Dutch singer-songwriter Thomas Azier released his third record Stray in November last year on his independent label Hylas Records. We spoke with the pop star during Eurosonic in our Music & Tech Hideout about being an independent artist, lessons learned from two hit records at Universal and how technology changes the way we consume and market music.
This conversation with Thomas, and his brother Isa, was recorded as a podcast by our friends from DATmag. (so all you Dutchies can listen to it here). For all you guys and girls who do not speak this beautiful language we wrote the article below. Enjoy.
Hey guys, thanks for coming. I know you have a busy schedule.
“No problem, thanks for inviting us.”
Let’s cut to the chase, because we don’t have much time. Thomas last time we spoke, you had just released your first album Hylas. I remember asking you if you were living the dream of a rock star, and you answered that this was just the beginning. Now it’s five years and two albums later. What has changed since then?
“Well, after releasing Hylas I was thrown in the deep. I played around a hundred and fifty shows a year. Some of those were support gigs, but we played a lot of headliners too. Me and my crew travelled through Europe, the Middle East, and America. So I was mainly on the road.”
“It was a time of lots of travelling and learning about the business. Because, as a young artist you don’t know much about the music industry and – maybe more important – you don’t know what it means to play that many gigs.”
So what’s it like to be on stage for fifty percent of the year?
“I think that an artist learns what live performing is after doing at least hundred and twenty shows. Then you truly understand the magic, but also the pressure of the job. It’s hard work and I was constantly on the road. Waking up in the morning after a show, boarding a plain and flying to the next city where I had to perform that evening in front of a small fanbase.”
“It’s kind of the lifestyle that could be compared to what deejays do. Only now, it was not with a USB in my pocket but with a whole crew, lots and lots of gear, and overall not that glamorous. So all you deejays out there, fuck you with your portable hard drive.”
Did you have to help carrying all that gear? No roadies?
“Of course I had to help! Carrying stuff around, hustling to get by. I like to call the overall experience ‘grinding,’ because grinding is what you do. It is really heavy while you are in the middle of it, but at the same time you realize what your job as an artist actually is. And of course this is what you want to do.”
“After the Hylas tour I thought to myself: this is so heavy, I don’t know how long I can sustain this lifestyle. When I returned to Berlin I didn’t take a break, but focused on the second album Rouge, where my brother Isa and I worked on closely together.”
Talking about Rouge, on this record you kind of took diverged from what you did on Hylas right?
“Yeah, on Hylas I wanted to capture the techno and punk culture of Berlin. I explored a lot of electronic sounds and effects on that album. On Rouge I tried to experiment with acoustic sounds and how far you could go with radically deforming them.
“At the same time I was working closely with Isa, who had become an artist developer while I was working on Hylas and exploring Berlin. Isa’s job is helping an artist in finding his sound and authenticity; exploring the boundaries of the talent he is working with.”
“It’s a very important job which is underestimated in the music industry. My brother and I have the same feeling for authenticity and sincerity so it felt really good working together.”
Can you explain how you write your tracks?
“I hear everything in my head. All the vocal lines, the instruments, the beat, everything. Of course in the first place you start out with the actual songwriting. There’s nothing glamorous about that. You just sit behind a piano or guitar and write the actual song in its purest form.”
“On Rouge I wanted to try to bring the craftsmanship of songwriting to a new level. In the past five years this handicraft is been replaced by things as vibes and moods. Rouge for me was an expedition through this ancient craft, searching for the core of what music really is. In a way it all comes back to songwriting.”
“But getting back to your question on how I write my tracks. After this process of writing I start listening to the sounds I hear in my head. What kind of drums fit in a song? Which instruments do I need to make a track come to life? I find the answers to those questions by experimenting a lot on my computer.”
You say that you work mainly on your computer and somewhere I heard you say that you actually recorded your new record Stray while you were travelling. Is this true, or did you write the sketches on the road and recorded them later in a studio with real musicians?
“No I recorded the album on my laptop with the help of a microphone and really good software. Kind of the way you guys are recording your podcast right now. So it’s super simple, and the funny thing is that a lot of people just can’t wrap their head around it.”
“You have to understand that music software has been around for almost two decades, and it has evolved in a way that you actually can make a whole record on your laptop, without the help of real instruments. No one can hear the difference. So if you know what kind of instrumental arrangement you want to apply in a song it’s just a few clicks away.”
That is impressive.
Thomas: “I kind of did the reverse of what Daft Punk did. They recorded a real band in a studio the way it used to be done in the sixties and seventies. I wanted to push the boundaries of the technical possibilities. How far can you go using only software without people really noticing it?”
Isa: “If you know how a real instrument sounds, you can easily replicate it digitally. Of course there is a whole other discussion on the difference between electronic sound and acoustic instruments. Does it really matter where the sound is produced if it sounds good?”
Thomas: “If you ask the kids on the street whether they care about a track been recorded with or without real instruments, I don’t think they will fully understand the question.”
So how does this new way of recording work?
“As I already said, I write the song and after that I start experimenting with different instrumental arrangements. Once I find the sounds that I need, I start creating the whole instrumental part. This is quite boring work, because I’m swiping and clicking digital notes for weeks while staring at my computer screen.”
I heard that on Stray you recorded sounds from the places you visited, but you had to cut those samples from the Spotify edits. So if a listener wants to hear those sounds, he or she has to buy the record because. Is that true?
Thomas: “That is true. This is the result of how we consume music these days. People don’t listen to full records, but to individual songs. Spotify works with playlists and all the songs in their playlists have to fit in, so people can keep on listening without abrupt interruptions. So if one of my songs has a minute of silence or a weird sounding sample the skip rate will go up.”
