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Interview: The Breath of Life

by François Zappa

The Breath of Life or the perfect mixture between ethereal dark wave, gothrock and post-punk, has recorded eight interesting albums that we always have an important place in our records collection. The Belgian band has walked their particular and dark road and the last stop, so far, it´s this marvelous album, poetically called Under the Falling Stars. Their music is a real breath of life in these apathic times. We have talked with Isabelle Dekeyser, ethereal voice of the group and Philippe Mauroy, whose guitar that taken us to others impossible words. They will play on the 16th of August at the W Festival, sharing stage with Lebanon Hanover, Siglo XX and VNV Nation.  What else can we ask for!

—It took you a considerable number of years to release your first album, as the band was formed in 1985. How were these first years?

—Phil: Yes, it was just yesterday… The band was formed in 1985 but the first album was only released in 1992. At that time recording an album was more difficult than today. It was much more expensive and having an affordable home studio with a good technology didn’t exist yet. As a student or young worker, we did not have the financial resources. So we had to be patient and during this time we made a lot of concerts in Belgium mostly in very small venues. It was a very “rock n’roll” period…

—Isabelle: Being in a band was very new for me. I had never performed before. We had quite a lot of small shows even though we were a young band so it gave me the opportunity to practice live. We also had the chance to have a tour in Czechoslovakia which was also a wonderful human experience.

—What were you listening to back in the day?

Isabelle: Back then, my favorite bands were Siouxsie and the Banshees, Lene Lovich, Killing Joke, Cocteau Twins, Dead Can Dance, The Cure, The Sound, Xmal Deutschland, The Clash, Fad Gadget and so many others.

—Phil: At that time I was mainly focus on post punk or dark wave bands. Do you believe it? We’ll share the billing with some of them at W Festival and that is f…g great. But I’ve always been very eclectic in my listening. I think you can hear that on our albums.

—According to Discogs, in 1990 you released your first reference as a cassette. What can you tell us about the recording of this first version of your songs?

—Isabelle: It was the very first official product we were proud of.

—Phil: This cassette was in fact the second one but the first one nearly disappeared from the face of the earth. If you have it, you are very lucky … or not! This first one was with the very first line up of the band. I was the drummer and not guitarist yet. For the one you are talking about, therefore the second one, you are right, it was like a training for the first album. It has been recorded in a very small studio, in fact a bedroom converted in a studio :-). The sound was not good enough for a CD.

—The Breath of Life started their “official” discography with a live album, that’s not very usual. How did it happen?

—Isabelle: You are right. We had the chance to have a first Czechoslovakia tour then a second one where the organizer wanted to make a live recording of the show in Prague. So we have been very lucky to be able to make this nice live recording.

—Phil: The promoter was very enthusiastic so he decided to produce it. The concert hall was full and the concert was great. Unfortunately the sound engineer did not have the good idea to install an ambiance mic to hear the audience on the record. But it’s still a good witness of our music at this time.

—Finally, that same year you published your first album, Painful Insanity with some of the songs previously released on the cassette and the live album. Do you think that you arrived at the perfect version of these songs here?

—Isabelle: Perfect is not the word, I would say different. TBOL is a live band. We do love sharing our emotion with the audience. Studio recording is also a great time to try and add things to the songs to build something differently nice.

—Phil: The CD version is very similar to the cassette version. I think only 2 songs have been removed or added. But the good thing was that at least we had a bit more experience for the recording. We decided to go to a professional studio in Brussels but without a deal with a record company so we were only able to book 6 days for recording, mixing and mastering which is very very short. The great chance we had is that the sound engineer, Gilles Martin, was working for this studio and it was the beginning of a long story together. Immediately after we signed with a new Belgian record company called Big Bang and another story started.

—Your second album Taste of Sorrow is considered to be your best one, and it includes your most famous song, “Nasty Clouds.” According to you, which are the elements that make this album so special?

—Isabelle: It’s difficult for me to say. It could be because we started to make our own sound and flow. If I ever had the answer…

—Phil: I don’t know if any artist knows why an album is better than another, or why it turns out to be the audience’s favorite. For each album we always tried to do our best. It’s really difficult to answer that question. So many elements can be involved. The sun has probably shined a lot that year giving a good product… The Sun and Shining are two titles from this album!

—You third album Lost Children from 1995 presents “more delicate atmospheres in ethereal wave style.” Do you plan to have different sounds for each album?

Isabelle: We actually don’t plan anything. It just happened. We are used to creating new songs in a very simple way, all together in a rehearsal room.

Phil: It’s not a plan but we can’t do twice the same album. We need challenges. Some people like to put bands in a box and keep them enclosed. I’m claustrophobic 🙂 For this album Isabelle sang in a more ethereal wave style as you said, Giovanni started to use more violins and I used more clean sounds. All this gave a different atmosphere.

Sweet Party from 1997 is a bit more electronic and pop, especially in songs like “Worries,” “Sweet” or the industrial beginning of “A world of her own.” Why this change? Were you influenced by the music of the late nineties?

—Phil: I don’t really remember what the dominant style was at the end of the nineties but I’ve always been interested in the music I hear around me. With some limits, of course :-). I really can’t stand R&B and most of the things played by the commercial radios today. But yes, the time of the recording has for sure an influence on the album. Again we needed to do something different. This is the band dynamic. I think generally the first two albums are the easiest because you think about it for a long time and you have a lot of ideas and energy. After you have to choose between two roads. You can choose the highway, drive fast and do again and again the same albums. Or you take the mountain road. It’s slower and more risky but you’ll have the chance to discover a lot of beautiful landscapes you didn’t know. I prefer that way.

