Of course, this is nothing new to a country that has been experiencing cultural, linguistic, and political conflicts for years and years. But what’s interesting is also the effect it has on each successive generation and the ways in which they formulate their sense of identity.
One such example is Belgian baroque pop band School is Cool. Based out of Antwerp, the indie rock quintet aligns with the Flanders region, and has – more than once – been part of the summer-long celebration, Flanders is a Festival, which features more than 280 festivals all throughout the region.
And even though the members are all in or around their mid-20s, they admitted they are prone to feeling confused about what it means to be a Belgian band.
“It is disconnected in every way,” singer and guitarist Johannes Genard said backstage at the Boomtown Festival in Ghent earlier this month, speaking about reconciling the Dutch culture and language with the French part of the country, as well as the preconceptions that – with a few notable exceptions – all bands that gain any kind of following have to be English speaking.
Another factor that can add to this confusion is the decision to sing in their native Dutch tongue, but Genard quickly dismissed that as something which is more common in nationalistic circles. It also, much like German-lyric music, is immediately grouped alongside so-called Schlager bands.
“If you sing in our language, you would be divided into a certain genre,” percussionist Andrew Van Ostade said, continuing Genard’s train of thought. “In our country, singing in Dutch, it is a certain genre. You have differences in that world, but you suddenly get defined in that little culture and you can only play there.”
Another factor adding to this kind of confusion is that Belgian teenagers – or at least the ones in the Flanders region – rarely have any mainstream acts to look up to as an example of what they can achieve on an international level.
“France has its own pop culture, the chanson and Serge Gainsbourg,” Genard said, hinting that the Wallonians might be able to relate to this, if they happen to embrace their French culture more than their Belgian one. “They have their own legends…[whereas] Belgian legends are less known in Belgium than, for example, Kurt Cobain.”
And even Belgian bands who make it big still have limited chances at success, at least if history is any indication. School is Cool is arguably the most well-known act of its kind in Belgium right now, but a quick look at past dates shows the band tends to play in Belgium and the Netherlands, with the occasional date in nearby France, Germany, Austria, or the UK. And this is a band singing in English, not Dutch.
Meanwhile, Van Ostade explained that because it is such a small country and remains relatively under the radar, what most bands from Belgium could hope for is to be likened to a non-Belgian one.
“If there were Belgian idols, it might be because they sounded like an American band, ’cause they imitated it so well,” he said. “Like, a good compliment you could give to a Belgian band is they’re the Belgian version of [a non-Belgian one from England or America].”
As for critics of School is Cool, the Arcade Fire is a common comparison, something the group willingly embraces. If this comparison to a band that is already huge on the international scene is what School is Cool has to show for going up against the odds, and essentially beating them, then they will certainly take it. And although they have a long way to go before reaching the same amount of worldwide fame, having such a solid following in a handful of countries is admittedly still quite the accomplishment.
“We’re proud of what we achieved. It was a smooth ride and we did the best we could,” Van Ostade said. “And probably, like when the next album comes, we’ll see what what was wrong with the first album.”
He referenced the debut album, “Entropology,” which was released in October of last year and has been met with a generally positive reaction. It made it to the top of the charts in Belgium, and even received radio play in London.
“We wanted it to sound very tight, like Vampire Weekend tight,” Genard said about the approach going into the album. “There are some songs on it that I might have doubts about putting them in again, but…it’s something I guess you have to learn when you get a new album out.”
On that note, he shared that the band is already thinking about album number two. Currently, the members are in talks with an international producer, something they hope will not only garner attention in other markets, but will steer them in a direction different from “Entropology,” which they agreed is too clean sound-wise, in retrospect.
In contrast, the band’s live sound, although polished, is a lot more loaded. More specifically, Genard explained that School is Cool actively embraces a punk mentality, which dictates that the five should do what they love, experiment musically, and not allow outside influences to dictate how they should or shouldn’t sound. For them individually, part of that involves making the show a back and forth between band and crowd, creating and sustaining a symbiotic sense of energy.
“Whatever you give to your audience, they give back and you really get better with every, you know, with every clap you get,” he said. “It’s very rewarding to get a big response and we certainly work for that.”