Steven, Campina Reggae's debut album, 'Vet En Verstaanbaar', has just been released. Taking into account the current recession in the music business, how difficult a journey has it been to get a Dutch reggae album released?
Steven Vangool (bass, vocals): "I tried to avoid being confronted with that issue by recording the album first and worrying about finding a record company to distribute it later. I absolutely wanted to make this album, so that's what I did, almost instinctively, really. Luckily, quite soon after finishing the recording process I quite easily found a small label interested in doing the distribution (the now defunct Super/Lowlands distribution, red.). So all in all, I've got nothing to complain about yet!"
There's a growing trend of singing in Dutch or even in Flemish dialect. The album is called 'Vet En Verstaanbaar' ("cool and comprehensible", red.). How comprehensible are your lyrics?
Steven Vangool: "Well, I can only hope most people in our audience understand what we are singing about. I sing in a Flemish dialect that draws ingredients from both the Dutch language and the local dialect of Dessel, the village where I grew up. Should I really only use the dialect from Dessel, I think my lyrics would become far less understandable for a lot of people. For someone from the Campine region, my accent sounds as if I'm from Antwerp and vice versa. With regards to the content, I don't think there's a problem, because our songs all deal with very universal themes."
Combining reggae music with Dutch lyrics means you'll often be compared to that most famous Dutch reggae band, Doe Maar.
Steven Vangool: "I was born in 1971, so I'm a child of the eighties. When Doe Maar was at the height of its success, I was just starting to develop an interest in music. I don't have a problem with people who want to compare what we do with the work of Doe Maar, because personally I still consider Henry Vrienten as the top dog in the Dutch reggae subgenre."
Wawadadakwa, Tatoo Del Tigre, Klezmic Noiz, Belgian Afrobeat Association ... that are all very different bands you were or still are a member of. Which raises the question: "Who is the real Steven Vangool?"
Steven Vangool: "(laughs) That's a valid question and one I asked myself as well when I started contemplating founding my own band. What genre was I going to play? As you pointed out just now, I've spent the last ten years playing in various projects. I decided to do some soul-searching and started digging around in my memory to find the exact moment I started playing bass and the reason why I did so. I started out listening to a lot of soul and blues, but when I started to play the bass, I turned my attention to reggae. Reggae is a musical genre wherein the bass plays a pivotal role. I think you can hear a part of me in just about every project I've contributed to, but with Campina Reggae I'm definitely playing a little closer to home. It's as if this music is already inside me, so it was absolutely no effort coming up with the twelve songs for this album."
The one constant in all these projects is your bass, and in consequence, your name has almost become synonymous for bass player. You're quite tall and seen that you also play the contrabass from time to time I had to wonder if your length had anything to do with your choice of instrument?
Steven Vangool: "Not really, no, but there is quite a story to it. When I bought my first bass, an acoustic one, I had the frets removed. I just thought it would look a lot cooler to play it like that. Someone then pointed out to me that a bass without frets is really nothing more than a contrabass. (laughs) I like playing the contrabass, but to me it's just one of the bass sounds I use in my music. I used it a lot when I played with Klezmic Noiz and Raymond Van Het Groenewoud, but for Campina Reggae I decided not to use it. It really all depends on the vibe I want to create. It stands to reason that it's easier for a tall person to play a big instrument, but because the pin at the bottom of the contrabass is adjustable in length, it's not really an issue."
The name "Campina Reggae" refers to the old Latin name for the Campine region, but also that of a now defunct brewery in Dessel.
Steven Vangool: "Someone from Dessel will immediately think of the brewery, that's for sure, yes. Campina just had the right sound I was looking for in a name. The people from the Campine region, including the ones that live just across the border in The Netherlands, have still retained their identity. The name also refers to the dialect I use to express myself."
Apart from reggae, there are hints of other genres in the songs on the album. Is that something that you may delve into more in the future?
Steven Vangool: "The thought of erasing the word "reggae" from the band name has already crossed my mind, yes, but that doesn't necessarily mean I want to change the music we play radically as well. The new songs we're working on definitely have more of a dancehall feel. We're still fully in the process of experimentation to see what we can handle and what not. You can do a lot in a studio, but we want to bring it live on stage as well."
You saved a prominent spot on the album for the late Louis Neefs: in the song 'Iet Nief' you sampled part of his 'Als Ik Nog Eens Vijf Minuten Tijd Heb' and 'Louis' is a straightforward ode to the man himself. What connects Campina Reggae to Louis Neefs?
Steven Vangool: "He's just pure and simple the best the Campine region had to offer. He died the night of Christmas Eve 1980, a very emotional moment for the entire Flemish part of Belgium; I can still remember it quite vividly. When historians will look back on the Campine region, Louis Neefs will be named as one of the greats; that much I'm sure of. He was a man that radiated class and allure. On a personal level, doing those songs, also has something to do with a sense of nostalgia."
Let's return to reggae for a moment. If we would snoop through you record collection, what are the reggae classics we would find in there?
Steven Vangool: "What reggae is concerned, Lee Perry was one of the first artists I listened to, followed of course by Bob Marley. Lee Perry was in a world and class of his own, though. I've spent hours on end, listening to his versions, instrumentals and dubs and trying to play along on my bass. And I shouldn't forget to mention Peter Tosh; I've always had a lot of respect for what he represented."
One of the surprising sounds in Campina Reggae is Zulema Hechavarria Blanco's flute. Was it a conscious choice of yours to integrate that sound?
Steven Vangool: "I really wanted to work with Zulema. I've got a low-sounding voice, so for the arrangements of the songs the choice to add an extra high-pitched sound element was perfect. At the same time, the sound of the flute doesn't overshadow my voice, something a saxophone or trumpet might do. More than anything else, it was a musical choice, but I must admit it also adds something to the songs, because it's an instrument that never really sounds aggressive. The rest of the band, bass, drums and guitar, do have that more aggressive feel, so that creates an almost perfect balance."
Your lyrics are loaded with humour, how important is that ingredient for you and should we still take the music Campina Reggae does seriously then?
Steven Vangool: "To me, humour is very serious business! (laughs) Apparently, a lot of people find a lot of humour in my lyrics, but that's not always my intention when I start writing a song. I can only hope the core message of my songs still gets trough. In fact the humour in my lyrics is part of the message I want to put out. I believe it's best to look at life with a smile on your face, but that doesn't necessarily mean all my songs were created when I was in a great or happy mood. When I sing: "Niet verzwakken, komaan, ge moet blijven gaan!" ("Now's not the time for fainting, you got to keep on dancing!", red.) for example, that's something I told myself at a moment when I was feeling very low. Humour is good, though; instead of totally depressed, I'd rather have people going home smiling and singing after one of my concerts. Anything goes, really, provided the crowd keeps dancing!"