KNOTORYUS TALKS TO GOOSE’S MICKAEL KARKOUSSE (INTERVIEW)
When you’d ask the question what I was doing when I first heard about Belgian band GOOSE, the answer would probably be heavy on the “coming down from the incredible high of an MTV Europe internship and trying to figure out what’s next” stories. I remember back in 2000, first and foremost, I really dug GOOSE’s sneering sound, but I was particularly into their boy-bravado that felt defiant while also being remarkably non bro-ish. These 4 kids from Kortrijk brought the heat and besides snatching the first prize in the only music competition that actually means something in these neck of the woods, they subsequently started grabbing all the pop culture headlines. Not because they urgently squeezed out an album trying to cash in on this win, but for saying “nope” and “non” to each and every one of the seemingly sweet record deals offered to them. These boys were onto something and they knew it, but they also wanted to take it slow and make their own decisions.
Which of course resonated strongly with me, because I’m all about that hot mix of independence and ambition.
A decade and a half and four albums later, lead singer and keyboard player Mickael Karkousse and I sit together at their studio to celebrate their latest drop “What You Need” for which GOOSE enlisted the skills of the California based Jason Falkner, who works and plays with Paul McCartney, Air and Beck. The cover art and a short film -that will remain behind an iTunes paywall until further notice, but we most definitely recommend watching- is courtesy of non other than Willy Vanderperre.
It’s clear that Mickael also knows and appreciates what KNOTORYUS is about, which is always cool to hear, but don’t get it twisted, GOOSE been had that 360° plan that is not made up by Stan Smith wearing A&Rs (no shade), but just carefully thought out by equal parts of Dave Martijn (guitar, keyboard); Tom Coghe (keyboard, bass guitar, background vocals), Bert Libeert (drums, background vocals), plus of course that whole view that Mickael and his impeccable sense of style bring.
About that: I met Mickael for the first time a couple of years ago at an event where I got seated right behind him and subsequently decided to tweet about how much I liked his band and his earring instead of walking up to him like a normal person. I’m a firm believer in holding out for right moments, though, so here we are and as you can tell from the video above, I got Alex Salinas involved and we commissioned a video Master AS shot as an introduction to this interview. Sidenote: I only noticed afterwards, but before the interview I told Mickael the earring story and I think he might have put in the one he wore back in ’14 just for our shoot. It’s the little things in life, man, and I appreciate them.
Alright, here’s what we talked about:
(all images by Alex Salinas)
KNOTORYUS: Congratulations on the new record! I think it’s really great. There are couple of songs on there that take me back to when I was little. Depeche Mode was probably the first band I remember dancing to. When I say that the sound reminds me of that kind of vibe, would you agree?
MICKAEL KARKOUSSE: People expect us to be influenced by bands like that, but we grew up in the 80s, so that was the music that was played on the radio. We aren’t digging around for those records or exploring the process of those bands. Because it was the first music we ever heard, I think it had such an impact I think it formatted us, in a way.
KNOTORYUS: It’s not only the bands; the sound also reminds me of big movies of the 80s. There are sequences in some of the songs that scream: “Oh, now the main character is going after the girl that he wants” or “Now he’s really angry and he’s about to take control of the situation”.
M.K.: I’m happy that you picked up on that because it’s definitely also influenced by that culture and the way teenagers were visualised in the 80s, in the movies. The way a boy and a girl get together. How do they interact in high school? All these films and soundtracks helped me grow up. Your parents teach you stuff, but the way I tried to figure out how the world worked was through movies and music. The first time I had a girlfriend, I would approach the situation like I was in a movie: “How do I get to her, how do I start to talk to her, do I act like this or that?” It didn’t have a Hollywood ending, but it was a first step.
KNOTORYUS: Let’s go back a bit: did you grow up in Kortrijk?
KNOTORYUS: What did your parents do?
M.K.: My mother was a teacher and my father was a salesman. I have a sister who is four years older and thanks to her I got to see movies like Grease, Footloose, Youngblood…
KNOTORYUS: Wow, “Youngblood”, it’s been a while since that movie crossed my mind. My big brother played ice hockey and was obsessed with it. There was also The Breakfast Club, Pretty In Pink…
M.K.: Exactly. All these films my sister was watching, I was just always sitting next to her I guess.
KNOTORYUS: Was there a lot of music being played around the house?
