‘Click Interview’ with Pro Patria: ‘You Had To Feel The Pain’
Belgian formation Pro Patria has been set up by Peter Vercauteren (PVC). The band was mainly active during the 80s and rapidly became one of the most promising EBM formations from that time. As Peter explains, ‘the name Pro Patria was simply a coincidence of things; perhaps we were unconsciously influenced by the SA42-song at the time, but personally I was also obsessed with Latin, which also showed in many of the early songs’. Unfortunately things went the other way round, Pro Patria never broke through and finally stopped all activities. More than 15 years later Pro Patria was asked to play live again and Peter Vercauteren finally decided to reactivate the project. The self-released album “Back To Basics” reveal a passionate and retro-like EBM, which brought me to get in touch with Peter.
(Courtesy by Inferno Sound Diaries / pics with kind permission of Jirka Blumenthal and Uwe Rudolph)
Q: Can you first of all remind us how Pro Patria saw the daylight and how did you get ‘contaminated’ by the EBM-virus?
Peter: Pro Patria saw the daylight halfway the eighties because of a friend who wanted to create a band and needed someone who could play keys. After a bumpy start, I gradually took control of the project and steered away from the original, funky-commercial intention. I had always been attracted by synths and electronic music and had become a great fan of Front 242, Skinny Puppy and other bands that had laid the foundations of EBM. When Nitzer Ebb opened the Depeche Mode tour, back in 1988, the whole audience was speechless… it was something that I’d never witnessed before because usually the support act gets booed at or people chuck pints of beer at them. Here they were all in shock, too overwhelmed to even speak a word! It brought a smile on my face and right there and then I knew in which direction I wanted to take my band. It would still take some time to get there, though.
Q: Pro Patria was without a shadow of a doubt one of the most promising Belgian EBM formations from the 90s. The consecration was the record deal with Celtic Circle Productions, but the label got bankrupt, the album got never released and Pro Patria finally stopped all activities. How do you look back at this period and what was the impact of it all on you as artist and on the man hiding behind the artist?
Peter: I think that the problem with Pro Patria, and other emerging EBM bands of the period, was that they had arrived just one step too late. EBM was mighty popular in the eighties, but suddenly, in the early nineties, this all changed. One day to the next, EBM was dead and it had all become either techno/house or grunge. Therefore I look back upon it with great frustration because nobody seemed to be interested in us, or EBM as a whole. Heck, even the gods of the eighties like Front 242, Nitzer, FLA and even Depeche Mode had turned their backs on their origins and had changed into either techno or grunge. So it was extremely hard for young, motivated EBM bands to raise an interest.
When we eventually found a label that still believed in EBM and us, CCP, we were overjoyed and worked extremely hard on our first real album, “Quod Erat Demonstrandum”, for 9 months. It was all wonderful and the music went to the factory for the CDs to be printed and… right on that very moment… CCP went bankrupt. So we were back at square one, albeit we then had a completely finished product to offer. Again I went door to door to all possible record labels but in vain. Typical was the reply we got from Belgium’s biggest independent label at the time: ‘It’s great what you’re doing, but we’d prefer if you could make it sound a bit more techno, that you’d become the ‘Belgian Prodigy’.
Perhaps I was too stubborn or simply stupid, but I was never going to make any concessions as far as the music was concerned and I kindly refused. Then Bert, my companion at the time, and I split up because he did want to embrace a more techno-oriented sound whereas I wouldn’t have it. I still did a number of great gigs with David Vallée (Lith – Eks.Center) but then my personal situation suddenly changed much for the worse and Pro Patria was forced into the background, where I believed it would slowly die. So all in all, it was not a happy period, even though the gigs themselves made me exhilarate.
Q: But years later it was because of the EBM community you finally reactivated Pro Patria, right? How did it really happen and how did you finally come to compose new songs?
Peter: As I said, I was convinced that Pro Patria was long dead. Then, David Vallée, who’s still a close friend, contacted me a couple of years ago and said: ‘Peter, do you realize that Pro Patria is actually popular?’ I didn’t want to believe him at first because it seemed impossible… I hadn’t done anything with the band in 15 years, the CDs had never made it to the market and of our old cassette demos I’d maybe sold 200 or 250 copies, if it really were that many. But then David sent me a link to Discogs.com and to my astonishment I saw that our old cassettes were being auctioned there for more than €100 each! And I felt incredibly stupid because I had thrown all of my remaining tapes into the bin years earlier.
