Original interview by Tom Engelshoven (coming later)
Pictures by Bart Heemskerk
Translation by Renee Versteegen
Eloi Youssef – the Heart of Kensington
Whether or not Kensington will win the Popprijs is not an issue during this conversation. Selling out the Ziggo Dome twice, like the quartet from Utrecht did this last November, is quite unique. It’s hard to think of a Dutch act doing something similar in 2015. But the story of Eloi Youssef, the taciturn and mysterious singer, guitarist and lyricist of Kensington, can not be expressed in Dutch awards anyway. And had known for years that he would make it, together with buddy Casper Starreveld, the other singer/guitarist in Kensington, even though everyone kept telling them to quit. A story about the fire of a semi-outsider.
We meet Eloi (28) at his home, the living room furnished tastefully and partly oriental. The singer sits in a hanging chair. He will overcome a certain timidity over time. The evening before he was on De Wereld Draait Door (Dutch talkshow, red.) with his colleagues (besides Casper bassist Jan Haker and drummer Niles Vandenberg), and a couple of days before that NPO3 has broadcasted the highlights of their Ziggo Dome shows. You would think that he is accustomed to seeing himself on tv. But no. ‘You come across differently than you think’, he says. ‘It almost makes you schizophrenic. On tv, you see yourself in the role of musician. But at home I’m just the normal guy I was ten years ago. Not necessarily a famous artist.’
Two identities living next to each other?
‘Yes, they have to be. They should be balanced. I’ve been engrossed in the artist’s life. Especially in the beginning. You see that with many young artists. They get caught up in that new, exciting, fast life. It’s not feasible to do that for longer periods of time. It’s simply impossible. A lot of artists get addicted to drugs or alcohol or even die prematurely. You go from one high to the next and after that the lows are really very low. You try to sustain the highs with drugs or alcohol. That’s why those two identities are crucial to me. Artist and normal guy, you have to be both.’
Can you still be a ‘normal guy’ after a show in the Ziggo Dome?
‘I feel like I’m a normal guy again within an hour. When I come off stage after a big show, I’m not approachable for 10 minutes. I’m almost depressed, because you have given almost everything. It’s what I just said: you hit a low point. Your body keeps pumping adrenaline and the suddenly it’s over. Then you begin to process it, with everyone else around you too. And then it suddenly dawns on you: it’s really quite cool what we did.’
Are you the only one of the four to react in this way?
‘Some are less prone to feel down than others, but in this case we all had it. We’d been looking forward to these Ziggo shows for a year. You’ve played that movie in your head so many times that afterwards you can think: Is that what we’ve been working towards all this time? The bad thing was that we fell ill. You’re already stressed and then you get to deal with that as well. You’ve put in all this effort and then suddenly it’s gone. You try to retain it by watching the show on television a week later, for example. Then I was proud. I thought it was done well. Every time we do something new, a first single, a first album, I’m full of adrenaline. Your own concert on prime-time tv was something new as well. I was very tense when I sat in front of the tv that night. Reading all the jokes and commentaries of the boys on my phone at the same time. People always say: you always look angry when you’re playing, but that’s purely because I’m completely focused. Singing, and playing guitar. But I know that I’m enjoying it enormously. The tension I felt in the weeks before the show just came back again.’
How stressed out were you before the Ziggo-shows?
‘I knew we could do it. The biggest problem the first night was my health. I’d developed laryngitis a day before the show. It was almost impossible. I was on very heavy antibiotics. I couldn’t sleep. You’re wrecked before you even go on stage. You get a lot of energy and adrenaline from the audience, that’s what’s keeping you up, but during the last song I just crashed. Without the audience I never could’ve done it. During the first hour of the first show especially I was very focused on: do not cough, do not get sick. That should not be important. Only after a while you think: I’m fine, I can do this. Then you can let it all go and things will improve. On the second day I stood there as I had imagined it. The first day is just testing the water. You have to get into it. A new generation of artists is doing this for the first time. So it’s logical that it takes some getting used to.’
The Ziggo-shows are the crown on your work, as if you’ve climbed a mountain. Setting goals is also a recurrent topic in your interviews. You often sing about battling, wanting to achieve something, the will to win.
‘That might be even stronger in the other guys as it is in me. We have always been ambitious. Lyrics like that deal with the number of people that have always said that something was impossible. You have a dream and you want it to come true. Nobody will tell you: you can do it! More often they say: don’t do it! At school everyone said: it’s not going to work, you’re an attic room player! That in itself will inspire you. You want to show them that you can do it. Fuck it! It will create pure ambition. It’s in our blood to express ourselves like that.’
