Jean-Marc Lederman’s unassuming, almost self-effacing demeanor belies a composer whose 40 years in the game has had more twists and turns than a Homeland episode. Having spearheaded such iconic acts as Digital Dance in the 70s, Kid Montana in the 80s and The Weathermen in the 90s, he put his career on hold owing to a nervous breakdown and the realisation that, as he put it, “I was just the band who plays on that stage on a Tuesday.” Following stints as Front 242’s office manager, some songwriting work for French sleaze-pop crooner Alain Bashung and the odd come back or two, he now focusses primarily on his own work as well as composing music for video games, which followers of his considerable catalogue will see as something of a calling given his productions’ cinematographic leanings. In a sincere and sobering conversation that took place one recent afternoon in The Word Radio’s studios, we talk about his hatred of performing, his embracing of new production technologies and those New Beat years he’d actually rather forget.
Jean-Marc is passing through the studio for a Belgian Pioneers show today, from 14h to 15h.
Photographer Thomas Ost (c)
I saw that you’re currently working with one of the members of Front 242.
It’s done, Front 242’s Jean-Luc De Meyer and I finished the album three days ago. It all began with us doing a cover version for another project, which in the end never saw the light of day. But we kept working together, making two songs, then three, then five, and by the time you get to six tracks you kind of have an album. Then you reach 12 tracks and people start to become genuinely excited.
Jean-Luc was someone you used to know from back in the days…
Yes, I worked for Front 242 for four years so I know them quite well. I used to work for PIAS a long time ago, on which the band was signed, and they asked me to work with them. It was around the same time they signed to Sony in the States.
What does an office manager for Front 242 do?
Well, basically handle most of that which wasn’t creative: lots of logistic, lots of communication with PIAS and Sony USA, helping to prepare the tours and processing things so the band could just concentrate on their art. Some moments were wild, like unboxing of the Apple Quadra 800 which was the machinery used for graphics and easily cost 18,000 euros at the time. Calling up remixers and having to listen to them say how exciting they were. All together, it was an exhilarating job: working with an indie band that was selling was an eye-opening moment and a pleasure doubled by the fact that the music was great!
Help me situate things a little in time. You’d already done Digital Dance and Kid Montana before working at PIAS?
Yes, I worked at PIAS for a year before starting to work for Front 242.
So before PIAS there was…
Well my first proper band was Digital Dance, which I started in 1979. After I played with Fad Gadget, then did my time in the Belgian army, so I lost two years there.
So no music for two years?
Yeah, well actually I was trying my hand at playing the trumpet then, driving everyone around me crazy. So no trumpet, and no gun either.
And after that?
I went to live in London for two years, playing with Matt Johnson’s The The and Gene Loves Jezebel, jamming with JJ Belle and Mark King from Level 42 and meeting a ton of great people who influenced my life afterwards. And then Les Disques du Crépuscule got in touch because they wanted me to do a Kid Montana gig.
But you were already performing as Kid Montana then?
Just after the army and before going to England, yes. I recorded the first Kid Montana album around that time.
That’s 82, the Statistics Mean Nothing When You Get On The Wrong Plane album. So I essentially came back to Belgium because Crépuscule wanted a Kid Montana gig, and offered me a contract at the end of the gig so I just stayed there.
Why had you left for London in the first place?
In the early 80s, the music scene in the UK was so fucking exciting! It’s very strange that people see punks as just people with, you know, strange clothes and that. It’s far more than that. It embodied all the arts: people making films, graphics, arts – and music. Then you had all the intellectuals that were kind of drawn into being just very energetic. Music started to be very exciting because a new thing was taking hold and synthesisers were also starting to be available. So the music scene was incredible all around the world for anyone between 20 and 25 years old, including me. I just had to go over there.
So it was a purely artistic decision?
Definitely, although that’s something people have often held against me, that more often than not I’ll only make creative decisions. To be frank, whilst actually making a record, I don’t care and don’t think about what’s going to happen after the record. It’s only once I finishd that I start putting my very limited knowledge into motion, but not before. So yes, London was a creative decision because it was very exciting. That was in 1982, I was 24 at the time.
