‘You said I could go fuck myself / and that's when I knew I wanted you to.’ Sex, gluttony and seduction all around on Balthazar's new fourth album, full of eroticism, whether or not lyrically masked, and sensual, soulful pop like you've never heard from the band before. It's entertainment in your bed, baby – even though your seducers are actually quite squeamish in person.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Photos: Athos Burez
“Ah yes, but music has always been about sex,” Jinte Deprez says dryly when he is asked perhaps a bit boldly to what extent sex has been a source of inspiration for the new record. And of course you can fill a big KALLAX with ‘sex records’. Many of them (Gainsbourg's Histoire de Melody Nelson, Voodoo by D'Angelo, to name a few) are undoubtedly also in those of Deprez and his bandmate Maarten Devoldere, but operating in such regions themselves is an absolute first for Balthazar. It rarely went further than “the warmth and rhythm of your skin” (on Then What) and now it’s innuendo after innuendo after innuendo after innuendo. How come?
Getting an answer to that question, or getting the full answer to any question is not a very fruitful endeavor with Devoldere and Deprez. In conversation they are benevolent and articulate, but also adept at avoiding the very questions that the new record Fever raises – namely everything about sex, love and masculinity.
The transformation into what Balthazar has become started even before the colossal Thin Walls tour (2015). They had played one hundred and sixty shows in thirty countries and that was reason enough to take a real break after six years. But with little or no room for a well-deserved holiday, the two leaders had already forged new plans and the Warhaus/J Bernardt chapter began. The latter, Deprez's electro-soul project, warmed up many festival tents and brought forth the slick Running Days (2017). Warhaus, Devoldere's band, already got a foothold with two(!) rock-solid records, We Fucked A Flame Into Being (2016) and Warhaus (2017). Musically almost as exciting as the parent project, Warhaus was above all a vehicle for Devoldere to deeply stir his old soul, to be able to tell his own story completely for the first time.
This is where the foundation lies for the new Balthazar, which at times feels more like a Warhaus and J. Bernardt collaboration album. In a way, Fever is just that. The Balthazar sound as it has been dismantled and divided between the two projects in recent years has been glued together again but only very roughly. It is unmistakably the same band, but with the swing and smooth pop sensibility of J. Bernardt and the percussion, smokiness and horniness of Warhaus. Above all: the gentlemen have learned how to stir up their individual feelings and with that, Fever is more focused, more personal and more direct.
That change of course was planned, the how and what not in the least. “I mainly think that we needed those solo projects to just start making music with a blank sheet – without rules that eventually creep in when you have a band and play all the time and tunnel vision comes into play. Those solo projects opened up that horizon again; everything was possible again,” says Devoldere, the man with the drawling voice and the heavy Ghent accent. The palette also expanded somewhat during that period, he adds; more colours were being used to paint with.
Crucial, however, was the rediscovery of each other. In a small festival circuit like that of the Benelux, the two were often at the same festivals, which means you go and watch each other’s shows. Deprez: “You play together so much that you think you pretty much know that person. And then suddenly there’s… a kind of nice jealousy that triggers you again.” Devoldere: “I saw Jinte play and thought, you talented motherfucker. That actually created that tension again and that desire to work with each other, because from the audience you look at your companion and think, shit, he's so talented. … At Balthazar performances you know that if I fuck something up, the rest will make up for it. I can't play guitar very well already, but then when we had to play three chords, I always missed one because I was just so casual about it. At Warhaus, everything falls on your shoulders, you are put on edge for a while.” Jinte laughs: “And suddenly he could play the guitar very well, as it turns out.”
Angry men & femmes fatales
A creative new impulse spawned that break, and a period when the two could also have a beer together and talk about something other than music. Whether that was necessary after all those intensive years together, or whether there was ever tension that was now resolved? Both Deprez and Devoldere shrug somewhat scornfully. “We are West Flemish,” murmurs Devoldere. “And that is very different from Antwerp or something. We're pretty conflict avoidant, easy going people, I guess." It’s pragmatism all round, nothing’s wrong, if we are to believe the gentlemen. The departure of violinist and founding member Patricia Vanneste in April 2018 gives off somewhat different signals. “I experienced the adventure slightly differently from them. I tried to find a reason to stay but couldn't find one," she told Knack at the time. But Deprez doesn't mind that they are suddenly an “all-male band”. "We're just going to let our estrogen flow more."
