The “Dutch underground” RIP?
Pray tell; what is the “Dutch underground”? Even after a good 15 years watching and working with alternative bands in this country, I find it an impossible term to define. And like that evasive term, this article will only spread more confusion. But fine. To misquote Julian Cope, my voice is one amongst many who, “like a pig drawing a cartload of sausages, draw their own conclusions”. So why write? Well, Louder Than War was an early champion of some of these acts. Esteemed LTW editor and Mr Membrane, John Robb, once joined me on the unofficial programme at 2011’s ESNS, to see Rotterdam’s Rats on Rafts tear down O’Ceallaigh’s Irish bar in Groningen. We both agreed this band was special. I put it to John that there were lots of similar acts in the Netherlands who, due to a peculiar set of circumstances, found themselves unable to get attention they felt they deserved. And then we got busy and wrote about it, on here, and in other places. That’s all. Now strap yourself in for some analysis and maybe a review.
Recently, if one wished, one could see the “Dutch underground” spirit beamed into homes across The Netherlands, free of charge. The underground Hermes tasked with ferrying its presence to hoi polloi was singer and actor Gover Meit who, as his alter ego Stefano Keizers, charmed and annoyed in equal measure on the prime time evening TV show, De Slimste Mens. Sporting a fake moustache and a jacket made out of a duvet, boasting about his glamorous playboy life, and employing a great deal of eyebrow work (something that irritated many good burghers beyond measure), Meit’s character was a perfect indication of the DIY, laissez faire insouciance that many alternative Dutch musicians and artists employ to get by. Most notably, Meit’s off-the-cuff approach looked completely out of character with the perennially modest, deliberately familiar, top-down world of Dutch mainstream entertainment. It annoyed and charmed in equal measure. Eschewing the obligatory false modesty (numero uno prerequisite for those in the entertainment game here), Meit’s perspective didn’t really have any goal outside the here-and-now. Worse, his attitude hinted at the presence of (and willingness to use) an inbuilt self-destruct button. No career plans on show here, then.
Meit’s boat race also adorned a poster on the front of the Paradiso on Saturday. Meit was inadvertently advertising both the work of great photographer Kasper Volgelzang and the Van Onderen 24 hours gig (alongside a pic of another underground bête noire, Jacco Weener, lead lunatic of lost Scheveningen freak band, Gul Night Out). Once upon a time, Meit was also singer in another of the many great “what if” lost bands this country produces; Wooden Constructions, whose record was released by Subroutine Records, one of the organisers of this particular 24 hour circus.
So far so good. “Underground” can signify people who are a little bit different in outlook and taste to those who happily sit down to watch TROS, RTL, VARA, VPRO or whatever. But in The Netherlands, that term can apply to artists, poets, or stratenmakers. In the terms of Dutch music the term “underground” has broadly come to mean those not included in the entertainment package put forward as pop music acceptable for a wider audience. With that in mind, one could be terribly naughty and say that the Van Onderen festival was a C21st take on creating a Salon des Refusés of Dutch pop music.
If a writer knew enough of the low-down, and felt like breaking a few eggshell egos over here, a good argument can be concocted to say that this was yet another instance of the navel gazing, internal/inter-scene power politics, or the socio-cultural insecurities that plague Dutch pop music as a whole. Or that the wrong bands were picked and that this “wasn’t underground enough” (yours truly could name 30-40 more names who could, with merit, be presented as underground). Or that this was a counterblast to other organisations – high and low, funded or subscribed – who want to be seen as representing the pop music afdeling of the Dutch cultural scene. Or that it was full of the same old people who celebrate themselves endlessly. Or that the whole thing was a gargantuan sell out by those who want to take over the mantel of the Arbiters of Pop Musicke from the tired old 80s-90s types who yawn their way through ESNS and Mondriaan Fonds applications every year. Fine.
But, does it matter? Like two bald men fighting over a comb, it does seem rather absurd to analyse these extra-curricular activities. Sounding off can all be safely left to Facebook threads and posts on that other gatekeeper of incoherent idiocy, Twitter. Dutch music has always been hamstrung by an uncertainty of its own importance in the wider scheme of things. Further, the music and music-media scenes in the country are a set of hermetically sealed pods who never really communicate. This works by degrees, from top to bottom, and, taken as a whole, can lead to a sort of stasis brought on by over-analysing things that actually don’t exist. Recently a band (no, no names, sorry) refused a paid gig with an older, more established act over “genre issues”. Worrying about that kind of stuff when you are playing to a limited audience in the first place is, frankly, laughable. But – in this country’s pop music’s case, “very Dutch”.
Toner Low, courtesy of Kasper Vogelsang
You may have noticed that I am over 900 words in, and haven’t mentioned the gig itself. The last thing I want to do is write a bitch piece on the meaning of a word and the internal workings of the Dutch music scene. But in this gig’s case, such an approach is understandable. It’s a shame that, the sheer scale of the Van Onderen gig precludes anything like an attempt at a revue proper. In fact (if you can stick around long enough) I’m going to write about ANOTHER gig to try to make sense of the idea of that pesky “Dutch underground” term.
Still (to misquote a Russian proverb) there is no liar like an eye witness.
