Charlie and the Lesbians are one of the hidden wonders of the Dutch alternative music scene. They are far removed from the current, more celebrated sonic activities in Rotterdam and Amsterdam, and have determinedly ploughed their own furrow this past 5 years or so, often in the vicinity of their native Eindhoven.
Charlie and his partners in crime (Mees, Soesja and Noortje) may often be out of sight, but they’re not out of mind. If you’ve seen them live you can’t forget them. The band are representative of their name, and play accordingly, enlivening and challenging attitudes and assumptions wherever they go. Lip and lippy in unison, all sounds given extreme volume, courtesy of Charlie Hoeben’s aircraft alarm of a voice. Stamping out their hot-pressed metallic punk in the manner of a twenty-first century Speed, Glue and Shinki, they have played some of the most exciting shows this correspondent has seen: one particularly memorable event being a floor show in the brilliant youth club JVC De Schuit in the tough, Christian and very traditional fishing town of Katwijk. Somehow their metallic K.O. enabled an audience of local lads and a Glaswegian hen party to melt into each other.
They used the release of their sandblasting debut, Paper Trail of Happiness to launch their own label, Bottom Shelf Records back in 2019. Bottom Shelf likes to rock out as Traumahelikopter singer Mark Lada’s release (Mark Lada’s Golden Arches) also proved. And now there is a new record – a co-release with Nijmegen’s Waaghaals Records – Behave, from border noiseniks Paracetamøl. A shuddering blast furnace of a punk record that never slows down, and one which provides distinct nods to Warsaw and Metz. It’s really worth a few hours of your time.
Back to Charlie and the Lesbians. They’re an affable bunch, their “Brabantse” jolliness runs through them like the lettering in Blackpool rock. They are not averse to saying what they think, either.
Let’s start by talking about the new LP on your label Bottom Shelf; Paracetamøl’s Behave. What do you like about them? The energy of the record really is something else isn’t it?
Noortje: It’s good we first talk a bit about Bottom Shelf Records. The label is not “part of the band”, but is related to it. Our bass player (that’s me, Noortje) founded Bottom Shelf with our friends Roel van Merlot (Traumahelikopter) and Stijn van der Vleuten (who is part of the design collective, We Make Carpets). I am the link, but also, of course, it’s linked to the band because the label’s first release was Charlie & the Lesbians! The idea for the label came out of our own need, because we noticed that bands like Charlie… didn’t really have a natural musical home here, and that is a shame!
…For each release we invite an artist to design the cover, so we also build up a collection of designs in addition to the music; work that can, for example, be exhibited. Paracetamøl is the third release, and a really great record. What we like is that it is loud and very tight, but there are also some super good songs. And they go for it live; for a few people or for a full house. The energy on the record is that of a live show, but they have also found that balance that it is also great to listen to the record at home. Hard but also fresh!
Is Bottom Shelf a Dutch rock label? It seems to be so far. What drives your release policy?
Noortje: We don’t necessarily limit ourselves to the Netherlands, but that is the place where we discover things ourselves. Since we’ve only just started, our own network is mainly Dutch, so it makes sense to us that the first three releases are Dutch bands. We release what we would like to buy ourselves. Which makes all three of us happy! The aim is to become a kind of springboard for starting bands and artists, and to bring those worlds together. So far we’ve released two punk records (Charlie & the Lesbians and Paracetamøl) as well as “Dutch pop” (Mark Lada’s Golden Arches). Our next release will be different again; the solo project from Ernst-Jan van Doorn, under the name Gooseking3000. He was the guitarist for Mozes & the Firstborn, but makes really peaceful work solo, with some beautiful songs. We’re very much looking forward to that.
And your records: the brilliant EP and your debut. They are such great, gonzo records. But do you feel people overlook them because your reputation is often seen (from this side of the fence anyway) as a live band?
Noortje: Overlooked is a very strong word, but it’s a fair point. We are, as you say, mainly known as a live band and that is where our strength lies, but our starting point is always the music and we pay a lot of attention to that. That the music appears “better” live than on record is perhaps something inherent to all loud music.
