Their lead singer and songwriter goes by the cool-cat name of Anthony Sinatra, so you know they take pop vocal music seriously. Still, Piano Club, which has been recording and performing in Belgium for over a decade–singing in English–hasn’t made a dent in the America market. Maybe that’s because, in the purest indie fashion, they’ve never had a record deal; the only way to buy their tracks is through Bandcamp.com.
Sinatra, who also fronts the Liège-based Hollywood Porn Stars, has a long-standing reputation in Belgium as writer, producer, performer, and music coach. The 2017 De6bel —not a typo!—Awards nominee for musician of the year is obviously besotted with hits from his early childhood: the man loves every subgenre of synthpop, but he respects classic rock instruments and tropes, too.
Piano Club is aptly named for two reasons. First, the group is as much a club or collective as it is a traditional band, with some members stepping in only for a track here and there. The featured photo on the band’s website shows 11 people, but some live performance videos feature only four or five musicians onstage.
And then there’s the other definition of “club,” just as appropriate, as you can hear on their first full-length album, Andromedia, from 2010. That’s club as in nightclub. Piano Club makes music to dance to.
The song “Not Too Old” opens with a synthesizer fanfare in a ragged rhythm. You can just picture the strobe lights and the crowd of jittering bodies on the floor. It’s a high-octane sound that becomes even more intriguing once the verse starts and a tuba-like melody plays against the fragmented vocal line.
Clubbing is usually an escape from the cares of the real world. But this song is desperate, bringing the real world into the safe space. Specifically, it’s the desperation of aging. One source I found claimed Sinatra was born in 1979, so yes, that’s authentic stress in Sinatra’s lyrics as he watches middle age come rolling at him: “I can see the changes around me…I don’t want to be left behind.” As fun as they are, the textures and rhythms of this song are a little frightening.
“Elephant in a Room,” also on Andromedia, has a more open and relaxed sound. This chord-based synthpop is an obvious nod to ABBA. This Piano Club’s most popular song (55,000 views on YouTube), and it’s not surprising, given how accessible every aspect of it is, including its “I’ll always be there for you” message and toe-tapping chorus.
Much more interesting and daring is “The Lost Words.” It’s minor and dissonant in the verses, a conversation between Sinatra and a low synth line. Some Depeche Mode influence is not out of the question. The chorus opens into a major key with conventional chordal backing, which is odd considering the frustration in the lyrics: “I’ll never find the words you want to hear / I’ll never really understand how you feel.” I keep waiting for the next verse to bring back the creepy and compelling minor. The bridge at around 2:08 pits low against high, legato against sibilant in the synth:
Another of the band’s most popular numbers is “Ain’t No Mountain High.” (No, it’s not related to the Marvin Gaye / Tammi Terrell hit.) This song, from the 2013 album Colore, relies on a wistfully wobbly string-orchestra voice patch, accompanied by floating faux chorus. As is normal in the genre, the band avoids patches that sound like natural instruments; it’s all about waving that synth flag proudly!
Super-fast runs in the intro, a nod to the video game-inspired synth subgenre called chiptune, segue into the actual song and then return as a motif throughout. The nasal quality of Sinatra’s singing brings to mind Neil Tennant of the Pet Shop Boys:
“Esther” shows a different side of the band, partly thanks to a lead vocal by Lylou, another Liège-based indie artist. She doesn’t push the emotions of what seems to be a plea from an impatient lover to a recalcitrant one; she lets the minor key and the downward-dipping phrases bring out the darkness.
Piano Club’s most recent full album is Fantasy Walk, from 2016. Their own press statement describes the song “Comets” as an “epic pop single.” I don’t know about epic, but it’s certainly a pop single, with a simple, head-bopping beat, breathy female voices (a new addition for this album), and barely sensible lyrics. What sets “Comets” apart from the most sugary of synthpop hits is the stereophonic guitar riffs passed back and fourth over that relentless pulsing, giving it a depth by acknowledging the existence of non-digital instruments.
Sinatra’s subtle and ironic sense of humor is on display in “Crocodiles,” which reminds us in a lively, reggae-inspired tune, “As soon as you are born, you start to die.” While his English diction might lack consonants at times, Sinatra knows how to craft an interesting melody and sing it well. This particular video demonstrates just what a big team effort is required to create a Piano Club song. I love the fact that there’s an individual playing each layer live, although they could easily have prerecorded most of these sounds and performed as a small group to a backing track.
Piano Club’s latest effort is the 2018 EP Think for Yourself. The title track features a talented and original Belgian rapper called Blu Samu. For the first two minutes, this is just a mellow disco number. Then Blu Samu drops her rhymes neatly into the funky beat. Synthpop rap? It was the obvious next step, I suppose.
While Piano Club might not have a profound message driving their songs, they do have a musical announcement for anyone who will listen: Keep an ear tuned into the Belgian indie scene.