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Secret Music Info: Snowcat Origins, ’80s and ’90s, And More

We know Gilles Snowcat as the energetic, polyglot creative musical force with roots in Belgium, Vietnam and Japan, for his brilliant lyrics and proficiency on several instruments, including genius level keyboard skills. But before Gilles appended his name with the Snowcat moniker, there was a younger Gilles, founding member of the Brussels-centered European/Vietnamese Hybrid “Awaken.”

Aside from traveling the world collecting experiences to write songs about (beginning in the ’80s with Awaken and culminating in 2015’s “Nama Time”), Gilles is also a sharp critic of rock music and culture. I asked him to comment on his 1989 tune “Memories of a Teenage Cat,” which was just re-released on Bandcamp in its original form, and asked him about the tune’s connection to the origins of the Snowcat persona. I got much more than I bargained for, including a lengthy critique of popular music in the 1980s and ’90s. Check out his provocative thoughts, and the classic tune below!

(Note: The Snowcat’s opinions are his alone. I for one am a big fan of U2!)


Q.  Is this the beginning of your transformation into the Snowcat being?

Gilles writes: “The Snowcat exists since he’s born, though I can locate the explosion, the big-bang that made him come alive for real early, very early 1988. 1987 was when he tried to pop out, and suddenly 1988 came and so did the Snowcat. It was exquisitely exciting, because from that moment on everything became a song. Life was a huge source of inspiration, and in return songs inspired life, and that’s how the early Snowcat grew.”

It was exquisitely exciting, because from that moment on everything became a song. Life was a huge source of inspiration, and in return songs inspired life, and that’s how the early Snowcat grew.” Gilles Snowcat

“And the music was organic, since my understanding of music was rather low, and my ambition was devouring and set up too high, so I had to suck lots of energy from reality to create what I wanted. That’s why the early songs are full of magic, they’re very much libido-driven, that kind of beautiful sadness, romanticism and mixes of alcohol. It had a lot to do with seduction too, and huge buckets of fun and spleen. Strange cocktails. That’s why I still love that early take of “Memories Of A Teenage Cat”. There was a technically much better version [in 1996] but it had lost the spark. F@#%ng ’90s…”

Q.  So what were the ’80s like for you? Please reflect.

Gilles: “The ’80s were the last decade of creativity, musically speaking. It’s the last part of what started in the cotton fields, that led to jazz, evolves into rock, then all the fusional music of the ’70s and then the synthesizers and all that crazy stuff. It was meant to be mostly commercial and still wonderfully out of control, the sounds were out of this world, the Fairlight, the DX7, all those machines created incredible moods. You like it or not, but you can’t deny there was a real substance to it. It’s the best evidence that money and art can work together pretty well.The ’80s were a wonderful boom of excesses, it was all too much but in the most superb way. An elegant decadence, a party that goes too far but if it doesn’t go too far it goes nowhere.”

The ’80s were a wonderful boom of excesses, it was all too much but in the most superb way. An elegant decadence, a party that goes too far but if it doesn’t go too far it goes nowhere.” Gilles Snowcat

“Then the ’90s came and the party was over. Like someone had decided to remove colours and taste from music, as if it was too dangerous. And suddenly safe music was born, and art should never be safe, so it was a very bad move. The ’90s created condom-music.”

“Most of the radio-friendly stuff of the ’90s and beyond are terribly boring. You hear the first chords of anything from Natalie Imbruglia or Oasis and it screams boredom, it pours safety from every note. Or Joan Osborne, you know ‘One Of Us’? Same chords.”

“Sure there was some uneventful music in the ’80s too, Simple Minds or U2 to name a very few, but it wasn’t the rule. In the ’90s, it was. It seems that no one was able to write songs anymore then. Some say the ’90s were a return to the guitars of the ’70s but it’s complete bullsh!#. There’s nothing interesting in the guitars of the ’90s, just dull chords played boringly by some idiots who got a recording contract for reasons that I don’t really get. Even those who seemed to have an attitude and good ingredients were just releasing inoffensive, safe sh!#. Look at Oasis, how come with such a good background and great ideas the result was so annoyingly normal? Yes, that’s the word: music became normal in the ’90s.”