It’s interesting that you talk about being drawn to the punk movement…
Well I was drawn to it because it was so new and opened loads of new doors. I was 20 in 1977, I had never learned guitar so I was into punk for other things besides that, but I liked the idea that young people were going to do something which had nothing to do with what had already been done before.
Where would you place Digital Dance?
They were post-punk, New Wave. It was around 1979 more or less, so totally into that kind of thing. It was a thrill, totally new and confronting, the best band on the planet if you ask me.
To what extent is Kid Montana a logical evolution of Digital Dance? It’s much more synth-driven, more “poppy”…
The first Kid Montana record, which you probably don’t know, isn’t poppy at all. Mostly because I sing on it and kill the vibe.
Right. That’s something I’d like to get back to because I looked at your website and the section about Kid Montana quotes you as saying, “Why oh why did people let me sing? It’s still beyond my comprehension.”
I had to quit Digital Dance, essentially because I had a loud mouth, always said what I felt, and everyone hated each other – you know how it goes. But I still wanted to do a record myself, and never had any issue composing, so I just plugged the mic in and and started singing.
And this was the first time you were making music alone…?
Yes, Kid Montana was made up of me in the studio, with a few friends trying to do something different.
Coming back to the similarities in values between Digital Dance, or at least its punk values, and how you were approaching Kid Montana…
It’s still fucking DIY music, you do everything yourself.
I liked the idea that young people were going to do something which had nothing to do with what had already been done before.
Let’s rewind a little. Can you talk to me about the kind of household you grew up in, your first introduction to music, your teenage years?
My parents were middle-class Belgians. Not musicians – left-wing and proud to say so. My mother took me to my first festival, I still remember that. I also recall exactly where I was the first time I heard Papa Was a Rolling Stone. So I discovered that I liked music, and then started going down to La Mediathèque in the early 70s, renting out a ton of records. They used to have this huge poster on the wall with recommendations – “If you like this, you may also like this” kind of thing. I used to devour those lists, and they really allowed me to get a whole map of music. Then, in 1975, I saw Kraftwerk at ULB’s Paul-Emile Janson lecture hall and that blew me away, for many different reasons. I mean, I knew the music, because I had Radioactivity and used to play it on repeat. But when I saw these four guys in the flesh, short shaped, in front of a crowd mainly made up of hippies, I thought to myself, “Wow, this is something.” From then on, I started getting into certain bands more than others but in terms of me becoming a musician, Kraftwerk, Brian Eno and Fela Kuti had the biggest influence. Then, one day in 1976 a friend showed me a briefcase with the EMS Synthi AKS, which was more or less the same one Eno used for all his Roxy Music stuff. And I just… It was just crazy! Something inside of me switched – I had a connection. Everything you did on that machine was new.
And back then you were listening to Brian Eno…
Anything that involved synthesizers! I’d listen to a lot of funk because African American music used lots of synthesiser from way back when. Take Stevie Wonder for instance, who was produced by two masters of electronic music, Malcolm Cecil and Robert Margouleff from the Tonto’s Expanding Head Band. So I would look at a cover and every time there was a synth I would get it. It’s kind of funny when you think about it, because I assimilated Kraftwerk and their European approach, Eno and his amateurish, totally out-there sound, and then funk.
I can clearly hear Eno and Kraftwerk influences in your work, but Fela I find to be more of a stretch.
Well, Fela and Kraftwerk have the same, repetitive music. There’s that element. Fela takes it to the trance state whilst Kraftwerk is going to bring more melodic elements to it. But it all just happened gradually, listening to music, seeing an amazing gig, discovering my first synth and just falling in love with it all. But it was a seven to eight year process.
