Music

Alt-pop heroes Balthazar on creating their effortlessly stellar album Sand

Let’s face it, the premise of time has become more apparent to us all over the past 12 months as we live our lives in and out of Covid enforced lockdowns.

As we deal with the restlessness and anxiety of waiting that comes with it, it’s no surprise most of us are looking at our clocks and calendars, wondering when the normality of life will resume once again.

And for Belgian alt-pop supremos Balthazar, time is the theme that, somewhat coincidentally, forms the basis of their effortlessly cool new album Sand, out now via PIAS, despite the record being written before the pandemic hit.

Its name is derived from sand in the hourglass while track names include Moment, Linger On, Losers, which features the poignant lyric “We are losers on the verge of something great”, and Hourglass, where they sing: “I do not want to wait”.

Even its album art fits perfectly. The striking sculpture, aptly named Humunculus Loxodontus aka The One Who Waits, by Dutch sculptor Margriet Van Breevort dons its cover.

“Jinte and me separately wrote a lot about about patience and not having patience, being restless, being losers on the verge of something great”, explains Balthazar’s Maarten Devoldere. “There were so many references to time that subconsciously we had found our concept.”

Sand finds Balthazar at their genre-exploring but pop-orientated best, as they majestically juxtapose rock, r&b, jazz, and even disco-tinged beats, culminating in one of 2021’s stand out releases so far.

Jinte Deprez added: “We made the album because we were having a lot of fun and we still had something to say, I think.

“In a way it is definitely a snapshot of what Balthazar is right now. But in a couple of months it could be totally different, and then we have to make a new album.”

Daily Star’s Rory McKeown caught up with Maarten and Jinte to talk about Sand, its remote writing and recording process, its influences, lockdown life, and their next steps.

Hi guys, how have the past 12 months been for you? How have you navigated the pandemic as a band?

Maarten: “It was kind of challenging. We wrote most of the songs when we were still touring the Fever album. We had the idea to record live in a studio with the five of us in the room to capture the live energy of the concerts.

"But corona came and we were in lockdown. We liked it as we had lots of work to do. We could work in the calmness that came along with the pandemic. But we also had to look for new ways to produce the album. We started working with electronics, drum samples and synthesisers. We had to work over the internet in that stage of the production.

“In the summer we could get together and finish the album, which was important. By then we had decided it would be a more electronic approach because we really liked it. Some songs became better because of it.

"It was liberating – the fact we had limitations and we had to find creative solutions. That was interesting for us. We had to get out of our comfort zone.”

Do you think you’ll take some of this element of recording on in the future?

Jinte: “I think with every album you try out new stuff. The way we look at our career is that it’s a long process. Every album is a new way of creating something. Every album you learn so much. Most of the time when you’re making a new album it’s a reaction against what you did before. This album was a bit different. The initial thought was to push it further than we had on the previous album. It was nice just to see that you can still be creative through WeTransfer!

“In some ways it shows you that communication in the studio is something important. It’s maybe a bit too sterile to do it through telephone, or a lot less natural. But some elements we discovered that our producer was working on the session and we could follow it online. I was like ‘wow, I love the future!’.

“The way we arranged the album to me, there are a lot of new things but it’s like every album. You have this constant new stuff you learn and you always take it with you. It could be that the next album is anti-synthesisers as a reaction. You never know.”

Did you have a picture in mind of how you wanted it to be at the end?

Maarten: “It changed completely because of lockdown. First we write the songs and then you start going deeper into them. You want to arrange them in a certain way. When you write songs, it goes out in every direction. Write what comes out of you.”

Jinte: “I think we started writing the album from a point of view that we wanted to capture the tour vibe we had as a band. We came back from solo projects and we became a band again. We were very surprised by how well oiled we played in a live situation. We wanted to push that further.

"The initial thought was to come together in the studio with everyone, but that was illegal. It definitely sounds different as well. It sounds more like solitary producer work than a live band in a studio. In that sense, it changed everything sonically. The lyrics and the songwriting remained the same.”

There is a real element of groove throughout the album. It’s catchy from the off with Moment, Losers is one of my favourite tracks of the year, and I Want You is effortlessly cool. Was there anything that you were embracing or influenced by in the recording of it?

Jinte: “Not specifically other artists to be honest. Throughout the years we have so many inspirations and different genres. I Want You was a real rock track and Moment has r&b-esque drums in a way. We kind of like those different directions. In the end you have to put them together on an album. Sonically you try to fit them together. I think we’ll always write this way.

