It’s the evening before the release of Unison Life, Brutus’ third album, when I speak to drummer and vocalist Stefanie Mannaerts. She’s relaxing at home, looking forward to sharing the remaining songs that form the Belgian heavy trio’s latest record. “I have the feeling we have the best fan base ever,” she warmly enthuses. “They’re so loyal. When we put out the first single from this record ‘Dust’, the reactions were insane. We’d been away for two years, the world is fucked up – even more fucked up than before – so you think, ‘who will care about these three idiots from Belgium?’ and then we released it and it was insane. We are so fucking lucky.”
Stefanie frequently refers to Brutus as “lucky” throughout our chat, but it’s clear that the band who she playfully describes as “three idiots”’ have created their own success. From their 2017 debut Burst, to 2019’s Nest, up to the current Unison Life, Stefanie and her bandmates Stijn Vanhoegaerden (guitar) and Peter Mulders (bass) have delivered relentless, genre-blending, powerful heavy music that’s impressed the likes of Deftones, Dave Grohl, Simon Neil and many more. They have combined their collective talents to create records that absolutely command, and deserve the attention of their loyal fans.
It’s perhaps unsurprising to know that Stefanie has immense personal discipline when it comes to songwriting. When approaching the music for Unison Life, she set herself the “impossibly high standard” of writing the best songs she’s ever written, a “two-year quest of trying to do better.” This wasn’t a torturous process though. The intensity of her vision allowed Stefanie to truly focus on enjoying creating the record with her bandmates, which is reflected in the sheer force of its sound and her triumphant, self-possessed vocals.
“For me, it was the right mindset to start writing the album,” she elaborates. “As a person, I am very black or white, or I am yes or I am no, so I’m a bit extreme in my thoughts. That’s not always easy, but that’s how I am. We had so much time with this record. We had eighteen months to work on it, normally, we only have a quarter of that time to write. So having that high standard was a necessary thing for me. When I look back, I’m happy that I was so strict with myself.
It was not a short process, but it was not this draining journey. It was very reflective. We went the extra mile, and then the extra extra mile, we questioned every lyric, every riff, every note. We talked about it over and over again. I have the feeling we did everything we could to make the record how it is now. In terms of the band, I felt like we had a year and a half of quality time together as friends too, which is also why I’m very happy with it.”
This quality time was something that sustained Stefanie throughout the COVID-19 pandemic. Whilst the live music scene suffered under the strain of lockdowns and other preventative measures, she felt that she was able to reframe her thinking and make the most of an unprecedented situation.
“As a band, we’re normally in such a rush all the time. We’re always rehearsing, playing the set, going on tour, doing the same thing again and again. For example, with Nest, we only had a few months to write that record. We even had to write while we were on tour, otherwise we wouldn’t finish it in time. So everything was always very rushed with this band.
I’m also a people person. So when COVID came into the world and the world stood still, I realised how much I needed friends and not colleagues. At some point when you play together so much, you kind of forget that you were friends with your bandmates in the first place. Not that we argued of course, but it just feels like you’re on this train and everyone is always trying to catch the train all the time. So for me, I look back at it as a gift, to have had all this time with my friends and my boyfriend, who is a musician too. We have been together for 11 years, but up until the pandemic we had only been on holiday together once, because our touring schedules were always so different. So, instead of mourning all the stuff that we couldn’t do because everything got cancelled, I just grabbed the opportunity with two hands to make the best out of the time while the world was fucked.”
Stefanie is aware that this wasn’t the case for many people during the early days of COVID, which is when she refers back to Brutus’ “luck” again.
“We are very lucky as a band. There are so many good bands that don’t get these chances. We have all of these people who believe in us, from fans, to labels and bookers, so when the pandemic happened I didn’t want to take anything for granted. That’s why I did this 180 in my head, instead of thinking ‘Oh fuck, we’re going to miss this tour, and this support tour,’ I was like, ‘Okay, we have to do everything we can to make this album the best that we can.”
This outlook has translated into Unison Life, a visceral, deeply engaging record exploring growth, resilience, and the inevitability of change. Stefanie’s unique vocals are underscored by her powerhouse percussion, Stijn’s rapturous guitar riffs and Peter’s brutal bass lines. With so many potent songs on the tracklist, it’s hard to pick a favourite, but for Stefanie, ‘What Have We Done’ seems to accurately capture the essence of what went into the creation of Unison Life.
“I don’t know how to explain it without sounding very ‘hippy’,” she laughs, “but when we wrote ‘What Have We Done’, it was the same feeling I had when we wrote ‘Nest’ and ‘War’. It’s a feeling where you’re super proud, but you’re also in shock that this is happening, and then scared that you’re that you’re going to fuck it up. It was something special. It felt like kind of a turning point or a crossroad for the band.”
