October 16, 2013
by Jasper Willems
While the sun endears herself to a perspiring ninety percent majority prancing about between Vierdaagse-festivities, three cerebral types reclusively consort in Nijmegen’s outskirts, a dim attic stuffed with all sorts of singular vinyl. They are Rene Aquarius, Otto Kokke and Rutger Zuydervelt: the former two being death jazz abomination Dead Neanderthals, the latter none other than überprolific ambient tinkerer Machinefabriek. Tonight they will take the stage for they very first time at Valkhof Festival as DNMF.
Upon my arrival, Aquarius lavishly recovers an LP with sketchy hand drawn artwork: Snakereigns by Okkultokrati. “Punk with death metal influences. Quite simple, eh?”, he wryly smirks as he places the needle onto the vinyl. Where a lounge tune would suffice for more domestic folk, Okkultokrati’s cataclysmic snarls will suffice as backdrop for this particular little chitchat held over a cup of pitch black coffee. How…fitting.
Zuydervelt finds the premise of this potent collaboration between two Dutch avant-garde luminaries hard to pinpoint.
Rutger: ” I was thinking about (that) when you came in, how did this thing start out anyway?”
Given Machinefabriek’s unceasing array of projects, his fuzzy memory can be forgiven. Aquarius recalls an exchange on Twitter where Zuydervelt offered to remix some of Dead Neanderthals’ material. In turn, Kokke and Aquarius insisted doing an all-out collaboration. By exchange of e-mails, things were quickly set in motion to create an LP, tentatively titled “DNMF”.
“It was quite striking to me when (Rutger) sent something in the vein of “yeah, I’m pretty busy, perhaps near the end of the month I can cook something up for ya”. Less than 24 hours later, we received this audio file in our mailbox, about twenty five minutes in length.”
Otto adds: “Rene and I immediately booked a studio the next day.”
This impromptu way of working is exactly what epitomized Dead Neanderthals’s career thus far, right from their dauntless beginnings. After all, their first live performance actually marked the first time the duo met in person after meeting online. Ever since towering sax player Kokke and diminutive skinsman Aquarius have been headstrong in creating music out of spontaneous circumstances. With just a limited sonic palette they have done their utmost to push their musical boundaries with each release. The gaudy wall of sound they produced with Jazzhammer/Stormannsgalskap suspends the listener into states of terror, while albums like Polaris (as well as latest foray And It Ended Badly), take more of an unhinged lo-fi free-jazz approach.
Rene: “This time around, we kind of avoided any terms on how the music would end up sounding like.”
Rutger: “The album we made together basically consists op two separate acts. Both of them quite forceful and monotonous. I figured it’d be quite a departure from what Dead Neanderthals were used to.”
Rutger: “It sounds kind of industrial, very dark. I definitely wouldn’t consider it to be improvisation. Its structure is pretty much set. Tonight we can sort of maneuver within those boundaries, see where we can take it. But it’s not like free-jazz or anything where the music continuously fluctuates.”
Zuydervelt’s composition inspired Dead Neanderthals to explore a new musical ecosystem, one where the duo has to accommodate Zuydervelt’s long-winding, intrinsic, ambient constructions…or impede upon them. When you add primitive new life forms to a foreign environment, things might get a little testy. Otto: “Around the time when we were working on the LP, we were heavily into John Carpenter-soundtracks.” Aquarius namedrops Carpenter’s score for sci-fi horror classic The Thing, an influence carried over to the first half of the LP. “Mostly during the first half of the record, really. The result sounds little like John Carpenter-music, but this was the incentive for us to do this project. That’s basically what applies to all our records, finding that incentive.”
With my curiosity sparked, Aquarius insists on previewing a rough cut of the DNMF LP from his computer. (Unfortunately that means cutting Snakereigns a bit short).
“So…this is the start of the record.”, Otto deadpans to my appeal to provide commentary whenever obliged.
