In George Herriman’s classic Krazy Kat comics, Ignatz is the main antagonist, a belligerent mouse whose habit of hurling bricks at the title character’s head only endears him to her. His anarchic aggression seems an ill fit for Belgian guitarist and vocalist Bram Devens, who adopted the name Ignatz for his spare, Appalachian folk-inspired performances.
“I used to draw comics myself and collect them,” writes Devens, who earned a Master’s degree in comics from Sint-Lukas Brussels University College of Art and Design in Brussels, via email. “Krazy Kat is one of my favorite comics. I love the drawings and the language. For my first recordings as Ignatz I used to speed up the tape, so my voice would sound higher pitched and more cartoony. With this in mind, and the references to old pre-war music, it seemed a good match to call myself Ignatz.”
He then adds, “Ignatz the mouse is also a bit of a dick in the comics, and I can relate to that.”
Whatever the reasons behind the name, Ignatz offers a unique approach that emulates the sound of early 20th-century American folk and blues forms as played on a warped 78-rpm record, electronically manipulated and altered. He’ll play a solo show at the Pageant: Soloveev Gallery on Tuesday night, focusing on new songs and material from his latest CD, Can I Go Home Now? (Fonal). The program, presented by Alabaster Museum, also features Philadelphia guitarists Mark Feehan and Mitch Esparza.
It seems incongruous to find a modern Brussels-based artist dealing in music that seems so quintessentially linked to a long-past heartland America. Devens discovered the music through a high school friend, he recalls. “He took me to the local library, which had a small selection of old pre-war blues music, and gave my a bunch of CDs he said I should check out, including Bukka White, Lightnin’ Hopkins, and Fred McDowell. After that I began to collect more records and CDs from record stores in Antwerp and Brussels.”
He was attracted to the music, he says, for “the way it sounded, the authenticity; the fact that this music did not seem to be made for reproduction. It comes from an era before music was specifically made for recording. It sounded exotic and different but also familiar because of that.”
Devens plays his guitar through effects that transform his live sound into something uncannily reminiscent of old records or damaged cassette tapes. For his early Ignatz recordings, he relied more on samples and pre-recorded material, though he has since backed away from those elements so that “I’m less dependent on technology and can focus more on playing guitar and singing.”
His vocals, which have a distant, haunting, semi-comprehensible sound reminiscent of a worn-out recording, are improvised in order to overcome language barriers. “As a non-native English speaker, I don’t feel confident enough to write proper lyrics,” he explains. “The mumbling and faux-English is a reproduction of the way I would sing English songs as a child – a phonetic approach toward language.”
He’s taken an alternative approach to the guitar from the time he picked up the instrument, inspired to forego the normal path by seeing Sonic Youth’s noise-friendly guitarist when he was 12 years old. “I saw Thurston Moore on a Dutch TV show playing live with a screwdriver,” Devens recalls. “I thought, ‘Oh wow, you can do that?’ It was very liberating. So I worked a summer job picking cherries on a farm (which was the only job you were allowed to do as a 12-year-old) and with that money bought my first electric guitar and amp. And a screwdriver. My parents and the neighbours were not pleased.”
Ignats performs at Pageant: Soloveev Gallery on Tuesday, April 22. Tickets and information on the show can be found here.
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