Brutus have been whipping up a storm for a while now. Since 2017, the Belgian trio have been toting the kind of power that tears down houses and shapes landscapes. Yet, the biggest change has happened for its three core members – drummer and vocalist Stefanie Mannaerts, bassist Peter Mulders, and guitarist Stijn Vanhoegaerden – during the months when everything stood still.
Rearing its head while the trio were in the later stages of promoting 2019’s ‘Nest’, the largest tour they had planned to date was eventually cancelled. Winding up with nothing but time on their hands, this not only allowed them to hone their perfectionism and produce their third album, ‘Unison Life’, but also gave them a chance to catch up as people rather than just bandmates.
As Stefanie mentions smiling, “This record felt like team building for two years because before the pandemic, we were at our busiest.” But with tours cancelled and nothing happening on the horizon, the three of them continued to meet in their rehearsal space. “Sometimes we played, sometimes we just talked for eight hours,” she says. “So, for me, this record is especially very important because it wasn’t only work, work, work!”
It also gave Stefanie a chance to check in with herself, as she readily admits while laughing, “I’m a person who is very good at ignoring stuff.” But with everything standing still, these repressed thoughts and feelings began to surface. “When you’re very busy, you can do that for a very long time,” she says. “But when everything was gone, there were no impulses, no work, no friends, no shows, no music, and the only thing that was left was stuff in my head.”
Unable to skip it, she instead turned it into ‘Unison Life’. An album that continues Brutus’ trajectory of swirling, amassed sounds, but fine tunes and pushes it to new limits, while housing Stefanie’s amassed emotional junk. Even the title refers to her ambitions for a “life that’s nice and in harmony and no discussions. But the reality is it’s not like that.”
This is where the fractious nature of the sound comes into play. For instance, ‘Liar’ deals with “lies [getting] you eventually if you make something up it will always come back,” through searing guitar lines and barreling drums – but Brutus aren’t solely dealing in negatives. That would make ‘Unison Life’ a lie in itself. Through all this soul-searching and digging through the internal rubble, “you also discover positive things that you can do to try to balance everything out. It’s not all about lying and ignoring,” Stefanie laughs.
On the idea of reflection, just before the global lockdowns, Brutus released a book. Containing photographs from their very first show in 2013 way up to their largest headline show in 2019, it offered itself up as an unexpected project in reflection. While going through it with a friend, as they were asking Stefanie about the shows, she began recalling moments and locations with a fondness that only a life-changing decision to chase a dream can. She then realised that something special had happened to the band – eventually (“It took us three hours to go through the book!”) .
“At the end, I was realising like, ‘Oh my God, we are so lucky’. We did so much stuff because I’m a very focused person,” she beams. “And in the beginning, sometimes I was like, it’s normal that we play a lot because we rehearse like 10,000 hours a year, and we give up everything for this and blah, blah, blah, but sometimes I was so blinded by playing good shows and very high focus that I sometimes didn’t see what we were doing. And when the lockdown made us pause everything, that’s the first time it really hit me what we did.”
Continuing, she mentions that “sometimes it feels that I just took a nap and I’m here like, last time I was awake I was 23,” she laughs. “And then now it’s the for, first time since I looked through that, I try to live life in the moment and appreciate everything and everyone and what we’ve done.”
While this is all well and good, without music – and new music especially – nothing will carry on. Fortunately, with Unison Life, Brutus’ continuation is more colossal than ever, mostly thanks to that drive Stefanie mentions. Given they had so much time, it let the perfectionist in the three of them take over.
Recalling their first couple of records, Stefanie says of 2017’s ‘Burst’, “The first record was, oh, we can go to the cool guy, and we have to record a super tight album – it has to sound super big, and we cannot make any mistakes… The focus was all on the quality of playing and technical ability.” For 2019’s ‘Nest’, moving forward looked like “maybe we should think more and talk more about the lyrics, or let’s search for different sounds. But those were just baby steps.” Indeed, ‘Unison Life’ is quite simply a self-assigned challenge of “let’s try to make the best songs we could ever make.”
No half-hearted attempts have been made. Brutus are a band built of drive – a steam-powered rattling and shaking fuck-off locomotive ready to bulldoze any in their way – and this resulted in the greatest revelation for Stefanie.
“I never thought we could make this record,” she says. “In the sense that there were so many man-hours that came into this record. I’m not exaggerating, we were at least three days a week in the rehearsal room, and then I’m not even talking about the time at home, thinking about it, writing more… I was surprised by the amount of work we did, and we kept on questioning ourselves. Like it was never good enough.”
Certainly, when three perfectionists set foot into a room to create the best songs they possibly can – and time isn’t an issue – what do you expect? But even Stefanie is surprised at their level of dedication and focus for ‘Unison Life”s ambition.
“It just got worse,” she marvels at her admission. “Like, you always are getting more and more yourself the older you get, and I think we get more and more perfectionist.” This studious, focused nature has been with Brutus from day dot. “From the first demo we ever recorded, it was super serious. It was just like everyone’s life was depending on it.” They’d all dropped everything else to maintain the dream. “So I can say this band was very serious from the first show, but I think it’s for the better. This is what we do. This is what we love. We have to keep on questioning ourselves and not get lazy or not get settled or comfortable in what this is because, in my opinion, it changes every record more into what we really are.”
‘Unison Life’ has ultimately led to Brutus not only understanding who they are – and most likely always will be – both as a band and as people, but it’s proved, and also tested, the essence of this Belgian trio. This is something Stefanie relishes. “It keeps me sharp,” she says. “I always want to improve, and we always want to improve. For me, the most beautiful thing about this band is we want to make each other proud – play good shows for my mum and my dad. That’s still the power of the band, that we are always in the front seat like never sleeping in the back… but maybe sometimes on tour,” she laughs.
And, perhaps more importantly, for Stefanie, it’s resulted in her preference of backing away from confrontation or letting things wallow inside becoming – mostly – a thing of the past. “I still am struggling very hard to have discussions, but yeah, I’ve changed a lot,” she admits. “A lot of people next to me say to me that some things have changed and that I’m not in my head the whole time, and now I just try to say something when I’m feeling something – but not all the time, because that’s annoying!”
Taken from the November issue of Upset. Brutus’ album ‘Unison Life’ is out 21st October.