…We do think the energy of our records is very different from the live shows. It’s hard to capture the dark and raving soul that the live shows generate on a single audio file, it seems almost impossible. But the difference between them is what can make things interesting. It’s important that the feelings of the songs and the vibrations of the music are captured on a recording, and that’s a hard thing to do, but we do think they can stand apart from each other as different entities. Which makes them almost two completely different things, although that’s not always the plan! We think we are still searching for a way to capture the energy that we have at live shows, but we should keep in mind that we probably can’t… So yeah it’s true that we are in essence a live band; though the records can be seen as a medium to make “that” last longer.
…Although it’s a shame to see us only as a live band… I think our new work (which will hopefully be released as a full album in 2021) is also a bridge between our live and recorded sound. We have developed a lot, both in ourselves and in the songs we make, without sacrificing live energy, but with a kind of “leap in quality” that I think you will hear in the recordings.
What drives your songs? They often remind me of this great quote by Malcolm McClaren: “Frustration is one of the greatest things in art. Satisfaction is nothing.” Are you still mad at everything?
(The Band): The sound we originated developed very naturally. We all wanted to make loud or rough or punk music because we felt that there were too many “polished sounds” going down when we started. Back then, there were lots of young bands in Eindhoven, but they all made something like beautiful indie or garage-pop music. I think we had a certain frustration against all that, so we deliberately started making rough music and this was nice and in the end it just feels very natural and “nice” to make this kind of music. And yes, it’s a cliché, but that music just became an outlet for us, haha!
…Charlie, who writes the lyrics is not mad at everything, though; the things that drive the lyrics are just pent up feelings that get in the way of living your daily life, and putting them together as lyrics and music allows them a place outside of one’s mind. There is anger in a lot of the songs, but also sadness and happiness, revelations and loving: emotions are never a one way street!
Charlie: The core of the lyrics are driven by my deepest feelings, that part is true. Often, I didn’t even know that the feelings that I write about are there until they are written down on paper, I just begin and then my subconscious takes them out of my mind. There’s never a plan to write about a certain subject or theme, they are all the emotional ramblings of a mad man that’s fed up with the world we live in, like everyone sometimes is.
…Also the music gives a perfect platform to write about the darker parts of life and human emotions. It’s a fact that most of the songs aren’t about feeling happy, but I don’t think they are meant to be a search to achieve happiness and fulfillment. It’s about how to balance putting these darker emotions away, or finding a way to deal with them. Because our music itself is often pretty dark or heavy, the lyrics are gonna be like that too, it would be weird if they weren’t! Frustration, anger and sadness does drive art in its most pure form, Malcolm McClaren was definitely right about that.
I love your t-shirt designs, I still want the classic lesbians tee (which I must say publicly, now, I am ashamed of stealing one in Leiden at the WW pub after your show there, and then giving it to the great Dutch poet troubadour, Marc van der Holst). And talking of the designs, what may be lost to the public gaze is your arty side. Can you tell us about the artworks you do?
(The Band): Haha, thanks for your honesty! We thought we were out of those shirts, but Charlie found some in the back of his closet a couple of months ago (Probably around April when everybody was clearing up their attics) so we might have one for you!
…We’ve always given a great deal of thought and attention to our artwork. Right from the beginning. We really like to do a lot ourselves and spend a fair amount of time thinking and talking about the videos, too. Most of the time we like to ask friends, or artists from Eindhoven to do the visual art. For example, Eindhoven artist Tarek Beshta designed our logo (and the scissors that you also see in our t-shirt designs for example). We also asked artist Niels Egidius to design a t-shirt for us. We think it is important not to “just do” something, it has to be done properly.. With the shirt you are talking about, though, that was the exception to the rule, because it just fell into our lap. We didn’t have to think about this for a second. This was a poster design for a performance in Vera, designed by Joblin Agteresh. We liked this poster so much that we asked if we could use it on a shirt.
…The video clips have been very DIY so far and we are all very involved in this from thinking about an idea to filming and editing. We’ve done almost everything ourselves.
