Meet the Belgian genre bending trio Ulysse

Right before their very first time performing in the Ancienne Belgique’s main hall, I was lucky enough to meet and do my first “interview” with one of my favourite bands: Ulysse composed of Julien, Benoît and Arnaud.

HighClouds: For those who don’t know you yet, how would you introduce yourselves?

Benoît Do Quang: We’re three friends. Almost 4 years ago now, we decided to combine our respective influences to create a new project with music at its core, but more globally, create an artistic project with a visual identity as well, particularly in our videos and artworks.”

Where did you find each other?

Arnaud Duynstee: We met in college, at the IHECS in Brussels where we all got a master’s degree in Advertising & Marketing Communications.

Julien Gathy: Benoît and I already knew each other from secondary school back in Liège, we bonded through roller-skating, it helps. [chuckles]

When did you start making music?

Julien: Benoît and I started to take guitar lessons together, but I really sucked!

Arnaud: I always played the guitar as well, I started on my own with a Metallica VHS and couldn’t do much so took few classes from 12 to 14 and I started singing sometimes while playing but it’s not something I learned nor something that came naturally.

“It’s complicated in Belgium but we’ve been very happy about the evolution of the project since we started.” – Ulysse

How did the people around you react when you decided to make Ulysse a priority? Not everybody lives from its music…

[they stop me] We don’t live from our music either! [laughs]

Julien: It’s a tough choice to make as it takes a lof time since we take care of all its aspects. Our parents were supportive, well now we’re 26 but they never hindered us as far as I remember. They knew we were doing something serious by seeing us working hard on developing the project. They were happy with us starting our own little “company”.

Benoît: They come to our shows sometimes and see that the project is growing, that’s it’s not some laid-back hobby. It’s complicated in Belgium but we’ve been very happy about the evolution of the project since we started. We didn’t expect it to happen so quickly and hope that we can live from our music soon.

What do you work as?

Arnaud: I work for Deliveroo as Account Executive, I’m not a biker [chuckles]. I go to restaurants and see how they operate, it’s a very social job and I love the fact that I’m often outside and not sitting at a desk.

Julien: In January, I quit a job in the music industry. I work half-time as a retailer now which is completely unrelated to music. Having a job enables us to invest long-term in the project for example for new lighting or new instruments if they break.

Benoît: I mostly collaborate with Belgian artists as a video producer. We chose to continue to work so we can pay everything ourselves and not to live miserably. We could choose to solely live from our music but I think, at the minute, that it would hinder the development of Ulysse more than work for it. It allows us not to ask any money from outside and invest everything in the project.

Other than musical, any unexpected talents?

Julien: Arnaud is extremely good at FIFA, he only plays with Liverpool though.

Benoît: Julien bakes amazing bread. He’s THE underground baker of our neighbourhood. Julien Gathy bakery coming soon! [laughs]

Arnaud: [thinks] We’ll find another talent than video for Ben.

After a year and a half of silence you dropped your first single “ACID” with Roméo Elvis, what was the creative process behind this track?

Arnaud: We started it a long time ago but couldn’t finish it. However, we told ourselves that the second verse would be perfect for a rapper. We’ve always been big rap fans so we decided to collaborate with a rapper.

Benoît: Julien tried it out by putting an a cappella verse of JME and we all agreed it sounded good but we told ourselves “we are never gonna get him” so I contacted my friend Roméo Elvis and he was really up for it especially because we come from a different genre.

French and English on the same track is unique, how did that come about?

Arnaud: I personally think it perfectly reflects our generation. We are in a capital where we can hear a billion different languages. Therefore, its cultural diversity influences our music in the sense that the we aren’t afraid to mix languages and like to blend different genres. I think it’s interesting and an exciting challenge to reflect this into our music. By the way, there’s a Belgian rapper we like called Zwangere Guy that mixes Dutch with French and Spanish which I think is a beautiful and accurate representation of what is currently happening in Brussels.

Benoît: Mixing different languages and genres are something we want to continue doing in the future. Music uninhibits and unbridles, even though a few years ago people were sometimes cynical of artists blending multiple genres no one cares anymore nowadays. It’s an interesting challenge to fuse a big range of influences and genres to create innovative, hybrid music that has never been heard before. We prefer much more not being able to find a genre to our music than being in a box.

Julien: The track “ACID” represents the diversity we have in Belgium and the direction we want to take. We represented Belgium in the video as all the places we shot are issued from the Belgian culture and architecture. The surrealism that we see in the video is also typically something Belgian that we particularly like. We love to represent the country’s diversity and not restrict ourselves to a genre.

For example, for tonight’s show we invited Glints, a Flemish rapper with whom we speak in English which is unique to Belgium and it would be stupid to ignore it. We live an hour away from each other but we talk to each other as if we were in London.

“We don’t have a workflow, it’s more like a puzzle, a bit of a stickler.” – Ulysse

Is this the direction you took for your forthcoming EP?

Benoît: We can’t tell you yet. It’s not even finished yet. We have a lot of material to work on and polish during the summer.

