Ask most people about Alec Mansion, and chances are his hit single C’est l’amour or his quasi-parody act Leopold Nord & Vous are the first things that’ll spring to mind. Unbeknown to most though, save for the committed diggers (think 452 Discogs wants VS 19 haves), is that this classically-trained musician hailing from Liège recorded one of Belgium’s finest, albeit criminally-underrated, boogie records back in the early 80s. To mark the recent reissue of his iconic second album by the UK’s Be With Records – the same imprint that brought you Letta Mbulu’s exquisite In the Music the Village Never Ends – we speak with Mansion about his long-winded journey through the music business, his career-defining, chance encounter with Marc Moulin and how hearing about his second album being reissued was way better than selling a million records.
Make sure to catch Alec Mansion live on The Word Radio Sunday 10th December from 18h00 to 19h00.
How did music come into your life?
I was born into a family of musicians. My parents were classically-trained musicians, neither professionals nor amateurs, just really passionate. I myself was in choirs from the age of 7 or 8, and started my first group in our family home’s attic together with my brothers. I then discovered The Beatles in 1970 and developed a real passion for their music to the extent that I began composing music in their spirit. When I turned 17, I decided to study classical music as the idea of being able to read music and play piano really appealed to me. So I got into Liège’s Conservatoire, where I was awarded a first prize.
If I’m not mistaken, it is thanks to classical music that you first were able to travel to Canada and the United States…
Yes, I had initially gone to Canada to accompany a friend that was a pianist. Once there, I met a Belgian musician who had a studio, and who made me want to record on a multi-track. Before that, I was just messing about really. During my time in Montreal, I discovered the Fostex four-track, that was nothing short of revolutionary at the time. Then I went over to Chicago, where I’d listen to the radio in bed and discover the States through its music, which was great. I heard Shalamar, the Whispers, George Benson and that entire boogie-funk scene. I also was lucky enough to experience a recording session with four afro-american musicians, which literally blew my mind. Each one of them was playing something very simple, but together it all took on some magical dimension and I told myself that I’d really love trying that out. So I did my own thing, based on that same spirit, that same simplicity.
Let’s talk about your meeting with Marc Moulin, which was quite a game-changer for you.
I met him by sheer coincidence, when he was playing in Liège with his band Placebo. I was impressed by this complex music that extended beyond jazz clichés and told him I wanted him to listen to the music I was making at the time. So I handed over the demo I had made in Canada and that quite literally changed my life, because we started working together the next week. Indeed, before I knew it, I was working in one of Europe’s best studios, Dan Lacksman’s Synsound. Everything was a bit of a choc to be entirely honest.
When listening to your first two albums, we’re in a rather warm context, whereas Telex incarnated a much harded, funk more in Kraftwerk’s veins. How were these two different visions of funk reconciled?
I personally needed warmth but Marc kept pushing me towards something more innovating. At the beginning I didn’t always know where I was going but I’d be learning so much during those sessions that I ended up taking a liking to them. We constantly were trying things out, playing around in the studio. For Telex, things had to be as cold as possible but with me it was the exact opposite. I’d push both Marc and Dan to go towards something more convivial and they actually quite liked that. Thank god they didn’t “Telexify” me. Marc was someone married to concept, with strongly-held principles at the service of innovation. He always wanted to remain fresh, something that hadn’t been done yet. And I felt as though I was part of a beautiful experience.
“Before I knew it, I was working in one of Europe’s best studios, Dan Lacksman’s Synsound. Everything was a bit of a choc to be entirely honest.”
Was there such a thing as a “Belgian” scene at the time ?
For me it came a little later. Our aim was just to do something new, we didn’t really exist within a “Belgian scene” framework, didn’t really define ourselves to that extent. With Dan and Marc we simply had the feeling that we brought something new. We’d often make fun of France and its “variétés française”, there was a kind of difference between our sound and theirs that we really reinforced. We didn’t want what we did at the time to be labelled “variétés française”, even though I loved that style. We just wanted it to be a little crazier, a little more conceptual.
Could we say, therefore, that your second album is a meeting of sort between your love for pop music and Marc’s very rejection of it?
If Marc was still with us today, he’d probably say that he had a lot of respect for pop music. It’s hard to talk for him, but I think that he appreciated the fact that I brought him something more melodic, something closer to pop music to which he could put his own touch.
The album absolutely reeks of funk. Certain people also talk about boogie and disco when discussing it. How would you describe it?
I quite like the term boogie, and it certainsly isn’t disco, that’s for sure. But to be honest I’m not that concerned with labelling it. I mean, I won’t deny that it clearly leans towards funk and boogie but not disco. That’s a genre I never really vibed to. Disco, to me, is more of a system, an industry. My thing, the thing that got me grooving, was funk and boogie, because in my mind they were both more harmoniously and rythmically interesting, much more authentic. Don’t get me wrong, there are some amazing disco releases but back then, quite a few musicians, me included, rejected it because it seemed underpinned by financial opportunism more than anything. The very power of funk is its hypnotic side, the trance it puts you in. Boogie, as perfected by producers such as Quincy Jones, is somewhat smarter in terms of harmonies. But both funk and boogie are very complimentary. Matter of fact, when my contract was ended with Warner after my 1983 album, I left for the States to meet with Quincy Jones and the musicians who had worked on Thriller. I even produced an album for Muriel Dacq there, and told myself that what we were doing wasn’t that much more original than what we had done with Marc and Dan.