People say you are the dreamer in Kensington.
‘I am the heart. That’s what the others always say. For me, music is emotion. If you can move people, you have found the essence of music. Kensington combines emotion with entertainment. That’s why it has become so successful. If entertainment and emotion are balanced out, people will want to come to your shows. A lot of people really feel something while listening to our songs. Lyrics that people relate to can move them extremely. Other people just want to have a party. Both groups should get what they want. That’s what we want too.’
What about you?
‘I want to move people. When I pick up my guitar when I’m at home I don’t write entertaining songs. If I write something that is really beautiful, it always has a reason, to get over something. A fight for example. If I’m feeling good, I don’t make music. Casper is different in that aspect. That’s why we work together so well. We’re each other’s’ opposites. Duos can create something really beautiful if you accept such a contrast. There has to be some sort of face-off. But every personality type is represented in our band anyway.
Please describe that.
‘I am the heart, Casper is the mind, Niles is the energy, lots and lots of willpower, and Jan is reason. It has been worse, but Niles and I used to clash hard. We both operate through our emotions. And that’s fine, I don’t feel weird about that. I just think: I have to let it all out, no worries. Casper can’t handle that very well. He says: I hate arguments. He wants to avoid that. He can’t cope with that. Jan is above it all. He says: Guys, this is just too childish. We all know now that we have to respect each other. I’ve always found it difficult that when I sometimes wanted to shout it out loud, people would say straight on: hey, you should stay calm. There is this aggression in me, call it fire, or temperament really.’
What would you say is your most moving song?
‘Little Light off of Rivals. It’s about that early period full of temptations. How do I deal with this? What if I can’t resist the temptation? I sing: Hey, I can see a little light there. You still know who you want to be and where you want to go, but you can’t manage it. That was just that period caught in a song. If you can describe something like that, you’ve already solved part of the problem. Struggling with temptations is a part of me. That should not be closed down completely. I realise that now. Earlier, when I didn’t like a part of myself, I would totally shut it out. It was the same with other people. If someone annoyed me I would ban them from my life. While you obviously need someone like that as well. There are so many highs in the life that we lead, but you shouldn’t want to stay there. But on the other hand you shouldn’t stay on the downside like a zombie. The strange thing is that when you don’t enjoy it for 100 percent, you feel guilty about it. Because you think: my life is so much fun, why am I not enjoying it? You have to stay somewhere in the middle: enjoy it and stay grounded at the same time. Don’t make things more important than they really are.
Personal problems inspire you when you write you said.
‘If you want to create from out of a certain melancholy, than it’s difficult when everything is okay. But you can work around that. I wanted to avoid that Rivals would become an album about touring. I don’t think that’s interesting. Unless you write about loneliness while on tour. The dark side of it. I don’t think it’s interesting to say that all you do is party. For Vultures I had written a lot about others. I was criticizing other people in my life. In relationships too. You blame everyone else without looking at your own role in it. Later I started to realise that, from my part, it was not fair to the people I was writing so much about. My self-reflection started to come back. That also had to do with the fact that I was starting to deal with this life in a healthy way again. The songs on Rivals can be about other people, but I sing them with myself in mind too. That sort of rivalry I find very interesting.
So Vultures is about other people and Rivals is about you? Was it a painful look in the mirror?
‘No, I have always been very self-aware, including what my shortcoming were. That doesn’t scare me. Somehow you just know. I just had to open that door. Well, it was already ajar, but I just had to open it. I think it is the same for a great many people. That’s what’s so interesting about music. Music unites people. If people start talking, they will start to argue. But music…you either like it or you don’t. The people who like it think: hey, I feel the same way, I get this. If I had told it to them, it would have been just a story.
Did you ever think about that War off of Rivals subconsciously sounds like the perfect answer to ‘Bataclan’?
‘We have mentioned it during our Ziggo-show. You just felt that it was on people’s minds. We wanted to show that it is terrible what has happened. But that we also like that we still have that freedom and that everyone who was there still has the freedom to come no matter what. That fear does not win. War itself is a lot more personal. When we wrote Borders, I was socially engaged. When I read the lyrics that Casper and I wrote at that time I think: such cool, nice socially engaged lyrics. That has changed over time. Because I’m not going to write emotional lyrics about society. One way or another that just doesn’t work. War is about a relationship. No, we won’t go to war. I’m not going to fight with you, even though you want it. Don’t give in to someone who is nagging you, that’s the idea.’
The best way to don’t give in to terrorists is: don’t start a war with them.
