How an accountant gave experimental producers much needed room to breathe, one 7” single at a time.

Brussels-based record label Lexi Disques occupies an often-overlooked but crucial role in the world of independent music, one that exists at the crossroads of experimental and pop music. Founded in 2008 by Catherine Plenevaux, a deft curatorial ability coupled with an unwavering belief in the creative possibilities of the 7” have, in time, contributed towards making of the soft-spoken imprint something of an unsung hero for the Belgian underground. Here, in a revealing interview with Plenevaux (40) and a few days before the label’s Céline Gillain plays a live concert at CIVA this Friday for the release of our new edition, we talk about her role as editor, Brussels in the early nineties and being a bit of a sucker for a good song.

“I know most people running labels start earlier, but I had trouble finding my domain in the whole music thing,” admits Catherine Plenevaux, who launched her record label Lexi Disques at the age of 32. Growing up in Uccle, the leafy Commune on the southern end of Brussels, her relationship to music had always been one of struggling to find her way. “I grew up in a family that wasn’t very musical or cultural. My parents had two albums with classical music, one by Hugues Aufray, three 7” singles by the Beatles and two compilation albums by the Beach Boys. Apart from that, there was nothing,” she says by way of introduction. In 1991, at the age of 14, Plenevaux went on a summer camp in the south of France, where a girl made her listen to Sonic Youth and a couple of French punk bands from the era. “It made a huge impact,” she recalls. “I felt an excitement I had never felt before. At the time, I used to listen to KLF, Depeche Mode, Pet Shop Boys, a bit of the Cure … Stuff that’s not necessarily bad and was readily available. My sister also lent me some new beat cassettes from Bocaccio, but nothing from all that really stood out. Until the day I heard Sonic Youth for the first time.”

The making of an LP can easily take a year but for me, a record comes from a desire at a certain moment, with a certain artist. It’s a privileged moment, but it has to be done in six months, or I lose my interest in the project – not in the artist though.

Back in Uccle, she started looking for avenues that might mirror what she had felt in the South of France. “Since I lived too far out to capture the airwaves of Radio Campus and Radio Panik, I ended up listening to a broadcast on national Radio 2 called Perfecto, a daily show for adolescents during a primetime evening slot,” she says. “They played a lot of indie music from labels such as 4AD, Creation and Subpop and talked about cinema and fanzines too,” she continues. Indeed, Plenevaux would read every music magazine she could get her hands on and, between the age of 15 and 18, every Saturday after her lessons of Japanese calligraphy, she’d go window shopping at record stores then go to the Mediathèque in Brussels. “I rented out 10 CDs every week – the maximum you could get,” she recalls. “It wasn’t just your average library. They had very specialized sections, and a lot of good advice, although at the time it did cost me quite a chunk of money.” After her Mediathèque binges, she’d hop on the bus back to Uccle, where she’d copy the CDs to cassettes. “We were six kids at home, so I couldn’t just listen to them on the CD player in the living room. My parents thought I was a bit crazy spending so much money on cultural stuff and thought I should put more effort in looking good.” By the time she turned 18, Plenevaux was listening to Einsturzende Neubauten, and was all dressed in black. “Through the Velvet Underground and similar bands, my ears had opened up to practically everything in the classic rock canon.”

Soon after, she got introduced to the world of experimental music whilst at university. “When I was 17, I enrolled in history classes at the ULB. I studied medieval history. There must have been a hidden connection between historians and music, because I met a lot of music fans in my class. Christophe Piette, one of the co-organiser of Ptit Fays festival who actually was on the last cover of The Word, was a medievalist. And Benjamin Franklin, the artist with whom I did the very first Lexi Disques record in 2008, was in my class too. Benjamin introduced me to a lot of new music I had never heard of before,” she recounts. “He already was in touch with the guys from Kraak at the time.”

I guess I’m also just a sucker for a good song.

