Interview: Brutus on Sticking Together & New Album ‘Unison Life’

The chaotic space between a surface-level maintenance of appearances that suggest stability and what’s really churning internally, alongside the time-upending moment when these lingering elements blend into something disorienting but essentially no less personal—That’s where Unison Life, the new album from the Belgian group Brutus, operates. Unison Life is out now from Sargent House and Hassle Records.

The entrancing record blends the emotional elements that lined the mental guard towers with what was previously thrown inside—fittingly enough, considering its title. It’s a fully intermingled onslaught. The songs, which could be described as some form of sweeping post-metal or post-hardcore and also sometimes sound like punk (although genre terms get less useful as time continues), seem to leap at listeners. 

The urgency, passion, and relatable desperation that build what Brutus present to listeners shape songs that feel focusedly powerful but wildly energetic, reckoning with a demanding desire for something new compared with the constrictions—self-imposed or otherwise—limiting our progress and involvement. When you want something more, and when that want feels like the closest thing to a bubbling geyser that a human being in a physical body could experience—that’s what Brutus have delivered on Unison Life

It’s the movie scene in which the protagonist walking down a bustling sidewalk suddenly slams their suitcase into the ground and starts making a mad dash towards who-knows-where. Although the record is very sharply presented, both in terms of production and its actual catchiness, there’s also a remarkable and perhaps surprising level of physical force delivered by these songs. The stormy drums feel confrontational, and the guitars and bass cover similarly styled ground. It’s definitely not unwieldy, but at times, the record hits thunderstorm-like levels of ferocity, on par with just ripping huge streaks from whatever it is with which you’re presented lending to those frustrations.

Below, check out what drummer and vocalist Stefanie Mannaerts and guitarist Stijn Vanhoegaerden have to say about Unison Life, from how the progression of the group’s albums might compare to a romantic relationship to the power of post-rock and how fortunate they feel as a band. They’re joined in Brutus by Peter Mulders on bass.

With all of the energy that is reflected across Unison Life, do you think how something will go over live is an important priority in the songwriting process?

Vanhoegaerden: I think when we write songs, we don’t take that into consideration too much, but it always ends up being the same that way—We’re just three people. And it’s not that if we are going to play new songs live that we need backing tracks or stuff like that; it’s not something we want to do. So for some reason, it always ends up being songs that we can actually play live.

Mannaerts: Because we all always play everything together in the rehearsal room. And also it’s super important for us. We are a live band, and we enjoy playing live, and we always want to keep that in mind. That’s what we take in consideration, but that’s more mixing and the vibe and stuff like that. But yeah, it’s what Stijn says. We don’t have—We’re only with three people, so crazy overdubs, we just can’t do it because we don’t have a looper or anything that can do that. So yeah, we never think about a second guitar part because we know we are just with one guitar player.

Vanhoegaerden: I think it’s easy to be in the studio and be like, oh, we can put seven more melodies on top of this, and it would be awesome. It would be cool. I’d love to do something like that, but it just wouldn’t be us.

Mannaerts: I would be afraid then to play the song and everyone would be like, where is the guitar that we heard on the record? So what we do is when we are trying to find a sound for bass or drums or guitars or vocal, we always want to make things richer. That’s what we do is sometimes, oh, let’s maybe double it up with a completely different guitar sound, but that’s more sound. It’s not extra melodies that nobody can play. And we also want to make a good-sounding record. So that’s what we do. 

Vanhoegaerden: And I guess you could say that the record ends up being more alive because that’s the way we write it. 

Mannaerts: We don’t write in the books. We have a rehearsal, a jam space, and all our stuff is here, and we have a lot of pedals and amps and stuff like that, and guitars. But it’s not that we record stuff and somebody is just playing over it. 

Do you think that over time it’s gotten easier or smoother to capture that artistic cohesion when you guys are putting the songs together?

Mannaerts: I think sometimes. The other day I was thinking about it like the band is a relationship, and some things you can talk about more better than before. And because in the beginning you’re making music, and you’re still searching, I guess—and we are still searching, but the older I get or we get, I have the feeling, it’s more and more. 

Vanhoegaerden: We understand each other better, and we know better what everybody in the band wants to get out of a song or out of the band. And I think while writing the last record, we took a lot more time talking about what we wanted to do instead of just jamming. So yeah, I think that makes everything a bit easier. But it still was a lot of work because we put more effort into the songs, I guess.

Mannaerts: And for me, it does feel like every record is more and more “us.” But with Burst, I also thought it was us because it was us at that time. Burst is like the first date with somebody. And then Nest is like, we love each other, but I also hate you. And then this one is like, let’s move in together. 

It seems like it would be good for the band and the creative flow. When you have that personal stake, it just helps keep things going.

Vanhoegaerden: Yeah, we are very personal when it comes to the band. We’re friends and we’re bandmates, but everything we do with the band is also very personal. We take it very personal. It helps.

Mannaerts: The first year that we jammed was not serious, but the first track we ever recorded was, it was so weird. We never discussed, “Let’s get serious.” But when we booked the studio for our first EP, suddenly the atmosphere changed, and everyone was like, no, this has to be better, and no, you have to play better. It was so weird when we didn’t do anything but jamming, but no first shows yet. We were like, it was not serious at all. And then from the first recording it suddenly—without saying anything, everyone was like, this is super serious.

Vanhoegaerden: But in a very positive way. Not picking on each other, like, “You suck!” or something, but constructive, we all want to do this. We all want to get higher on the steps like playing live and writing better songs.

How do you think your younger selves would feel about the progress you’ve made as a band over these years?

