In April Tommigun opened for the American cult singer Daniel Johnston during his European tour. A quite surprising combination, due to a shot of good fortune, Devos explains. “When we played a showcase last autumn in the Beursschouwburg to convince the Dutch label Excelsior to sign us, Johnston’s European booking agent was present, too. We didn’t know about this, but a week later he phoned me, proposing us the opening slot. A golden opportunity!” And did they get their deal with Excelsior? Check!
“We really needed that tour,” Devos stresses. “It made us into a tight outfit.” Tommigun nowadays is a five-piece band, but it started out as Devos’ solo outing, during a time off from his first major band Rumplestitchkin, a foursome that has released two recommendable albums: Small-time Hero and Somersault.
Devos felt three impulses to go solo. First, he was dying to work with Pall Jenkins from the San Diego band The Black Heart Procession, as producer. “But I never wanted to impose my dreams upon the three other members of Rumplestitchkin.”
Second, he felt the band had come to a dead end. “The other members all had day jobs; I was the only one to fully engage in music. I respected their decisions, but it led to some friction.”
And last but not least: “I had reached a point in my life – I’m 38 – where I thought: is this all there is? I scored television shows and made music for theatre. And I loved to do that, don’t get me wrong. But I wanted to sing and record my songs again.”
So he travelled to San Diego a few times to chase his dream. Joeri Cnapelinckx crossed the ocean too, because Devos wanted him to add some piano, but the latter ended up playing most of the other instruments. Tommigun was born. But the baby wasn’t healthy, according to Devos. “I have one big problem: when I keep working on a project too long, doubts start creeping in. Tommigun was too much me; I prefer my music to be a bit more whimsical. So, when I went looking for musicians to play the songs live, I realised I didn’t want to treat them as hirelings, but that they should become real band members.”
Enter four extra players: the aforemetioned Cnapelinckx, Pim De Wolf (of the highly underrated Thou) on bass, drummer Mattijs Vanderleen and – Tommigun’s secret weapon – singer Kaat Arnaert. They rerecorded some of the songs, and Devos even let Arnaert sing the lead in two of them. “Tommigun is no longer my solo outing, but, contrary to Rumplestitchin, this is my band; I’m holding the reins,” he clarifies.
By the way, Rumplestitchkin isn’t over yet. “One of the members left. That was difficult because I had this boy’s dream that the four of us, like U2, would stay together forever. So it was a bit weird to start again after a long hiatus. But we’re writing new songs, and I have the feeling that we still have some good music to give.”
The band name Tommigun refers to Tommy Gun, the nickname for a submachine gun developed by John T Thompson that was popular among American gangsters during the Prohibition. A weird name, no? “A pet name for a murder weapon – this perfectly suits the music. It’s dark and cute at the same time. And of course, there’s the link with my name.”
So, the question stays: will we ever hear a real solo album by Devos? It’s a pertinent request, based on the few sparsely arranged songs that Rumplestitchkin and Tommigun have recorded. These, almost disguised solo work, are awesome. “Last year I helped my mother [folk singer Vera Coomans] to record a cover album in a small, isolated shack, with only a guitarist to accompany her. I must admit, I got a taste for doing the same: one voice, a guitar and maybe some organ. Yeah, a bit like Johnny Cash. But before long, I started doubting again.”
And he concludes with a still slightly faltering voice: “Maybe I shouldn’t ponder to long and just go for it.”
5 June, 14.00
18 June, 20.30
Brugmannlaan 433, Brussels