• 2007 Interview

  • with Jean-Christophe van Thienen

Do you know BUZZ ? A French Band ? No ? Well, then you are missing something great. The guys from BUZZ released only a few records, but their output belongs to the most impressive and important stuff that was released during the early to the mid 80s. Because of the resurgence of French cold pop, BUZZ is active again and because the retrospective CD “BUZZ 1984-89” is really great, I thought it would be a good idea to introduce Jean-Christophe van Thienen. Here what he has to say.

  • Do you know BUZZ ? A French Band ? No ? Well, then you are missing something great. The guys from BUZZ released only a few records, but their output belongs to the most impressive and important stuff that was released during the early to the mid 80s. Because of the resurgence of French cold pop, BUZZ is active again and because the retrospective CD “BUZZ 1984-89” is really great, I thought it would be a good idea to introduce Jean-Christophe van Thienen. Here what he has to say.

    1. Could you please give us a short introduction about yourself?

    Tricky one… How should I start ? I live in Lille, Northern France, and have been playing music for the last 23 years, mostly under the name BUZZ — and I don’t even know why I picked up that name but it stuck —, I love foreign languages and English Renaissance poetry — would you believe it ? I’m not gonna tell you about my other persona though. I am a two-sided person, a bit of a Dr Jekyll and Mister Hyde, i.e. the musician and the other guy and, believe me, we live in two very different spheres but I’m coping. BUZZ is originally a solo project, not a “group” or a “band”, I write all the songs and have always been doing so and have even already done more than a couple of solo gigs, but having a couple of efficient sidekicks can be good fun as well as exalting and enriching humanly and musically-speaking.

    2. Your musical project BUZZ was founded back in 1983. Please tell us, what was it like growing up during that time and how was your experience in doing electronic, perhaps unpopular music at that time.

    Well, BUZZ started in the aftermath of Punk… The first music I really got involved in was Punk, although I had been listening to Slade, Sweet, David Essex, Roderick Falconer and Gary Glitter before… I also liked Patti Smith and Lou Reed no end but was never drawn to the Beatles and the Stones, the Doors or any hippie bullshit… none of that Genesis, Supertramp, Electric Light Orchestra, Pink Floyd symphonic crap for me sonny !
    So when Punk came it was something of a relief… I went punk, dyed my hair, got almost expelled from school, and started meeting other individuals… bought “Hong Kong Garden” in its original gatefold sleeve, went to see Adam and the Antz play some dingy club in Leeds… and so on…
    In the late 70’s and early 80’s I regularly went to London and that allowed me to see bands such as Wasted Youth, Section 25, The Slits, or Ski Patrol in small venues… then I lived there for a year around 1982-3 and I followed The Sound, The Monochrome Set, Anne Clark and the like… Drum machines and keyboards came as another relief because I could never master playing guitar and had had some piano tuition. I had no room for rehearsing basically and a grunting sweaty drummer couldn’t fit in… Budget-wise I went for cheap equipment, some was lent by fellow-musicians and I started composing my own songs, then additional members joined in but I wrote all the material. Most of that DIY feeling had been — and still is — inherited from Punk. Of course people hated us but lots of likewise-minded others found it new and interesting. Singing in French in those days almost wasn’t done and was reserved to French variety artists… At least my doing so allowed all the morons who couldn’t have understood and questioned my English lyrics to do so with my French ones ! Then I also remember the French music press slagging off bands with drum machines because it wasn’t considered as “manly”… We sometimes combined a drummer and a drum-machine, nobody did in those days… People generally couldn’t make sense out of BUZZ, so they preferred labelling us: “Marinetti” got us accused of being fascists, “Berlin” of being nazis — by some cunts who obviously couldn’t master French or double-entendres either —, then to some we were Communists — because of “À l’Est rien de nouveau” — some other people declared we were downright stupid and lazy, because “Picasso”, a mostly instrumental song about a painter renowned for having observed more to paint less contained only the — er…— rather concise and childish line “Picasso prend un pinceau, Picasso fait un tableau”… something even simpler than ist English version on the remix: “Picasso picks up a brush and no words could say as much”…
    So BUZZ was on the whole misunderstood especially when we decided to be provocative and to take the piss… but frankly I couldn’t have cared less… the issues I considered serious in those days were The Cold War, I’d been to the USSR on a school-trip and had met brilliant people there. Secondly, the ghost of the Holocaust still loomed over us all — and still does as far as I’m concerned —, and so did, to a lesser extent, Kennedy’s assassination and I dealt with that, though not wanting to lecture people, just make them react and, perhaps, think, which more often than not failed. Thanks to the Internet I’ve learnt since that in those very days quite a number of isolated souls would cheer themselves up by listening to BUZZ on end in their adolescent bedrooms or on some remote dancefloors… And I discovered only recently that it had been going on for almost 20 years: to illustrate this, I can tell you that stepping into a Belgian Flanders electro/gothic disco last November to witness 300 people cavort to “Kennedy” was something of a (pleasant) shock !!!

