The best design ideas often come from Belgium (see: Martin Margiela, Ann Demeulemeester, Olivier Theyskens), but as bands like Front 242 and rave trailblazers Lords of Acid proved in industrial's formative years, so do some of the world's most ambitious musical thinkers. Soulwax do their Belgian roots proud: renowned as a production and live duo under alias 2ManyDJs, they've pushed things forward for electronic music considerably in their near 20 year history. Their masterful re-imaginings of tracks by MGMT, Kylie, LCD Soundsystem, Chemical Brothers, Justice, and even the Rolling Stones famously reinvigorated the international remix game. But in 2011, their mission entails transcending audio frontier and into a vividly realized, multi-tiered experience integrating cutting-edge sound, design, and technology.
Hence, this summer's launch of Radio Soulwax, a widely dimensional website, iPhone, and iPad app that's already received 25 million global streams in the past month alone. Described coyly by 2ManyDjs as "a radio station, but not as you know it," it is an invitingly designed digital audio platform that packs some severe visual twists and turns. Indeed: there's a surprise with every blink, as the breakneck speed of Rolling Stone's exclusive premiere of the upcoming "Axe Attack" video mix reveals.
"Every track is only in for a few seconds," confirms Radio Soulwax designer Fergus "Fergadelic" Purcell. "We've made it so that the sleeve starts out with a changed or decomposed text, or without any text at all, then gradually evolves to reveal the real artist and title over that short period of time. The trick is to guess who it is and what the track is, before the reveal at the end." Fortunately for us, we had David Dewaele of Soulwax/2ManyDjs guide us through the conception of their new brain-teasing audiovisual project.
How would you describe Radio Soulwax to someone who had never seen or heard it?
An audiovisual celebration of music? The perfect way to drain your iPhone battery? A tribute to the forgotten art of record sleeves? Twenty-four hours of your life you're never getting back? A place to open your heart to songs you've never heard of, or had forgotten about? An incredible waste of time and energy? A peak into our record collection? I don't know!
Why was Radio Soulwax a necessary project for 2manyDJs?
The conventional way of releasing music for a DJ is to put out a compilation CD, which is what we did about nine years ago. That album went on to live its own life and become this strange wonder, but we figured it wouldn't make sense in 2011 to release a CD with the physical limitation of over an hour of music and a shelf life of a few months, at best. An online radio station seemed the right idea: you don't have to spend months or years trying to clear the rights; you can play what you want. A cloud-based internet seems to be the future; it allowed us to showcase a much wider scope of music that we couldn't necessarily do when we tour. The music industry has changed. It's not about selling records, and it never really was for us. We make enough money by touring and we can afford to spend two and a half years of our lives on this crazy project, so we figured that it would make more sense to do this than to release a CD.
How did you conceive of its concept?
We wanted to do something that reflects the way people seem to experience music these days, but gradually the project became more complex as we made every hour a different theme. There would be a functional aspect to it, like how some mixtapes are better for driving in your car and others for waking up, for example. Later on, we decided that we would add visual films to go with the mixes that were always based around the record sleeve of the song that is playing, which I am sure you can imagine made us take a lot longer than we had expected to finish it! So now, we have this online station that is on a constant loop with a new mix being released every week that gets added to the playlist, which will eventually culminate in a 24hr music film, and all of that will be free.
What was the process like?
Back when we started, we decided to digitize our collection of about 45,000 records - we're not sure of the amount anymore - so we hired two friends to record them, scan the sleeves, add a bunch of metadata to them, etc. That all went into a gigantic iTunes library that both Steph and I shared and made playlists for when we saw certain connections between tracks. Most of the time they were musical connections, like genre or sound or mood but sometimes it was based on a connection between the sleeves. We then condensed those playlists into the themes for these 24 hours of RSWX, but, of course, we had many more themes, just not enough time.
Did you experience any setbacks?
We only have ourselves to blame of course, but it has been the hardest thing we've ever done. At the same time, it is such a ridiculously large project that it is equally the most satisfying piece of work we have made. We barely had a social life and it has taught us a lot about ourselves - we will have to learn to live with the fact that we can't do things the easy way, even if we wanted to.
How do you determine the music and visuals that go into the films?
For every hour, we tried to come up with a specific visual theme that would fit the music but was always based on the records sleeve. Our friend Fergadelic, who has been acting as an "art director," came up with many of the visual ideas with us. Most of the time, it was animation but sometimes the music required something more realistic or psychedelic and [in those cases] we filmed an accompanying video. We're very fortunate that so many amazing directors, animators, and production people have been willing to be a part of this project for little or no pay, which makes RSWX look incredibly fancy.
What has been the most popular theme so far?
I haven't checked the statistics for which hour has the most streams, but I do know that the "Cherry Moon On Valium" hour is creating quite a buzz amongst "the kids." Also, people seem to love "The Blue Hour," which is all beautiful ballads to cry into your pillow to.
How does the Radio Soulwax project relate to the way you present your music live visually?
When we play shows with the visuals, it tends to be headlining a festival or in front of a big audience at least, and you can't get away with playing an hour of space disco or hardcore punk, you have to make a crowd dance. There is nothing wrong with that, and we do the show with visuals as well, but we have to make the visuals a bit less entertaining otherwise people just stand there watching a screen as opposed to dancing.
Could Radio Soulwax become its own synesthetic live experience?
We'd be happy to do themed gigs with the visuals in the right setting, yeah, but it seems that right now, when people come to see 2manydjs, they have a certain thing in mind that they want and it doesn't include watching Polaroids of record sleeves develop whilst listening to Robert Wyatt. Who can blame them? We'd really love to do a night at a planetarium doing the Celestial Voyage hours. That could work very well.
Do you have any plans to expand the concept even further as an app or another layer of digital experience?
We're always looking to add new features to the project, and right now we're still working on successfully finishing the 24 hours, but yes this is only the beginning. RSWX was meant to be more than just this first batch.
A lot of amazing designers and visual thinkers come from Antwerp and other parts of Belgium. What are your thoughts on the current design scene there?
The problem is that we're never there, and when we are, it's only to be holed up in our studio. But people should totally know about Raf Simons and Dries Van Noten because they are amazing.
Watch the exclusive premiere of "Axe Attack":
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