’30 Years Of Journalism – Celebration Interview’ with Johan Van Roy (Suicide Commando): ‘I Probably Will Continue Writing Music Till I Drop Dead’
Back in 1991 I started writing my first reviews for Side-Line magazine. I would have never thought to go on writing reviews and making interviews non-stop for 30 years. So 2021 is a special year to me, a kind of ‘celebration year’. I got the idea to celebrate this special event by interviewing people from the scene who all have a special meaning to me. I met Johan Van Roy even before I wrote my first review. He was busy composing music under the SUICIDE COMMANDO moniker. I liked the dark and tormented atmosphere of his early demos, which were reminding me of THE KLINIK. I got the chance singing on one of his early songs and we even set up together a music project. SUICIDE COMMANDO became one of the absolute leading formations from the Dark-Electro scene, playing as headliner at big festivals, selling thousands of albums and having an impressive word-wide fan base. Beyond the successful career hides an humble person. No star attitude, but an accessible and kind man who simply remains himself.
(Courtesy by Inferno Sound Diaries)
Q: Thirty five years ago now you started experimenting with Electronic music while setting up SUICIDE COMMANDO. What incited you back in 1986 to experiment with electro sounds and noises? How did that happened and what equipment did you use?
Johan: I grew up in the early 80s with the in that time booming New-Wave scene, listening to bands like THE CURE, SISTERS OF MERCY, but also more Electronic sounding bands like DEPECHE MODE or FAD GADGET … It was because of these bands that my love for Electronic music started. Not much later I discovered bands like THE NEON JUDGEMENT, FRONT 242 and THE KLINIK (in those days these bands even got airplay on national radio stations like BRT…).
These bands had such a big impact on me that I also wanted to start making Electronic music. And so I bought my first keyboard back in summer 1986, the now legendary Roland SH101, not much later added with 2 drum machines, the Boss DR110 Dr. Rhythm and the Boss DR220E.
Very limited gear, but in those days very expensive equipment, so it wasn’t that obvious to buy more equipment. For example samplers were extremely expensive and even with a sampler you only could record a few seconds of sound…
Q: People maybe don’t realize it took you years and a lot of patience plus perseverance to get some recognition. I get the impression you couldn’t maybe directly break through because of a lack of equipment. As you said, electronic equipment was very expensive and there weren’t the same facilities as today. How do you look back at this period regarding equipment, the multiple cassettes you released, the first compilation features etc?
Johan: It obviously were totally different times, not just only because of the cost and the lack of equipment, as I already mentioned before. But there also wasn’t any social media, so that means it took way longer to get your music spread around. Everything still had to be done by post, so things took much longer then nowadays.
Today’s possibilities are unlimited, but nonetheless I don’t regret I had to start this way. It gave you much more freedom and time to work on music. You also had to be way more innovative and inventive to create and write music. Today almost everything is already canned, get yourself a PC and some music software and in one day you can write yourself a complete album …
Many bands had to start like I did, writing music with very limited gear and releasing it on tape… bands like FRONT LINE ASSEMBLY, NITZER EBB… all started this way.
It also gave me time to improve and create my own style, something I do lack in today’s music scene.
So I definitely look back at it with pleasure.
Q: You became involved with LESCURE 13, which in a way -and right in the beginning became more recognized than SUICIDE COMMANDO. I was even sure LESCURE 13 would even become the Belgian ‘next big thing’, but it finally didn’t happen that way. How comes and what do you keep in mind from the LESCURE 13 experience?
Johan:I don’t think that SUICIDE COMMANDO was less recognized, but it was much harder to get the same recognition if you don’t do live shows, and I think that was the main reason why LESCURE 13 got picked up faster. Initially I never really planned on doing live shows with SUICIDE COMMANDO, but as our first live show with LESCURE 13 at the legendary Side-Line festival at ‘VK’ in Brussels became such a success, it convinced me to start doing live shows with SUICIDE COMMANDO as well. So in a way Side-Line is to blame for that 🙂
It was fun doing LESCURE 13 with Stefan Bens (STIN SCATZOR), but since SUICIDE COMMANDO got more and more successful in the years after, I got less and less time to focus on LESCURE 13, so on the long run the combination became too difficult and stressful for me. I’ll never forget our very first live show with LESCURE 13 in Brussels.
Q: I got the privilege to start another project with you, which was TOXIC SHOCK SYNDROME. How do you look back at this experience and a few other side-projects like DB.F and KOMBAT UNIT?
Johan:I enjoyed doing them all, but just like with LESCURE 13, time became the biggest problem. The combination of doing music with SUICIDE COMMANDO + work + family just became too time consuming and stressful.
But like I said, I enjoyed doing all these side projects. As SUICIDE COMMANDO was my solo-project I enjoyed working together with others from time to time, even though it requires a different approach.
