© Ramy Moharam Fouad
A genuine talk with music industry savvy Ruben Vanhoutte about the multifaceted world of music, the entrepreneurial mindset that comes with it, the detrimental impact of a pandemic and the infinite possibilities with the industry's commercialisation.
As we’re approaching the time of the year that Keats called the "Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness," autumn also marks the end of summer and as such, the end of the festival season. I got to go to Pukkelpop this year, a longstanding festival in Belgium, hosting big league names such as Arctic Monkeys, Tame Impala, Slipknot...there is no doubt that after the corona hiatus, Pukkelpop managed to come back with a bang!
But a concert that truly stood out to me and was incomparable to others, was the performance given by Tamino. A singer, songwriter and musician of Belgian-Egyptian descent, but mostly, a storyteller. Together with his live band Ruben Vanhoutte on drums, Vik Hardy on keyboards/guitar, and the legendary Colin Greenwood (of Radiohead) on bass, they infused the crowd in a mesmeric middle eastern melody. Spellbinding the people in the room, who were collectively held by the tenderness of the music. The climactic sequence of instrumentals would be more than enough to convert any non-believer of music into a devoted worshipper of the craft.
I had the immense pleasure of talking to Ruben Vanhoutte, drummer, musician and producer. With a tenacious attitude and strong work ethic, he encompasses hard work and talent, the drive to be successful but in a humble, and yet very determined way to deliver the best music he can. In a beautifully honest and transparent conversation, we talked about an artists' reclusiveness in times of Covid restrictions and the psychological implications that come with it. The existentialism and cynicism that ensues, but also the shift and growth that it implies. The necessity of a goal-oriented approach when it comes to making it further in a saturated and competitive music industry, ending on a note of humanness and just wanting to deliver the best music you can.
You're like a regular here! Were you stressed though?
I was, well...normally I'm stressed for a big show, but usually we're in a routine, and then it's more of a "healthy stress". Because you’re excited and all... now it was different because we hadn’t played in 2.5 years and we had a rehearsal before the concert. No one notices it and everyone loves it, but as far as it comes to comfort zones, Tamino show was not "comfortable", we were all looking at each other like “F**k, how did this go again?”, I know that no one in the crowd notices, but we do.
Is it more personal for you to play at Pukkelpop, a festival in your home country, Belgium?
It used to be... during the previous editions I guess more of my friends went to Pukkelpop and this year I don’t know a lot of people that were coming. It’s an important show, but not for my friends. Or my friend group started shifting from non-musicians to musicians. That is something I like about the backstage of Pukkelpop, because you get to see people again that you haven't seen for a year, you just see your colleagues again.
Now, let’s talk about how the pandemic influenced you project-wise. How was that for you, since you make a living of being a musician? Did you manage to be creative, did you take time for yourself, was there more pressure because you couldn't perform, nor go out? Or maybe all of the above?
Oh, well I got into a depression very quickly! I feel like it changed me deeply to the core, I still feel it to be honest, not that I’m “depressed” right now, but it changed me a lot. It didn’t influence me in a good way necessarily, it made me very sceptical...
Of life or of the music scene?
Everything a bit, but especially about life maybe. I had this reality check of “I grew up studying music, and everything is shaped in this way that ‘I want to do music for a living’” and then it falls away for two years and people don’t "die" just because they don’t hear music. Yes, people didn’t like not being able to go to festivals, but they got used to it very fast. I know that ticket sales for concerts and festivals are extremely shitty now, people just go less to concerts. I was taking my profession so seriously and then seeing that it took such a beating makes me feel less serious about myself, for sure. It was an extremely harmful time for me. It was also double because I went from touring with Tamino and at that time we had our peak concerts and then the tour ended, and a month later the pandemic started. I was already in this black hole and then one extra on top, it was heavy. The Yung Geoffs project (a West-Flemish hip hop project in collaboration with his childhood friends: Alexander Verguchten and Giel Vanthournout) was done 1.5 years into the pandemic, but the pandemic didn’t make me more "creative", I almost didn’t play drums for 2 years, I played maybe like 5 days of drums during the first year of the pandemic... I had a moment where I didn’t want to touch the drums.
Why do you think that was? I assume because your creative drive was missing?
I have this thing that when I make time for something, when I invest into something, I want it to accomplish something – if you make a record but you cannot go and actually play it, then why are you making the record, what's the whole point?
I see so, it was like an existential crisis towards music and why even make music in the first place.