So you’re in London, Les Disques du Crépuscule call you, you come back to Brussels…
Yeah, I mean with Digital Dance we had already performed at Plan K, opening for Joy Division, so we had already met Crépuscule’s Michel Duval and Annik Honoré on that occasion. I also used to work a little for Plan K, where Annik handled all the bookings. She really did an amazing job there. I don’t know if people realise to what extent Plan K was instrumental in developing Europe’s music scene. It was like having Warhol’s Factory right here in Brussels. Anyway, I came back to town and met this American singer called Dudley Kludt who was living in Brussels – I’m convinced it was because his mother worked for the CIA. So together we made the record Revisiting Yalta, for which I wrote the lyrics in regards to the 1945 Yalta conference. I loved the guy immediately, he was a great singer and lyricist. So Revisiting Yalta was released, we got a booking and were signed. We made a record which Marc Moulin produced, and after that we made another one with my brother co-producing.
Your brother, Gilbert, who was also recording as Bernthøler?
He produced it, yes – you know your stuff.
It’s amazing that the two of you got into music…
Yes, but he’s a better musician than me!
But you never worked together?
Sure, we did that Kid Montana Temperamental album together. The second one. I don’t say this very often but it’s a very underrated record. It recently got reissued by LTM but flopped spectacularly. It got a terrible review in a magazine that only talked about 80s synth stuff, which was pretty much it’s kiss of death. But that record was also called a small masterpiece in NME. So I mean, I know what’s on my record. I’ve made a few flops but I’ve also made a few great ones too, and I know that this is one of the good ones.
Where did you record the Kid Montana sessions?
When we recorded with Marc Moulin we did it at his place and finished it at Synsound, while Temperamental was at Studio Katy, which is coincidentally the studio where Marvin Gaye recorded Sexual Healing. It’s a studio somewhere in Walloon Brabant. An amazing place.
So you recorded with Telex’s Marc Moulin and Dan Lacksman, who are often referred to as the Belgian Kraftwerk…
Well you know in the 80s, there weren’t that many people who were knowledgable about synthesisers, and not everybody liked it. So people at the time had the same instincts as people have today about DJs or electronic music producers. It’s like, “Oh, you’re pushing a button and there’s music!” But it doesn’t just happen that way. When I met Marc, he expressed an interest in Digital Dance, but when I played him a tape of Digital Dance he was very disappointed. Which he was honest about, it’s a nice way to be rejected somehow.
Yeah because it means “Try again.” So Crépuscule put us together with Marc, and recorded The Las Vegas Gold Rush mini LP together, which came out in 1986. But I’m going to be very honest (and I’ve said this to Marc) but I think it’s a boring record. It’s too clean. But the sessions were nice, I mean Marc Moulin… I was already so impressed by him.
Was he already this huge figure looming large on the scene?
Yes for sure, although I didn’t care about that, I’m more impressed by somebody’s character than their CV to be honest. So Marc… He was just an amazing keyboard player as well as producer. But he was too clean for me. Truth is, everybody thought that Kid Montana was a pop band, but I didn’t get that impression. Anyway we did that mini LP which flopped, even though we started having a bit of a following, a cult even. We appeared a lot on TV, played a few gigs – that kind of thing.
So then Kid Montana started to head into a more pop and clean direction?
Yes, at least for the mini LP – but it wasn’t what I wanted to do at all. Dudley was a good looking guy with great lyrics and we were sort of pushed into a style that was too business-oriented for us. When you try to make a hit, it won’t work. I mean it will for someone with a great factory behind him, but for us it didn’t work
You were talking about the cult status that Kid Montana got…
Well I can see that now but at the time, no. People didn’t understand that we were trying to put different elements together, and it wasn’t even thought about, it happened naturally. Dudley came from a certain background, the punk era, and he was trying to do that perfect pop song. I came from the alternative scene and I just wanted to make noise so we had to find a middle ground.
One thing I’ve been meaning to ask you is where the Kid Montana moniker came from?
I had a friend who always used to say “when it’s great, it’s Montana”, like Nirvana. He ended up releasing the first Kid Montana record, so I called the project that way as a private joke, nothing more.
And what do you make of this renewed interest in your work?
It’s nice! As long as you forget about my New Beat days I’m fine with anything!
Your New Beat days?
Yeah but I don’t want to talk about it (laughs).
Under what name
I don’t know… If I told you, I’d have to kill you!
So you really don’t want to tell me?
