Arnold de Boer is a very special artist. The singer of legendary Dutch alternative rock band, The Ex, and solo artist (under the name Zea) is a well-known face on the alternative circuit in The Netherlands. Usually he is accompanied by a fellow artist, whether from Ghana, Ethiopia, a Scottish island or Vietnam, testament to his vast friend network. In a sense his calling is an old one, that of the troubadour, a maker of music as a vehicle that helps the listener find out many things about the world that may not have any instant, or concrete relationship with music. De Boer is a loquacious soul. But recently his work has taken a marked turn towards reflection; his earlier releases (dayglo sonic grenades that felt packed with information) now making way for works concerned with exploring silence, feeling and unseen rhythms. With the release of two Frisian-language albums (the latest 2021’s superbly succinct Witst Noch Dat D’r Neat Wie), De Boer seems to be changing tack again. High time to catch up, then.
Be warned: this isn’t a linear interview, where the interlocutor tries to create a narrative arc from the answers. In a sense the exchange is a (very poor) attempt at a modernist essay, using structure to guide what’s going on. It started after a number of grabbed conversations at arm’s length and in-between sets in that jumbled, almost magical-realist state that legal gigs in lockdown engendered: and continued as a set of emails that went back and forth over a month. After a while a number of themes became apparent in the way Arnold was answering. Madly – again let’s blame these weird times – although this interview has been presented in a pre-prepared state driven by the themed headings, it’s an exchange that follows the sort of conversation you can have in real time with de Boer. Open, honest, fearless and friendly. Now read on.
The Frisian angle
LTW: These two records you made using the Frisian language, Moarn Gean Ik Dea and Witst Noch Dat D’r Neat Wie feel very personal. You are Frisian yourself, which, of course, means you have a deep relationship with the language, but could you only say or express things in Frisian that you couldn’t on other records?
AdB: My Frisian lyrics are much more personal than my English. It started when my mum died. I wanted and needed to write and play but it didn’t make sense to do that in English, I had to do it in my mother tongue. And after I wrote that first song (‘Ik kin der net by’) about my mum being sick, my father taking care of her and eventually her death, it was like a door in my mind opened to a room of which I did not know it existed. In that room I was able to write and play songs that were more intense, sober, stripped-down and up-close and personal than what I had done so far, and they were in Frisian.
For me, English has always been the language of TV, movies, cartoons, books and music (a lot of music), and then of my studies at university: philosophy and anthropology. I was and still am using English in my art when I deal with the world as I find it. And English for me is a language on a blackboard, I can play with it from a Dutch and Frisian perspective.
And then, when I come across music and poetry that hits me right in the heart, that connects with my more sober and personal Frisian song writing, making a translation and making that song or poem my own isn’t difficult at all. The moment I translate the words into Frisian they get the same intensity as my own words and I can put them on like a warm coat.
I like to explain one more thing connected to this; when for example I come across the word “grave”. Big chance that I heard the English word for the first time in a movie or a cartoon and it’s in my mind connected with ‘horror’. Then the Dutch word, ‘graf’ I probably learned in school, since Dutch is the lingua franca in our schools here and we only had a Frisian class one hour a week at primary school. I think the word ‘graf’ is connected in my mind with a drawn image of a grave as it is depicted in school books. But then there is the Frisian word, ‘grêf’ which I must have heard already when I was very young. It is probably connected to the passing of someone in the family, community or village, to the sadness and grief that came along with it, and to those graves I saw every Sunday at the graveyard when going to church. Now that’s what language can do and how it can connect with feelings and emotions and thereby with music and poetry.
What is it about the Frisian language that makes you want to work with it? Is it easy to sing, for example?
The Frisian language is more ‘musical’ than the Dutch, that’s for sure. A lot of words have a three-tone melody, even words with only a single syllable. Take for example the word ‘moarn’, which means ‘tomorrow’; it has only one syllable but has exactly the same melody as ‘tomorrow’, something like “_-_” (Charles Strouse and Martin Charmin only emphasised that phrase in the theme song of the musical Annie, the melody was already there). The Dutch word ‘morgen’ is all straight forward and even has a hard ‘g’ in it, which can instantly turn a warm melody into a freezer.
Yours is an approach to communication without ego isn’t it? By embracing other peoples’ languages we open our minds and think less of our own worries.
I’m on tour around the world all the time (or at least I was, and will be again) and the English language is everywhere. I have to conclude that English (UK) and English (US), as I find them in the spelling and grammar check of my text editor, have become just dialects of English as a world language. The whole world is adapting this language and it makes it easier for people from all around the world to communicate with each other. I guess it prevents wars and it creates great art. Then again, it might also bring conflict there where otherwise people would have just shrugged something off because they didn’t understand something.
Your use of other languages points to another form of communication to the one that we currently use (for argument’s sake, let’s say nuance-less or sloppy International English or emoji-driven sign language on social media).
I wouldn’t state that it automatically leads to nuance-less sloppiness. We have to consider the source. And, being a Marshall McLuhan fan, I have to connect the whole communication with the media involved. His theory about “the medium is the message” is all around us, we are living it. Social media as a medium screams indiscretion. But, when I hear Ghanaian artists using English, often described as ‘pidgin’, I hear poetry.
