In the early 80ties some ‘angry young men’ from Belgium started a Punk rock band -soon to be compared to the Clash, called the Scabs, meaning strikebreaker, a name frontman Guy Swinnen picked up from the BBC documentary about the British miners strike. In ’83 these fairly newcomers were asked to play at one of the world’s biggest festivals, Rock Werchter, to be included in a line-up of musical giants like Van Morrison, John Cale, U2 and Peter Gabriel. Belgium punk rock band the Scabs became legendary: honest and pure punk with an exciting live act.
After three decennia we meet up with the front man of the Scabs to see what is left of that anger and the punk ideology. Since their reunion in 2007 they have proven to be as sensational as in their early years: Guy Swinnen still gets upset by injustice and kicks in the opposite direction.
The performance at the Suikerrock festival was dedicated to friend and Scabs bass player Fons Sijmons (1955-2013).
Sanderz: The Scabs, named by Belgium magazine Knack, as one of the ‘Godfathers of Belgium Rock’ only perform occasionally, while you are still musically very involved with different projects. What is the difference between Guy Swinnen from the heydays of the Scabs and Guy Swinnen now?
Guy: Since the Scabs broke up, I’ve been broadening my field, playing with other musicians. In the days when we started the Scabs, at the end of the seventies, the early eighties, you dedicated yourself to one band only, ‘belonged’ to it so to speak: for us that band was the Scabs. On the one hand it had its upsides: the band became your family, which ignited greater musical synergy. To join up with other musicians was almost considered high treason.
By playing with other musicians and working with new projects, after the Scabs broke up, I was able to learn and grow musically. I played acoustically with other guitarists, like Patrick Riguelle and by showing me his way of playing, he taught me a lot. Although the Scabs were a safe haven, because of the tight framework there was very little room for improvement.
These days I perform solo with my band, doing theater productions as well as doing regular shows with other musicians. Sometimes I perform solo in smaller venues or in cafés: I like the variety from the intimate acoustic to the exuberance of the electric guitar.
Sanderz: The Scabs started out being true to the punk ideologies with ideas that run counter to the mainstream. After 25 years: what is left of these principles? In other words, can you still be who you want to be?
Guy: I’m still trying to be true to the philosophy. In the old days, the Scabs were considered a heavy punk band, but nowadays there has been a shift in the genre: bands have become a lot heavier, so being mainstream now is a lot more alternative than it used to be. Relatively speaking, it means that we are now playing ‘classic rock’, but especially in the lyrics we’re trying to be faithful to the punk-spirit. The most recent song I’ve written for the Scabs is called ‘Why’ and tells the socially critical story of those men and women who are working day and night and still can’t make ends meet. It worries me how tough it is on single people in this society. They should be offered a chance to survive financially, but it isn’t a reality as of yet.
Sanderz: ‘If this is life, I’m not impressed’ is a sentence from the Scabs-song ‘Nothing on my Radio’. Can you tell me something about this song?
Guy: ‘Nothing on my radio’ is a song about someone who can’t see the point in living anymore and is contemplating suicide. I specifically didn’t want to end the song with a definite positive or negative outcome, so instead the song ends with a lot of thoughts and questions of which ‘If this is life, I’m not impressed’ is one of them. It’s important to me to bring attention to the subject of suicide as patron of ‘Te Gek’ http://www.tegek.be, an organization that is trying to shatter the stigma of mental health problems. One in four people will suffer from a mental health problem at some point in their lives, whether it’s dementia, depression or addiction and so on. Even though those statistics mean that we all know someone close to us in distress, it’s still a difficult subject to talk about for most people. As patron of ‘Te Gek’ I’m fighting to lift that veil of silence. For that purpose we have made a number of cd’s with a variety of artists, who wrote songs on the topic.
Furthermore were cycling, a part of the Tour de France, for charity. This time the idea was to climb the Mont Ventoux, a mountain in the Provence region. Among the cyclists were: Rick de Leeuw (Dutch writer, poet, presenter, producer and former singer of the Tröckener Kecks) and Koen Buyse (front man of Zornik). Two years ago, I have climbed the Col du Galibier, with great difficulty, because I hadn’t been practicing enough. But luckily it’s less about the accomplishment than it is about raising awareness.
Sanderz: Ancienne Belgique was responsible for the revival of the Scabs. How was this made possible?
Guy: We have frequently discussed the possibilities of a reunion, but despite the substantial financial offers we kept putting it off, because I think we all share a deep sense of integrity on the subject of the Scabs. This was our band and if we would reunite, it shouldn’t be for the sake of money. Until Kurt Overbergh, artistic-director at Ancienne Belgique, suggested that we open the series REWIND with our album ‘Royalty in Exile’: the idea was to take a well-known album and perform it in its entirety. This concept was taking the essence of music seriously, so we felt privileged. It was an amazing experience to be sold out for three days, playing for 6000 people. As a result we were asked by Herman Schueremans of Rock Werchter to play at Werchter Classic. It moved us in the right direction. All the old arguments were gone, which enabled us to renew our friendships.
Sanderz: Was the cd ‘the singles’ a direct result of this reunion?
