It’s a typical Brussels story, one where Aphex Twin, Drive-director Nicolas Winding Refn and a near-legendary local second-hand store are all somehow intertwined. The story is, essentially, that of Brussels born and bred Frederic Mergam, born in 1973. Alongside being an associate at Pêle-Mêle, the city’s de-facto dig for used records, books and computer games – and where he got his start as a fresh-faced intern during his student years – Frederic is also the founder of WéMè, undoubtedly one of the most consistently overlooked labels to have emerged from the Brussels underground. From an inconspicuous office – if one can call it that – nestled in the backroom of Pêle-Mêle’s HQ to which Frederic retreats every lunch-time, managing and shipping orders out – “95% of those goes to people abroad, there’s almost no local anchorage,” a tiny yet nonetheless pioneering record label has seen releases by Ceephax Acid Crew, DJ Stingray, DMX Crew and other similarly-inclined heavyweights of the intelligent electronic music sort. In a rare interview, we talk name changes, music industry strife and record fetishism with the famously media-wary label head.
But yes, yes but
“I guess the 303 and 606 synth sounds somehow had resonated in the back of my head, from listening to Madonna and Toto as a kid.” Indeed, for Frederic – a self-described rubbish high school student that ended up at Brussels art school La Cambre, mostly taking up painting, whilst also devouring music and getting involved in the local metal and hardcore scenes – electronic music was a calling, a freedom card that, as he recalls, required “no more compromises. I could do it all myself – the bass, the drums, everything!” During his years at the art college, Frederic spent all the insurance money he received after a car accident on synthesisers, and started making music, sending demos to his favourite labels. Following countless futile attempts, he finally got a positive reply from Fatkat Records, a British independent label that had risen to success thanks to such acts as Sigur Rós or Animal Collective. Frederic’s music was scheduled for a special series with the record imprint but, unfortunately, the Internet came creeping up on the music business big time, leaving no choice but for labels to downsize and adapt to changing market realities, resulting in Fatkat dropping Frederic’s release.
Then, together with his friend Jo, who works in the Waterloo branch of second hand bookstore Pêle-Mêle, he decided to release the record himself – “just for fun,” as he puts it. “I had some money on the side, and that’s how it started,” he confides, somewhat bemused. And this, like so many other similar artist-run imprints built on the back of initial rejection, is how what would become WéMè saw the light of day back in 2003, although back then it was called MeWe. “We couldn’t come up with a name for thelabel, then after a few drinks we started toying around with a typically Brussels way of saying mais ouais, an expression that, when taken literally, is understood as meaning but yeah. “
Then and there, that was it, MeWe was born,” Frederic continues. The arduous process of sending records out to prospective distributors had begun in earnest, with one of them reacting well and buying almost half of the pressing quantities. “I was baffled,” Frederic recalls, “mostly because it was done in a rather amateurish way: 500 copies, no decent mastering, a bad pressing – basically everything was badly organised.” On the back of the first release’s unlikely success, the pair began receiving demos, going on to release for records under the MeWe banner. One of them was by New York breakcore artist Donna Summer, another was a compilation with remixes of a song by Length of Time, one of the many bands of Brussels’ metal legend Michel Kirby, who today runs the Elektrocution record shop in the centre of Brussels.
In 2004, Frederic had an artistic disagreement with Jo, who decided to give up the label. “We were longtime friends and didn’t want to get into a fight about it,” Frederic explains. “So Jo quit and let me continue on my own. I agreed, but I insisted on changing the name, since MeWe was something we had done together. That’s when WéMè was born, which was just an inversion of mais ouais/ouais mais.” At the time, Frederic was heavily inspired by two other record labels from Belgium, Elf Cut and Firstcask. “ The latter was run by Gael, who’s now the godfather of one of my kids,” Frederic explains. “He had a crazy thing going on, releasing the first record of Ceephax for instance. Elf Cut on the other hand was run by Acid Kirk, and they threw a lot of nights and events. I attended all of them, and later we became good friends. That being said, when I started the label, I didn’t want to imitate them, even if I was somehow fantasising about it.”
The UK link
WéMè 001, the label’s first release, was a jungle record by an artist called Zorg. “I sent the record to Rephlex,” Frederic says. “It was my favourite label at that time, run by Grant Wilson-Claridge and Aphex Twin, one of my gods. They got back and Grant said it was one of the best records of the year.” This proved to be a life affirming moment for Frederic.
The Zorg record was the beginning of a whole series of collaborations with British folk who were somehow related to Rephlex: Global Goon aka Syntheme, Bill Corey, Ceephax, Cylob, Jodey Kendrick, his wife Heidi Lord and many more. “I’m especially fond of Heidi’s release,” Frederic confides, whilst making his way to his record cabinet. “There’s a sad story behind it, one that I feel I have to share, because it’s a really important record for me. Heidi passed away from brain cancer last year. The purple mask you see on the album cover is the mask she had to wear during radiation sessions, in order not to be burned. The whole album is based on sounds she heard in those machines in the hospital.” The record didn’t sell at all, which saddens Frederic. “A little bit, because it’s really important that people listen to this record.”