The accompanying video for ‘What Have We Done’, made up of live footage shot by Jonas Hollevoet, shows Brutus doing what they do best, performing at their favourite festivals, Rock Herk and Lokerse Feesten. “We realised that we always take our music very seriously, but we never really took our videos very seriously,” Stefanie comments. So for Unison Life, the trio took time to work with friends who could help them achieve more ambitious visuals, particularly for singles ‘Liar’ and ‘Victoria’.
“We shot the video for ‘Liar’ in Morocco with a close friend, Maximiliaan Dierickx,” Stefanie explains. “We already had a concept that suited the story, so we talked to Maximiliaan – who is a big deal in the film industry, by the way, it’s insane that he even wanted to do it – and we chose to shoot in Morocco because the setting suited the album’s artwork and the vibe of the album. The song ‘Liar’ is about lying – obviously. I sometimes tell a lie, just so I don’t hurt anyone. I’m very uncomfortable with confrontation. I run away from it, or I overcompensate because the vibe is not nice, so the three masks in the video represent the lies that always catch me out in the end.”
“’Victoria’ is very nostalgic,” she reflects. “It’s about getting older with your friends, and even though everything sometimes sucks, it’s okay, because you’re going down together, so it doesn’t matter. I’m super proud of the videos we made with Jonas and Maximiliaan. For me, a good video has to make the music feel better, and that’s definitely what happened here.”
We move on to chatting about Stefanie’s anticipations for the band’s upcoming UK tour in November. They’re currently preparing for these shows with lots of rehearsals, so they can deliver their “best set” yet. “We have a label in England, we have friends in England, so it’s always super nice to be in the UK, it’s just a different vibe to Belgium,” she explains. Stefanie is also looking forward to something else during her stay. “You guys have the best breakfast culture ever,” she enthuses. “I’m vegan, so for me the UK is like vegan heaven. Food is very important to me!”
It goes without saying that simultaneously drumming and singing for an entire set must be an appetite-building task. When asked about this impressive feat, and whether she finds it cathartic to sing lyrics that could be interpreted as vulnerable against a backdrop of heavy music – for example, “We’ve been down this road before / I’ve never felt so insecure” on ‘Chainlife’ – Stefanie has a pragmatic response.
“I don’t know how my brain works to be honest,” she laughs. “For me, the vocals and the instruments have to be in balance. It’s not that I need a loud part of the music to say what I feel. The older I get, the more I really just have to say what I think. With our first record, the lyrics for the songs were from made up stories, and I had also only been singing for two years at that point. I think the lyrics I write now are so honest because I’ve learned that you cannot mean the music, and then not mean the lyrics when you’re singing. It took me a long time to accept that I was the singer, and to know how I am as a singer, but I see it as one instrument now.
Of course, you have to think about your technique and how you breathe, but it’s getting more normal. When we’re on tour, I cannot drink alcohol, because then I have no voice the day after, and I have to try to sleep in the bus and stuff like that. But I wouldn’t want it any other way. I work the best when I have full focus. It’s always been like this, so I just have to be thoughtful about it. I mean, I don’t get people who play guitar and sing at the same time. It’s super weird for me to see them doing that.”
Stefanie’s unique viewpoint on her capabilities as a musician is something that may have been nurtured from a young age. Her family owns a music store in Belgium, Leo Caerts, which has been trading for an impressive 45 years. Her Grandad, who bought the store, is a musician himself, her aunts and her Mother work there to this day, and she describes her Father, who helped to build the business, as “the greatest guitarist ever.” Clearly, a deep understanding of, and love for music is in Stefanie’s DNA.
“It’s a very unique thing to be in a family business like this, but I don’t know anything else,” she explains. “It’s what I’m used to. I worked in the store for eight years, I’ve studied music my entire life. It’s what I do, it’s the only thing I know.”
To wrap up our chat, I ask Stefanie what music she’s been listening to lately, to which she instantly replies with Burial. “He’s my all time favourite, always, forever and ever. I listen to him all the time,” she comments about the UK-based producer. Burial actually dropped a surprise EP titled Streetlands the following day, thus sharing a release date with Brutus’ Unison Life – a coincidence I’m sure made Stefanie very happy.
Order your copy of Brutus’ lastest album Unison Life here
BRUTUS UK Tour Dates 2022
16th Nov – Bristol, The Fleece
17th Nov – Manchester, Rebellion
18th Nov – Glasgow, Audio
19th Nov – Leeds, Lending Room
21st Nov – Brighton, Patterns
22nd Nov – London, The Garage
A full list of Brutus’ European dates for 2023 can be found here
Follow Brutus on bandcamp, Spotify, Twitter, Facebook & Instagram
Photo Credit: Kemizz