“Sometimes we’re described as an indie rock band but we just make pop music from so many influences and the collective that we have, that’s how it comes out of us. We’re always going to write in different directions. That’s how I like it.”

Do you think this album is the quintessential snapshot or insight into Balthazar as a band?

Jinte: “I definitely think it is a snapshot. Every album is a snapshot. You capture a moment.

"The thing is, it’s been finished since last summer so for us it’s already old. The snapshot is already changing. That’s why in the live situation, the songs start to change a bit. It’s a snapshot in the sense of that it’s a synthesis of what we want to do right now as a collective. Because we have our solo projects, it’s not that we have to make an album. We made the album because we were having a lot of fun and we still had something to say, I think.

"In a way it is definitely a snapshot of what Balthazar is right now. But in a couple of months it could be totally different, and then we have to make a new album.”

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The themes behind the album are interesting, with the metaphor of “sand in the hourglass” representing the album title. What was it like getting into the mindset when writing this album? Did it seem more pertinent considering the lockdowns we’ve lived through these past 12 months?

Maarten: “I think that’s a coincidence. We always write very personal songs. Most of them are about a girl in our life or whatever. The whole idea of time was something we found out afterwards when we put all the songs together.

"Jinte and me separately wrote a lot about about patience and not having patience, being restless, being losers on the verge of something great. There were so many references to time that subconsciously we had found our concept.

"When we sang about restlessness or impatience, the chorus in Hourglass is ‘I do not want to wait’, we were mostly talking about wanting to be able to create and continue. How we are in life. Then the pandemic came and now it sounds kind of prophetic. It made it more ironic that we restless sitting at home for a year.

“The album cover was a reference to that. Everybody can really relate to the awkwardness of having to wait now.”

The fantastic album art was designed by Dutch sculptor Margriet Van Breevort. What drew you to this design in particular? It is extremely striking for an album cover.

Jinte: “It is. That was the first thing that caught out attention. We saw it for the first time on the internet. Maarten showed it to me. We were laughing at it, like everyone is the first time you see it.

“Once you look at it a bit longer, there are so many different aspects. It’s cute, kind of repulsive in a way, then it’s cute again. It’s intriguing. What is it? Is it an animal? Is it a man in a costume? We have no idea what it means and why it exists in the first place. That’s why it struck us in the first place.

“When we were finishing the album and the theme was becoming clear, we saw the image again going through options. That’s when we learned the meaning of this statue is. It’s a sculpture and it’s referring to a man who’s in a waiting room, and the awkwardness of not having control over time and what you’re doing there. It makes you feel awkward and it makes you feel very self-conscious, and that’s how you start to see yourself, as this kind of blob. We thought it was the perfect reference to what we were singing about. We’ve put it on our t-shirt now and I’m like ‘yeah, that’s a nice t-shirt!’. It means something and it was pretty easy to choose.

“Like Maarten said, it’s funny. Maybe because of these times it becomes a global sentiment. The flyer for what was corona like.”

How eager are you to get back out on the road and see the songs become alive and evolve?

Maarten: “Oh man. Needless to say we’re very eager. All musicians feel like they have a pressure inside boiling up.

“Especially this album, it was written to play live. I think it will go over very well in a live situation. We rehearsed two weeks ago and it was the first time we’d played it as a band. It was really cool. There’s no audience yet but it already felt like so much fun. We can’t wait. We only have reactions through the internet, how you connect with fans. It’s something but it’s so much more fun if you can play and people start to move, cry, laugh.”

Jinte: “There are songs on the album that are that moment and it works for that moment but some songs get an afterlife, they become totally different. You see what it means to certain people. Sometimes even your own emotion to the song changes, it’s something necessary.

"We took it all a bit for granted how it works, releasing an album and going on tour. We definitely miss that aspect. It feels very unnatural not to be able to play them live. We’ve announced the tour. It’s going to happen, one day.”

What’s next for you? Are you already thinking about your next direction?

Jinte: “We just had a meeting about the tour and there’s a bit more perspective in that sense. When you release an album in these times it’s very abstract. You don’t feel like you’ve released an album. We need to feel that first.

“We’ve discovered that we are pretty competent writers but it’s hard to start writing when you’re not very inspired when your life stands still. You don’t have these impulses. It’s finding new ways to write again, I think.

“Our first focus is to make sure we can go and play. We have to promote this album so we’ve recorded a concert video/documentary. We’re going to release that as well. This is what our focus is now, to explain the album a bit further.”

Balthazar’s Sand is out now via PIAS

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