—The album from 2000 Silver Drops has some influences of trip hop like in the song “The Valley,” although you always manage to keep your sound. Were you listening to bands like Massive Attack or Portishead?

—Isabelle: I like Portishead and the Massive Attack song “Teardrop” with Elisabeth Fraser is so beautiful but again I can’t really say if this had an important influence on me.

Phil: At that time, trip hop was like a breath of fresh air. Silver Drops is the first album we have recorded at home, I mean in the rehearsal room. We had more time to work on it. It was again with Gilles Martin, the last time before his comeback for Under The Falling Stars album. And it was the same for me. I left the band in good terms for some other adventures and only came back three years ago. So I have not been involved in the two albums in between.

—Another change and in your following album, Everlasting Souls you go back to a more goth sound. Where your fans happy with this return to your classic sound? Better with a drummer than with a drum machine?

Isabelle: I guess playing with a drummer kind of drove the songs that way.

—For Whispering Fields, you recorded again “Nasty Clouds” in two different versions. Did you think that the song needed an update?

Isabelle: Actually we decided to make those two new versions as a gift for our fans. It was also a way to bring up this song with more actual sounds and mastering.

—For Isabelle: Do you like the new Dead can Dance album? We read some mixed reviews and haven’t listened to it yet.

Isabelle: I haven’t got it yet and I’m so impatient but I’m still one of those who buy CDs in record shops so it takes a bit more time.

—And about the lyrics, how do you write them?

Isabelle: I write my lyrics once the songs are finished. I do concentrate on my melodies I built up on the music and I put words on them. It’s very important that the words fit perfectly on the melody.

—I read that you like The Sound. Lately everybody I have interviewed has spoken of them as an influence, even very young bands. Don’t you think that they are one of the most underrated bands ever?

Phil: I think this is what Adrian Borland was thinking too and he couldn’t stand it. I have discovered The Sound during a festival in Ciney in 1986. It was excellent.

Isabelle: I love The Sound very much. They were also such a great live band. I also have the chance to play a festival with Adrian Borland somewhere in Liège. He was a great man.

—You had a long collaboration with Hall of Sermon and published most of your records with them. What happened to stop working with them?

Isabelle: At one point Hall of Sermon decided to stop the collaborations they had with all their bands.

—The band has almost consisted of the same people for ages, do you find it difficult to play and tour together for so long?

Phil: As I said I’ve left the bands for a few years due to some other activities but we are three members left since 1985. I don’t feel this is too difficult. We all have a nice character 🙂

Isabelle: It’s cool to travel and tour all together. It’s still a lot of fun and full of smiles.

—Only your bassist left a few years ago. Was difficult to continue without him?

Isabelle: Well, Benoît decided to leave the band for personal reasons around the time when Phil the former guitarist decided to come back, so Didier agreed to play the bass and the band was ready to play again.

Phil: The result is Under The Falling Stars our last album.

Under The Falling Stars, your last record, was mixed, produced and recorded by Gilles Martin with whom you recorded your first five records. Was it because it was easy to work with him or you wanted to go back to your first sound?

Isabelle: We actually recorded at home then we send all the tracks to Gilles. We really enjoyed working with him a long time ago. We have always loved the quality of his work. Phil had the great idea to contact him again and see if he was enthusiastic to mix and produced Under The Falling Stars. He was even more excited than expected.

Phil: We had not seen Gilles for fifteen years. During that time he produced some well-known French bands and artists so I was a little bit afraid about his answer. But after two words we felt like we hadn’t stopped seeing each other. Everyone enjoyed working together. We spent a few days in his studio in France at the end of the mix.

—Do you think that there is something Belgian in your music? I don’t know how to explain this question but some places have or had in some periods a special sound (like the Canterbury Scene, or New York’s No Wave). Do you think that being from Belgium has in a way helped your way of making your music?

Phil: Belgium is at the crossroad of different cultures and close to England where many influences are coming from. That’s why in the eighties Belgium was after England one of the first European countries to integrate the punk and post punk. I don’t say that nothing happened in other countries but I think at least at the beginning it was most important in Belgium where a lot of bands have emerged. Because we also had some other influences, for example from Germany, this mixture gave something special and typical Belgian. It was not the same anymore during the late eighties, except for the new beat, and in the nineties when we released our first album. And we certainly cannot say that we have received a lot of help from the media especially in Wallonia.

Isabelle: Well, “Crime Passionnel” is a title of a song taken from a wonderful Belgian beer. Isn’t it a part of Belgian culture 😉

—Your music is often compared with the music of Collection d’Arnell-Andréa, do you like them? They are also going to play at W Festival.

Phil: They are also produced by Gilles Martin, maybe that gives the same color to the sound. And we really like a lot their music and we will certainly enjoy the concert.

Isabelle: I like them very much. It’s gonna be great to see them again.

—What can we expect of your concert at W Festival?

—Isabelle: We are going to play a mixture of different albums and if we have time why not a very new song …..

Phil: Yes we work now on new songs so we’ll probably play one or some of them with our more “classic” ones. Unfortunately I don’t think our next album will be out at this time. And we hope to see the place full of people!

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