Yeah exactly, the Yung Geoffs thing was a sort of compromise because I knew it was a project that I didn’t want to play live; but I had this thing that I created a lot of beats during the pandemic and I wanted to also show maybe people around me “Hey, I'm a live musician, but I also have an idea of what music can be”, it was a good excuse, but I don't know if it was the pandemic that made it happen, or it would've happened anyway.
How was the pandemic for me? In short words: It absolutely sucked. But, on the other hand, maybe it was also a good reality check as well. Like, you're not saving people from cancer or anything, you're just a musician, you re just another entertainment, in-between Netflix. In the whole entertainment sector, you're just this microscopical small part of it. That might be something that maybe I wouldn’t have ever said before Covid so...
Well didn’t it change when you see how people react to you now during concerts? I saw the Tamino show and you could really feel the crowd's energy, their happiness of seeing you back on stage again! Didn't it bring back that sense of “I'm doing something that means something to people”, they show up for exactly this...?
I still feel sceptical towards it, I feel like it can be taken away from me at any time again. The drive I was going on, before the pandemic, was like this "youthful lust", this childish and immature energy, like “yeah, cool this and that” and now I feel like I'm more mature in an old way..
Cynical you mean?
Yeah exactly, cynical, like “Ah yeah we get to play Pukkelpop! Let's put in a lot of work into the preparations and then there will be another variant and we'll get to sit home again”, maybe not that heavy but, something holds me back a bit.
I think that pretty much everyone went through some sort of existential crisis, I mean “How do you deal with this?”, many people had this moment of “Nothing that I do matters” except for maybe doctors that were out there, saving lives. The rest of the world was all on hold...
Yeah exactly and on top of that, something that was a safety net, but also a curse, was my "artist status”. It allowed me to have an income from the government, so I never had to do another job in the meantime, but then the curse was "If I do something else now, I lose my status as an artist payment", so I somehow was forced to do nothing which is also harmful...Your self worth goes away, if you're being paid to do nothing over 2 years, you're like "Ok, what am I doing with my life?", constantly waiting on your friends to be done with work at 5pm, that sucked really hard... You know what I find sad, that somehow if you're an artist, you also need to be a business person. Because in essence, a musician's core consists of his/her drive and love for playing an instrument and making music, in its purest form let's say. But now, it' s also very linked to the business part of it.
I know that you're more "entrepreneurial", but some artists don’t really have that...For some "lost-soul artists", who are very sensitive, it must be very difficult to have possess both sides?
I actually think it's quite simple, I don’t have this thing with music that every day I wake up and I want to play, no. I want to work on something that I know matters and counts, and then put it out there in a good way.
I love the entrepreneurial aspect of it, because the more successful a band is, the more insane a show becomes. But the second you have more ambition, you want to go to the next level, for that you need a plan. Otherwise, you don’t “make it” and that can become very frustrating.
I'm a guy who, when I say I want to do something, I really want to do it. I'm not going to talk about it for years and not have it happen. If I feel that the music, is ripe now, then I want to do it now. You need to put in the work necessary, for it to be successful and make it an income job. Once you reach that point, it's amazing.
But isn't it kind of the beauty of it also?
Yeah, but look at this festival for example, everything is here. Every year it keeps getting better, but every year the price also rises right?
It's not about the money, one thing I know for sure is that I'm not going to get rich as a musician.
It's not my goal to be rich, but I just want to do it good. I think that's the idea behind this festival as well, I don’t think they are primarily money-driven. They just have this core idea being “We want to have one of the best festivals in the world” and then if that is your goal, well then obviously, the money comes in it as well, right? I really think it all starts with having a vision first, it's the same thing with any main act that is playing here. They have a vision, and they do everything to make that vision happen. And obviously, there is a lot of money involved, because if you're doing all these tours, trucks, and so on you need money for that.
Ok last one, dream collaboration right now ?
I'd like to be the drummer of Tame Impala! *smiling*
Aah after the epic show yesterday that makes sense!
First step for me is to do all the Tamino, at all cost, but I also want to play with an American band...I would love to be asked to do some sort of touring with a band that is at the same level as Tamino, but maybe one that is not from Belgium, otherwise you keep running in circles. I want to escape that, otherwise there's a risk of getting stuck.
Would you say that Belgium approaches the music industry differently than other countries? Let's say the States? Would that be more your kind of thing?
Yeah hm, I'm not speaking about the musical part. It's very different, and Belgian music is too "held back" for me personally sometimes. The thing with Belgium is that we have an insanely high quality of musicians, sound guys, tour managers...When it comes to people from the business side, Belgians are really, really top notch level. Americans should work with them, because there are not a lot of people that do it better. I know an insane amount of Belgian people that get hired for American crews.
Seems very American to go get the best things from Europe haha...
They’re smart guys.