Did Somebody Mention Patchouli? An Interview with Glen Steenkiste of Hellvete
I remember that glorious day as if it had been yesterday. Surprisingly, the heat was oppressive in the moderate climate of Eugene, Oregon. As droplets of perspiration fell from my forehead to the ground, I decided to play some files that my Turkish friend had sent me. Een Duvelse Zak Is Nooit Gevuld, from Hellvete on Sloow Tapes, transformed the environment that day. The folk songs from Glen Steenkiste were so beautiful that the release became the first tape I had purchased in years. One of the main operators in psych travelers Sylvester Anfang II, Glen’s upcoming Hellvete release, Sint-Denijs on Blackest Rainbow, embraces the listener’s head with warm drones. Recently, we corresponded through e-mail about his work as Hellvete, the story of Sylvester Anfang, the prolific Belgian underground/experimental music community and more.
Michael Massof: Your latest work as Hellvete is a warm, tranquil recording. Similarly, the soothing drones that you create with your Sylvester Anfang II bro, Ernesto Gonzalez (Bear Bones, Lay Low), resonate peacefully. How did it all begin for you with music? Growing up, who were some of your influences? What inspires you?
Glen Steenkiste: I have been attracted to music as long as I can remember. It started with taping songs from the radio when I was around five. As a teenager I spent a lot of time in the local youth center and that’s where I picked up lo-fi, indie, and post-rock. Around that time I also started playing music with friends. When I moved to Ghent to study, I got to know the people from the KRAAK label and from there it really took off. They opened a completely new world for me; a world of new sounds but also of a DIY spirit that I felt very attracted to. That had a great influence on me. Seeing and meeting all those interesting people who made super good music on their own terms opened doors in my head.
But the new recordings are inspired by the idea of sitting down and letting the music just come over and take you. Like a warm blanket that covers you. With the new record and the Gonzalez & Steenkiste duo I try to take people away — on a trip where you forget about space and time and you have the feeling of just being in the moment. Moments, music or events that can put me in that kind of state inspire me. But I’m not the kind of guy who gets his kicks out of jumping off a cliff. I get my kicks from tranquillity and warmth. That’s probably why a lot of music that I’m working on now has that feeling to it, although I try to avoid the new age or purely ambient paths. I don’t feel very attracted to that. I still want it to be powerful. I don’t like the smell of patchouli.
The one thing I most admire about your discography is the breadth of sounds and ideas it encompasses. There is the acoustic psych-folk reverie of Een Duvelse Zak Is Nooit Gevuld, the wind organ and harmonium bliss of ‘t Orgelorkest, and in between is your LP for KRAAK, De Gek. How long have you been recording as Hellvete, and how has the project evolved since its inception. Can you recount the experience of creating Sint-Denijs?
I think I started making my first Hellvete recordings around 2005 or 2006 — around the same time that we started out with Silvester Anfang and the Funeral Folk label. By starting to make music with the other early Anfang folks, I got a burst of ideas. And I got a MacBook with Garageband, so I could easily multitrack on that using the built-in microphone. (Hehehe…) So I just recorded some things and passed it around to some people and got some positive feedback that encouraged me to go on with it. And in the process of recording things, I always try to find ways to keep it interesting for myself. So I try to keep my eyes and ears open to influences that I can use in my music. Because my interests shift, my music does as well. The last couple of years I have really been into early minimal music and folk from all over the world. A lot of 78 RPM re-issues introduced new perspectives on music for me and got me in touch with all kinds of new stuff.
But I think the main reason why Sint-Denijs is different from my previous releases is that I moved out of the city center of Ghent two years ago. Now I have a room to my own to make music. Before I had to record in a crammed room in a small apartment alongside a very busy street. Now I have a nice quiet room with all my records and my stuff. When I record I can look straight into the garden. In the afternoon the sun lightens the room. It’s a great place. The album is an ode to that place. It really feels like I found a home — a place where it is calm and where I can do my own thing and create my own little world. A place that soothes me.
Being a founding member of Sylvester Anfang, and as somebody that has been involved with both versions, could you provide the readers with a brief history and the differences between Sylvester Anfang and Sylvester Anfang II? Who is currently in the band, and are there plans to record a follow-up to Perzische Tapijten?
