Interview with TMGS’ Stof Janssens for WoNo Magazine’s blogpost (2 June 2013)
By Wout de Natris © WoNo Magazine 2013
Just a few months back Erwin Zijleman tipped the world on the band TMGS from Belgium. After listening to Rivers & Coastlines: the ride the album developed itself into one of my favourite albums of the past years in a very short time. (Click here for the review.) The unique mix of musical styles, the refined melodies and intricate instrumentations spoke to me in volumes. Enough reason to find out more about the band. Here’s the result.
– Most readers may not be familiar with TMGS. How would you like to introduce yourself and the band?
Well hello there, we are TMGS. A seven piece band from Antwerp, Belgium. Over the years we had several line up changes, but we’ve been playing more or less with the same line up for 5 years now. We don’t want to pin ourselves down to a specific genre, but in a ‘name it or die’ situation, we ‘d probably go for alternative country rock with horns. Or something like that.
– The band evolved from instrumental surf and spaghetti western music to this blend of pure pop. This is quite a transition. In how far was this an organic transition?
Pretty organic really. We never thought about it, it all just went naturally. We listen to a lot of music, so there are always changing influences around. We started out as an instrumental surfband, playing old tunes from the sixties, but when we started making our own songs, it all changed quickly. An album we listened to a lot back then, was The Black Light by Calexico, so that obviously was a big influence when we recorded our first album. And from Calexico we got into related bands like the whole Howe Gelb/Giant Sand world. But also Wilco, Magnolia, the Sadies and Richmond Fontaine. We were lucky enough to play a few shows with Fontaine and really related with them. Willy Vlautin was an influence when we started to sing. None of us really wanted to be a singer, but we felt we had to do it for the sake of the songs we were making. And now that I think of it, every TMGS album was made with a different line up. So every time when a new member joins the band, dynamics change and new influences are brought in.
– Is this transition also the reason you changed the band name into TMGS?
Yes, that’s the main reason. When we felt we had a definite line up with Dirk and Yves joining on drums and keyboards, we wanted to make a new start, but not turn away completely from what we had done so far. Another reason is that our first name ‘the moe greene specials’ got spelled wrong so many times, we got fed up with it. TMGS only got spelled wrong once (TGMS) so far, so that seems to work alright.
– There are still hints of surf guitar and the twang of the spaghetti western. Who were your main influences and what attracted you to this music?
The movie Pulp Fiction and its soundtrack had started a surf revival that lasted quite a while with bands like Fifty foot combo and the Revelaires in Belgium and the Treble Spankers in Holland. That got us started. We played songs by sixties bands like the Bel-Airs, the Pyramids, the Lively Ones and so on. And when we started using a spanish guitar, we added a more western/mariachi feel to it that we picked up from Ennio Morricone and Calexico.
– On ‘Rivers and coastlines: The ride’ many influences can be heard. From The Posies, Teenage Fanclub, Big Star to The Beatles. Were you exposed to this music along the way or were these (sort of) influences always there?
We grew up in the nineties listening to bands like the Posies, Buffalo Tom and Teenage Fanclub. So I guess they were always there, inspiring us indirectly. Through them, we discovered Big Star and the Byrds/Parsons who were hugely influential on the nineties guitarbands. The Big Star reference is quite new and surprising to us. But we don’t mind. We like the Big Star records a lot, so it’s a huge compliment.
– There is also the desert connection of Calexico/mariachi trumpets. Together with the influences above it makes a mix that is special. Who were there first, the band members with trumpets or the concept for this mix?
The idea of having horns in the band was there from the very beginning. Koen is one of the original members. Though he didn’t have a trumpet yet, he always showed up at rehearsals and just sat around. We also had a saxophone player back then who didn’t have his own sax. They both joined the local fanfare to get instruments and learn how to play for free. A saxophone was used in a lot of those old surf songs, and we liked the idea of having a small horn section, but when he left the band we decided to go with a second trumpet instead of the saxophone. Because it worked better with our own songs. When Bart joined on trumpet, he was the first one in the band with sort of a musical education bringing in a more technical style which defines the TMGS sound up till to
– In my review I wrote that TMGS tries to make the perfect pop song. Do you think it’s possible to write one and if so what should such a song contain?
We’re not really trying to make perfect pop songs, in fact we like to play around with alternative structures and basically try to avoid typical songwriting. Then again, sometimes it’s good to just go for a basic structure. A good song writes itself for the most part. When there’s a lot of struggling to get it right, that’s usually not a good sign. But yeah, on Rivers & coastlines, most of the songs seem to have a basic pop structure. We are just trying to make the songs as good as possible, but not in terms of a perfect pop song. That sounds a little boring to be honest. I guess over the years, musicians created sort of a template structure for the perfect pop song, but the emotional element that makes a song genuinely good is still a mystery. And that’s a good thing too.
