First Person: My Home Town by Tom Barman (dEUS)

Tom Barman, lead singer with Belgian rock legends dEUS, talks to Nick Amies about his home town, Antwerp.

Antwerp is a much smaller city than Brussels but that’s never stopped it from having a vibrant scene and producing a real vibe. I think that has a lot to do with the people and their attitude. Antwerp people are something else. They are the hardest people to please and impress. Whenever we play there, we always have to work harder and play better because they can be tough. They’re our harshest critics. But they’re beautiful people; beautiful, aloof, arrogant, straight-forward people…with a brutal sense of humour.

The city is just home for me. I’ve lived in other areas but I’ve been in the Jewish quarter by the main station for the last fourteen years and it’s perfect for me. I went to school around there and so it’s all really familiar, like an old jacket. The neighbourhood has a quiet, surreal quality to it in a way, with the orthodox Jews and the diamond dealers coming and going. They all just shuffle along, getting on with business. It’s quite calming.

Antwerp was a perfect choice for us when we were looking to build our studio. Our violin player Klaas managed to buy this massive old building in the Borgerhout district for very little. So we set up there. We have rehearsal space, our studio and a huge area on the ground floor where Klaas runs a club night called De Pekbabriek every now and again. Due to legal issues, it’s not that regular, about once every eight months but its wild when it happens. It’s always a crazy night because it has that semi-legal underground vibe.

When it comes to going out, Antwerp is really quite small so there’s no need to keep to one neighbourhood. A good night out can take in a variety of areas and different atmospheres. We normally drift towards the city centre and hang out at my favourite bar, the Kassa 4, which is on the Ossemarkt right in the heart of the student area. There’s also the Zeezicht bar on the Dageraadsplaats not far from our studio. It has some great beers and has a real local feel. That whole square is a cool place for bars.

 If you’re looking for something a bit more up market, you can head to the south of the city where there are some good cocktail bars or the north by the harbour where there are some great restaurants like Bart A Vin and Den Artist which do great traditional Belgian food.

There’s a real upswing in hands-on nightlife at the moment with small places springing up with minimal entrance fees, just kids spinning discs in basements. The Kelly Splinter parties are great, like old skool raves which crop up in random places, and there’s a big squat called the Scheld’apen which the police have chosen to leave alone which puts on some great events. It has hardcore electro nights, rock bands, art installations…it’s a pretty cool place. There’s also a really nice hangout we like, the Café Capital, in the middle of the Stadspark which regularly has a good mix of local and international DJs. It’s kinda small, around 300 to 400 max, but that’s a good thing. It really generates a great energy. 

The day after a gig or a large night, I like to go and hang out downtown. On sunny days, the city’s Leopold De Waelplaats square is a great place to start the day. There are some excellent cafes like Chat Le Roi around there with terraces where you can sit out on the street and watch the world wake up. You can pretty much just wander around the city and grab a seat where you like and have a beer. Once the sun comes out, the city is suddenly full of pavement cafes. We even have a verb for it – een terrasje doen – which basically means ‘to do a terrace.’ Winter leaves and everyone ‘does a terrace.’ 

If you want a real taste of Antwerp in all its glorious weirdness then go to the beach! It’s an actual beach called the St. Annastrand on the south bank of the river Schelde with some nice little restaurants and a promenade. I wouldn’t say it’s beautiful but it has this otherworldly charm and atmosphere. It freaks people out because you have this beach beside a river you can’t swim in because it’s too nasty, and a view of the industrial harbour. It’s quirky and down-to-earth, it’s a bit grubby but it has a lot of charm. It really sums up the essence of Antwerp.

First published in The Red Bulletin

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