This Belgian label's focus on homegrown talent has given it a unique—and very peculiar—identity. Angus Finlayson travels to Dour Festival to meet Vlek's founders.
Imagine a fault line running across Europe. On one side are the Romance-speaking countries—France, Italy, Spain—on the other Germanic: Germany, Scandinavia, and so on. These two tectonic plates collide in Belgium. The Dutch-speaking Flemish in the north and the French-speaking Walloons in the south don't often see eye to eye. Six different governments rule a land mass one 20th the size of France.
Like the country it takes place in, Dour festival is a set of incompatible things in a small space. Taking place by Belgium's western border since 1989, its music policy is broad to the point of absurdity. One moment you're singing along to Wiz Khalifa's "No Sleep" in the sun; the next, chipmunk popster Dan Deacon is luring you into a dance battle. On your way to catch rap metal relics Dog Eat Dog, you might hear an easy-listening cover of "Flight Of The Bumblebee" drift from one of the dance tents, or catch echoes of clinical drum & bass bouncing across the conch-shaped site from the 16,000 capacity Red Bull Elektropedia stage.
Meanwhile, the guests—220,000 of them over five days—stride between frites stands bellowing "DOUREEUHH!!," playing frisbee with Jupiler-branded cup holders, piggyback wrestling one another and being coaxed down from climbable pieces of marquee structure by patient security guards. In his film about Belgium, Jonathan Meades suggested that the artist René Magritte actually wasn't a surrealist at all, but a realist who was simply describing his bizarre country. After a visit to Dour, you can see what he means.
The chaos is familiar to Julien Fournier. He comes here every year for his day job with a state-funded organisation that promotes music from French-speaking Belgium overseas. This overlaps with his other job: co-running Vlek, a Brussels label that, in its own humble way, also reflects Belgium's peculiarities.
"We were about to release a record by guys who were in a marching band," Fournier says, leaning on a stainless steel table in Dour's press area, lager in hand. The print on his short-sleeved shirt is loud, but his voice isn't—it's Friday, and he's on his second consecutive hangover. "They were people from Brussels, and for us it made sense because it was a different type of sound but it was still the same will."
Vlek is bankrolled by the state on the condition that they work with French-speaking Belgian artists, and that "will" Fournier talks about probably has something to do with Belgium's jumbled cultural makeup. Whether it's Aymeric De Tapol's wintry drone, Sagat's warehouse techno, the whimsical electronica of Ssaliva or the duvet-day Chicago house of Lawrence Le Doux, Vlek signees give familiar styles a dazed, fantastical quality. Listening to them causes the same rumpled confusion you feel when you've just got out of bed—or, indeed, when you've spent the day at Dour festival.
"I think what brought us together was the guys that were around us," says Fournier of Vlek's origins in the eclectic Brussels scene.
David Maurissen continues: "We felt like, 'OK, there is some great music abroad, but we have some great stuff here, so why always look somewhere else?'"
Maurissen is another of Vlek's founders, along with Thomas Van De Velde. In the days before Vlek he lived with a member of Herrmutt Lobby, a group keyed into the "wonky" hip-hop sound of the late '00s. Other Brussels artists, like Cupp Cave and Squeaky Lobster, were exploring similar ideas but struggling to find an audience.
"They did stuff on other labels, but it didn't really reach out internationally," says Fournier. "And this was the point, trying to do with the people around us something that goes abroad. If we are only able to do something in Belgium, we would have stopped."
At first, Vlek took a direct approach. Starting in 2010, the four-part AMAI series put Belgian and international artists on the same 7-inch. The idea was to "piggy-back" off the international artists' profile, but the trio lost interest after the third record.
"It's always difficult when it's just through email," says Maurissen. "You don't know the artist, then you get something that doesn't fit exactly, but you don't even know if you can say no. It took so long that Cupp Cave came with the Dice Pool EP before we could finish the series. We were like, 'OK let's do this, it doesn't fit on a 7-inch so we have to go bigger'."
Since 2011's Dice Pool, a 10-inch of nostalgic house in the vein of Lone or Actress, Vlek have focussed almost exclusively on friends and local artists. Its creator, François Boulanger, became a successful export, releasing on Ramp and Leaving Records. As Cupp Cave and then Ssaliva, he helped define Vlek's early, hip-hop-focussed phase.
The label has changed tack a few times since then. In 2012 it turned to dance music with Sagat's Few Mysteries Solved In A Year Of Contact, whose cavernous title track featured on Ben Klock's fabric 66. Since then, a string of dance releases—from Sagat's trio Bepotel and Lawrence Le Doux—have slowly given way to yet weirder sounds.
"When I started with Vlek I wanted to party, and then I went to something a bit more experimental," explains Maurissen. "You dive in a different role and you meet different artists and you're like, 'Oh…. I like both! So what do we do?'"
Vlek's experimental phase might be its best yet. Records from Aymeric De Tapol, Lowcommittee and Tav Exotic, lean towards drone and psych and construct foggy, self-contained worlds. Tav Exotic, a duo with roots in the noise scene, are playing at the festival tonight, and they swing by our table a couple of times, picking up my dictaphone and grunting into it at close range. (They insist that this will come out great in the recording).
It's happy hour in the press area, and the crowd of sunburned delegates is growing. Maurissen produces a stack of Vlek back stock he brought down from Brussels for me. "This is the actual product," Fournier says. "The digital is just a by-product. You only get half the experience if you don't buy the vinyl."
