Thomas Werbrouck Discusses KRANKLAND’s Debut LP ‘Wanderrooms’:
Belgian guitarist/vocalist Thomas Werbrouck (Little Trouble Kids) has a brand new project called KRANKLAND, and this month the band released their debut LP, Wanderrooms. Live Eye Tv had a chance to correspond with the musician regarding the new project and record, and he gave us an in-depth look at putting together the group, as well as their writing and recording process. It’s a fascinating conversation that explores the intersection between art and music, as well as the interaction between the conscious and unconscious in the creative process…
LETV: Hi Thomas, thanks for taking time to answer some questions about your new project KRANKLAND and the band’s upcoming debut album, Wanderrooms. When we first met back in 2014, you were promoting your project with Eline Adam, Little Trouble Kids. I’m curious when you began working on KRANKLAND and the songs for your upcoming album. Is it true it began as a solo venture?
TW: I have been writing songs since, well… forever actually. But, as of 2015, I was writing more and more songs that didn’t fit the haunted-neurotic vibe of Little Trouble Kids. So, I wanted to explore a whole other artistic side of myself with KRANKLAND.
It was clear these songs deserved a different moniker, but I wanted to separate it from my own persona: no one is interested in stories about me and my pygmy rabbit… So I invited a bunch of extremely talented musicians to join me in the studio: drummer Christophe Claeys – formerly of Balthazar, now with Amatorski, SX, Magnus – Thomas Mortier on bass and sound wizard Janko Beckers as my ersatz Warren Ellis. Together, we tackled my bedroom demos over a course of ten days. We went into the studio with an open visor–I’m always a big fan of serendipity. I love the story of how David Lynch came up with the character of Bob in Twin Peaks…the story goes that Lynch saw the face of his set decorator reflected in a mirror, all of a sudden. His face was so creepy and Lynch decided to write a part for this guy. Et voilà, Bob was born – perhaps the single most intriguing character of the show, and he wasn’t even in the original script! I wanted an album full of these coincidental findings – the electricity in the air. And it worked. We couldn’t envision the album would sound like this beforehand, but we let our gut-feeling and our ears guide us!
LETV: Great analogy! I’ve always loved that story about Twin Peaks. Seems Lynch is a master at keeping the creation process open-ended, as a way of inviting in such “happy accidents”. Sounds like the demos provided a blueprint to follow but a good deal of improvisation and creative back-and-forth really helped flesh these songs out. What was that process like? Are these musicians you’ve worked with before or was this a new experience? Also, did this happen in the studio as you were recording the tracks?
TW: Exactly, happy accidents, that’s what this album is all about. The first musician I contacted was Christophe, the drummer. He’s a very free player, inspired by drummers like Tony Allen and has a style faraway from mine (I’m much more punky and straightforward.) The English author Julian Barnes writes that: “When you put together two things that have not been put together before, the world is changed”. That was what I was after: looking for a new sound by putting together musicians and styles that have not been put together before. Christophe got me in touch with two other excellent musicians because I literally didn’t know any bass players or guitar players – in Little Trouble Kids, we never needed any other musicians.
The demos did, indeed, provide a blueprint. We started rehearsing with the four of us. The musicians started interpreting the songs and putting their feelings and emotions into the music. But the big work was done in the studio. Pascal Deweze, our producer, had a big role in this process. Usually, we just played our songs, listened back in the control room, and tried another take. Pascal wouldn’t say a thing when we were on the right track. But when he felt we were losing our mojo, or if our arrangements missed target, he stopped us and provided some new ideas that we could again start digging in. For instance, “Hurry Man” didn’t really come together. We were trying to make a really complicated Radiohead-track. But Pascal stopped us, and said, “Don’t try to be like Radiohead. Try to listen to the song, and play only what the song needs”. That comment really made it come together, and we decided to play it as simple as possible. Janko detuned his guitar and discovered the perfect noise with which to bury my voice, Christophe decided to play his drums with brushes, and the pieces of the puzzle finally fit. It wasn’t Radiohead, it was KRANKLAND!
LETV: I’m curious, since you mention other artists like David Lynch and Julian Barnes, how much of the original impetus for these songs is inspired by art outside the realm of music. Or is it more of a musical idea that drives you to start creating in the beginning?
TW: In fact, a lot is inspired by influences outside of the realm of music. I find if you’re too consciously referencing other bands, the music starts to turn into copycat music. I want to create my own universe. Other forms of art are much more productive for me since they are much more emotional influences than literal influences. One of those names I referenced in writing the music was Henry Darger, a fantastic outsider artist who draws weird innocent girl-like figures in a violent universe. Another early influence was the work by Belgian painter Thierry de Cordier, especially his pieces about the sea. It’s a very dark, emotional series, but very imaginative and inspiring. So, ‘weird’, ‘innocence’, ‘violence’, ‘darkness’, ’emotional’ were the key words I drew from their work. They were the building blocks for my own musical universe.
Whenever I did have musical references, I tried not to look in the most obvious places. One big inspiration was the music of Aarvo Pärt. I adore the frugality and the celestial overtones in his work, and his ability to evoke the sublime with very few notes. But obviously, KRANKLAND is not “the Belgian answer to Aarvo Pärt”. But, I’ve tried to put the emotions I get from his work in my own music.
LETV: I’m familiar with Henry Darger having grown up in Chicago, but Thierry de Cordier and Aarvo Pärt are new reference points for me! I appreciate that you organized the album around a constellation of key words, and could see how this would help focus the creative process. We’ve talked some about the “music” part of things. How about the lyrics. When do you write the lyrics? Before, during, after the music? I would imagine the keywords are again quite helpful in this?