“The feeling that we embrace that, that we are so full of shit, I think that's a great idea.”
More than before, however, this is a thoroughly masculine love record (or at least a record about love). In the shadow of a bad night, a broken heart and sometimes under the spell of love, Deprez and Devoldere sing about women who are often seductive, playful and a bit mean. ‘Next man who's in line / better knows what lies behind / That vivid talk you got / it costs a man an awful lot / Well baby, just an afterthought,’ we hear on ‘Whatchu Doin’. Or on ‘Wrong Vibration': Girl why don't you give yourself a break / and find out what's your favorite mistake.’ Deprez explains: “I think every Balthazar album is about love, it's just a different way of singing now. When you're young, you just want to address a bigger picture or you want to proclaim this very consistent sentiment. But the fact is that we are very inconsistent people and your emotions change from day to day. And it doesn't matter if you're singing about something and you know your emotion is wrong or whatever. The fact that you think about it very differently the next day doesn't make it any less interesting to sing about it.” Anger as a temporal state of being, a snapshot. “Everyone knows that that is only a small phase in your coping process or something and that you accept the week after: ah, we had a good time and this doesn't matter in the end. You understand that even when you write it, that it is only a temporary thing. But that does not matter. It is still a beautiful emotion.”
It’s brave, to say the least, to embrace that inconsistency and contradiction. ‘Another rich kid topping the charts,’ growls Devoldere on title track 'Fever' bitter and full of jealousy, ‘but then I heard it and it hit the soft spot in my heart.’ Emotions change with the wind, he explains, and it's naive to pretend they don't, even—or especially—in lyrics. “The feeling that we embrace that, that we are so full of shit, I think that's a great idea.” And so love here is as feverish as the title suggests and all women are femmes fatales. However, all women? It remains anecdotal, both men emphasize, and somewhat exaggerated. “Our life is a smoky fifties drama,” Deprez jokes. Devoldere: “Where lung cancer is always lurking.”
“We always wanted to be The Velvet Underground, but to be honest, we've always been more like the Beatles,” Fever's album bio reads and indeed, besides each other and their inconsistency, the duo is now also passionately embracing their pop status, and all the clichés that come with it. Love has been sung about millions of times and fever as a symbol is anything but new, but Deprez and Devoldere will also be the first to admit it. Clichés are okay and all those love songs, they could have been a bit more direct. “While in the past we wanted to look for metaphorical or more general truths or something, we now realize that that is not necessarily more interesting than those small, sometimes dirty and stupid things that we now also sing about.” That doesn't mean that all songs about love on this record are actually about love. Devoldere mentions 'Grapefruit', on which he writes and sings: ‘You don't like the expression / you're seeing on my face / I'm very sorry darling / I come in different ways’ – which is not direct at a woman, apparently. “Even if you don't sing about love, you're still going to package it as a love song because that's the best form. In 'Grapefruit' I actually look in the mirror and chat to myself.”
‘I'm not the man for changes,’ we hear the gentlemen sing on an album that is completely different at the same time and yet so typically Balthazar. Not much has changed, either, as far as the gentlemen themselves are concerned. They've gotten a bit older, that's for sure. Pragmatic grown men with much less to prove, more lightness in life and a "hurried search for yourself" that is starting to diminish, according to Deprez. "We’re both starting to accept that we also have no clue." They are paradoxical figures, Balthazar's two leaders. They are older, but sound more youthful. They have nothing more to prove and they dare all the more. They are inconsistent and restless, but seem to be at peace with it. They are a bit prudish and at the same time self-proclaimed “sexy motherfuckers.” You have to give them that.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.