With LESCURE 13 we still do some live shows now and then, and also KOMBAT UNIT with Jan (NOISUF-X, X-FUSION) never really stopped, but it’s all just a matter of time.
Doing TOXIC SHOCK SYNDROME was fun too, but in the end you have to make choices and set priorities, but I look back at it with lots of pleasure.
Q: The split-album/compilation “Induktion, Varianz Und Deren Folgen” released by Stefan Herwig on his early label Kugelblitz in 1993 made things change! Suddenly more people were discovering SUICIDE COMMANDO! How important was this compilation in the career and development of SUICIDE COMMANDO? And how important was Stefan Herwig who finally brought you to join his Off Beat label?
Johan: Oh, for sure this was a career changer and I’m sure that without Stefan Herwig, SUICIDE COMMANDO never would have become as big as today. I already knew Stefan Herwig for a few years after he discovered SUICIDE COMMANDO through my tapes released on the German ZNS tapes label, so when Stefan started his own label with Kugelblitz Records he soon invited me to join on his “Induktion, Varianz Und Deren Folgen” split-CD.
Not much later Stefan started working for the rising Off Beat label and so he was able to get me in there as well… and the rest is history I guess.
I’m aware I was pretty lucky, being at the right place at the right time I guess… so yes, without Stefan my career would have looked totally different I guess.
Q: SUICIDE COMMANDO was often compared to THE KLINIK, which has been one of your main sources of inspiration. What has been the real impact of THE KLINIK and eventually other bands –and maybe music genres, in the development and evolution of SUICIDE COMMANDO till today?
Johan:Well, no need to deny that bands like KLINIK or yet FRONT 242 (and others like THE NEON JUDGEMENT, FAD GADGET, SKINNY PUPPY, NITZER EBB…) had a major impact on me and my music throughout the years. They not only were a major source of inspiration, these bands also were THE main reason why I started doing ‘Electronic’ music in the first place. My older brother was playing guitar so my first steps into the music scene were as a bass player, but when I discovered bands like KLINIK, FRONT 242… a whole new world opened before my eyes (and ears).
Still in 2021 a band like KLINIK remains probably my biggest influence.
Q: You last year celebrated the twentieth anniversary of the “Mindstrip”-album. This production probably became the most successful one in the band’s history, but how do you look back at this album and did it make specific things/aspects changing?
Johan: Not sure if it was my most successful album, but it sure had the biggest impact on my career. We already gained some recognition with the huge success of “See You In Hell” and to a lesser extent “Desire” and “Better Off Dead”, but the release of the “Mindstrip”-album and the “Hellraiser”-single taken from this album certainly brought us to the top of the scene. Again I think Stefan Herwig had a big part in this success as he just started his own division with Dependent Records, gathering bands like COVENANT or VNV NATION… I think SUICIDE COMMANDO certainly benefitted from their success as well.
On top of that I think “Mindstrip” filled a gap between the at that time trending Future- and Synth-Pop acts and the more harder side of the Electro scene which was at a decline at that moment, and therefore “Mindstrip” marked an important milestone in the entire scene. All of a sudden bands started to copy SUICIDE COMMANDO and harsh electro was born. In the next years many bands would jump onto the harsh ‘Electro/Endzeit’ train.
So it not only marked the start of a new subgenre in the Electro scene, it also changed the expectations of the media and the crowd.
My follow up album “Axis Of Evil” was 8 weeks at the top of the at that time highly acclaimed German Alternative Charts (DAC).
Q: You’re organizing an interesting annual ‘SUICIDE COMMANDO poll’ where the fans can choose their favorite songs. In which way is it representative for your personal favorites and what are your favorite songs? And do you’ve some songs, which remained underrated?
Johan: It’s a good representation of what the fans consider the best SUICIDE COMMANDO songs, but that’s about all. It surely doesn’t reflect my personal favorites, even though a few of my personal faves are also in the top 10 of this list.
I’ve always enjoyed doing the more slower and atmospheric songs. A few of them like “God Is In The Rain” or “The Devil” also gained club success, but personal favorites like “Euthanasia” (1998), “Body Count proceed” (2000), “Until We Die” (2010), “Severed Head” (2010), “Repent Or Perish” (2013)… remained under the radar.
Q: SUICIDE COMMANDO became the absolute leading formation from the Dark-Electro scene! I can imagine it’s a deserved recognition for hard work, but what does this ‘status’ really mean to you? What has been the impact of this success on the person hiding behind the artist? In which way did it change your life?
Johan: I don’t think it had that much impact on me personally. I always remained (probably too) humble and down to earth. Of course I’m flattered by this recognition, but compared to some others in this scene, I always kept both feet on the ground. And let’s face it, compared with the mainstream Beyoncé’s and Madonna’s of this world we’re just tiny little dwarfs…lol
Q: Do you know how much SUICIDE COMMANDO-albums have been sold today? What have been the best-sellers?
