How Leuven-based Pieter Eykens’ two labels – Onderstroom and Aguirre – cover a broad spectrum of the underground

Almost any and every record collector who’s into new or cold wave, synth-pop or minimal synth owns at least one release from Onderstroom, whilst those who follow contemporary experimental music will certainly possess an Aguirre record. What few people might know however is that both labels are operated by the same person. Pieter Eykens (1986) has been busy bringing little-known music, be it old or new, into the spotlight since 2009.

His first label Onderstroom—meaning “under the (main-)stream”—was founded in 2009, following Eykens’ passion for old and obscure Belgian new wave. Shortly thereafter, he established Aguirre, named after the Werner Herzog movie, as an outlet for newer, experimental music. Since then, Eykens has brought out over 110 releases, most of them on vinyl with the occasional cassette and CD thrown into the mix.

Photographer Thomas Ost (c)

Hey Pieter, can you talk us through your life, by way of introduction?

I was born in January 1986 and grew up in Rotselaar, a village close to where Rock Werchter takes place, and attended a secondary school in Leuven, which is not too far either. After that I started studying journalism at Erasmushogeschool Brussel. I initially wanted to study radio at RITCS, then known as RITS, but I was a bit too nervous to take the entry exam. Basically, in order to be on radio, you need to come off as confident, and yeah… (laughs). That ended badly. It was unfortunate, because as a kid I listened to the radio a lot. I never gave it a second shot because life rolls you from one thing to another before you end up with no time left. I do have my own show on The Word Radio now, but I don’t nearly have enough time for that either, especially with my new-born son.

After my journalism studies, I enrolled in the PXL music school in Hasselt, where students can pick one of three directions: music, technics or management. I chose the latter. I started my studies the very first year the school was founded, so the entire curriculum wasn’t 100% on point yet—but I still learned a lot. Luc Van Acker, pioneering experimental artist of Revolting Cocks fame was a tutor there and his teaching was very infectious. I was obsessed with new wave at the time, so he was a pivotal figure in that regard alone.

What was your career plan when you chose to study at PXL?

I didn’t really know at the time (laughs). I just wanted to do something with music, and it didn’t really matter if that meant organising concerts or managing bands. The idea to begin a label sprouted during my first year. I had been collecting records for a while, and a lot of the Belgian new wave and synth records I wanted—like De Brassers or The Cultural Decay—were either impossible to find, or too expensive. So releasing them myself was kind of my only way to obtain them. At first, releasing records seemed like a very abstract idea, but there was always someone at PXL who could answer my questions and explain how things worked, so it was pretty easy after all. So in my second year in 2009, Onderstroom began.

How did you discover all the unknown music you released on Onderstroom?

The early 2000s were the heydays of music blogs—that’s where I learned a lot. I remember Mutant Sounds being one of my main inspirations: an American blog on new wave and synth music which featured Belgian bands too, like Aroma di Amore. I still don’t know how they did it. There also was this Dutch blog, I think it was called 4:33. They used to upload Belgian and Dutch punk, new wave and electronic cassettes. So I was basically storing music, hard disc after hard disc, learning about so much amazing old music. There were a few reissue labels around already, like Minimal Wave and Mannequin Records, but it was definitely a good moment to start my own since new wave was the apple of everyone’s eyes and was being appreciated widely. Besides the fact that I wanted to own some of these records myself, the label also started out from a bit of an altruistic idea, really. I wanted more people to listen to the music that I found amazing and yet was totally unknown.

But of course it hasn’t always been as simple as that: running a label also means convincing the artists. Several bands I wanted to bring into attention weren’t on board. Others just didn’t like their old music anymore. Solid Space springs to mind. I know a lot of labels were chasing them, and I was in touch with them for a while myself, but they wanted to re-record Space Museum entirely because they didn’t like the quality of the recordings… Not a good idea (laughs). In the end Josh Cheon, the guy behind the American Dark Entries label, must’ve been very convincing: he managed to reissue the record in its original form. Which is great. Another one I’ve been after for a long time is A Blaze Colour, a project by Ludo Camberlin and Karel Saelemaekers AKA BAM. The former produced some of the bands I released, like The Neon Judgement, Aimless Device and a bunch of other ones. He also released a 7” single and 12” single and a demo cassette as A Blaze Colour—all insanely good. I emailed him, tried to get others to convince him, even his friends… But it seems like he’s become disgusted with the music business. He worked for Antler Records a lot, with Maurice Engelen—maybe something happened there… I got a hold of his phone number a while ago, but I’ve been postponing the call. I’m afraid he’ll just be like, “Leave me alone.” I don’t want to be too pushy either, you know. At some point you must respect the artist’s choice.

Most records on Onderstroom are Belgian, but there’s the odd international release too.

