When our beloved Belgian high fashion renegade Walter Van Beirendonck once was asked why it was he likes to stir things up so much, he replied: "I don't feel controversial. Everything I do feels normal."
When you mix the passing of time (aka life) with any old industry that wants you to fit a mould or will try to drain the waywardness out of you, it is hard to stay singular. That's why it's great that when I tell million record-selling artist, producer and DEEWEE label boss Stephen Dewaele from Soulwax that I had just interviewed Boris Zeebroek -one of his protégés who is currently working and recording at their DEEWEE studios- and his sister Sarah Yu, he quips: "I told them that, for the next album, they should go even crazier. Make it as weird as they wanna be, take it even further." It's good for artists to have internationally lauded colleagues reminding them that they should never lose what made them stand out in the first place. Not that "KALA KALA" the sophomore album the siblings and Sarah's husband Geoffrey Burton have dropped under their almost decade-old moniker "Hong Kong Dong" is your run-of-the-mill release that can easily be categorized. A Hong Kong Dong record is always a vessel filled with double entendres, mutating lyrical motifs, synthesizers and guitars that need Black Jesus and/or a cigarette and vocal chords that seem to get stretched so widely that sometimes you have to remind yourself that the band's free will is still involved and no chameleons have been hurt.
Two thirds of Hong Kong Dong are descendants of Belgian comedy & art royalty (Sarah Yu and Boris are the children of Luc Zeebroek/Kamagurka), so of course there will always something to chuckle at when hearing their music (i.e. the songs '© Smartphone' - every time I look at my phone now it feels like it's screeching "People call me smart!"- and 'Beuys').
But Hong Kong Dong know how to feed on a range of emotions. On "Goodbye, Goodbye" Sarah -who gets the Yu in her name from her Momma, who passed away in 2008- repeats the mantra: "Up to me, up to me, it is all up to me." -, and as a listener who might have it all wrong, I get sad and defiant because I'm getting my daily reminder that mothers and fathers shouldn't be taken away from one minute to the next. But then, as Boris' voice comes in joining his sister's, I'm thankful of how in both our cases we've been blessed with the unambivalent presence of that one stand up dude who knows exactly what you've been through.
I feel like there will be people you champion throughout your entire career from the moment you lay eyes and ears on them. At least that's what's been happening since I guided a camera crew to the very first Hong Kong Dong rehearsal-lair above a famous little bar in Ghent 10 years ago. I wrote about at least one of the band's members in all of the print publications I subsequently worked for and with the release of "KALA KALA", it's imperative that I speak to them solely for KNOTORYUS.com.
KNOTORYUS: I'm always happy to hear you've got a new record or EP coming out. It's just part of a cycle that I've become used to every so many years. Your music also never disappoints and continuously moves me and makes me laugh out loud. Could you talk about the creative process for 'KALA KALA'?
BORIS ZEEBROEK: This time around, we didn’t have anything prepared and we set out a challenge: how will we be making music when we simply head out somewhere, just the three of us? My girlfriend’s parents own a house in Spain that we could use for a week and that’s where we started over. The goal we set was to finish one track a day.
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: The thing about sequestering yourselves is that it needs to be scheduled. We didn’t want to stay in Ghent because we wanted to be removed from our daily hang-ups. No thinking about “I need to go grocery shopping” or “I need to go to the bank or post office” or even no opening mail in the morning. We really enjoyed that time.
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: We kind of felt like our old way of making songs needed to be switched up. In the past, we’d each think up stuff in our own separate corners and then we’d pass that on to each other to build something that way. Now, we felt like we needed to go back to working like a band.
BORIS ZEEBROEK: Interacting more directly, because sometimes you work on songs for too long, leaving no clear space for others to add to.
KNOTORYUS: Did you decide on a few themes you wanted to touch on or did you have conversations about that?
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: So, the music came first. What you hear on the album is what we recorded in Spain and that was most definitely action and reaction. Someone tapped a sampler twice, saying let's do that again and starting from there. When we returned, both Boris and I took copies of the instrumental recordings to our respective homes and we both started writing without talking to each other.
BORIS ZEEBROEK: When we regrouped, turned out I had written lyrics to all the even-numbered tracks and Sarah had done the odd-numbered tracks.
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: Incredible coincidence! I had been worrying we had picked out the same tracks and would get into a fight. We had agreed: “Pick what you intuitively feel like working on” and we both picked different tracks. That’s what I think is fantastic about life, how there are things that just work out. I got goose bumps when that happened.
BORIS ZEEBROEK: (to Sarah) We wouldn't have gotten into a fight anyway, because if we had picked the same songs, we could've made them into duets.
KNOTORYUS: You’ve been making music as Hong Kong Dong for over a decade now, but how did you start playing? Back when you were kids, did your parents go: “Here’s a bunch of instruments, tinker away!”?
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: Boris can tell this story, since I traumatized him. (laughs)
BORIS ZEEBROEK: Sarah played the violin and I played the piano.
