The serendipitous marvel of Zea – An interview with Arnold de Boer
Even at the age of 41, Dutch lo-fi stalwart Arnold de Boer emits this disarmingly boyish naiveté. It’s easy to assume he enjoys playing with all the toys scattered around his Amsterdam apartment just as much as his infant son. The record collection on other side of De Boer’s living room, however, reveals his worldly side. As I randomly inspect a record by an obscure Iranian beat group, he immediately insists on playing it as we begin our conversation. Arnold estimates around fifty percent of his LPs have been purchased overseas.
A pretty safe bet: in twenty years time, De Boer has done over 2000 shows in 35 countries over six different continents with his bands Zea and The Ex. Let’s spell that out: that’s roughly an average of a hundred shows per year. You’d figure after two decades of that, the first tiny cracks of world weariness would eventually start to show. Not with Arnold. He remains an unflappable optimist, a devotee of the communal power of music and performance.
De Boer is currently best known as singer and guitarist of renowned punk mavericks The Ex. He replaced GW Sok back in 2009, and ever since, his whimsical songwriting smarts have permeated through The Ex’s musical DNA. De Boer’s seminal project Zea isn’t just a vehicle for imaginative new song ideas. It’s the musical manifestation of his buoyant personality.
As Zea, De Boer wields pop conventions like a chunk of Silly Putty, stretching and molding them to their utmost limits. An obvious example being his wonderfully crackpot rendition of Coldplay’s smash hit Clocks (a great live take from 2003 here – Ed). You can clearly hear the inflection of gabber house in the song’s spiraling piano motif, and Zea’s version acts upon that with demented gusto. A lot of Zea’s lyrics have these zany, almost serendipitous properties. On the fragmented The Swimming City, De Boer wonders: I expect the world to turn upside down/so everything falls into place/upside down and start again.
Arnold: “I really enjoy turning the world on its head, just to see if it still makes sense. Not just the world, but our perceptions of it as well. The kind of absurd things you usually encounter in philosophy books, but are basically made palpable in cartoons.” He mentions Moebius, Tom & Jerry and Roadrunner. Sure, we grew up as kids jeering at the futility of the coyote’s obsession to capture that fleet-footed bird. But as you get older, you learn to admire him for being so convinced of his success, even after those countless thwarted attempts.
“I’m definitely an advocate of that kind of optimism, optimism in an almost metaphysical sense. Maybe that’s why my music doesn’t really become dark or heavily drawn-out. It’s a beautiful thing when you’re able to write a song that momentarily alters someone’s perceptions.”
Smoke and curtains
Arnold grew up in the tiny Frisian village of Makkum with two sisters and a brother. His father’s side of the family ran a small fabric shop for several generations. “Curtains, floor covers, clothing, that kind of stuff. My father has installed the curtains at every residence in Makkum. When you stroll through town with him, he always tells you interesting stories about each person living there. And he knows all the measurements by heart.” Arnold and his siblings broke the generational cycle to pursue their own dreams. One sister owns an ice cream parlor, the other runs a hotel. Arnold’s brother, a teacher in didactics, converted the store into a household for his family. Though officially retired, his dad still sets up shop upstairs, because, after all, “who else knows the exact measurements of each household?”
De Boer credits his wry yet wholesomely idealistic outlook on life to his father. “My father is really like me. He always wants to rejoice in things. At family gatherings, he would prompt people to sing together. My grandfather too. He would write these really mad stories about meeting Mikhail Gorbachev on top of the Closure Dike. Often times, they’d ask him to do sermons at church in case the reverend got sick. My brother and I would bike with him across the meadows, and he always told tales about being in the resistance during the Second World War. Later, I found out through my uncle there were different versions of the same story. We didn’t know which one was true.” Arnold insists he doesn’t care. “My grandfather always gave the meaning in the story itself. A story is something you should always treasure, whether it’s true or not. There’s a reason why fables and myths still carry a lot of weight.”
