"We didn't need to press ourselves. The music just came to us."
Marc Ysaye, drummer and singer of famous Belgian band Machiavel, has just released his new solo album 'Back to Avalon'. That calls for an interview. One short drive just past Brussels, off to the picturesque Corbais, where Mr. Ysaye welcomes us into his lovely home. The following chat was conducted in French, and has been translated into English because Machiavel has lots of international fans.
Julian De Backer: 'The first time I ever heard a Machiavel song, was on the soundtrack of the Belgian movie 'Windkracht 10'.'
Marc Ysaye: 'Which song? Was it 'Fly'? Yes, I remember that.'
Julian: 'It's been almost fifteen years, the movie came out in 2006. It must surely please you that a song from 1980 can have a second, third, even fourth life on movie soundtracks, commercials, et cetera. Young people have the chance to discover a song from way before they were born, thanks to movies. It must warm your songwriter heart.'
Marc: 'It sure does. 'Fly' did very well in Flanders. At least two Flemish films have used our music, and a television series.'
Julian: 'What do you remember about the recording sessions of 'Fly'? What was the original idea behind the song?'
Marc: 'I'm not going to lie: the song was written in ten minutes. The guitarist had picked an acoustic guitar, started jamming comme-ça, Mario Gucci started singing yoghurt language, comme toujours, n'importe quoi. We were sitting in a small room, and I remember the first words being shouted: 'High, high'. I wrote down: 'Fly, fly' and combined that with 'high, high'. I effectively wrote the lyrics in ten minutes. We recorded the song in The Netherlands, in the Relight Studio in Hilvarenbeek. Genesis also recorded an album there, it was a great studio at the time. 'Fly' was a big success.'
Julian: 'And it still is.'
Marc: 'Et toujours. It was number one in Spain, and it also came out in Germany, the UK, The Netherlands. It was a really big hit in Belgium.'
Julian: 'At the time, it wasn't customary or normal for a band of francophone guys to record and perform in English. Do you remember why you started songwriting in English?'
Marc: 'The language of rock was English, at the time. Even my solo album now is in English.'
Julian: 'Has there ever been a French version of 'Fly'?'
Marc: 'No. There was an Italian version, though.'
Julian: 'Do you know why the other Machiavel songs aren't as well known in Flanders? What happened?'
Marc: 'In 1979, the year before 'Fly', we already had a lot of success in Wallonia. We were the first Belgian group to sell out Forest-National (the concert venue, red.). At the time, rock journalist Marc Didden of weekly HUMO, had a real problem with the fact that the very first Belgian group to fill Forst-National on its own, was a francophone band. I remember really well his article with our photo, all of us holding gold records, the heads cut off, and the headline: 'THE WORST BAND IN THE WORLD SELLS OUT FOREST-NATIONAL'. Something like that.'
Julian: 'That's horrible.'
Marc: 'He trashed our album, our concert ... I don't even know if he went to see the show. That didn't really help our cause. Today, the people wouldn't care, because there's hundreds of outlets with concert reviews, but at the time, HUMO was the bible. A bad review in HUMO could be the end of your career. I never understood what Marc Didden's problem was. Nobody understood.'
Julian: 'I need to ask him. What could he have had against you?'
Marc: 'Nevertheless, the following year, 'Fly' was number one, even in Flanders. I can recall a venue in Zwevezele with 2,000 ecstatic Flemish fans.'
Julian: 'Did you speak to the audience in French or in English?'
Marc: 'In Flanders? Ha, that's a good question. Mario, our singer, came from Liège. He could speak a little English, but no Flemish/Dutch. He had learned one phrase by heart, and the Flemish audience members loved it. What was it he always said? 'I DON'T SPEAK FLEMISH ALL THAT WELL, BUT I WILL TRY FOR YOU'.'
Julian: 'It always works. We love it when an artist does the effort to speak one or two words in our language. I saw The Rolling Stones in Werchter, just a few years ago, and Mick Jagger really outdid himself, he had more than 10 Dutch phrases up his sleeve.'
Marc: 'The teleprompter will help, too.'
Julian: 'Sure, sure, but the audience ate it up.'
Marc: 'Peter Gabriel, too. Even in Russia, he'll say something in Russian.'
