Stars seem to align in a series of funny coincidences before I meet Joachim Liebens in a very windy Cologne. The back garden of Bumann & Sohn is flooded with piles of empty wooden boxes, and around us the whole city is buzzing with excitement and anticipation for the c/o pop Festival. Looking for a quieter spot, we sit at a small, green round table, as he tells me the band’s hometown is only one hour and a half away by car – not much of a drive, he shrugs with a smile. And considering The Haunted Youth’s touring schedule in 2022 and 2023, he must really mean it.
The first thing I notice is the light in Joachim’s eyes when we start talking about the reach his latest work, the band’s debut album Dawn Of The Freak, has on people. Prompting from the strangling feeling of being alone on the outskirts of a society that does not understand, the record sounds like a journey through the growing pains of the early 20s:
“Starting out, the album felt about me a lot, but the more I shared it with other people, the more I was surprised by the way many different kinds of individuals would relate to the subject.”
While the album came from the perspective of an outsider, the response the audience had to the music showed Joachim that an opposite scenario was also possible: “First I thought I was the only one who felt alone, but coming out and seeing people singing your songs in a way that they felt it… that really connected me in a different way to the world. I felt like I found my place in a way, like this is what I do.”
“I go in search of an emotional experience (or I have one because life forces it on me) and I express it. Making songs is like keeping a diary, in a way. You write something down in the heat of the moment and then you’re able to read it again and you learn from it. It’s really like that.”
Writing As The Only Remedy
Just like a mirror, Joachim’s urge to express feelings is reflected throughout the album’s lyrics: often very short and sometimes resembling a mantra, the verses seem to explode amongst bubbles of silence and empty spaces. Curious about the origin of such an intrication, I ask Joachim about his writing process.
“It’s mostly an emotion. The album for instance – it started with the feeling. I felt like ‘Dawn of the Freak’ was over inside me. And that’s also like, when it comes to the short sentences, when it comes to the vocals and stuff, I really want the people to have as much room as possible to make the song about themselves. Give them as much as they need to know where the song is, but also give them all this room to come up with their own stories. Like a book helps you come up with your own images, because it’s written a certain way”.
Working just like a magic pill, the writing of Dawn of the Freak answered all the questions Joachim had, leaving no room for loose ends. Now inspired by love and life with his girlfriend, as well as the tight bonds that tie him and his band, Joachim feels to have outgrown the themes of his debut album and is ready for a new chapter.
“‘Dawn of the Freak’ is with the people now and they can explore it as a new thing, but for me, I have expressed everything I had and was at that point into the album. Right now, I’ve become such a different person. I’ve grown so much and I’ve explored so many different new things that it’s hard to relate to those old themes, I’m looking at the same things in such a different way”.
Reflecting on how much of a tight unit The Haunted Youth have become over time (Hanne Smets on keys, Tom Stokx on guitar, Stef Castro on bass and Nick Caers on drums), Joachim explains to me that the connection between the band members is so strong to be even visible to the crowd during their praised live performances: regardless of how many mistakes someone might make during a live show, the audience always seems pleased and excited. “I know it just feels great to be able to give the people what they want. Make them have a great time“, he says.
The Magic Behind Trial and Error
Starting out as a solo project (Joachim fully wrote and produced the record by himself), The Haunted Youth has slowly grown into the band we know now. Working on and off with other people and contributing in various projects, Joachim had the chance to rub shoulders with other musicians and producers, slowly learning that the best way to render the record was to speak his own truth. Choosing emotional delivery over technicality, he decided to keep the tracks he originally recorded in his bedroom over the studio versions: “I went to the studio to do some recordings, but I think we used none of them, actually. We went to a really good studio, but all of the other tracks in the mix were recorded at home through the same gear I use, so it really fit together in a particular way. We used the old shitty recordings anyway and they had some magic to it. I tried to mix it as well as I could.”
“I’m actually a song guy, not so much a genre guy. I’m just obsessed with finding an anthem kind of way of going about a song. I don’t want album fillers. I want every song to mean something, unmistakably. I want every song to bring something new, of the same old stuff, but in a new way.”
Musically inspired by artists like MGMT, The Cure and DIIV, Joachim grew up breathing in a lot of Joy Division as well. “I listened to Joy Division a hell of a lot when I was 18, 19. Daily, all day, every day. I was painting a lot as well. They were my main influence, my main soundtrack to doing my painting stuff. I would say Joy Division was a hell of an inspiration”. Under other important musical influences, he recalls Empire Of The Sun, whose records helped him find the right sound for his voice:
“I always sang to their records. That made me help find my own sound, what I wanted to do with my voice and what my voice can do”, he explains. Mac DeMarco and Tame Impala, on the other hand, showed him that it was possible to do everything by himself. “Mac DeMarco in particular, because he makes you feel like you are good enough. Your guitar doesn’t have to be in tune, it’s just about the vibe and rocking and rolling. He really lowered the bar for everyone to just come into the world.”
Standing In Front Of A Mirror
Lead by strong and successful singles like Teen Rebel, I Feel Like Shit And I Wanna Die and Gone, the record comes to an end with Fist In My Pocket, a track that diverges from the rest of the album: fragile and heartbreakingly vulnerable, it sounds raw. When I ask him about it, Joachim breaks into a soft smile.
“It was actually the first song I considered to be my song. It really says something about me, in such a profound and complete way. I would also always cry while writing it. It took a long time to finish all the lyrics and all the lines, to make them fit together. It became this complete story of who I was at my lowest point. I think that’s when I knew I had something going. This was the story I was going to tell the rest of my life, because that’s important to me and relevant. And very relatable too, I think.”
Another incredibly personal song on Dawn of the Freak is Coming Home. Starting from the desire to recreate a string section in the final track of vintage horror movie Friday the 13th, Joachim mindlessly composed the instrumental version of the track. Some time later, while spending some time with a friend, he decided to improvise some lyrics over it, without realizing that he was actually slowly gluing Dawn of the Freak together.
“I just came up with those words. The chorus, I think. I just sang. I don’t know, I just spit it out before realizing that it was really about me. I could remember so many things from my past that relate to those words. Also [the relationship with] my parents”.
That is when the juxtaposition comes in. Although the music and the title recall positive, melancholic feelings, the lyrics ask uncomfortable questions – Why is it so hard for people to live together? Why is everyone trying so hard to fit in? Coinciding with the time the Black Lives Matter movement exploded in the United States, the lyrics of the song got Joachim reflecting on a larger scale.
“That really tied the album together. That’s where you want to end up. You start out as a freak and you go through all this shit and you end up…”
End up where?
Dawn Of The Freak is available everywhere. Catch them live on tour this summer.