In his teens, De Boer became eager to embrace some form of idealism himself. Aged sixteen, he attended a demonstration against far right wing factions Centrum Democraten and CP ‘86, spearheaded by anti-racism/fascism foundation Nederland Bekent Kleur (The Netherlands Confesses Colour). A party there who was preaching anarchism caught Arnold’s eye.
“I thought that was fascinating, the idea of this community believing in a strong set of principles. Early on I adopted a bit of that punk mentality, but not really the aggressive kind. But I wasn’t exactly going to lend you five guilders so you could buy yourself a pack of cigarettes. Back then I would immediately harangue you why smoking is unhealthy”. Arnold can laugh about it now. “I had some sanctimonious traits for sure, a very vehement sense of wrong and right. My parents probably have loads of stories about that. I would hang all these “no smoking” signs around the house. When people came to visit, they’d be incredulous and ask: What!? You cannot smoke inside!? And my parents would tell them straight-faced: ‘Nah, don’t worry, that’s just an Arnold thing’.”
Arnold’s philosophies hardened when he began studying Cultural Anthropology at the VU University in Amsterdam, a progressive school that encourages free thinking and knowledge sharing, untethered by religious or political affiliation. “I wanted to single-handedly research whether a better society was possible…an improved way of living, basically. The concept of anarchy would be my starting point.”
However, Arnold quickly found out his theories weren’t holding up compared to those of his fellow students. Most of them were older and had more experiences abroad under their belt. “I couldn’t keep drawing from slideshows or books. To find some credibility, I needed to explore the world and leave all my preconceived notions at the door.” After his first year at VU, he deliberately chose to go to Kenya, a nation that has an entirely different demographic than The Netherlands. Once he arrived, didn’t take long for De Boer to get a rude awakening. “I was a hardcore vegetarian back then. But in Kenya, they’re so grateful for your company, they would starve a day or two if it meant saving their only chicken for you. So it’s pretty ridiculous to say, ‘no thanks, I’m a vegetarian’.”
At the age of eighteen, Arnold’s worldview was instantly shattered to bits…and that was a big positive. In Kenya, he aided an irrigation project, digging wells for the Wakamba people in the Eastern Province. It was hard labour, and often-times quite demoralizing. “Some of the wells were over 150 feet deep, without even one drop of water to show for it. That’s when you begin to ask yourself: ‘What am I doing here? I’m just this scrawny fair-skinned teenager, totally useless for digging wells seven thousand kilometers from home.’ But you know what? It didn’t matter that I wasn’t a great well digger. Exchanging experiences and culture, learning from one another and joking around, that was the best part. The Kamba people even gave me a tribe name: Mutuku. Which means “he came at night”. Basically, I got the name because we arrived at dusk. Usually, it comes down to something as mundane as that!”
Arnold’s very first live recording plays out exactly like one of his deliciously cartoony Zea songs. He found himself at a church service in Kenya, where he was invited by locals to play some tunes. “If you want to hear music in Africa, you don’t go to concert venues like Paradiso over here. You go to church on Sunday. There will be three hours of amazing live performances, all kinds of music. It’s incredible!”
Arnold however, had yet to write his own material. Knowing only a handful of Nirvana and REM songs he rehearsed with his old school band, who didn’t go down a storm. What to do? “Fortunately I also learned this song by Lenny Kravitz called ‘Rosemary’.” De Boer promptly interrupts his story by bursting out in a loud cackle. “Wow, this is quite the confession! I taught myself to play that song because I had a crush on this girl who really liked Lenny Kravitz. (Starts singing the verse): “Rosemary your days will come/He loved you so he gave His only son.” Of course, those lyrics allude to religion, and they immediately zeroed in on that! So they asked me (puts up booming voice): ‘Can you please play this song for us at the church?'”
