Stijn and Steven Kolacny are getting tantalisingly close to earning a place on that list of famous Belgians. Even if you haven’t yet heard of the classically-trained brothers from Flemish Aarschot and the all-female choir they formed and called Scala, you’ll have heard their ghostly covers of rock classics ever more frequently.
Their sound, mostly just a slow-moving piano and around 20 voices bringing new depths to the overfamiliar, has become TV and movie shorthand for dramatic tension. Although they formed in 1996 as a traditional classical choir, then made the leap to rock covers and success in mainlandEuropein the early part of the last decade, it was only in summer 2010 that the whole world started listening. Their mood-darkening take on Radiohead’s Creep was used on the trailer for the Oscar-winning Facebook movie The Social Network, now estimated to have been seen over 250 million times. “We could literally trace our popularity to the increasing views of that trailer,” says younger brother Stijn. “That’s realHollywoodpower.”
More recently, their minimal version of U2’s With or Without You has formed the backdrop for the war and bow ties of ITV’s Downton Abbey trailer, and will be heard again in a version by another singer bringing an operatic feel to rock music – Britain’s Got Talent winner Jai McDowall will release it as a single and perform it with Scala at the Royal Variety Performance on 5 December.
There are more major TV appearances still to be announced before Christmas, and Stijn informs me that they’ve just been heard on The Simpsons. The loquacious 35-year-old also pushes hard for me to write that their music would be the perfect accompaniment to the big-screen moping of the teenage vampires in the Twlight movies, which I will because it would. For now a lower profile spot in the German all-girl bloodsucker movie Wir Sind Die Nacht (We are the Night) will have to do.
“Even a long time before The Social Network it was clear to us that this angelic sounding music fits perfectly to movies and television,” he tells me. “But we’re not a typical radio band.”
It’s true that their glacial sound would jar terribly if played next to Fearne Cotton and the hyperactive R&B of the current charts, yet their albums reward total immersion. The self-titled Scala & Kolacny Brothers, a compilation of highlights from 10 previous albums that includes Kings of Leon’s Use Somebody and Depeche Mode’s I Feel You as well as hits by Foo Fighters, Oasis, Nirvana and Metallica, is the only one released in the UK so far. Three original songs by Steven with electronic backdrops and a cover of Alanis Morissette’s 1995 irritant Ironic jar somewhat, but mostly they have a finely tuned ear for which songs will work in the format.
“It is a simple idea but beileve me it’s not easy,” says Stijn. “You have to be very careful what you do cover and what you don’t. We have to keep a certain credbility. When we start interpreting really mainstream pop songs, Madonna or Robbie Williams, it gets really cheesy really fast.”
They cite U2, Depeche Mode, Radiohead and Coldplay as personal favourites, but draw the line at anything much older. “Songs by The Beatles or Rolling Stones don’t work for us – it’s funny.” Modern R&B and hip hop is also out, too difficult to arrange. What’s most interesting for them, and what makes for maximum listener appeal, are those times when a song acquires an unexpected, completely new feel. Engel (Angel) by German industrial metal band Rammstein is a fine example. “It almost sounds classical when we do it. When we cover a familiar song with minimal accompaniment, all of a sudden people start to listen again to lyrics that they knew by heart, and find different meanings.”
There’s a novelty element too, of course – the pleasure comes from the space between what the brain expects and the ears hear. Unorthodox cover versions are particularly popular right now, from the smiley high school students of Glee to the indie bands embracing pop on Radio 1’s Live Lounge and the tearjerking Smiths song on that John Lewis Christmas advert. Scala’s work doesn’t benefit from similarities with recent choral adverts for Halifax and Lovefilm. However, other choirs have attained similar credibility lately, such as New York’s PS22 Chorus of schoolchildren who have covered Bjork and Phoenix, and the Crouch End Festival Chorus, the go-to backing singers for the likes of Noel Gallagher and Ray Davies.
Scala provide more of a spectacle than a traditional choir too, as fans will find when they play only their second ever London headline show, at the Forum next month. With Stijn conducting and Steven on the piano, the singers (usually between 15 and 20 of them picked from more than 200 they have on their books, all female and mostly in their early twenties) move around the stage and even into the audience while videos and lights add dazzle. “We’re looking for a pure, emotional sound,” says Stijn. “We’re the opposite of the macho Russian Red Army Chorus.”
Although both brothers are classical pianists and have released albums as a four hands duo playing the same instrument, it was passionate rock fan Steven who persuaded Stijn to throw in a cover of Garbage’s hit I Think I’m Paranoid at a classical choir competition in Canada in 2001, and almost got them disqualified. “I thought it was a bad idea but I was wrong. I have to admit it,” says Stijn today.
Now they won’t go back to their tarditional roots. “Rock music is less complex, it’s true, but that doesn’t make it less interesting. It’s just good music, and that’s what counts.”