Esc.rec is one of the most intriguing labels in The Netherlands. The Deventer-based operation is one of a small but dedicated group of one-man labels (yes, it’s mostly men) such as Moving Furniture, Futura Resistenza!, and Tiny Room; who – if my inbox is anything to go by – seem to be able to release a record every week. They are vital to the wider ecoculture of the alternative music scene in the country and are pathfinders for a wider European network of avant-garde and underground artists. Hidden away outside of the Randstad and utterly dedicated to their particular cause, these are sort of actors who never really get the plaudits their unceasing work deserves.
We spent some time chatting to head honcho Harco Rutgers about his label. At time of writing he has just released two wildly different records: Prosopagnosia, by Daniel Vujanic, Sluimer by Diepenmaat / Sallaerts, and is on the point of releasing an ambient gem, Always There Somewhere, by Frond, out in a week or two.
Harco, tell us about Esc.rec.?
HR: In general? Well, Esc.rec. is a small label that I founded in 2004, when I’d just moved from Rotterdam to Deventer. Starting a label never occurred to me before then, but when I moved to Deventer I started working with Bart Folmer frequently, who had already been wanting to start a label for some time, but was kind of waiting for a suitable label partner. So we actually founded Esc.rec. together, but after about a year Bart decided it was not his cup of tea, so I continued alone and have been putting out an irregular stream of releases since then. Almost 75 at this point and more are coming.
So the bloke who wasn’t really looking to start a label ended up carrying the baby. Why did you stick with it?
HR: Quite early on both artists, critics and customers gave me the impression that it was important to continue this work. Reason enough for me.
And the name? It’s quite a unique one, I think.
HR: Coming up with the name Esc.rec. didn’t take us long, as I remember. It can be construed as an abbreviation for Escape Records, or Escalator Records maybe. That’s all good, but at the time I especially liked that it can also be pronounced as Asscrack. This ambiguity led to a long running concert series, named Ass-crack Stage-hack.
Nearly 75 releases and counting, so what drives your release policy then?
HR: I use only two criteria to decide what is going to be an Esc.rec. release. Firstly, I personally have to really, REALLY like the music. A lot. Not because of any commercial possibilities, but because of the intrinsic quality of the music. I very carefully consider this for every release I put out, resulting in a catalogue that I think has aged really well, if I may say so myself. And because I don’t impose any genre or style restrictions besides my own musical tastes, the Esc.rec. catalogue is very broad. Having a catalogue that is difficult to pinhole or box in has proven to be quite the challenge when looking for distributors. I haven’t found one that will take the entire catalogue yet. The fact that a lot of these releases come in very limited, often handmade editions doesn’t help either in that regard. But for me personally running a label this way makes more sense than limiting it with genre or style constraints.
…And secondly I have to have a strong feeling that a release on Esc.rec. will amount to something. That is to say, I know that I’m going to put a lot of time and effort in a release, so that has to be worth it. If I have doubts that a release on Esc.rec. is the best way of getting the music out there, for whatever reason, it won’t happen.
What is that “something”, can you define it? Creatively, personally?
HR: When I say a release on Esc.rec. needs to amount to something, I mainly mean it needs to be effective. I want my time and effort to count.
From my viewpoint, Esc.rec. has a reputation for putting thoughtful, quiet music out: music that sometimes sounds more like a process in action. Why are you drawn to such music?
HR: Well, as I outlined in your previous question, this is not completely accurate actually. True, there are quite a few thoughtful, quiet releases in the catalogue and I can see how you might arrive at this conclusion, but really, anything goes.
…There are also quite a few beat-driven things on Esc.rec. Even some straight up techno with a twist, if you will. Those by slo-fi for example, which is a moniker of Roel Meelkop, they are pounding but really subtle too. Or some delicate minimal techno tracks and remixes by Radboud Mens. Maga (drummer Marc Fien) also has several techno-minded albums and remixes out on Esc.rec., which are pretty much all dancefloor orientated. Then there are the heavy bass, juke grooves, 90’s rave synths and old school jungle sounds of Jonas The Plugexpert on his album Den Haag – Nijmegen, which was constructed while commuting between these two cities by train. Jorg’s two amazing albums tell their stories by manoeuvering through the grey areas between soundscapes, atmospheres and beats. I really don’t like to pin down stuff in specific genres, but there’s even some post-rock in the catalogue, like the album by Salt Supply for example. Or oddballs like the Roughly Human album by Plastic Surgery Icon, which stylistically varies between folky singer/songwriter pieces, math rock and catchy pop tunes.
