in different ways. Much later, Pink Floyd and Sonic Youth took me into the world of experimental music and, with the help of Radiohead in some kind of way, into free jazz too. My first” jazz” album was the wonderful Kebelen by Hungarian saxophonist Akosh Szelevényi. Already kind of off the grid. From there I went on to jazz and took some jazz guitar lessons, also pushed by my late friend Guillaume – who died in a tragic accident at the age of 14. Back then we were playing together, guitar and bass, my first experience in “group” playing.
I decided to go for music fulltime after seeing a concert of post-rock band A Silver Mount Zion and think “now this is what I should be doing with my life!” I went to the conservatory, started my first band (S)hhh (jazz-rock quartet with guitar, fretless bass, drums and of course keyboards), and studied piano with the most incredible pianist to my taste : Erik Vermeulen. I also studied some composition with Frank Nuyts (for which I wrote a song we’re now playing with The Wrong Object : Frank Nuts).
All that music I’ve been and I’m still listening to has been mixed together in what I do now. SH.TG.N I mix my first love for hard rock with jazz, psychedelic music, experimental music, everything that fed me through the years. Of course that makes me no real jazz pianist or classical composer or whatever. Look, I just do my stuff, music is music, right ? I’m always grateful it exists and am just happy to participate. Every project or song I make always starts with a fascination. I guess that’s one of my main driving elements.
Q: Listening to your different ongoing projects and collaborations, my impression is that you are striving to create a musical universe which mixes and/or juxtaposes ideas from many different styles including jazz, contemporary orchestral music, hardcore, math and prog rock – you name it – developing them in compositions and performances in which these tendencies exist side by side, in a state of fruitful tension, often within the same band or the same piece. Your new Moonjune release, which will be out in June, is an example of that. How did SH.T.GN. come into being?
At the time I thought of creating SH.TG.N I was kind of fed up with the current music scene – or at least the so-called “professional” music scene. And the jazz world, with its codes, ego-trips, and academicism. I was also listening a lot to bands like John Zorn’s Naked City, and The Dillinger Escape Plan. Listening to what was going on around in the jazz scene, and talking to other musicians, I figured metal music was highly underrated, like it didn’t even deserve talking about. Decades back it started being ok for jazz musicians to play hip-hop, then drum’n’bass, and all the cool kids do it now. But talk about metal and it’s like “oh those dark things with the power chords and the make-up ?”. No looking further into it… But check out The Dillinger Escape Plan or Converge to name only them! I mean listen really! Those guys are out there! It takes a lot of guts to make stuff like that, at the same time so interesting and complex, and raw and energetic. Talking with our bass player Dries Geusens, we came to the conclusion of going for it. I was living with our vibraphone player Wim Segers back then (he was studying classical percussion at the Conservatory) and thought it could be fun to add him to the project and would actually add some presence in the trebles, some body. He thought of Simon Segers (not related) as a drummer. Yannick De Pauw (guitar) joined on the day of our first gig, in our hometown Ghent.
Before we started I went on a hitchhiking trip with a friend to Poland. I had a little book with me to write musical ideas in. I wrote most of SH.TG.N’s first riffs in there. We would just come and play the riffs in unison, and that would be a song. Hence the name “Shotgun” : short and powerful, to the point.
Then as we found our own way of working we started extending the songs…
Q: Why did you change the original name of Shotgun to SH.TG.N, which sounds like a mysterious, and rather menacing, acronym?
Well actually we first searched for a new name to differenciate ourselves from the funk band Shotgun but we thought “Shotgun” was such a good description of our band, we didn’t wanna let it go. Finally, as our first self-produced EP and one of our songs is called “Shitgun” we decided to play on the ambiguity. Replace the dots with whatever you want…
Q: Surely one of the most unlikely additions to the band’s current line-up is that of vibraphonist Wim Segers. There have been a few precedents in the history of rock and jazz-rock where the vibraphone has been used extensively (of thinks of Zappa’s Ruth Underwood and Ed Mann, the Moerlen brothers in Gong, Christian Burchard of Krautrock band Embryo or the latest incarnation of Magma) but never, to my knowledge, in the context of such a loud and explosive mix! Can you explain the circumstances and decisions that led to Wim’s involvement in the band?
Weirdly enough Wim was a very obvious choice for me, and one of the first ones I asked into the project. At the time he was my roommate and we used to jam all the time together, me on the piano, him on the marimba or the vibraphone. He was studying to become a classical percussionist but had a lot of affinities for jazz and rock music, he could improvise really well, talent that he later developed more and more. When I decided to start with this project, I wanted it to be with him and thought the band would benefit from such an elegant, soft and bright instrument as the vibraphone to lean on top and counterbalance the general heaviness, distortion, and dissonance, but also sometimes support it. People always think his presence in the band has to do with our love for Zappa’s music, kind of like a way to recall it but actually the choice had absolutely nothing to do with it…
Q: SH.TG.N was originally an instrumental band. What made you change your mind to bring in a singer?
