An interview with
Daniel Denis (2000)
By Beppe Colli
Aug. 9, 2005

"Group reforms after long hiatus, new album disappoints". A familiar story, right? So I wasn't really expecting much when I heard that one of my favourite groups of the (70s/80s) Rock In Opposition panorama, Univers Zero, was about to record a new album after more than a decade had passed since we had last heard of them. Though for the most part fans of the group declared themselves happy - some among them finding my review of The Hard Quest (1999) too much on the harsh side - I wasn't too pleased with the results. Mind you, the group had not gone "commercial". But what had once sounded new and vital now sounded mannered, even a bit sterile.

So I thought that an interview with the group's main composer (and primus inter pares), drummer Daniel Denis, was in order. The interview took place in February, 2000. I sent my questions - in English - via e-mail, to Cuneiform; they kindly forwarded my questions to Daniel Denis, via fax. Denis sent his answers - in French - to the fax machine of a friend of mine, who came to my home carrying a few meters of paper - with handwritten prose! Fortunately the calligraphy was quite clear (not to mention elegant: I was later told by Denis that it was his wife's handwriting), and so I found no particular difficulties when dealing with the text. After clarifying a few points by telephone (and so discovering that his spoken English was miles better than my spoken French), I translated the interview, which appeared in the issue # 22, March 2000, of the Italian magazine Blow Up. This is the first time that the English translation (by yours truly: not very elegant, I'm afraid, but faithful) appears anywhere.

In the time elapsed since the interview came out, the group released two more albums: Rhythmix (2002) and Implosion (2004). Neither of them could be regarded as "bad", but what I considered a somewhat sterile, mechanized feel was here to stay. (On the other hand, a friend of mine who saw the group on stage last year told me they were in top form.) Of course, the first album I'd suggest as required listening to newcomers is still Ceux Du Dehors. But the re-release (2001) of the long-deleted Crawling Wind EP, now with some added goodies (say, a live version of Thriomphe Des Mouches) alongside the old masterpieces (say, Central Belgium In The Dark) could be a serious contender.

In the stylistically quite varied panorama which we usually put under the umbrella name of Rock In Opposition the recorded output of the Belgian group Univers Zero is worth a special mention: here is a music that's original right from the instrumentation used by the group (oboe, bassoon, violin, keyboards, very agile drums), plus very meticulous and complex compositions which are often characterized by a dark, oppressive atmosphere. To enter their world is by no means difficult, all the group's records being easily available on CD - a format that has been of great benefit to their first two albums, which now lack the extra amount of darkness added by vinyl. Of course, it's at this point that somebody, having read the list of the instruments used by the group, could doubt the "Rock" label (though "In Opposition"). Which needs a (brief) clarification.

The three most important names for this story (which mainly deals with the creation of a European music, even though a USA appendix would follow some time later) are those of Faust (Germany), Henry Cow (UK) and Magma (France). Behind them, the musical explosion of the 60s - Frank Zappa and Captain Beefheart in the USA, the Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd and Soft Machine in the UK, jazz innovators such as John Coltrane and Sun Ra, and the influence of classical composers (check the influence of Stravinskij and Orff on Magma). In the 70s the goal was the creation of a music that was a kind of "rock" (timbres, electrification, studio work) that looked explicitly to the national heritage of the groups, many of which started singing in their national language instead of the usual English. All this took place for many years in countries such as France, Italy, Belgium, Sweden, Germany - not to mention some Eastern Europe countries.

A drummer, keyboard player and self-taught composer, Daniel Denis is a musician whose background is typical of those times: at the end of the 60s he performs tracks by Hendrix and Cream, explores odd time signatures in a group called Arkham, is part - as the second drummer - of a few concerts played by Christian Vander's Magma (a big influence), and then forms - with Roger Trigaux and Guy Segers - the group Necronomicon, whose name will change to Univers Zero. Theirs is a very passionate music - with lots of control on form. Their first two albums - 1313 ('77) and Heresie ('79) - see the participation of excellent instrumental personalities such as Patrick Hanappier on violin, Michel Berckmans on oboe and bassoon, and the drums played by Denis, while Roger Trigaux is more important as composer (and keyboard player on the group's second album) than as guitarist. Ronde (on the first album) and La Faulx (on the second) are good examples from that period, with their slow and careful development. After Trigaux leaves and keyboardist Andy Kirk comes aboard, a superior compositional maturation, a perfect ensemble feel, an impressive sense of aggression (and a recording of crystal-clear beauty) all make Ceux Du Dehors ('81) an album that goes straight into the history of rock - from the 12' of the opening track, Dense, to the appropriate vocals of La Corne Du Bois Des Pendus, to the improvisation of La Musique D'Erich Zann, to the Segers-penned closing track, La Tete Du Corbeau. The CD re-release adds an excellent trio piece, Triomphe Des Mouches, which had originally appeared on a limited-edition single.

