Full interview via Revolver
Stefanie Mannaerts’ childhood reads like it came straight out of a music-nerd’s favorite fairy tale. Growing up in the Flemish university city of Leuven, Belgium — 16 miles east of Brussels — Mannaerts spent countless hours inside her family’s music store, Muziekhandel Leo Caerts, staring in wonder at the accordions, guitars and drum kits that surrounded her. The six-year-old Mannaerts lived with her parents above the shop — after it closed at night, she’d sneak downstairs and dart around the store, feverishly trying out whatever instrument caught her fancy.
“When it was closed, I could play on any instrument I wanted,” Mannaerts recalls fondly. “That’s pretty cool when you’re so little. Now, it’s just so normal, being surrounded by gear that you can’t afford.” She laughs.
Mannaerts tells Revolver this over Skype, shortly after wrapping her workday at the family store. These days, she’s graduated from sampling the merchandise to handling sales and cleaning instruments. But that’s not Mannaerts’ only musical calling: She’s also the singer-drummer of genre-jumping post-hardcore trio Brutus. And if her group’s rising success continues, it would be no surprise if the next chapter in her life is that of a full-time musician.
Since dropping their 2017 debut album, Burst, Brutus have been making waves far outside of their Belgian homeland thanks to their progressive take on hardcore and Mannaert’s alternately sweet and savage vocals — a potent mix that has earned them accolades from some high-profile fans. (Metallica’s Lars Ulrich and former Dillinger Escape Plan vocalist Greg Puciato were both early supporters.) Now, the band are about to take things to the next level with their outstanding sophomore album, Nest.
If you’re one of the 100,000-plus YouTube viewers that have stared in awe at Brutus’ intense, in-studio performance of first single “War” (Converge drummer Ben Koller might’ve summed it up best on Twitter, proclaiming “Wow … Fuck that was great.”), you’ve witnessed Mannaerts unleashing powerful vocals while hammering out a cavalcade of destructive d-beats and post-rock-inspired cymbal crescendos. Her ferocity and ease of execution may lead you to think she was bitten by the drum bug early on during her childhood, but you’d be wrong. Her first musical love was, in fact, the piano.
“[My parents] bought a piano at the flea market — very out of tune and more for decoration, because my dad plays guitar,” she recalls. “I just started making noise on it and asking if I could start with that instrument. I think I was 14 when I discovered drums; I studied classical piano first.”
Oddly enough, it wasn’t spending time in the music store, but rather a playdate at a friend’s house, that pushed Mannaerts into more percussive territory. She explains: “I came over and thought we were going to play with Barbies or talk about boys, but there was a drum set standing in the middle of their living room. I was like, ‘Can you teach me something?’ She did, and at that moment I decided, 'Ok, this is what I’m going to do.’”
Just three months after this percussive epiphany, a chance conversation at the shop between her father and a bunch of punks in search of a drummer led Mannaerts to link up with her first band, Starfucker. It was there that Mannaerts met her future Brutus bandmate Stijn Vanhoegaerden. But back then the 14-year-old drummer and 19-year-old bassist were all about bashing out mid-'00s-era garage rock — Mannaerts punctuating songs like “Boys Will Be Boys” with solid but simplified drum beats and a schoolyard-style “na na na” back-up vocal.
“We always talked about how later, when we were older and better musicians, we should start a band with music that we actually enjoy,” Mannaerts says now. Post-Starfucker, Mannaerts would evolve her skills as she studied drumming at a music academy. She also took on a studio gig supporting a teen pop singer named Bab, and later explored new noise in the underground through a Refused cover band, where she met bassist Peter Mulders.
By 2014, Mannaerts, Mulders and Vanhoegaerden (who was now slinging a six-string) formed Brutus, and went on the hunt for a vocalist. At least, that’s what their drummer thought — right up until Vanhoegaerden brought a microphone into their practice space and suggested Mannaerts temporarily fill in with scratch vocals. Eventually, after she suspected this phantom singer would never materialize, they convinced her to take on the role in Brutus.
While Mannaerts was uncertain about her singing at first (“It took me until [now] to be able to say I’m the singer in the band, not just the drummer that tries to sing”) the group put together a punchy catalog of punk-twisting tunes that would ultimately become their aptly-named debut album, Burst. Though the group’s influences are disparate on the whole, a shared love of anthemic indie rockers Japandroids and punk unit White Lung led Brutus to cruising the acts’ liner notes, and discovering that Vancouver engineer Jesse Gander produced them both. They quickly sent out an e-mail, and at Gander’s invitation made the plan to fly to Canada to have him track their own album in 2016. They loved the experience so much that it was a no-brainer to return to Gander’s Rain City Recorders two years later to record Nest.
“It felt like Brussels near the seaside, or something like that,” Mannaerts says rosily of the North American hub. “In Leuven, there are only students pissing in your mailbox, breaking your windows or breaking the mirrors of your car … In Vancouver, people are being nice to the bus drivers.” The group also enjoyed the relative anonymity of being in a city six times the size of their hometown.
“In Leuven, you know the butcher, you know the guy from the cigarette store,” she continues. “In Vancouver, we were just three idiots following Jesse everywhere.”
The comfort of home, and where we decide that is, is the nexus point of Nest. Between logging hundreds of shows a year across Europe and North America, and spending time in relative isolation in a recording studio in Canada, Mannaerts was drawn towards contemplating the bonds between friends, family members, lovers and bandmates.
“A nest is an environment you create for yourself where you feel good,” she says. “You have your nest at home — with your life partner, your kids or your family. You also have a nest with your band. That’s how I see it. This record is all about those people who are in my nest, or Peter’s, or Stijn’s.”
While there’s an intimacy to Brutus spending months together in the tour van, Mannaerts notes how band life can also lead to “not being able to be at home when somebody needs you.” Just as she can switch on a dime from harsh, flesh-rending screams to a vibrant, harmonious singing voice on tracks like the White Lung–esque “Cemetery,” an emotional push-and-pull is likewise palpable throughout all of Nest. For instance, check how the fuzzbox-blowing bass lines and driving beats of “Django” back a devout pledge of “I’m never gonna leave your house/I wish that I could stay forever,” but later, above the propulsive snare blasts and proggy time-shifts of “Carry,” Mannaerts counters that security with a vulnerable and distant message: “Please give me the strength to fight/We’ll be apart for one more night.”
“With Burst, it was very YOLO— 'I don’t give a fuck, being in a band is cool.’ With this, there were some things we felt we should say in-song,” she says of Nest’s lyrics, adding how the album explores “making decisions that not everyone understands, and trying to sing about them, or singing a love song for your boyfriend at home, just to compensate [for being away].”
With plans to tour their aggressive and atmospheric new album across the globe throughout 2019, Mannaerts is currently weighing the thrill of traveling against a significant level of separation anxiety. But spreading their wings outside of their rehearsal room in Leuven also means they’re finding comfort and kinship thousands of miles from home. Considering the intense excitement around the new album, they’re bound to find a few more nests along the way.