Silvester Anfang morphed into Sylvester Anfang II around the 2xLP we did for Aurora Borealis. A lot of people where coming and going in the band and in that process the music changed to something completely different, at least in our opinion, so we thought it was a funny idea to change the name. Also it seemed to confuse people at that time, a thing we didn’t really bother to get corrected. In retrospect it maybe marks the closing of something and the beginning of something else. But there wasn’t really a big idea behind it. Like most of the things we do, we just try to do what we feel like is right at the moment.
“It’s cool to hang out with like-minded people, but I don’t have the feeling it has a lot of influence on the music I make. Everybody is looking for their voice, and I don’t really see my friends as being a scene.”
Currently, we are trying new things with new people and making new recordings that are going back more to the beginning of the band. Lots of acoustic instruments and percussion. More folky stuff, more free and out there than the fuzzed-out krautrock we played a couple of years ago. I have the feeling the band is changing again and we are looking for ways to create new stuff. We are working on a record that will come out on Oaken Palace Records that is run by Sven Lohrey, but it’s not finished yet. We are also working on an archival record with recordings from 2008 that didn’t got released at that time. It’s one that will make the wahwah-heads happy. And we have some more things in our vault that we are working on. It’s healthy to stay busy.
How did the project with Ernesto (Gonzalez & Steenkiste) come about? Will there be another tape in the near future?
It’s something Ernesto and I had been talking about for years. Before our first real recording session as a duo we spent hours in a car together on our way to shows or rehearsals making plans on how to get to the sound that we both had in our head. A sound that we could clearly explain to each other and that we were both enthusiastic about. But it wasn’t before I bought a harmonium and Ernesto got a violin that we got to a place where we were able to create the sounds we had in mind. From the first jam it just felt right. It really felt like there was more than just the two of us playing. From there, we just took it farther. Last April we played eight shows on a small tour and that went really well. It gave a lot of inspiration. We are recording new things so I hope there will be some more G&S releases in the future, at least that’s the plan.
Along with making music, you are one of the founders of the Funeral Folk label and were a contributor to KRAAK. KRAAK is more than a music label — could you please expound on KRAAK and its relationship to the experimental music scene in Belgium? Also, is there a chance that another record will be released on Funeral Folk?
I got to know the people from KRAAK when I moved to Ghent to study. They opened up a whole new world for me. Johan, one of the founders of the label, really stimulated my appetite for music. KRAAK started off as a label and after a while they also started putting together shows. First I was just hanging out at the office spinning record after record. After a while, I began to help out with the shows and label. That was about 10 years ago, and around that time KRAAK was one of the few organizations putting on more experimental shows. They created a scene of like-minded people and they had contacts all over the world. So it became a platform for Belgian and international artists. After a while KRAAK got financial support from the government, so they were able to create a stable base for a lot of “out there” artists. In that way they have been an important part for what is now the underground scene in Belgium I think. Although there were always other people around doing crazy shit like Audiobot, Veglia, Ultra Eczema… It was a very vivid period for the underground a that time. Everybody had its share in what was happening. But without KRAAK I wouldn’t be doing what I’m doing now. Through KRAAK I made contact with all those folks out there, so I owe them big time.
For Funeral Folk, who knows what might happen in the future. At the moment the label is asleep. Everybody is busy with other things. But who knows, if we come across something that the three of us think is worth releasing, there will be another release.
“Before I had to record in a crammed room in a small apartment alongside a very busy street. Now I have a nice quiet room with all my records and my stuff. When I record I can look straight into the garden. In the afternoon the sun lightens the room. It’s a great place. The album is an ode to that place. It really feels like I found a home”
Sloow Tapes periodically releases compilations that highlight the fertile music scene in Belgium. What has your experience been like within this environment, and who are some of your favorite local artists?
There are a lot of people around doing good stuff and that’s really inspiring, although I don’t really feel like you can call it a “scene.” Everybody knows each other, but everybody is also doing their own stuff and is in their own world. It’s cool to hang out with like-minded people, but I don’t have the feeling it has a lot of influence on the music I make. Everybody is looking for their voice, and I don’t really see my friends as being a scene.