    3. You released only 1 cassette and (4) 12“ vinyls in the 80s and just a few days ago there were a retrospective CD … How were the tracks chosen and did you remaster any of the material?

    Yep, “only” is the right word and I am the first to deplore it.
    The “See you Sioux” cassette was totally self-produced, most of it was home-made on a 4-track Portastudio a friend lent me and then the guitar, additional percs, backing vocals and vocals were added on a 2-track at the local radio station… Then the 4 CD’s got partly produced by Dancetaria Records who’d got interested after we’d sold 200 copies in their indie record shop.. BUZZ was their first signature and “Kennedy” — always going for that minimal post-punk dancefloor perspective — was an instant indie hit, our 1000 copies selling in a couple of months…. Then, little by little, because of our non-rock attitude, Dancetaria lost interest in BUZZ and signed dozens of other acts — in full regalia, i.e. with guitars and drums — before finally going bankrupt. They never financed the album although we’d recorded all the backing tracks, opposed to a couple of very promising songs’ releases — because they sounded “too commercial” — and kept us in a rut to rot. The fact that BUZZ was never rewarding money-wise led the other members to start ranting and nagging me — since I also managed the project — discouragedly and discouragingly about its sheer irrelevance; one day they left so I stored my little songs in a corner and went on to explore other musical territories with X-Voto and Sister Friction with the former Excés Nocturne guitarist.
    Listening to “1984” among our previously unreleased tracks on the “BUZZ 1984-89” compilation just proves me they were utterly wrong to fuck up !
    BUZZ was still under contract with Danceteria, it only ended in 2003. That’s one of the reasons why I had to wait all that time before being legally able to issue a compilation CD of all the former 12“ material and add to it another half of previously unreleased studio demos and live tracks…
    A couple of friends helped me remaster the whole thing and just when we started I learnt that “Berlin” had been pilfered and issued on DJ Hell’s Gigolo Records in 1999 by David Carretta… whom I’m now suing. If he’d reached me back then I would have happily agreed but doing it behind my back was downright silly !!! - The Carretta Case has been settled since September… we’ve contacted each other solicitor-less and agreed on a remix of “Minimal (et) électronique” (featuring Veronica Vasicka wink) which he must be working on these days !!!. Plus, David confessed he has been a dedicated BUZZ fan—just like his friend Milliemtric who’s gonna remix me soon as well, some recognition at last !!!— for quite a while—he owns all the 12”—and there was no reason for suing in those conditions… He also reckoned he’d been very careless when deciding to release his cover of “Berlin” renamed “Buzz” in 1999 (Gigolo Records).

    4. Tell us how it felt today to be part of a unique musical scene in the past and to recognize, that there are still people, who are interested in the pioneers of this sound.

    We didn’t realise at the time and I felt rather lonely in our shitty stuck-up town being despised by all the rock aficionados. Only when BUZZ played elsewhere did it get some proper recognition. As in Belgium or when I played solo in Madrid… And then years later thanks to the Internet you discover that people have the original “See you Sioux” tape in Manhattan, Switzerland or Romania and the compilation gets ordered not only in France and Belgium but also from Canada to Cyprus. That cheered me up no end !

    5. You will play on the 7th of October (2006) at the anniversary festival of Trisomie 21. Are there any connections between the new wave musicians in the past or today?