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: I started at seven.
BORIS ZEEBROEK: We both had to practise our instruments, but there are absolutely no pleasant sounds coming out of the first two years when one's learning the violin. Sarah was so off-key and she would stand next to me practising and we’d just both try to be the loudest to drown each other out. We always got into fights. (laughs) But I think the tipping point came when we both learned how to play the guitar.
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: Our dad had bought an electric guitar, I remember that, but he didn’t really do anything with it. He could only play barre chords, which are the most basic ones you can do on the guitar, so we immediately claimed it as ours! He’d show us: “Look, this is how you play the blues.” (laughs) We picked it up pretty quickly, I remember him telling us we could play more than he was ever able to. That was funny. We had a book with the chords to Beck songs, so we learned everything from his record “Mellow Gold”.
BORIS ZEEBROEK: And when I was about thirteen, I had also gotten a synth keyboard that I’d play around on. Then, I bought a Fostex 8-track and that’s when it all really clicked: “Fuck, that’s so cool.”
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: Do you remember your first song in French?
BORIS ZEEBROEK: “Je Ris Donc Je Suis”. It was my philosophical side showing.
KNOTORYUS: I have to ask, on your previous album “Sweet Sensations”, when Geoffrey was still your boyfriend, you sing things like “I like to feel your nose inside me”. My brother would really squirm at hearing that, but Boris just adds extra sound effects to emphasize. (laughs) Did you decide you’re not brother and sister when it comes to the lyrics?
BORIS ZEEBROEK: We never have any issues with that, actually. Sometimes you draw from real life but other times you just let your imagination run wild. We both do that.
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: Freedom of speech!
BORIS ZEEBROEK: If she wants to sing about how she’s having sex with her boyfriend, why not?
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: It’s also very tongue in cheek, almost always. I just make fun of everything. Plus, Boris could ask me to sing anything.
BORIS ZEEBROEK: Oh, really?
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: Just no racist stuff.
KNOTORYUS: Going back to ten years ago, you used to explicitly ask not to discuss your family life, mainly questions about your father – famed Belgian cartoonist Kamagurka. How has that evolved?
BORIS ZEEBROEK: I’ve always felt like we just were who we were but we still need to be careful with that part of your life, especially in dealing with the media. They see a story there, and that’s not particularly the one we want to tell, I think. You keep your guard up, we still sort of do.
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: When you’re very little, you feel like people would want to get near you or be your friend just because your dad is well known. And very early on, you develop mistrust. People always want to ‘frame’ other people. It’s very easy to frame us as Kama’s kids, so we must be funny or overtly sexual, since my Dad's work can be. I remember overhearing a conversation in the boys’ bathroom about me: “She’s Kama’s daughter, she must be up for it." I remember very well who they were. You grow up with the notion that it’s something you need to be careful about. Of course we’re influenced by our father but also by our mother and a lot of other people we know. For the press, it would be convenient to only see that one side of us. That’s why we were quite set on not wanting to be “Kama's cute kids taking a stab at music.” We took ourselves a bit more seriously and what we were doing represented exactly what we wanted to be doing. Our father is a part of that, just as much as many other things are.
KNOTORYUS: How did your mother influence you?
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: I always thought mom was funnier than dad, because dad knew what he was doing. He knows how to land a joke, because that's his job, obviously.
BORIS ZEEBROEK: I remember being in the car with my mother one day and the weather was nice so we rolled down the windows. We stopped at a red light and two dudes passed by and yelled: “Hey! Ching chang…” and before they could finish, she fired off: “Chong!”
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: (laughs)
BORIS ZEEBROEK: And then we just sped off while I bowled over laughing, that was so cool of her. She was so cool and so quick.
KNOTORYUS: Did you expect your journey to be different, or easier?
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: I think, in the end, for me it’s about the road travelled and not about the destination. I’m super happy that Hong Kong Dong is still around and the three of us get along, despite the fact that we’re related. People say it’s easy to work with your brother and husband. What a lie. (laughs) It might sound sappy but every day we get to perform together, I’m grateful. Making 'Kala Kala' in Spain really did me good and it gave me a lot of confidence.
KNOTORYUS: Can you pinpoint why that is?
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: Because I was reminded that when you put us in a room together, something will always happen.
BORIS ZEEBROEK: I'm also glad that the first show playing the new album went well. We were a bit nervous. Sarah had insomnia for a week.
KNOTORYUS: Why were you so nervous?
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: I’m prone to stress and the fact that we’d be doing all these new songs. I’ve blacked out a few times before during performances because I was so nervous. And now knowing it can happen, I was even more stressed out. There’s only one solution: a lot of rehearsing so it’s all muscle memory and I don’t have to think. Because that show went well and we got a lot of good feedback, it ended up being really fun. Those songs were all new so it felt like feeding them to the lions.
KNOTORYUS: What song was the most fun to play live?
BORIS ZEEBROEK: I really liked playing “Intonatie”. I felt like the live version did it justice. It gets really weird and that works when you play it live, even though it’s really tough to play because it’s so free and open.
