It's not all about serial killers...

May 2010

In a recent European Parliament debate UK Independence Party leader Nigel Farage lambasted the recently appointed President of the European Council, Herman Van Rompuy, a Belgian, saying that even in his own country had been branded 'the grey man'. Whatever one's personal views of the Belgium are (I happen to be a fan), it does has something of an image problem as being a tad dull, boring, nondescript even. Such labels most certainly could not be applied to one of its most successful exports: harsh electro act Suicide Commando. It's as if founder Johan Van Roy has taken up the mantel to single-handedly change the world's perception of Belgium as a boring country that makes good chocolate (very good chocolate mind); and he's made a pretty successful counter case so far.

Van Roy began playing around with electronic music under the name of Suicide Commando in 1986, releasing his first cassette three years later. In 1993 SC released their ninth (and last) tape "Electro Convulsion Therapy" and appeared live on stage for the first time - supporting one of their heroes - Plastic Noise Experience. Over the following decade he signed first to seminal German electronic label Off Beat and then scene leaders Dependent, licensed in the USA to Possessive Blindfold Recordings, then Metropolis.

Based on steady series of releases (including a fondness for remix EPs and special limited edition box set albums) and ever more global tours, Van Roy established a position at the forefront of the hard electronic/industrial music field, and earned a reputation as a focused and hard working artist. 2003 saw the worldwide release of the ambitious "Axis of Evil" album, which to date remains the best-selling Suicide Commando album. In 2005 Van Roy set up his own label Noise Terror Productions to release rising harsh electro artists. The 12th Suicide Comando album "Implements of Hell" has recently been released in Europe on the Out Of Line label and in North America via Metropolis. In spite a fixation on exploring the darkest aspects of life, in person Johan Van Roy is not the intense, unhinged or edgy maniac you might expect. We caught up with Van Roy recently and this is what we learned...

Suicide Commando promoDSO: Thanks for sparing the time to speak with dso | audio Johan - we appreciate it. You are one of the longest-running artists on the industrial/harsh electro scene. Has it felt like a slow, long journey or have the years passed quickly?
Oh, these years passed by so quickly, and the older one gets, the faster it seems to go, so I really can't believe I've been doing this for almost 25 years now. I still can remember how it all started as if it was yesterday. I still can recall how I got to buy my very first synth, the meanwhile legendary Roland SH101.

DSO: When you set out, you were inspired by artists outside the industrial genre but your style was hard and fast from the start. How did those non-industrial inspirations lead you to the early Suicide Commando sound?
I actually grew up with the new wave and cold wave scene, with bands like Sisters of Mercy, The Cure or Joy Division, so even though these bands were not really electronic bands, the spirit behind it was kind of the same, so it was only a small step for me to get into the electronic scene and start doing electronic music myself.

DSO: You self-released a number of cassettes starting in the late 1980s. Presumably, in those pre-internet years, that was the quickest way to get your music heard without signing to a label?
Indeed it was the quickest but also the easiest and cheapest way to spread your music around the world. In those days the tape scene was still pretty big and even some of the biggest bands of today started in the tape scene, Front Line Assembly to name just one of the big names. So in those days it was pretty common to release your works on tape. In some way you can compare it with the CDR's of today, only with much more limited possibilities.

DSO: How did the musical landscape appear to you at the time? Were you excited by it or reacting against a lack of excitement?
Coming from Belgium the electronic music scene in those days was pretty big and probably at its top over here with bands like Klinik, Front 242, The Neon Judgement… all gaining lots of success in Belgium and abroad, and somehow being the fathers of the EBM scene. Many of these bands even got airplay on national radio stations, something you really can't imagine anymore today. So for me it was a really interesting and exciting period and somehow I was lucky to be able to start in that period. It really helped me to gain attention pretty fast from abroad. I never had to search for any interested labels as they all came to me.

DSO: You supported Plastic Noise Experience fairly early in your career - that must have been something special at the time?
Oh yes it certainly was, as PNE was a pretty big name in those days, so for me it was pretty impressive to be their support act. For me it really was a dream becoming true.