    Well, it’s more or less a planet on which everyone knows everybody else. I’ve never met the Trisomie guys but Neon Judgement’s manager really likes BUZZ while Implant from Gent, who are also gonna play there, have been backing Anne Clark for two years now when she does her electronic sets… while Anne has been a friend for 20 years… I supported her in Gent and Paris in 1986 and 1987… We played with Neva ages ago and have renewed contact, while I also met Gary Asquith from Renegade Soundwave, a band I’ve always admired, and we got on well. Concerning the New-Wave / Electro-rock / Minimal / Synthpop scene, the type of music we do makes us close ranks, mostly because we still are eccentrics in a pop-rock world so we are also in contact with the guys from No Tears or Happiness Project… It’s like a jigsaw puzzle that has been left unattended for 20 years and now it all fits in nicely without effort… It’s a very strange feeling but at the same time I feel I must have deserved it somehow… I got in touch with Veronica Vasicka — of the smashingly good 2VM — on the Net because she played my 1985 tape on East Village Radio and she now sings on one of my new tracks… Bertrand Siffert the Young Gods’ sound engineer for 20 years steadily accepted to remix two of our tracks, David Harrow did likewise, so did Len from Implant and Luc Van Acker of the Revolting Cocks, as well as Gary when he heard the song I’d dedicated to him “Sérénade pour un renégat”… I just can’t believe it ! All these people I deeply admire just get the opportunity to listen to your songs and go “waow, could I do this one ?”…

    6. I heard some rumours, that there will be another record to be released in the future with some remixes of your songs. Tell us more about it, please. Are you perhaps working on new songs with the old spirit?

    Well, Michael, “Vaudou électrique” is almost in the box. All the songs have been written over the last few months and some vintage numbers have been somehow revamped… I’ve written more than 40 in a little less than a year, complete with their lyrics. They are being re-recorded or remixed but everything should be ready by October and I’m more than happy with it… Minimal electro stuff some demos of which can be listened to on “Working on new songs with the old spirit” is partly that, Michael. It still is the same brain coming up with the tunes and writing down the lyrics. Many of those who’ve listened to the new numbers have been immediately convinced, some others during a blindtest at someone else’s place (I wasn’t there and didn’t know them at the time) guessed immediately, although they were quite uncredulous, not knowing the song and not knowing I had re-strated BUZZ… The good point is also that all the songs put on myspace are brand new 2005-6 ones and people react very positively to them… “Fille de l’orage” is not even 4 months old…
    But I wanted to be sure the new titles wouldn’t be considered as fillers between the original songs… there’s plenty more where that came from… it was just screaming for air and I had to record all that material and release it, not just keep it for myself. None of these songs existed a year ago, some lines had already been written though and were biding their time in copy-books…
    I’m surprised to see how natural and uncontrived the process has been… some kind of a rebirth or a long delayed delivery.

    7. Your music sounds sometimes light and pop-oriented and sometimes more experimental and a little strange. What were your musical influences and how did they change over the years. Do you have some all time faves?

