Few record labels in Belgium have had such an influence on electronic music as Pelican Fly did. Hear us out: that alternative, experimental sound big players like Kanye West, Flume, What So Not or Mura Masa work with has derived from a school of artists that were shaped by the ideas of this record label. The careers of major producers like Cashmere Cat, Sinjin Hawke, Canblaster or Lido all took off with a Pelican Fly release. Yet, despite their international fame and impact, this group of friends remain in the shadows at home – operating from their apartments in the cozy Brussels village that is Uccle.
Many people know Pelican Fly for its main face: DJ Slow, a former Red Bull Music Academy graduate, and technically one of the best eclectic DJs in our country. But with his move to Paris 3 years ago, the label shifted to a lower gear for a while – only pop up again in recent months with a string of stellar releases by a new generation of producers, from literally every corner of the globe. Pelican Fly is back on track.
Most of the management nowadays gets done by Richelle and Mister Tweeks - both have solo music careers and form a duo under their ‘1180’ moniker. It’s the former who does most of the talking on this interview. In anticipation of the upcoming 7th anniversary of the label, we visited these two fellow founding members for an in-depth conversation on the untold beginning, the missed opportunities and the new start of one of Belgium’s best under-the-radar labels.
By the way, scroll down all the way to the bottom to hear an exclusive new 1180 track!
Let’s start by explain what the Pelican Fly family tree looks like now.
Richelle: "Pelican Fly always was a spontaneous thing, so we kind of lack a real defined group structure: everybody does a bit of everything. That being said, Slow and myself still do most of the A&R – and the rest, consisting of Mr Tweeks, Charles, Gilles and Basile, help where they can. Tweeks helps on the music side of things, with his inputs in the back and forth processes with the artists, Basile is the label’s treasurer, Charles is the technical advisor and critical ear and is Gilles our community manager. In all these years, our team never changed."
Where did the idea to start a label come from?
"The idea came from Slow, back in 2010-2011. We had been round-the-clock music nerds for a good 6 years at this point – ‘crunk’ was basically all we listened to back in 2005. Within hip hop, this really was the most influential and ground-breaking subgenre at the time. We used to spend so much time on ‘Hollerboard’ (the influential music forum that brought together artists that would later become hugely successful, founded by the Hollertronix / Mad Decent crew, ed.). Me and Slow shared one moniker, ‘myninecanpiss’ (see what we did there?) which we used to share new music with U.S. club icons like Low B, Dirty South Joe, Diplo, Willy Joy but also French heads like Teki Latex, DJ Orgasmic, DJ Goon and DJ Koyote. All of this mostly happened in a thread that was suitably called ‘air horns’. This early internet period of fooling around, discovering amazing musical niches and receiving feedback from talented artists was the basis for what would become Pelican Fly many years later."
So what made you actually do it?
"After a few years, we came to a point where we were sitting on a lot of unreleased music that was too good to be left untouched: both from ourselves - mostly Baltimore club rip-offs (laughs) - and from other Hollerboard users who didn’t want to make a pass at labels and ask them to release their stuff. Slow also finished his master paper on the changing dynamics within the music industry, which was only just realizing the full scope of the impact the internet would have in the future. We decided that now was our time – and so Pelican Fly was born with a first release in March 2011."
Why the name Pelican Fly?
"There’s a certain track from Caz Clay called ‘Hey DJ’, in which the rapper says ‘women say I’m fly, like a pelican’. Bear in mind this was a tune from 2006, in the middle of the crunk era, so ‘fly’ was the hype word at the time – comparable with the current generation and the word ‘lit’. So this dude is rapping about how he’s “fly like a pelican”, which we thought sounded so ridiculous and amazing at the same time. Since that moment, we used the pelican reference in all the visual works, becoming a kind of signature, so when we had to pick a name, ‘Pelican Fly’ was the obvious choice."
How were the first years of running your own label? You took off relatively quick.
"We were so enthusiastic, all six of us. Practically immediately we received a residency offer from Manu Baron in now defunct Paris institution: Social Club. This was one of the coolest spots at the time and they asked us?! I mean, how could we not be stoked? We played everything we liked, regardless of what was considered ‘done’ or ‘not done’. It was total freedom – and people liked it. Being able to put up our own nights there allowed us to cement our group as a real family – and made our name known across the alternative dance music community."