The Syntheme record was another important chapter in WéMè’s history. “Somehow Lov3 worked really well, and requests came in for live shows,” he says. “Bare in mind that Global Goon, the guy behind Syntheme, is your typical English bloke: very friendly, but also just wants to be left alone so that he can eat his pizza, knock a few beers back and make music all night.” At the time no one knew who Syntheme was, so he asked an English girl to fill in for him. He would just send her the synth presets and she’d pretend to be playing live. “She toured the whole world, for two years,” Frederic laughs. “Until one day someone revealed who Syntheme really was, and she didn’t get booked anymore.” He also developed a deep bond with UK-based James Kirby, who released on WéMè as V/Vm. “We bonded over his love for New Beat. ‘It’s cool, it’s hot, it’s everything I’m not,’ he said. And that was very apt – so we decided he’d make a New Beat record in his own way.”
The Detroit connection
WéMè also has a special transatlantic connection with motor city Detroit, the undisputed birthplace of techno music. As a youngster, he was a big fan of pioneers like Drexciya and Urban Tribe, a superstar band featuring Carl Craig, Anthony Shakir and Kenny Dixon Jr., led by Drexciya’s touring DJ Sherard Ingram. “One of my favourite records ever is their 1998 release on Mo’ Wax,” Frederic explains. “After Ingram released two solo records under the Urban Tribe moniker on Rephlex in 2006 and 2007, I contacted him to suggest making another one. He declined, but wanted to make a comeback record as DJ Stingray called Aqua Team, which Mergam followed up on with 2008’s Aqua Team 2. “If you check the prices online today, they’re insane,” Frederic fumes. “97.5 euros! People have no ethics. I’ve been selling it for five euros. It’s not even about the free market. Records aren’t paintings, you know? A painting is expensive because it’s a unique piece. But a record is not unique. It’s made in large quantities by a publisher.” One way to avoid this inflation would be by repressing in-demand records, but Frederic shakes his head. “I get emails every day, but I don’t have the time, the energy nor the space to follow up on all that. I have a wife, two kids and a job too.”
“Records aren’t paintings, you know? A painting is expensive because it’s a unique piece. But a record is not unique. It’s made in large quantities by a publisher.”
The soundtrack obsession
Movie soundtracks are another one of Frederic’s obsessions, culminating in the 2017 release of Ennio Morricone’s Lolita score. Here, he barely manages to maintain his satisfaction. “It was my thing,” he admits. “I just had to do a Morricone. But in the end it wasn’t worth it. If you have the money, anyone can just go to the people who own the rights and do it. But then the misery begins. They complain about everything: this letter P should be more like this, the letter C should be more like that, the cover photo is not good, and then you need permission from the guy on the picture… They were basically scared of everything because they didn’t want to end up in court. I wouldn’t do it again.”
For Valhalla Rising, another soundtrack WéMè released, Frederic indeed almost found himself in court. “You know Drive by Nicolas Winding Refn?” he asks. “Not a very good movie was it? What’s more, his later films became even worse. But I love his older ones, like Valhalla Rising, a story about Vikings with incredible music. I made a deal with the three composers which would have allowed me to release the soundtrack, but for various reasons – one of them being cover illustrator Dave Decat breaking his hand – I had to postpone the release. Then, right when the record was finally ready, Drive came out and became a huge hit. Universal Music got in touch, asking me to withdraw my record, because they had signed a deal to release all of Winding Refn’s film music and wanted to do Valhalla Rising
themselves. Of course, in my contract, there were no exclusivity rights – but I had invested in the record, paid everyone, from the composers to the artwork, so I didn’t want to give it up just yet.” After a few threats, Frederic had to deal with Universal to avoid going to court. “ These are the big boys, you know? I was really scared. They were harassing me, saying Winding wasn’t happy with his name on the cover – which was false because he personally gave me his permission, in print. Then they said the main actor Mads Mikkelsen wasn’t happy with the cover drawing of him. At that point, I decided to play it subtle and pretend to be the dumb guy: I said I was a big fan of Mikkelsen and asked if they could send him a copy, so that he could sign it for me.” They eventually dropped the court case and let Frederic release the record. “But it was a total fiasco of course as, in the meantime, they had released their version, and obviously are much better at promotion than I’ll ever be.” That being the case, Frederic’s biggest frustration with the entire episode was the time spent on the project. “As with all of the label’s releases, I worked very long on the order and selection of the tracks, because I had all the sessions the composers recorded. And they just copied it.” Putting the Universal debacle behind him, Wémè released another five soundtracks with French multi-instrumentalist and composer François de Roubaix’s film music, one of them being the previously unused music for renowned director Jacques-Yves Cousteau’s
L’Antarctique. “Apparently, Cousteau didn’t like the soundtrack, and went on to work with Maurice Ravel instead,” Frederic explains. “One of my dreams is to organise a screening of the movie with de Roubaix’ music in a proper cinema. But you’d need authorisation from Cousteau’s family, and from what I hear, they don’t want anyone to touch their father’s work.”
