Brussels-based electronic producer Simon Hold on his latest 7″ release

On the recent release of his 7” single for Brussels imprint Vlek, producer Simon Hold blends an inkling for the past with an eye to the future, his pairing of authentic techniques together with modern instruments and narratives resulting in two equally pulsating and layered tracks. We fire off a few last minute questions via email to the Brussels-based musician to talk about the city’s influence on his music, his upbringing in Ghent’s low-income-high-culture trenches and his job as a music consultant for fashion companies.

Visuals by Silke Sarens (c).

You just released a 7” on Vlek and its press release makes clear reference of the city’s influence on your work – can you expand upon this?

Brussels is amongst the most culturally diverse cities in the world. And on some level there isn’t one monolithic culture with some minorities or subcultures added. Of course you have the Belgian state, the city and such, but most citizens experience an incredibly diverse reality on a daily basis. Unlike London or Berlin, there is no main culture which then absorbs and incorporates other influences into itself. Instead it remains in a sort of interesting flux that never seems to settle. This kind of environment has its own particular influence on the city’s residents. Living in Brussels, certain kinds of influences which might seem exotic to Flemish or Walloon small town dwellers are just normal elements of the daily environment.

If there is no space in the audience’s imagination that these things could be written by the same person, than that’s an indication of their lack of imagination rather than my own.

The same press release describes the a-side’s Maqam Bruxelloise as “an ode to Brussels’ all-embracing effervescence” whilst Dhajij Doux is described as evoking “the reality of living in a sometimes difficult and hostile city,” two rather contrasting quotes that suggests a somewhat bipolar relationship to the city. Would you agree and, if so, what would you attribute this to?

It only appears bipolar now because there are only two tracks. The medium of a 7” single presents the content in such a way and then adds this possible interpretation through its form. I wouldn’t call it bipolar, but maybe outright confusing. And I don’t mind that anymore. It’s all me in the end. If there is no space in the audience’s imagination that these things could be written by the same person, than that’s an indication of their lack of imagination rather than my own. So I decided I won’t stop myself like that anymore. Also, these press releases try to explain the vibe of the tracks through another medium than sound, namely text. And it always feels a bit silly because it is so obviously supportive of the music it talks about. But it’s part of the promotion system that is in place now and I don’t mind. Having said that, there is truth in the opposing concepts of the rich but fragmentary form of life in Brussels.

Can you talk to me about your upbringing? Where were you born, where did you grow up, the kind of household you grew up in, the adolescence you led, what you listened to growing up?

I was born and raised in Ghent by a single mother and I’ve lived there for most of my life. My mum liked going to exhibitions and concerts and wasn’t stopped by the fact that I had arrived in her life. She just took me with her. At that time Gerard Mortier was at De Munt in Brussels and he offered a special discount subscription for low income people so they could go see opera too. So she would take me as a toddler to go see pieces like Don Giovanni. Or she would take me to exhibitions at the MSK when the SMAK didn’t have it’s own building. I remember very little of all of this, just bits and pieces. But it sketches the setting in which I grew up. Low income, high culture.

A large part of making the music is actually discovering what these instruments can do trough experimentation, rather than forcing them to have a preconceived role in a composed piece of music.

When did you first start getting interested in music? Can you pinpoint an exact moment, or person, you’d credit with introducing you to music-making?

There was always music playing in the house when I was a kid alone with my mother. And I had my favourites too. There is one record that I used to ask my mum to put on a lot. I called it ‘the record of the rising sun’ because there is a small picture of a red sun on the sleeve. I also had interest in the sound things make as well. There was an unused copper etching plate in the attic from my mum’s school days which I used to love playing with. You can rattle it to make thunder. Or bend and twist it to make these kinds of whale-like calls, like something between a giant bubble in water and a singing saw. So my mum tried to send me to music lessons and I went for four years, but I was too lazy to study. Later on, I got into Acid House after going to the first Retro Acid party in the Vooruit. I was 14 at the time. Before that I came into contact with electronic music through my stepdad’s colleagues who gave him CDs of Jeff Mills and Squarepusher. So I was already listening to that stuff but on my Walkman or at home, but I had never experienced the full power of electronic music played loud on a full range sound system until I went to the Retro Acid party. From then on I understood this music can be made, and unlike classical music a large part of making the music is actually discovering what these instruments can do trough experimentation, rather than forcing them to have a preconceived role in a composed piece of music. Nonetheless it took a while before I could get my hands on the tools to actually do that myself. One of the people who had a great impact on this aspect was Guy Van Belle, who is an artist and researcher at the IPEM institute. He did a workshop for Brussels 2000 where he let kids improvise with MAX/MSP programs he had written. It literally was: here’s the program, now play, in front of these audiences. I was 16 at the time and wanted to make cool Drum & Bass or Techno, but it turned out to be pretty noisy improv stuff. It was pretty fundamental to my understanding that this was possible. That this kind of free and positive attitude towards the results of your explorations was allowed.

Coming back to Maqam Bruxelloise, it references an age-old Arabic tradition of improvisation. How much actual improvisation was involved in the recording of this single and how did Maqam otherwise influence the recording?