No I really don’t, it’s that bad! This is exactly what I mean. When you go into the studio with an idea of making money, it’s terrible. It’s horrible because you make compromises all the time and hate the result while somebody is telling you, “It’s going to work!” But nobody knows what’s going to work. I mean yes, you know it’s going to work if you have a 100,000 euros marketing budget behind you. But if you’re a small musician and all you’re trying to do is jump on the wagon of one music style just to pay the bills, that’s horrible.
And did it pay the bills?
Not at all! I mean that’s why I look at all my colleagues who make music to make money with a lot of sarcasm. Because, sometimes we did, but all we have 10 years later, besides royalties (which are nice), is, “What the fuck is that track? Is that even music?”
But it’s amazing the amount of people that actually did what you’re saying. All of a sudden New Beat came and all these guys who were doing nothing remotely close to New Beat sudden got into it.
That was horrible, everyone makes fun of me today because I’m the only one who is frank about hating my New Beat phase. And I hate it for several reasons, not only musically but also socially, because it was a drug-induced scene. It didn’t matter where you came from and what your name and attitude was, people were just high on the dancefloor. And if it worked, it worked. They didn’t care. And to me it was horrible because I was making music to express something, not to get on to the charts. Don’t get me wrong, I would have loved to get on the charts while keeping my integrity intact. So that’s why I don’t like the New Beat era.
If you’re a small musician and all you’re trying to do is jump on the wagon of one music style just because you need to pay the bills, that’s horrible.
Let’s move on to your following act: The Weathermen.
I got bored with Kid Montana, and was already thinking back in 1985 of doing the opposite of the perfect pop song. So I started to put together a concept of a band that would be anonymous. Nobody would know about it, the tapes would be sent to the label by post with no name. It would be an electronic music band, like Front 242, that type of sound, sequenced heavy beats that was starting to make a lot of noise around 1984. They were friends of mine, so I wanted to start making a more aggressive type of New Beat. I approached it from a very conceptual point of view, as if I was a politician in the 80s looking to pop music to have a lasting influence. Bear in mind that this was around the time that pop music did start having a huge influence on the rest of society, getting involved in politics. So I created The Weathermen, taking as starting point the real Weathermen, the political group from the 60s who had disappeared by then. We got signed to PIAS immediately, and they liked the idea of it being anonymous.
I didn’t realise it was anonymous back then, because now it’s not at all.
Not now no, but at the time, nobody was aware of it and the concept was really new and we played with the cover. I loved doing that. Because to me it’s complete: you have the music, the concept, the idea, and I can play with it.
So it was really your concept, visually too?
Yes. I was even singing, again, on the first release, which was terrible. Then I met Bruce Geduldig, of Tuxedomoon, who lived in Brussels. When he took over it was great. Just like with Dudley in Kid Montana, I had found someone clever, witty, intelligent and talented who also happened to write great lyrics.
So who exactly was in The Weathermen?
Just Bruce, me and an engineer from a Brussels studio, Michel Van Gijsel. Those were the early days of sampling, tape techniques… So that was very exciting: getting signed directly to PIAS, a label on a totally different spectrum from Crépuscule. Fact is, with Kid Montana, whatever we tried to do with it, nothing happened. So I decided to call it a day in 1986. I mean I was doing more and more Weathermen stuff, releasing a 12 inch every three months and it was starting to make a mark on the scene. So Kid Montana sort of faded away and I concentrated on The Weathermen. Then New Beat happened. And the English press was putting everything together, they didn’t understand the country’s industrial scene and focussed mainly on Neon Judgement, Front 242 and A Split Second too. All these bands were wrapped up into what the English press called New Beat.
So The Weathermen too?
Yes, totally! The Weathermen were also pigeonholed under the “Great Belgian music” banner. We had a hit with Poison, and I remember precisely the feeling I had when coming out of the studio and handing the tape over to the PIAS boss – I knew it was special…
What did a hit mean back then?
100,000 copies sold, German charts. It wasn’t mainstream but it’s quite… I mean it’s a classic song to this day. And it also worked very well because MTV was launched in Europe and they picked the video up which helped. We went on a European tour, which wasn’t supposed to happen and then toured the States in 1989. We then recorded our second album The Black Album at Blackwing and in which Poison was included. It was produced by John Fryer and Paul Kendall, one of the guys from the Mute Records galaxy. We called it The Black Album according to The Weathermen because it was around 1987 and 1988, and everybody was talking about Prince’s Black Album.
