On Movements, the Brussels-based rock quintet Great Mountain Fire lavishly enriches its infectious indie-pop songs with soul grooves. The lively sound and dexterous ensemble dance away our inarticulate sense of disquiet.
“We don't like to be under time pressure,” laughs Thomas de Hemptinne, singer-guitarist of Great Mountain Fire. That is why there is at least four years between the releases of the album debut Canopy (2011), its follow-up Sundogs (2015), and the new album Movements. “We only release something when it is completely ready.” This time, the band wanted to hold their audience's attention a little longer.
“Music is being consumed in a different way than it was ten years ago. That's why we opted for an independent trajectory. So that we can stay on the ball. When we released Canopy, the first single came out at about the same time as the album. When we had finished a few tracks last year, we immediately released a single and booked performances so that we had some income that we could invest in promotion, and especially in music videos because they are most expensive. The biggest difference with the previous albums is that we tested the music live before we recorded it. We were thus able to integrate our audiences' feedback into the final version. Our biggest fans have heard the new songs live already, often in earlier versions, so they didn't have to wait too long.”
The attempt to extend radio and (social) media attention goes hand in hand with another notable development. The group asked 13Pulsions alias Manuel Murillo to design their album cover and direct their music videos. This Brussels-based illustrator with Italian-Colombian roots is very active in the street art scene. He ensures that the music and visuals are aligned. “On Sundogs we had collaborated with collage creator David Delruelle,” says keyboardist and guitarist Antoine Bonan. “We were so happy that we wanted to collaborate with another visual artist this time around. We were impressed by Manu's naïve aesthetic, which reminded us of the colourful covers of Tom Tom Club.”
“There is a directness and innocence in his images of urban scenes of which we, as musicians who leave nothing to chance, can only dream, and yet there are many similarities with our musical reality,” De Hemptinne adds. On the cover of Movements, you see people hastily moving through an urban landscape. But the title of the album also refers to the group's own journey.
While their debut was made at Rising Sun Studio and its follow-up at the American Theatre, this time the band members darted between multiple recording locations. “The compositions are less the result of jams or musical experiments,” Bonan says. “By recording demos beforehand, we had a much clearer idea of what the songs should sound like.” De Hemptinne says that the benefit was that things went faster: “We're not twenty-five anymore. We used to be able to work through the night. Now that some of us have children, we can't do that anymore.”
That nomadic musical existence is tangible on Movements. In the intro of the sprightly disco tune “Look Up”, you hear the percussion echo down a hallway in Bonan's house. To achieve the dull drum sound that typifies the album's atmosphere, all the mattresses from the sound engineer Julien Rauïs's holiday home were lined around the walls in the attic. “That was in De Haan, where the seed for the album was planted. But we also recorded in the wooden house in Hoeilaart where Julien grew up.”
According to De Hemptinne, their “sixth member” was primarily responsible for ensuring that the band continued to sound organic, rounded, and warm, like the black music and the seventies soul that inspired Movements. “He was the psychologist who ensured that everyone could record their takes in optimal conditions. And it is thanks to him that our bassist discovered Sly & the Family Stone. Alexis (Den Doncker, red.) now plays bass with his fingers, like Larry Graham.”
As additional sources of inspiration, the band members refer to the afro rhythms of David Byrne, but especially to Marvin Gaye and “Strawberry Letter 23”, a 1971 song by soul singer Shuggie Otis. The laidback funky rhythms, often combined with playful falsetto voices, bring out the dextrous ensemble as much as possible. “It all has to stay workable between the five of us,” De Hemptinne summarizes the essence of the band-cum-group of friends. “There are no tricks when we perform live, and our songs don't have twenty-five different layers. Take “The Way”, for example: one synth loop, one melody, one guitar, one bass, and one drum are enough. It doesn't have to go in a thousand different directions at the same time, but everyone does his own thing in interaction with the other five.”
Dream your dream
Bonan wrote “The Way” immediately after the terrorist attack in the Paris nightclub Bataclan. “We were horrified. As musicians, we were shaken to the core, but at the same time, the positive response in society inspired me to make it a hopeful song. Instead of hiding away at home, people came onto the street. They refused to be cowed. In the face of blood and death, they emphasized light and joie de vivre. That is how I wanted 'The Way' to sound.”
This remains escapist pop music. If there is a message, the band members don't want to layer it on too thick, though Bonan admits that “No Matter” is implicitly directed at our political leaders. “We are not activists, but the title of the track refers in part to the movements of people who leave their countries in search of a safer home, and the movements that we must all make so that something changes in terms of the climate or our consumption.”
“But it is also about internal movements that suppress our freedoms,” De Hemptinne says. “We do not convey a clear message like 'We are the world' or 'We are one'. We aren't U2.” But there is a certain disquiet under the surface, like in the existential “What You Want Me to Be”. “Don't be afraid to dream the way it has to be,” the song stimulatingly tells us. “Being free to make our own choices is essential to us and to our city.”
This theme also resonates in “Caroline”, which catapults the band members back to their teenage years during which they would taste freedom while roller-skating around Brussels. “It is a tribute to a homeless transsexual who we would sometimes see as we wandered the city, and who fascinated us enormously, but who has since disappeared. We build monuments to people who have been politically influential, but too often we forget the people whose authentic lives have contributed to building the community. By being nonconformist, Caroline showed us how you can live your life as you please. She was our symbol of the freedom that the city offers.”
Movements, release: 20/11, Capitane Records