M.K.: I have an uncle who is a big Beatles and Elvis fan, so we used to listen to a lot of Beatles and Elvis cassettes when we were driving from Kortrijk to Ostend – because my grandmother lives there. We would go every weekend to visit, and we’d sing along to those tapes in the car. My sister was the only musical person in our house. She played the piano so we had a piano at home. She would really study and apply herself, whereas I would just go to the piano and start playing purely driven by emotion.
KNOTORYUS: After the whole movies and 80s record thing, what broke it open for you? What made you play the music you are playing now? I don’t play music, but musicians had a huge impact on the way I looked at the world. Michael Jackson was huge of course, but the first guy that made me think: “Oh, we can be that too?” was Prince.
M.K.: Michael Jackson was like a god to me. When his music wasn’t being played on the radio I would physically miss him and from the moment he released a new album I was happy again. I went to see him play live in the early 90s at Werchter.
KNOTORYUS: I was there, Kris Kross was the support act!
M.K.: Yes! (laughs) I found a bill of 50 francs and I bought posters with that money. But to answer your question, the band that changed our musical path was Les Rhythmes Digitales. Before then, we tried every single genre that existed, but when I heard Les Rhythmes Digitales, it was first time that I heard pop music with electronic instruments and a dance attitude. Everybody said it was a 80s flash and would not last long and we’re 30 years further and apparently we’re still in an electronic 80s flash. ‘Darkdancer’, changed the way GOOSE made music. Because of that album I bought my first synthesizer, a ‘Novation’, which is a very small keyboard. I would play it and think: “Oh, that’s the sound of the album”; but we’d really craft songs and dress them up in an electronic way with a different attitude than rock or pop music had. It brought new energy to what we were doing. Daft Punk was also really interesting. But overall, I would say that Stuart Price had the biggest influence on me personally.
KNOTORYUS: Tell me a bit about meeting the other guys and forming the band.
M.K.: Bert and I have known each other since kindergarten. We did everything together from playing in school to taking up sports: one tried football, the other joined, we started swimming, same thing, there was judo… At a certain point Bert took up percussion in school. A few years later I started to learn guitar and then Bert said: “If I learn to play drums, we can play together”. So we did. I took some lessons in a local shop and then I would take my newfound knowledge to Bert’s place, showed him, he took out his guitar and would play the stuff I’d learned that afternoon. After a couple of months he started to get much better than me, so that wasn’t fair. (laughs) Then Bert went into scouting where he met Dave. People told him “This guy is an amazing guitar player, you should play together”. I wasn’t there for the first rehearsal, but afterwards Bert called me and said: “He really is incredible and needs to play with us”. But it was such a natural process. He came in, he played, there was a good vibe and then he introduced our first bass player, who was a good friend of his. He played with us for a couple of years until he went to university. Then there was a search for the new bass player. In college Dave and Bert got to know Tom. We knew Tom because he was in a band that had also played at Humo’s Rock Rally. We thought he was super talented, so in 2000 he joined GOOSE. We said we would record a single. He only had to wait four years before we did. (laughs)
KNOTORYUS: That’s how you lured him in!
M.K.: To be fair, we really thought we were going to do it, but in reality it took some time.
KNOTORYUS: Let’s talk a bit about “Humo’s Rock Rally”, the Belgian competition where you guys got your big break.
M.K.: In 1998 we entered for the first time and made it into the final 10. That year, Das Pop won. Four years later we entered again but this time we came to win. And we did.
KNOTORYUS: You won this important competition in 2002 and you released a single, but I remember there was a big “clutching of the industry-pearls” because everyone wanted you to release an album and you all said: “Nope, not doing it.” And I just thought it was so badass, because it was still an era where when you win a competition and get press; the managers and the label will pressure you into releasing stuff. And you guys didn’t. I felt like you guys we’re going to do it your way, right from the beginning.
M.K.: That is all very true. Everyone was pressuring us, but we just weren’t ready and we knew it. We knew that what we were doing was okay, but it wasn’t at the level we wanted it to be. Winning the competition just marked the start of something new.
KNOTORYUS: That is so smart, though, especially at that age. Not thinking: “We’re so cool now!” but “This is just a start.”
