Best known for his work with Belgian rockers dEUS, Tom Barman has thrown himself into the jazz world in the past few years with TaxiWars, an eclectic troupe that fuses jazz, alt-rock, hip-hop, poetry and anything else they can get their mitts on. Punchy, upbeat and shot through with sharp wit, their second record Fever has taken the original blueprints of the band and fleshed them out into one of the most infectious albums of the year. We caught up with Barman as he was heading to a DJ set to discuss the past and future of TaxiWars and his own jazz obsession.
Congratulations on the album, it’s fantastic stuff. What were the origins of TaxiWars? Jazz has always seemed to be a natural fit with you but what made you decide to take it in this direction?
It was an idea I had four or five years ago where I was compiling a couple of jazz CDs for labels like Impulse and Blue Note, so I was really immersed in that music. I just got the idea of maybe one day singing with a classical jazz trio setup – saxophone, stand-up bass, drums – and just be the singer, or the rapper or talker, crooner, whatever. I had known the manager of Robin Verheyen for a long time and he got us together. We talked, I told Robin this idea and he did a saxophone session in the studio with Magnus. I just gave a couple of short descriptions – I wanted the songs to be not too long, I wanted it to be punchy, it should be danceable – basically, it should be energetic and fun. We took it from there, started composing and put out an album last year and then we toured, played many shows, and then made a second album a year and a half later. That’s more or less how it went.
What were your thoughts on the initial sessions and how do you compare it to the chemistry that you have nowadays?
Man, it’s different because here, we’re talking about how Robin brings in 20-25 compositions – those are not structured, or really songs, but they have melody, key changes and whatever. We play them with the band and I’m running around with my iPad, seeing if I can find an entry or a melody or something to sing, and then when I connect with it I just take it to the studio and start structuring it or looping it, turning it more into songs, and then we play it. Basically, there’s not a lot of jamming. It’s playing those structures as I’ve made them, or playing the compositions as Robin has written them. Compared to the rest of the stuff I do with dEUS, everything comes together really quickly; there’s very little time to overthink it. It’s very raw and direct, and I guess subconsciously that was something I was looking for – a way of making albums where you don’t lose a year and a half of your life. The energy in the studio is typically the virtuosity on the instruments. They can adapt quickly, the can read your signs quickly, change speed or tempo… it’s that kind of routine jazz virtuosity, which is great. When I play with a rock band like dEUS it’s more trashy and straight away you look for melodies, and it takes much longer but with the structures or songs being more or less written out, these guys play them straight away.
Did you make an effort to bring elements of what you had done with dEUS into this, like going for those shorter, punchier pieces?
I didn’t need to try or want to do that, I think it came very naturally. This is a thing that I really like to do – I’m not tied to a guitar, I don’t have to play samples or what-not, I just have to sing, and listen to those compositions and find something, and that’s something I really enjoy doing. Mostly with dEUS I am very involved with the songwriting and here it is mostly just structuring and finding a way in. The only thing I have to worry about is my vocal, and that I very refreshing and a lot of fun to do, but it’s not that far out of my comfort zone, if that’s what you mean. Over the years with dEUS, I liked to sing, I like to have melody but I like to half-talk it also, parlando, shout once in a while, so it’s not too different; it’s just a different source, that’s all.
As far as the lyrics themselves, what were your intentions with Fever?
With the first album, I was very much inspired by the name of the band, TaxiWars. It made me think, “Why did we choose that name for the band?” You have taxis, which are a metropolitan thing, they bring you to a place that most of the time you have never been to. You can have conversations in taxis, you can have flirting, you can have fights; they can bring you to an awful place, they can bring you to a great place. For the first album, it was all about being on the road. It was stories from 20 years of being on the road, little anecdotes or atmospheres that I remembered. For the second one, I could milk that but I’d rather just listen to the music and let that dictate it. It’s very personal, and sometimes it’s quite anecdotal; the song “Fever” itself, I wasn’t feeling too good when I was writing the lyrics. I was feverish and there you go. Of course, I tried to transform it into something lyrical. These days, it doesn’t take a lot for me to be inspired, just something I read in the paper, something somebody shouts; a good title and I’m off. I wouldn’t say there’s a recurring theme, it’s just me reacting to those melodies or rhythms that Robin has given me.
“It’s very raw and direct, and I guess subconsciously that was something I was looking for – a way of making albums where you don’t lose a year and a half of your life. The energy in the studio is typically the virtuosity on the instruments.”
It’s an interesting point you made about taxi journeys, as everyone has had those one or two surreal experiences that they always remember. Are there any in particular that stand out to you?