You can see what he means: Vlek sleeves, with their letterpress designs pressed onto rich card, are often at least as sumptuous as the music inside. On Lowcommittee's Race At The Neon Club, what look like musical staves form shimmering crosshatched patterns against a midnight blue backdrop. The front of Aymeric De Tapol's Les Horizons looks like delicately cracked paving. On the back, the tracklist is arranged around a crisp sphere pressed inklessly into the card.
Fournier goes off to schmooze—he's on the job today—and Maurissen, Vlek's designer under the alias Dimitri Runkkari, waxes lyrical about his letterpress. A hobbyist who fixes bikes by day, he screen-printed the first few Vlek covers before enrolling on a night course with a letterpress machine. When Cupp Cave submitted an EP with a track called "Dice Pool," he remembered something he'd found online. "I saw a guy who was using a letterpress with dice, and I was like, 'OK, I can do it.' Not very clever, 'cause it was someone else's idea, but whatever!"
The no-concept literalism of Maurissen's designs—Dice Pool's undulating field of red die, or the waveform on Ssaliva's Sync Thrills, which is a recording of the word "Ssaliva"—reflects Vlek's no-nonsense ethos. His labour-intensive methods also dictate the scale of their operation: runs of more than about 350 records are too time-consuming. "For Les Horizons, it took me four hours a day for two weeks to make the sleeves. I'm happy it's done, I like the result, but was it worth it?" He grins. "I still don't know."
"I like working with David, because he has some kind of restriction with the letterpress machine," says Laurent Baudoux later that afternoon. "It's a really old and simple machine, so we really have to think about what we're going to do."
Baudoux cuts a gentle figure in his green baseball cap and lavender shirt. His music is equally soft, whether the cuddly house music he makes as Lawrence Le Doux or the winsome indie-rap of his trio Baleine 3000. He takes a keen interest in the visual side, teaching graphic design in Brussels, having moved to the city 15 years ago to study.
"I think Brussels is quite a strange place for music, because it's super eclectic. There's a lot of different scenes, and everything is quite small. Vlek is kind of reflective of this situation. All the projects are super different, and there are a lot of people from different backgrounds."
Baudoux has changed styles himself. He started in the '90s with Scratch Pet Land, a duo with his brother Nicolas on German label Sonig, and has used several aliases since. The Le Doux name was born after he heard DJ Fett Burger playing house and disco at a party in Brussels. He bumped into Maurissen and co at a wedding sometime after, and they invited him to make a record.
"It's really about the connection, and the relationship and the friendship. I really like to work with David, because he lives close to my place, so sometimes I'm visiting him, and send over some tracks. Before, with Sonig, I was really free to release whatever I wanted. With Vlek, they are really aware and they really try to build something. I like this new situation, because they don't say, 'OK, all the tracks are super good, let's do it.' They say, 'There are two tracks that are really nice'."
I catch Baudoux performing at Vlek's mini showcase later that evening, in one of the smaller tents. Tav Exotic have just got the 200-strong crowd swaying to their stoned kosmische techno. Baudoux's dreamy house music instantly transforms the tent into a bubble of calm amidst the Dour mayhem. He looks intently at his machines, performing tracks from Terrestre and its followup, Pollution, while his wife Sage Anne plays supplementary bits of guitar in between snapping photos of him and the crowd. I look around and realise I'm standing next to Maurissen. We've both been drinking since lunchtime and don't manage more than an appreciative nod towards the stage.
He emails me a few weeks later, having thought more about Vlek's mission. "We try to go out of our comfort zone. I like it 'cause it makes you meet new people and feel excited by new music genres. From that I often feel like a newbie. I have to learn fast… We keep the label as hobby, 'cause even if music takes 90% of my time or energy, the 10% that I put somewhere else means that it's gonna stay a passion, not a real job. And something I like by keeping it small is that I can deliver records to the Brussels customers on my bike."
Dimitri Runkkari guides us through the weird world of Vlek.
Yann Leguay - Untitled - Forthcoming Vlek
Aymeric De Tapol - Temple Gauche - Vlek
Ssaliva - AVE - Vlek
Simon Hold - Maqam Bxls - Unreleased
Human Flesh - Every Ill Man - STROOM
Weird Dust - The Seed Of Proteus - Unreleased
Manu Holterbach - 318W. Baltimore St. - Outtake From Lexi Disques
Welt - 70 Eqxdual - Unreleased
Viola Klein - Untitled - Forthcoming Meakusma
Shoc Corridor - Artificial Horizon (Bepotel Remix) - Testtoon
Baleine 3000 - Bird Call - Vlek
Subject - Be Careful! - STROOM
Yves De Mey - Eight Steps Of Karplus - Entr’Acte
Lowcommittee - Diptych - Vlek
Sandoz Lab Technicians - Mandarin Bells - Knotwilg
Jean-Michel Van Schouwburg - The Glottal Allowance - Peripheral Conserve
Different Fountains - Corpse (UFO Edit) - Different Fountains Editions
Lawrence Le Doux - Garenum 2 - Unreleased
Föhn - Draft - Unreleased
Tav Exotic - Always the Same - Vlek
Blechzeug - Lion (dj soFa edit) - Unreleased
Tameric De Yapol - ZOMBI'S CLUB - Unreleased
Sagat - Ten Step Removed - Vlek