Konoba is Raphael Esterhazy’s music project. Having spent years in England, learning pretty much everything about music, Raphael decided to leave “Neverland” Brighton and come back to Motherland Belgium. Konoba manages to strike the fragile balance between acoustic and electro, with the perfect mix of samples, instruments and vocals. The acoustic intro of ‘On our knees’ melts perfectly into electro bits. Raphael is as much of a lone wolf as a wolfpack leader. He can do it all in his own studio bubble outside Brussels: write, compose, record, arrange, produce… But on stage, Konoba is a full-fledged band working as one, with Maxime Honhon (bass/vocals), Maxime Simon (guitar/keyboard/vocals) and Edouard Cabuy (drums/vocals). Live performances are generous and a true moment of togetherness. The crowd is mesmerized and sings and hugs. What Raphael calls alternative pop is encapsulated in beautiful layered compositions with catchy melodies, complex harmonies, quirky rhythms and a mind-blowing voice. Soft and high, then sensual and deep. An sweeping palette of intoxicating vocals. Konoba’s music is complex and easy at the same time. With 3 EPs under his belt, his newly released album ‘Smoke & Mirrors’ was presented in a sold out AB and features intimate songs like ‘Love’ as well as more upbeat tunes like ‘Lost at Sea’. Absolute must. I met Raphael a couple of weeks back. This is what he told me right before we played around with some smoke and probably ruined his jacket…
Your musical influences are vast. From the Beatles, The Beach Boys, Pink Floyd… what are your more recent and conscious influences? Some Brit bands?
Recently, I started listening to a lot of Jacques Brel again as I’m writing more in French and working harder on the lyrics and the stories that I’m telling. At the same time, I’m listening to artists like Jack Garratt who released his debut album this year. I relate a lot to Jack, a singer/song writer who uses super modern technologies to produce his music. Brel and Garratt: two totally different styles.
Your music has texture, what with the myriad of layers and real life samples…
I don’t think I think about it consciously. I just try to make music that’s alive, to create a scenery or stir emotions. I use different sounds, production techniques, sometimes it goes more towards soundscapes, sometimes it’s cleaner acoustic sounds… I just let the creativity run and see where it takes me.
You’re a highly autonomous musician: from compo, to mixing and production… do you take pleasure in being that independent. Does it get lonely?
I rehearse and play with other musicians so no, it doesn’t get lonely. And I go out a lot and do open mics and jams and small gigs… But when I’m making music I like to be alone. Be in my bubble, start writing, listening to music until eventually I get in the “zone”.
What’s on your to-learn list? Any skills, a new instrument…?
Of course. It’s what keeps me going and improving. Discovering something new, be it an instrument, a new technique… I’ll probably start learning the clarinet next. It has a beautiful sound and it’s pretty different from the instruments I already play so it would be an interesting addition to my current sound palette. Production… there’s always a new program, software, technique… Electronic production is so vast and I’m learning tons from R.O. Apart from the Brussels sound version of On Our Knees that we released, we collaborate on a lot on different projects. He’s a master of electronic production while I’m more acoustic-based.
Other than R.O, any other Belgian band you would like to collaborate with?
I don’t know whether it’s going to happen… but there’s an idea floating in the air… A huge Belgian rock band (mystery). The producer who mixed my album is going to produce theirs and he though it could be a good idea to do something together.
You recorded sounds all across town for two days. You must have come “home” with a zillion sounds. What was the biggest surprise, when you unravelled it all in studio?
R.O and I are both used to using samples so we are sort of trained to hear what could work straight away. So a lot of it was expected. But sometimes you do get surprises, especially when the sound is really small and quiet. And then you play it on the computer and boost it up, and it gives something much more impressive than you imagined. For example, we bought some chocolate and cracked it, which made this tiny little sound. But when we listened to it at a high volume it was really cool it made this crunchy punchy sound. Or the sound of chips frying in the oil, which gave an amazing texture.
You spent 4 years in Brighton, for your music & production studies and I heard that to you, Brighton was some sort of Neverland to you, as artists seem to linger in an ever-happy childhood. Clearly, you didn’t want to be a Peter Pan… How did it turn out, leaving Neverland ?
It was really hard at first but in the end it worked out the way I had hoped. I had built a whole life there and I had some really good friends, a band, I was starting to get settled on the local scene and I had just signed a deal with a London publisher. I had an amazing life surrounded by incredible people. Brighton is so lively and full of music. So initially, it was tough. I came back to live with my parents in the countryside outside of Brussels. Really quiet. A lot of good sides too, though… like not having to worry about money and being able to focus a 100% of my time on music, which was the main selling point. But after the first 6 months to a year, things started happening here, I started playing shows, getting interest from radios… it was worth it.
Tell us one of your favorite memories from your British years.
The second year in Brighton, I lived in a place called Miami hotel. I actually named my first EP after that. There were 25 of us from 13 different countries living in this massive house. It was great fun and very inspiring. And the next year, I moved to another place with “only” 7 people. All artists, musicians, illustrators, and there was this tattoo artist, too. I was probably the only one in the house who didn’t get a tattoo. Which today, I sort of regret. It was such an important part of my life that it would have been nice to have a memory of that wonderful time branded permanent somewhere on my body.
What did you want to be when you grew up? (Not Peter Pan…)
When I was really young, I wanted to be a football player. I used to think why in the world would someone want to do something that’s not fun? Then a bit later, when I was 12 or so, I wanted to become an architect and I actually started uni in Brussels. But after a year, I moved to London, initially for another year. And by the end of that time I was so into music, that I had to make a decision. And I chose music and stayed in England.
What’s your earliest music memory?
I must have been 9. I had a cd player in my room and I would go through my father’s stack of cds and pick one at random cause I had no idea what they were. And I remember listening to the Beatles, having no idea at the time of how big they were. It was a compilation of their best songs that they re-recorded in acoustic versions.
In “What it’s all about”, one of your songs, you sing “Winning is for losers”…. (Which btw is also one of Charlie’s Angels episodes)… what do you mean with that?
Sometimes, what we call “winning” in modern society, isn’t always really winning. For a lot of people, being successful in life means earning a lot of money and owning stuff etc. But when that’s the focus, you risk missing out on a lot of valuable things so in a way, winning makes you lose. That song is actually a ghost track in the new album.
If you were stranded in an island and the whole discography of one band and one alone was found (along with material to play it, somehow!) which band would you like it to be?
The Beatles. Definitely.
Do you have a guilty pleasure?
Nothing I would call “guilty”.
What are the next months going to look like for you?
A few good gigs. Cirque Royal on May 19, a few festivals… I have a bit of a blank space, which is great cause there are so many things I want to do. One of them is making new videos like the one I did with Brussels sounds. I’m going to Rome in April to visit some friend and run the marathon. I’ll use that trip to record samples from to try and capture the city. Unlike with Brussels, where I was just recreating a song, I want to make a new song from scratch that represents Rome.
Oli (R.O.) and I made On our Knees in the countryside house. Just the two of us with a laptop, a microphone and our headphones. We honestly weren’t thinking of making anything special with it. We were just playing around. And we weren’t even sure if we were going to release it or keep it on the side for the future… and then we did, exactly because we didn’t have great expectations. We would have never thought it’d be listened to so much and across so many different totally unexpected places like the east of the Black Sea. Possibly more than a million hits coming from Georgia alone which is completely mind-blowing for a song we recorded just for fun.
So… Brusselsprouts, how do you have yours ?