So why did you never host these nights in Brussels?
"Further down the line, when we had more releases (and especially when Social Club closed its doors in 2016), people expected us to ‘go bigger’. After all, we had already built a big and loyal fan base in Paris. But we couldn’t do it, we weren't ready for it. We never wanted to change the way we approached music, and we have always felt more comfortable doing things the easy-going way. There have been opportunities to promote events in Belgium and do bigger gigs, but unless it were really small events, it would imply we needed to change our DJ-sets. Our sound isn’t accessible and we didn’t want to change that. This doesn’t mean we didn’t try; we actually worked a lot to try and get a similar night here like we had in Paris. In the end, we are producers, managers and DJs, but not promoters. We experienced enough stress in our daily lives already, so we just gave up after a while."
Back to the label: after a good run of high profile releases with Cashmere Cat, Sinjin Hawke and Lido, you laid low for a while. It’s only since this year you’ve picked up the pace again.
"Yeah, there was a short break because Slow moved to Paris in 2014 for professional opportunities. Being geographically separated slowed down the follow up of our projects, so around this time I (un)consciously started leading the A&R duties. Even if 2015 and 2016 haven’t been as successful as the previous years, some really important projects for us did see the light of day: I’m thinking of Canblaster’s solo release (the ‘Continue’ EP) and collaborative effort with Lido (the ‘Superspeed’ EP). This period was a kind of second start and we kicked off amazing relationships with some talented artists: all the releases you see now are the result of one million emails spread over a period of years and years."
Yes, we were going to mention that. You usually take a very long time to release something – but in the end all the stuff you do release sounds different from each other, yet it always has a distinctive ‘Pelican Fly sound’. What happens between the first demo and the final release?
"Usually, it’s either me or Slow that comes up with an artist in who we see potential. The next step is coming together with the group and start giving feedback. Slow might not be a producer himself, but he has an amazing set of ears and he is an extremely talented DJ who can see - or better, hear - the potential in a producer way before anybody else does. As soon as the group decides we continue the cooperation, we start sending demo’s back and forth with the artist. Sometimes we can clock in a new release within one month, but usually it takes a whole lot longer – sometimes even 4 years."
If a project takes longer than 4 years, why haven’t you given up?
"In the end we want to get the full potential out of a producer. Most of the time they don’t even realize how much talent they have. It takes an outsider like Slow or me to show them they don’t have to be satisfied too soon. But I get it, when you’re making a lot of music, you easily lose track of the overview, the big plan. It’s our job then to point out what their talents are, what makes their music unique – and push them to their best possible output. Maybe that’s why our catalogue has a distinct sound, but in the end we can be satisfied with the result. I don’t want to wake up after a release to realize we could have done a lot more with it."
What does it take for young producers to spark your interest?
"We receive thousands of demo’s every year from all corners of the globe. The bulk comes from guys that want to sound like Cashmere Cat or whatever the current trend in dance music is – but that’s not what we’re looking for. We only want artists that bring something new to the table, who have their own personality, something we haven’t heard before. In the end, with these huge piles of demo’s, it’s likely we missed out on a whole bunch of potential hit makers…"
Most of the artists you do end up working with have never released on other labels before. Many even come from faraway places like India or Ukraine.
"The new Pelican Fly artists come from a wide array of countries indeed. Anoop is a producer from Kerala in South India that we really didn’t think much of when we listened to the demos he had sent us. It’s only because we stumbled upon one old track of him on Soundcloud (under an alter ego) that we realized there was something to be done with him, as he was mixing traditional Indian elements with experimental dance music. A couple years later, we released his first EP – and a second one is on the way now. Then we have Inodi from Ukraine, Marius from Norway and both Vasco and Vera are from Denmark. We got in touch with the latter after he had sent me a kind of love letter, with some rude club beats in the attachments. Man, he knew how to work the drums. Next thing we know we invited him and Vasco over to Brussels to work on music together. We spent an amazing time and gained real friends."
