I don’t like New Year’s Eve. I’ve had some bad experiences which have left me feeling jaded towards that particular festivity. Now, it’s my tradition to spend that evening with my bandmates, drinking beer, watching live Metallica DVDs, and playing Guitar Hero. We’re big fans of the Friday Top lists on Ultimate Guitar, these being a staple source of entertainment and discussion after our weekly band practices, so last New Year’s Eve, in the spirit of the night, we listened our way through their 22 Best Songs of 2022. One song on this list had us all hooked from the first moments – Gnome’s “Wenceslas”. None of us had heard of the band, but we all instantly fell for their groovy, doomy riffs, funky dance moves, and somewhat silly lyrics (‘Look at me/Set us free/Wenceslas/Little bitch’). In my tipsy wisdom, I sent a link to the song to our group chat, and was incredibly happy with Past Hanna the next day – checking my phone and being reminded of this fantastic wee song got the new year off to a great start. (Fun fact: Gnome didn’t know they were on this list – their response when I told them was, quite simply, ‘Holy shit, that’s amazing!‘)
Gnome is the brainchild of guitarist/vocalist Rutger Verbist, who has long harboured a love for funny songs with funny videos. Back in the day, he created these all himself: ‘I did everything by myself, played all the instruments, recorded everything with amateur equipment and limited knowledge, and tried to mix and master with inadequate skills. I was not aiming to do anything serious, it was just good fun, just a reason for me to dress up and make stupid videos just for laughs.‘ There was never anything serious about it, until one day, he created “Fuzz Lightyear”, and found that it was actually ‘sounded quite alright’. So, the idea was sparked to turn it into something he could recreate live, but he knew he’d need an actual band for this.
In the hope of finding musicians to make ‘a great band’, Verbist turned to a local musician page and posted one of his music videos, hoping to ensnare a drummer whose skills at least matched his own on this instrument. Within hours, he had close to a dozen applicants for the position, and thus began auditioning them to see if the vibe fit. As these things tend to go, the first candidate never showed up, but already on the second drummer, Verbist found he struck gold – ‘Egon Loosveldt was his name, and apparently drumming was his game.‘ It quickly became clear that Loosveldt not only matched but far superseded Verbist’s own skills behind the kit, and that he was ‘not only a schooled musician, whereas I was self-taught, he was also a professional earning his living behind the drums and playing in many other projects’. Verbist recalls being ‘quite blown away’ that Loosveldt was actually interested in playing his ‘backyard music’, and that the two of them gelled quite soundly.
Even though the original idea was to form a rock duo, the arrival of Loosveldt inspired Verbist to think bigger, and he immediately contacted his long-term friend Geoffrey Verhulst, who he always felt ‘outclassed’ him on guitar. Verbist says, ‘I thought he’d be a perfect match to upgrade our rock duo to an epic trio’. Verhulst didn’t play bass at the time, so the idea was to have a trio consisting of drums and two guitars, with Verhulst emulating a bass by playing an octave lower thanks to an octave pedal. After about a year of these sorts of ‘antics’, he did ‘eventually evolve into a bonafide bass player’.
The trio started jamming together under the name ‘Sleepless Titan’, but quickly realised this name felt a bit too serious for the style of music they were producing. They threw around a few ideas before Verhulst suggested ‘Gnome’, and it was an instant, resounding yes from the rest of the crew. According to Verbist, it was perfect because ‘just like our music, gnomes are both stupid and silly but also magical, awesome, and badass’.
Influenced by rock greats like Led Zeppelin, Jimi Hendrix, and Black Sabbath, as well as more recent rock acts like The Vintage Caravan, Red Fang, and Truckfighters, Verbist also finds a lot of inspiration in film, games, and books. His major soft spot is for medieval fantasy – he’s ‘always been an avid fan of The Lord of the Rings movies, video games like Dark Souls and Age of Empires and the fantasy writings of Joe Abercrombie, Christopher Buehlman, and Brandon Sanderson’. This can be seen in a few of Gnome’s song titles, as well; for example, “Stinth Thy Clep”, from Gnome‘s recent album King, takes its name from a Patrick Rothfuss line.
Verbist finds himself calling back on these non-musical influences most during the lyric-writing process. Having started as an almost exclusively instrumental band, vocals are only really added when the band feels a song needs ‘more pazazz… usually, I’d be inspired by some book I’ve just read, a movie I’ve just watched or a video game I’ve played that sparked some inspiration’. Vocals were never an integral part of Gnome‘s sound; their first song to feature singing was the title track of their debut release Father of Time, and it garnered such a positive reaction that the band decided to allow a few more words to creep into their songs.
