Meakusma: The fringe festival and record label drawing leftfield electronic fans from across Europe to the sleepy, Eastern Belgian town of Eupen

Until as recently as three years ago, Belgian enthusiasts of experimental music had to travel abroad if they wanted to get a taste of the music festival life. But then along came Meakusma, a music label-turned-festival in Eupen, the heart of the small German-speaking region of the country. Prior to its 10th edition, we sat down with founders Michaël Kreitz (1978) and Christophe Houyon (1983) on a sunny summer morning to discuss life in their hometown, curating coherent line-ups and overcoming financial challenges.

Tell me a little about yourselves and the people behind Meakusma.

Michaël: For the majority of the time, Meakusma used to be just the two of us, Christophe and myself. In 2016, we hired David Langela, with whom we had already collaborated in the past. Besides this core team, there are another three people with whom we work a lot: Rafael Severi (also known as Sensu) takes care of our English press releases, Ina Kurthen handles the graphic design and Martin Saur is our de facto psychologist. Of course, there are many other people, friends and likeminded people with whom we’ve collaborated with, in music and beyond.

What was it like to grow up in Eupen?

Michaël: I grew up in a town called Bütgenbach which is located about 30km away. Looking back, it was a great place to grow up in, mainly because of its surrounding nature. Bütgenbach always had plenty of tourists, especially scout and school trips, so it never felt like a lost town to me.

Christophe: I actually don’t have that much to say about Eupen, since I’ve only lived here since 2010. It’s a quaint and quiet city. A good friend who’s lived here considerably longer than me once said, “Eupen’s a nice place to leave.” You can easily reach cities like Liège, Cologne, Maastricht; and of course, the proximity to the High Fens nature reserve is great. Before coming to Eupen, I lived in Brussels for about eight years, but I actually grew up in Recht with my parents and two sisters. It’s a small village surrounded by woods, located in between St. Vith and Malmedy. I spent most of my childhood playing football, hanging out with friends and discovering nature.

Where did you guys get your musical schooling?

Michaël: I first got in touch with music at music school and through a dance class. My older brothers and sister were friends with a group of people who were not only into music and collecting records but were also heavily involved in the Commodore 64 and Amiga 500 video game scene. To top it off, they would go out to all the clubs in Belgium. It was through them that I got tapes from mythic clubs like Boccaccio, La Rocca or Cherry Moon, but I was especially impressed by all of their exciting stories. I got hooked on this stuff myself and became very creative in coming up with excuses to stay out late, even “borrowing” my brother’s ID card when I could. Driving or taking a train for hours for a night out always felt exciting. I would base my whole week on my weekend plans, with all of its positive and negative implications included.

Christophe: My introduction to dance music was pretty similar, in that I was infatuated with my sister’s record collection and clubbing anecdotes. Later on, she introduced me to Thomas Giets, one of her friends who was already making music with his older brother Nicolas – incidentally, the Rony & Suzy duo. I remember being amazed by his futuristic looking and sounding synths when I first visited his home. From that moment onwards, my interest for electronic music grew to the point where I bought a pair of second-hand turntables with my long-time friend DJ soFa.

Michaël: I could only afford to buy records in 1997 thanks to Bernd Kaulmann and Sascha Todd, friends from Bütgenbach, but who were mainly associated with Formic Records in Cologne. They, and Christophe Gehlen later on, were mentors hugely responsible for shaping my musical taste in many directions. In fact, in 1998 the latter – who had already organised club nights at Cherry Moon and Fuse – and I formed Klangforschung Ost. Initially an excuse to celebrate our birthdays at Eupen’s Katakomben venue, it became a platform for regular club nights. Later on, we curated Alive Festival’s electronic music line-up together, but after we split up, I continued on my own till 2002. I always looked to Germany to stay informed on music and releases, but mainly went out in Belgium. In a way this is still very much the case today.

Christophe: Getting records was not an easy task back then. There was this store in Maastricht called Sirius that was an important source for me, but as none of my friends had a driving license, we had to travel several hours to get there. Another option was to go to this CD shop in St. Vith, but they only had a database you could browse. No chance of listening before ordering. Otherwise there was this small music store in Malmedy where I found Drexciya’s Neptune’s Lair and Squarepusher’s Selection Sixteen. When I was finally old enough to attend parties – at least from my parents’ point of view – I went to Katakomben, and that’s where I first experienced partying in an entirely different way. It was really amazing to see all these people coming from different places, dancing to the same music. Coming from a small village where everybody knows each other, it opened up a new world for me.