    I don’t know about that… I couldn’t say…
    When they sound light the lyrics are alluding to very serious matter which is even more shocking… “Kennedy” is all about the President’s brains spilling onto Jackie’s nice suit and the back seat… but it’s all deliveres in a very factual, dispassionate way, which makes it even worse when you realise the implications… To put it mildly I am a rather cheerful person with very dark thoughts…
    When I compose a song I try more and more to eviscerate melodic lines which sometimes can sound a little cheap, but at the same time I love the odd gimmick and melody so it’s pretty hard. I concentrate more on bass-lines, questions and answers patterns and sequences nowadays.
    Needless to say all my sequence-lines are hand-made, I never ever triggered the arpeggio button, which would be way too easy and déjà-vu.
    I am really happy with “East Village Radio”, a track I did to thank Veronica for playing vintage BUZZ tracks on East Village Radio every Sunday morning… this song could almost bring me to tears towards the end. Don’t know why but the feeling emanating from it turns me so… I’ve never been to Manhattan and simply imagined the atmosphere there… it’s my very own “Theme for big cities” with the 9-11 scenes in mind… heartfelt, every single musical line must be heartfelt… which is why I’m never sure which family I fit in… Synthpop ? Electro-Rock ? Electro-Pop ?, ColdWave ? New-Wave ? Minimal Waves ?… Frankly I don’t know, but thanks for asking !
    I identify with and feel sympathy for all these currents but could never say for sure that I can squeeze my way in next to any of them… and the singing in French sure departed BUZZ from many other bands.
    I like the sound coming from machines you can dominate. There’s often too much ego in the average four-piece band and it always ends up showing, especially in the studio… so no thanks, I’ve had my share of that.
    Influence-wise I love Cabaret Voltaire and most of Richard H. Kirk’s projects but I do not think it shows when you listen to BUZZ, I also like Taxi-Girl, Anne Clark, Fad Gadget and so on… but I also listen to very different things such as Flamenco, Tango or Fado — I’m learning portuguese these days — Chet Baker, or La Muerte, The Cult and most of the original first generation punk bands as well as Italian singer Franco Battiato… I also love The Young Gods and Renegade Soundwave but similarly I do not think it shows and I’ve never tried to copy them. The way I write songs is rather different and they do sound poppy at times because I’m always looking for the melodic thingie or gimmick that will make them rememberable, I want them to be quite danceable also… in the “party of my mind” that is… and I do grant a lot of importance to the lyrics which is doubly difficult if you sing in French: first because Serge Gainsbourg explored those grounds before and you’ve really got to try your best to stand the comparison… which is of course impossible… and lots of French blokes insisting on singing in French cannot bloody write… then French — as opposed to English — is not the type of rhythmical language you can easily plaster onto a musical line, the scansion doesn’t allow for it. Hence my flat almost spoken vocals… I do not consider myself as a singer but as someone that combines text and music and as Marinetti once said — in 1906 — “the singer is just another instrument in the orchestra”. Which must be why I find more and more difficult these days to add my voice on top of someone else’s music. Generally, a line of texts I come up with sets me to the computer and the music it leads me to play brings on the rest of the lyrics so it’s a very private process which has been working overtime in the recent months !

    8. Are you involved in the website I ask, because this seems to be the “official“ adress to get some infos about BUZZ at the moment.

    I met Emmanuel, the nordwaves almighty webmaster, — HE whose name can hardly be uttered !!! — after relaunching BUZZ… believe me if you want but I went to see Anne Clark play one of her smashing acoustic sets in Bruges last November and after the gig she asked me about “Petite poupée japonaise” and “Orange mécanique” her two favourite BUZZ tracks for 20 years now… and then moments later her keyboard player Murat told me that a Swiss friend of his was a mad collector of music from the 80’s and that he owned the “See you” tape… so on coming back home I decided to tap “buzz” and see what would come out of it on the Internet… quite a lot actually ; from 100 Dollar e-bay bids for original vinyl editions of “Kennedy” and various sites such as French New Wave and nordwaves showed all our record sleeves and even had small biogs of BUZZ… so I contacted them both. The first lives in Nice 1000 kms from Lille and the other next door so we agreed to meet and have been seeing each other on a regular basis, working on the BUZZ page of the site and the “BUZZ 1984-89” compilation sleeve design together… Then the newly reformed Guerre Froide — of “Demain Berlin” fame —rehearse at his place and agreed to play a low-key gig with BUZZ for his birthday last month… So it’s quite a small world and a rather big family !