…One of the upcoming releases currently in production is Time Is A Spider, by Monday W., an alias of Hidde van Schie, which features intricate songs with just guitar and vocals, but there are other, way more abstract releases by Hidde lined up. Yet another upcoming release that demonstrates the broadness of the catalogue features a mixture of electronic cumbia madness, otherworldly dub and well, visual arts basically, all made by Snackbar The Ambassador, aka Matthias König.
So yes… basically ANYTHING goes, as long as it’s high quality stuff that impresses me personally AND I feel that releasing it on Esc.rec. is actually useful.
…Actually, going back to your question, I’m not sure what you mean by music that sounds like a process in action… can you give me an example?
Well let’s take that great release by Matthijs Kauw which is based on his interest in Daoism and inspired by his visit to the Wudang mountains in China, where he studied Chinese meditation and martial arts.
…So let’s rephrase my question to make it broader: the artists you work with – a lot seem to be driven by processes, or ideas, much more than “yeah, let’s make a record, we want to be cool”.
HR: I think I see what you mean. Yes, it’s true, for practically all the artists on Esc.rec., putting out a release has much deeper value and meaning than just “being cool”. I guess for music to mean something to me personally, for me to want to release it, I need music to be more than just coolness. But I don’t specifically look for artists that are driven by processes. On a side note: isn’t making a record, because of wanting to be cool a process too? Anyway, I guess the artists that have some deeper idea about their music are the ones I end up being most impressed with. Before listening to a demo I usually don’t know much about these underlying ideas. I just listen. So you could also just chalk it down to coincidence, if you’d like. I’m not purposely into a certain kind of artist.
So it seems! There’s quite a lot to work out here for the casual listener though. Where should they start?
HR: Maybe a quicker way to explore the full scope of the catalogue is to dive into some of the compilation albums. Compilations on Esc.rec. are generally not an overview of the label or a ‘best of’ . They are usually theme driven (remix) projects, with unique tracks. One of the very first Esc.rec. releases was a double album with 29 remixes of the simple call, “Jee-haw!”. Then there’s Grannittin, another double album with remixes of the recorded sounds of knitting needles, which was part of an art project. POKE 20 is a compilation with many different remixes of the C64 Orchestra project in which a classical orchestra played newly arranged C64 game music. Then we did Herfsttonen, which featured three compositions commissioned for Herfsttonen, an art manifestation in Okkenbroek. These compositions by Paul de Jong (The Books), Gluid and MiaMia were also performed live at special locations in Okkenbroek. Phonica was created as a special release, making use of technical capabilities of mobile phones in 2010 (making it practically obsolete by now). Nevertheless it was a very interesting endeavour! Flakes was a compilation signalling the first official collaboration with another label: the illustrious Lomechanik label from Nijmegen.
Compilations about knitting needles??
HR: Not only that. With one of the later compilations, Disc Jockey, we invited a diverse selection of artists to deliver a track about DJ’s. Not for DJ’s, not by DJ’s, not even with DJ’s… just about DJ’s. The result is a kaleidoscopic impression of the world of the Disc Jockey as seen through the eyes of the featured artists. Not to go into detail about every single track, but some artists use lyrics to get their point across, others use samples, records and sounds. Some honour known DJ’s with a tribute, others use parody to strike ‘em down, without mercy. Some emphasise the physical and auditory qualities of playing records, others dive into the culture surrounding DJ’s. Some have allowed themselves to be inspired by DJ’s (or one specific DJ), others use existing songs about DJ’s as raw source material in an abstract composition. In some of the tracks the link with DJ’s is crystal clear, in others you might have to do some research first (track titles are a good place to start in most cases). The opening track, ‘De DJ Is Een Mietje’ (The DJ Is A Sissy) by Bedhelm was actually the trigger to finally execute the idea for this compilation, which had been floating around in my mind for years.
