A lifelong obsession with the country’s obscure minimal synth scene as well as a propensity for archiving that borders on the manic has resulted in Lieven De Ridder, founder of reissue imprint Walhalla Records, becoming one of the most respected names in the game, his lauded compilation series Various – Underground Belgian Wave making him the undisputed heavyweight of the unknown and unheard. We sit down with the 51-year-old label head, collector, DJ and radio host to discuss how a very personal passion blossomed into a very real business, one that relied solely on reissuing bands that barely even made it to the fringes.
In the grand electronic music scheme, Belgians have always prided themselves for their groundbreaking new beat scene that merged European electronic body music (also referred to as EBM) and the nascent American music styles of house and acid. New beat brought European techno one step closer and ventured away from the electronic italo-disco that was all the rage back then, and whilst Manchester had its Haçienda, the Bocaccio in Destelbergen was the new beat temple that drew clubbers from all over Belgium, France and the Netherlands. But new beat burned out very soon. Indeed, every schlagersinger and producer with a decent studio cashed in on its popular success and, within two years the slow, cold and ultra heavy beats morphed into some kind of gimmicky carnival music. Bye bye new beat, hello euro dance – the genre that brought us artists like Technotronic, Snap! and Dr. Alban.
People would drive to Antwerp, park somewhere and tape the shows from their car stereos, only to rush back home, copy the tapes and sell them to friends.
But what fewer Belgians know, is that before, during and after the new beat era, loads of unknown young Belgian kids were fooling around on their synthesisers, making new wave and EBM-influenced music in their living rooms, sounding a lot less produced and way more serious. Since the kids didn’t have well-equipped studios and sound engineers, their music was not really suited for clubs or the popular record business. Pressing records was expensive, and without a record label deal, it wasn’t really a safe investment. Their escape route from anonymity: cassette tapes. Many of those musicians lived short and very local careers, disappearing between the sheets of the Big Electronic Music Book. For most of their lives at least, as recently a couple of people from around the world have made it their mission to unearth, and reissue, the music that was on those self-released cassettes.
One of them, and most probably the most prolific, is Lieven De Ridder, head honcho of reissue label Walhalla Records. De Ridder, 51 years of age, is from Hamme, a small provincial city close to Sint-Niklaas and Dendermonde, where he’s always lived. “But I always spent most of my time in Antwerp,” he interjects. “It started with the Liaisons Dangereuses radio show on radio SIS,” a show run, in the eighties, by Sven Van Hees and Paul Ward. With their broad take on new wave, dub, electronics and balearic music, their show was one of the main catalysts for the whole new beat movement, schooling people’s ears in more difficult sounds. The legend goes that people would drive to Antwerp, park somewhere and tape the shows from their car stereos, only to rush back home, copy the tapes and sell them to friends. “I was following them avidly,” De Ridder recalls, “collecting all the music they played. I would put ads in magazines to get my hands on stuff, and that’s how I got to know a lot of my friends and people in Antwerp. Many years later, around 2007, I started doing parties with Kris Nagels. At the first ones, we only played Liaisons Dangereuses music. We’d organise a top 100 for which people had to send in their top 10 of Liaisons Dangereuses songs, and we’d compile a top 100 out of them and play the records at the party. That’s basically the origin of my circle of friends who live in Antwerp.”
In the 80s, new wave was already popular in the Rio, but I left my mark on it. At first you’d only hear Yello, The Cure and the likes, but I started playing The Klinik, SPK, Skinny Puppy, Portion Control… The heavier and darker side of new wave.
At this point, one might wonder how a guy from Hamme got to discover, collect and reissue so much interesting music – it’s not like living in New York, London or some other worldly city that’s been a hub for musical creation since forever. “During my teenage years, I was a member of the Chiro (a Flemish Christian youth group, somewhat like the Scout movement.), where a friend and I mutually introduced each other to a lot of so-called alternative music. It must’ve started with DAF in the late 70s, early 80s. We went dancing in the Rio, where I’d be dj’ing later. They played loads of new wave: Yello, Fad Gadget, Human League. And I learned lots from the radio – the more obscure, the better,” De Ridder chuckles – probably realising he hasn’t changed a bit in 30 years. “Gust De Coster’s radio show Vrijaf was one of my favourites. He played loads of new wave that stuck with me forever, like 17 Pygmies and Zwischenfall. I also listened to Domino on Radio 2, Spleen and Radio Nome on Hilversum 3, radio Toestel in Ghent, Radio Centraal in Antwerp, Radio Progres in Sint- Niklaas, and some others. After I heard stuff on the radio, I’d go looking for it in the shops. In Hamme, but also in Brussels – La Strada, Top 30, Caroline Music, Arlequin, Clash City Rockers, to name a few – Music Man and Vinylla in Ghent, The Kitchen in Sint-Niklaas and Brabo, USA Import and Record Warehouse in Antwerp.” But now we’re talking records that were and still are fairly available to anyone. The really obscure cassette stuff that he’s famous for now only happened later. “In the early nineties, I was dwelling around record fairs, where I got in touch with people from the North of France. They came with lists, looking for records or cassettes with so called ‘minimal electronics’ although once eBay came along, the name changed to ‘minimal synth.’” From then on, I started searching and collecting minimal synth, and through the French guys, got introduced to other people, mainly from Germany and the Netherlands.”
