This Belgian artist is slowing down, speeding up and currently making some of the best music of his career. Ian Maleney explains.
Even listening to it at home, "Prelament," the opening track from De Mey's latest album, hangs heavy in the room, weighing down the air. Its extremities fizz while the centre remains static, a mass of unrelenting resonance and feedback. Slowly De Mey builds the track, from the subatomic to the monumental, a delicate transition to an indelicate sound. It's an imposing way to open an album.
Drawn With Shadow Pens is the product of a single-minded approach to the manipulation of sound. It's an austere kind of album, where sounds seem to ooze out of a void. Each track is a recording of one person playing a single instrument in real time. You can almost hear the mind working, reacting, choosing when to go harder, when to pull back. You can see the hands on the controls of a modular synth, tweaking, patching, one thing at a time. Without ever settling into a pattern, without ever stamping some identifying mark on any of it, De Mey puts one fiercely crafted block of sound on top of another until something visceral emerges and overwhelms.
"It was an album that was made without regard to any kind of style," De Mey says, sitting in his studio. "Basically every track on the album is one sound. You have to look at it as one sound that I patched together in three or four days. It was challenging to see how far you can get the sensation of having a track, a piece, a song, whatever you want to call it, just by patching up one sound."
A sound engineer by trade, De Mey found that the endless options available to him—analogue, digital, the vast space in between—were bogging down his tracks. These pieces would grow ever-more complex without ever feeling complete. Some nights he would be unable to sleep, turning over the unfinished business of a half-drawn melody in his head. This frustration, combined with fitting his creative time around his day job and a child, meant something had to change. He needed something more immediate, something that could make an impact on him before it ever got near an audience. The answer was simple: "Decide faster, work faster, think less and just trust more in your gut feeling." Anyone who spends their days wading through the vast gloop of information that constitutes much of modern life will be able to sympathise.
"The more space I have in my head, the better it feels," says De Mey. "If I start over-rationalising and over-thinking things it gets like a nut bowl in there because it's full of unfinished thoughts. It messes with my head and my well-being. Clear the space, just clear the space."
Drawn With Shadow Pens is not a techno record but it's related to that mechanised world, filled with machine-tooled textures and skittering flashes of electricity. Techno is a more obvious presence in Grey Branches, a more club-focused alias of De Mey's, and Sendai, his duo alongside Peter Van Hoesen. Throughout De Mey's work, familiar rhythms worm their way into alien environments. De Mey speaks glowingly of his experiences at Japan's Labyrinth festival, where the presentation of this peripheral techno makes sense and people aren't concerned by a lack of recognisable touchstones. But he also says such experiences are rare.
"Although techno is supposed to be a progressive style of music, often it's not," he says. "It just fulfils the expectations of people. You go into a club and you want to dance, you want to be entertained in a certain kind of fashion. I get the feeling that the majority of people who go clubbing over the weekend, they actually don't really want to be surprised. That makes it very conservative and, in a way, very academic. You have to follow a certain set of rules to make sure that they are entertained. Of course I have my background in this music, and the music I like is 95% rhythmic, so there is probably always a residue in the music I make that is related to dance music. Maybe I'm just, in my mind, working with the leftovers of the history of dance music."
De Mey highlights artists like Lee Gamble and Mark Fell as examples of people working within the dance music tradition without losing their ability to surprise and excite. Fell seems particularly relevant now, with his re-appropriation of house music clichés under the Sensate Focus alias combining exploratory, intellectually-stimulating critique with playful, danceable rhythms.
"As a really creative artist, he's thinking about the functionality of his music but more in an historical perspective and not so much in a very practical perspective of, 'How can I entertain people with it?'" he says. "It's more like, 'What is it doing for me? How can I entertain myself?' Even if this entertaining yourself means, 'How is this challenging? How is this, on a philosophical level, pushing me further?' Maybe it just comes down to, 'Do I care about what people think of it or not?' That's probably it. If you make music regardless of an audience or regardless of the supposed functionality of it, I think it makes you a better artist."
The music De Mey has made alongside Van Hoesen in Sendai has been some of the best of their respective careers. It feels like a real mix of minds, blending the propulsion of Van Hoesen's techno with De Mey's ear for detailed, expansive soundscapes. The pair have been making music together for almost a decade now. While releases are thin on the ground, they keep busy by playing ever-changing live shows and sending tracks between De Mey's home in Antwerp and Van Hoesen's base in Berlin. After the 2014 release of their last album, A Smaller Divide, on their own Archives Intérieures label, De Mey says they are entering a new phase where they ask fundamental questions about the project and its potential future.
"We're considering creating a system, just between Peter and me, a real frame that we might work in regardless of any style or expectation," he explains. "For the moment it's more of a theoretical question, like what kind of system can we come up with that first of all makes it easy to transport what we do in studio on stage? At the same time, how can we avoid making the same music that we've been making for the last ten years almost? How is this going to change our music? Are we still going to make electronic music? Is it important for us to make electronic music, or is it important for us just to make music? Maybe we end up using guitars and a drum kit, I don't know. So that's cool, exciting and complicated. I don't think we'll be the same Sendai in five years' time. Definitely not."
Sendai have been increasingly focussed on longer durations, for both live shows and mixes. A mix they made for Electronic Explorations came in at three hours, while live shows have often spun out for two hours or more. De Mey says the expanded canvas has helped them to feel more free than ever in how they create music, pointing to a show at Amsterdam's ADE festival last October as a particular highlight.
"The idea of knowing you have quite a long stretch to work in dramatically changes the intensity of how you work," he says. "The amount of concentration is totally different, the energy you have to invest and, for us at least, it was the most fun thing we've ever done. All of a sudden it felt like there was so much room and air in the music you have and that you want to perform. It was nice that we had the time during the live concert to actually listen to what's happening instead of being preoccupied with the next move. It was like, it sounds beautiful, just take your time."
This description could apply equally well to Drawn With Shadow Pens, an album that invites frantic attention spans to slow down. It's an album that asks for focus, refusing to follow a fixed path that might do the work of listening for you. The tracks often eschew obvious development, which can make it seem like nothing is changing, but look closely at the apparently calm surface and you find it's made up of dozens of smaller parts, all operating in some unknowable relation to the others.
In its patience and its complexity, Drawn With Shadow Pens is an album that reflects a shift in priorities for De Mey. When he was younger he was able to flit around and not take anything too seriously. Now, with a family, a job and a life to think about, he has to cherish the moments he has in the studio. It's up to him to give the work he's making the energy and focus it deserves, to find a way to capture the compelling intricacy and dynamic intensity that he's so capable of creating through sound.
"I'm 43 now, which is kind of old when you're in this realm of electronic music, club-oriented or not," he says. "I think composition becomes more and more important in the stuff that I'm doing. It's an artistic challenge I'm setting for myself, to become more of a composer again. Just for myself, not for the audience. How should I put it? I'd rather die as a Karlheinz Stockhausen than as an old DJ. I don't want to get a heart attack on stage, DJing from a USB stick at the age of 65. I'd rather die in a concert hall where my music is being performed, either by myself or someone else. That's the ambition."
But how is being a composer different to being a producer in this day and age? What does being a composer even mean now?
"It probably means selling even fewer records," he laughs. "I've got this very concrete image in my head, just of myself at the age of 70, sitting in my studio, kids are already out of the house, and just me trying to come up with a beautifully complicated piece of music that can be performed by someone else. Maybe something like that."