One of my favorite Belgian acts of the moment is Maan. Two young guys who make some weird kind of 80s-wave mixed with a 60s New York loft vibe to it. Really down to earth guys that are really in it for the music. Those guys really give me a boost. We played a show together a while ago and it was one of the best shows I’ve seen in a long time. They just released their debut album on KRAAK. Another favorite is The Urpf Lanze. He just released his first record On AudioMER. I did two tours with him so I’ve seen him evolve into great performer with a unique act. His approach to blues and guitar playing puts him in his own unique place. A great story teller, too. And I always keep an eye on what my Anfang buddies Ignatz and Mr. Gonzalez put out. Everything they release is really worth checking out. I feel blessed to be able to make music with these people. Like I owe KRAAK big time, I owe everybody who ever played in SA/SA II big time. They are all people who have a special place in my heart. Oh, did somebody mention patchouli?
What are some of your favorite record labels?
That’s hard to say. I’m not really a label following kind of guy anymore. There used to be a time that I bought every single release on a particular label or even by a particular producer, but I passed that stage. Looking back on it, I ended up with a lot of stuff I hardly listen to. But it helped to find out what I like about music and what I don’t like, so in that way it’s good I went through all that shit. Now I just want to hear music I like. There’s been a period that I bought all the Mississippi Records releases that came out, but that also stopped a bit, although I still keep my eye on it. They still release killer stuff.
Here’s the scenario: We’re hanging out at your place, drinking a few Duvels and decide to listen to your five favorite releases. Which releases would you select, and if it’s not infringing too much, what’s your personal connection to each one?
After a few Duvels I will probably start to annoy you with how great The Band is and I will put on their self-titled album. The last two years I’ve really been on a The Band trip since I heard “The Night They Drove Old Dixie Down.” For some stupid reason I had never checked them out before, but that song struck me like lightning. And the craftsmanship that comes with it… oh boy…
After that I would probably skip to something by Pelt or related acts. A couple of years ago I got the A Stone For Angus Maclise record and it blew my head off. I knew Pelt before and had some of their records but for some reason it didn’t really get to me until that record. After that I went through all the records by Pelt and listened to them non-stop. The way they approach experimental and traditional music and blend it in their own unique way has been a great inspiration for me since then. They were my gateway to old-timey music. We both played at TUSK festival in Newcastle last year and I had a great time hanging out and talking with them about music and things. Through Mike Gangloff I got to know the music by Lester McCumbers, a true Appalachian fiddle warrior. There’s awesome footage of him on YouTube. He’s in his 90s now, but, oh boy, he still knows how to bow. And again, all this music has that kind of craftsmanship to it that makes it sound timeless.
In the same vibe as Pelt but for me a completely unique band that had a great influence on me is Vibracathedral Orchestra. The mix of early Velvet Underground guitar rumble and Indian raga style drones on Dabbling With Gravity And Who You Are made my head spin. In 2003, I joined Köhn, Benjamin Franklin and Toss, all artists that circled around the KRAAK label at that time, on a trip to Leeds where they were playing a festival together with VCO, Skullflower and Birchville Cat Motel. This epic, wild trip to the UK was my first encounter with VCO. We stayed at Adam’s place, the guitar player of VCO at that time, and had a great time. VCO played a great show that made my head go wild. They showed me the way to “free music” and a CD-R culture where it was easy to make your own releases and get them out into the world. VCO had a lot of those releases and was maybe part of my inspiration for starting Funeral Folk.
From VCO it’s a small step to Ben Chasny and Six Organs of Admittance. On that same Leeds trip I bought a 3-way split CD with tracks by Magic Carpathians, Six Organs and VCO. The song by Six Organs was “Warm Earth Which I’ve Been Told” (it got re-issued on the RTZ 3xLP) and it was the best track on there. Organ drones, fingerpicking guitars, a soothing voice and very good tunes. It took me by surprise. Before that I was more into loud rock music or electronics but this showed me that folk-oriented music could be really intense without having all the hippie bullshit around. This had a big influence on the recordings of De Gek.
And to finish off in a blissful state of mind I would put on Journey In Satchidananda by Alice Coltrane, the record that showed me the way to spiritual jazz. This album sounds so divine. It’s very powerful and at the same time very relaxed. And all the instruments sound so good on this record — you can hear there are masters at work on this one.
[Photos appear courtesy of Hans van der Linder]