Bert Barten (ex-XYMOX, NYX): Twist of Shadows

bert bartenMit der EP "Blind Hearts" setzen XYMOX 1987 ihren Schlusspunkt beim 4AD Label. XYMOX waren für das britische Independent Label zu groß, aber auch zu poppig geworden. Die Band wollte den amerikanischen Markt erobern und wechselte zu Wing Records / Polygram. Der Plan des kommerziellen Durchbruchs ging mit dem folgenden Album "Twist of Shadows" (1989) und den erfolgreichen 12" "Obsession", "Imagination" und "Blind Hearts" durchaus auf, allerdings zu dem Preis stärker werdenden Spannungen innerhalb der Band.  

Auf "Twist of Shadows" klangen die Niederländer moderner, internationaler und zeigten erstmals stärker als bisher ihre Affinität zu Dance- und Popsounds ohne jedoch auf die gewohnte melancholische Tiefe in ihren Songs zu verzichten. Schon für die Aufnahmen der "Blind Hearts" EP stieß der Multimedia-Künstler Bert Barten zur Band, der zuvor sich in den Niederlande einen Namen mit verschiedenen Tanz- und Theaterperformances gemacht hatte, von denen "Buried Alive" und "Nuwa Koheja" als Soundtrack veröffentlicht wurden.

Schon früh verband Bert Barten in seinen Arbeiten verschiedene Kunstformen wie Theater, Film, Musik, Visuals Arts und Tanz miteinander. Die Musik auf "Buried Alive" und "Nuwa Koheja" bietet für die mid80iger nicht untypischen, elektronisch produzierten Wave/Pop, der teils minimalistisch, teils recht poppig klingt. Ein ganz eigenes Flair erfährt die Musik aber auf "Nuwa Koheja" durch die niederländischen Texte. Die Alben blieben ein Geheimtipp, aber auch heute noch sind die Songs " 'n Spel met wie?" oder "Alleen Met Z'n Tweeen" in Minimal-Wave-Playlists zu finden oder werden in Clubs gespielt.

Nach den Sessions zum "Twist of Shadows" Album endete seine Arbeit mit XYMOX. Bert Barten wandte sich der Ambientmusik zu und feiert in den neunziger Jahren Underground-Erfolge mit seinem Ambient Dance Outfit NYX. Aber die Musik blieb neben erfolgreichen Theater- und Filmproduktionen nur ein Ausdruck seine Kreativität: “Eventually it doesn’t matter to me what medium I use. I care about the emotional experience of the spectator.

Im unruhr-Interview erinnert sich Bert Barten an seine Zeit bei XYMOX und berichtet von den Schattenseiten eines Major-Vertrags, Egoismen, Gier, aber von auch wundervoller Musik.

Spass ohne BertHow did you become a band member of XYMOX?
I was having dinner with a friend in a restaurant in Amsterdam and Ronnie and Anke were sitting at a table next to us. It was around 1986. We heard each other talk about music. We turned to each other and started talking about composing etc. At that time I had not heard from the Clan of XYMOX before. The next day we met in the studio. Ronny told me he had made two albums for 4AD records. We listened to them together and for me it was one of the best music I heard for a long time. It had a very International sound and it connected straight away the gothic vibes I was in at that time.

The trouble all starting bands have is that they make a lot of demo's and as soon as the first album is out they can make a second album. But at the third album the demo's run out and it becomes difficult to write new material, especially under time pressure from a record company. Ronny was searching for new material and after listening to each other’s
material we decided to start working together on new songs from that time on.

Was it only for the sessions of the "Blind Hearts / A Million Things" EP or also for the "Twist of Shadows" album? You played keyboards but have you also been involved in the songwriting?
We worked together very intensely for about nine months on the EP and the album Twist of Shadows. We wrote a lot of material together, a lot that didn't make it on any record but most of it was used on the album Twist of Shadows. I was not involved in the albums before and after the EP and the Twist of Shadows CD.

But why aren't you mentioned on Twist of Shadows as composer and musician? Isn't it frustrating to go by the board? 
I think it was on purpose so that they would not have to pay me. The trouble with the US is that the record company's make a company around an album. So if one starts a procedure and is in court for a few years, at the moment right before the judge makes a decision they move the company to another state and one can start with the whole procedure again. At that time that was a normal procedure for a record company.
So I was advised to leave it. A friend of the mine once told me: that if you just keep on working the money will come, you don't know from which side but it will appear. But if you walk around with hatred in your heart, there is no space for the good things to come your way.
So I took his advice very seriously and he was right.

tos12inches1_150pxWhat are your memories at that time? How was the mood in the band just before their commercial breakthrough?

As long as I have known the group there was always a lot of tension between the members. Ronny used to do a lot with Anke but also a lot on his own. It felt strange to the other group members that I came on board. It was always a big grey area who wrote what and who inspired who. All the members even the manager at that time used to fight a lot about things like this. To me the end result was always the most important.

The ideas and melodies I brought to the table were more accessible more commercial than the material XYMOX had written before. Ronny and I used to argue a lot about it. It gave XYMOX a push in another direction. At the same time I suggested to leave the “Clan of” behind and call the group just XYMOX. Later on “Clan of” appeared again in the name. The commercial breakthrough was connected with the changing of the name. With the return to the dark side the “Clan of” appeared again.

I've read on your website, that a lot of songs that were written during the "Twist of Shadows" sessions didn't make it on the record. You mentioned that these demos are beautiful pieces of music. Can you tell us more about these forgotten songs? And what were the reasons for being unused on Twist of Shadows?