Father of Time is almost completely instrumental, while the trio’s recent album King is about a 50/50 split. On the whole, Gnome feel that Father was ‘more experimental… we were very much still searching for our niche’. By the time the band were writing King, they had figured out that ‘making some songs a bit more approachable can work wonders’. A part of that was adding some more vocals – Verbist explains: ‘Some people loved our instrumental work, but many others couldn’t really get into it without vocals. Adding more vocals set us up for reaching a wider audience.‘
A side note here: I have a lot of love for instrumental music; my main band is an instrumental prog/doom trio. The amount of times we get told that we’d be more popular or more appealing with a vocalist is infuriating, and at times embittering. We don’t have a vocalist because a) none of us can sing and we don’t want to add another person to the band, and b) instrumental music is our genuine form of expression, and adding vocals would compromise that. We’ve done a song live with a vocalist a few times, and it was fun and sounded cool, and fit with our form of expression because he latched onto our frustration and made the lyrics about basically ‘if you don’t get it, then it’s not for you anyway’.
I digress – the point I’m getting to is that I love how Gnome found a compromise that works for them, and that it’s so clear on every one of their songs, regardless of whether it has vocals or not, that the riff is king (excuse the pun). The vocals are great, super hooky, funny, and lift the songs that they are on, but Gnome’s instrumental songs in no way suffer from the lack of vocals. The band do a stellar job of identifying which songs could be made greater with vocals, and which are complete as is.
In keeping with making their music more appealing to the mainstream, Gnome decided to write all lyrics in English, as opposed to their native Dutch. This not only helps their songs appeal to a wider international market, as opposed to limiting them to Belgium and the Netherlands, but felt like a natural choice for Verbist, who consumes all of his fantasy media in English. On top of all of this, Verbist always felt that English ‘just sounds cooler than Dutch in my personal opinion. I always felt that most Dutch songs sound quite stupid, haha’.
King was built around the idea of an evil king Wenceslas, who shares nothing but ‘his terrific name’ with the yuletide Bohemian, and whose ambition it is to exterminate all the gnomes. Although Gnome’s songs generally don’t have much in common thematically, the songs on King do link back to this concept. Verbist explains:
‘”Stinth Thy Clep” is the king silencing all gnomes. The Bulls of Bravik are his evil minotaur minions who are sent forth to exterminate our kind. Ambrosius is a prominent rebel Gnome captured and imprisoned by the king. “Your Empire” and “Antibeast” are the rising discontent among the remaining gnomes. By eventually wanking the Kraken and summoning their Platypus mounts they finally find their chance to strike back at the evil king.’
The album opener, “Ambrosius”, was one that Verbist recalls having a lot of fun writing. From the beginning, he knew he had a ‘banger riff’ on his hands, and ‘sometimes that’s enough to have the rest of the song kinda flow naturally from my brain without much effort’. Whenever the inspiration for a riff strikes, Verbist immediately records himself singing, humming, or whistling the riff on his phone, and then later picks up the guitar and records it in Garageband. Sometimes he will get ‘struck by lightning’ and end up with a pretty complete idea for a song rather than just a riff; in either case, he always works on his ideas in Garageband until they resemble a full song before he passes them on to the rest of the band for feedback. He explains:
‘I see my songs as blueprints when I’ve finished writing them. Only after bringing them to the boys, they start to slowly but steadily turn into true Gnome songs. Geoffrey and Egon both influence the further development of songs by suggesting removing bits that stay too long, or adding parts that spice up the whole. The initial ideas usually form in my brain, but the execution and fine tuning is done by all three of us.’
Once the blueprint is made and approved by everyone, Verbist will show Verhulst the bass riffs, ‘which mostly mimic the guitar riffs… When Geoffrey [Verhulst] has the basic riffs down, he’ll pour his own cocktail of bass magic over them and adjust them to his needs and ideas’. Because Verbist doesn’t really write drum parts, drummer Loosveldt normally ‘just follows along and does his thing’. Verhulst occasionally comes up with riffs as well; he wrote “Rat King” from the debut album, and “Antibeast” from King almost in their entirety. Usually, he will leave the ending of the song open for Verbist to finish, though.
A happy accident occurred when Verbist wrote “Your Empire”, a song with more of a pop-rock leaning, which needed a vocal part, but Verbist found he had some trouble singing the vocal line he wrote, and found himself ‘flirting with the idea of inviting a guest singer to do this song’. Initially, Gnome had their sights set on a friend from Germany, but the pandemic restrictions at the time didn’t allow him to travel to Belgium. He would’ve needed to record the vocals at a local studio in Germany, and Gnome realised they could invite anyone, anywhere in the world, to be a guest on their album. ‘Why not shoot for the stars? They probably won’t be interested but who knows, you can always try.‘ The band got lucky – their first pick, The Vintage Caravan’s Óskar Logi Ágústsson, immediately agreed.
