After having been part of the Belgian musical landscape for quite some years, notably with garage rockers The Donnets, homegrown musician Max Donnet decided to leave it all behind and move to Berlin in 2013. Since then he has launched his solo project Cook Strummer, with which he recently released the grippingly gloomy track “Fallen”, accompanied by a slightly disturbing, eerie music video featuring a retired ballet dancer, kissing twins, and a Brussels laundry shop. Reason enough to have a talk with the Belgian talent on the rise, about starting from scratch, crazy Berlin nights, and of course his upcoming album “The Fall”.
You’ve been involved in the Belgian music scene for years, then went to Berlin. What was it like to have to start from zero?
When I arrived in Berlin three years ago and faced the coldest winter I’ve ever experienced, it all seemed quite scary. But in the end the city offers so much more possibilities artistic-wise. It takes time to meet the right people though, because so many of them come and go every day.
How did your find your way in Berlin musically? What has your experience been like?
Berlin is huge, massive, fast and noisy. It never sleeps and there are so many things going on all the time. Just like all the newcomers I partied a lot at the beginning. The city’s club scene is really fascinating. Even if your musical background is a different one, even if you don’t like electronic music that much, you have no choice but to embrace what is part of the local culture. People socialize in clubs, eat in clubs, sleep in clubs… I have to admit that this is how I met most of my buddies from the music scene. I was so lucky to meet a few people who really supported me and helped me out, like my producer Laurent Zimmermann for example and my sound engineer Mario Engelter, who created K61 studio, where I recorded my album. I met so many inspiring people from the electronic music scene, such as Cosmin TRG, who became a bit of a big brother for me. He made me appreciate techno music, and I admire his strong sound design skills and his ability to drive any type of club crowd crazy.
What would you say are the main differences between the music scenes in Brussels/Belgium and Berlin?
There is no unified scene in Berlin in my point of view, it’s just too big. But that’s what makes the city so interesting. There are too many things to do, too many clubs, too many talented musicians who come here from allover. What I like the most is the positive attitude: musicians don’t fight against each other, there’s no bitch talk. People here prefer to save their energy for what really matters: making music. In Belgium that’s not always the case, unfortunately. Don’t get me wrong, I love Belgian bands and Belgian music, and I really miss my buddies and brothers. Bands such as Great Mountain Fire, Oscar and the Wolf, BRNS, Balthazar, Recorders or The Sunday Charmers really make me proud of my homeland. And when I speak about the Belgian scene in Berlin, people show great respect for it. The Belgian scene can be quite hard to navigate sometimes, probably because it’s so small and things can get quite competitive and bitchy. If you don’t know the right people and someone decides that your music isn’t the thing, then your career is over. That’s why you mostly hear and see the same people on the radio and stage. In Berlin that’s not the case. If you work hard and deliver good quality, people will recognize it and want to work with you in order to create something new. At least that’s my personal experience.
Why did you move to Berlin in the first place?
I had visited Berlin several times before deciding to live there, and also hesitated between New York and Berlin for a while. In the end I chose Berlin because it’s rather cheap, which makes it possible to do music but have a decent life at the same time. As former Berlin mayor Klaus Wowereit put it a few years ago: “Berlin ist arm, aber sexy” (Berlin is poor, but sexy).
Did the new environment change your music in any way? How?
The heavy, brutal atmosphere, the wind blowing strongly on the massive driveways, people dancing, laughing, crying… It is a permanent show, and the music has to fit the story. I originally come from the garage rock and indie scene, but being in Berlin inspired me to explore new sounds and start working with rhythm machines, synthesizers, analogue gears… I began to appreciate all kinds of musical genres much more, from industrial techno to electronica, specifically the subtlety of binary sounds, like screaming machines. I tried to integrate these influences into my music. Binary sounds will put you into trance, no drugs or alcohol necessary, just the beats smashing through your ears.
Which places in Berlin can you recommend to music lovers?
Every Tuesday the “Berliner Philharmoniker” organize lunches during the orchestra’s rehearsals. Amazing place, outstanding musicians. Then there’s Mensch Meier: Berliners don’t really like clubs full of tourists, so they usually party among themselves in locations that they try to keep secret as long as possible. Mensch Meier still has this authentic Berlin vibe. There’s no Facebook page, no flyers, just a website that announces upcoming parties. And then there are of course Sisyphos, Berghain or Club Der Visionäre. I won’t even try to describe them, you just have to go there and see for yourself!
You decided to come back to Belgium to shoot the fantastic video for Fallen. Why?
Glad you liked it, thanks! Well, I truly believe in the talent of some of my friends in Belgium and really wanted to work with them, such as Constantin Didisheim for example, who is a very skilled video director. And I wanted my mom to dance in it, who’s a former professional dancer. I’m so happy with the result, it’s a strange, emotional, powerful mix. Even one of the guys from Modeselektor complimented me on it, which was huge for me.
“The Fall” is the result of hard work and many collaborations. I wrote most of it during the winter of 2014. The weather was grey, as were the buildings, and there were a lot of sleepless nights… Thematically the record is mainly about a kind of spiritual quest, which has always been an important topic for me personally. Sins, parties, joy and salvation are recurring themes. Everything was recorded at K61 studio, which interestingly is located in a former Stasi prison. The atmosphere is simply amazing! It took me a few months to compose and record everything and find the right mix. It’s a very emotional album, and I feel like I put a part of my soul in there. There are no direct musical influences, but I’d say it’s a bit inspired by bands as Massive Attack, Caribou, James Blake, Joy Division or Moderat. There’s no release date yet because I’m looking for a record deal at the moment. But I’m planning on putting out an EP in the meantime.
What do you like most about Berlin? What the least?
What I like the most is this feeling of living in a pretty wonderful and exceptional era. What I like the least: Berliners can be quite rude sometimes, and life can be pretty exhausting.
What do you miss about Belgium the most?
The general friendliness. I really miss the Belgian attitude. It’s comfortable, relaxed and pleasant. And I miss my friends of course. Someday I’ll come back, that’s for sure!