I always wanted a singer in SH.TG.N but was never able to find the right guy. It had to be somebody who could both scream violently, and follow our rhythmical madness… It had to be a musician, somebody who could bring his own input, not get lost or overwhelmed by what we’re doing behind. Fulco was the best choice possible, he’s an amazing vocalist with great stage presence, and he’s himself a composer/songwriter too, and actually a fantastic jazz pianist! We’ve been wanting to work together for a while, this was the right occasion, and the best timing since we were finally ready as a band to support his singing. He also brought in three own compositions up until now, which are featured on the album, and wrote tons of lyrics and most of his own singing lines. He literally transformed the band!
We still want to keep making instrumental songs too though, and have instrumental excursions inside the songs.
Q: How does it feel for a bunch of young Belgian musicians to have a recording coming out on a New-York based label such as Moonjune? One would have expected SH.T.GN debut album to be released in Brussels or Ghent …
It’s quite unexpected indeed and might even seem sad somehow that we need to get out of our birth country to release our debut, as if Belgium’s not open-minded enough… But the fact is Leonardo Pavkovic (Moonjune) has an attitude I’ve never seen or heard of among music professionals, he does all that great work purely out of love for music and the bands he produces. He gives us great support and freedom, and confidence too. It’s so great to have the opportunity to work with him – and on a label that got its name from The Soft Machine at that! – we couldn’t let that go! I think the music world is lucky to have someone like that, still ready to take risks and produce bands that go out of the common expectations.
Q: You recently covered Robert Wyatt’s “Sea Song” – what is your relationship to songwriting and how is it affected by your musical and life partnership with Susan Clynes, who is also an accomplished musician and singer, in addition to being of one of your regular collaborators?
Songwriting is such a vulnerable thing to do. In that it is admirable, and very tricky. Robert Wyatt is a genius in that he succeeded at something that is for me a lifelong quest : he wrote beautiful, accessible, sensitive, and honest songs, that are also musically interesting and challenging. That’s something I also always admired with Pink Floyd : they take you by the hand with their rock sound, the guitar solos, things people know and before you even notice it they bring you into that crazy world of sounds. They give a meaning to experimental music, expand people’s horizons, open them up, change their world. That’s the most exciting thing there is! Susan Clynes, on top of being a wonderful human being, is going deep into that quest too. To give herself the tools to do so, she studied modern classical composition, and applies her knowledge and craftsmanship into her songwriting. I’ve myself never really been a songwriter but I respect it a lot and see her work into the process of a song, there is a whole other dimension than just music to it, there is the introspective research that leads into the lyrics, and the music has to serve it. She, just like Robert Wyatt, succeeds in writing songs with odd structures and time-signatures, that tell a story.
As for me, sometimes a song comes out of the music itself, a rhythmical idea or an atmosphere I wanna create (I all comes down to “I’d like to hear how this or that would sound…”), but sometimes it comes out of a story, a message, lyrics. For SH.TG.N, Esta Mierda No Es Democracia is a good example of that, I wrote that text about the indignados and Occupy movements around the world, and the lack of consistency in the Belgian political world ; or Camera Obscura which is about the media, told from the perspective of a TV… not too serious either (and kind of using some of the old metal clichés I like to play with sometimes). As for other projects, [AG8tet] is purely based on that process.
Q: You have been appointed artist–in-residence in Ghent as part of the Gentse Feesten festival. This will lead to a large-scale project named [AG8tet] and which is to be performed in the Summer. Rather than an octet, [AG8tet] has been described as a kind of double quartet featuring jazz, contemporary music and songs, some of which inspired by and dedicated to Ligeti, Nancarrow … and Nick Drake, amongst others. What are we to expect from such an unusual show?
That artist-in-residence program is a great chance to do something crazy. It is a 3-years program at the end of which I have to choose the next artist myself. That’s how Fulco (SH.TG.N’s singer) chose me last year and actually how he joined the band. Now this year, they’re giving me the means to do any insane project I want, so I’m grabbing that chance firmly with both hands!
