lIn 2002, Belgian duo Stephen and David Dewaele released a mix album called As Heard on Radio Soulwax Pt 2 under the name 2ManyDJs. It sold half a million copies and its playful, frenetic variety appealed to people equally enthusiastic about Daft Punk and the Velvet Underground, garage rock and electroclash. However, there was initially some resistance from many clubs. “Half the people thought, ‘We’re here for house music, what are you playing?'” Stephen recalled. “A quarter was like, ‘Okay, I agree.’ And 10% were like, ‘Oh my God, you played the Stooges!’ Those were the people we did it for. Gradually that room shifted to anyone saying, “Give us the Stooges!” The world was turned upside down.”
This month, when the album comes to streaming platforms for the first time, the brothers will throw a 20th anniversary party at Brixton Academy, London, where they will play a souped-up audiovisual version of the mix. “We needed a lot of convincing,” says David. “It is not in our nature to look back. But that particular record still sounds fresh because we didn’t really know what we were doing. If listening to old records is like looking at old photos of yourself, then this is different. It’s like looking at a picture of yourself, but you had no idea there was a camera. We were just messing around.”
The Dewaeles drink green tea in a cafe in their old East London neighborhood after some record shopping; their collective collection numbers somewhere north of 50,000. They are by far the neatest DJ/producers I’ve ever met. Stephen’s suit is navy blue; David’s is tweed, complemented by a burgundy knitted tie. They could easily be mistaken for the producer and director of a movie that won the Golden Lion in Venice. They are great enthusiasts. The more alive they become, the more their answers overlap, as if they come from one brain.
“We never expected it to be so successful,” Stephen says of the mix album. “2ManyDJs was an afterthought.”
“Honestly, we thought it would take us three or four months and then we’d have to go back to the Soulwax record,” David agrees.
Their rock band, Soulwax, was doing pretty well at the time – supporting acts like Coldplay and Muse and winning several awards in Belgium and the Netherlands – but their unhinged Hang the DJ mixes for Studio Brussel radio station generated enough buzz for their record label Pias to suggest they release an official mix before getting started on the third album. The Dewaeles were sceptical. “We mixed Kraftwerk with Eleanor Rigby and we were like, ‘Good luck cleaning up!'” Stephen recalls. Pias couldn’t get the Beatles, but they did license two-thirds of the songs on the wishlist. The Dewaeles put the mix together in a few weeks using vinyl turntables and Pro Tools software. “It was like a puzzle,” says David. “We had to get from A to B and these are the tools we had.”
The mix was a surprise sensation, named album of the year by the New York Times and acclaimed by David Bowie. The Dewaeles became the Belgian hub of a network of like-minded DJs, including Erol Alkan of Trash in London (“almost our third brother,” says Stephen), Optimo in Glasgow and James Murphy of LCD Soundsystem in New York. “I think we were all indie kids who were into electronic music and we started mixing up all the things we wanted to hear,” says Stephen.
Less fortunately, their witty fusions (Skee-Lo raps about the Breeders, Destiny’s Child sang at 10cc) accelerated the craze for mashups, which soon burned out with a plethora of clunky novelty hybrids. They never made another one. “Some record labels said, ‘Here’s our back catalog. Can you make a mashup?” says Stephen with a grimace. “And we were like, ‘No, no, no, that’s not why we did it. And you were also the people who said we couldn’t solve it when we asked you!’ It went against our ethos.”
“Maybe it’s more fun if it’s a little naughty and you’re not supposed to do it,” adds David. They have a punkish, contrarian tendency. As soon as there is a formula for success, they lose interest. That story about everyone expecting the Stooges? Then they stopped playing the Stooges.
The international success of 2ManyDJs caused an identity crisis as the brothers struggled to make the third Soulwax album with producer Flood in London. “We sat in his attic in Kilburn and tried to make dark electronic music, not really knowing what we wanted to do,” says Stephen. “Are we a group? Or are we DJs?”
When that album finally came out in 2004, it was called Any Minute Now as a joke about missed deadlines. Still not happy about it, the brothers reworked some songs from the club beer spin-off Nite Versions and toured there instead, first as Soulwax and then as 2ManyDJs. “We made it in a week and a half,” says Stephen. “And that’s kind of what Flood wanted to do with us. It just took a weird journey to get there.
Perhaps the Dewaeles were destined to become DJs. Their father, Jackie, was a Belgian radio star by the name of DJ Zaki. “Our dad would get records sent to him sooner than anyone else,” David says proudly. “You could call him the original influencer.” Their mother took on the task of filtering the mail and recommending songs to play. Now in their 70s, the older Dewaeles are still curious; Wet Leg is a current favourite. Their open-mindedness inspired their sons’ adventures in music.
When Stephen was 23 and David was 18, they formed Soulwax. “We think it’s the worst band name ever,” says Stephen.
“It’s a stupid combination of words,” confirms David.
Their five-year age difference meant they had different friendship groups and career plans (Stephen went to film school), so the band brought them close for the first time. They shared an obsession with Californian stoner rock band Kyuss and convinced Kyuss’ producer Chris Goss to work on their 1996 debut album Leave the Story Untold. In the hometown of techno label R&S they were therefore outliers. “Everyone was trying to make techno,” says Stephen. “We ended up doing a little guitar music in response to it.” R&S producer Frank De Wulf came up with the idea of working together as “a Ghent version of the Chemical Brothers”, which is no different from what they eventually became.
The Dewaeles returned to Ghent before the pandemic, after a decade in London, during which they both became fathers. They’ve built a studio called Deewee where they can record at their leisure with label signings such as London’s Sworn Virgins and Ghent fellow duo Charlotte Adigéry and Bolis Pupul. They also designed an expensive high-end sound system, Despacio, with James Murphy. “Nobody makes money there,” David says ruefully. Even though they travel less (age, parentage), they still enjoy DJing because, says David, “There’s always a new generation.” In Ibiza, they say, most clubbers only know them from their massive 2019 remix of Canadian producer Marie Davidson’s Work It and have no idea they’re a band too.
Remixes are crucial to the Soulwax/2ManyDJs nexus. The Dewaeles have applied rubbery beats, ping pong synths and filthy rave rock riffs to everyone from Daft Punk and Gorillaz to Robbie Williams and the Rolling Stones. Most of their notable remixes, including MGMT, Gossip, and Marie Davidson, were not official commissions. They just loved the song and wanted to give it more impact on the dance floor. “It’s an economy,” Stephen explains. “We remix stuff like Soulwax because we need it as 2ManyDJs. The best are the ones we go to, can we do this? So far, no artist has turned down a Soulwax remix.
The Brixton show will feature old friends from 2002, Erol Alkan and Miss Kittin, alongside Adigéry. Since then, says David, “the meaning of music to people has changed. We come from a time when you were actively looking for music. To us it felt like we were living in black and white and every now and then you saw a glimpse of color. Now we live in multicolor all the time. So music means less. We saw the end of when it had this cultural impact. That’s sad to say.”
“Oh Dave,” Stephen chides, “I don’t know if it’s true. Perhaps it will be versatile [young people]: music and style and images. They try to create their own world. It’s not that different; it’s just much wider.”
This is a rare point of disagreement. Perhaps the brothers’ unlikely path from Kyuss fanboys to international DJs proves that predictions are best avoided. “We don’t really fit in anywhere,” David says, pointing to his suit. “Look at us. And I think that’s still what gets us excited.”
“We like doing non-obvious things,” agrees Stephen. “The nice thing is when you can piss people off sometimes.”