You seem to be doing that a lot: inviting producers for a long time to make music together. A few months ago you had Nadus over – one of the key figures of the New Jersey scene.
"Yeah, we prefer it that way. It gives us a better understanding of how they work – and that’s how we develop a more personal relationship with them. Sinjin Hawke, Lucid, Vasco, Samename (who goes under the name Florentino now), etc. They all stayed in this apartment and they all became family."
That may be true, but it seems like you are particularly close with Nadus.
"Yes, we love him so much, as a person and as a producer. We first got to know him because DJ Sliink linked him to Slow. It took such a long time for him to get ready for his first release. But in the end, around 2014, the result was an EP that I rate as the strongest Pelican Fly release we ever did. He came over then – and he came back now, for a full month, making new music. The result should be available sometime this year – or so we hope! (laughs)"
Some of the artists in your family went on to become huge international producers (think: Cashmere Cat and Sinjin Hawke making beats for Kanye West), but you managed to stay in the background right here in Belgium. Was that a conscious move?
"We don’t like to put ourselves into the spotlights like “hey everybody, look how cool we are” – and honestly we are really bad at ‘selling’ ourselves. There were opportunities where we could put ourselves in the center of attention, but we only realized that when it was too late. Being preoccupied with our own vibe, we just completely underestimated the role of self-promotion. It probably wasn’t conscious, but it was definitely a mistake. We f*cked up. Or maybe this was the best thing for the label, keeping it a bit on the low, only doing it only for the love of music."
Let’s talk about your personal projects. As ‘1180’, both of you seem to have a very light and careless approach to genres, remixes and original tracks, mostly bringing out free downloads. It seems like this is your 'fun / less serious' moniker for both of you.
"Yes, exactly. This is our ‘masks on’ mode (laughs). Under this moniker, we feel completely free to be who we really are. If Richelle and Mr Tweeks are the Instagram, 1180 is the Snapchat. Heavy pounding, jumpstyle, hard techno – all that stuff that may not be considered ‘cool’ by the community. We don’t even put this stuff on Soundcloud, we don’t care. We build a track really fast and we email it to friends and fans."
The name ‘1180’ – the postal code of Uccle – seems like an obvious choice?
"We have known each other for over 23 years now – and we have lived most of our lives in Uccle. This is where our roots are, where almost all the music we ever made was conceived."
You don’t always seem to make music here though. Mr Tweeks, you recently went to Atlanta for some studio time - how was that? And are you happy with the result?
Mr Tweeks: "I already had a collab EP called ‘ATL x BXL’, with the amazing Nina Blanka. Then our friend Brodinski invited me to work on more stuff in the studio over there. So next thing I know I’m sharing an AirBNB with him, hanging out with a bunch of local rappers and making beats and video’s. Except for the single with B La B, most of it hasn’t seen the daylight yet, so expect more ‘ATL x BXL’ volumes and a Brodinski x Lil Reek EP. I’m happy I’m back in the rap game now! (laughs)"
And you, Richelle, your debut album has been in the making for a few years now. What’s the holdup?
Richelle: "Good question. It had to be ready last year already! I just have hundreds of folders and even more files and projects. I just need the time to focus on finalizing everything. I need to be responsible now, having a family of two kids and a job. Having 2 hours of spare time doesn’t do the trick for me: I need to be able to listen to music for hours on end before I get in a flow that allows me to work on my own material. That’s really the only reason why it takes me so long. It will come, I promise - it’s my personal goal to release it in 2018!"
Will you make a live show too?
"That’s what Slow really wants me to do, but I’m afraid I can’t. I’m not a musician, but just a producer. You have people who are so talented they can hypnotize a whole crowd; I could never be like that. If it happens, it will be in another 10 years or something. That said, I’ll still do plenty of DJ-sets!"
So, tell us a little something about this new and exclusive track of yours…
"This record is called “Go to Brussels”, the first single out of the forthcoming 1180 release. It’s a kind of self-mockery and ode to our beloved hometown, using something that has been perceived as really negative by our fellow Belgians and turning it around in a way that both Tweeks and I find really positive."