The show is conveniently for 2012 about the end of the world. So I write stories directly or indirectly related to that subject. For example Amnesia is about a bunch of people who were sent to war and were drugged or something, so they would not see it happening, and their normal life would go on in their head. Kind of in a “Twilight Zone” style. Hallucination is about a woman who dies and goes through different stages in the Afterlife, including paranoia and the realization that she just creates whatever is happening to her, and that maybe it’s actually just always been so. Starting from those stories, I write songs, often with the help of my partner Susan Clynes (who sings in the project too), who mostly helps converting those stories into lyrics. Once I have the songs, I arrange them for the not double but actually triple band. On one side we have a trio with drums, double bass and saxophone, on the other side is another trio with drums, electric bass and clarinet, and in the middle are Susan and me with piano and voice. The two rhythm sections are always struggling between playing together or against each other. They often play in different time signatures or even tempi. In the middle, our job is to bring it all together and make the song come out. It has something of Captain Beefheart’s Trout Mask Replica if I can dare the comparison, in its chaotic character. There are always moments when we all play together though. It’s a super exciting project and a lot of work too as that music, with the freedom I still wanna bring to it, is impossible to write in conventional ways so I have to look for different solutions, use graphic elements and stuff… It’s a very strange experience to be in the middle of that band, you have no idea what’s going on, it’s very hallucinating! Plus, in the summer, we might be playing on three separate stages, quite something
…As for the influences you quote, the discovery of Nancarrow’s play piano studies was for me crucial in the idea itself of the project as he wrote those unplayable things with different tempi going on simultaneously, and I was just wondering how it would sound and feel to do things like that with actual and improvising musicians. So I started making some research… That was about two years ago. The amazing thing is it goes so far you don’t hear the complexity anymore, you hear the effect, you don’t try and understand anymore. I like that, it pushes you to listen differently. Same thing with Ligeti’s studies, they combine a huge depth and musicality with exciting concepts and rhythms. We started off that project playing arrangements of Ligeti and Nancarrow. As for Nick Drake, well, that’s one of the best songwriters I know, and the point is to combine that songwriting part with those mad arrangements…
Q: You have been a member of Moonjune band The Wrong Object for some time now and have a new studio CD coming out with them later this year ? Do you have other plans for some more studio projects ? And is there any chance that the AG8tet premiere in July might lead to a CD release?
The Wrong Object is a wonderful band, who’s been struggling lately with setting up a new line-up. I love the sound they had with the previous one and we’ve been having a hard time finding our own new voice. Now it’s there and I feel we’re getting ready for that album, and very excited about it. Every musician in the band has something else to say and we say it all loud. I like that straight forward attitude, also very specific to guitarist/leader Michel Delville who gave me the honor of inviting me in the project after we played together in the late PaNoPTiCoN (free impro collective leaded by courageous and inventive musician Domenico Solazzo). Michel has that thing about his guitar playing, he’s like a train, it goes straight through everything and breaks walls. I’m looking forward to recording the result of all that soon. It will also feature Michel and I our first collective composition we wrote together based on a riff I had originally written for SH.TG.N.
As for other projects, yes I’m planning on recording the octet but there is no concrete plan yet, I’ll let you know!
I’m also starting a new organ trio with Machine Mass Trio’s saxophone player Jordi Grognard, and Ghent drummer Laurens Van Bouwelen, we might record something by the end of the year, who knows.
But I’m mainly focusing on SH.TG.N’s, The Wrong Object’s and [AG8tet]’s current project right now.
Q: I know you have a preference for the acoustic piano but you have been using quite an impressive array of electric and electronic sounds, ranging from sweet, tinkling notes to crushy, heavy, apocalyptic thundersounds, over the last few years. What kind of gear are you using on and off the stage these days?
My gear is generally not that impressive (I mean I don’t have a lot of different pieces) but I try to use it 100%. I play live on a Clavia Nord Stage Compact, an awesome keyboard with nothing but sounds of keyboards instruments (so no strings or horns or whatever). I use its built-in organs, Rhodes, and synths (some of the tools from the Nord Lead), and effects. I plug it into a Boss JazzCore distortion pedal going into a volume pedal. That’s it.
For my voice I use a TC Helicon doubling pedal which gives me some good support, and a Kaoss Pad allowing me to just go crazy with the sounds.
At home I mostly just play my acoustic piano indeed. I do indeed enjoy it a lot but I’m so difficult with pianos, at a certain point I thought I’d be better off with a keyboard on most stages, but then not with the piano sound, and try and make the best of it. Finally I got to enjoy making my own sounds and that specific keyboard became my instrument as much as the piano is.
Q: If I asked you to name your five favorite records, what would they be?
Pink Floyd – Atom Heart Mother
The Residents – Eskimo
Conlon Nancarrow – Studies for the Player Piano
Radiohead – Kid A/Amnesiac
Serge Gainsbourg – Histoire de Melody Nelson
I think… It’s a really tricky question because it changes all the time and I feel I’m leaving out some really important albums to me. Five’s too little!
Q: Thanks for your time, Antoine. Best wishes for success with SH.TG.N!
Thank you, Michel.