Charlie: We think visual art has always been a really important part of pop music and that the two are really tied together. It’s another way of communicating. We think that the message that you want to send with your music should be the same as what you see in your artwork, or t-shirt designs or whatever. It’s a visual representation of the things that you stand for as a band. It’s kind of the first impression that you’re gonna make on a person when they don’t know you, and maybe an even stronger message to the ones that do know you.
Do you feel out on a limb, removed from Randstad things in Eindhoven? There was a great underground scene in the city (TAC, Stroomhuis) and a great legacy of alternative bands, from Plus Instruments / Nasma(a)k to The Sugarettes. What do you think will happen in the city and province creatively, in the (near) future?
(The Band): First of all, Eindhoven is still a great city for music; we have some great venues, rehearsal spaces and a small but steady scene of people. Sometimes we have the idea that it’s better not to have multiple performances in a city, 7 days a week, because the 1 or 2 days a week when there is music programmed (somewhere), everything comes alive and everyone shows up .
Charlie actually lives in Tilburg, so that’s also a bit of a stamping ground for us. Tilburg has also a good scene and it’s very close, a 20 minute train ride. It would be great in the future if the two cities would work together a bit more and people would be less hesitant to make this commute between the two!
Charlie: Sometimes the Randstad does feel a bit far away. Definitely so when a band starts up, there is a noticeable difference if you’re not from the Randstad, you’re seen as an outsider, and have fewer places to play or get less attention.
But we are lucky enough to feel a bit adopted by Rotterdam. Our booking agency (Rock N Roll Highschool) is from Rotterdam and this has become the start of our relationship with the city. I think, by now, we have maybe played more shows in Rotterdam than in Eindhoven. Also Groningen is like a second home to the band, we love to play there. Amsterdam was a little frustrating in the first couple of years as a band, but over the last few years we made friends with some great punk bands and that helped us a lot to become closer to Amsterdam.
…So to answer your question….. the future is uncertain. We’re sure the creative people and bands will be here forever, but we’re afraid the ‘climate’ will be more sober. The city of Eindhoven has been bad for the underground scene during the last few years, where city planning gets bigger and fancier there is less space (literally, and figuratively) for other creative ideas or outlets. With the (Hard Right) F(orum) v(oor) D(emocracy) active in the province, too, things have gotten explicitly worse. And of course we have a global pandemic, and that’s not helping. There are difficult times for art ahead, but let’s think positively and hope people will get more creative and more DIY!
Yes…. I am sure every interview asks about the name, yes, it’s self-explanatory… But I’m more interested in how people reacted to it when you were playing shows or initially trying to book them.
(The Band): Actually we don’t think anyone asked about this before. For us the name was the only certain thing when we started the band! We thought it was a fun name, it fits us and yes it is self-explanatory.
…The name is out there, utterly in your face as the music is too. It’s a strong message, and a strong name, and the soul of the band is captured in it. It’s catchy, and that’s a good thing too, it’s always going to stand out, just like we do when we’re on stage.
…We didn’t think about it twice and maybe that was naïve, but we didn’t think about possible negative reactions or effects.
…The first few years saw some surprised reactions. People were surprised that we “dared” to have this name and we were surprised in turn, about these reactions. We also got a lot of positive feedback too, and people came to see us just because of the name on a poster or timetable. At ‘de Popronde’ (the Dutch travelling talent show of new pop acts) for example, we got a lot of audience because of the name.
…The more negative reactions came from outside of the Netherlands. When our friend Sonja (from the band Baits) was trying to book a small underground European tour, she had a lot of explaining to do. When we explain things and when people find out we have ‘a real lesbian couple’ in the band things are usually good. Apparently the first thing people tend to think is that the name is a joke, which is funny actually because we can’t be more honest. Well, we could be: Charlie & Mees & the Lesbians, but then all the catchiness is gone.
Also, we do feel people from English-speaking countries are always a little shocked or horrified by the name, there have been people who told us they almost didn’t come to our show because a band with such a name can’t be any good, or people who tell us we make great music but really, we have to change our name. We don’t really understand why the name is so shocking, but maybe we are “too Dutch” (direct, or sober) to understand this!