February 02, 2024

From sweaty hugs to stage diving from the balcony: the international bands of the Marconi and Toots studios

Legendary, that is what you could call the Marconi and Toots studios at VRT. The two studios on Reyerslaan have hosted several events and welcomed various international artists, from Tori Amos and Suzanne Vega over Texas and Crowded House to The National and Kaiser Chiefs. All those recordings and concerts make for a wealth of fascinating stories.

Just recently, IDLES played at the Marconi studio. The British band came to present its new album 'TANGK' at Studio Brussel. Studio Brussel is a frequent guest at the Marconi and Toots studios. "Florence and the Machine was supposed to play a living room session at the Toots in 2010," explains Stijn Van Belleghem, producer at Studio Brussel. "Everything was set up, including the harp for one of her musicians. But shortly before the show, her manager called to say that Florence had fallen down the stairs after a long night in London. We called all the guests saying they could stay home. The manager did promise that Florence would still come a few days later, after her performance at Pinkpop. There I saw her. Spontaneously, she showed the bruises on her legs. (laughs) 'I believe you,' I told her. And the day after Pinkpop, she indeed played at the Toots studio." The anecdote shows that you sometimes have to improvise when organising a concert by an international star. But the VRT building itself also requires creativity. For instance, there were no dressing rooms near the studios, so an office is sometimes set up as a dressing room. But that does not alter the fact that Belgian and international bands love to come and play there.

Since 2008, Stijn has witnessed many recordings and concerts from the front row. He did so, among other things, as producer of Club 69, the concerts organised for many years by Studio Brussels in the Marconi studio. The number 69 refers to the number of duo tickets available per concert. An exclusive affair, in other words. And a concert at the Marconi is actually always that, because the studio is not too big. "The audience is allowed to get very close to the artist at the Marconi. That's really quite unique. Such a concert in the VRT buildings is a special experience. People come to Brussels on a trip, see the VRT tower and it really captures their imagination. We actually create our own concert hall, without competing with the classical concert calendar. With Club 69 we therefore practised underplay: bands that attracted several thousand spectators elsewhere played here for less than 200 attendees. And we still do."

Elbow brings beer

Record companies know the way to the studios to record albums or have artists play for a live audience. Artists stop at the Reyerslaan during the promotional tour for a new album. Or they like to fill a gap during a classic tour at the Marconi or Toots studio. Sometimes a band even ends a tour there, like White Lies in 2011.

Some artists and groups built a certain bond with the studios this way. "Matt Berninger of The National once played a small acoustic concert in Toots with his side project EL VY," Stijn recalls. "In the hallway, he saw a picture of an earlier concert by The National at the Marconi. A photo signed by Matt Berninger has been hanging here ever since."

"Elbow also passed a few times. After their first gig, I saw singer Guy Harvey dragging trays of beer to the bus. We had prepared these upon their request. I was surprised that he actually took the remaining beer with him. But later I discovered that this is quite common. The hospitality riders gradually became more and more stuffed. Beer, coke and snacks used to suffice, but today artists want more. For instance, they pay more attention to healthy things. And we like to pamper them. I assume: if they play a bad concert, it's not our fault. So there is always a bag of ice ready. Charles Bradley, for instance, asked for a huge amount of ice. During his concert, it became clear why. He was sweating profusely on stage. So he was regularly handed an ice-filled towel to cool down. Bathed in sweat, he came off stage after the performance and gave everyone a big hug. Yes, I too got one."

Dry sound

Fifteen years of organising concerts at the Marconi and the Toots thus provided Stijn with a string of anecdotes. Not to mention Mike Skinner of The Streets who stage dived from the rather high balcony of the Marconi to a not too numerous audience. Or about the visit to the VRT company doctor that Stijn made with Paul Banks, the slightly hypochondriac singer-guitarist of Interpol.

© RR. British music magazine NME was also impressed by Mike Skinner's leap.

But Stijn also retains fond memories of the studios themselves. "And in the Marconi, almost everyone asks why there are three staircases there. When I then explain that these date from the time the Marconi served as a radio play studio, it always causes hilarity." Back then, the Marconi was used to record radio plays. The wooden, stone and iron staircase date back to that time. Depending on the sound needed in a particular scene, one of those stairs was used to record footsteps.