“Experimental music is a bit different from all the other music,” Plenevaux goes on. “It’s very precise and not easily accessible, so you need someone to carry and introduce you. Especially because there was no specific place where you could go if you had an interest in that kind of stuff. I felt that between the end of the eighties – a blooming period for the Brussels scene – and the early nineties, there was a moment where everything was just floating a bit. There still was a strong current of new wave among the older generation, whilst my generation was more into indie music. You had punk spots like the old Magasin 4, and there was Botanique, who were more adventurous at that time. AB was closed, Beursschouwburg had just re-opened and VK* was there too. Some of their stuff was touching the experimental field, and there was the Ars Musica festival, but that was a bit too academic for me at that time. There was no mixture like we have nowadays,” Plenevaux remarks. “For example, the Brussels-based label Les Disques du Crépuscule released really audacious and fresh sounding records. They were sometimes experimental, but also had a vocation for pop music, like Antena. For me, they had a very emblematic way of thinking, they didn’t stick to one genre. They took a bit of everything and used it in a certain mindset. Marc Hollander’s Crammed wasn’t limited to one genre neither, they mixed everything. People in Brussels in the nineties had the same attitude: they would go see a punk show and then afterwards go dance in a club. That’s when I got into electronic music too: Aphex Twin, Sabres of Paradise, µ-Ziq. You have to understand that Brussels was and is a small city, and musical tendencies wouldn’t come here in full effect like in really big cities. People would listen to all sorts of music – they had no choice if they wanted to nurture themselves. So I have always had the impression that, around me, people were clued in and eclectic,” Plenevaux observes by way of explaining the influence Brussels exerted on her musical inclinations. “People didn’t choose one camp or cult. We would simply gather around an idea of music.”

So why did she only start running her label nearly ten years after university? “The idea of a label had been with me for a long time, but it was intimidating. For starters, I didn’t have the money. After my studies, I worked as a librarian, which was badly paid. I struggled to pay my bills so I started studying accountancy and after a couple of months, found a job in an office on the outskirts of Brussels,” she explains. And so it is that, for the past ten years now, Plenevaux, the founder of one of the most slept-on record labels in Belgium, has been working as an accountant. “It’s the compromise I made,” she says, explaining her choice. “All of a sudden I had enough money, so the decision to finally go for my label dreams was an easy one.” The first record Plenevaux put out was a 7” single by her old classmate and friend Benjamin Franklin, back in 2008. Since then, she’s released 20 records and all but one of them have been 7” singles, although Plenevaux claims that this is “not some sort oft fetishism. Not for vinyl nor the 7” format. It has to do with my personal love for the short format, an extremely difficult but also very gratifying discipline in music. As an editor, it allows records to come out relatively fast and stay fresh. The making of an LP can easily take a year but for me, a record comes from a desire at a certain moment, with a certain artist. It’s a privileged moment, but it has to be done in six months, or I lose my interest in the project – not in the artist though.”

A 7” is different though, I can stay in front of the record player and listen to it 20 or 30 times in a row. It’s very much attentive and repetitive listening

“As for the artists,” she continues “I believe Lexi Disques occupies a role as a label where they can come and take a break. They can do something specific that doesn’t necessarily fit into their usual body of work.” She takes Brussels-based French producer Aymeric De Tapol’s recent 7” as an example. “It is so poppy that it feels like a UFO in his discography. I think the short discipline of the 7” is maybe more intimidating to experimental artists. It’s some sort of risk: it has a limited running time, it has to be direct, catchy, accessible, and show a certain efficacy. But that’s the risk I love! When experimental musicians, who usually have a certain dryness, make a pop record, it’s the best in the world.” Indeed, Plenevaux strongly believes that offering the space to make a short and specific record is a good thing for a musician. “It’s a bit like a showcase, and it’s not necessarily destined to repeat itself. Lexi is not a stable with permanent artists. Everybody is free afterwards, and it’s a perfect intermediate stop – just as it was for DJ Athome’s Front De Cadeaux. That’s the space I want to occupy,” she enthuses, “and I think that’s the space the artists are looking for in a label that specializes in 7” records.” And whilst DJs and purists would argue that 12” records also have a short release process, with better sound quality and a longer running time, Plenevaux remains undeterred. “The 7” is light. It’s serious and not serious at the same time. It has flexibility, and is easy in so many ways – to post, to transport, to play. It probably also traces back to my youth, when I used to buy them. When people managed to tell a lot of things in two or three minutes… That fascinates me. It forces artists to work in a completely different manner than the one they’re used to and it requires a certain discipline – and as an accountant, I love discipline. I guess I’m also just a sucker for a good song.’