‘It works the same way on that scale. It is better if you do not react when someone provokes you. Some people want to fight now, but that is not well thought out. It comes from a gut feeling. Revengeful feelings are very strong. I had the same. When I heard about it I go very angry! But to start throwing bombs randomly, that makes no sense.’
I’m curious about the meaning of your first name Eloi…
‘The last words Jesus spoke on the cross were Eloi, Eloi. God, God, My Father, My Father. Very intense. My own father is a Coptic Orthodox Christian. That’s how we were raised, Coptic Orthodox.’
In Egypts the Copts are being persecuted.
‘Yes, they are now. This is a difficult time. I have often been to Egypt, but I don’t speak Arabic. It’s hard to see how much it affects your father. Islamic State too who were and are still ravaging the place. It comes really close then. That your family, who still lives there, cannot live in peace, that does something to you.’
Your last name states that you’re from an Islamic country.
‘I have never had any problems because of that. I don’t really care that much either. Maybe something has happened, but I’ve have let it go so that I don’t even remember it anymore. My sister did have problems. She wouldn’t get hired at certain jobs. She didn’t feel at home, neither there as over here, and now she lives in America, married and all. Maybe that can be called an escape from the Dutch narrow-mindedness. Yesterday someone asked me: were you raised Islamically? Not a strange question. Because I am from Egypt. Chances are high, because it is an Islamic country. Or they will ask: are you allowed to eat pork? That kind of stuff. People ask out of interest and respect, and that’s how you should see it.’
The frontman of the band most people in the Netherlands recognize themselves in is half Egyptian and Dotan, the singer that gave the whole of the Netherlands a Home-feeling last year, is Jewish. Semi-outsiders who reach into the core of the nation.
‘You definitely ask yourself: why do they become this big? I think it has something to do with that typically Dutch sentiment of “act normally that’s crazy enough”. That idea stands very strong here. Also with people who are creating something. They will keep that in mind: I should not make it too flamboyant. I probably helps if you have some of that Middle Eastern temperament in you. Dotan is probably also a lot more sensitive than the average Dutch guy. And that’s how he writes. You have this temperament that is in your blood and a different way of experiencing melody or harmony. That inspires people. I’m also touched by Typhoon’s lyrics. A semi-outsider too. I seldom have that with Dutch artists. When I heard Typhoon for the first time I thought: this is what people experience with my music. This is about me! The way Typhoon writes about relationships, it really gets to you. We live in a time where everything is fleeting and your senses get beat into pulp. But people still want to be moved. In the middle of all this hectic stuff they still want to be able to say: this people bring me back to my true humanity. People want to feel connected more than ever. And one of the most beautiful things of our success is how mixed our audience is. There are so many different types of people all standing next to each other in the Ziggo Dome and they are not bothered by one another. People of all ages and from everywhere. And they can enjoy an evening together in harmony without being bothered by the others.
Nobody thinks of you as an outsider, even though you are one, a little bit.
‘Yes, and that’s why I ask myself sometimes: what if I was fully Egyptian, would that have been too much? I think I am somewhere in the middle anyway. I have never felt like a person who was fully integrated into Dutch society. I also wonder what it would have been like if my family had been completely Frisian. My mother is Frisian as a matter of fact. Would I have been less rebellious against the norm with a Frisian father?
You’re not that provocative right?
‘No, I respect the norm more now. Formerly, I tended to have an opinion about how other people should lead their lives. Now I think: we need all these people. You cannot have 6 billion people like me in the world. Everyone needs each other, and when you realise that, you can enjoy the harmony of it too.
Is what you are doing now far removed from what you were like as a child?
‘I don’t really sing about my childhood, but I do sing about the part of the child that has remained, and that I still carry with me. And that has grown up enough to be able to deal with all of this.’
Your mother is Frisian. Is she down-to-earth and you father not so much? Or is it the other way around?
‘My father’s not down to earth no. [laughs]. My mother is strict but also caring. Very concerned. But I made sure I wasn’t raised protectively. I did not rebel against my parents, per se, but I just did whatever I wanted. My parents didn’t like that very much. Now I think: I would never do it like that again. I never went to school for example. I skipped classes a lot. I would always blame other people for that. While I just didn’t feel like going, it was that simple. It was not for me. That’s why I’m so happy that this thing with Kensington worked out, ha ha! I cannot concentrate on a book for a longer period for example. If I write a song, I can be busy with it for hours, days, months. But when I read a story, then my attention is disappears when I’m just a few pages in. I had that in school already. It was simply not there. If it’s not something that is close to my heart, I just can’t find it interesting.’
You played the violin as a child.
‘I have a violin here too. I started playing again recently.’