Arnaud: We have a handful of tracks that we must choose from to deliver something coherent. We haven’t chosen so many things, there’s no title, no date just a season: fall probably October.

How did you work for the tracks we’ll hear on the new EP?

Julien: We don’t have a linear method, there’s no magical recipe but we often agree pretty quickly which makes things easier. It’s mostly one of us doing a demo or coming up with a random idea and we build upon that, if one of us comes up with a cool idea we can spend a whole Sunday on it.

Benoît: It can come from a guitar or vocal melody or sometimes a beat Julien came up with. We don’t have a workflow, it’s more like a puzzle, a bit of a stickler.

What are the pros and/or cons of being a Belgian band?

Arnaud: There are both of course. We could complain for ever but there are always counter examples for instance Stromae so nothing is impossible. The only issue I see is that our two regions and musical scenes are too divided. We won’t change everything by ourselves but we want to and have to trigger it. It doesn’t make sense to have popular Flemish bands that are unknown in the francophone world and vice versa.

Julien: A top-quality band like Warhola for example are unknown in the francophone part because the French speaking-media close their eyes on most of the Flemish scene and inversely. It’s stupid to have such talents an hour away from Brussels but that no one here knows about. We must break that even if it’s tricky.

More generally, I feel like you quickly have access to big venues in Belgium and learn to know everybody relatively quickly in the music industry so you can get access to places but you quickly run out of possibilities. Getting big in France or London would be the next option but it’s difficult to make a name for yourself there because you face a lot of competition and have to know the right people and managers.

Benoît: We must take this opportunity to build bridges and essentially “decompartmentalize” both the genre aspect and the two Belgian scenes exactly like Zwangere Guy has started to do by inviting French speaking rappers on his project and mixing several languages.

How did Ulysse evolve on stage since you started, and what can we expect from your future live shows?

Julien: We will have a drummer on stage for the first time in September and we’ll see how that goes. Our priority is the musical delivery on stage before anything else. We want people to listen to us and be like “that’s a solid piece of music” our live show should sound good before it looks good. Everything is a question of prioritizing and use of time.

For example, since we do our own videos we put a lot of time into it but we might as well just pay people to do it but that’s not how we work. We set our priorities, the lightshow is something that comes after everything else but we are conscious that there is a real demand for the next shows so we don’t want to disappoint people and also want to create a good looking live show.

Arnaud: The live show and especially the visuals, is something we probably did not push as much as we wanted but we are going to improve it but it’s also a question of means.

Benoît: We are working on the visuals but it’s the cherry on top. Firstly, we want people that come to our shows to be pleased by our music.

What’s your favourite track to play live?

Benoît: We’ll see if “ACID” becomes our favourite song to play since it’s the first time we play it live. It should be a special moment especially with Glints’ verse.

Julien: A song like “Wounds” is cool because the crowd always reacts to it but we all love “Many Times” as it’s the last song we perform and can have a ball on the instrumental part.

“Play the Ancienne Belgique’s main hall in our name is a dream we’d want to accomplish” – Ulysse

Dead or alive, which artist would you want to see live?

Julien: We’re going to the Barcelona Pimavera festival and we’re looking forward to seeing Frank Ocean if he doesn’t cancel. Artistically, how he manages his image, his featurings, how he challenges the music industry makes him a fucking genius. I saw videos of Bon Iver’s new live show, it should be amazing too. We recently saw NAO and she was very good too. Another interesting one would be J Paul if he comes back and there’s also a band called Liss that Benoît and Arnaud already saw but that I’d like to see they seem pretty lit.

Arnaud: the Beatles would’ve been cool or J Paul indeed, just to see if he’s a real thing.

Benoît: I’ve always wanted to see King Krule and for ages…somehow I missed him the last time he came.

Any up and coming artists to recommend to our readers?

[unanimously] Glints, probably the best Belgian project these days.

Julien: I like Yussef Kamaal, it’s a “new jazz” band they have a wonderful alum called “Black Focus”. Also, Krisy, the Belgian rapper is super talented and our friends from Yellowstraps that will come back strong this summer, we listened to their demos and they’re super fresh. We play football with them, that is Benoît’s talent, football!

Benoît: I’d recommend our friend Le Motel not only for his work with Roméo Elvis but his solo productions are sick as well.

Arnaud: I have one! Lately I listened to a lot of Clarence Clarity. When you listen to it once you wonder what “the hell is going on” but I listened to his album a few times and it’s incredible. It sounds like the future of music and again, there’s a billion different influences it’s sometimes even unsatisfying to listen to because there’s so much going on but it’s so extraordinary. I shared it on Facebook but only got one like though…[laughs]

Finally, what can I wish you in 5 years’ time, an album?

Arnaud: [thinks] Two albums would be better!

Benoît: Yeah, albums and play at the Ancienne Belgique’s main hall in our name is a dream we’d want to accomplish. Once you work your way up you want to get to the next stage.

Julien: I hope that’ll be before 5 years…

Odds on boys!

You can follow Ulysse over Facebook, Twitter, Instagram and Soundcloud.

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