Johan: With the rise of digital downloads and sales I have no idea anymore of actual physical sales. The market completely changed in the last 2 decades. Physical sales of CD’s completely collapsed and the digital market is so diverse that it’s hard to give any concrete numbers.
On platforms like Spotify… people don’t listen to complete albums anymore, they just pick their favorite songs. Not even sure if complete albums still will be released in 10 years from now…
So it’s hard to compare, I know an album like “Mindstrip” sold over 25.000 physical copies, but it never even reached the official album charts, while my latest 2 albums even made it to a position in the top 20 of the official German album charts, even though their physical sales are way less than the original “Mindstrip”-album for example, simply because digital sales totally took over the market.
Q: Is it possible for an underground artist to earn a living with music? How important is money when you’re a renowned artist?
Johan: Yes, (in non-Covid times!) I think it’s possible for the bigger acts in the underground scene, if you do it properly, which means doing regular live touring + releasing music on a regular base.
But it takes a lot of work, time and devotion. I’m still one of the lucky few who can live from music, but since I have a responsibility towards my wife and kid, I deliberately choose to keep doing a half time job to remain financially safe.
Q: SUICIDE COMMANDO is also a live band with a solid reputation. How important is it for you to play live shows and feel the interaction with the fans?
Johan: I find it very important and I realize it even more at times like these today with the pandemic. I do miss this interaction with the fans and the crowd. It gives so much satisfaction and energy to be on stage and interact with your fans.
Q: Torben Schmidt and Mario Vaerewijck are your long-time live mates. How does it happen when you guys are on tour and what makes the chemistry between you all (and the entire crew)?
Johan: I think we all enjoy it very much to be on the road, in a way it’s also our escape from boring daily work ‘eat-sleep’ routine. A big advantage also is that we’re not a conventional band, I mean, basically SUICIDE COMMANDO is just me doing all the music, so Torben and Mario only join in on stage, so we don’t have to sleep with each other (which does happen sometimes being on tour haha…).
Usually it’s all very easy going when we’re on the road and that keeps things pleasant.
Q: You played at numerous festivals and in very different countries all over the world. Do you see noticeable differences between countries and continents and are there some specific places/venues you would ever like to play?
Johan: There certainly are differences. Not specifically because of the crowd, although we do notice a difference between playing in countries where people hardly ever get to see live bands from other continents (like Mexico or Brazil…) or countries where you can watch the same band every 2 weeks (like Germany …).
The gratitude is bigger in countries where you don’t get to play every month or year. I do notice more differences on the technical level. Clubs and venues usually are much better equipped in Europe then across the ocean. It’s a much bigger challenge to do shows in the US for example, but what counts in the end is the response from the crowd. I can be more satisfied playing in front of 100 people in a dirty basement with a crappy sound system then playing in front of 5000 people, as long as the people had fun I’m happy.
Q: What has been your biggest satisfaction and deception so far?
Johan: I’m overall happy that I could make my biggest passion a big part of my job and life. Music has always been my passion, so I feel privileged that I could make my music my (part time) job and life. I feel privileged that I can share my music and my passion with my fans, that’s probably my biggest satisfaction.
My biggest deception? Hard to say, maybe the fact that it also takes a lot of sacrifices to combine all these things (my daily part time job + music + family + …), it already got me into a severe burn-out few years ago, my knee is fucked up after the accident on stage in the US, my ears are fucked up because of the often too loud music on stages …
Q: A lot of things have changed/evolved since you set up SUICIDE COMMANDO in 1985! What’s your perception about it all and how did you see the scene and entire music business evolving throughout the years?
Johan: Oh for sure many things have changed throughout the years, it’s really been a technological revolution… The technological possibilities became endless, maybe not all for the best though.
We’re living in an ever faster society and that’s even reflected in our music. In 1985 a song had to be 120 bpm maximum, today we’re living at a speed of 135 bpm or more… lol
The rise of the digital media totally killed the CD and vinyl market, but also brought new possibilities, so I also try to see the positive effects of it.
Social media became the new normal and brought music & bands closer to their fans, but also gave us a shallow and resentful society.
So it all has it’s pro and cons… and there’s no way back.
Q: Do you sometimes imagine the end of SUICIDE COMMANDO and are there other things in life you would like to accomplish?
Johan: I don’t think SUICIDE COMMANDO will ever stop. I tried to split several times, but it’s so hard being a one man project…lol. No seriously, I can’t imagine my life without music, so I probably will continue writing music till I drop dead.
Q: What might we expect from SUICIDE COMMANDO for the next few months?
Johan: I’m currently working on a new album, but I don’t want to rush things, so no idea when it will be finished.
I certainly do hope we can start doing live shows again sometime this Summer, so I’m really looking forward to that.
And there might be some more surprises coming up, but wait and see…
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