KNOTORYUS: And you, Sarah? Which track did you prefer performing?
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: I really liked playing “Beuys”.
KNOTORYUS: That one really cracked me up when I saw the spelling of it.
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: It’s fun, everyone assumes I’m singing about boys, but it’s about Joseph Beuys; last year I was reading a lot about him. I like that one because it brings out little Sarah...
BORIS & SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: (in unison) … With the violin!
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: Just screeching away. I could suddenly see my father standing there - my parents paid for ten years for all of the violin classes I took and camps I went to.
KNOTORYUS: You even went to violin camp?
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: It involved playing for at least six hours a day. When my parents noticed I really enjoyed playing the violin, they bought me a better one. That’s the one I still play today. The guys and I were debating getting an electrical violin for the band, it’s not that expensive and it’s not a big deal if it breaks. But I really want to play the violin I used as a kid. It has a certain value.
KNOTORYUS: One of the reasons I cherish your vinyl releases is because of the always-gorgeous artwork. Talk to me about the 'KALA KALA' editions.
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: There are a hundred vinyls for which I made and am still making original drawings on the cover. You can only order them via our website. I always make a whole batch of drawings and when we’ve got a show, I make the next series.
KNOTORYUS: Boris is a gifted visual artist as well, how come you're doing all of them?
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: Yeah, Boris, why am I?
BORIS ZEEBROEK: I love drawing, I really do, but I feel like people would be a bit disappointed to get one of my drawings. I think our fans buy those because they want to own Sarah Yu Zeebroek's artwork. What I do is just for me.
KNOTORYUS: Would you like to do a bigger tour? Maybe as an opener for some huge international band?
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: The way I look at it, if you play a gig somewhere and the crowd isn’t big, you can always learn something. I try to see the positive side; I don’t want to go through life thinking: “What can I get from this?”
BORIS ZEEBROEK: What we love most is performing live and trying to win over a crowd. The more you play, the more fun it is. I wouldn’t mind opening for a big act, you get to see a part of the world, while still doing your thing. Even if the fans might not be there to see you, or if the main act is very different from what you do.
KNOTORYUS: An audience is never a homogenous group of same-brained people.
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: Exactly. Think back to how Prince used to be the opening act for The Rolling Stones and got booed to hell.
BORIS ZEEBROEK: He was out there in garters and got pelted with bottles.
KNOTORYUS: Of all great artists that have passed away these last years, Prince is the one I miss the most. Like painfully miss.
BORIS ZEEBROEK: Me too. Maybe even more than Bowie. Because with Bowie there were rumours about his health… But Prince, that came out of the blue.
KNOTORYUS: Bowie had gone out in such a profound way, when they say he recorded ‘Blackstar’ knowing what was coming and he took full control of it and you listen back to that…
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: It’s incredible.
KNOTORYUS: Since your husband and third HKD-member Geoffrey Burton couldn't be here, we need to discuss him. Any good stories, besides from him being one of the best guitar players walking the streets of Belgium.
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: If one of us would withdraw from Hong Kong Dong, it just wouldn’t exist anymore. There’s a chemistry, a certain interplay between us that can't be mimicked. It’s unfortunate Geoffrey can’t be here now, but he plays a huge part. He can do anything. Well, except singing. But I have a story for you, it's quite funny, actually. I remember being young and our mom knowing him. Boris admired Geoffrey's guitar skills and I’ll never forget him telling her when she was single: “Mom, I hope you end up with that guy one day so he can give me guitar lessons. (To Boris) Don’t you remember? I do.
KNOTORYUS: (Laughs) The universe is always listening, it might fuck up some details, though.
BORIS ZEEBROEK: I guess so!
SARAH YU ZEEBROEK: I was only eighteen and I remember thinking: “Hey, why can't I be with him?” I'd see Geoffrey out in Ghent every once in a while and I thought he was incredibly handsome and an incredible guitar player. So in the end, Boris, your wish kind of came true.
BORIS ZEEBROEK: I remember learning so much from Geoffrey, before even talking to him. I saw him perform with Arno at Humo's Pop Poll in the AB and I got super close to the stage to watch him play and he made it look so easy. And suddenly it dawned on me: “Maybe I'm just overcomplicating things, maybe it shouldn't be this hard." And just like that, I started playing with more ease.
KNOTORYUS: I love these stories when something profoundly shifts inside.
BORIS ZEEBROEK: Later on, I was able to learn a lot more from him, of course. But that was a moment I remember very clearly. Me watching Geoffrey and seeing how effortless it looked. I thought: “I need to take that with me."
KNOTORYUS: Thank you so much for this talk, guys. This was a good one.
On December 2, HONG KONG DONG will be playing live at Les Ateliers Claus, Brussels
Order a copy of the limited artwork vinyl edition of 'KALA KALA' by sending a mail to firstname.lastname@example.org.
Listen to 'KALA KALA' here
For other tour dates go HERE