At the time, the records and cassettes were not as scarce and expensive as they are now, so De Ridder found it pretty easy to get his hands on them. “I also started writing to Belgian artists,” he confesses. Real letters, you have to remember this was all pre-internet. “Or I would swap with other people,” De Ridder continues, “with René Heid from the Rund Um Den Watzmann label, for instance, who was behind the first mail order that focused on minimal synth.” This kind of correspondence was necessary, because the minimal synth scene was a local one: people did do live shows, but mostly in their own area. To get their music spread out, they had to rely on the mail orders and the record stores. “Artists would drive to the different shops with their cassettes,” De Ridder explains. “Vinylla in Ghent, Brabo in Antwerp, and JJ Records in Leuven was good too.” Years went by, collecting, categorising and digitalising with no mapped out plan, just an obsession driving De Ridder further. For a long time, his only outlet was playing records for other devotees, under his DJ alias Aimé Le Chevalier – a literal translation of his real name which works out surprisingly well, Ridder meaning knight. “In the eighties, new wave was already popular in the Rio, but I left my mark on it. At first you’d only hear Yello, The Cure and the likes, but I started playing The Klinik, SPK, Skinny Puppy, Portion Control… The heavier and darker side of new wave.” De Ridder hasn’t stopped DJing every since – he still plays at parties all around Belgium. “To be honest, I think I’m a really good all-round DJ. My knowledge is vast and I’m versatile, I even deejay at wedding parties.” Slowly, the idea of doing something with the vast amount of cassettes he had amassed over the years started taking shape. Around 2005, De Ridder was ready to get his own label afloat, but he focussed on a project with the Minimal Wave label from the US first, a compilation called The Lost Tapes. De Ridder however, who supplied the label with music and contacts for artists, was disappointed in the the lack of credit – “my name is somewhere down there, on the right side of the inner sleeve” – and dropped the label idea for a bit. “I decided I’d be really careful with my information from then on.” “Finally, in 2010, I launched my label. At that time, I had already opened up my record shop in Antwerp. My friend Dirk Troubleyn suggested I’d call it the Cave of Walhalla. I liked the idea, so Walhalla Records was born. The idea of the label was to revive the Belgian cassette scene from the 80s. Luckily for me, few folks have the cassettes I own, so for my Underground Wave compilations I could use songs no-one else knew, which was a serious advantage. Ratbau was one of those, Asmodaeus and Palais des Bauzards too. The list is long! I also think I have a pretty good feeling for what I have to include. I know what’s going to work, because I’ve known the minimal synth crowd for a while now.” For his compilations, De Ridder contacts the artists to check if they still have the master tapes and “if not, we master straight from the cassettes. I work with someone from Sweden for that. Most of the time it works out pretty well.” De Ridder chuckles, “sometimes people really fall off their chair when I contact them to reissue a song they made years ago. For some, a whole new world opens. Menko Konings, for instance, from the Dutch band S.M. Nurse, is one of them. I had a cassette with their stuff, a live recording from the mythical Dutch radio show Spleen. I put two S.M. Nurse tracks on my Various – Underground Wave Volume 3 compilation, and then the Domestika label contacted them and released loads of their stuff.” De Ridder broke many other acts, such as Enzo Kreft and Asmodaeus, who released a solo record on his Walhalla imprint. Unfortunately, after two years, De Ridder had to give up his Walhalla shop, as things weren’t going as planned. The label did very well though. From the get go, the first compilations would fly out the door. After a couple of weeks, all copies of Underground Wave Volume 1 were gone – even the second pressing. From 2013 onwards, Walhalla teamed up with Starman Records, which facilitated distribution and other practical stuff.
Belgian bands meant a lot to new wave and minimal synth. We can be proud of them – they’re known all over the world.
Nowadays, De Ridder gets an e-mail from people from all over the globe at least once a week, begging him to repress the compilations. “I think their impact is bigger than I actually realise,” he murmurs, somewhat bemused. During our talk, there is one record that De Ridder doesn’t mention: Golden Years by Sound and Vision , an obvious nod to David Bowie. “Ouch, I didn’t think you’d ask me about that. S&V doesn’t exist anymore, it was the project of Tom Simoen and myself. At some point I wanted to make four tracks as Aimé Le Chevalier and release a 12” single. Tom had more of a dance music background. I asked if he could help me, so we made the four tracks in his studio. The 12” didn’t happen, but instead we made a cassette with the four tracks that sounded closest to minimal synth. Tom basically played all the instruments, and I just did some drum pads and tried singing. I’m not really a musician, you know.” De Ridder pauses and takes a pill. It’s a blood thinner that helps him battle his migraine attacks. “I’m 51 now, and I’ve been suffering from them my entire life, almost on a daily basis. These pills help, but I hope they go away with age, it’s horrible.” De Ridder’s archive of obscure synth gems shows no sign of drying up. During the many years he spent researching and collecting, he gathered a big cassette collection with tapes from all over the world. “I already spent a lot of time going through everything, listening and digitalising. But I have music I haven’t even started listening to yet, so there’s a lot of unused material left. In my weekly Wave Frequencies shows on Radio Centraal, you can hear a lot of the music I’ll be releasing in the future. I’m doing a Schicksal record next, and I have an idea for Victor Hublot too.” Later this year, De Ridder is also releasing a compilation with cold wave – “music that’s closer to Brassers and Siglo XX than to minimal synth, darker and with more guitars.” De Ridder promises one thing: “It’ll be an obscure one again, with stuff from cassettes almost no-one knows. After that, I’ll be working on the reissue of Elisa Waut’s first cassette on vinyl, with three bonus tracks that didn’t make the cassette. There’ll also be a full Ratbau EP, with approximately twelve tracks.” One thing remains unclear: why does De Ridder focus on Belgian releases so strictly? “Maybe because I’m from Belgium? Sometimes I do other countries like the Netherlands too, but the Belgian bands meant a lot to new wave and minimal synth. We can be proud of them – they’re known all over the world.”