BY: JIM VILLANUEVA
Truth be told, Belgium will never be confused with, say, Britain, as a hotbed for rock and roll. Arguably, Antwerp’s K’s Choice is the western European nation’s most successful musical export, and not unlike the punch the country’s world famous beer packs, the sibling-led rockers have served up a powerful and tasty collection of 11 helpings of pure rock on their forthcoming album, The Phantom Cowboy, available September 18 on New York-based label MPress Records.
K’s Choice, led by brother and sister Sarah and Gert Bettens, first burst onto the international stage in 1995 with the worldwide success of their hard to resist single “Not An Addict.” Since 1994, they’ve released a six-pack of albums covering a wide swath of musical soundscapes. For the recording of the heavier The Phantom Cowboy, they tapped Chilean-born producer Alain Johannes to help shape the sound of the record, based in part on his previous work helming recordings by heavyweights Queen of the Stone Age, Them Crooked Vultures and Soundgarden singer Chris Cornell. The result of their combined efforts is a potent set of songs that has the potential to put Belgium back on the musical map faster than you can down your next Stella Artois.
(Laughs) Well thank you. That’s a nice compliment (laughs).
Yes it does. And it appropriately kicks off with the aptly-titled “As Rock and Roll as It Gets.” First, let me ask you this: is there an overriding theme that you want listeners to take away from the record?
The intention when we started writing, before we talked about anything else, was we want to have fun with this and it has to be the kind of record where every single song when we play it live, people go, “YES!” Other than that we had very few criteria. We just wanted it to be something we’d never done before. Even though some of the songs might have sat nicely on other K’s Choice records, I don’t want to say that we took it less seriously, I guess we tried to take ourselves a little less seriously in a way that it had to be entertaining. At the end of the day we’re always gonna care about lyrics and we’re always gonna convey a message, because we can’t help ourselves, but at the essence of it we wanted this to be a record people just hear it on the radio or they hear the song come up live and they’re like, “oh this is such a fun song, I’m gonna have a good time with this.”
Yeah. Well I think mission accomplished on that front, for sure.
(Laughs) Well good!
So let me share with you the overriding theme that I took away from the time I spent listening to the record. For me it was this: the only constant is change. How does that square within the overall song cycle and some of the themes within the songs? Am I on the right page, sort of, or do you disagree?
Yeah, well we listened to a lot of Foo Fighters and Queen of the Stone Age and we realize we’re not those bands and at the same time we [thought] it’d be fun to have some elements of that in our music. And some more rootsy kind of stuff, like Black Rebel [Motorcycle Club] and stuff like that. And when we started writing we just said, let’s pretend we’re that band, you know. Or we’re all of those bands, and try to make that kind of music and – I’m gonna keep saying it and repeat myself – really have fun with it. That was such a central theme. After 20 years of being in a band together and making music…you have to actively search for ways to keep it interesting and fun and fresh for yourself. And so there’s elements of all kinds of music on this record – we just wanted it to rock – but at the same time there’s no two songs that sound the same.
A couple of observations I had [about the album] – and we’ve already talked about it – is it’s pedal to the metal from almost beginning to end, and the longest song on the record is a scant 3:36, which to me was great because the songs were moving along and they almost had a sort of punk rock ethos to them. Let’s talk about the first single, “Private Revolution,” and specifically the video for it. It’s one of the most entertaining and emotive sonic and visual pieces I’ve experienced in a long time, again, despite it clocking in at just 2:08. Talk about the writing of the song and what you were trying to say in the visually outstanding video.
“Private Revolution” is a perfect example of the first record my brother and I have written together. Up to this point, it’s always been he writes songs, I write songs, we come together, work on them a little bit and minor changes are made, as far as where the chorus goes or change a chord here of there. It’s always been separate and so this is the first time we’ve experimented with this, like, come hang out in my studio for a week, I’ll hang out in your studio for a week and we’ll write the record together. And “Private Revolution” is one of those where the music is [Sarah’s older brother] Gert’s and the melody and the lyrics are mine. It’s just one of those things that really came together as a true collaboration.
