Rock frontman on truth, emotion and growing up
Wannes Cappelle of Het Zesde Metaal discusses how the decision to sing in his local dialect has allowed him to really express how he feels about what’s going on in the wider world
“I think we all studied Latin, but the boys from metalwork, at a school next to ours, had a very cool reputation. The name was much too brawny for who we were, which we found funny. But I’ll admit that in the beginning, loads of people thought we were a metal band.”
They certainly aren’t. In recent years, Het Zesde Metaal have grown to be one of Flanders’ most popular rock groups, regularly injecting their music with some folk.
Singer Cappelle (pictured centre) is a very versatile artist: he’s a playwright and an actor for both the stage and the small screen, co-wrote the critically acclaimed TV series Bevergem, wrote the novella Ontferm U (Have Mercy) and with his Icelandic wife he’s working on a book about her homeland, but let there be no mistake: music is his first love.
“Without a doubt,” he says. “But all the rest is fun, too. From a young age I wanted to do what I’m doing now: living from my music, which only became possible last year.”
As a child, it was his ambition to follow in the footsteps of Willem Vermandere, a renowned singer-songwriter from West Flanders. “Until I was 12, 13, I listened to almost no one else,” he recalls. “But that idea dissipated completely when I was a teenager – it wasn’t cool to like Vermandere. The desire to make music only came back when I was studying in Leuven.”
He later studied piano at music school, but it was only when he quit music school that he started playing pop songs on the piano. Before long, he was improvising and had written his first song. “After that first one I knew: this is what I want to do with the rest of my life.”
I don’t have a message to convey. I’m looking for poetry, for an emotion I try to put into words. Dialect is the perfect medium
A huge difference between now and then is the language he sings in. Then it was English. “That’s why I chose to go to Ireland during my exchange programme,” he says. “I wanted to improve my English.”
It took him a few years before he switched to the dialect of his hometown, Wevelgem, West Flanders. He still knows where and when he took that decision. And why. “At the beginning of August 2001, I saw Flip Kowlier at the Dranouter festival. He gave a preview of his first solo album, Ocharme ik, which would come out later that year.” It was an album that sent a shock through the Flemish music world.
Sure, Kowlier wasn’t the first to sing in dialect, but he was certainly the first to do it in a dialect that was incomprehensible to almost all listeners, yet he was met with huge public and critical acclaim. Cappelle: “I was flabbergasted, and it immediately dawned on me that I shouldn’t sing in English. Kowlier taught me that you can sing in dialect without sounding folkloric or carnivalesque. That it can be serious pop music.”
Intelligibility is not Cappelle’s main focus, he explains. “I don’t have a message to convey. I’m looking for poetry, for an emotion I try to put into words. For that, the dialect is the perfect medium since it’s my mother tongue. I live my emotions in that language.”
That he doesn't have a message to convey might have been true for the first three albums by Het Zesde Metaal, but it isn’t for number four, Calais. The title refers to the refugee camp in the French port town, known as the Jungle
Calais marks a change in Cappelle’s work. He’s no longer focusing on his inner world, but on the world around him. “Sure, I have things to say, but I don’t want to be too concrete. It’s more about airing my discontent or grief,” he says.
“This time around the songs are fertilized by what was in the news at the time we were writing them: the refugee crisis, Brexit, the run-up to the American elections. They made me angry and anxious. On the other hand, we shouldn’t fear that only distress and misery are looming around the corner. I don’t want to give up hope.”
I don’t think the news will be any less engrossing in the coming years. On a personal level, things are always moving, too
Has he any idea where the urge to change came from? “The necessity was bigger,” he says. “Or at least I felt it much harder; probably it’s called growing up. Becoming a father was certainly an influence, too. The younger you are, the more you look at the world from your own point of view.” He smiles. “At first I had a lot to say about myself.”
He writes the songs with bass player Robin Aerts. “At nine in the morning, before we start working, we talk about what is on our minds. Often it’s the subject of the song we’ll work on later that day.”
And is the thematic change we see on Calais here to stay? “It’s early to say so, but I suppose it is,” he says. “I don’t think the news will be any less engrossing in the coming years. On a personal level, things are always moving, too. That’s why I like to mix the two themes. But you never know what life has in store for you.”
After a little more pondering, he adds: “With Calais, I was at a point where if I didn’t voice my concerns, it would feel like I wasn’t telling the truth. Being truthful, that’s the most important thing.”
Calais is out now on Unday Records and Het Zesde Metaal are on tour in Flanders in February and March
Photo: Bache Jespers
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