What triggers set in motion the whole Meakusma world?

Christophe: I can’t remember when exactly we all met for the first time, but it was around my move to Brussels to study photography. Two of my old friends were living there as well and we somehow ended up discussing the idea of starting something together. DJ soFa was the one to come up with the name Meakusma. We still don’t really know where it came from or what it means – we just liked the sound of it! We threw our first party in December 2003. It was sort of an “escape express”: we stayed in the venue for a couple of days, and then three or four of us quit our studies.

Were your parents worried when you quit school to throw parties instead?

Christophe: They told me I would have to take care of myself if I didn’t succeed at school, which is precisely what happened. Of course they were worried, but it was clear to everyone that this was bound to happen.

Michaël: I was already autonomous for some years, so it wasn’t a big deal! After living in Germany for a year, I moved to Brussels in 2003 and met a former Alive Festival volunteer. He asked if I would be up to work on a new project together with his friends. Since none of us had the financial means, we applied for subsidies from the EU’s Youth in Action Programme. With their aid, we organised a couple of workshops and a total of four events. It turned out that only Christophe and I had the same vision on what to curate for a club night or concert, so the others decided to leave while we continued as a pair from 2006 onwards.

A good friend who’s lived here considerably longer than me once said, “Eupen’s a nice place to leave.”

Did you feel like there was something missing from the electronic music scene, leading you to start your own thing?

Christophe: We didn’t start the project thinking that something was lacking, but rather from a desire to continue what we were already doing. It felt natural to us to try and do something else. That’s why we put together a diverse line-up with Lithops, Errorsmith, DJ Elephant Power and Ark on our first, independently financed club night at Recyclart. We still strongly believe in this “everything goes for a single night” approach.

Meakusma is now a label and festival with the occasional concert and club night. How did these things come into place?

Christophe: All of these projects were already part of our plan, but money always was and remains to be a big issue, so we had to achieve them one step at a time. Things had to evolve slowly in order to create a solid base and network.

How would you describe the festival and what is its artistic goal?

Michaël: We see the festival as an extension of what we’ve always wanted to do. It’s an attempt to put together a “coherent” line-up of all the music we admire – from the past and present to all geographical directions – without being afraid of making mistakes and actually learning from them. And we do so in collaboration with other people who share our tastes in music.

How did you financially manage to set up such a big festival?

Michaël: Finding and working with different funding possibilities is a huge adventure and challenge for us. Not only is it time consuming, there’s also the trick of letting the more important music aspect of the work slide. In order to realise this coherent line-up we now rely heavily on our network, but since we never want to repeat ourselves, we need to put more time and energy into finding new sounds and artists. And that costs money too, of course.

Christophe: We mostly rely on public funds to make the festival happen. It also wouldn’t be possible if it weren’t for all the help we get from friends and volunteers.

Your festival is well regarded abroad yet seems to generate little interest from the Belgian media. Why do you think that is?

Michaël: Well, we’re actually satisfied with the national media attention we get – especially after that article in The Guardian! I guess if we want more attention, we would have to communicate differently on social media, or just communicate with the public more generally. But that’s not really an option for us – we use social media out of practicality. We prefer to focus on the content instead of building our profile. Maybe it’s a generational thing, the fact that we don’t feel the need to express ourselves in public all the time? The same goes for interviews. For years we turned down almost everything for a variety of reasons. For example, we thought (and still think) that our reflective skills on music don’t need a spotlight. But since turning down interviews is becoming more complicated than just doing them, we had to change our mind. And of course, we now also feel more responsibility towards our partners.

We didn’t start the project thinking that something was lacking, but rather from a desire to continue what we were already doing.

Do locals visit the events you organise in Eupen?

Michaël: Yes and no – it depends on the type of event. Sometimes I have the impression that the festival attracts more people from our hometowns – Bütgenbach, Recht – than from Eupen.

Christophe: There are quite a lot of cultural actors here already and they offer a lot of events themselves. Maybe that’s another a reason why only a few locals show up.

Michaël: I also wonder if locals have the fixed idea that what we do is unlistenable, dark and difficult.