“They thought it was so moving, they decided to record my performance on tape. Problem is, there were virtually no empty cassettes available in Kenya. All of them were crammed with the most incredible and eclectic local music. They recorded my cover of Rosemary on top of all that. So I was like: ‘Nooo, what are you doing!? Stop!” (laughs)
After another year of study back in The Netherlands, Arnold decided to explore the world again. This time, he headed to Australia for four months. “I just wanted to be somewhere really far away. I didn’t make enough money to make ends meet. And in Australia, it’s relatively easy to acquire a work visa to pick fruit. But when I arrived in Sydney, I made most of my money busking.”
Everyday from 10 am to 2 pm, De Boer would play covers of Nirvana, Sonic Youth and REM at the Sydney Harbour. “It was a great spot. Lots of tourists, and everyone was waiting for the ferry to take them to the Sydney Opera House or wherever. By the time I was finished, I made about ten bucks per hour. It was good money. At 2 pm however, this Aboriginal guy arrived, who played the didgeridoo. Of course, once he was there, I stopped receiving money”, Arnold laughs. “But I did jam with him once, which was a lot of fun!”
Needless to say, De Boer made the most out of his four month stay: he picked fruit and relished the outdoor activities such as deep sea diving, and bungee jumping. But at the same time, he realized he didn’t want to perform music this way again. Unlike the locals in Kenya, who responded with an unforeseen reverence to his version of ‘Rosemary’, the people of Sydney reacted in a more patronizing manner. Arnold reminisces with a chuckle: “Older ladies were the most generous givers. They were like: ‘Well, the songs are shoddy, but let’s give this winsome fellow something. Perhaps he’ll bugger off and do something else eventually!’”
Remarkably enough, this is where the seed was planted from which Zea would eventually blossom. After spending so much time by himself, De Boer had a lot of things to think about. It provided the perfect set of circumstances to start writing his own material. “Moreover, I realized it wasn’t enough for me to explore the world as a traveller. I wanted to explore the world by performing music.”
Down the middle
De Boer formed Zea in 1995 with his buddies Anton van der Kerkhof, Corina Kuiper and Michiel Verburgh, and a year later Remko Muermans joined the band as the fifth member. “In the nineties, people were talking about similar ‘clash’ that’s going on today: what’s going to be the new fad? Guitar-based music or electronic music? Me, I always loved both equally. I once attended a Speedy J show, and to me that music was in no way different from Sonic Youth. Just pure noise…it was fantastic! That’s when it hit me: I’m going to mess with electronic music and sampling, but wield my guitar and play rock ‘n roll music as well. Those two things should be able to coexist, right? There’s this song by Aphex Twin called ‘Milkman’, which is off his ‘Boy/Girl’ EP. When I heard that, I was completely blown away. It’s this pristine pop song with these madcap lyrics, with sounds scurrying all over the place.”
Zea’s fidgety bizarro pop was a hand-in-glove fit for Transformed Dreams, the now (sadly) defunct indie label ran by Marcel Hermans. From the late nineties to the mid noughties, Transformed Dreams was the hub of Dutch underground scene, working with exciting bands like Feverdream, Zoppo, Seedling and Seesaw (who would later morph into the mighty Space Siren). It was a time in Dutch music when a band’s idiosyncrasies were lionized by Dutch music outlets, instead of being treated in a condescending manner.
Many Dutch bands earning festival slots today are slick reproductions of successful international indie rock outfits, whereas Zea was still one of the prominent Dutch names playing at Lowlands in 2000. Indeed not so long ago, it was still cool to be a misfit, to continuously second guess an audience that’s always keen to compartmentalize your art. “At one point people started comparing my music to Animal Collective, so I figured I owed that band a listen. But their music is – stylistically speaking – way more polished than mine. I couldn’t really relate to that comparison. Of course, I implement a lot of electronic sounds and samples; but, simultaneously, I’m always veering towards that sheer overdrive and immediacy of rock music.”