DSO: Did you find it easy or difficult to write music and lyrics in those formative years?
Well, I actually started as an instrumental project, so I only started to include vocals pretty late. My first demo tapes were mainly instrumental, apart from some short vocal loop samples … I only started to incorporate vocals shortly before I started doing live shows, so somewhere in the early nineties. At first I really didn't feel at ease singing on my songs as I never really felt as a "real" singer. I'm aware my vocal capabilities are really limited, so it took me quite some time to make that step. Furthermore English isn't my native language which kind of limits my writing possibilities as well, but I think I managed pretty well after all.

DSO: Has your process to song and lyric writing changed much during your career? If so how?
The basics might have stayed the same, but especially the technological way of working did change drastically over all these years. When I started doing music computers were still as good as non existing, so everything had to be done with real synths and very limited means, it was only in the mid nineties (with my second album Stored Images) that I started doing music on a computer (an Atari) before really changing onto PC with the Axis of Evil album in 2002. Today I'm having a really mixed set up with still a lot of hardware stuff but also a lot of software and soft synths.

Suicide Commando promoDSO: You've always had a taste for EPs, remixes, limited editions and box sets. You're possibly the most prolific artist in that respect on the entire scene. With niche genre labels barely ever breaking even, how on earth have you managed to pull off so many these kinds of releases when there is so little money to fund such ideas?
Well, fact is that if you're willing to survive in these days with CD sales still dropping constantly, you have to look for alternative possibilities to still sell your products, and one of those few possibilities is offering the people something extra, in the means of special packagings, extra bonus material, special merchandise items… try to convince those few people who still are interested in buying music with offering them something special or extra which you can't download from the net. It's one of the few ways to survive in my opinion. It already has been proven that lowering the CD prices for example doesn't really bring much more sales. Sure these special packagings and stuff costs a lot and only make sense for the bigger bands, but it's one of the few possibilities to keep our head above the water and don't drown.

DSO: The subject of serial killers features repeatedly and frequently across your career, and your new album revisits the topic yet again. What is it about the topic that you find so fascinating that you can derive so much material from the subject?
First, to put things clear, Implements of Hell is not just another album about serial killers, as apart from the title and a few songs the album is not dealing about serial killers at all, but also deals about other issues like religion, suicide, sexual perversion, death, hate and envy… so there's a lot more to it. But indeed the album title refers to another notorious serial killer Albert Fish, who used to call his instruments/tools he used to brutally violate and kill his victims his Implements of Hell. Compared to Albert Fish, Dennis Rader (aka the BTK killer) was just a pussy. Anyhow, what fascinates me most about serial killers is their psychological background, what makes a man become a serial killer, what drives them to such acts, what is going on in their mind when they brutally violate or kill their victims… that sort of things really fascinates me. Also the fact that many serial killers seem to be people with high IQ's and in normal life seem to be extremely normal, can become such monsters is really fascinating.

DSO: Musical genres all have their traits and harsh electro focuses on lot on the darker aspects of everyday life. Are you concerned about repeating yourself or coming across as predictable by covering the whole serial killer thing so often?
Like I just said, Implements of Hell isn't just another album about serial killers. It indeed would have been too easy to do just another album about serial killers, as frankly, the list of fascinating serial killier stories is almost endless. So apart from the album title and two songs on the entire album and bonus material, this album is dealing with lots of other issues. Furthermore I've been in the scene for such a long time and did so many releases that it isn't exactly easy to come up with new topics that never has been used or abused before. I'm also not interested in writing lyrics that are useless and just a collection of hollow words, I rather write about something concrete than using a thousand hollow words that many bands tend to do saying nothing in the end. If you look at my lyrics across the years you'll notice that many of them have a real message and really tell something, for example a song like Die Motherfucker Die or Hate Me has a lot more to say than you might think at first sight, but it seems that some people don't really take the time and effort anymore to listen to things properly.

DSO: You may hate me for asking this question, but which of the artists you signed for your Noise Terror Productions label were you most excited by?
Almost anything released on Noise Terror Productions were personal friends and favorites of myself, so really hard to say. But I think Dioxyde probably was my personal favorite, not only because Marco is a really good friend, but also his music was simply great in my opinion.

DSO: Was there anyone in particular you were surprised hasn't had more success?
Insekt probably as they once were one of the biggest names around and easily sold thousands of CD's, but their last album on NTP already suffered a lot from the decline of the CD market. I guess I started NTP few years too late.

