Dutch-language music group Yevgueni was founded in Leuven exactly twenty years ago. Frontman Klaas Delrue, pianist Geert Noppe and bassist Maarten Van Mieghem first performed as a cabaret trio. 750 performances later, KU Leuven alumnus Klaas Delrue looks back nostalgically on these unforgettable years: ‘I'm still not over my student days, that period was determinative for me and even a little disruptive.’
Just like both of his parents, Klaas Delrue studied pedagogical sciences. ‘My interest was mainly in social and human sciences when I was in secondary school. Because of my parents' background, my choice of study turned out to be pedagogy,’ says Klaas.
Given his ambition to later work for an NGO, Klaas embarked on a Master of Cultural Anthropology and Development Studies (CADES). Bandmate Geert Noppe was on the exact same study track. ‘Where pedagogy was often a quest, the second master's degree to us felt like coming home. Geert and I both needed that sixth year to be both academically and musically ready for the future.’
At that time, CADES was a brand new field of study with an extremely international profile. Development aid and other social interests that NGOs focus on were approached from an anthropological angle. ‘That fuelled my motivation to do something with North-South, but at the same time my adventurous – and naïve – vision was greatly adjusted during that master year.’
Interfaculty Song Festival
There’s still no mention of Yevgueni yet during his last bachelor year, but the foundation is unconsciously being laid. Klaas, together with Geert and Maarten, Geert's cousin, signs up for the Interfaculty Song Festival, a yearly rock competition between Leuven student circles. ‘I think we only sang one song of our own, and in English at that. So that had little to do with Yevgueni, but we got a taste for it.’ The three pedagogical sciences students finish in second place and win the public prize.
Two years later they take another chance with the Anthropological Circle and Yevgueni is created. ‘That's when we performed Dutch songs for the first time. Those were simple songs about growing pains and student blues, which was a feeling that dominated our first three records,’ says Klaas. The trio wins the competition and gets to open the Student Welcome on the Oude Markt six months later. ‘That summer we had to put in some extra effort,’ laughs Klaas. ‘We had to fill about 40 minutes, so we needed at least six or seven extra songs.’
It later turns out that those songs are more than just youthful dabbling: ‘Robbie’, ‘Sara’, ‘ Mama ik wil papa’, ‘Eenzaam met jou’ and ‘Oud en versleten’ all make the first record. ‘Sara’ is about a waitress at De Kaffaer, a café in Leuven that Klaas and his fellow students transformed into the fakbar for pedagogues one evening per week: ‘During our fourth year, De Kaffaer suddenly changed its ownership and staff. From one day to the next we never saw Sara again,’ he says. ‘In the end we did find her and invited her to our first album release party. ‘Sara’ is – along with ‘Als ze lacht’ – the only song we play at almost every gig.’
‘As a student, I fell in love with everything,’ Klaas says. ‘Not only Yevgueni, but my student room also immediately felt like a second home.’ He spent six years of study in the same room in Halfmaartstraat. It was called ‘bojkot’: not because it was a boy's room, but Bojko was simply the landlord’s Ukrainian surname. ‘There was a special atmosphere there, as our rooms were quite small and the common areas relatively large, so everyone gathered together during the day on the sofa or at the table. The temptation to linger there was enormous, which made the issue of skipping classes quite serious,’ laughs Klaas.
No fixed hour to go to sleep or to get up; during his bachelor years, Klaas tastes the turbulence that accompanies the artist's life for the first time. ‘I didn't have to study very hard to succeed. That was fun, but the side effect is that I'm used to a looser lifestyle. The need to stay in that atmosphere was in itself a motivation to become a musician ,’ says Klaas. ‘As an artist, I still experience evenings where I can feel like a student, especially because I'm on stage with my best friends.’
Klaas regularly dove into Leuven's nightlife with his roommates and fellow students. Not dance bars or parties, what appealed to Klaas was the charm of a brown pub. ‘To save some cash for Thursday evening, we often just drank bad wine in someone's room. People chatted and sang until all hours of the night. And that sometimes got a bit out of hand,’ says Klaas.
In ‘bojkot’ he emerges as a singer-songwriter. ‘At those kot parties in the early hours of the morning, when almost everyone else had already gone home, I’d pull out my guitar. I mainly played Gorki covers,’ he says. ‘Until one time when Maarten pulled out his guitar and sang one of his own songs; in three minutes I learned what the difference is between just singing something and composing something that touches an audience both musically and lyrically.’
‘That night I started writing songs in Dutch myself,’ says Klaas. ‘From then on, my academic ambitions had to make way for a second calling.’ That’s also where ‘Robbie’ was born, a figure who still wanders through Yevgueni's repertoire. Robbie embodies the doubts that come with student life. ‘I think a very recognisable feeling for students.’
Falling into place
With two masters in his pocket, Klaas eventually ends up at the education service at Vredeseilanden (now Rikolto). His first job is the perfect combination of pedagogy and anthropology. ‘Up to that point, everything went according to plan,’ laughs Klaas. ‘And then my music career drove a hole right through it.’
During his first months at Vredeseilanden, Yevgueni is selected for the Nekka competition, a music competition for young, promising artists who sing in Dutch. ‘By that point my colleagues had already realised that my music was becoming more than a hobby.’ In 2002 Yevgueni wins the Nekka competition. Then things move quickly: Klaas goes half-time at his job at Vredeseilanden. ‘And even that wasn’t feasible when we started working on our first album.’
Klaas was left with not only Yevgueni as a holdover from his student days, but also a large group of friends. ‘An offshoot of weekends spent doing student activities at pedagogical sciences, we still go out twice a year with all our families. Although we barely see each other aside from that, we remain best friends. On a social level, that’s the most beautiful result of my student days.’
Klaas also got to know his wife during his last master year; they’re now settled in Mechelen and have two daughters. Without realising it, his life at that moment falls almost completely into place. ‘When I look back now, I realise that so many crucial things have happened in my head and in my heart in those six years. Those years really shaped my life and steered it in the right direction.’
When I look back now, I realise that so many crucial things have happened in my head and in my heart in those six years. Those years really shaped my life and steered it in the right direction.
The fact that Yevgueni touches a nerve with students may well have been the key to success, according to Klaas. ‘During the first ten years at least, we attracted new generations of students. And in the meantime our own generation has also grown.’ This success works in two directions: people in their fifties introduce the cabaret group to their growing children, but students also take their parents to Yevgueni concerts. ‘As a result, we’ve always been quietly growing,’ says Klaas. ‘Als ze lacht’ is a hit-like song, but not the kind of monster hit that you never get over as a band in terms of success. That’s what we’re most proud of, that our music still works just as well after twenty years.’
2020 marks the twentieth anniversary of Yevgueni. That would have been celebrated with a birthday concert in Het Depot in Leuven, but corona spoiled the fun; in the meantime, the planned performances were postponed for a year. ‘Even more than other sectors, we have no concrete short-term prospects. And that short term is starting to look astonishingly similar to the medium term. Of course that hurts a lot,’ says Klaas.
‘We’ll probably make some adjustments and use this period to write new songs. And the moment it’s allowed again, we will be back on stage.’ For the time being it will only be small-scale acoustic performances, but here and there a full-band show pops up. ‘Thanks to strong lobbying, the cultural sector is gradually getting back on track,’ says Klaas. ‘That’s how our anniversary year can still be saved a bit.’