There is only room for 70 minutes on a CD. Sometimes that’s not enough. There are a lot of cassettes laying around in forgotten drawers in my studio from that time. But music is created in a certain place and time span. And sometimes it is better to leave it there. After the release and the touring around the Twist of Shadows album I had a feeling that Ronny wanted to return to the original Clan of XYMOX with a darker edge to the songs. And that is exactly what happened.

How important was producer Peter Walsh for the sound of Twist of Shadows? For some fans this album sounds too much polished and too clean? What do you think?

Pete Walsh and his brother Greg were very important to the sound. I think that Greg, a fabulous keyboard player was even more important to the sound than Pete. He had all the latest keyboards and synths at his disposal and much of these sounds made it to the album. I must agree that it is very polished but that was also due to the studio we were in. A very high tech digital studio in Sussex.

Every musician has to confront himself one day with the high tech surroundings and possibilities of studios today. I personally am adding scratches hiss and very strange eq’s to my music to get that rough edge back into the sound.

Twist of Shadows was also the most clean high tech production I have worked on until today. I personally prefer a rougher approach. If you listen to my productions under the name NYX with the song "Hypnos" of the album Axis Mundi you hear what I mean by that.

Why did you leave XYMOX?
We were working for nine months on the EP and the Album and after everything was finished we started talking about the contracts with a new manager. These conversations were a disaster. He wanted to put as much money in his own pocket as possible. It is the old story of managers and musicians that get ripped of. Until now I have never had any money, for all the work that has been done. Though 300.000 albums had been sold in the United States alone. I even had to pay my own flight ticket back to Amsterdam after finishing the album. Ronny backed up his manager so I decided it was time to leave.

I look back at those days without regret, I learned a lot about music production, the music business and all that belongs to it. All this experience I used with my own music and theatre productions in my later career.

Have you still contact to some (ex-)XYMOX members?

I have met Pieter Nooten a few times. I tried to work with him on a theatre project that never saw the light. I have very good memories about Pieter and Anke. I have never spoken with Ronny since, maybe we should after all these years and share our common experience and wisdom about life until now.

In your work you combine theatre, film, music, visuals arts and dance. But how important is the music for you?

Music is still the deepest emotion I work with. Sound is a medium that is not visual, you bring air into movement that ripples down on the eardrum. It is working with the finest of energies that we know. For me it always starts with the music.

Later on I learned a lot about storytelling in theatre and film and I am using that a lot in my compositions of today. Nowadays I also use this skill as a music and story-advisor for game designers.

Furthermore the sound of silence is becoming more important to me every day. As a Zen meditation teacher I give silence and storytelling retreats in France.

Some of your own songs, you've written in the early 80th, are still played in underground clubs ('n Spel met wie? or Alleen Met Z'n Tweeen). What do you think about your "own" discography?
My own discography is quite strange one. For my first band Marsh Mallow I have written my first 40 songs when I was sixteen. I experimented with Psychedelic music and Happenings on stage. My inspiration came from The Doors, Iron Butterfly, Soft Machine, Collectors and the early Pink Floyd as all the not so well known psychedelic rockband’s from those days. You can hear that good old Hippie touch in all of my works until today.

Buried AliveWhen I became involved in theatre the music I wrote became more conceptual. One of the first projects was around the album Buried Alive. It was the early eighties and the music really reflexes the sign of the times. It was the first time I worked in a real 24 track studio. That was unique for those days because there were not many studios like that in the Netherlands. The biggest studio until than was a 16 track studio in Hilversum from Philips were David Bowie was recording his Diamond Dogs album, So you can imagine how impressed I was with the sound that came out of that studio. But is is of no comparison of what even home studios nowadays can produce. The music and the lyrics of Buried Alive were about my own emotions and feelings in that time span.

The music you refer to in your question is from a theater play called Nuwa Kojeha that we played in discotheques. It is an anagram of “The new world is coming to get you”. It explains the “Werdegang” of a loner to his surrounding world.

After that I started working with the Clan of XYMOX on the EP and the album Twist of Shadows. When I came back to Amsterdam I started working on my own projects. First I produced several other artists like Thandi Moore, Smiles Mandla Makama, Caroline and several others.

In the meantime I opened my own studio named Ground Control and there is started working with friends on a project we called NYX. Until now we made two albums Amor Fati and Axis Mundi. For me personally the NYX Axis Mundi album is the most important. It is also a concept album with a story, so if you’re into is out on some headphones and listen to the album in one go. It’s a real spiritual psycho trip.

After that I made an album called MA which is my most meditative album until now. I use it a lot with my silence retreats in France.

From that time on I was also asked to direct and produce big event theatre productions. It started with The Tempest of Shakespeare than Dante’s La Divina Commedia after that the complete Faust from Goethe than The Odyssee from Homer and the last one last year Don Quichot de La Mancha from Cervantes. For all these spectacles my friends and I wrote the music. It’s like composing film music:  Special effects and ambient atmospheres melting with the arrangements and compositions. Complex but very inspiring and rewarding if you see the play come to live when you mix the music to it.

Now I am back into my studio again to record an album with songs that I have written between al the theatre work and we are planning a small tour with a lot of film material and a few friends on stage.

For more information you can keep up with my website:

Interview mit Anka Wolbert (2005)
Interview mit Pieter Nooten (2006) 
Interview mit Ronny Moorings (Clan of XYMOX) (2004)

(Clan of) XYMOX Biographie:
Teil 1: Subsequent Pleasures (1983 - 1985)
Teil 2: Medusa (1986 - 1987)
Teil 3: Imagination (1988 - 1991)
Teil 4: Metamorphosis (1992 - 2001)
Teil 5: Vaselyn, Hypercycle, Born for Bliss (Post-XYMOX)