    9. After leaving so many years without any BUZZ in life, what were the reasons to reanimate it?

    I felt all hadn’t been said and I also felt that some people had judged me and my music wrongly. I guess I wanted/want to prove something to others and myself and I need music to live, it’s my fuel basically. I’ve never stopped playing in all those years, albeit very different types of music, exploring some sort of La Muerte/White Zombie heavy-rock and even Electro-Dub, while reggae bores me stiff… but BUZZ has proved to be my most sincere form of expression so far, some kind of extension or outgrowth ! I tried to deny and fight it for a long time in the 90’s but it came hammering at my door… whatwith meeting people, from all walks of life, who mentioned in the conversation their fave 80’s bands, among which BUZZ, not even knowing I’d been fronting it… and the final stroke was when one day I found a CD in my letter-box: it had been compiled by our former sound engineer, Bernard, who’d remastered some live tapes recorded fom the mixing desk way back in 1988… so I listened to them and thought they were allright and I remembered every note and word and my girlfriend came back from work, heard it playing and said “What is that ? That’s really good !” and other people — be they fellow-musicians or no-musicians — had the same remark so last August (2005) I decided to give a go… No reformation crap though, all the former part-time members having long given up music… and so it grew it grew, I hadn’t played live for about 10 years and greatly missed it…then I’m only good at playing keyboards and progamming rhythm-boxes so I decided to give it a go and funnily enough I got warm responses from all over… BUZZ hadn’t been forgotten.

    10. Except for the gig with T21, are there more gigs planned? What should the audience expect from BUZZ 2006?

    Obviously there should be at least one in the Spring not far from Bochum in Germany if my sources are right… since the October 7th Aliénor festival unfortunately prevented us from playing there earlier… then I’m just gonna let things grow in their natural way… there’s no hurry… I’m having views on the Dour festival for next years since its organiser Carlo di Antonio has always been rather keen on all my former musical projects and we played there twice in the past with Sister Friction… For the moment I’m concentrating on the new CD and running the myspace page which gives smashing results, from Moscow to Canada and back, and I’m especially focusing on Italian, Spanish and Portuguese-speaking countries these days — being able to dribble a bit in all these languages does help; sorry I never learnt German at school, but it’s never too late.

    11. If you could choose, which period would you prefer to live in? The 80s or 90s or today? Or something totally different like the middle ages …? Please tell us why.

    I wouldn’t choose any other period because we’ve never had it so good, this is the perfect slot. Playing music I’ve met or been in contact with lotsa people I’d always wanted to meet over the years— Anne Clark for one, but also Gary (Renegade Soundwave, The Lavender Pill Mob), the Clash, Siouxsie and the Banshees, Spizz Energi, Killing Jokes, the Young Gods, The Cure, Luc Van Acker, La Muerte, Zerra One, The Sound, Taxi-Girl, Daniel Darc, Kevin Mooney (Adam+Ants, Max), Fado singer Mariza, Gary Clail, Andrew Gray (Wolfgang Press, This Mortal Coil), the writer T.C. Boyle — and have befriended some of them too…
    It’s a rather brilliant era altogether and when I heard your question I could mostly think of periods I wouldn’t have wanted to live in… I’ve worked quite a lot on the English Renaissance and, no thanks I wouldn’t have liked it that much. Dying from the plague — or syphillis — isn’t my cup of tea…
    A couple of things get on my nerves though in this modern world of ours.
    I’ve lived in the 70’s and I hated it, I was truly born in 76-77 — all that hippie post 1968 bullshit just made and still makes me wanna puke: Punk came in as a reaction to that dictatorship and I’m real happy I came of age in 1977… The funny thing is that I see that whole 70’s dirge coming back today with all the falsely called democratic peace and love alter-mondialist movements…
    I’ve just written a song about that, incidentally, called “Le Nazi en dreadlocks”, whose title says it all… I’ve seen them at work during the recent strikes in France and, believe me, they’re even worse than the bloody “Red Khmers”. Give them a chance and they’ll line us all up against the wall because we think different and won’t revere Bob Marley, Che Guevara and Manu Chao as the new Messiah. Most of these so-called “citizens of the world” are fascists in disguise who can’t relate to any history for lack of knowledge, judgement, objectivity and information.
    My lyrics hint at many such issues but do not vehemently assert things. To hell with protest singers, let’s dance to the minimal wave !
    I tackle with a few recent problems that cannot have me remaining silent but I do not want to convert people: “Belles comme des Bouddhas” is about the Buddhas of Bamyan, the children of Beslan and the twin towers of Manhattan (and yes — rather unfortunately — it rhymes)…
    The going gets tough but the toughs get going, which is also why BUZZ is back in line to stand its ground and have a say, mostly because I’m fed up with listening to shit music and hypocritical speeches from people who think they know better than you and that you have the right to shut up and feel authorized to speak in your name. Fuck the politically correct, here comes BUZZ !!!

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