Guy: We were on the verge of putting the live -recordings taken at the Ancienne Belgique on an album, but the label voted against it. I think that was a mistake in judgment, because those recordings really rocked and the response from the audience was great. So we made a singles-album adding one new track called ‘Why’, the result of a label versus the Scabs compromise (laughs).
Sanderz: The third Big Ask, Sing for the Climate with ‘Do It Now’ brought many celebrities and non-famous citizens together to sing for the climate. What was the influence of this action on political Belgium? In your opinion, what needs to be done to bring about a positive change?
Guy: A one-off isn’t enough. You have to demonstrate over and over again to leave a profound impression. I believe its Nic Balthazar’s (TV producer/presenter/film director, organizer of the Big Ask Belgium/Sing for the Climate) intension to organize the event on a yearly bases. He can always count on my support.
But it’s not easy to make a change within the political system. You have to convince both politicians and public to make the necessary adjustments. The public, who is willing to change, will subsequently influence the politics by voting.
Sanderz: What does Seashepherd signify for you?
Guy: I’m actively supporting Seashepherd (www.seashepherd.org) and I’ve been asked to get involved on a larger scale. But I’ve told them: ‘I’m not a vegetarian and I eat fish now and then.’ And I believe that if you want to dedicate yourself to a cause, you have to be consistent and dive in whole heartedly. You cannot judge and still eat meat or fish.
Sanderz: There’s fish from sustainable sources……
Guy: True. I frequently confront myself, try to cut down on meat and get better educated on the subject (wwf-fish guide). But I still enjoy a freshly caught trout from the pond that my neighbor brings me once in a while. That doesn’t mean that I value Seashepherd and, for example, their efforts so save the Risso dolphins in Taiji (Japan) less, on the contrary. But it should be a legislator’s job, though they fail to take legal measures. The bottom line will always be money.
So I believe in supporting Seashepherd 100%, because if the oceans die, we die. People should realize that there is more out there than making a profit. Nowadays to live in harmony with nature is seriously out of balance.
Sanderz: National Sweater Day (2010) is mainly intended for schoolchildren to become aware of the climate problems. The song the kids had written for that day (lyrics to ‘Mia’ by Gorky) was performed by you. What are your thoughts on the campaign?
Guy: It was great. Those are simple solutions to raise environmental awareness in children. If you want to raise awareness you have to start with kids. When I sang the song they wrote about global climate change, I got to witness how involved they are from up close. It’s an admirable initiative.
Sanderz: What do you do in your daily life to reduce your carbon footprint?
Guy: I reduce my footprint to the extent possible, but as a musician I drive a lot. Although I patiently reduce my speed, the reduction might be just a drop in the ocean. But if you drive long distances, the time saved by speeding doesn’t outweigh the safety, relaxation and the gas you save, which is an environmental as well as a financial benefit. And when I pay someone a visit I’ll ask for tap water instead of bottled water, because of the plastic soup in the ocean.
Sanderz: Who are your musical hero’s and what inspires you to write a song?
Guy: My biggest inspiration, especially lyrically, is Bob Dylan. Another of my all-time heroes is Neil Young. I’m old school, which doesn’t mean I cannot appreciate the music that’s made nowadays. My son is the singer/guitarist for Tubelight and Double Veterans and I advise him to pay serious attention to the importance of lyrics: it’s as much about the melody, as it is about the contents. Otherwise I derive inspiration from personal experiences or observations, those things I notice that upset me. That’s where songs like ‘Why’ originate from.
‘Why’ was written during the time the Ford factory in Genk got closed down. Belgium politicians are pawns of the multinationals. While the multinationals are given the freedom to do what they want, neo liberal voices are telling us that we should do as we’re told and not to strike. They’re scared the multinationals will pack up and leave the area. Everyone is afraid to hurt the economy. I think to stay quiet is bullshit, because the multinationals will relocate anyway in search of cheap, underpaid labor. There should be a union on a global level to defend working conditions and prevent underpayment. Those should be human rights, but we have hit rock bottom.
Sanderz: What, to you, are the most significant changes in the music industry since the Scabs recorded their debut single ‘Frozen Faces’ 1981 (So Called Friends)?
Guy: The music business is changing completely. The cd or the album is quietly disappearing. People are downloading single songs or tracks. In the world of downloading and streaming there’s still a lot of cybercrime, leaving the artists out in the cold. It might change some day.
I’m all for new technologies, but I miss the old school process of making an album, to choose about 12 tracks which become part of a whole. To lose that to the ‘single song’ is something that pains me sometimes. With single songs, commercializing becomes far more important; compromises are made at the expense of creativity. On an album you have songs that aren’t suitable to release as a single, but that doesn’t lessen their originality.
Sanderz: The biographical Scabs hit ‘Hard Times’ was recently covered by singer Free Souffriau. What is your opinion of her interpretation of this song?
Guy: It’s always an honor when someone is covering one of your songs. The Scabs-fans have responded with mixed emotions, but I like the transformation. It has been shortened and stripped down and they have changed the bass line slightly, so it feels more like a ballad than a rock song. Personally I regard this version as a compliment, but it’s up to the audience to decide whether they like it better than the original or not.
More about the Scabs @ www.thescabs.be