TW: So nice that you are familiar with the work of Henry Darger! I got to know his work through my favorite museum in Ghent, Museum Dr. Ghuislain, a museum on the origins of psychiatry and outsider art.
Writing good lyrics was a very important challenge. I wanted to see how far my skills as a songwriter could take me in that respect. Most of the lyrics were written in dialogue with the music. I have read a lot on how Leonard Cohen, Neil Young, Nick Cave and Bob Dylan write their lyrics. And apparently they all, to some degree, cherish the unconscious when writing lyrics. In fact, they all talk about writing lyrics as a kind of dialogue between the conscious and the unconscious. Or put otherwise: writing lyrics seems to be a constant cooperation between the left side and the right side of your brain.
Many songs were written at night since I suffered from insomnia in that period. Usually, when I couldn’t sleep, I went to my little music room (a freakishly small room stacked with way too many instruments), and started playing guitar and singing some melodies, mumbling random syllables, or random words. I recorded these little seeds of songs with a small dictaphone. And the next day the real work begin: I started to decipher the ideas I had made during the night. And I started making sense out of those mumblings–I started figuring out what the songs were actually about. That was my method: consciously delving into my unconscious.
LETV: So, the lyrics are integral to your creative process–a way to dialogue with the song while inviting the unconscious into the conversation. I know those early hours, in the haze between sleep and waking is great for that–and it sounds like you turned your insomnia into a working method! Now that we’ve touched a bit on song writing and the band, can we peek a little further behind the curtain and have you tell us about how a particular track came together? Speaking of Henry Darger, “In the Realms of the Unreal” is one of my favorite cuts on the record. Maybe you can talk a bit about that song, or is there a track with a more interesting backstory?
TW: I have no exact recollections as to when and where I wrote “In The Realms of the Unreal”. But, obviously I saw the Henry Darger-documentary, and that title really made sense to my own feelings at the time–I had just lost my job and was really down and out. But, interestingly, the lyrics of the song are also based upon La Divina Commedia by Dante Alighieri. I was raised Catholic, so called, like a lot of Belgians or even Europeans are raised Catholic. That is, the metaphors and images of the religion are totally integrated in our culture and our speech, but we do not actively believe in the Christian God–and are mainly just atheists. That said, I’m really fond of Christian metaphors to describe the postmodern zeitgeist, and that is basically what that song is about.
But other songs do have a vivid backstory. “Land of Hope and Sores” was the first official KRANKLAND-song. I was driving in my car on a very dark highway, and suddenly I started singing and playing around with some melodies and words. When I came home, I took my guitar and put chords underneath the melody. I instantly thought: this is not a LTK-song, this calls for a new band, a new project, a new universe. I also recall how I wrote the main idea from “Dog Days” when I was sitting in a cabin in the woods, totally snowed in. I looked outside the window while I was playing guitar and I only saw snow and trees, and suddenly the chorus came out… And “Summer Avalanche” is a weird story. I heard a song from another Belgian band on the radio, and I was so jealous as to how good it was. I wanted to write something that was equally catchy and solid. The song is a bit the odd one out on the album. But the melody was so inescapable that we had to put it on the album. “Capricorn Blues” is also different from the rest, in that I wrote it when I was nineteen. Somehow, the song popped its head up again when the KRANKLAND-universe was born ten years after its first conception.
LETV: OK, let’s shift gears a bit and talk about things from the visual side. You already have two music videos for the KRANKLAND tracks “In the Realms of the Unreal” and “Summer Avalanche“–and they are quite different from a production standpoint. How important are music videos in presenting the band’s creative vision? Is it just an afterthought, or is it another important way of conveying your vision? I know bands look at it differently and for some, it’s quite important, and for others, it’s something they feel compelled to do from a marketing standpoint. What can you tell us about the production of the videos you’ve done so far for the album? Are there more videos coming?
TW: Videos are extremely important: they contribute to the imagination of the KRANKLAND-universe. Aside from the artwork of the album (equally important!), they’re the closest you can get to see how that world looks inside my head… Or differently put: they are my laboratory to create a visual side to the musical universe. “In the Realms of the Unreal” was a very low-budget, lo-fi production. I looked around for rights-free videos and stumbled upon these really cool seventies advertising videos, and they magically clicked with the music. This dark figure haunting the streets, and bringing light to the mindless inhabitants of a nameless city–it’s something that could happen in Krankland!
But, for “Summer Avalanche”, I wanted something completely different because that song is also something else. I wanted to capture the spirit of a very hot summer of love, the boredom, the teenage lust…It’s not a lo-fi song, so the video had to be filmed professionally. Luckily, I found two amazing directors: Kim & Kristof. Two of the sweetest people who felt what the song was about, instantly. After a few brainstorms, I just gave them carte blanche to do what they wanted to do.
There will definitely be other videos. We’re working on a new one for a very intimate song, and I’m planning a few more videos as we speak. It will be a very different visual style once again. Wanderrooms, the title of the album, is derived from the German word Wunderkammer. Weird collections out of the Renaissance. That’s the crux of this album: these songs are the result of every influence I ever soaked up in my music listening years. Each song is like an object in my very own cabinet of curiosities. They are all somewhat different songs, but bringing them all together makes sense in my head–like those collectors in the old days made really unique collections.
LETV: Thanks Thomas for taking time to answer questions about KRANKLAND! To wrap up, what’s next for the band? Touring, recording…
We are currently touring in Belgium and the Netherlands, and we hope to go further and travel through Europe as well in 2017. But, who will tell how far we can go…The first reviews are very positive, it could be that we’re only at the beginning of this Wanderrooms campaign…I’m already working on new material, and I have a feeling that we won’t wait too long to release new material. And, there are also some different projects coming up: one involving outsider music, and one involving the commemoration of the First World War. This adventure has only just begun!