Arno is not only the most highly praised Flemish rock singer, he’s also easily surpassing the language barrier. In his very unique style, combining English with French (and on very rare occasions his Ostend patois), he’s as popular in Flanders as in the French Community. No one sings like Arno, no one thinks like Arno and, certainly, no one speaks like Arno.
It’s impossible to render the experience of talking with Arno in print, even in Dutch for that matter. You miss his sighs and his laughs, his strange faces and his grasping for words. But, luckily, what he has to say is just as interesting.
Arno’s excellent 13th studio album Future Vintage is one of the best of his career. And, clocking in at 35 minutes, his shortest. All trifles removed, all superfluities cut away, Arno goes straight to the heart in 11 superb songs.
The title Future Vintage is a typical Arno paradox. “Vintage refers to the past. And without the past there wouldn’t be a future,” he says. “Growing older, I’ve realised I’m a son of surrealism. I live in Brussels, and I am a Belgian, and surrealism was born here. The album cover is an accolade to Rene Magritte. Don’t forget that without Magritte, there wouldn’t be an Andy Warhol. That’s too often forgotten in this country.”
In the previous century, the singer recorded albums in France and Nashville, but in the past decade, he has been faithful to studios in Brussels and Ostend, which means he can sleep at home at the end of the day. This time around, though, he went to Bristol, where he worked with producer John Parish. This British multi-instrumentalist is mostly known as a faithful cohort of PJ Harvey, but he is an artist in his own right: producing, writing songs and composing soundtracks.
“Last year in November I finished, in Canada, the long tour following my previous album, Brusseld,” says Arno. “Soon after, I felt in low spirits – playing live helps me staying sane – and in order to heal myself, I started writing songs like a madman. By January, I had already finished 20 songs. I immediately wanted to record them, and it was my brother who suggested that I do that in England.”
The singer liked the idea and phoned up Parish. “He asked me when I wanted to start. ‘Yesterday,’ I answered him!” He bursts into one of his characteristic big laughs.
One could have thought that, through the Parish connection, he would have collaborated with PJ Harvey. “All respect to her, but I don’t know her personally. And I didn’t want female voices on the album.”
But wait, Arno. Some members of the choir used on a few of the new songs are women. “That’s different,” he refutes with typical Arno logic, “because they are women from Brussels.”
He’s talking about the choir Les Anges. “Four men and four women, all Africans, who sing Russian and Balkan songs. In Brussels! That’s what I call surrealism!”
Some of the lyrics on Future Vintage are far from surrealistic. “I Don’t Believe”, for instance, with the often repeated chorus “I don’t believe in what they say / I don’t believe in what they do”, is rooted strongly in reality. Arno: “That’s about politicians. The times are a-changing. We’re back in the 1930s: Populism and nationalism govern the spirit. I never want to wake up in a Flemish nationalistic country.” He continues, without a drop of the irony that often invades his answers: “What used to be left wing nowadays is right wing, and what used to be right wing nowadays is far right: That’s happening all over Europe. A dog with a cold can smell it. And it frightens me.”
Does he consider it a task of the rock singer to signal those tendencies, I want to ask him, but he interrupts me after the word “task”. “That’s not the right word. I’m just an entertainer. Jesus Christ, he had a task.” His smile is back now: “I’m not Christ.”
He hits the nail that he’s hammered on in recent years: “I’m a child of the 1960s, when rock music equalled anarchy. This has radically changed. You’ll find more rock‘n’roll in a hairdresser’s salon than among contemporary rock artists. Rock music doesn’t give me a hard-on anymore. I miss the revolutionary spirit. Rock’n’roll lost the war. The Pukkelpop festival was on television.” He stops talking and sighs heavily. “It makes me sick. Am I the only one who cares?” But he sees a glimmers of light at the horizon. “I feel a change amongst kids of 15, 16. But the older ones…” He stops. “But I better stop complaining. I don’t want to sound like an old bastard who thinks that everything was better before.”
In “Chanson d’amour” Arno sings about the dangers of cigarettes and alcohol. I knew he quit smoking a few years ago, but with two glasses of wine during our interview, he still seems to be drinking. He shakes his head. “I’m not drinking every day. That would be too dangerous for me.” And he adds, with a wink, “for the other people, too.”
Is he taking care of his health, now that he’s a sexagenarian? “It’s too late,” he admits in a voice that doesn’t show much regret. “Why should I? You have to keep on going forward. I want to live now and about the things of yesteryear…” He wipes his hands, as if cleaning them. “I have no regrets. I had an amazing life. Fuck, man. The day I start to complain, I deserve to be spanked on my bare ass.”
In some ways, Arno has lived quite simply. “Apart from books and records, I’m not attached to possessions,” he says. “I don’t care about clothes; I never had a car.” With a chuckle: “I would have been dead by now if I had a driving license.”
He continues on a more serious note. “I’m a happy man. People around me died, sometimes of dope, but I’ve been lucky.”
Lucky or smart? “Lucky! I saw people much more talented and intelligent than me die.”
But he’s smart enough to be still alive. After a moment of reflection, he agrees: “I’m a survivor.” And in one breath he continues: “I’m an optimist. And do you know what the definition of an optimist is? A pessimist with loads of life experience.” His laughter is filling L’Archiduc. And he orders another white wine.
Ancienne Belgique, Anspachlaan 110, Brussels
More dates in 2013, check the website www.arno.be