The wonders of the internet and remote collaboration were once again proven with King’s album art, as well. Initially, Gnome considered making the art themselves, as both Verbist and Verhulst are quite skilled with Photoshop and Illustrator, but they found a local artist called Xander Faes on Instagram, and asked him to make the cover for them instead. They told him the album’s lore, and asked him to draw ‘a nasty king riding on the backs of bulls’. Faes took the rough idea and took it a bit further: the bulls became minotaurs, who are carrying the king.
Overall, Gnome didn’t find the pandemic and all its restrictions to stand in the way of them recording King – Verbist found that recording during lockdown ‘actually turned out to be quite a boon, because the streets were empty, making the logistics of the operation easier. Only face masks were quite tiring’. He loves being in the studio, having time set aside just for putting the songs to record. I can relate to this – something about a studio’s isolation from the outside world is very soothing to me. Time dissolves, becomes unimportant, and the creativity can just flow. Bring your bandmates/best friends into that, and it can be a pretty special and fun time. Verbist agrees:
‘One of the main reasons our band works so well is because the three of us are very good friends. We don’t take each other too seriously, laugh at each other’s stupid jokes and generally have a good time. Whether it be rehearsing, recording, gigging or being on tour, we always like hanging out with each other. So recording isn’t something that puts a strain on us as a band. We actually quite like the experience.’
While the album’s artwork was outsourced, Gnome did shoot the music videos for “Ambrosius” and “Wenceslas” themselves. Thanks to his job, Verbist has access to cameras and video editing software, making it incredibly easy for Gnome to do it themselves. While at a friend’s wedding, Verbist stumbled across an overgrown greenhouse, and thought it would make the perfect spot to shoot the “Ambrosius” footage. The trio set up some GoPros and got to work. Filming didn’t take as long as they thought, so they had time to make another video: ‘I quickly came up with a stupid dance, taught it to the boys, and we made the “Wenceslas” video at the same location, just a few paces away from the greenhouse’.
Verbist believes these two videos played a large part in King’s success. When Father of Time was released, it happened to coincide with the word ‘gnome’ spiking in search engines thanks to the ‘I’m gnot a gnelf, I’m a gnome’ meme being popular at the time. This quite possibly made the YouTube algorithm pick up our heroes and push them into people’s recommended videos. Even though the band ‘had a hunch that [King] was sonically better than Father and had better overall songwriting’ and ‘had potential to do a lot better than Father’, Gnome realised they might not have a lucky meme backing them for its release. Thanks to the two music videos, the band still experienced a ‘surge of success’, and felt some pride that ‘this time our own writing and videos got us there, and not just a stupid meme!’
While Belgium is a reasonably small country, it does have a strong and healthy relationship with heavy music, including hosting the festivals Graspop, Alcatraz, and, in Gnome’s hometown, Desertfest Antwerp. Plus, Belgium’s location in the centre of Europe puts it in a prime spot to travel to France, the Netherlands, and Germany within a matter of hours. This has helped Gnome tour to many different countries in their time together, and they have noticed some distinct differences.
‘In Spain and Portugal people are very friendly and party hard, but people tend to have less cash to spare for merch, so we didn’t sell much merch there to support our tour. The Dutch are generally very pleasant and loud people, but hosts don’t easily offer many extras in terms of food or accommodations compared to other countries. The Germans however excel in exactly those areas… Finally, us Belgians are more timid people. There isn’t much going on in the audience. We can look somewhat disinterested during a show, but that’s because we’re actually listening intently and bobbing our heads approvingly. We definitely notice this difference during our own concerts as well.’
Despite Brexit making playing in Great Britain more difficult and Gnome’s van getting broken into in Manchester, the band likes to play there: ‘The British audience is terrific! They are very grateful people.‘
Gnome’s favourite show to date has been in Antwerp, though – Desertfest 2022. Verbist recalls:
‘It was pretty much the biggest show we had done to date, and we were blown away by the sheer volume in attendance. For three hours after our show there was what felt like a never-ending line of people at our merch booth waiting to buy our vinyls, CDs, shirts and get autographs. Quite a surreal experience!’
The band hope to ‘play at many cool venues and festivals every year‘, and keep releasing music every two to three years. They all have partners, houses, and full-time jobs, so Verbist doesn’t see extensive touring as being on the cards for them; rather, he just hopes for Gnome to keep growing and see how far they can take it. In any case, Gnome helps Verbist find creative relief: ‘I guess I’ve always looked for ways to ‘lay my creative egg’, like we say it in Flanders: to express my creativity. Sometimes it’s in writing, making videos, or drawing. I’ve even tried painting. But most of all I can find my relief in writing and playing music with my friends.‘