The local hero
Besides all the soundtracks and IDM-records (so called Intelligent Dance Music), there’s another oddball worth mentioning in WéMè’s discography. Silicon Sirene by J.V.D.B. is a reissue by the Belgian Joel Vandroogenbroeck, who released several acclaimed solo albums and was a member of the legendary psychedelic outfit Brainticket. “It’s not an official release,” Frederic admits, “but I have permission from Vandroogenbroeck himself. Thing is, despite his huge success with Brainticket, he never saw a penny from record sales. He said they made him sign a contract when he was piss drunk – which is incidentally one of the reasons why he agreed to reissue this record. The only condition was that I had to alter the artist’s name. I’m still scared though, because I didn’t get hold of the rights,” Frederic confides. “I particularly love this record, because it makes me think of Gerald Donald’s Arpanet project. In a way their music is similar, but J.V.D.B. made it sound so much easier, and there’s no way he could have heard of Drexciya when he made this record.”
Frederic actually got to meet J.V.D.B. in Mexico, where he currently lives. “He’s a very far-out person,” Frederic says. “When I entered his house, he would make weird movements, or tell me to move to some other place in the room because there was bad energy where I was standing. He truly is an artist, the kind that can’t stand still in one place, both mentally and physically. Somehow the record brings together so many things that I love: psyche music, synths, Joel the misfit star.” Whatever the case, the record didn’t sell well, probably because of the cover-up in the name. Frederic pressed 500 copies, and had to throw away 300 when he moved into his new, smaller apartment. “Ever since I’ve been getting emails non-stop from people asking me to repress it. For fuck’s sake, I sold it for 2,5 euros at Pêle-Mêle for years, and no one wanted it!”
“I don’t want people to get our stuff from some Russian website.”
The music business
Frederic changes the subject to get something off his chest. “We need to talk about Record Store Day too,” he says. “Because it causes so many problems for small labels like mine. Now that records are cool again, this big organisation jumps on to this small market, and because their orders are so enormous, the pressing factories let them skip the queue.” Therefore all orders from independent, smaller labels are delayed, which creates absurd situations where records are released over a year after they were conceived. “It’s happening to a triple album I’m doing with Ceephax,” Frederic continues. “It’s been eight months in the making!” Frederic pauses, only to continue, unabashed: “And don’t get me started on the people who buy those records – they’re idiots! At Pêle-Mêle, we participated a few times, but I stopped. You never see those people for the rest of the year. They’re not passionate about music, they just want objects. They’re in front of the store, waiting for it to open. And when I tell them about all the music we have, they’re not even interested!” That’s not to say that Frederic himself hasn’t played the limited edition, coloured vinyl card, seeing in it a way to make his overall catalogue more affordable to the committed, loyal fan. He credits the commercial state of mind acquired at Pêle-Mêle with a certain savviness about the music business. “I understood certain things could work, if I could reach an audience ready to pay for limited stuff . So although I’m not exactly passionate about the coloured vinyl craze, for every record I release I make a limited colour print that I sell exclusively through the website. That allows me to sell a product at a normal price and keep some money. The regular records are sold through distribution and I almost make no money off of them.”
Whilst on the subject of format, Frederic reveals that he’ll be releasing a tape very soon. “My first cassette! It feels like a romantic thing tied to my youth. It’s by a young Italian guy, and this is the only way to get his music out fast. No mastering, no cutting, no delays because of RSD, no test pressings… And his music fits the format perfectly,” Frederic explains. “It has a lot of short tracks that wouldn’t necessarily sit right on a vinyl release.” There’s also another upcoming release by an artist called Capsule. “His music has to be released on a record though. For me, it’s a sound that isn’t equalled by anything, not by the digital format, nor by CD’s. A lot of customers in the shop tell me I’m exaggerating, and of course I am, but anything else just doesn’t give me the same thrill,” he shrugs.
Luckily for people who don’t fetishise vinyl, most of WéMè’s music is also available digitally, be it on the label or the artist’s Bandcamp. “If they want to sell the files they can, as for some artists it’s an important part of their income. If they don’t want to sell it themselves, I’ll do it. I don’t want people to get our stuff from some Russian website.”