Isa: “When a coffeeshop for example has a playlist on, the owner wants everybody to be in a certain mood. If there’s a weird-sounding track in the middle, people will be thrown out of that mood. In other words: Spotify doesn’t want you to disturb the flow of their playlists.”
Isn’t this annoying?
Thomas: “Of course it is. Spotify is the new radio and it dictates how artist should write their work. Niche music is disappearing, because this streaming service wants musicians to make music that doesn’t stand out. Technology always has an impact on the way we make and consume music. It is up to me as an artist to find a way to do my thing and compromise as little as possible within those boundaries.”
“But this is nothing new you know. When you look at the nineties, when, for example, the discman came to the market artists started to record their songs in a way that kids could get the best sound with their headphones on. Before that time the production was more bombastic and big. When you listen to Radiohead records those are made for you headphones. That’s why they sound so introvert.”
Wow, that’s some pretty cool stuff. Now back to Stray. This is your first record you made as an independent artist. Why did you stop working with Universal?
“Well, when I started out on Universal my work was released on the same label as Paul (Stromae) and Kavinsky. Those were pretty big names. What labels do is throw mud at the wall and see what sticks and then they start betting everything on that act.”
“In this case it was Paul. His first record, which I helped write, exploded. No one expected this and with all that fame came a lot of pressure. I think it is fair to say that Stromae, Kavinsky, and I were the last wave of idiosyncratic acts on that label. Pretty soon after all this happened, I became convinced that this is not the way to go. For me in any case.”
What do you mean by that?
“Well, you have to understand that this way of working is killing. It means you have to create music that has to be a hit. If not, after a while a major label isn’t interested anymore. This is a big deal if you try to do something different than people are used to. I saw Paul have a really hard time, we all had actually.”
“I read somewhere that the British band Pulp had their breakthrough in the mainstream after eight albums. This doesn’t mean it takes a while to get to the top, all it shows is that sometimes the art you make is recognized by the masses and sometimes it isn’t.”
“All I want to do is experiment, be curious, and try to start dialogues with my listeners. If that is my goal, why should I focus on scoring one big hit? It’s a whole different approach from trying to make a hit album, otherwise your label will dump you. This is something that is unsustainable. For me at least.”
What does this pressure do with your mind?
“As a young person you shoot for the stars and you want it all. The problem is that you don’t actually know what ‘it all’ means. So you commit to certain goals, but you don’t really realize what is expected of you.”
“I am convinced that making music is something I’m going to do my whole life. No doubt about it. So I’d better make it a sustainable way of living. That is why I’m building a solid base at the moment. One of the things that are important for now is that my art and company grow organically without slick marketing and quick fixes.”
And how are you planning to do that?
“We are working in a small militant team. The guys you see here, Isa, Ferran and me, that is our team. And then there is Robin, who’s in Berlin right now. We operate in a modest studio with our own label Hylas Records. This label isn’t new by the way. I always released on Hylas Records, but I licensed the tracks to Universal.”
“At the moment we grow slowly and organically and that is a good thing. The studio, for instance, is something we’ve been investing in for a decade. Everything takes time to build if you want it to last. At one point you realize that the grass isn’t greener on the other side of the fence, but it is green at your side too. And that is something you accomplish together with your team. I’m a big believer in teamwork and trusting your own strength. That is why I decided to leave Universal.”
What did Universal say?
“They totally understand my decision. It makes it easier for them as well. For instance, I was signed in France. Which means that I had to write more in French, because that would increase my chances of radio play. Stuff like that just shows how fragmented Europe is. Everybody lives in their own tiny bubble.”
Yeah I guess Europe is pretty old-school.
“Definitely. Every country has her own way of doing business and releasing music. When I left the Netherlands, I thought Europe was an open space where we all could do whatever we wanted. But that is not the case. I hope one day this will change.”
What did you learn from your time at Universal?
Thomas: “There is a tendency to say that the artist should be ‘just an artist,’ but I don’t know if this is still the case. In the twentieth century you could get away with that sex, drugs, rock ‘n’ roll attitude, and being just an image. Nowadays, things are different and an artist can’t sustain this lifestyle. Back then there was a lot of money in the industry.”
Isa: “Back in the eighties and nineties if you had a flopped record, you sold hundred thousand albums. Now if you sell that amount, you’re record goes double platinum. That’s the difference between then and now.”
Thomas: “But it’s fair enough to say that the industry itself is slowly starting to understand what’s happening. You asked me what I have learned and one of things I did learn is that I make my music in a certain way with a certain idea. This is a very pure way of creating; and then a major label releases a record and markets it in a completely other fashion. That is something I really disliked.”
What do you mean by that?
“Well for instance, the whole idea of a record cycle is pretty insane. You write an album, the record company sets a release date, and then you have to wait until that date before doing something. By the time you officially release the record it is old and you’ve moved on in your head. But that’s when you have to start touring to promote the album sales.”
“These days, everyone can release a track whenever he or she wants. So this way of producing and selling records is pretty ancient. It’s absurd to have to wait for a release date. Releasing an album is just a few clicks away so why wait?”
So being independent allows you to that, right?
“Yes it does. We live in an era in which technology is developing very fast. So you have to keep up-to-date with your music. People have a really low attention span and don’t listen to albums that much.”
“To stay relevant I have to adjust my way of work and it is not easy, because I like telling stories and producing albums. I am struggling, in a good way, to find the balance in what people like to hear and what I want to create.”
What can we expect from you in 2019?
“We’ve been working as an independent record label for one year now. Stray is the first of many records to come. And yes I am already working on new material so hopefully you’ll hear from me very soon.”
Thanks Thomas and Isa, enjoy your stay here at Eurosonic!
Photos made by Jasper Bolderdijk during Eurosonic.