Meeting with belgian drummer Antoine Pierre, a few months after the release of The Sketches of Nowhere, volume 2 of his Urbex projet.
He is relaxed, smiling ear to ear. We talk about quantum physics, ecology, and the World Cup while sipping our Belgian beer. Antoine Pierre has the straightforward approach of someone who knows how to appreciate things. He doesn’t take anything for granted. And for good reason. A fast-moving career reinforces his feeling that you have to work hard and keep a cool head.
Belgian school: asymmetrical measures and experimental jazz
He owes this discipline to his grandfather, with whom he was very close, as well as to friends who give constructive criticism. His close family also contributed to his personal development. The Liège native grew up with a music-loving mother and a father who was a jazz guitarist, intelligent parents who pushed him at opportune moments without forcing him. They helped him pay for his first apartment with a roommate when he decided to move to Brussels. The idea was to become bilingual by going to the Flemish Conservatory. It didn’t work out. But why see it as a problem when you have the most beautiful language at your disposal? “For me, jazz is the state of mind of being open to what’s going on around you.” Antoine is no purist. At the conservatory, he absorbed the teachings of Stéphane Galland, a key player on the Belgian scene whom Antoine had known since he was little; he and his father were from the same region. After all, Belgium is a small country. But the Belgian school is firmly rooted, full of asymmetrical measures and experimental jazz. That was perfectly in line with Antoine’s first loves; he had listened to a lot of rock when he was younger. The fusion gradually worked together with the music that filled the house: his father’s ECM collection. Antonio Sanchez was the first drummer who caught his eye, during a concert with Pat Metheny. After that, it was decided: Antoine abandoned the brass of the saxophone—his first attempt at music—in favor of the cymbals. The rest of the story is just chance in his eyes: two prizes in 2014 (Toots Thielemans Jazz Award) and 2015 (SABAM Young Talent Jazz Award) to celebrate the beginning of his fledgling career.
The myth of New York
In fact, the notion of a career is ambiguous for him. In 2014, he went to the prestigious New School for Art and Contemporary Music in New York, and something clicked. “There’s a myth with New York, and when you’re in jazz, the myth is even greater. Artistically, it’s huge, the quality of the concerts is incredible. I made tons of progress that year because I worked like crazy.” But the corollary is high expectations at all times: “Having deep personal relationships with people in the United States is nearly impossible. It’s so competitive that you can’t relax.” And Antoine confides that this year was emotionally difficult, an attitude that he calls European, as it would be easier to live as an artist in Europe than in the United States. But still very modestly, Antoine recognizes the hand of fate: “I was lucky. I was at the right place at the right time, and now l make a living entirely from my concerts.” In the land of the self-made man, you could say they you make your luck. It’s a philosophical difference that the Belgian drummer admits: “These days, you have to know how to sell yourself; you didn’t have to in the past. What I’m missing in Brussels is motivation and determination.”
The demands of the New York scene shaped the young musician. It was during that year that he wrote most of the music for URBEX, his first project as a leader and a reference to urban exploration. The video of “Metropolitan Adventure” perfectly illustrates this dialectic between the urban and the natural which amazes him. The former is omnipresent. “New York is a city that reeks of jazz”, Antoine says ironically. Unsurprisingly, he pursued his exploration of urban transformations at the Jazz Station, a former train station in Brussels that was renovated to make a jazz club. That was no doubt what already fascinated him as a child, when he was thinking of becoming an architect. He likes lines and geometric ratio, and equates a musical score to a canvas. But on Sketches of Nowhere, his second album with URBEX, he preferred to free himself of that model: “The parameter of the structure shifted to the improvisation rather than the writing.” And in this process, we find a spontaneity that allows us to stay open to what’s around us, to go back to his definition of jazz. “I don’t have any particular methods, but usually, something just stays in your ear, and the only way I can get rid of it is to write it down, then I generally just leave it alone for a few weeks, and then I play it on the piano. I try to find harmonic paths.” So he doesn’t write much for the drums. “As a leader, I’m more inspired to a certain extent by Thom Yorke and Ravel than by Max Roach.”
Miles Davis, ubiquity and engaged art
Miles Davis remains his primary influence. “I don’t understand how anyone can dislike him. He did everything, from bebop to his wish to collaborate with Hendrix. He’s the one who showed the most talent.” However, he perceives Sketches of Nowhere, which is greatly influenced by Miles and electric sounds, as less well received by purists. “For a long time, I closed my eyes to the elitist aspect because I’m part of that world, but when you think about it, there’s a fear of meeting people where they are.” Like Miles’s career, jazz is plural, and Antoine never enjoys himself more than when he’s playing for novices. “That doesn’t mean dumbing it down, but it’s important to know who your public is.” The man with perfect pitch has a certain idea of attention to others. He applies this humanistic principle even more so with his group, as the benevolent leader he is: “You have to know how to listen to your group. I feel that the piece is mastered when they can go beyond what is written.” More globally, Antoine feels the necessity of listening carefully to his environment: “This is a complicated time, and now nobody takes to the streets, and musicians who think that we don’t have a role to play in all that are wrong. Art in general is a force for change.”
So he’s a committed artist. His next project is called NEXTAPE, as in “the next monkey.” It will dig into the drummer’s rock past to take a dystopian look into the future. Through rich bass lines and a greater emphasis on rhythmic sequences, it will focus on what we would see in a society free of man. Here, nature may reclaim its rights: a new structure, and a new environment.
- 1992: Birth in Liège (Belgium)
- 2010-2014: Studies at the Flemish Conservatory in Brussels
- 2014-2015: Year at New School for Art and Contemporary Music in New York
- 2016: Release of “Urbex,” his first solo project
- 2018: Release of “Sketches of Nowhere,” his second solo project and continuation of Urbex