Levitation Interview: Stefanie Mannaerts of Belgium Haymakers Brutus
Bashes like Bonham, wails like Plant
By Raoul Hernandez,
12:12AM, Thu. Nov. 7, 2019
To paraphrase a Seventies feminist anthem: Stefanie Mannaerts is woman, hear her roar. Brutus’ singer also wails on drums as the atomic Belgium trio makes its Austin debut this weekend. Their Levitation set ignites Empire’s sold-out Sargent House showcase Friday, then Sunday they open a killer trifecta with Cave In and Helms Alee at the Parish.
Austin Chronicle: [Emailing] Have you ever been to Austin or Texas?
Stefanie Mannaerts: No, never been there. We are really looking forward to seeing it. Amerika has treated us already so good, so we all are very excited.
AC: Levitation takes its name from Texas music legacy the 13th Floor Elevators, whose frontman Roky Erickson lived here and recently died. Has the band been exposed to either act?
SM: Honestly, we have not enough background on Roky or the 13th Floor Elevators – sorry about that. But we are making up and will check! It’s a cool thing about touring: meeting new people and new cultures. Looking forward to Austin!
AC: When first exposed to Brutus through its new album, many of us were also introduced to you and the group by the live studio clip for “War.” Even after watching it dozens of times, I adore the reveal of the singer also being the drummer. Was that intentional from the outset, or did it simply occur during filming?
SM: The video turned out very good. It was never our intention to do a kind of reveal thing because for us it is not a thing. We forget the whole time that the drummer is also the singer.
”War” is a song that we tried out live very soon after it was written. It is always different when you only play a song in your rehearsal room and then record it, than when you give it time to evolve more by playing it live. That song came out pretty naturally.
And by that I mean that after the first part was written, we felt the need to make a more static second part that contained the complete opposite kind of energy. But when you have a slow, intimate beginning part and then a bold hardcore part, it was an evident choice for us to slow the whole song down and repeat some lines from the beginning – to make it a whole, not just an A and a B part.
AC: I’ve compared your voice to Björk, Dolores O’Riordan, and Sinead O’Connor. People have probably been trying to describe your voice for a long time. What’s that like – this thing you hear in your head and suddenly everyone is trying to capture its essence?
SM: Yes, I have heard comparisons before with Björk, Sinead, and Dolores. For people, it is easier to label. Like, I do it too. I can only take it as a compliment. Those women are great artists.
AC: Many voices travel through their family – genes, DNA. Whose voice did you partly inherit? Can you ascribe its origins?
SM: My granddad told me once I speak like my grandmother. Unfortunately, she passed away when I was 3. He tells me we are alike, but I only have one vague memory of her.
But playing music, I totally have that from my dad and my mother’s dad. They breath music. They play so good and I am very honored calling them my family. I don’t know where I would stand if it wasn’t for them or if I would have ever had the strength being on a stage. My family is very supportive.
AC: Your parents owned a music shop where you ran roughshod, so to speak. What, then, is the through line of music in your family?
SM: My mother's father was a full-time musician. He was a mason first, a very good craftsman, and he built so many houses. He also played the piano, accordion, and made music. He bought his first studio and started producing. Even Belgian punk bands recorded with him. He made a living out of writing music for other artists and played in many bands.
At a certain point, he had 300 gigs per year. Can you imagine? We play 95 and I am exhausted. His son, my uncle, is also a very good piano player.
My dad comes from a completely different background. At one time, he had seven jobs to survive. He played classical guitar, but he knew very early that he didn’t want to be on a stage. He wanted to make music for other artists. And at a certain point in his life, this was his main living.
He even went to Nashville for songwriting sessions. This is a big thing for a man, coming all the way from Belgium. I don’t have enough time to tell you everything, but they did pretty amazing stuff.
AC: You took up drums as a teen. Who were your early drum gods, and what do you look for in drummers as an adult?
SM: I started playing the drums when I was 14. In the beginning, you have no idea who are good drummers and who are okay. You listen to bands and not to drummers. The first years, I was too busy learning to keep time and try not to suck, haha.
I know a lot of people say this, but John Bonham is one of my favorite drummers. He looks like he never thinks. There is no brake ever on his forever-grooving beats. It just flows out. Every time you think like, “How is he going to get to the next part?,” he is already there, you know. It is a kind of drumming I will never master. He is great.
AC: Obviously you sing and play at the same time – not easy. What’s that process like for you and did you study other singing drummers?
SM: The process was basically, rehearsing, failing, trying, rehearse more, losing my voice, asking myself why I kept losing my voice, took a few lessons to warm up decently, rehearse more, failing less, and then do it all over again. It was later that I looked into Levon Helm. He was so chill the whole time. I was always a bit tensed. So I tried to take a few steps back. It is still a learning process.
AC: Descending into this year’s second Brutus album, Nest, I also listened to a lot to Burst, which sounds remarkably itself for a band’s first effort – like the band had its sound together from the start. What’s the evolution of the group and its sound from the first album to the second?
SM: The biggest difference is that we discussed the sound with Nest. WIth Burst, our only goal was, “Let’s track the songs as tight as possible. Let’s try to sing in tune. ”With Nest, we talked more about the sound and atmospheres instead of just capturing a tide take.