(Trigaux will form the group Present; their (quite good) first two albums - whose music is not that far from the mother-group (Denis is on drums) - are Triskaidekaphobie ('80) and Le Poison Qui Rend Fou ('85), now available on one CD. C.O.D. Performance ('93) is really ugly, while Live! ('96) sees the participation of the excellent US progressive drummer Dave Kerman (5 uu's, Thinking Plague), and Certitudes ('98) reunites the Denis/Segers rhythmic axis but (to my ears, at least) cannot avoid sounding tired and overly mannered.)

After a maxi-single called Crawling Wind ('83), yet to be re-released, Uzed ('84) presents many changes. No more oboe and violin, we have Dirk Desceemaeker on clarinets and saxophone, Andre Mergen on cello and Jean-Luc Plouvier on keyboards. There are those who consider this sonic dimension as being inferior to the one that precedes it, and yes, it's less "dry", but for this writer the compositions that appear on the album show a convincing evolution by Denis, and they sound well-served by the new instrumental colours. Heatwave ('87) is the last chapter of the story; Kirk and Hanappier are back, a guitar is added; Chinavox is a convincing brief episode, Bruit Dans Les Murs is worth the price of the record, while Heatwave is typical of their style, while maybe the track penned by Kirk, The Funeral Plain, takes too much time to say what it has to say.

"Not a big commercial success" is a nice euphemism. A look at the year of the original releases will immediately highlight the "out of step" quality of this music. A music that in order to sound really alive necessitates of a well-rehearsed collective made of strong individuals.

Denis records two solo albums - Sirius And The Ghosts ('91) and Les Eaux Troubles ('93) - and continues his collaboration with the French group Art Zoyd - a collaboration which had started in the previous decade. The Hard Quest ('99) is an album that has been judged quite differently by the fans of the group, some among them having regarded my review (see Blow Up #19) as being too harsh. It was at this point that I decided to talk to Denis himself (by the way, he told me that this is his first Italian interview). Since both his spoken English and my spoken French are not that fantastic, I sent him my written questions in English, while he wrote back in French... et voila!

A new album by Univers Zero, thirteen years after Heatwave... it's a big surprise! For me the first unexpected event had been your participation to the Present album titled Certitudes - alongside Roger Trigaux and Guy Segers - quite a long time after Triskaidekaphobie and Le Poison Qui Rend Fou. So: Would you mind talking about the way you came to the decision to reform the group?

The fact that I played on Certitudes is not by any means a surprise. When, after some years of absence, he reformed Present, Roger asked me to be again a part of the group; but it wasn't my intention to participate as actively as I had in the past, and so Roger asked for the contribution of Dave Kerman, who has taken my place. With the passing of time it became very clear to me that Roger and I don't share the same point of view about what to do. So I've ended my collaboration with him.

I have to admit that for a long time it had been my intention to release an album under the name Univers Zero. I think that the initial impulse was the fact that one day Michel Berckmans called me and asked me to work together again (without making any reference to Univers Zero). I've always believed that Michel, with his use of the instruments that he played, was a big part of the sound of Univers Zero in their early period. This was a crucial factor for me to compose again for those acoustic instruments and to find again the atmosphere of the group in its early period, while adding to it, from time to time, some elements of sampled sounds. At the time when there had been an attempt made to reform Univers Zero - this was in 1996, together with Segers and Kirk - I came to the conclusion that we were following a wrong path, and that that line-up had been assembled in a way that was too superficial. That group was not the real Univers Zero. So I chose to stop everything after only one concert - the one that took place at the Victoriaville Festival, in Canada.

The new line-up features some former members of Univers Zero - Michel Berckmans and Dirk Descheemaeker - Reginald Trigaux from Present, and Igor Semenoff (from...?). What were the reasons for your decision to choose those specific players?

When it comes to Michel, I've already explained to you the circumstances in which it took place. The compositions that I had in mind for the record had been composed for bassoon, oboe, clarinet and violin; I immediately thought about Dirk Descheemaeker, an exceptional musician with whom I always collaborate with great joy. Dirk is also a member of a Belgian ensemble which plays contemporary music called Ictus. Jean-Luc Plouvier and Igor Semenoff are also members of that group. Igor's name was mentioned to me by Michel Berckmans, and Igor immediately declared himself available. I was very glad about this. About Reginald, some circumstances contributed to the fact that he was available to play all the bass parts. I knew that he was very conscientious, and willing to do that job. He's a very gifted musician, and I'm sorry that he doesn't "escape" from his father's musical world a bit more often, and that he doesn't have many occasions to explore different musical horizons with other musicians.

If I compare the tracks that appear on The Hard Quest to those featured on previous Univers Zero albums I find that, with the exception of Xenantaya, they are all quite brief... Is there a specific reason for your preferring shorter tracks?