M.K.: We have always been very stubborn. We want to do things right and that attitude that helped us a lot, but I’m sure it cost us and we missed out on some opportunities. When we released the first album people really liked it and we got to play at lots of places with big bands, but suddenly, we were tired of touring. Meanwhile, our label and management wanted us to make a new album, but we didn’t want to. We said: “No we are touring, and we’re not writing. It’s one thing or the other”. We decided to stop touring and focus on the album and then we got an offer to tour in the States. Again we said: “No, we are writing, not touring”. We wanted to create new material and were only worried about the artistic process, not about the business model. It’s only the past few years that we’ve started to be a bit more flexible, because we realise that we need that business way of thinking in order to keep on being creative and to find the space and time to create, because we have to live off of our music. I think we also party less, which might be helping. When you’re young, you work late at night but you do nothing during the day, which is supposed to be the time you have the most energy. So now, the day shift is our most important shift.
KNOTORYUS: That’s how Nick Cave does it, he switched to office hours years ago and said he’s never been more productive. Let’s talk about the making of “What You Need”: you talked about going to L.A. to get away from all the references. What do you mean by ‘references’?
M.K.: Whenever you finish an album, your head is clear and the period before was so intense that you’re happy that all that weight is gone. Then you start touring, playing and listening to music again. Just enjoying life, in a way. After a while, you start thinking about new songs, a new album and so your head starts to fill up again. In GOOSE, there are four heads and these heads have to align. I always make a comparison with the faders on a mixing desk. Everybody is on a different speed or level, sometimes even going in another direction. You have to find that balance again. Plus, sometimes there’s extra pressure and expectations from people around you. To escape we had to leave town and just be four boys in a different country or city. We had to go out, enjoy life and find that mutual ‘thing’ again. And when that happens, the faders are on zero and you can start working on the next album. That’s the point where we say the album is finished, although we actually still have to make it.
KNOTORYUS: So you’ve fled to Los Angeles a couple of times?
M.K.: Yes, the first time for three weeks and during that time we did work in a studio but we also went on a lot of trips and did stuff with the four of us. Just had fun. And then some time later, we did it again for two weeks.
KNOTORYUS: Only you musicians can get away with “Honey, the band and I need to get away for a bit and just be boys. I’ll be back!”
M.K.: Maybe I should be more careful talking to you about this! (Laughs) The real reason to go to L.A. was to work with Jason Falkner. We knew his strengths are arranging and song writing and we weren’t calling upon him for production and sound. Jason writes with Beck a lot and he’s also one of his band members. To get back to your question about references: in our studio in Kortrijk, we have a sound that we’re used to, the same speakers, the same instruments. In other words, we’re comfortable. When you move to a different studio and you work with a person you hardly know, all those references are gone. To other bands that might seem scary, but to us it felt freeing. We could sing in a different way, we could arrange the songs in a melodic way, we could add instruments we didn’t use before or didn’t program in advance. It really helped us. The first time we came home with a hard drive filled with those L.A. sessions we thought: “Fuck, that’s some beautiful song writing, but it doesn’t really feel like GOOSE, it’s not the way we will perform.” We started working on the arrangement and the sound again and when we had three, maybe four songs that sounded a certain way, we knew we were onto something. So we went back to L.A. with new songs and repeated the process: stripped the demos to the essential bits and pieces, worked on the structure, I did a lot of writing again, we came back home with all the data and shaped the album.
KNOTORYUS: Hedi Slimane -may his time at Saint Laurent rest in peace- who you and I both are fans of, designs pieces that almost never seem overcomplicated. They might be loud, that’s a different story. The point is: I think you have to be really skilled to show the kind of restraint he displays. I feel you guys master this type of restraint. I am never distracted when listening to your songs, especially the ones on this album, maybe that’s why I was immediately into them. Am I making any sense?
M.K.: Within GOOSE, we are our own audience, fans and critics. That’s a huge filter. There’s a lot of beauty that can disappear because of our way of working, but mostly there’s a lot of crap that gets nixed before it gets to see the light of day. We owe our style completely to ourselves and we are in constant evolution. Every year, every album we try to define who we are in music and in image. And every time the music pushes us further, so we can also adjust the aesthetics of the band. I think that’s exactly what we are doing: trying to find out who we are and what this band is that we are in.
KNOTORYUS: This is a good point to talk about the Willy Vanderperre cover art. I found it quite funny that you guys didn’t want to have your portraits as a cover and he did exactly that. First of all, why didn’t you want your faces on the cover of the album? Is it because you don’t see yourself as the typical poster boys?
M.K.: We just don’t link our faces to our music. When we listened to “What You Need”, we were thinking ‘colour’ and ‘beautiful scenery’ and ‘L.A.’. We were on a different trip, but Willy had shot our pictures and suddenly he sent us a mail with an image attached and it read: “I have a cover idea. This is it.”
