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Deconstructing the Sounds of the Universe: Looking Back at The Belgian Waffles!
Posted June 24, 2015 by Seth Johnson

Clockwise from upper left: Chris Willems, Matt Whitaker. Bill Zink, Dan Willems, Heather Floyd, Tony Woollard, a bottle of J W Dant, photo by Heather Floyd

 

 

Whenever The Belgian Waffles! jumped into a set of their heavily improvised, noise-drenched tunes, the Bloomington-born band knew their sound wasn’t for everybody in the room.

 

“If a quarter of the crowd was really into what we were doing, a quarter of the crowd really hated it, and the other half was trying desperately to ignore it, then we knew we were doing pretty well,” remembers Matt Whitaker, who played bass, flute, piccolo and drums in the band. “It was like, ‘We know what we do is difficult [listening].’” Nevertheless, the Waffles stuck to their craft for two decades, discombobulating audiences from 1986 to 2006. 

 

From left to right: Bill Zink, Matt Whitaker, Tony Woollard (then primarily known as Xerox); from the Indiana Daily Student, 1987

The band traces its origins to Whitaker’s first meeting instigator/founder Tony Woollard (who could not be reached for interview) in the Indiana University dorms. Whitaker recalls, “[Woollard] just kind of wanted to start making sound. I had tried a couple bands in college, but I still couldn’t play very well and it was frustrating. So his sonic sculpture approach was a lot more interesting to me and seemed more liberating.” 

 

Eventually, Woollard recruited guitarist Bill Zink, who, like Whitaker, admits that he had very little music-playing background. Zink remembers,  “[Woollard] and I met at a radio station in Bloomington (WQAX) and had some similar interests as far as music was concerned.” Zink says, “Basically, his only requirements were, ‘Oh you have equipment? Oh you like this kind of music?’ And I was like, ‘Yeah…I don’t really play the guitar though,’ and he goes, ‘Eh, that’s fine. It’s probably better [that way].’”

 

Inspired by groups like The Birthday Party, Butthole Surfers, and The Fall, the earliest version of the Waffles had an “irreverent, Jackson Pollock sound,” according to Whitaker. Additional members had brief stints with the band in the following years, including Chet Chmielewski on keyboards, turntables, and electronics, Sarah Lund (who later went on to play in Unwound) on drums, and “a revolving door” of others, remembers Whitaker. 

 

From left to right: Bill Zink, Matt Whitaker, Tony Woollard, Bob Wagner; photo David Whittemore, from a live show at Spud Zero in Lafayette, IN, 1988

 

“We had a fluid membership of other people that would come in for shows or projects, but they kind of came and went. I don’t want to diminish their contributions though.” Eventually however, the group evolved into a consistent six-piece lineup when Woollard, Whitaker, and Zink decided to team up with Heather Floyd (drums, trumpet, soprano saxophone), Chris Willems (tenor saxophone), and Dan Willems (alto and baritone saxophones, guitar).

 

With a band of their own called the Sick City Four, Floyd and the Willemses were already making music similar to that of the Waffles. Dan explains, “I think we were both kind of parallel to each other.”

 

With the addition of the Sick City Four trio, The Belgian Waffles found themselves on a new path. Whittaker says, “Early on, I think we [The Belgian Waffles!] were experimenting with how to deconstruct rock ‘n’ roll. And then when we added Chris, Dan, and Heather, it was like, ‘They’ve been deconstructing jazz.’ So we ran both of those freight trains together, and it was just like, ‘How to sonically deconstruct the universe.’”

 

The band remained in Bloomington from 1991 to 1994, despite the scene’s unwelcoming response to their oddball endeavors. Occasional stints to Chicago often found them much more well-received. Whitaker remembers, “The first time we played in Chicago it was on a bill with a lot of similar kinds of stuff, and the free jazz thing was exploding up there at the time. It was very gratifying to have Chicago react to us the way that they did. We didn’t care that nobody liked us in Bloomington, but at the same time it was a lot of fun to get to play with Weasel Walter, Ken Vandermark, and folks up there and have them go, ‘Man. You kicked my ass.’” 

 

From left to right: Tony Woollard, Matt Whitaker, photo David Whittemore, 1988

Already pondering the idea of leaving Bloomington, the band was tempted to move to Chicago. But after weighing out the differences in cost of living, they decided to relocate to Louisville instead, continuing to play and record as a band until 2006.

 

Considering the fact that Dan typically recorded everything they ever did (including practices and shows), the now-defunct Waffles will likely be unearthing music for very many years to come. Their Musical Family Tree page showcases the band’s many phases and sounds.  Still though, Zink says to expect many more tunes to surface.

 

From left to right, Matt Whitaker, Dan Willems, Tony Woollard, Bill Zink, live at the Rudyard Kipling (Louisville), photo Alysen Watterson, 2002

“Just with stuff that he recorded on cassette, Dan’s probably got a 4’ by 4’ cabinet full of cassette tapes,” he explains. “Time-wise, you’re talking in terms of back-to-back weeks worth of material. On the flipside, 90% of it’s not worth listening to, but we could mine those archives for a long time and still have decent stuff.”

 

Looking ahead, Zink plans to continue digging through these pieces of Waffles past, giving fans new and old a more complete picture of what the complex band was all about. 

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