It must be said that the overwhelming impression of Van Onderen was of a sense of euphoria. Maybe disbelief. Right from the off, the day felt as if a bunch of scally kids had taken over an old established school; locking up the janitor and breaking into the tuck shop whilst the teachers were away on some conference or other. That feeling turned into a crazed, Louis Wain-style vision as the day rolled on, especially in the cellar, where the most interesting things happened. Upstairs saw a parade of bands and (in the small hours) deejays that were by turns, fun, inspiring, tiring, a bit boring, and rabble-rousing. But overall, the day was a triumph; full of punk parents with young kids on their shoulders, grizzled Ultra warriors, academics, homebrewers, bemused UK/US tourists, amateur footballers and even a proposition of marriage (accepted) during Paralympics’ gig at 06:15. Beat that. People who liked “something different”. A nobber-free scene. Smiling bouncers, too. In fact a number of the tiresome Amsterdam scene types didn’t even bother going, which made everything groovier. I’m even going to mention an ending which I didn’t see, but heard was incredible. At that point, yours truly was trying to eat a Hema broodje at Leiden station, but this isn’t a normal review and I can therefore write a line in praise of the brilliant Machinefabriek and the heartwarming Irrational Library. You see, I just KNOW it was good.
The two upstairs stages were great value though, and it would be remiss not to mention the brilliant, warm and giving gigs kicking things off, by This Leo Sunrise and The Avonden (who still seemed to be giggling at the thought of playing in front of their mates on the main stage). Other slots worthy of mention were the showcases of Nouveau Vélo (newly polished up), Floris Bates, Naive Set and Yuko Yuko; all of whom showed how brilliant and empathic Dutch guitar pop can be at ground level. We shouldn’t forget utterly blasting gigs by those old (ahem) underground rockers Hallo Venray, who were fire and ice in the upstairs room. Newer acts like Iguana Death Cult, Slow Worries, HWRH (watch them), ET Explore Me and The Homesick shook the place up no end. Deutsche Ashram spun golden threads through a fuggy air, Hunter Complex boomed and bleeped through a typically inspiring set, and Spill Gold were pleasingly spaced out. A sort of blue stocking, pyschicke take on Electrelane, and a band I will be keeping an eye on, warts and all. Possibly the most memorable gigs, though, were by Toner Low, who beamed their moving cannabis leaf image to all and sundry and MONGED OUT Hippeee-Leiden style. Beautiful. And The Ex, of course, who were utterly incredible. But then, when are The Ex shit? Can anyone tell me that? Through the night the deejays played to about 5 people in the main hall but nothing seemed to relent in intensity.
But it was downstairs in the Cellar, where things were really interesting. At times the Paradiso cellar became a cleaner, slightly bigger version of the much-missed SUB071 in Leiden. SUB’s have-a-go spirit pervaded the atmosphere, and becalmed and informed the performers. Really, there is too much to mention: MiMa’s great tape gig, Glice frying brains with their atonal soundz, Noodle Bar and Dead Neanderthals pulling up trees their very very different ways, the utterly inspiring live electro-classical workout between Martijn Comes and Sietse van Erve. And then two marvellous shapeshifting, mercurial showcases by Utrecht’s Shaky Maracas crew and a bastard-take on cabaret by Jacco Weener and “friends”. Actually Jacco’s cabaret was fabulous, ably backed by Brian Sinnema, the brilliant pop of Niek Hilkmann, and a strange young lady (Droppings’ Xenia Gottenkieny) with a keyboard. But best of all, Jacco’s own take on religious belief (in song and story) and the Wim Sonneveld and Ramses Shaffy songs brilliantly performed by unlikely singing star, the wannabe-C19th poet (I kid you NOT) Simon Mulder. Only in The Netherlands.
Rock was also on the menu in the Cellar: WOLVON, Katadreuffe, Crustenunie and The Lumes tore new holes in space with their floorshows, and Charlie and the Lesbians ably played up to their too-cool-for-school image. And, in the wee small hours, KIEFF and Paralympics played inspired sets. Leiden’s KIEFF could be the missing link between Syd’s Floyd and the Outsiders. If they could be bothered to know that. Watch that band.
But, yeah. All too much. Sat with friends in the Cellar, thoughts turned to trains. 7am felt like we were acting scenes out of Withnail and I. Apologies if I missed anyone. Especially KIN, Sweet Release of Death, Venus Tropicaux: all who I love and missed, gah! But staggering around and talking piss to a host of people leads one’s brains to melt like cheese on a kapsalon.
Ver Uit de Maat – courtesy of Florian Cramer
Ver Uit de Maat is Where It’s At (Maaaaan).
Remember – way back at the top of the page – when I said I was going to write about another aspect of what this “underground thing” is? I think, on due reflection that to measure both the term, and what Van Onderen did, we need to briefly turn to another event, staged in Rotterdam’s WORM every December. The Ver Uit de Maat festival is dedicated to the many strange and wonderful acts that straddle music, performance and art. True, they invite many international artists (this year the honour fell to the Songs in the Key of Z artist, Mighty BJ Snowden, who played a beautiful set of her timeless pop tunes). But many of the artists are homegrown and make the lineup that played Van Onderen look like Status Quo. This year we had – amongst many others – a band who changed instruments repeatedly almost to the point of exasperation (Bomschors), a lunatic in high heels who played with a strip light and took all his clothes off (Geo Wyeth) and the wild and wonderful Elektrik Hannes (a very Dutch cross between Spike Milligan and Wilko Johnson).
This festival is utterly off the wall, full of that Provo, can-do spirit (with a faint whiff of academic rectitude) that signifies all that is good about all of this Dutch cultural pissing about at the World’s End. As one of the performers, the brilliant Goodiepal argued, there are no spaces to be truly free in rock music or any form of alternative entertainment. Where are the free spaces if not in the places you don’t expect to find them? This kind of thinking – taken far enough – renders all speculations as to the importance of terms like “underground” irrelevant. (If you need an answer, Goodiepal told us that – outside of slip roads next to motorways the only truly free space was Monarchist Rock music. He’s probably right. Go and do it I say.)
Underground? It’s all in the mind. At least I hope it is.
This review is dedicated to the memory of Corno Zwetsloot.