Thanks, Gilles!

Original “MOATC” Lyric sheet:

gilles snowcat teenage cat lyrics

finis

Send In the Christmas Cat!

By 1984, electronic music had bullied rock and roll into a rather cold place, as David Bowie explained in an interview in that year. The iconic chameleon was right, of course; with some notable exceptions (Thomas Dolby, Yello, The B52s), extensive use of synthesizers and the growing role of digital devices in popular and rock music resulted in nearly a decade dominated by robotic drumbeats, overuse of digital effects, and a general lack of inspiration and humor. Depeche Mode weren’t tagged with the name Depressed Mood for nothing.

Thirty years later, things don’t look much better. The spawn of 80s electronic music that started with techno pop  is represented by dozens of electronica genres and sub genres, including ‘dance’ music that’s not danceable at all, many of these genres sounding like they were created using similar equipment and software. And in addition to the generic approach to music creation, the same lack of humor is a trademark of these genres (Psy’s Gangnam Style excepted). Send in the clowns.

Enter Gilles Snowcat. With his affection for plush felines and Hello Kitty, Snowcat puts a buffoonish spin on the seriousness of rock’s self-important swagger. If you put Frank Sinatra, Calvin and Hobbes, Wolfgang Amadeus Mozart, and Serge Gainsbourg into a transmogrifying machine, you’d get Gilles Snowcat. He sings about the places he loves (Japan, Vietnam, Belgium, France), about the perils of fame, about intoxicating beverages, and about the risks and rewards of romance,  all with a self effacing sense of humor. (His use of vintage analog instruments is an added attraction.)

In a recent photo, Snowcat looks the part of debonair bachelor, sitting with a drink in one hand, while his left arm drapes across the shoulders of an over-sized Hello Kitty plush animal. Yet despite his clowning, Snowcat can get very serious when discussing beauty and inspiration. “Beauty is not innocent at all,” he says. “It is quicksand with a sweet taste.” And despite his desire to give full reign to his inner Sylvester, Pink Panther, Fritz the Cat or Tony the Tiger, Gilles Snowcat has a serious approach to creating music and lyrics beneath the cartoon veneer, acknowledging the painful or lustful impulses that often accompany musical creation.

“This is probably a necessary part in art,” he says. “Art is not practical and therefore can be fed by any kind of intentions and still remain art. That’s the biggest difference between, let’s say an architect and an artist. An architect, however artist he is to design his buildings, has to respect rules of physics, if not his houses would collapse and therefore would not be houses anymore. A human being is somehow a complicated thing, and is repressed to show the whole self, for obvious reasons. If we didn’t censor ourselves in everyday life, we’d be in a perpetual chaos.”

Snowcat waxes philosophical: “Art not only allows the use of our worst feelings, but it works better with them. You mention rock’n’roll, as if rock’n’roll was more evil than other forms of art. I don’t think so. Rock’n’roll seems more on the dark side cause it shows it as a part of its image. ” For example, as Gilles goes on to explain,  a key difference between the rebelliousness of rockers and the seeming innocence of singers of pop standards is tied up in how they present themselves to their audience; what goes on underneath is the same. “There’s not much difference,” he says,  “between, let’s say, an extreme rocker who sings ‘Walk On The Wild Side’ about junkies, prostitutes and transvestites, a blue-eyed crooner who whispers ‘Strangers In The Night’ about a love story that begins, or a painter who depicts the pure beauty of an exotic landscape: they’re all driven by a mix of several feelings and intentions, including…devilish ones. Lou Reed will use the bad side to strengthen his image, while Sinatra will hide it as much as he can.”

All the world’s a stage. New York rockers and blue eyed crooners notwithstanding,  Gilles Snowcat positions himself as a player in musical theater, in the roles of cat and jester. Since his days as a member of Awaken in the ’80s, Gilles has been a musical experimenter, with an inclination away from self-censorship. It’s this freedom that makes his art and persona so appealing. Check out his newly-released 2014 Christmas single,  “Let The Cat Out,” coming soon to  www.gilles-snowcat.com . Update: Listen to it here: Let The Cat Out.