We hear an ominous bass drum pattern, thumping with increasing intensity through lush organ modulations produced by Zuydervelt’s pitch generator, Aquarius, always anxiously teetering whenever he’s not behind his precious skins, skips up from his seat in excitement: “I immediately got the idea for the drum beat when I first heard the music.” Instead of using Zuydervelt’s dense ambient arrangements as backdrop for their sonic contortions, Dead Neanderthals tried to do the exact opposite in the first act of the LP: playing with absolute patience simplicity and restraint. “Once I got the file back, the first thing I wondered was how long the intro would last.”, Zuydervelt muses. “To my surprise, the “intro” turned out to be the entire twenty minute piece of music.”
Rene: “I wanted to conjure this feeling of something lurking, some creature knocking on the door from outside.”
Rutger: “On this particular piece I used an old sixties pitch generator, which blends in excellently with Otto’s saxophone.” Rutger bought this piece of equipment at online shopping and auction site Marktplaats.nl.
Otto: “Why did you pursue a sixties pitch generator?”
Rene: “Are there no digital alternatives?”
Rutger: “Yes, but this pitch generator’s got a big switch that allows me to manipulate sound on the fly without having to adjust it step by step. Plus, I prefer a more hands-on approach with the use of physical equipment.” To answer Kokke’s question, Zuydervelt believes his fascination with pitch generators started by reading about Alvin Lucier, a renowned contemporary composer born in 1931 who frequently utilized the device.
Otto: “It’s not like the sixties pitch generator produces better sound?”
Rutger: “What I like about it is the fact that its old and run-down. That creates those little ramshackling drones and whirrs.”
Rene agrees: “It definitely gives the music a lot more depth.”
Even during the piece’s most limpid compositions, its not Dead Neanderthals’ style to tread the waters lightly. Eventually Otto’s sax frantically enters the fray buzzing and scurrying all over the place like some humongous hive of mutant bees. Otto: “To play those sax parts was quite a fleshy undertaking, I really felt like adding another dimension to the whole thing.”
That physical aspect of music, that human element (a term borrowed from a certain lad whose honed shrewdness gets the occasional shot between long-winded maundering), is something Dead Neanderthals have been exploring from the get-go. Not just working towards the ramifications of their intense sonic tête-à-tête’s, but how undergoing them supplements the duo’s musical proclivities in the future. Does having a third individual on stage impact those interactions significantly?
Rene: “It felt quite natural once we got around to playing with Rutger, actually. The goal was to serve…”
Otto: “…a bigger entity.”
“I think it’s safe to say no individual really dominates the piece.”, Zuydervelt dryly remarks. “I ended up doing a lot of editing on the sound file. Because it might not pan out the same way within a live environment. This particular recording is kind of a translation of what the possibilities could be once we start playing live together. In a way that makes it interesting to me as well. I could’ve easily arranged the whole thing inside a laptop and regulate things from there. The music might end up flawless in this case, but that’s not all that interesting, is it?”
Otto: “That’s what we aim for on our records as well, not trying to repeat ourselves.”
“In this particular sequence (the repetitive bass drum pattern of act 1) I am actually.”, Rene jokes.
Zuydervelt comes across as somewhat of a cerebral figure when it comes to performing, meticulously devising his music like an abstract painting or the building of a sculpture, chiseling around repeating loops that see his sonic landscapes permute in stupefying ways. It’s hard to tell when he holds the reigns to his music…or when he leaves it to its own devices. “It’s a combination of utilizing my gear and allowing my gear to determine the music’s trajectory, to make me improvise.”, he explains. “I usually know more or less what kind of aesthetic I want to capture, but certain effects will always catch me by surprise. For example, when certain loops overlap differently than predicted, I basically need to react on the fly, taking the music to new places. As a matter of fact, the bigger the element of surprise, the more it engages and astounds me.”
Something Otto and Rene can identify with?
The question catches Kokke off-guard : “Sorry, I was totally caught up listening to Rutger’s loops.” (chuckles).”But probably, yes.”
