Hantrax: looking for structure in chaos

Pictures by Rocovita Cordemans, Eva Vlonk, Simon Leloup

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From classical piano to gabber. Antwerp’s Hantrax is a true creative shapeshifter.

There is something very liberating about spending an hour with Han Swolfs, the Antwerp-born musician better known as Hantrax. Whether it’s making an underground rave record inspired by the local funfair, his love for gabber, performing at the modern art museum M HKA or hosting a radio show with his father about modernist classical music on Radio Centraal – he talks about all his projects with an equal amount of passion. Hantrax is not your average producer.

“I see no distinction”, says the 36-year-old musician when we ask him about all the different projects he has been working on in the past 15 years. “I’m not looking for beauty; I’m looking for a structure. Music offers a form in which I can place certain references and express certain ideas.”

We meet at Studio Palermo in Antwerp, the creative space that houses Hantrax' music studio, which was founded by designer Ticuta Racovita-Cordemans and acclaimed tattoo artist Sven Rayen. Our conversation with Han is soundtracked by Sven's tattoo gun, putting ink on a customer's skin in the room next door. As we can see boats navigating De Schelde from this spot, Han talks us through the fourth full-length album he just released, as well as other projects that keep his mind occupied.

You recently released your new album, Paroxysm. What was it about?

“The record is partly based on ‘Extérieur, Nuit’, a movie by Jacques Bral. Apart from soundtracks, I have a deep love for French film from the '60s, '70s and '80s. So many beautiful pieces from that era have fallen into oblivion. Paroxysm is about tormented characters wandering through the night. It's a positive story that resonated with me.”

Individuality, and the tension that comes with it, is more interesting than the compromise.

Your live shows are quite an experience. By including dancers, installations and guest musicians on a stage, you seem to put a lot of value in the performance.

“I don’t distinguish music from other ideas I have. Everything comes together in my live performances. It’s my interpretation of anything that inspires me. The shows offer a structure in which different references can come together.”

Can you tell us a bit about Cityscape, the installation by Arocha & Schraenen that was part of your last live shows?

“Arocha & Schraenen are two friends of mine. Their work, Cityscape, consists of a lot of mirrors that are hung. When you’re looking right at it, it makes you feel like you’re standing in front of a city. Normally, when the work is presented in a gallery, they don't make any use of light and reflection. With this collaboration, they wanted to experiment with that.”

What are you looking for in your collaborations?

“I don't like compromises. In collaborations, the individuality of each person must remain. When I asked Kevin Strauwen (True Zebra, ed.) and Eva Van Deuren (Orphan Fairytale, ed.) to join me for the Artefact Festival show, I didn't want to meet them on middle ground. I want them to be them. Individuality, and the tension that comes with it, is more interesting than the compromise. When I was asked to make music for Anne-Mie van Kerckhoven's retrospective in M HKA for example, I approached that in the same way.”

I never even saw a genuine difference between one genre or the other. It has all just become a part of my language.

You seem to be a man of opposites. On the one hand, you perform in renowned venues like M HKA, but on the other hand, you make dance music that echoes gabber and hardstyle music; genres that, until recently, raised eyebrows. Your previous album was full of intimate piano improvisations, but the next release was inspired by the in-your-face music from the Sinksenfoor (the yearly funfair in Antwerp, ed). In other words, your work seems to go in all directions. Is that how you see it too?

“I just do what I like. When I was an 11-year-old kid, we did gabber parties at home. Then I started playing the piano. I was writing out classical solos of Bill Evans in school, where I did jazz studio studies. But when I started getting interested in music production, I used to be inspired by the sounds of the 808 and 909 drum machines or MS20 synthesizer. At the same time, I was into punk and hardcore music. Gradually, everything came together, because I have always been able to develop in all directions from early on. I never even saw a genuine difference between one genre or the other. It has all just become a part of my language. Everything is interchangeable; everything is a module. I will always evolve and be open to new things. It gives me freedom, and it makes me look forward to whatever’s going to cross my path in the future.”

Can you tell us a bit more about that future?

“At the moment, I’m rehearsing for new live shows, and I’ll be finishing a record with Yves De Mey soon. We recorded four hours of music based on existing pop themes, which we then stretched out and jammed upon dub-wise. I’m also working on an exposition at Casstl, a gallery in Antwerp by Carla Arocha, Stefan Schraenen and Luc Tuymans. They invited me to present my Hantrax Dolls, a side project in which I design textile dolls. Like any other endeavour I pursue, this project offers me a structure to put in certain references. It’s all the same process.”