[laughs] Well, on the first album there is one on the song called “Let’s Get Killed”. It was on tour with the guys from Placebo, Snow Patrol and Oasis in Bangkok. This was just us trying to get to this fucking afterparty, with Gary from Snow Patrol, and this taxi driver didn’t have a fucking clue. We were driving and driving, and Gary was losing his patience. It was about to turn ugly, and then we arrive at the party, which was only guys, and Ian Brown from The Stone Roses, who also played, was standing on a table threatening everybody because he thought that someone had stolen his shades. So we arrive after this awful drive to this party and there’s no music, Ian Brown is in a tantrum, and apparently he just misplaced his shades – they were right behind him on a table. It was just the most anticlimactic ride ever.
Obviously, you guys play a lot of jazz festivals but you’ve said you prefer more rock-oriented crowds…
I like both but as long as it’s not for a seated audience. Just recently I tried to get into a jazz gig of the drummer from TaxiWars, a very talented young man called Antoine Pierre, and he makes his own compositions with his own band, and I couldn’t fucking get in! They just locked the door after the set started, and it was like theatre – you couldn’t get in if you were five minutes late! I said to myself that it’s no wonder they are scaring people off, there is just this elitist, serious vibe about it which is just unnecessary, especially if you look at the roots of jazz, which was completely not the case – it was danceable, fun and energetic music. I don’t care where I play but just don’t let them sit down because seated audiences, I don’t like that. We want people to dance.
You often find from talking to people from other musical backgrounds that the barrier into jazz is a very real obstacle. Do you see TaxiWars as an effort to combat that, and perhaps draw people in who wouldn’t necessarily be part of any jazz ‘scene’?
Our ambition is not so high-minded, don’t exaggerate it, but once we’re touring, we will make sure that people are having a good time. A lot of my friends came down and were like, “Oh my God, Tom’s got a jazz thing. What the fuck?” Then they see it and realise they didn’t think jazz could be so fun. There’s a lot of prejudice so I wouldn’t say it’s our mission to do that, but if we can do it on the way then yeah, that’s great. I think in Belgium, there are a couple of bands right now who are doing that and on the world stage, even, so maybe we are a part of this tree of bands who wanted to bring something else, and to show that this is exciting music and can be pretty rock & roll, if you want.
Where do your own tastes in jazz lie? With the inclusion of things like hip-hop, I get a bit of and ‘80s Miles Davis vibe there.
Possibly, but I’m not so certain how the rest of the guys are. Lots of people hear different stuff via different people here. I was very inspired also by Serge Gainsbourg and a great band from the 90s which was shamefully overlooked called MC 900 Foot Jesus, which was dark lyrics over very groovy music, hip-hop samples and saxophone, stand-up bass. Soul Coughing is also another example. Everybody brings his own material – our bass player used to play with Toots Thielemans but he also plays funk, and our drummer is a young musician so he’s also listening to Radiohead as much as Rihanna, as well as good R’n’B and hip-hop. At the same time, there is this variety of influences but these guys were all raised in the real jazz schools and clubs, so that’s an interesting energy.
What about your own experiences with jazz? Has it always been a large part of your life?
Actually, I discovered it when the first samplers came out and were affordable, and I just wanted to steal grooves or sounds. Round the corner in Antwerp we had the mediatheek, which was basically a library where you could take out vinyl, and there you had the greatest selection of jazz. That’s how I learned that jazz was something I actually liked, and I think my introduction was Don Cherry with all those great records from the ‘70s and ‘80s; the live records were just amazing. I loved the energy and the freedom of it, songs of 25 or 27 minutes that weren’t dull, that were intellectual but exciting! That was my introduction and I just kept on buying it, discovering and then I did the compilations in 2005, 2010, where got to listen a whole lot of Impulse and Blue Note and it’s almost always on at home. It’s the only stuff I listen to at home because I don’t need too much vocal music in the morning, I prefer instrumental music. I wouldn’t say I’m a complete fanatic but it’s a big part of my life. There’s also some instrumentals we play where I just go take a seat and smoke a cigarette at the side of the stage, see those guys play and that’s equally fun for me – just to see the three-piece play without me. I guess I’m in an ideal situation where I can join in once in a while and be a spectator also.
Apart from TaxiWars, what else are you working on these days? Will there be anything from dEUS coming up, or any other projects?
I’m preparing my second film, so a lot of this year is spent writing in my home, which is not as exciting but I hope it’s going to be a good film. That will be for 2018, and with dEUS we’re going to get together again in February to start writing parts of a soundtrack for that film and part of a new album. Basically, my time is now divided between doing that and the TaxiWars tour which is through England, France, Belgium, Holland and Portugal next month. Next year will be mostly TaxiWars playing live and studio dEUS. Basically, it’s shifting between different projects and I’m sure a lot of stuff from TaxiWars’ way of working will have an influence on our next dEUS. Maybe have a more direct approach and spend less time in the studio building songs and more time composing them. Everything is always a reaction to the previous thing so I really feel like using the TaxiWars experience for the next dEUS material.