“It really depends”, Rene attests. “Right after our show at dOeK Festival for instance, we figured we totally stunk it up, even though the audience was really into it. But as we played back the recordings of that show…”
Otto: “Listening to yourself play is sometimes less of a downer than actually being in the act of it. (laughs)”
The lively clamoring that ensues is promptly shushed by Aquarius. “Otto’s sax solo should be happening any minute now.”
Back to that ‘human element’, do these tiny hiccups actually prompt new ideas? How far can you go with that before it turns into a directionless mishmash of noise? Zuydervelt: “In my case, yes, they do. In the past, I have spontaneously attached cables between the output of the mixers to the input of my pedal effects to generate a lot of feedback. Perhaps things’ll go awry, but you’ll never know unless you try it. Tonight I will repeatedly loop my pitch generator. If you turn its volume all the way up, you’ll get this crazy distortion-effect. With this particular project, it really works well.”
Otto: “That remark you made about creating new ideas out of little mistakes, I do find it distracting sometimes. When you make a mistake, it’s initially difficult to recognize it as something cool. My first impulse is to wonder what the hell I’m doing?(laughs)”
Rene: “When listening to our own bootlegs, we occasionally apply these little oddities to our next show, to keep evolving in a way.” Where most bands generate ideas in the studio to perform live, Dead Neanderthals presumably do the exact opposite: create on a whim within their live shows to generate ideas for their recordings, to catch a moment in time.
Otto: “Yet the mechanism itself remains the same as in any creative process: you have a basic idea from which you try to expand upon. If you watch a lot of jazz musicians, they play in certain formation for that exact reason. The next day it might become something entirely new. To them, the act of playing together is more important than what you intend to create during a particular evening.”
What carries more weight, the creative part or the interactive part?
“I will not pick one.”, Zuydervelt says, “because they are both of equal value.”
“Personally, I thoroughly enjoy the aspect of interaction with certain musicians, but not with everyone.”, Rene adds. “I wouldn’t do it with people whose work doesn’t appeal to be. I do want to have a sense of taking it to a certain creative direction that I would enjoy. That’s kind of something you need to put trust in.”
Otto: “I could definitely work with a classical composer for instance. Why not? As long as there is a personal sense of “I think this cool, and I feel it will influence me along the way. In that respect, I do look at what we end up creating.”
Rene: “Dead Neanderthals has been no exception, really. It doesn’t make sense putting in the work without being sure whether you like the music or not.”
Rutger: “Well, when you two started playing together without premeditation, I had a similar thing going with Jaap Blonk (a dadaist poet, musician & vocals and electronics artist). Not a combo I’d naturally covet, but our first collaboration was really great. I can hardly remember having this much fun with someone.” Blonk and Zuydervelt went on to make the LP Deep Fried, as well as a handful of shows. Rutger: “In this case I was thankful someone else appointed this team up, I was happy…
Rene: “…someone else made that call for you.”
Rutger: “In these circumstances, you have nothing to lose.”
The second act of the DNMF project sounds like some sort of self sustaining dust cloud of flying industrial particles, with Aquarius’s blustering cymbal work expanding exponentially. “The interesting thing about this fraction, it feels both aggressive and meditative.”, Zuydervelt states.
Kokke proceeds to quiz Zuydervelt on how and when he mixed his sax solo.
Rutger glances aloofly.
Otto, raising his voice more emphatically: “What have you done with it, exactly?”
Rene: “It seems to have been edited quite a bit.”
Rutger calmly outlines: “I cut it, I pitched it, I edited it…”
“Absolutely no regard, I see.”, Otto grunts. (everyone in the room starts exchanging quips in jest)
“Well”, he sighs, “It sounded like crap anyway!”
Rutger: “At tonight’s show, I probably won’t be able to do that, you know.”
Otto: “Exactly, so it seems Rene will be getting quite the earful.”