Julian: 'Machiavel were prog rock trailblazers, you guys had epic 8-minute songs, like 'Nobody Knows' and 'Rope Dancer'. I'm very fond of 'Cheerlesness'.'
Marc: 'Ah, that's me, singing on 'Cheerlesness'.'
Julian: 'It takes over five minutes for that song to really start the epic rocking. Do you remember something about the writing of 'Cheerlesness'?'
Marc: 'I wrote the song when we were a four-piece, singer Mario had not yet joined us. We wrote the song on the piano, just the two of us. Again, it came very naturally to us, it was an easy song to compose. The end is like a classical piece, a little Bach. It's reminiscent of a Bach fugue. Very fun to do. When I listen to that today, I hear a very young man. I was 19 when I wrote that. It's crazy, but it's a great souvenir of times gone by. At the time, we didn't need to press ourselves. The music just came to us. We wrote a lot.'
Julian: 'You had no artistic boundaries?'
Marc: 'Not at all. Progressive music was a very liberating place to be. It has elements of heavy metal, of reggae, and more.'
Julian: 'Do you know the Dutch band Focus?'
Marc: 'I know them very well.'
Julian: ''Cheerlesness' has a little Focus in it as well.'
Marc: 'Oui! It's the same era. Focus has a great album called 'Hamburger Concerto', with a single 20-minute piece. They sing in Dutch, in English, in Latin. C'est fantastique! I really love the band. Jan Akkerman is one of the best guitarists of the low lands.'
Julian: 'You've seen it all, you've been professional musician for over 40 years. How does performing live in the seventies compare to performing today? Everything has changed: the quality of the sound, the stage, the surroundings ...'
Marc: 'It's impossible to compare. It's a good question, but you already answered it. The sound was crappy, the light was nothing to write home about, it was always a complicated adventure. Especially for an unknown band, as we were in the beginning. Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin had great equipment and financial means, but we had nothing. C'était compliqué. We had real difficulties. It was a struggle, we had to fight for our right to play. We'd arrive in some dump in the middle of nowhere, and there wasn't even a stage! La scène, elle est où? Ah, there is no stage. We had to put some tables together to create something.'
Julian: 'Have you ever seen the movie 'Spinal Tap'?'
Marc: 'It was very Spinal Tap. The material wasn't like what we have today. Sometimes, it was too loud, sometimes, you heard nothing. The engineers had to fake a lot to give the impression of good sound. Today, Forst-National and the Antwerp Sportpaleis effortlessly have a good sound.'
Julian: 'When my dad visited concerts in the seventies, he always chose a seat next to the PA (public address), because he figured the technicians heard it best from where they were standing.'
Marc: 'Of course. Everything has changed today.'
Julian: 'Do you remember the very first song you ever wrote?'
Marc: 'I do. It was called 'When you turn green', or at least something with 'green'. In English, yes. I never thought about writing songs in French. A lot of people in Wallonia speak English, but worse than the inhabitants of Flanders. There are multiple reasons for that. But rock culture was ingrained in every fiber of my being, ever since I turned 12 or 13. I listened to Jimi Hendrix, Bob Dylan, et cetera.'
Julian: 'You learned English by listening to English bands?'
Marc: 'Yes. I was a huge Beatles fan, too. We had a great teacher at school, who always put on The Beatles, The Rolling Stones, and that really helped me with my language knowledge.'
Julian: 'Do you remember any rivalry between fans of The Beatles and lovers of The Rolling Stones?'
Marc: 'Non. Well, of course, the rivalry existed at the time, but it was fake. The members of both bands were good friends. It was never a problem.'
Julian: 'What if you had to choose?'
Marc: 'Musically, I'd say The Beatles. But The Rolling Stones are more rock.'
Julian: 'Your new album is called 'Back to Avalon'. When I hear or read the word 'Avalon', I think of Roxy Music. Was that an inspiration for you?'