Paradoxically, as a listener, Plenevaux is very much into the long format. “I adore music that lasts for hours, like Eliane Radigue or Phill Niblock. I can get drawn into one song on an album, or one specific phase in a long track around which all the rest seems centered, but to me, it can’t exist without what comes before or after. A 7” is different though, I can stay in front of the record player and listen to it 20 or 30 times in a row. It’s very much attentive and repetitive listening which, funnily enough, enters very well in the experimental approach to music. I think I test the stuff I want to release some 200 times, just to see if I can bear the repetition. That’s very important.” As you’d expect. Plenevaux has a stringent approach to selecting the artists she works with. “There is one condition,” she states. “I must have met the artist in person. I don’t want to work from distance. Internet is a genius thing, but it can never replace the feeling of a one-on-one encounter because I strongly believe the human relation between me and the artist has a direct impact on the quality of the record, and talking about these things in real life has an impact on the process of the record too.”

I think I test the stuff I want to release some 200 times, just to see if I can bear the repetition.

Plenevaux cites Les Disques du Crépuscule again. “They’re probably the label whose discipline I most want to reach. Not really in terms of success – times have changed too much for that – but as far as its anchorage in Brussels goes and in terms of eclecticism. Of course there are hundreds of other labels that have influenced me, you never really start from scratch. Not as an artist, neither as an editor. It’s in the diversity of your models that you find your own voice and your own approach, which is personal. And there have been so many people before you that have done the same thing, and did it very well. So why wouldn’t you get inspiration from them?”

Aside from the musical decision, artists on Lexi Disques also get to decide on the visual aspect of their releases. “The important thing is that they’re happy with the result,” Plenevaux explains. “I think it’s important to follow their intuition, unless they tell me that I can decide.” One of the consequences of this approach is that Lexi Disques doesn’t have an instantly recognizable visual identity.  “That’s not true,” Plenevaux contests. “There is a coherence, but it’s not apparent. It’s an unconscious thing. I do understand why other labels, such as Vlek or Pan for instance, follow a distinct graphic line. In terms of distribution and customer loyalty, it’s definitely better, because it makes your product recognizable – people might see your new record and buy it simply because they liked your previous one. But I work differently. And I believe in the end, people will see my graphic line. Uniformity can also come with quantity. After 20 releases and ten years of existence, it starts to emerge, people get used to it. They see the coherence in everything I do – in the fact that I only release 7” records for example.” Although that’s not entirely true, as Lexi loyalists will happily point out. “There is one 10” record in Lexi’s discography but that record was a collaboration with Pneu, a collective of artists and musicians in Brussels. For a couple of years, I used to run Lexi entirely on my own and, one day, Pneu approached me and said they’d be happy to help. So in 2011, Lexy Disques integrated Pneu as a collaboration between two structures. I can still decide on everything artistic, and they give me practical help and formalised my label in their non-profit. Just the fact that I had people to exchange ideas and competences with was very nice. I’m not a sound engineer, for me something just sounds good or it doesn’t. My knowledge doesn’t reach much deeper than that, but theirs does. Just to give you an example: the B-side of the Benjamin Franklin 7” was not even mastered, it was transferred from cassette to digital, and then to vinyl. I still think it’s perfect the way it is, but it could’ve benefited from a bit more work. In exchange, I help them out with stuff and I do some accountancy work for one of the members.”

If you’ve known a music scene for a long time, you can define your position better.

Taking a step back to reflect on the essence of her work, she truly sees herself as an editor. “The position I am now in is the one I prefer the most. It’s the most rewarding, and I can defend what I want to defend. It’s a late vocation but I’m not sure I could’ve done this earlier in my life. I don’t think I was confident enough, and I didn’t have money.” Another reason she cites is that being an editor requires a certain maturity in the listening process. “My conscience has ripened more,” she explains. “It’s sharper. If you’ve known a music scene for a long time, you can define your position better. I realised to what point I needed to position myself as a service to something that I find important.” As Plenevaux says, it takes time to be comfortable with not being the center of the whole thing. And that goes for everyone and everything. “Without musicians, without listeners or collectors, without venues, without a scene, without shops, without distribution, it wouldn’t be possible. Everyone needs to find their specific place and act correctly towards the others in the chain. It’s a big polymorph family, and everyone has their role. Mine is facilitating records and serving as go-between.”

Céline Gillain, whose 7″ What Happens If I Open My Mouth? was released on Lexi Disques just before the summer, will be performing a live concert this Friday at our latest edition’s release party at CIVA. Join the Facebook event, with full line-up info.