In the beginning I was naturally focussing on my love for Belgian stuff, but I’ve never wanted to pin myself down to that either. If I really like something, then I want to release it. Like Ssleeping desiresS, the eponymous record by a contemporary American artist, or the Norwegian Fra Lippo Lippi’s LP In Silence.

How did you tackle those international reissues? I guess it’s harder than the Belgian ones because you can’t just look through your local phonebook.

I find a lot of people through Facebook, or I just get in touch with the original label because they often own the rights instead of the musicians. That’s what happened with Fra Lippo Lippi for instance. I just spoke to Rune Kristoffersen, the bassist who owned the rights, and then assumed that he would inform the others, of course.

Something funny happened recently: I hosted an exhibition in an old printing factory close by our place with my girlfriend who makes jewellery, a friend who makes ceramics, a fashion designer from Maastricht and my record labels. The boss of the place was very interested in the records. He started talking about his band in the 80s that played industrial, dark music in bars in Leuven. He went on and on for like half an hour before I could ask him the name of the band. “Palais Des Bauzards,” he answered. I was like, “Are you fucking serious?”, and picked out their In the Grassfields LP—an Onderstroom reissue—and handed it to him. He was startled, to say the least. Turned out he mainly played with the band for live shows. He wasn’t in the studio with them for this record, so that’s probably why he wasn’t informed about the reissue.

When I genuinely like something, I conduct a deep investigation, to the point where I want to hear anything that’s even remotely related.

Are you concerned with the fact that there are so many reissue labels out there right now, many of them focussing on the same niche?

Definitely. The 80s aren’t inexhaustible, you know. Of course you can always keep searching for that one holy grail that might be hiding somewhere, but I think it’s better to look for new, contemporary music that somehow fits the picture. For me personally, after all these years, new wave is becoming less of an interest compared to before, so I’m releasing fewer records on Onderstroom. I’m not saying that the label is dead and buried, but it’s definitely operating on a lower level. Aguirre is more my vibe right now, so naturally I put more energy into it. And I started a third label focussing on reggae and dub, Roots Vibration, which is also increasingly absorbing more time and energy.

Did you want to keep these outlets separated from the get-go?

In hindsight, I think a label can perfectly release different styles. It would’ve been easier from an organisational point of view, that’s for sure (laughs). For starters, I wouldn’t need two or three different Facebook pages. Or communication-wise, with all my emails to press and shops… But this is how it grew, so I keep it like it is. And that’s OK—having things clearly lined out also has advantages.

Aguirre started in 2010, right?

Yes. The first record came a few months after my first Onderstroom release.

How did you get introduced to this kind of music? Also through blogs?

When I was 14 I went to Pukkelpop, and Gonzo magazine had a stand there. And I remember thinking, “Oh yeah, the weird guys with their weird music!” At that time I couldn’t understand how people were able to listen to that music. But my taste evolved, as it still does. The reverse is true too, by the way: I’m selling a lot of records from a decade ago that I don’t like anymore. So yeah, taste evolves, and I always keep an open mind and eye out for new things. When I genuinely like something, I conduct a deep investigation, to the point where I want to hear anything that’s even remotely related. And when I’m done, I hop onto a new genre (laughs).

So a year or two before starting Aguirre, I discovered a lot of—again—Belgian music that was coming out, like Lieven Martens, who was already deep in the cassette scene. Come to think of it, it was a pretty similar scene to that of the 80s… At first, I was baffled that people were releasing cassettes in 2006 or 2007, but of course I was also intrigued. And the music itself! It was so special. I can still remember hearing Ignatz for the first time, and Ariel Pink, who’s had a big influence on me. At first I thought his music was so weird that it must’ve been a joke. Then there was Oneohtrix Point Never, Emeralds, and so on. And so I dug deeper. Volcanic Tongue, a Glaswegian record shop run by David Keenan and Heather Leigh was one of the places where I discovered a lot of stuff. They sold CDRs, records, cassettes… There were loads of cassette labels I was following at the time. Closer to home, KRAAK was another important factor, having been in operation for a while already. In their early days they released more electronic stuff—still pretty melodious—but by the time I started checking them out intently, they were releasing really special music like Silvester Anfang, Ignatz and Bear Bones, Lay Low, all of it pretty far out. And they organised a lot of shows too.

I discovered most of this stuff online and through buying. In that aspect Tomentosa Records was really important: an online shop selling cassettes almost exclusively. They had the newest releases every two weeks, and you had to be very fast to grab a copy before they all sold out. But overall, the initial idea behind Aguirre was the same as with Onderstroom: because the music spoke to me so strongly, I wanted to lift some of these artists out of obscurity and into the light.

Were these contemporary artists always immediately up for working with you, a total stranger at that time?