You enjoyed listening to Mozart at the time.
‘When I was about ten years old we just moved to Bunnik. My friends would listen to Eurodance on their boombox in the park. I didn’t agree with that, so I would bring my own boombox and a cd of Mozart. Because that was what I was listening to then. That’s very characteristic of how I was as a child. A rebellious little dreamer. I have always been attracted to the freedom of playing the violin. What lingered of my Egyptian background is the quarter tone. They are hardly used in the Western world, but they contain something that is very melancholic. A violin doesn’t have frets, a guitar does. Actually, the guitar is a very limited instrument. You have to stay within the box. On a violin you can go outside of the box and do whatever you want. I’ve been looking at a guitar without frets, a Spanish guitar. I started playing on a Spanish guitar and I also play a bit of flamenco. When I started listening to bands, I quit playing the violin and started playing guitar. Then I wanted to make rock music.
Where did that interest come from?
‘From my sister. She had a friend from America. She would send her tapes. She sent a tape of Nevermind by Nirvana for example. We used to sleep with the door open. We were still so young that you didn’t need privacy yet, that came a couple of years later. My sister would always play that same tape, that ended with Polly by Nirvana. Months in a row I would fall asleep to Polly. The tape would stop just before the end of the song. Not long afterwards my sister would buy albums by NOFX. I had to get her Dookie by Green Day once at the Free Record Shop on the Oudegracht. She had received a gift voucher. I want that album, because Andrea from America says I have to listen to it! Dookie is one of my favourite punk rock albums of that period. You would grow up with it. Every time I hear it now, I still feel strongly about it. I don’t know if I could still feel the same way about an album now.
Your style of singing is often compared with that of Caleb Followil, the singer of Kings of Leon.
‘You just have the voice that you have. It’s not like I try to imitate someone else’s voice. This is just what comes out. You can’t do anything about it. My inspiration was Kurt Cobain, his rawness, his screaming, his emotion. The last song of MTV Unplugged in New York is one of the last things he has done and you can hear that. It moved me extremely. I also thought Chris Cornell was good, but mostly because of his technique. I used to be a big Soundgarden-fan. Truly one of the best rock singers ever, amazing. But he never moved me like Kurt Cobain did.
I often hear African music in your vocals. Graceland by Paul Simon!
‘I have no idea where that came from. It started with Kilimanjaro, a song from Vultures. I was going through a difficult period then. During the recording sessions in Berlin I got anxiety attacks. I did not know how to deal with those. You have to make an album and the four of us were not yet in harmony at that point. We were all four of us stressed out. Suddenly it all became too much, it just came over me. And in that state I started to sing percussively. I couldn’t think clear anymore and create a beautiful vocal. That just wasn’t possible. Ta-ta-ta-ta is how it came out of me. Then I thought: my body is giving up. I can’t do it anymore. Everything felt strange, things became hazy. I didn’t recognize that at the time. It was a completely new feeling. Nowadays I know how to handle that. When it comes you know: let it happen. But at that moment I thought: everything is going right, so something has to go wrong. Maybe you will die young. And at the moment everything is supposedly going right, you feel terrible. I have become enormously hypochondriac. Too conscious of my body. Every pain could be the worst. Of course that is not rational. You suffer the most of what you fear that you suffer. My mother used to say that when we were young.
When I hear you and Casper sing together: it seems as if your voices were made for each other.
‘Singing vocal harmonies comes naturally to me. I always thought everyone could do it. Only a year or so ago I found out that it’s not self-evident that you can do it straightaway. I used to sing together with my sister a lot. My parents often listened to Simon and Garfunkel. I recently heard the first song my sister and I wrote again on a tape we were eight or nine. It was in perfect harmony. I have introduced that in the band. I joined as guitarist and started doing backing vocals as well. From the first two EPs everything had vocal harmonies. I had it in me. Casper also wanted that I made my mark on the music. He became inspired by me as a musician. Singing together was easy from the start, because we both have a good ear for music.’
What came first, the friendship or the vocal kinship?