How long did The Weathermen last?
Until Bruce passed away two years ago. But I’d say the band’s heyday was between 1985 and 1988. Then I had a really bad nervous breakdown and took a step back for a while…
The nervous breakdown was due to touring with The Weathermen…?
Just thinking you’re bigger than you actually are. I had extremely high hopes for myself. We had the CEO of Warner Bros. phoning PIAS saying, “We want to have The Weathermen on the new Michael J. Fox movie, we heard it yesterday! Call me, call me!” Then you can’t reach the guy anymore and see that Depeche Mode got the song. So you’re disappointed. Also, my goal in music has always been to make the music that I want and have people like it. Because you want to have feedback on it. It’s not about the girls nor the money, it’s about being understood as someone who’s trying to put a bit of himself on a big construction that we’re all a part of. So that was a disappointment because I realised I was just the band who plays on that stage on a Tuesday. But you’re a bit more than that – or that was my thinking at the time at least. Truth is, when your salary depends on your music it kills your creativity. It kills your balls, your dreams, and makes you accept things you wouldn’t normally accept. And living off of The Weathermen just wasn’t working. The US tour was somewhat of a disaster. I suddenly found myself on the road barely sleeping – I couldn’t handle it. Plus, and I know that many musicians hate talking about this, but the “creative blank” is something that all creative people have had to deal with it. And I’m not afraid to say it. I know many people think that I was just very tired, but it’s far more than that, the system just crashed. I actually made an album about the story of my problems, which is Beyond the Beyond. It’s very dark but a very good record. It was actually signed by Mute in the States while still on PIAS in Europe and was, can you believe it, on the soundtrack of Baywatch! So my music was synchronised with Pamela Anderson’s boobs and that’s something not many people can say!
What came next?
I did a record in 1995 with Didier Moens and Luc Dufourmont called Ether, kind of an industrial metal thing – once again a flop. An interesting record though. I also, around the same time, got a call from a friend saying Alain Bashung was in Brussels looking for somebody to play synth-pop. To me, Alain Bashung was a terribly cheesy French singer, although I didn’t know much about him to be honest. Anyway, I ended up meeting him and played a few of my things for him – the more commercial stuff. He didn’t like it at all, telling me, “I want you to get loose and do whatever you want.” So he gave me one of his songs to do a demo but – and this is well documented – he was known to give out songs to his musicians that had no lyrics, melodies nor choruses, so you never really knew where you were in the track. I gave it a shot, doing exactly what I wanted and ended up with five or six tracks on the album Chatterton. Then, two years later, in 1997, he called me back asking for another few tracks for a new album of his. Bear in mind that this is one of the biggest rockstars in France. So I put together seven sketches, which he listened to, asking me to turn five of them into actual songs. Once they were done, I went over to his apartment in Paris so he could give them a listen and he asked me to record two of them at the studio 24 Tracks in Paris. I didn’t hear from him for a few months after that, then one day, he calls me saying: “Do you mind if that song you wrote for me is on the album?” I was astonished, as to me they were just demos and I expected him to want to tidy them up. But he put them on the album as they were, which ended up being a huge hit. Needless to say my publishing company was happy. That was around 1998, and was the beginning of me working from home, which I had never done before.
People seem to talk a lot and spend little time actually doing music.
So you didn’t have your own synthesisers yet?
I had some, but not the complete set-up to record tracks myself. You have to understand that back then there wasn’t an abundance of studios – I mean there were small tape studios and so on but not like now, where you have computers and Garage Band and whatnot. If you think you’re a musician yet can’t make music in 2018, there’s something wrong with you because it’s all there. I know people love to go on about old synthesisers and plug-ins but people seem to talk a lot and spend little time actually doing music.
So when you were recording Kid Montana and went into the studio, what did you have?
Nothing even written down?