On the new LP your presentation of the various languages suggests a “local-international” mindset; one that includes Twentse, Frisian, Dutch, Scots, Indonesian, English, French, Chinese… Is that fair?
I think at least ninety percent of the whole world population grows up with more than one language. And that is a great situation. It means that from the moment children learn about words, facts, names and objects, they also learn that there is not just one way of looking at it. When they learn sentences, they discover there is not just one way to express themselves or to describe something. Multilingual living is a great remedy against absolute thinking and a stiff mind. So if your parents happen to be part of a ‘dominant culture’, they’re losing winners.
The local-global question is very much about power. On my album I have some translations into languages that are called ‘minority-languages’ and some are called ‘dialects’, but, as Max Weinrecich once stated: “A language is a dialect with an army and a navy”. Also Frisian once was an oppressed language but luckily people stood up and fought for their language and thus for their own unique expressions and emotions.
And your interest in words is long standing: what is it about language that you love?
As a scholar I had no idea language would take such an important role in my thinking, my writing and my art as it actually does now. I wasn’t good at languages at school. I got bad grades in French and German and my Dutch and English weren’t great either.
It must have happened at university, studying philosophy, encountering the writings of Ludwig Wittgenstein. Especially the later Wittgenstein writings about ‘language games’ as part of ‘forms of life’. It matched my interest in local knowledge vs universal truisms. And, when travelling, or touring I figured out very quickly that the best way to connect with the people you meet, play and hang out with on tour, is through learning -at least a bit of- their language. It’s as simple as that. Knowing how to greet people, knowing how to say ‘thank you’, how to count till ten and how to say ‘yes’, ‘no’ and ‘maybe’ in a local language opens up doors and worlds that will otherwise stay closed.
Your sleeve notes on Witst Noch Dat D’r Neat Wie are intriguing: you suggest different times and places for the LP’s gestation, some starting times going back to the 17th century. Why did you want to address time here?
I decided to look for a connection to the outside world, another country, language, people and culture in every song on the album. As search for the unknown and the uncontrolled. That’s how I came to a different translation of my lyrics for every song and that’s how I got in touch with people all around the world making those specific translations.
Looking into my lyrics I found connections. For example, the song ‘Boarne’ deals with the subject of statues; what to do with them? Hug them like the Greek philosopher Heraclitus did 2500 years ago, to train himself in hardship? Cover them with cloth like they do in Tirana with the statues of Lenin and Stalin? Or blow them up like activists tried here in Amsterdam, just around the corner of my house, with a statue of an old Dutch army general who was responsible for huge massacres under the Dutch colonial regime in what is now Indonesia. So I decided to have this song translated in Bahasa Indonesia. And since part of the story in my lyrics goes centuries back, that makes the song go back in time, which somehow connects the whole album with a past and a history that might not be immediately clear.
For me music is always connected. I think the idea of, or urge to be unique, fresh, or new in music and art is not interesting. It’s often just a drop of green added to the omnipresent purple that keeps the bourgeois babble going for decades. My music is old and dirty, dug up and thrown out. It’s been somewhere.
Movement and change, or people adapting to things is a very important theme in your work it seems – 27 Passports (the last Ex LP), The Swimming City… care to comment?
Well, in different ways I guess that’s a subject that keeps coming back. I’ve learned that if we get stuck, we’re lost. And actually, apocalyptic thinking is a way of getting stuck. As soon as you turn your mind into doomsday mode, you’re glued to the ground, physically and mentally.
I think continuous change, the search for the unknown, insecurity and inconvenience all lead to improvising. And eventually only improvisation can get us out of trouble. And only movement can bring people together. And then trouble occurs again. ‘Harmony’ is a boring myth, movement and change are essential, we have to keep on walking.
You have a relationship with churches which I find interesting: churches seem to crop up a lot in your artistic career, can you tell us why?
Churches and gas stations! I’ve also played at a remarkable amount of abandoned gas stations around Europe lately which have been turned into music venues. But yes, churches too. There are so many empty churches around the Netherlands – which obviously has to do with the fact that over here there were so many denominational splits in the last two hundred years before secularisation set in, and because of that many churches were built. Take Makkum, the village where I grew up. There were five churches active when I was a kid. Four of them are empty now. Many of the empty churches around the country are turned into community and art centres. But this is not new at all. See Paradiso, a church that became the magical music venue. That started in 1969.
And you play a lot in churches (though that may be down to programmers)!
Maybe because these places and their programmers are still connected somehow with some sort of community way of working, which for me is very important. There is a serious, fundamental difference between ‘music community’ and ‘music business’; the latter is destroying music.
How do we reshape being “proud” of, or content with being where we are from? It’s something that you seem to suggest throughout a lot of your music. Examining roots. And being happy in your skin.