…The most recent compilation on Esc.rec. is Off Track, where the recordings made during sound walks under the guidance of sound artist Jeroen Diepenmaat, were used as raw source material. There are a lot of great and varied processing methods used by the likes of Francisco López, Machinefabriek, Les Horribles Travailleurs, Gluid, Michael Ridge, podL, Staplerfahrer, Teleferick, Vehikel, Nlus and BMB con.; so the original field recordings have gained a really rich depth. The end result is a broad variety of captivating tracks which all in their own way mirror different parts of the recorded sound walks.
You’re based out in Deventer. Tell us about the Eastern borderlands of the Netherlands. I sense there is a set of distinct alternative music cultures there… one that looks East as well as West. And I suspect that Deventer is not Enschede, or Zwolle, or Venlo, let’s say….
HR: I started the label and organising concerts (first the Ass-crack Stage-hacks and later on De Perifeer, see perifeer.org) only after my move from Rotterdam to Deventer. So there’s definitely something that triggers me in Deventer, which didn’t trigger me when I lived in Rotterdam. I guess for the most part it is an interesting mixture of challenge and opportunity that exists for me here. Also there’s a distinct no-nonsense vibe here that attracts me and fires me up.
I thought Rotterdam was supposed to be the no nonsense city…
HR: That’s what I thought too, when I lived and worked there. Very appealing to me. Deventer has got even more of that.
I must say I haven’t made much of an in-depth study of alternative music cultures in the East of The Netherlands, since this hardly affects the way I run the label, which is more internationally focussed. The same goes for the concerts I organise, which don’t feature many local artists. However, there are differences of course. Between West and East, but also between Deventer, Zwolle, Nijmegen and Enschede for example.
…My take on the scenes here… that’s actually a really hard question for me. I’ve hardly made a study of this and I would not like to get lost in polarising platitudes about the differences between the East and the West of The Netherlands. There’s plenty of that out there already. Just look at the shit hitting the fan with the way Fonds Podiumkunsten totally forgot about the East of The Netherlands in their recent failure in distributing their budget fairly, instead handing over more than half of their budget to Amsterdam-based applicants. Which clearly illustrates a very narrow minded, misguided view and biased misrepresentation of arts & culture in The Netherlands.
…Suffice to say, very interesting and innovative things are happening outside of the self-centred Randstad, which for a large part seems to be resting on its laurels. Especially Amsterdam, which would benefit greatly from taking the effort to extend its horizon a bit further than its own arse. Sorry for the rant. You see what you made me do? Time for some nuance maybe: luckily not everybody in the Randstad suffers from the same level of self-righteousness. In fact I very much enjoy collaborations with certain folks there. Instruments Make Play is a great example. And believe it or not, some people actually travel all the way from the West to the other side of this immense country, to experience the perks of the East first hand.
And the cities themselves? People sometimes forget how many places there are out East…
HR: About the scenes in the different cities in the East… that’s an even tougher question. In very broad generalising strokes and clichés you could say that Deventer is generally a semi-good place for house and techno minded folks. And mainly because of Esc.rec. and De Perifeer, Deventer is also a good place to get a small, but high quality dose of adventure, experiment and improvisation into your music diet. Zwolle is still very well known for its hip hop scene. Nijmegen may very well have one of the most open-minded scenes in the East of The Netherlands, especially where it concerns electronics. Nijmegen is also a very techno minded city. Enschede has quite a lot of underground stuff going on, and is bordering Germany in a “gateway drug” style. Other people can probably reject all I’ve just said and give a deep, insightful analysis of the actual differences and history of the music scenes in the East. But probably way more interesting than trying to dissect what’s what in each city (at which I’m destined to fail), is the fact that there is a growing sense of “being in it together”. A growing number of cross-city collaborations and alliances, accumulations of mass, forming strategic fronts. Take the presence of an Overijsselse “embassy” at ADE for example, or the manifesto that now ties all main East Netherlands pop venues, art academies, production houses and institutes together, or NEW (Nieuwe Electronische Waar), an organisation focussed on aiding and promoting electronic music producers in the East of The Netherlands. There is plenty going on.