Cool. Do you wanna talk a little bit about the video because again, it’s stimulating, for sure.
Our piano player [Reinout RJ Swinnen] also owns a 3-D animation company and he and his partner actually made the video. The idea was to go through time trying to find the right images while making a video and in the process of that you have a feeling you’re only really in the right video [during] the last five seconds and the rest is kind of a process of looking for the right footage. We were very happy with it.
Great job. So just one more note on “Private Revolution” and again, if I’m off base here, please feel free to push back. To me, listening to the song, it was the perfect AC/DC’s “Let There Be Rock” and The Pretenders’ “Precious” mash-up.
Ooh! I don’t mind either of those (laughs)!
Okay, good (laughs). The opening riff was just like AC/DC’s “Let There Be Rock” and then the rocking side of The Pretenders was all across that track, so good, I’m glad I wasn’t off base on that.
No, not at all. Those are big compliments. What happened was that by making this type of record, musically, we automatically started writing about different things. There was maybe a little less melancholy and a little more assertiveness in the lyrics, which is not something we talked about ahead of time. It was just because that’s what the music called for. In the end, the lyrics have to match the music, so there was a little less poetry and poetic imagery than we usually do and a little more straightforwardness and the music just called for that.
I was gonna ask you about the shift in the songwriting process for the album with you and your brother Gert, but I think you covered that, pretty much, unless there’s something more that you’d like to add to that.
Well a lot of it [historically] had been long distance in the writing…but because we’d made solo records, coming back together and finding a direction for the record was really not easy at all, and especially long distance. And so that was one of the reasons why we wanted to do it differently. We had to be in the same room and see how productive we could be. My brother left his family of six behind to come spend a week in Tennessee and of course I don’t want to waste his time, so we wrote all day, every day. And the same thing when I went to Belgium.
There are a lot of great songs to choose from, but if I had to pick a favorite it would be “We Are the Universe.” That guitar riff that runs through the entire tune is riveting, and then the drums come in and the song explodes.
Well it’s funny that that’s the song that jumps out at you because it’s the very first riff we played. We sat down, we had our direction and we wanted to start the record by immediately visualizing people jumping up and down. My brother came up with that riff and that was the very first thing we started writing. And for some reason, also the most difficult song to finish. It is the one we worked on the longest and made the most adjustments to. We struggled with that song, but it really is the very first thing we played.
Obviously, you and your older brother grew up under the same roof and were exposed to a lot of the same music, I would assume. That said, can you recall the first time you thought, gosh, I wanna make music for the rest of my life?
Well, it was so unrealistic to think that a Belgian rock band could ever really make a career out of doing that. Like, there were no real examples of bands that had done it before us. So I have to admit that I always wanted to sing, and my parents bought me a microphone when I was seven years old and I plugged it into the stereo and sang along with my ABBA records, but I really didn’t think that much of it. I didn’t think, like, that could be a good goal for me, that could be something to strive for, until I got signed. Until it kind of just happened to us, we never considered that this could be a career for us, we never thought that this could be something that we could make money out of and do for the rest of our lives until it really just happened to us.
We got lucky, we got a couple of lucky breaks, the right people heard us play at some student party at the right time and before we knew it we had a record deal – before we even had enough songs to complete a record.
When did you first perform in front of an audience that wasn’t made up of a majority of family and friends?
Actually, the very first time I performed live, it was on live television, and everyone was telling me to lip synch. And I’m like, that doesn’t sound like fun; I can sing this song, I don’t wanna lip synch. And it worked out great and I think that it might have been at that moment, combined with the very first time I heard that song on the radio, where I thought, this is actually happening. This is really something that I could do. And I pretty much asked my brother, hey, let’s get signed together, let’s do this together.
That’s a very interesting story because I ask this same question in various ways in a lot of these conversations I’ve been blessed to have with so many great songwriters and artists, but in your case it was almost like, when you heard your song on the radio, that was your moment when you said to yourself, I think I’m gonna do this as a profession. I’m gonna continue to do this.
