If you claim past or present membership in the Flat Earth Society, you could have been part of a youthful psychedelic pop band in Boston during the '60s, or perhaps you feel that gravity and orbiting satellites are part of a vast conspiracy to conceal the truth of humankind's true place at the center of creation. Then again, maybe you're part of an adventurous avant-garde big band from Belgium, particularly that part of Belgium that has historically been known as Flanders. The topography of the Flemish land is truly flat earth of the most literal kind, but some particularly unruly music, with many jagged peaks and deep valleys, has sprouted from this part of the world. With a bit of support from the Flemish arts council, Flat Earth Society have emerged as one of the most exciting big bands to launch from European terra firma during the late '90s and extending into the 2010s.
Before founding FES, bandleader and principal composer Peter Vermeersch was probably best known as the leader of X-Legged Sally, an avant-garde jazz-rock band with a taste for tight horn arrangements, driving rhythms, memorable hooks, hot improvisations, and Zappa-influenced compositional complexity. Vermeersch also took XLS in some rather arty directions during the '90s, and his own personal projects have tended to skew in a decidedly avant-garde direction. With FES, it appears that Vermeersch wishes to strike a balance, not abandoning experimentalism, but rather incorporating his exploratory tendencies into a big-band jazz framework that anybody can enjoy. This is reflected by the band's choice of cover material by everyone from Louis Armstrong to Godley & Creme to the Residents, not to mention Vermeersch's own composition of the soundtrack to a children's film about a woman who sips a mystery potion and changes into a cat.
It would be easy to conclude that the band's name is meant to reflect the flat terrain of Flanders, but in fact Flat Earth Society do take their moniker from British "flat earthers" who have devised -- and allegedly continue to promote -- theories supporting the notion that our world isn't a tiny sphere in a vast universe, but instead a horizontal plane at the center of it all. Residents of small British communities who maintain this interesting belief system apparently served as inspiration for naming the first incarnation of FES, a trio formed by Vermeersch and a pair of musicians from Leeds, England -- bassist Louis Colan and drummer John Boulton (aka Gene Velocette) -- following the dissolution of XLS. In 1997 the group performed at a children's music festival presented by the Vooruit Arts Center in Ghent, Belgium, with the trio expanded to an eight-person lineup. Vermeersch sensed new creative possibilities in a larger ensemble, and began inviting additional musicians to join the ranks.
The first concerts by the big-band version of FES were held in Ghent and Brussels in February 1999, followed by a live broadcast on Belgian National Radio (Radio 1); eight songs from the broadcast were released on a Viakra label EP entitled Live at the Beursschouwburg in January 2000. Later that year, the band's first full-length CD, Bonk, was released on the Zonk label. FES toured with Josse De Pauw's theater play Larf and released a 2001 CD recorded at a live performance of the play in Bruges, and 2002 saw the release of Minoes, the soundtrack recording of the aforementioned feline film for children. Next came Trap, followed by The Armstrong Mutations in 2003. These recordings (all on the Zonk label) feature noteworthy performances by an 18-member ensemble that includes a handful of former XLS members (Bart Maris, Michel Mast, Peter Vandenberghe, Danny Van Hoeck), Think of One guitarist David Bovée, and engaging vocalist/accordionist Anja Kowalski, who is adept singing material ranging from "What a Wonderful World" to "The Electrocutioner" to "Servus Sagt die Schöne Stadt der Lieder."
In 2004 news came of a planned collaboration with American pianist/composer/conceptualist Uri Caine and that year's international release of Isms -- featuring 19 tracks from previous FES albums and unreleased material -- on Mike Patton's Ipecac Records. Making the move to Belgium's Crammed Discs label, FES released Psychoscout in 2006 and Cheer Me, Perverts! in 2009, the latter marking the inclusion of former XLS guitarist Pierre Vervloesem in the band's lineup. In 2013 the group celebrated its 13th anniversary with a 13-track disc entitled 13, released by the Igloo label. Meanwhile, FES continued with extensive touring and special projects, introducing their earth-shaking sounds to larger jazz and creative music audiences at festivals and concerts throughout Europe and elsewhere. The Igloo compilation Call Sheets, Riders & Chicken Mushroom was released in 2014, documenting live Flat Earth Society appearances from 2000 to 2012 and featuring a wide variety of guest artists, including Caine, Toots Thielemans, Ernst Reijseger, Jimi Tenor, and Wim Opbrouck. ~ Dave Lynch