Arno’s rich and varied discography covers the last thirty-five years, but the singer has decided to “shake things up” on his new album, Future Vintage. Without denying his past, here he is striking out in a new direction and drawing on his thoughts about society.
“There’s been a change in me this year,” he explains. “People do change.” As the European crisis continues, the man to whom we owe the immortal chorus “Fuck, fuck, after all we’re all Europeans” has noticed a radical political shift. “Europe is bankrupt and America is not as powerful as it used to be.”
With its mix of French and English, Arno’s music always pleads for open-mindedness and tolerance. Arno was actually only supposed to record this album in 2013, but he felt an urgent need to write these songs almost as soon as he completed his recent tour. “After the final gigs in Montréal I told myself, ‘I’ve got to do something’. It’s difficult having nothing to do after a couple of years on the road. And it only gets worse with age,” he confesses.
The ton is set from the opening song The Show of Life. “Let the money die” says Arno; a manifesto that sounds like a call to rise up from adversity on a bed of acoustic and electric guitars. Quand les bonbons parlent and its saturated electro textures are in the vein of Arno’s poetry, an observation of the absurdity of life. I don’t believe is an affirmation of skepticism much in the way of the nastiest English rock that precedes the more melancholic Chanson d’amour, a raw and heartbreaking ballad to add to the artist’s repertoire along with Dis pas ça à ma femme. Ça plane pour nous is tinted with almost industrial sounds on a background inventory à la Prévert. « Y’a trop de tout, mais rien pour nous » (too much of everything but nothing for us). Rare fact: Arno is accompanied by a choir on the surprising electro loop Oh la la. We want more and its strong bass line summarizes the general purpose of the album. Wanting more, not in a material but spiritual way and sung in three languages – the European is never too far.
It took him just four months to finish Future Vintage – writing the songs, recording, mixing, the lot. Arno insists on doing things the traditional way. “There’s no way I’m spending six months in a studio.” The musician deplores the way rock is becoming a middle-class pursuit. He and his band TC Matic wrote a song called “Middle Class and Blue Eyes” back in 1982. Thirty years on, his prediction has come true. “It disgusts and frustrates me,” he says.
Present-day society’s obsession with the past gave him the idea for the album’s clever title: Future Vintage. “Everything’s vintage nowadays. Rockers dress like their grandfathers, with beards and long hair. That’s what I looked like in 1972,” he says with a laugh.
Is Arno pessimistic? “I fear for the future,” he says. But he tempers this observation with a touch of surrealist humour. “Magritte’s my neighbour,” he reminds us. “I want to stay positive.” “My arse is rolling in butter,” he sings on this album, the Belgian idiom emphasising that he belongs to a privileged generation.
Arno recorded Future Vintage under John Parish’s guidance. The first time the two met was when they played with Stef Camil Karlens from the band Zita Swoon. Both big fans of Captain Beefheart, the Englishman and the Belgian got on like a house on fire. “And John had heard of TC Matic,” Arno adds. “He’s someone I can communicate with without words. We’re on the same wavelength.”
Having done most of the groundwork in his hometown of Ostende with Serge Frey, his musical accomplice since 1979, Arno jetted off to work with long-term PJ Harvey collaborator Parish in his Bristol lair. He recorded with the Massive Attack, Portishead and Robert Plant bassist using John Parish’s 1970s mixing console, which captures the artist’s beloved bass frequencies. “I wanted someone who could add something special, and my brother suggested I take a look over in England.” They finished the album in just two weeks, mixing songs at the rate of two a day. “We drank a lot of tea,” Arno sighs.
As its title suggests, Future Vintage is a blend of past and present. “This record’s a melting pot with some elements of TC Matic,” is Arno’s warning. The cover illustration showing an old pickup and a fish instead of a record was designed by Arno and Danny Willems, a photographer who’s been following the singer since his early days. So has he come full circle?