The Sore Losers reclaim the guitar

© Heleen Rodiers
| Jan Straetemans (left) and Cedric Maes of The Sore Losers: ready for the next riff

Guitars are no longer sexy, guitar builders are going bankrupt, young people don’t dig rock anymore. Fortunately, The Sore Losers are keeping their eyes on the prize.

“Hehe, the Whammy II.” Cedric Maes gazes at a cupboard full of effect pedals and other things that make guitar freaks’ mouths water. To be in the right setting, we met up with the Limburg Stones at Music City, an instrument shop in the centre of Brussels where Fender and Gretsch guitars shine like in the old days.

“Tom Morello of Rage Against the Machine used that pedal a lot,” the guitarist enthuses. “Huhuwhiehuhuwhiehuwhiehu! Jack White must have one like that too. I would almost buy it just to have it. But I already have so much.” (Laughs) Are The Sore Losers gear sluts? “Cedric is really a mega nerd in that respect,” singer and guitarist Jan Straetemans nods.

A cacophony of riffs from interested shoppers squeal through the shop. But what is the deal with guitars? Is it true that young people are no longer interested because they can conjure a simple beat or a whole orchestra out of their laptops in their bedrooms? Are rappers the new rock stars since Post Malone smashed an acoustic guitar to pieces at the Rock Werchter festival last summer? Or are bands like Greta Van Fleet, which shamelessly copy the seventies stadium rock of Led Zeppelin, a sign of rebirth? And did Gibson, the iconic guitar brand, not file for bankruptcy last year, after 116 years?

“Over the years, Gibson started selling other things, from pianos and jukeboxes to consumer electronics,” Maes clarifies. He has worked part-time in a guitar shop in Genk for the past ten years. “Those things caused the mountain of debt that has to be paid off. The guitar sales themselves are still healthy. There’s still a lot of people that play the guitar.”

How many of those healthy guitars do you actually own yourself?
About thirty. Mostly Gibsons. (Laughs)

JAN STRAETEMANS: I only have about ten. I’m left-handed, so my options are much more limited. I can’t actually see any left-handed guitars on display in this shop. I usually look for them online. I bought my most beautiful guitar in Brussels, through an American on eBay. “I sell left-handed guitars, but you have to come to Brussels.” No problem! (Laughs) It is a Gibson SG…

MAES: ... Custom. The most beautiful SG ever made. I am jealous of it! Jimi Hendrix, the most famous left-handed guitar player ever, had one. My most expensive guitar is a 1965 Epiphone that I bought in the USA. I bought one of my favourite guitars in Japan, a 1959 Gibson. One of the ones that Keith Richards often used.

STRAETEMANS: I regret never having learned to play right-handed.

MAES: It would have been better for me to be left-handed. I would have had far fewer arguments with my wife! (Laughs)

Do you ever sell any guitars?
MAES: I used to, when I was completely broke. But I also have instruments that I would never sell. For my 21st birthday, my wife gave me a Gibson Les Paul Goldtop, a guitar that was once owned by Willy Willy, the guitarist of The Scabs. You see, it is actually all her fault. (Grins)

I’d like to believe that, but who seduced you into playing the guitar in the first place?
Slash, the guitarist of Guns N’ Roses. I was about eleven or twelve. I loved the Terminator films, and then the music video of Guns N’ Roses’s “You Could Be Mine” was released on MTV – the theme song of Terminator 2: Judgment Day. I went wild.

STRAETEMANS: Same story. Also when I was about twelve, and also thanks to Guns N’ Roses. That is how Cedric and I became friends. We played in different bands. Cedric was in El Guapo Stuntteam. We played a gig in Tongeren...

MAES: ... at the legendary punk café Sjofaasj. You were wearing a Guns N’ Roses T-shirt, Jean, and just like me, you played a Gibson Les Paul, like Slash. We introduced ourselves. That is also when I started going out with my wife. It was a very important evening. (Laughs)

Last summer, you performed at Pukkelpop. While the older kids were watching Dua Lipa and Oscar & the Wolf, they wondered “Where are the guitars?”
They were at the Werchter festival. (Laughs) Everyone said: “Rock is dead.” And then Werchter invited Pearl Jam, Jack White, Arctic Monkeys, and Queens of the Stone Age. But I think Pukkelpop is geared towards a younger audience, and you can’t deny that the kids are less interested in rock nowadays.

STRAETEMANS: You can definitely feel that something has changed. A lot of rock bands we are friends with have thrown in the towel.

MAES: Or started using electronica.

You haven’t. But the guitars are slightly less prominent on your fourth album, Gracias Señor.
A lot of people say: “Come on guys, you’re playing so quietly.” But we’ve always had that softer, melodious side.

STRAETEMANS: Songs like “Dark Ride” were the first time that we let ourselves be led by one groove. That bassline is reminiscent of Bill Wyman of the Stones, in their late seventies period.

MAES: Keith Richards often plays very hooky riffs, and a rolling bassline offers a nice counterbalance. We coached our bassist Kevin (Maenen) to do that: more Bill! (Laughs)

STRAETEMANS: Cedric and I were also more frugal this time. We have always played two parts, but we left some of them out this time. It gave the music more space.

James Petralli and Steve Terebecki of the Austin riff rockers White Denim produced your album. Did they change your approach to guitar rock?
They are amazing musicians, to the point of being intimidating. It made us on edge all the time.

STRAETEMANS: For James, apart from the chops, the fun was important too. I think our approach is more playful now too, including the artwork and the lyrics. I wrote with a broader horizon, trying to write less clichéd rock songs. About the things that have replaced religion in our hyper-individualistic society, for example. Without being too heavy-handed.

Things like: “Total jerk supply and demand / A kookie Joe blow in La La Land”?
(Laughs) Steve suddenly suggested those lines. They are about Trump. Steve and James spent all day paging through a slang dictionary. James loves language as a form. One of his favourite poems is “Rose is a rose is a rose is a rose” by Gertrude Stein.

MAES: And then we sang “Cottleston Pie” from The Muppet Show together. (Sings) “A fly can’t bird, but a bird can fly.” Rowlf the Dog’s amazing. (Laughs)
We’ve never really been very macho, but that is gone completely now. When people say “those Sore Losers are wearing leather jackets, they should rock,” I think it is quite funny.

So next time in pastels and blazers?
Well, let’s not exaggerate!

> The Sore Losers
10/2, 19.30, Botanique

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