Tommy De Nys (1977) occupies a prime spot in Belgian’s alternative music scene: as head of programmation and communication at Les Ateliers Claus, he discusses how to maintain a unique underground music venue. And to prove his point, make sure to listen back to the late-night Sunday “Surrounded by the French” set he did last week for The Word Radio.
Photographer Thomas Ost (c).
I’ve been running Les Ateliers Claus for about four years now. I used to work at KRAAK and, one day, Frans Claus, who was a big fan of what we were doing, came to me and asked me what my musical dream was. I told him about seeing a ship leaving Istanbul filled with musicians and recording gear. The boat would travel to Belgium. From time to time, it’d make a stop, to load and unload musicians as well as master tapes. And, once we’d arrive in Ostend, we’d have our records and experiences. Or at least that’s what the dream envisioned. “I can make that happen,” he replied, and so I started working at Les Ateliers Claus, when we were still located under the bridge in Rogier. A year later, we opened in a new location in Saint-Gilles, where we still are today, in what used to be a furniture warehouse. At the time, we’d do gigs every three months, with a completely different interior each time. We’d call these nights “salons.” Our team is pretty small, three people plus volunteers. To describe my job is a pretty difficult task – it’s splintered and varied. I take care of programming, but I also do ticket sales for instance. Since starting at Les Ateliers Claus, I’ve been here to welcome the audience for about 90% of shows. It’s crucial for a place such as ours to be connected to our public, the venue and its work is build around and supported by it. Frans, too, is still involved. We also publish a newspaper, which we see as a mobile art gallery: eight pages of artwork, printed on large format paper, with our agenda on the last page. That’s our way to support visual artists whose work Frans and I are fans of. People such as Mathieu Ha, Sarah Zeebroek, Nicolas Zouliamis, Nina Vandeweghe or Chloé Schuiten to name just a few. In terms of musical inclination, it’s tricky to pinpoint a particular genre of music we stick to, so I won’t even go there. One thing that is important to me is that we remain independent from booking schedules or agendas. The classic logic in music is to put out an album and then go on tour, so most venues rely on what bookers have to offer them. I do things the other way around. I first decide who I want to book, then I get in touch. I reach out to other venues abroad – ZDB in Lisbon, Cave12 in Geneva, Café Oto in London and OCCII in Amsterdam for example – to share travel costs, and one date often translates into a mini tour. Another aspect of our work is the record label, Les Albums Claus, which tries to put out three to four releases per year. Often these are the results of the artists we’ve had in residency, musicians who come to live and work at Les Ateliers Claus for a week.
You could say we go the extra mile, which could mean serving a fruit salad at midnight, putting on an extra, unexpected performance, or adding a last minute short movie screening.
The format of releases is always discussed and agreed upon with the artists, with most of them being vinyls, as well as the odd cassette or two. Our first release, for instance, by Kapotski, was a pizza box that came with three vinyls to be played simultaneously. The most out-there release we’ve done, however, has to be our Coffee Randomizer by Peter Keene, which is basically a circuit-bent coffee machine spitting out oscillating frequencies instead of black gold. At its core, we try to be another venue, to make our public as well as our performers feel at home. We try to add something to performances in an endless quest to improve our work and presentations. You could say we go the extra mile, which could mean serving a fruit salad at midnight, putting on an extra, unexpected performance, or adding a last minute short movie screening. That’s the type of small gesture that, to us, makes the place stand out and allows us to attract unique musicians. Take, for example, Goodiepal, who travelled by bike from Denmark together with his mother. He doesn’t want to leave a carbon footprint so, whilst riding his bike, he charges his batteries to use during the performance. He’s pretty out there. His records can be found in a night shop in Copenhagen and there’s even a documentary coming out on him pretty soon.