“I quite like the term boogie, and it certainly isn’t disco, that’s for sure.”
Your pop influences come through in various different ways, not least your vocals, despite being laced on productions that tilt heavily towards “black America”.
That was the entire challenge to be honest. I didn’t want to do what was being done in English-spoken funk, where they’d just repeat the same thing over and over again. First of all, it simply wouldn’t have sounded good in French. Secondly, it just wouldn’t have appealed to me. What’s more, I was influenced by a certain tradition of French songs, a tradition that never in its right mind would allow for any naieveté or banality. At the time, I brought something a little more hybrid.
The reissue’s press release speaks of Phoenix, Dâm-Funk and G-Funk in relation to your work. Did you ever think that the album was released at the wrong time and at the wrong place?
I definitely tell myself that the album came out at a time that wasn’t the best. People used to talk to me about it in the streets, but no one would ever actually buy it, which is a shame. When I hear some of the stuff being released nowadays, I can’t help but feel that it is, in a way, so similar to what I was already doing back in the early 80s. That being said, I don’t hold any grudges nor regrets. Even though I’m still a little irked at the fact that radios back then deemed me to be on the fringes.
The next project in your career was Leopold Nord & Vous, which is an entirely different project you made with other musicians. Did the success of the band distance you from your earlier work?
Without a doubt. I had asked Warner to put an end to my contract because I thought I was wasting my time. I wanted to go live in the States, which I ended up doing for two years. Here, I had the feeling that I wasn’t understood, that I was just lost in the vastlands. So I started recording little singles here and there in my own way, which sort of strained my relationship with Marc and Dan. I ended up in Los Angeles for a year and a half, where I met a ton of people, including my wife Muriel Dacq who was out there recording Tropiques. When I got back to Belgium, I wanted to record an album in English. Recording in England had always been a dream of mine, and that’s how I came to record C’est l’amour in London with my friend Steve Byrd, Kim Wilde’s guitarist. It was initially a song written in English, with both electro as well as rock influences, but since it didn’t really interest anyone I re-wrote it in French. And the rest is history as they say.
And that’s when your ambitions sort of get snapped up in something that became much bigger than you.
Yes, I mean when you sell two million copies of what is essentially an absurd sketch, a parody, you inevitably get gobbled up by something much bigger than you. Don’t get me wrong, I dived head first into working with my brothers but I went from a laboratory philosophy to more of a euphoric fraternity. And it’s impossible not to love that, especially since all of a sudden I had the public as well as the media’s appreciation. Then again, that’s not to say that I completely lost myself, as I’d still record little things at home that lived off my many influences and extended beyond my imagination.So to me, I see it as some form of continuity, even though to some I had suddenly developed an amazing talent overnight, which is rather silly.
After everything you’ve been through, was there a willingness on your part to reinfuse some life into your earlier career by reissuing your 1983 album?
No not at all, it hadn’t even crossed my mind. I had some inclination, but I really had no idea to what extent the album was esteemed by “diggers”. Then, one day, I received an email from Be With Records, I don’t even know how they got my email address to be honest with you. But basically they told me that they had received the green light from Warner, who owned the master tapes, and would be reissuing the record. I couldn’t believe it, to me that feeling is stronger than selling a million records. They did it all themselves, and they did a brilliant job of it. And it’s probably a good thing they didn’t ask for my involvement, because I probably would have wanted to retouch it here and there.
In the same way as André Brasseur did in 2015 and 2016, are you keen to get back on the live circuit?
The label suggested I should tour, which I accepted as long as they’d let me perform the album exactly how I used to play it back then. We’ll keep things small though, in intimate venues, for a connaisseur audience.
“If I really had to leave people with one memory of me it’d have to be the approach. The rest is just noise really.”
There is today I real interest around reissues and re-editions. Doesn’t it say it all about the state of the music industry today?
I’ll flip the question around for you: has production taken the upper hand over creation? That’s all people, including record labels, talk about nowadays : production. But, in my view, what is really missing today is pure and simple creation. The problem is that straight up creators are now a minority in relation to the people creating the packaging, everything that goes around the music.
To finish off, I’d like to ask what your relation to posterity is? Bottom line is, people will probably remember C’est l’amour more than they will your blend of white funk.
To be honest, what I hope to leave behind has nothing to do with what I’ve done. I want to leave people with the memory of someone that was eternally searching, permanently building. If I really had to leave people with one memory of me it’d have to be the approach. The rest is just noise really.Alec Mansion’s re-issued self-titled second album is out now on Be With Records.