There were so many labels for cassettes emerging, like mushrooms, so the most talented artists could pick any label they wanted. But if they were offered a vinyl release, which was my proposal, artists were more inclined to say yes, as this was rare at the time. And of course, just as with Onderstroom—or any label, for that matter—, you need to be convincing.

For me it was important to work with people who didn’t release five records per year, something quite common in the cassette scene: some were releasing endless streams of cassettes, sometimes 20 a year, which is totally exaggerated. The only exception I knew was James Ferraro, who somehow managed to produce stellar releases non-stop.

The bigger releases make it easier to work on the more obscure stuff; I try to find this balance in all of my labels.

Aguirre has a sublabel, Les Séries Shandar, with music by Steve Reich, Terry Riley and others. Quite impressive names. How did that work?

It’s actually more of a series than a sublabel: I just labelled them like this because the four records in question were originally released on illustrious French label Shandar. I had been looking for the actual rights owner for a long time before finding out that the records were re-released as CDs in the 90s, in Italy and France. The CD covers reference the copyright holders, so I emailed them and got an almost instantaneous reply saying that reissuing the music was possible. I was happy of course, but also a bit baffled by the fact that I would be the first one to reissue them on vinyl, as these records have quite the legendary status.

Thing is, I could probably run five sublabels under Aguirre if I wanted to—one for jazz, another for vaporwave, and so on (laughs). But that would be too much of a hassle, so anything that’s slightly experimental goes under the Aguirre umbrella.

The Shandar series really helps to keep things afloat. After my PXL studies, I was running the labels for half a year, but then was in need a job and so worked for Sabam for a good four years. I learned a lot there too. Then I resigned, because working and running two labels was all becoming a bit too much. I bought a motorhome with my girlfriend and went travelling for five months. When our trip ended, I wanted to try focussing on the labels only. That was four years ago now, and things are going well. The bigger releases make it easier to work on the more obscure stuff; I try to find this balance in all of my labels. Old music is easier, there’s almost always a guaranteed public. New things are harder to push, but it’s just as important to me.

Do you run the labels all by yourself, or is anyone else involved?

At first I did everything myself, but as you go on and things grow, it’s smarter to let people in and handle some stuff. Like distribution for instance: I now work with Forced Exposure in the US, Cargo Records in the UK and another distributor in Japan. It makes it a lot easier. And I personally stay in touch with certain record shops I’ve been working with for a long time. I also try to outsource the release artwork, because I know a whole lot of people who can do it better than me. Jeroen Wille, a graphic designer and cofounder of the label audioMER, does an amazing job every time—and not just for me, but other labels too. He’s insanely good at typography. I’ve also recently worked with Atelier Brenda for a couple of releases.

It also depends if the record is new or a reissue. If it’s an exact reproduction, I try to keep the original artwork. For contemporary records, I first check with the musicians if they have any ideas or friends they want to work with—it’s their baby after all. And if they don’t have anyone or thing in mind, I start looking for someone who I feel will fit the project.

I just came across your reggae outlet Roots Vibration recently during my research. How did that come about?

I used to be an occasional reggae listener, but it’s basically the same story again: once I discover a genre, I want to unravel it completely. So yeah, with reggae I’m now set for a good few years (laughs). Jamaica has a smaller population than Belgium, and yet it produced insane amounts of good music.

I don’t go out that often anymore, but if I do now, it’s almost always to reggae or dub parties. Strictly vinyl sets are a big asset to me. And these tall towers with amplifiers and speakers… The sound quality is tremendous. You can hear each frequency in these super hypnotic eight-minute dub tracks. I love it. Dub has many different sounds: it can be very hard and electronic for instance, but my favourites are the ones where you can hear “real” instruments being played.

Since your three labels have such distinct styles, can you pinpoint the geographical spread of your audiences?

Oh yes—Onderstroom is big in Belgium, Aguirre mainly in the US and Roots Vibration in Europe, especially in France and the UK.

Last question: any special projects coming up?

Yes! Enno Velthuys is a project I’ve been busy with for a very, very long time, scheduled for around the end of this year. A guy called Douglas McGowan started looking for the copyright holder ages ago, because Velthuys himself has passed away. So he got in touch with Velthuys’ mother and close friend, and is now in charge of the reissues. Basically every Velthuys cassette will be reissued but on a different label each time, with Onderstroom being one of them. I’m working on the Vreemde Landen cassettes. I thought it only consisted of two volumes but turns out there’s actually a third one. So my release will be a kind of compilation of these three, since some of the cassette tracks will be featured on other reissues too. But a Spanish guy is the only one in the world to own that third cassette, and he’s been busy digitising it for me for like half a year…

Aguirre’s monthly show on The Word Radio runs Mondays, from 20h to 22h.