The day after my wedding day I drove with Terrie Ex [Terrie Hessels, co-founder member of The Ex] and the Ethiopian band Fendika to a small village on the north coast of Denmark. We arrived late at a cultural centre filled with all kinds of people, all from the small community in that particular area. They had just finished their meal and entered the room where we quickly set up our gear. These people saw a short Zea set, a short solo set of improvised guitar play by Terrie Ex and a long set of wonderful traditional music and dance from Ethiopia.
At the end of the evening I met the mayor of the town. I asked him how it was possible that such a small town had a venue for ‘world music’ and a community that was interested in our music. He answered that this had been the case for a long time. One of his predecessors had started this ‘culture house’ because he thought it was essential for the community, which mainly consists of farmers and fishermen. Now, for centuries, he explained, the farmers had been the people sticking to their traditions, keeping things going in cycles, figuring out the best way to provide food, work with land and animals and holding on to traditions that ensured continuity in the community. And at the same time the fishermen have always been the people going abroad, bringing in new elements, new ideas, new tools, food, spices, cloth, language, people and music. He said that this was a very important thing for the whole community and should be celebrated when possible. And that’s why he built the culture house, for the farmers with their traditions and for the fishermen bringing in the rest of the world.
I don’t think we have to be ‘proud’ of our roots, for me that doesn’t match with the fun I always have when talking with other people about the ways we do things differently. For me, the difference between people is a source of laughter, not of fear. But it’s good to know and be aware of how you do things and where you come from because only then you can be a partner in the conversation. If you’re a uniform globalist you have no story to tell. I like the farmer as much as I like the fisherman.
Music and Musicians
Recently you have been making very minimal music, certainly when compared to your earlier work. Your music as Zea has always been able to be stripped down and built up, like some old car that never stops, but you are really working with silence a lot. Where do these silences come from, do you think?
Yes, it’s true, there is much more space in my music now than before. I think I’ve learned a lot about that from playing with musicians from the improvised music and jazz scenes and from other musicians from around the world. I’ve learned to listen to them, to listen more, so I think when there’s a space, silence or pause in my own music, I’m listening.
It was interesting to hear your take of If You Go Away, against both the Brel and Scott Walker versions, they are all very different, but I have to say I find yours the most introspective and melancholy. Is that the “Frisian thing” working?
I guess it is, yes. I had this song in the back of my mind already for a while and wanted to make it my own. During the first lock-down in 2020, while sitting at home I worked on it, I set up my mics and recorded it in the loft where I built a small studio; actually just a room full of instruments and records. At the same time my sister was breaking up with her husband. And that touched me. They were a great couple and it was very sad to see that it didn’t work out between them. I think I took these emotions with me in my translation of the song.
Your take also reminds me of the way the late Arend B Blauw used to sing, especially the explosive, sclerotic counterpoints!
I take that as a great compliment!
I recently saw you play live with Ineke Duivenvoorde from the much-missed Space Siren, and Harold Austbø, both of whom are ridiculously under-represented musicians in the Netherlands. They also both play on the new LP. You know and work with a lot of alternative musicians specifically, or underground poets. Could you see yourself working with the mainstream?
I can work with people who are sincere about their music, who play and sing from their own source. This could be people from the ‘mainstream’ music, yes. But I don’t like managers, contracts and lawyers, so the question will soon become: “Can the mainstream see itself working with Arnold de Boer?”
What *will* we do when we have no money, Arnold? It’s an interesting question isn’t it?
Yes, it is. The first thing that springs to mind is a music genre from the Nineties we don’t hear much about any more these days: lo-fi. No idea why but thinking about it, I remember the term has been criticised quite a bit since it doesn’t refer to a mood, a dance, an instrument, a drug or being rotten and worthless. It refers to the way the music was recorded, namely at home, not in a studio, with a simple cassette deck and without investing any or a minimal amount of money: ‘low fidelity’. According to critics, the term did not indicate at all what ‘kind’ of music to expect.
But I think the way you live your life is reflected in your music, and I think that the choice of working and recording at home or in your parents’ garage is part of the story you are telling. I think the way you shop, cook, travel and make love reflects in all your art and output; it’s connected. In the case, of course, that you are actually making your own music and not imitating someone else.
So we can go into the field and make field recordings, or stay home and make ‘house music’, and we can decide to record simple and directly and ‘lo-fi’, and it will tell a story that connects to the stories and music that somehow sprout from the same source.
I can also elaborate here about DIY and how the underground scene works with closed wallets and is based on community, exchange and trust, but somehow the term lo-fi came to mind first. Actually together with the biggest nineties hit in The Netherlands: No Limit, by 2Unlimited, an anthem for the yuppie era here, where no one seemed to ever be short of money. They, Ray and Anita, did a few reunion shows about ten years ago but that didn’t work out at all. I guess they realised there are limits.
What’s your favourite biscuit?
I love biscuits. I can say which ones I really don’t like: kano’s, muffins (is a muffin a biscuit?). But I love the ‘creme double’ and gevulde koeken and bokkepoten. Maybe it’s better to approach this question in a different way: my favourite biscuit is the biscuit I eat around 10 in the morning when drinking a cup of coffee.
Interviewed by Richard Foster