In 2004, Zea (who’d become an electronic duo by 2002) joined The Ex on their ‘Big Convoi Tour’ through The Netherlands, Belgium and France. With their mutual love and knowledge of African music, things quickly gelled between the two bands. Three years later, The Ex-guitarist Terrie Hessels asked Arnold to perform his curated event in Ethiopia. Arnold: “Terrie figured: ‘Let’s show these Ethiopian folks how Zea produces these really strange sounds using electronic beats and guitars!’”
While fruitful collaborations continued, 2008 was a difficult year for the band Zea. Arnold’s friend and longtime collaborator Remko Muermans opted to move permanently to St. Petersburg to start a family with his girlfriend Katia, who drums in a Russian folk band called Iva Nova. They met when Zea first toured Russia, and had been seeing one another over the years that followed. Meanwhile, Transformed Dreams started to fizzle out. “I’d been extremely involved with the label from the start, setting up shows in the Red Light District and such. We were such a tight bunch. We worked our butts off. Sadly, the whole scene kind of bled out that year. (Dutch live platform) Subbacultcha was already up and running, but I didn’t really care much about them. For the first time in my life, I considered relocating somewhere outside of the Netherlands. At first I wanted to move to New York.”
Instead of moving away permanently, Arnold went back to the place where it all began: the old storage house in Makkum. He built a tiny studio in the repository of his parents’ clothing store. “When my parents managed the store, I already knew it was best to be your own boss, so you won’t have to answer to anyone but yourself. You see, my music doesn’t exist as this separate thing outside of my life. It’s completely ingrained in all my thoughts and actions”, the usually jovial De Boer states with a rare sense of urgency. And so, Zea began operating as a one man band from here on in, ‘setting up shop’ with new label Makkum Records.
Around that time, Arnold’s sister Inge had been involved in an ambitious project with Ghana’s government to introduce a bus network to that country’s infrastructure. Along with her husband, she stayed with Ken Carbonu, a local musician who showed the couple around. They met Carbonu via a Dutch priest living nearby, Joop Visser. Not long after that, Ken found out about Zea too. “Ken knew I was a musician, so he started writing these letters to me, and making all these cool CD-R compilations. He kept pushing me to come over to Ghana. So when things kind of settled down a bit in 2008, it was the perfect time to go! I taught myself to play ‘Birth of Ghana’ by Lord Kitchener, and meanwhile, Ken has this huge banner made, saying: ‘Zea and Ken Carbonu are doing a big concert in the Old Catholic Church, supporting the needy.” Here, Zea performed a heart-wrenching version of Leadbelly’s ‘Bourgeois Blues’.
It was a trip Arnold will never forget. Around the time, he first heard the music of King Ayisoba on the radio, who happens to be a national hero in Ghana. Arnold was instantly flabbergasted. “When I first heard (Ayisoba’s) music, I immediately felt there was a wider appeal to it. It’s not just me…this is music that will captivate a wide range of people. I had to do something…for the sake of music!”, De Boer jests. Now it was only a matter of getting hold of the guy.
In 2012, Arnold traveled back to Ghana to set up a studio with Carbonu and Visser. The place was quickly christened as Next To Joop, a nod to late Space Siren-guitarist Corno Zwetsloot’s Next To Jaap Studio in Voorhout. “They had a budget, but the gear was way more expensive there. But I was able to get most of what we needed from second hand outlets. So early 2012, I came over with suitcases full of junk. In the meantime I was still trying to locate King Ayisoba. After many phone calls, I finally got his producer on the line. Unfortunately King Ayisoba, who’s a big star in Africa, was in Mali at the time. But, during the final day of my stay, I was able to meet King Ayisoba face to face. I told him and his manager I was a touring musician… and I asked him to tour with me to Europe.”