– The music has a hint of melancholy and sadness. Do you feel more comfortable musically in these moods?
We use a lot of minor chords, so that defines the atmosphere quite a bit. But it’s never all sad. There’s always beauty and hope to it. Probably that’s what melancholy is all about. We like to put some contrast in the songs, like combining moody lyrics with happy musical arrangements or vice versa. For some reason, it seems easier to write a sad song than a happy one. Don’t know why, it just is.
– The songs are arranged in a lush and warm way. How are the songs conceived, from a total upfront concept or organically together as a band?
Most of the time Peet (and sometimes Yves) comes up with the chords and a basic idea, and then we play around with it for a while, adding words and changing parts. Sometimes the basic ideas are more or less the finished song, other times it gets turned upside down and changes quite a lot. In that case, it really becomes an organic band process with everyone throwing in ideas.
– Who is responsible for what in the band?
I play guitar and do some singing and since I started the band, I guess I’m considered to be sort of the leader in terms of making decisions and generally keep things going. I also provide the artwork and most of the lyrics. Peet plays guitar and does most of the singing lately. Musically, he is definitely the main man writing 80% of the songs. Yves also delivers songs, he sings and plays keyboards and brings in some unexpected elements since he listens mainly to hiphop and dub records. Dirk adds a lot of ideas in singing harmonies and his distinctive drumming style adds a lot to our sound. He could be considered being the counter weight in the band. When we’re down about something, he always tries to get us up, and at times when we’re flying high, he easily brings us down again. Then there‘s Bart and Koen playing trumpet & percussion, and recently, Roeland joined us on bass and backing vocals. And that’s TMGS right there.
– Where does “The ride” in the title lead us to?
Everywhere and nowhere particular. We like to invite listeners to fill in the missing data themselves. It’s fun to play around with the idea of a concept album, although it isn’t one. We vaguely tell a story, with the music, artwork and the tracklisting. It’s more about feeling that there’s a story and things are falling into place, rather than getting all the info straight. I like to think of it as a David Lynch movie, where you get the feeling you know what’s going on, but you can’t tell exactly what. The combination of all those things is very important, we spent a lot of time getting the songs in the right order, even though we know people will shuffle the hell out of it on their iPods.
– Are the references to Rivers and coastlines a reflection of the part of the country you live in?
Not really, it’s a line from ‘Tell Everyone’, the first song on the album. The idea of a ride along raging coastlines was very appealing and romantic in a way. And it matched perfectly with the backcover photo I took on a trip with Koen way back in 2002. I think it’s taken in Big Sur, California. That last verse pretty much sums up the whole idea of the album. So it became the title.
– In the song(title)s there’s travelling, riding, coming and going, change and continuum in life mentioned. What is your message here?
The TMGS music has always been very cinematic. We like to call it ‘landscape music’. It seems to be working best while travelling. In a car or on a train with landscapes passing by. (Maybe that’s your ride, right there.) But it can also be a period in life you go through, emotionally or whatever. We don’t want to send out a message or anything. Except maybe from the fact that sometimes you need to go a long way to end up exactly where you started from. There’s always the need of getting away from something. It’s like the great Ronan Keating said: ‘life‘s a rollercoaster, you just gotta ride it’.
– Is the grass greener over there or is coming home preferred?
Yes, but coming home is needed to see the bigger picture.
– How does coming from Kalmthout influence the music TMGS makes?
We’re pretty relaxed and we’re just going our own way, trying to make music that’s timeless, not following latest hypes or trends which only sounds like an exhausting thing to do. Maybe that’s a countryside thing.
– What can we expect from TMGS in the near future?
More albums, more evolution & hopefully a lot more live shows, (which are hard to find because we don’t have a booking agent or management or whatever). We started working on new songs, so hopefully soon, new stuff gets recorded. As long as we have fun doing it, we’ll just keep going.
– In Belgium bands band members seem to play in endless other bands. Is this the case for TMGS as well?
We do play in other bands or make music at home, apart from TMGS. Bands and projects like The Incredible Sucking Spongies, Mount Venus, Tim Boston, Tortilla Kid, Superette Rita, The Heavy Machinery and Boutros Boutros Ghali. But none of that is related to each other. So there’s no scene or anything like that. TMGS is our main thing.