M.K.: I was in shock because it had nothing to do with the colours, nothing to do with the L.A. reference, nothing to do with the music. It was very raw and at first I didn’t like the way we were portrayed. He didn’t necessarily choose the most flattering options. If you could choose from ten pictures, I don’t think any of the band members would have chosen their particular portrait that’s featured on the cover.
KNOTORYUS: When I first saw the art, I thought it was just the best. I think you guys look amazing in those pictures.
M.K.: I phoned Willy and asked: “What’s the idea here? Why?” The reason we work with him is because he understands our music really well. I think he was one of the first people who heard the demos of “What You Need”, which was probably in August of 2015. When he listened to the finished album, he made remarks about what had changed and what he thought was interesting. He was the guy to listen to, an advisor in a way. So, even though I didn’t immediately like what he did, I knew there must have been a reason why he deemed this the cover. He said: “You talked about the album being personal, you wanted to strip away all the bling and just get to the essence, the real emotions. Tell me what’s more real than putting your face in a very raw and rugged, black and white, punk way on a cover? This is you. This is who you are. If you have the balls to show yourself like this it would be a statement, and also quite punk.” Then he added: “It’s not the perfect cover, but it’s the perfect cover for this album.”
KNOTORYUS: Preach, Willy. What a guy. (laughs)
M.K.: I went: “Yeah, okay, yeah.” (laughs) He’s always like that though. When he’s in it, he’s in it. Sometimes I would suggest things to him and when he wouldn’t respond, I thought: “I guess he didn’t like that idea.” Then the next day he would come back with: “I thought about it, I think you have a point, we’re going to do this and that.” When he’s working on a project, he thinks about it in a really deep way. You feel he has that background and all that knowledge. Willy grew up as a punk, you know that, whereas we didn’t, but there’s something punk about our process and album and he could drag it out of us and put it in a picture.
KNOTORYUS: It’s one of the best things when you can use your talent to make other people discover something about themselves. I think that’s exactly what happened with that album cover. I think you guys – whether you liked the way you were portrayed or not – discovered something about yourselves and probably are less afraid to have your picture taken than you were before.
M.K.: I agree, but that even goes as far back as when we did DE/REconstruction in 2014. We were so close to our audience, our heads were so big on the screens behind us, there was no place to hide. A far cry from the GOOSE from the Summer before, where we used flashing lights on stage, we were dressed in black and you could see nothing but our silhouettes.
KNOTORYUS: What’s next for you? You said in the beginning there was an opportunity to go the States, which you passed. You did have several of your songs featured in big international TV shows, movies and games, though. Are you still dreaming about breaking the US?
M.K.: Our music travels far, so I think we’re lucky. Every couple of months, a song gets used for a TV-show, a film or an advert. We knew early on that the music that we make isn’t ideal for radio; it’s made for the crowd, so the more people we can reach, the better. We love being picked up by all kinds of different media. Now, with this album, we just want to play as much as we can. These songs are just so much fun to do live. Sometimes it feels like we’re touring the first album again. It’s refreshing to us and that has to do with reinventing yourself. We just did it our way and we have lots of fun doing it. Everything feels easy. That’s something we learnt from Storm Thorgersson, who made the cover of our second album. He said: “Things aren’t supposed to be difficult”.
KNOTORYUS: Something we all wish we had known twenty years ago.
M.K.: Exactly. When creating something new, sometimes it feels as if you have to go through a hellish process and a couple of depressions, but sometimes it’s good to have fun. You don’t have to be a miserable artist. At least not all the time, right? If we were painting with three colours on our previous albums, we now have access to ten colours. And that’s a lot more fun to play with. For the next album, we can even go bigger. This process has opened our eyes, we know that there are so many more possibilities. We’re casually thinking: “Should we start already?” And to be honest we already have. Kind of. (laughs) We’ve started writing and that never happened before, so quickly after finishing an album.
KNOTORYUS: That’s that new work ethic you were referring to earlier! But for now I’m still enjoying this one, so find me in my car, belting along to “Trip”. That’s my song! Thank you for talking to me, Mickael, this was fun.
M.K.: It always is when it feels like you’re just having a conversation, so thank you.
(all images by Alex Salinas)
GOOSE live at LOTTO ARENA 28.10.2016 : tickets here
Everything GOOSE here