Vanhoegaerden: Actually, for me, it would not believe maybe that I would be doing this right now. Because when we started the band, I wasn’t even playing guitar that much. I didn’t think I was going to be in a band. And if I see us now, this is the band I want to be in, this is the band I wanted to be in when I was 16, as in with friends, people I love. And anything goes—It’s not like, oh, we are doing this genre, and we have to play in that little box. Anything goes. We can do whatever we want. It’s very creative. Nothing is taboo. And that’s what I wanted when I was 16, and I am doing that right now. So actually, good question. I’m very happy. 

Mannaerts: I would think maybe we are so lucky with all the chances we already had before, support (from) people that believed in us, our labels, management, people that come to our show. And I think if the young me would look to the very old me now, I would say, “Good, you have these chances, now work harder.” So, I don’t know, I’m very happy. But we are very aware we are very lucky. There’s so many good bands, and for some reason the universe is treating us very nice, and we have to grab it with six hands and keep on working because we cannot take that for granted. We are now in the position and the band that we dreamed of when we were 12-year-old kids, now let’s do it. 

This is a dream for so many people, so we’re not stupid. It’s not like we know, “Oh, we are three geniuses, and that’s why we have all these shows.” No, it’s also a lottery. You have to have talent, you have to do the work and you have to have somebody who believes in you for some reason. So it’s so many different factors that you have to take into consideration.

Relatedly, do you feel as though the connections you guys share would be reflected in the music somehow? There’s a ton of energy, but it also remains strikingly cohesive.

Mannaerts: We can talk about it way better than before because we started nine years ago and then it was just 10-word discussions, yes or no. And now the discussions are like, OK, it’s blue, but let’s try to talk about it—It’s different. So I think that’s why this album sounds more focused, and Burst was more like—Sometimes we had to compromise. Like, OK, you want this part; OK, but I want this part. And that’s why Burst sounds like that. It’s not a huge surprise. We all already said it from that day on.

Vanhoegaerden: And I also think because we are such good friends that there’s also no resentment in the fact that we’re so different and also in what we want. Normally, if you compromise, you always lose something, I guess. But for me now, compromises don’t feel like a loss.

Mannaerts: I have the feeling that every song is—everyone is behind it, and when we started as a band, you sometimes—I don’t feel this song so much, but meh. I think we work more towards that everyone has something, feels a lot with the track and the other two as well. That’s what we’re trying to work towards.

In terms of style, would you say you guys are fans of those dramatic build-ups that you see in the best post-metal songs and stuff like that? Unison Life seems to capture some of that style.

Vanhoegaerden: We all like that kind of stuff. I can listen to a really dark Americana song and still have a punk vibe, like that it feels very punk to me. Or I can listen to classical music and have a thought like, this is so post-rock, metal. You have these emotions in all types of music. I think those are the kinds of things that we really like. And of course in post-rock, it’s a thing, and we all like that kind of stuff.

Mannaerts: Cult of Luna can make the same vibe for me as Wovenhand with one guitar. And it’s that kind of emotional touch that we search and try to incorporate in our music.

Vanhoegaerden: I think we don’t even think about that when we write parts like that and be like, oh, this is so post-rock, but it’s just the emotion that’s behind the music. That’s definitely something in that genre that we like.

Mannaerts: I think that’s the genre that the three of us like—this little circle that’s mutual is post-rock. It’s like, tremolo picking, reverb, very big-sounding, “I wanna cry myself to sleep.”

Would you say that there’s a strong element of personal, emotional exploration on this album for you guys? 

Mannaerts: Yeah, it’s only personal. I will start with our first record; the lyrics weren’t personal at all. We always wrote the music first because back then, it was my first band as a singer, when I was more focused on the drums, to be honest. And then the lyrics were an afterthought. And then with the second album, the three of us felt the same about the lyrics, mostly, because we were away from home a lot of time. So the things I sung, Peter and Stijn felt the same way most of the time. So it was more like a simultaneous feeling. And then with this record, the lyrics only, because all the rest, they all feel the same, I can say it’s very reflective about my headspace, I guess at the time. 

Vanhoegaerden: (Peter) has the feeling, I have the feeling as well that she can’t sing anything that she doesn’t believe. If you make something up for her to sing, and it’s not her feelings, it doesn’t come out the same way. So for me, I can tell this is a really, really personal record, the last one as well. And the cool thing is that because we know each other so well and see each other almost every day, a lot of the stuff she sings about, I can relate to perfectly. That makes it really nice to play the songs.

Mannaerts: The more and more we are in this band, the longer I will talk for myself with the lyrics. It has to be only real stuff. Because at first my focus was on the instrumental part. And then I thought, “OK, I’m the singer now.” By the second album, I figured it out, what we’re doing. With Nest, it was more about specific situations, so more little stories. And this was more with Unison Life—We had to start writing our third album, and then the pandemic was there. What happened in my head was like, because there was no shows, no work, no real life, you don’t see your friends and family. All the distraction is gone. I’m a person that runs away from discussions and uncomfortable situations. And focusing on the band that’s playing a lot is very good for me because I want distraction, distraction, distraction.

I thrive on that. I can say that because I’m talking about myself. And then when everything stopped, then everything in my head started spinning because then I had no distraction. And I really had to reflect and think about some things I’ve been running away from and ignoring for so long. And that’s why this record is personal. Because maybe, I don’t know, I cannot pretend what would have happened if there was no pandemic. Maybe there were more stories than how it is now. But yeah, because I want to write about real stuff. It’s easier for me. It’s the same. (Stijn) plays what he feels, Peter plays what he feels. For me, it’s the same thing that I’ve learned over the years. Why shouldn’t I sing what I feel, because we play what we feel, we put it into notes. So why would we do made-up lyrics that I don’t feel or that never happened?

Get Unison Life by Brutus here.

Photo courtesy of Eva Vlonk

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