No, sometimes I had a few things written but that was the challenge: do a song in a day. So yeah, 1998 was the first time I got to work at home.
How did that change your approach to music?
Well as I always had a very Stakhanovist vision of how I wanted to make music, it just simplified things. I would wake up in the morning, make music and at 18h I’d stop. So it was fine! But there are downsides too, like thinking over and letting unfinished tracks pile up. When you hire a studio, your time is limited so it forces certain decisions to be made, but at home you pile up un-decisions, which is terrible. Anyway, in 2001 I started making video game music, because a friend of mine was setting up a gaming company and asked me if I’d be interested in creating some music for him. So I’ve pretty much been making video game music (which I absolutely love since I have such a cinematic sound), and my own stuff since then. I mean in 2004 I brought The Weathermen back together, we made an album then two years back did a few gigs, but there wasn’t a lot of interest in it really. Although it did make me realise that we had cultivated something of a status, a reputation, which was nice.
Coming back to the topic of technological evolutions in music production, what’s your take on the whole studio-in-a-computer thing?
I think it’s amazing. I started in the days when you couldn’t make two pieces of equipment talk to each other, which is crazy when you think about it. There was no click on the tape, no way to synchronise instruments or sequencers. Sequencers were just a glimpse into people’s imaginations. Nowadays everything is just linked. Look at DJs today, where everything is synchronised. You can put a 98 bpm song next to a 135 bpm song and get them to synchronise. That wasn’t possible at the time. I mean when I started, samplers didn’t even exist! So, the way I see it, if the technology exists, use it. Look, in 1979 I had an Arp 2600 but sold it after a while because I knew it was too early in my career to use it, and I didn’t have a sequencer so it wasn’t really interesting anyway. And now you can buy the same one from Arturia in France for 99 euros and it sounds exactly the same! I’m sure I know people who have the 2600 analogue version and if I blind tested them they wouldn’t see the difference.
I find it amazing that there’s this total embrace of technology on your part.
I think the evolution of technology is amazing so I don’t have any more analogue equipment because I lost so much money buying stuff. I bought a sampler in 1998, it cost me 3000 euros and I can’t even give it away these days because it has no fucking value. Sure, there’s a craze around analogue now, but when you really think about it it’s just the filter that’s interesting.
So you have a new project coming up with Jean-Luc De Meyer. Any plans of getting back on the road?
No, I don’t like being on the road, I never liked it. I’ve done some concerts here and there but one of the main reasons why I don’t enjoy live gigs anymore is because we were playing at Le Printemps de Bourges as The Weathermen and I was having my nervous breakdown at the time so I somehow made it there but with someone ready to play my role. And I couldn’t go on stage. I was just crying backstage having my breakdown. So the guy just played my part on stage. The next day there was a review talking about how I was on stage, when I actually wasn’t present. I realised it really didn’t matter in the end, music did all the talking.
Talking about music, and styles, how would you define yours in retrospect?
To me, less is more. I don’t care much about how people feel when listening to my music, I’m more concerned with what I’m doing than with what they’re doing. What’s more important is to have an idea realised and finished so that I can move on to the next one.
Moving on to the next project is important?
It’s funny because when you do an album, you think you’re going to die and you’ll never be able to make another record. That’s the feeling you have the morning after you finish your album. I used to have that.
At the beginning you think that making music is about listening to what you do. But as you grow older you realise it’s actually about listening to what your music does. Listening to the different layers of music because the answer is there. And I can hear it, I can hear the harmonies developing into layers. It doesn’t mean that I have an infinite amount of sounds, it just means I have an infinite amount of possibilities of getting excited about something new, which I hadn’t planned for.
It’s interesting to hear all these different perspectives on music – at the end of the day it’s just the way we listen to it. Everybody has a different take.
At the same time you realise that what you put into a song is not what the person is going to get out of it. In the end, it is whatever you make of it. It’s like Poison, people didn’t know it was about the environment and pollution. For years people thought it was about a person. So once you’ve got that you realise you’re doing music for you, not for the audience. It’s nice if people enjoy it, and even better if you manage to live off of it. But it’s more important to do your stuff as an artist rather than trying to meet your public.