The entire track was recorded in a few hours. I just created layer after layer of rhythm and bass with my Dave Smith Evolver synth until I had enough of a backbone to record the lead. The main melody is one take only, no editing, no MIDI quantizing, just the rarest purest synth noodle possible. After I recorded it I tried to find out which key I had played in according to the Arabic tradition of music, but I wasn’t sure. They use scales (like major or minor in Western music) but to these scales are attached various ideas of articulation and improvisation. So the same musical key with a different style of using it can be a different maqam. I couldn’t find the one that matched what I had done so in the end I decided that this particular maqam would then just be called ‘the Brussels maqam’.

I recorded Maqam Bruxelloise because my Egyptian neighbors were being super loud and I wanted them to know I could hear them by letting them hear me.

Can you take me through your recording process from the moment you have an idea for a track to the moment you send it off to mastering?

It doesn’t necessarily start with an idea. I recorded Maqam Bruxelloise because my Egyptian neighbors were being super loud and I wanted them to know I could hear them by letting them hear me. Sometimes it’s something like that, an event from mundane daily life. Other times it is the object that makes the sound that is somehow inviting me to play with it, like the copper etching plate or Guy Van Belle his MAX/MSP patches. Then you just get to work and put in the effort to take this somewhere interesting.

You’ve been making music – either producing, writing, arranging or as a backing musician – for quite some time now, but have only just released some of your work under your own name, as a solo artist. Why is that?

It is this annoying idea that you must not confuse the audience too much, each product should have its own identity which mustn’t be “contaminated” by other projects so that it is easier to digest for the audience. That, combined with the history of anonymity in Techno music. And a collaboration project needs a name I think. Hold isn’t my Flemish last name by the way. It is another gesture to make it easier for people to remember my name and as with a lot of things it is in English for the pretense of internationality. My next releases will be under my own name and I might keep it like that for everything from now on.

Can you talk to me a little about your work as a producer, writer or arranger? Who have you worked with in the past, and who are you currently working with and in what capacity?

There aren’t that many people I have worked with I think. I used to make quite melodic minimal techno, verging on the edge of neo-trance with Fredo De Smet as Pitch & Hold. This music was released by two Scotsmen on their label Love Triangle Records. We did a few remixes for that label too. I helped one of them out, Williams, to finish his album Atlantic Mind. Just functioning as a soundboard during his creative process really. Most of my successful collaborations are like that. Either I get help from a friend or I provide help for one. There are a few friends I sometimes end up making music with in the studio but it is hard to organise to put the work in. It’s easy to noodle and record ideas that never get developed. People equate music with leisure as it usually is the soundtrack to their leisure, or it is the divertissement at work to liven up the atmosphere. After the inspiration comes the work. By work I don’t mean that thing people do to make a living, but the actual gestures and energy the music itself requires to become something that can stand on its own as a thing in the world.

I may be wrong, but I heard that you worked as a music consultant for Versace. Can you tell me a little bit more about this gig? How did it come up, what does it involve?

I make my living as a music consultant for fashion companies, yes. Versace is one of my biggest clients, Christopher Kane being the other big one. David, the other person behind Love Triangle Music started working for Christopher Kane and asked me to help him out with the music for the shows. Donatella Versace hired Christopher to bring back the VERSUS line and he took me with him to Milan. Donatella liked what I did for VERSUS and hired me for more. Just like any consultant I offer my insights, knowledge, skills and tastes concerning a certain topic to my clients. They need some music, I suggest which music. Either I use something made by someone else, or I compose something myself, or I suggest whom to ask to make something new like hiring Inês Coutinho a.k.a VIOLET for a few seasons. In this job everything is dependent on what it is for. In the case of fashion shows I believe the aim is to bring the audience in the right mood to understand the collection. The music functions as a device that plays with the musical sensibility of the audience to make them more receptive to the mood and vibe of the collections on show. Make them feel it so they ‘get’ it more easily.

As a musician, what is your most productive period of the day, and why?

Not only for music, for anything I have an energy peak around 5pm. Before 11am I seem to suffer from a form of sleep jet lag or something. No matter how early I get up my spirit only seems to arrive at 11am.

How would you describe Belgium’s current crop of musicians and producers? Any local talent that features high on your listening list?

I would describe the current Belgian talent as amazing with huge potential but underdeveloped. It seems to me a lot of people I meet are secretly scared of becoming professional. So unless the music gets out there, there isn’t really that much to be said about it. I listen to music in public transport as I usually am working on my own stuff in the studio. Sendai is always on my phone, Yves De Mey’s new project Grey Branches too, Peter Van Hoesen DJ sets are always of very high quality. Wwwater is amazing and I hope Charlotte does well internationally. She’s got the talent and the work ethic, so she has a good chance to break out of the Belgian box. There are so many talented people I know personally and I thoroughly enjoy their music but there’s too many to list. And often after a day in the studio I prefer silence over even more music.

Simon Hold’s 7” is out now on Vlek.