I think that more and more I'm interested in very brief compositions that try to express what is essential in a very short time. I'm not attracted to long developments anymore. I really believe that long durations are absolutely necessary when one's intention is to build a certain climate or an obsessive tension through repetition but this was not what I had in mind for this record. Instead, I think that the concept of duration is better suited to the concert framework. The "live" dimension is better suited to develop those climates a bit longer, and so helping the audience to better understand this music.

When one listens to a new album by a group that has given us so much in the past, one cannot avoid comparing it to those things that were released in the past; I think that on The Hard Quest the tracks offer a lot less instrumental interplay than in the past, and so from this point of view they are more similar to tracks that appeared on your solo albums, such as Sirius And The Ghosts. I mean, to me it sounds like the compositions were put together through computer sequencing, and then the players performed their parts separately, at a later stage...

Well, it's obvious that the work on The Hard Quest is totally different from what was done on those previous albums by Univers Zero. At that time the group really existed, and in the case of the majority of the tracks, concerts and group rehearsals made it possible for the compositions to evolve till full maturation. It was only at that stage that we entered the studio.

For The Hard Quest, the opposite happened. I prepared the work beforehand, up to the tiniest details. The qualities of the musicians that appear on the album were absolutely crucial for the music, since they were able to get their parts very quickly.

My big moment of panic came when I got to know of the refusal of the financial help that I had asked to the Ministry Of The French Community Of Belgium - this, right at the time when the recording sessions had started! At that point, it was thanks to the support of Steve Feigenbaum from Cuneiform and of Gerard Hourbette (from Art Zoyd Studio) that I managed to finish the album with a certain degree of serenity.

If you don't mind, I'd like to go back in time a bit. In 1978, together with Henry Cow, Stormy Six, Etron Fou Leloublan and Samla Mammas Manna, Univers Zero were part of the first Rock In Opposition Festival, which was held in London. What do you remember about that experience? In his book File Under Popular, Chris Cutler wrote: "they divided the audience more than any other group". May I ask you why?

Though the idea of Rock In Opposition was a bit too political in my view, nonetheless it was a good idea in order to make all those groups having some aspects in common get in touch with each other, and to give them the opportunity to get out of their geographical borders. I can't seem to remember whether Univers Zero were especially appreciated in London. It's possible that the audience was seduced by the performance of a group which was very coherent, and that this was also due to the originality of a music that presented an instrumentation that was highly unconventional. Without a doubt, we were very motivated to play a concert in London - a concert that I really believe to have been one of the first concerts that the group played outside Belgium.

(Since a long time had passed since the aforementioned historical event, I asked Chris Cutler about it, and he answered thus: "Maybe because they seemed to be making more of a statement than any of the other groups? Austere compositions, all dressed in black, rather ominous, insistent performance...)

The music of Univers Zero has always possessed a very strong personality - here I could use words such as: tense, intense, dark. If I'm not mistaken, the group's first name was Necronomicon. I'd like to ask you about the way you see the relationship between your compositions and the pictorical and visual elements they evoke. Sometimes this relationship is quite specific - for instance, I'm thinking about La Musique D'Erich Zann, on Ceux Du Dehors (and also the title of the album?), or Bruit Dans Les Murs, on Heatwave - a long time ago I read this story, and in my opinion the composition follows the story in a very specific way...

During a certain period, literature, painting and other forms of art which referred to the fantastic, the occult and symbolism were of great inspiration for me in my compositions, and in the same way I was very interested in the way people of the Middle Ages conceived the arts, such as architecture, furnishings and so on. So I tried to work making references to these forms of the spirit.

About La Musique D'Erich Zann, while we were in the studio to record Ceux Du Dehors, my idea was to play a short improvised piece based upon the story by Lovecraft. Since the story is quite brief, I asked each member of the group to read it very carefully. As soon as everybody had read it, we immediately recorded the track.

But what about Bruit Dans Les Murs, wasn't it inspired by another story by Lovecraft?

No... the title refers to ghost stories... you know, where tables move, and presences pass through walls... I was looking for a title for the composition, and this is what came to my mind.

It's strange, because I read this story some time ago - in Italian language it has the same title as the track - and to me it sounded like the development of the story was mirrored by the composition...

No, I don't know this story, it's just a coincidence... Do you know The Seventh Seal, the Bergman movie? When I saw it I was shocked by its similarity to our track called La Faulx, on Heresie - do you remember it?

I was listening to it just this morning... By the way, what's the meaning of La Faulx? On my dictionary I found La Faux , which I believe to mean The Scythe...

Yes, it's old French.

Where does the name Univers Zero come from?

The name comes from a collection of stories by a Belgian author, Jacques Sternderg; they are not really science fiction stories, but they are more similar to science fiction than fantasy.