Yeah. It was very surreal. Like I said it really felt like we fell into it. We were not at the point yet where we were making demos and trying to send tapes to people and see what happens. We had never literally even considered that this was a possibility.
Wow, that’s really cool. Let’s jump back into the record here and ask you about a couple more specific songs. Let me quote a lyric: “Alright, alright, it’s hard to get it right/alright, alright, it’s not all black and white, I was wrong about you.” “I Was Wrong About You” closes the album. Who are you singing too in this tune?
Um, well, probably a bunch of people (laughs)…not one in particular, but a couple of failed relationships. The melody and the tune is kind of fun and light and I wanted the song to be light, too. But at the same time, growing up is such a wonderful, harsh and eye-opening experience all at the same time. You’re so convinced and so set in your ways and then you’re five years older and your like, oh, I don’t believe in that any more. It’s such a process, that’s still happening. I don’t even remember who I was when I was 20; I have no idea the things that I believed in – things have changed so much. And so all the mistakes that I’ve made and all of the things that I was wrong about have gotten me to where I am today, and that’s okay.
Yeah. What you’re saying, Sarah, kind of goes back to my observation about the record in general about the only constant is change.
Absolutely. And you really learn to embrace that as you get older, and I love that.
One more song on the record I wanted to ask you about is “Perfect Scar,” partially because it contains perhaps my favorite line on the entire album: “Show them who you are to set you free.” Tell us what the song title represents and talk a little bit more about that song.
Yeah, that’s my brother’s song and they’re his lyrics, too, but I think I have a pretty good grasp on what he’s talking about. You work so hard when you’re younger to present yourself a certain way; you know, trying to fit in or whatever, and its hard work. I see my step-daughter, who is in college right now, and I feel like she’s finally, really discovering who she is because she worked so hard as a teenager to fit in. It’s hard work. So there’s all these imperfections that you’re trying to hide – it exhausting – and then you get older and realize everyone is carrying these imperfections around.
Well said. I’d like to ask you a couple of general music industry questions before we wrap our conversation. Quickly, what is radio like in Belgium?
Growing up it was great. We had a couple of radio stations that literally played whatever they wanted. If they liked it, they played it. I remember talking about this very early on in interviews when we came to the states at first. Here, things were already very formatted at that point.
What’s the state of rock radio versus say pop these days? How has radio changed?
It’s changed so much. It’s become…a lot more like it is here, so it’s become very hard for a regular rock band or pop band to get on the radio. Aside from the Foo Fighters and maybe one or two other bands, I can’t even think of a successful rock band. To actually have radio presence has become very hard for a rock band.
Honestly, I was afraid you might say that.
Yeah. Yeah, it’s changed everywhere.
Which leads me to my final question for you, Sarah. K’s Choice released the first album in 1995 and you guys produced your first huge hit “Not An Addict” the following year; what is the biggest change in the music business that you’ve had to face since that huge hit climbed to the top of the charts?
There’s no room for development anymore. There’s no money and so there’s no budgets to go do an opening tour with someone. There’s no time to develop into something and in that way I feel lucky that we started back then because at least we were able to build a career and build a following. When we started there was time to develop, to become a better band, to do opening tours for other bands and develop as a live band and make a next record, make it better; to really develop a career. We can’t take anything for granted. We’ve been around for 20 years and we consider ourselves a pretty successful band and we couldn’t find a label for our last record and so we released it ourselves. Because unless there’s a song on there that everyone thinks is gonna be a major hit, or I get a boob job, there’s no one that wants to sign us.
Well Sarah, thank you again for your time. Again, the new record is The Phantom Cowboy and it’s scheduled to be released on September 18. Good luck with the record. It’s been a pleasure.
You’re very welcome. Thank you so much for taking the time. Bye.
**To hear more audio of my extensive conversation with Sarah Bettens of K’s Choice, please “LIKE” Facebook.com/CurrentClassics and look for a link to an upcoming episode of my weekly Current Classics podcast. Listen HERE.