Univers Zero - Universal Translators

By Dark Starr

Belgian band Univers Zero is a chamber rock band, meaning they use instruments often associated with chamber music (along with more traditional rock instrumentation) to create a type of progressive rock. Their music is fairly closely tied with the RIO (Rock In Opposition) movement of the genre. This style is typified by a lot of free form compositions and jazz elements woven into a style that is often times a bit more of an intensive listening experience than a lot of prog. Daniel Denis was a founder of the band in 1974 and is in many ways the heart and soul of the group. They disbanded in 1987, but that was not to be the end of Univers Zero. They reformed in the latter part of the 1990’s and have been continuing to produce modern music in the style that they had pioneered in the day. Denis spoke with me (via email) about all phases of the band, the RIO movement and much more. Special thanks go out to Aymeric Leroy for serving as translator (in both directions) to facilitate communications between Denis’ French and my English.

Wormwood Chronicles: Univers Zero has been around for quite some time. How have things changed over the years?

Daniel Denis: The group has existed now for thirty-two years. The music of UZ evolved through the changes in personnel. For my own part, I also learned a lot from outside the group, and over the years discovered other sources of inspiration. For instance, my seven-year stint with Art Zoyd was very fruitful, for instance learning to use the sampling technology which that group fully mastered.

The main objective that I defined at the time I formed a new UZ line-up was that the music should continue to move on, and break with its past image, which was too dark and lugubrious. Twenty-five years ago, we went a little too far in that direction, because we wanted to distinguish ourselves from the other bands. There was a little provocation in there, similar to what the punk bands were doing at the time. I've always believed that there's nothing intrinsically negative or morbid about the music I write (and this is still the case today). Quite the contrary, actually, I've always seen it as energetic, vital and quite serene. With some of the "key" pieces I wrote in the old days, like "La Faulx" ("the scythe") or "La Ronde" ("the round"), I intended to present a series of scenes and images, the same way a movie director, a painter or a novelist could. I thought it exciting to recreate, with my own vision, atmospheres from the Middle Ages - popular witchcraft, inquisition, but also alchemists and cathedral builders.

The next stage for Univers Zero is to perform and record new compositions created by the various members of the band. Hopefully this will open new possibilities for us in terms of shapes and colours.

WC: You have always been a big supporter and proponent of the Rock In Opposition movement. How have the years affected that movement? Do you think that today's music scene makes it more or less relevant and why?

DD: I couldn't say. UZ has always stayed on the sidelines of this movement because the political ideas put forward by some of the musicians in the collective didn't really appeal to us. Still, it was a fantastic idea to bring together all these bands who, in their individual countries, were going through the same problems. Getting them to perform in each other's countries was great, we all learned a lot from that. I find that kind of collective feeling lacking nowadays. We are all very isolated, working on our own, struggling to keep our projects alive.

WC: Who would you see as your musical influences, both as a band and an individual musician?

DD: The music of the sixties, in which I was immersed from a very young age, convinced me to try and become a musician. Most influential were musicians like Hendrix or Barrett-era Pink Floyd, among many others... I don't think rock music was ever as vital afterwards. Then of course there was Soft Machine - a real slap in the face! Then Miles Davis's "Live Evil" era... Magma, King Crimson, Zappa and Beefheart, too. Then I got the urge to discover "contemporary" classical music from the 20th century - Stravinsky, Bartok, Milhaud, Ives, Varese, Penderecki, etc. - and medieval music - Perotin, Machaut, etc. All these discoveries were decisive; they fed and greatly enriched my musical vocabulary.

WC: How would you describe your music?

DD: In any case I would say it is written with the intention of reaching the widest possible audience. It isn't intended for "specialists" only. I often say there's an imagery in this music that hopefully helps people get into it. But in order to do that they have to let their prejudices aside. I think there's a lot of energy and emotion in it. The greatest problem, actually, is the attitude of the media, who present this music as incomprehensible and relegate it to specialist networks, so it remains confined to a very limited audience.

WC: Like you don't belong in this time?

DD: Yeah, I feel that way all the time. There's just something appealing about those times to me. Look at ancient Egypt...their language itself was art. Everything about them seems to draw me into their world.

WC: If you had to pick one album or one song that really typifies Univers Zero better than any other, what would it be?

DD: That's difficult to say, because every album, every period or line-up was important in its own way. In all humility, it's a bit like taking away one of H.P. Lovecraft's novels from his complete works. Something would be missing.

WC: What is ahead for the band?

DD: It is still a real "crusade" to keep this music alive. It requires constant energy and determination. I must say it's sometimes very difficult, but I'm still impressed to see a significant number of people supporting and encouraging us. What I find most difficult to accept is the media's boycott of this music on the grounds that it isn't "commercial" enough. A lot of press reviewers and TV/radio producers support it, actively or passively. I am confronted to this as the person in charge of booking the band. I handle all the gig-hunting, administration, application for grants, etc. And what little time remains available I spend composing.

Now, for the last year and a half, I have put together a new line-up, which changed again recently with the return of Andy Kirk. Having a band again is a great motivation, but we're still desperately looking for someone who could handle our management. This is cruelly lacking at the moment.

WC: What was the last concert you saw as a fan?

DD: That of my son Nicolas, last Saturday. Perhaps he inherited the virus of drumming from me? Incidentally, his birthday is on August 20th, like Lovecraft.

WC: What has been your biggest Spinal Tap moment?

DD: There were so many! My most vivid memory is that of our van breaking down all the time. At the end of the seventies, we bought an old Mercedes van from the army, which constantly broke down. The most memorable instance happened when we went to play a concert in Ljubljana in June 1980. We arrived in Venice virtually penniless, and we really had to make it to Ljubljana to get the money so we could afford to get the van fixed. To make matters even worse, it was a Sunday. Eventually we managed to rent a small bus from a rental company, and we made it to Ljubljana, play the gig, but once we'd paid for the bus rental and the repairs once again we didn't have a penny in our pockets

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