‘ It just happened. The friendship started via a friend of mine from school. He used to play football with Casper. We used to think the other was weird in the beginning, Casper and me. I remember the first time I met him. I was selling weed on the street. I never did that, I just had it with me at that time. I think I was fifteen or sixteen. He was the leader of his group of friends, the cocky guy. I was the weird stoner with the rasta hat and the overly large maternity pants. It was kind of uncomfortable. Like: hmmm. But we were intrigued. Then I went to their shows a couple of times. They were called Quad. Their music was constructed smartly. They came across as arrogant, especially Casper. But it kind of worked too. When I heard their guitarist would quit, I kept sending messages to Jan on MSN: I want to join the band. We were supposed to have a chat about it, but I’d already heard demo’s of two songs for an EP. I told everyone: this is my band, while I hadn’t officially joined them yet. Then Casper phoned me: we have a show in six days, do you want to join? Then I bought a guitar with money I didn’t have. From a advance on the inheritance of my grandmother and grandfather – I was forbidden to use that. And I bought an amp that cost 1500 euros, nobody knew about it, just did it, that was that. That was how I used to be, with that amp. That was rebellious, with the idea of: this is what I want to do, I’m going for it. I had to learn eight songs in six days. Looking back it’s been a really good move. Except: it was really irresponsible. I wasn’t concerned about what other people would say.
Didn’t that drive your parents crazy?
‘Yes it did. I had a really difficult time after that. I did MAVO first (lowest high school level in the Netherlands, red.), and that was easy for me. I wanted to go to the Rock Academy and you needed HAVO for that (second highest level, red.). I did that and at a certain moment I had to do a resit of an exam. I went partying with friends who’d already obtained their diplomas, while I still had to do the resit a week later. I’d become really ill, laryngitis, because I had drunk much too much. My dad had to move a closet and I was sitting next to him in the car feeling sick. I said to him: even when I don’t finish my HAVO I still have my MAVO. That’s how I felt then. My dad hated it, that I said that. He couldn’t understand it. That’s typically Egyptian, everyone has to become a doctor over there, get a university degree. While I thought: I will see what happens. Then I did the resit and I passed. Completely happy! I did it! I was very happy. It was my birthday. So yes, I wanted to celebrate! Then my father called: you have to come home now! That laziness, he didn’t understand that. I was like: No! I’m not coming, I got my diploma and it’s my birthday, come on! I went home eventually. The atmosphere was electric. I’d had enough. The next day I ran away from home, I was 18. I stayed away for a month. A horrible time.’
‘It didn’t feel right. It wasn’t enjoyable at all. Of course, in your obnoxious adolescent way, you can think: I am free, I do what I want. But everything went wrong. I had a job as a dishwasher. I was allergic to the dish soap, so the skin came off my hands. I have never been paid for it, never seen a penny. It felt so empty. I did go home again. My father and I didn’t speak to each other for a couple of years, while we lived in the same house. Now I understand why. He had the idea that he couldn’t do anything for me anymore, I wouldn’t listed anyway. Except, the longer you don’t talk to anyone… I couldn’t even say hello to him anymore, I couldn’t get it out of my mouth.’
How did you come to a solution?
‘By getting my own place. I moved out. That was a struggle at first as well. I couldn’t pay the rent, had to borrow money from my sister. But that independency was good for me. People always think that we’ve only been around for a couple of years, but we’ve been in this band for ten years. The first six years we didn’t make any money. I always knew, this has to work out! Casper would bring me home after rehearsals. Then we used to say: You and me! You and me, that was the thing. You and I will just do it. Because we were such different persons: we knew: this has to happen, it can’t be any other way. Except that the world didn’t understand yet. Nobody recognized it, because there were no results yet. People would tell me: just quit! You’ve been working on this for six or seven years, it will never happen! But my father never told me I couldn’t do something. He let me find my own way.’
What about your mother?
‘She was in the middle of it, terrible. That’s what’s so great about the success that I have now: I see my parents have peace. Pride. That’s the only thing parents want. To see their children do well. I do understand that they were worried about a stupid adolescent boy who just did whatever he wanted. This could also have gone completely wrong, if it hadn’t worked. Nowadays I get along with my father again. They were there the second day (in the Ziggo Dome, red.) All parents. What I like the most, my father used to have a lot of trouble finding a job. What my sister experienced a little, was much worse for my dad, even though he’s been living in the Netherlands for decades. He has felt discriminated against very often. Then you just become withdrawn. But now he will say when he’s looking for a job: my son is the singer of Kensington. O really? [full of admiration] Yes, we are big fans. He suddenly gets treated as a deserves. With respect.’
I understand your ambitions better now.
‘I think ambitions sounds very formal. To me ambition is not formal at all. It has to do with freedom. I am a free spirit. People tell me that a lot too. I want to stay free. I do not want to have to lock away my free spirit eight hours a day. And it’s all very real. If you become successful, some people will think that you are a product without any feeling behind it. Or that is was designed by a production team. While it was just the four of us doing it together all these years. I am not a marionette imitating someone else. I am pouring out my soul for as much as possible. That becomes easier too. I like it when people realize: I am giving my all.’