Coincidentally, around the same time, I was also contacted by the people of Electric Tremor, who asked me if I wanted to be on stage again, during the “Familientreffen”-festival near Leipzig. In the meantime my personal situation had again changed, much for the better this time. I’m again surrounded by people who believe in me and who really want me to continue with Pro Patria. In the first place, I’d like to thank my wife for that. So I said: ‘Why not? Let’s give it a try and see how it goes.’ In the end, I think that the concert was a bit of a success and so I thought that maybe I should start creating something new. I was a bit anxious about it at first, because I had been out of it for so long and the “Familientreffen” also made me realize that EBM had become so big and professional… all of these other bands sounded so great… But to my surprise, once I had again pushed that ‘compose’ button in my head, the inspiration flowed out quickly.
Q: “Back To Basics” might indicate what the music is all about, a kind of retro-EBM inspired sound, but what means this album to you and what kind of opus (sound- & lyrical wise) did you want to accomplish?
Peter: First of all, I wanted to return with a bang. “Quod Erat Demonstrandum” had received great reviews twenty years ago and I could hardly come up with something less if I was going to be serious about reviving Pro Patria. I still had two or three songs on the shelf which I had already started composing during the “Quod Erat Demonstrandum“-production, but obviously that wasn’t enough. As I said, the EBM standard had been raised considerably over the last 20 years and I wondered if I was going to be able to match up. Then again, inspiration turned out to be a tidal wave, thundering down on me from the very dark 15 years I had endured. So it had to sound harsh, raw, you had to feel the pain, much unlike “Quod Erat Demonstrandum” which sounded so clean and perhaps too ‘finished’. For me it was an important part of the healing process.
Q: “Back To Basics” sounds darker and harder than early Pro Patria stuff. What does it reveal about your sources of inspiration, your perception of contemporary electronic music and the equipment that has been used to compose this work?
Peter: With Pro Patria been and gone, all of the music that used to motivate and inspire me died inside of me as well. Surprisingly, the only music that still meant anything to me was Bach and I often hid behind my piano in an impossible attempt to forget reality. Imagine the shock when I found out how magnificent contemporary EBM had become! Yet I deliberately refused to listen to other music during production because I didn’t want to be influenced. It had to be pure Pro Patria, nothing else. The only thing I occasionally listened to was “Quod Erat Demonstrandum”. I went back to my roots (‘back to basics’) and wondered how Pro Patria would have evolved if it had continued to exist all of this time. Hence darker and harder. “Quod Erat Demonstrandum” was also a useful guide in order to help me with production, which was by far the greatest obstacle.
I’m not a techie who’s picky about the instruments one has to use. It’s not which equipment you use but how you use it. On “Quod Erat Demonstrandum” for example, we mainly used Roland D20 and D70 keyboards. Rather the sort of instruments one associates with commercial happy-flappy music. On “Back to Basics” I drove the D20 through an old guitar rack to get some amazing sounds. Unfortunately this procedure took away some of the depth in the music. It’s always a compromise and you have to find that perfect balance between what you want to convey and still keep the music pleasurable to listen to, especially in this particular case with music filled with rage.
Q: This album clearly belongs to the so-called ‘DIY’ (do it yourself) culture so how did you manage all different aspects of the job (recording, mixing, production, promotion, distribution, social media…) and what do you think about the evolution compared to the 90s?
Peter: Eh… I don’t know whether I managed well altogether. “Quod Erat Demonstrandum” was mixed and produced by Marc Schellekens, a highly skilled studio engineer. I, on the other hand, consider myself to be a musician, certainly not a producer. Therefore the hardest aspect was not composing (all 8 new songs on “Back To Basics” were composed and worked out in six weeks’ time), but trying to make it sound decent enough. I’m still not very happy about the result, but it’s a steep learning curve and I’m sure that I’ll do better next time.
Another aspect of not being 20 anymore, is that you have more responsibilities in life. As a youngster, you can easily spend all of your savings on equipment and studio and you can’t care less about the cost. When you’re approaching 50, you tend to get a bit more careful and you also wonder if a certain investment is going to be worthwhile. I could have spent a thousand Euros to have the CD mastered by a professional, but if you’re hoping to sell only 200 to 300 CDs, it’s going to be difficult to get some return on investment.
Moreover, I have moved to Italy 8 years ago, a country where EBM simply doesn’t exist, so it was impossible to find help nearby. As regards to promotion etcetera… I may be a beginner as far as mixing and mastering is concerned, but I’m an absolute zero with promotion and social media. It’s part of an unpleasant discovery I made about myself i.e. that I’m seriously autistic (“Living In A Cage”). A positive thing for me about the music world now, compared to 20 years ago, is that it has become much more on-line and far less personal. It allows me to hide behind my computer screen and it has also become a lot easier to spread your music all across the globe. Fortunately there are a number of people out there who haven’t hesitated to lend me a hand, and in the first place I’d like to thank Sébastien Bourlier (Blondwülf) for everything he’s done to bring Pro Patria back into the spotlights.
Most of all, I’m overjoyed that EBM’s back, stronger and more alive than ever and I feel extremely honored that Pro Patria received a warm welcome back from the EBM community.