Marc: 'No, not at all. 'Avalon' is a non-existent island, from the King Arthur legend. For me, 'Avalon', and perhaps for other people too, is a retreat, a way to reflect, a protection. Making an album is always hard, you have to be honest with yourself. In a little corner of my mind, 'Avalon' is a quiet and calm place. Voilà. That's why I used the word 'back'. Over 40 years of experience as a musician, 30 years of making radio, and being the founder of a radio station, that's hard work. I needed to go 'back' to my safe space. I didn't write the text, it's a song by Piet 'Ozark Henry' Goddaer. Piet has written the text with an American co-writer that I didn't know, but we spoke via e-mail. He has heard the song, and he loved it. The text is really lovely. 'Back to Avalon, back where we belong'.'
Julian: 'Piet Goddaer is amazing.'
Marc: 'There are two songs by Piet on the album. I've known his music for 25 years, I was the first francophone Belgian to discover Ozark Henry. I invited him quite a few times in my radio show. He never forgot that. We were never best friends, but we always kept in contact over the years. So when I told him I was working on a solo album, I asked him whether or not he had a few unused songs in his cabinets that could be of use to me. 'I would be very honoured', I told him. He invited me over, to his magnifique studio. He let me listen to ten songs, almost a full album. He wanted to give them to me, because otherwise, they would remain unused and unrecorded. Of those ten, I was really fond of two, and those ended up on the album. We kept the text and the melody, but we changed everything else.'
Julian: 'When you write a new song, is it difficult to choose between writing for Machiavel, or writing for yourself?'
Marc: 'No. For 'Back to Avalon', it was easy to decide which songs were for me. The last Machiavel album came out in 2013, almost 7 years ago. Mario, our singer, has since passed away. I started singing again, just like in the very early days. But now I told the band: I need to do this, for me. I need a year for myself. The guys understood.'
Julian: 'But do you write your own songs in a different way?'
Marc: 'Here, I had really precise ideas. I heard in my head which melodies I wanted, I knew which riffs I needed. I'm not a guitarist, but I could tell which riffs I desired. Mind you, it's not a rock album, it's much more pop than you'd think. Working with Machiavel is different, because we're a group. I compose with the opinions and the wishes of the others in mind. When you're tout seul, it's something else.'
Julian: 'I hope you have the chance to play your songs, in Flanders as well. We can never have enough good music on the airwaves, and on our podiums.'
Marc: 'I know Radio 1 is doing something, so, yeah, fingers crossed.'
Julian: 'You're a drummer. Did you drum on the album?'
Marc: 'No, I didn't.'
Julian: 'Off the top of my head, there's not a lot of singer-drummer combinations. I know there's Phil Collins, Don Henley, Levon Helm, Zac Hanson, but that's your lot, as far as I'm concerned. You're one of the only Belgians to do both, I'd say.'
Marc: 'The drummer of Wallace Collection did it, too. But it's true, it's a rare occurrence, and it's complicated. No, wait, it's not. It's not complicated to drum and sing at the same time. It's easy. It's harder to sing and play bass. But it's complicated for a live performance: a drummer is just sitting behind his instrument, at the back, and the audience barely sees him. Visually, it's not exciting. That's why Phil Collins toured with a second drummer, so he could sing front stage. Don Henley does sing, but he has to share the spotlight with Timothy B. Schmit, Joe Walsh, formerly with Don Felder and Glenn Frey. They can all sing very well.'
Julian: 'I've seen Eagles twice. They're excellent, but sometimes, their egos get in the way. They all need 'their moment' on stage.'
Marc: 'Well, take the example of The Beatles: one of the best bands in the world, but too many egos. That's why they didn't last very long. Machiavel, on the other hand, has been going strong for 45 years. We have always put our ego problems to the side. We broke up briefly in 1982, came back a few years later, and have been together ever since. To be egotistical at our age, would just look plain stupid.'
Julian: 'You know the (paraphrased) John Lennon anecdote? 'Ringo Starr is not the best drummer in the world. He's not even the best drummer in The Beatles'.'
Marc: 'Paul McCartney is a better drummer than Ringo, it's true! On 'Back in the U.S.S.R.', we hear Paul behind the drums.'
Julian: 'Why is it hard for a bass player to sing and play at the same time?'
Marc: 'That's what most bass players have told me, but I don't know why.'
Julian: 'Many thanks for your time, Mr. Ysaye.'
Marc: 'My pleasure.'
Julian De Backer © 2020 for Keys and Chords