DSO: Are you much of an arts/culture fan? What do you like to do to relax?
Not really, simply because of my lack of time, being a full time daddy now there's hardly any time left to relax or discover new and interesting things.

Suicide Commando promoDSO: Can we find out a few of your favourite things:

Musical artist? Probably old Klinik, would buy anything from them blind … hoping for a new Klinik (with Dirk on vocals) album to come soon!

Film? No real favourite … Some which I liked are Saw 1, The Lord of the Rings, The Machinist, The Matrix, Hannibal, The Silence of the Lambs, Red Dragon, Ed Gein.

Food? French fries with steak

Place on earth? Home sweet home!

Period in history? Didn't really experience them, but guess the sixties must have been revolutionary … Favourite period I experienced probably were the eighties.

Season? Summer, I hate winter.

TV show? Hardly watch any TV shows …

Sport? Probably cycling.

DSO: To what do you attribute your longevity and success?
I think one of the trademarks of Suicide Commando always has been that typical Suicide Commando sound, a simple but catchy lead sequence which makes my songs easy to remember and recognizable. You can use a million different sounds and do complex songs, use a thousand drum breaks or whatever, if it's not recognizable and if it doesn't stick in your memory, it will be lost instantly. If you look at my biggest hits most of them will have an easy, simple but recognizable lead sequence. I guess I'm one of the few bands around today who offered so many club hits and have been so present in the clubs during the last decade.

DSO: How long did it take you to write "Implements of Hell"? And how does that compare with the rest of your albums?
My last real album Bind, Torture, Kill was released in 2006, the X20 box in 2007, so you could say three years, but in reality I wrote most songs in about one year. I however did spent a lot more time into the production and mixing of this album, compared to the others.

DSO: I think "Implements of Hell" is, creatively speaking, one of your strongest works to date. That's impressive so many years down the line. Did you approach writing this album any differently to previous ones?
No, not really, but since many things did change in my private life in the last few years, I guess some of those experiences did influence my work considerably. In the last few years I for example lost my father who died suddenly in 2006, I broke up with my former girlfriend, I got married and meanwhile also became daddy. I'm sure these things all had their influence on my state of mind and probably influenced my musical works as well.

DSO: Which tracks are you most satisfied with on the new album and why?
Pretty easy, I like all of them. If I wouldn't be satisfied with any of them, I wouldn't have recorded them in the first place, it's as simple as that for me. I never finish any songs which I'm not 100% satisfied or convinced about.

DSO: Do you write constantly and then think about pulling like-minded songs together into an album or is the process more pre-meditated, i.e. to you have a concept in your mind that you then sit down an dedicate time to creating?
For me music has all to do with feelings and emotions, and therefore music has to be a spontaneous process, so I basically never make any plans upfront. Things have to come spontaneously and without any restrictions. So things come as they are.

DSO: What are the best and worst aspects of being Suicide Commando?
Some of the best aspects of being Suicide Commando are the many supportive words and reactions you get from your fans, if someone writes you how much your music or lyrics mean to him/her, if someone writes how my music or lyrics helped him/her to get through difficult times or keep him/her from committing suicide - such things really move me. Suicide Commando also gave me the chance and opportunity to visit many places and people in Europe and around the world. Places or people you never would have been able to meet or visit when I didn't do music. So I'm really thankful for that. Worst aspects of being Suicide Commando? Don't know, I guess with success also comes the haters who just like to bash on me for whatever reasons. Fortunately this is only a very small minority, but it sure saddens me when people feel the urge to attack me without even knowing me personally. I have no problems when people write constructive and objective criticism about me, but it's so easy to anonymously bash on someone on the internet for whatever silly reasons.

DSO: When you choose to stop writing and recording or when you die - whichever comes first - how would you like to be remembered?
I guess I had the privilege of being an influence and example for many new artists of today, so in a way my music already became immortal and will live on in the music of many other bands, so I think Suicide Commando already left a small foot mark in the history of this scene, so in some way I always will be remembered, and I'm really happy and proud that I achieved this all.

See also:

Music Reviews - Suicide Commando
Gig Reviews - Suicide Commando