Christophe: We do try to collaborate with local institutions though. For instance, we hosted three concerts in Eupen’s Protestant Friedenskirche church last year, as part of the festival’s framework. This allowed us to also propose something outside of the standard cultural sphere.

Michaël: We organise workshops in local schools too, and work with volunteers, sometimes through an anti-unemployment programme. These people always come to our events and want to help out with the festival every year, which is cool.

Can you tell something about the release process of a Meakusma record?

Christophe: Either people send us demos, friends recommend names to us or we discover something while record shopping. If it suits our interests, we get in touch with that person and see if he or she would be up to work something out. I remember the moment when Terrence Dixon agreed on providing a track for our RÜTS project with the Glaswegian imprint Ampoule Records, for instance. It seemed too good to be true: we had gotten in touch with him through Myspace and got a positive reply just a few days later. That was really energising. Working on a release goes pretty smoothly once you’ve talked everything through with the artist. We receive the files and send them out to be mastered. Then we send everything over to R.A.N.D. MUZIK, the pressing plant in Leipzig. They send us back the final product. We dispatch some of the records to Clone Distribution while the rest is sold directly through Bandcamp, Discogs and other platforms.

Your label is made up of a wide variety of music and styles. Is there a common thread tying it all together?

Michaël: Artistically, we have a similar goal as that for the festival: to release music that we appreciate and would buy. It’s a common and quite “simple” thread.

Have there been any acts, records or genres that had a direct influence on the label?

Michaël: Thomas from the now defunct Ampoule Records and Roger 23 were really important figures for us, especially in the beginning when it came to the more practical side of running a label, like figuring out the distribution or communication.

Christophe: Yes, absolutely. I also remember Peter Van Hoesen being very supportive during the RÜTS project.

How did you start working with the Brussels-based Different Fountains? And Georgia, who seem to hold a special place in your festival?

Michaël: Michael Langeder of Different Fountains attended a concert we threw in 2010, in a bar in Camping Hertogenwald. He introduced himself and gave us a demo CD. We loved and still love their approach to pop music but had also just released a bunch of poppy records, which ended up being a financial disaster. We didn’t have the courage to release their music until 2014, when we co-released their first album Shrimp That Sleeps. We’re inspired not only by their music, but by their general approach to life too. It’s a pity they weren’t in Brussels back when we used to live there – we would have loved to spend more time there with them. As for Georgia, my childhood friend Christophe Gehlen suggested I listen to John Allen’s radio show JA in the AM on WFMU a couple of years ago. Not only does he play amazing music, his shows feel so free and improvised that it’s a great listen. And that’s how I discovered Georgia, alongside other artists who ended up on our label or festival line-up. We met the Georgia duo in New York City a couple of years ago and since then, we’re constantly in touch. They put us on many other artists too, mainly from the US. We’re grateful for this!

We see the festival as an extension of what we’ve always wanted to do.

What do you find thrilling about music, and electronic music in particular?

Christophe: I’m fascinated by the power of music and the ways in which it can provoke something in your body and mind. It’s a kind of guide for me – it helped me gain a better understanding of myself and to ap-
proach new and different things.

Michaël: The amount of energy a listening experience can trigger in me, no matter the context. New music especially has this impact on me.

Are there any other festivals you look to for inspiration?

Christophe: I don’t go out a lot, but I did really like Ptit Faystival in Petit-Fays. When we go to festivals or concerts, we make sure to pay attention to not only the music but also all the other aspects which are rarely appreciated so that we can take them into account for our own work.

Michaël: Ptit Faystival was indeed very nice, but inspiration for our festival comes from record stores rather than other festivals.

Do you follow any music publications? Any favourite writers?

Michaël: Just recently, I finally started to read an edition of the German testcard book series. I appreciate it a lot; I’d like to find more.

Christophe: Not really. I recently started reading Ocean of Sound by David Toop, but I figured my English isn’t strong enough. Another book I’ve started is by Sandrine Loncke, on the ethnomusicology of the Woodaabes. I came across it in a book store in Liège and it looked interesting.

Any other major interests, outside of music?

Christophe: I spent the last four years working in a disability home as well as studying to be an educator. This was and still is a big source of inspiration for me. Experiencing nature is also vital in my life.

Michaël: As of these last two years I’ve picked up some carpentry experiments again from my basement. Spending time in there while smoking and listening to online radio is a great feeling.