If I remember correctly, I read somewhere that you've been influenced by a Belgian composer...

Yes, Albert Huybrechts... he died in '38... '39... he's not that well-known.

I'd like to ask you something about the role of keyboard instruments in the new Univers Zero line-up: on Ceux Du Dehors the keyboards were played by Andy Kirk, on Uzed by Jean-Luc Plouvier, on Heatwave by both - in this respect, Heatwave was the album on which the keyboards and the timbral research had the most prominent role. You played keyboards on the new album, who'll play your parts live?

I played all the keyboard parts elaborating and modifying them on my computer (which I mostly use as a tape recorder). The sounds were later remodeled and reworked in the studio, and they worked as a base to which the other instruments were added. So every one of us played his parts separately in different periods of the recording work. I have to say that we've never played all together, as an ensemble, on the previous Univers Zero albums, either. The drums were very often recorded last. This made it possible for me to refine my parts with the most desirable precision in relation to the music, and this made me free to change certain elements at the last possible moment.

Up to this moment, the Univers Zero of The Hard Quest don't exist outside of that album. Right now I'm not even sure whether in the foreseeable future Univers Zero will play live.

My initial intention was to release a new CD and so start a new series of concerts. But all this needs financial means that at the moment aren't there, an efficient and courageous management, and musicians willing to donate their time.

To this, add endless financial problems and the lack of recognition in one's country. It's a lot of things, all at the same time.

I'd like to ask you a couple of questions about the drums: in an old interview which appeared on the French magazine Notes you said that at the time when you first started playing you liked the Jimi Hendrix Experience (with Mitch Mitchell), Cream, and Syd Barrett-era Pink Floyd. In the same interview you mentioned King Crimson's Mike Giles, Tony Williams, Christian Vander, John French (Drumbo) from Captain Beefheart's Magic Band, Robert Wyatt and Vinnie Colaiuta from Frank Zappa's band. Would you mind talking about the way you arrived at your personal drumming style, so propulsive and yet at the same time not too distant from a percussionist of a classical orchestra?

All those drummers that I mentioned convinced me that the drums were much more than a rhythm machine, which is the way they have been too often used in most cases in today's music. Drums are a complete instrument, and they can be an endless source of melodic and rhythmic creativity. It's mostly the spirit, the energy and the intelligence of the drummer that are essential.

Integrating the drums into the music that I compose has never been easy for me - and it's not now. Curiously, I never think about the drums in the first place. And this could be one of the reasons why sometimes I use the drums with a concept that's quite similar to orchestral percussions. I'm very careful, and I pay a lot of attention not to mask the harmonies and subtle colours of the acoustic instruments with a drum assault whose effect would only be of levelling all the nuances. My personal language when it comes to the drums has changed with the passing of time, with my work and with the changing of the music. But I always feel like I am still a rock drummer, even if this is not so apparent anymore. On the other hand, I hope to assemble a guitar, bass and drums trio, and to revisit that rock and jazz style from the 60s and 70s.

In the Rock In Opposition panorama there were many excellent drummers: Hans Bruniusson (Samla Mammas Manna), Guigou Chenevier (Etron Fou Leloublan), Charles Hayward (This Heat, Camberwell Now), J. Pippin Barnett (Curlew, Nimal)... Who, in your opinion, is doing good work today?

I have to admit that when it comes to contemporary music I really don't listen to a lot, so I'm not really au courant of the route of certain drummers.

I really appreciated the work of Charles Hayward with This Heat and Camberwell Now, and also his first solo CD. (I've never heard the other albums he's done.)

In this respect, I'm really saddened by the death of Tony Williams, whom I consider the best drummer ever.

Today, rhythm is incredibly important in music. What's your opinion when it comes to genres such as drum'n'bass and techno?

They are of an incredibly poor quality, as is always the case with anything that's manufactured in order to make money.

It's something that has more in common with collective brutalization than with a so-called dance music.

It's like the endless stream of advertisings on TV. It's one of the best ways to put people to sleep.

Do you have other personal projects outside Univers Zero?

I continue my collaboration with Art Zoyd, as an electronic percussionist, and this year many projects will be realized. For the third year in a row, we are about to start our collaboration between Art Zoyd and the Symphonic Orchestra of Lille, which is called Dangereuses Vision III: three concerts featuring original works created for both symphony orchestra and Art Zoyd; there will also be other compositions - last year, for instance, a composition by Heiner Goebbels was also performed. Gerard Hourbette from Art Zoyd does a very interesting work in the field of the new technologies: Art Zoyd have been for a long time a landmark in this field, and his projects are based almost completely on the fusion of an orchestra and of an elaborate electronic element, sometimes with the addition of video images. It's also possible that in the future I will be invited to contribute my compositions to Art Zoyd.

© Beppe Colli 2000 - 2005 | Aug. 9, 2005