It was quite an ordeal for De Boer to acquire a work visa for Ayisoba to tour Europe. The suspense was on until Arnold heard the liberating announcement from the airport monitor: ‘A call for Mr. Zea! A call for Mr. Zea! King Ayisoba is waiting for you at the information desk.’ “I was absolutely overjoyed to see him there, and we had an amazing tour together. When he witnessed DJs spinning vinyl and me buying records, he remarked: ‘The people in Europe, they like the Big Cassette. I think I also need to make a Big Cassette.’ That’s when we decided to introduce King Ayisoba as the first artist released on Makkum Records besides myself.” The wonderful ‘Wicked Leaders’ ended up as one of the final records made at Next To Jaap, not long before Corno Zwetsloot tragically succumbed to cancer.
On a more uplifting note, Arnold has successfully branched out King Ayisoba’s enthralling African blues onto European soil. At this moment, King Ayisoba has done over 130 live shows across all of Europe, even performing at festivals like Roskilde. In 2014, Ayisoba returned the favour by inviting Zea to play at the launch of his new V-CD ‘Kologo High Spirit’ in Kumasi. “I was there to arrange the work visa for our next tour, but Ayisoba insisted it was my turn to play.”
This footage of Zea playing ‘Song For Electricity’ might seem quite puzzling at first, especially to people exclusively familiar with the Western hierarchy of concerts. As Arnold performs, people run up to him, shower him with money bills and whispering things in his ear. “It’s extremely normal for people to stick a paper bill to your forehead if you’re entertaining enough. It naturally becomes this free-form call and response thing, where people start whispering something in your ear for you to sing about. It could be someone’s birthday, or anything basically. And if you improvise well enough, they’ll stuff money in your pockets or in your guitar. Well, anywhere they can, really!”
“At that particular show, all the ‘chiefs’ were sitting behind me on the stage”, De Boer continues. “They were sending these errand boys to exchange large bills for a set of smaller ones. If they enjoy the show, it’s not just a matter of sticking one or two bills against your head. No, they completely shower you with bills! It’s not just their way of showing appreciation for you, but a playful display of their personal wealth as well.”
So once again, Arnold de Boer found himself in a similarly strange but fortuitous position as the day he performed ‘Rosemary’ in Kenya. In front of a crowd of 2000 people no less, which is large even by The Ex’s standards, he magics his own brand of chaos into an impromptu moment of happiness. Moreover, Arnold de Boer never started music with dreams of bright stadium lights or flashy magazine covers. He dived into it – heedlessly – because of an inherent curiosity about the world he inhabits, not as a simple means to an end. Surely, the irony wasn’t lost on him when all those bills were sprinkled on top of his head.
Arnold: “King Ayisoba asked me to specifically play ‘Song For Electricity’, because everyone in Ghana is so smitten by that song! During that previous visit to Ghana, that song made the airwaves, because I has played it on six stations and on national tv. It’s really common for the power to go out in Ghana, so when the people there hear ‘Song For Electricity’ they’re like: ‘That’s our song!’ So I guess everything did fall into place. There are still radio stations in Ghana that play the song every time the power goes out!”
Zea will release ‘The 7” Cassette’ this week, a special compilation of rarities and archival material. It features a cover of Zea’s ‘An Experience Of Trouble’ by Ken Carbonu’s son Peter, Zea’s high-strung version of ‘Clocks’ and much more. You can order it here. Arnold has dedicated ‘The 7” Cassette’ to the late Corno Zwetsloot (Space Siren, Next To Jaap Studio), who passed away a year ago, on November 27th 2014 ( A true maverick and genius – Ed.)
To celebrate Zea’s two decade run, Arnold is curating the Zea 2.0 Festival at Amsterdam’s OCCII, featuring performances by Rattle, Terrie Ex, Lianne Hall, Bruno Ferro Xavier da Silva and more. You can find the full line-up plus tickets here.
In January, Zea will hit the UK again with King Ayisoba and Ayuune Sule on following dates:
20 January – Sheffield, tba
21 January – Bradford, tba
22 January – Edinburgh, Summerhall
23 January – Glasgow, Celtic Connections Festival
24 January – London, Cafe Oto
*This interview was conducted in Dutch.