Digging up Dutch Undergrounds – An Interview with Wally van Middendorp from Minny Pops
February 15, 2014
by Richard Foster
Picture by Robin Butter
I recently got the chance to sit down with Plurex Label Boss, Roadrunner Records supremo, ULTRA agitator and (probably most famously), leader of ULTRA band Minny Pops Wally van Middendorp; at café de Balie in Amsterdam. Wally, a friend, was as ever great company and as forthright as I’ve always known him. But even with the benefit of Wally’s candour on the research subject I’m undertaking, after interviews with him, Ronnie Kroes, Oscar Smit and Marcel Harlaar, I’m not entirely sure that my initial “guide” question, namely; “to what extent did the Dutch alternative music scene of the early 1980s and the 2010s treat the original British punk and post punk scene as a role model?” is the correct starting point. Certainly in relation to my investigations into Dutch identity as seen in Vinyl magazine and the wider ULTRA, and related underground scenes in Holland. What is interesting is that all these conversations throw a few new, or forgotten ingredients into the mix. But first, we’ll give the honours to Wally to kick this set of interviews off.
A brief note: I’ve tried to edit as little as possible, to keep the feel of the original interview intact, but any reference to what I consider personal matters or names of partners and family have been omitted. And some of my rambling questions have been shortened, and a number of interjections and “conversational gambits”, (noted down when transcribing the interview) have been reorganised to create a more readable and coherent piece. The full transcript is in my possession and available on request.
Interview with Wally van Middendorp – 31/1/2014
RICHARD: I was reading Harold Schellinx’s book ULTRA and he was talking about the beginning of post punk, and I was struck by a phrase he used, “ook in het Nederlands”. And I thought, I’m always hearing this phrase, “ook in het Nederlands”. And that immediately says to me that there’s this division, consciously or unconsciously, between Holland and the rest. You were doing things that were linked into punk/post punk, which were movements that weren’t really about borders. Is Harold right to intimate that the Dutch thing is separate? Did you feel what you were doing was primarily Dutch?
WALLY: I thought it was more linked into what was happening with electronica, electronica in the UK and what was happening in Germany, in Berlin and Cologne; let’s say… the Cony Plank wave in Germany, ahm… and it was as much into what was happening in New York and America, with bands like Suicide and say, Pere Ubu. And did they know did they were part of a movement or not when they started out? Probably not. So…
What I think, Richard, is that Holland is a very small nation; with a trading mentality. So it’s the “Polder Model” or that phrase we talk about, the one about keeping the level of the cornfield. Everything is common; there is nothing like that thing in the UK or the US, where extravagant talent is recognized and not judged on being extravagant. So...
Calvinist? That sort of thing? And it’s weird; it’s a sort of conservative thinking in Holland, so… always looking outside not looking what we have, not looking at “we’re proud of our own culture, let’s expand that culture, for whatever that might be; big or small”. While in Belgium you saw more of that [pride – Ed] such as in fashion with the Antwerp Six or in music with bands like Deus and other bands like that. And you’d see how great things would work and they’d be just, erm aware… and say “we don’t need to be part of a movement, we are on our own, we have no issues with not being accepted with even our own set.” So maybe one of the Dutch things is having a sense of modesty? That ties in there as well.
RICHARD: Was that something that was noticeable for you at the time? [1977-82 – Ed] Were you apart from that [modesty- Ed] or did you feel that was a conscious trait among the people that you worked with and dealt with at the time?
Wally: No that’s the weird thing, I don’t think so, because people in that particular scene were all very independent and all open minded and not suffering… otherwise they couldn’t be part of that… I’d not even call it a collective but that grouping of individuals even if they were not individuals and were not “there”. But it’s probably – given the mentality and size of the country – it’s only a handful of particular people that are there.
RICHARD: In the context of Holland, you know being small, not having the same sort of distribution network as Britain or America, and effectively not having this acceptance of theatricality, meant that you were hamstrung or had to work in a particular way?
WALLY: No… I think you want to work in your own particular way. The Netherlands I think has an issue with having open borders. So… being a trading nation… and therefore open to lots of influences from abroad, there is no radio quota, movies are not dubbed, movies are synched. So… it’s embracing the Anglo American culture; where Germany you know, or France for that matter or Italy… [pauses – Ed] “English language?” Ten years ago twenty years ago, naw… it wasn’t really common. And it was all about people being involved in their own culture and being proud of their own culture.
Maybe the other things about being proud of your own culture is that there isn’t much maybe, ahm… Holland is good on one level; there’s lots of sorts of what I call “common folks stuff”, yeah common folks stuff, but there’s very little attention on successful… what I call intelligent higher culture. Holland has been a great, great… take theatre. I mean Holland’s been really great! Children’s theatre, for example, it’s still very great despite all the cutbacks but like… for example, one production was invited to play an EMI award type thing in Pittsburgh? And they won an award as one of the best performances! So, Holland has culture, but it’s never… it’s not in a national… Holland is not really self-promoting. Maybe in design. In design we’re getting there; the design work in Eindhoven and whatever. Maybe Holland is known for very good industrial design. Belgium is known in the last twenty years about fashion, which is strange because there are some very good fashion designers in Holland as well. But in Belgium you can be more extravagant.
RICHARD: Do you think that’s a legacy of the Catholic / Calvinist thing?
RICHARD: It’s interesting this sort of modesty that keeps cropping up, this practical modesty if you will. And I wanted to talk to you particularly about the British press, back in the day you met up with all these people, Andy Gill, Dave McCulloch, all these people writing about the Minny Pops in 1979-1980. Erm, how did you find this sort of… and not forgetting MY enthusiasm as well… but this sort of British journalistic enthusiasm for Dutch music? Did you think it was exotic, or did you think it was actually genuine or did you think it was a case that they wanted to get away from “being British”? How did you find that attention at the time?
WALLY: On a very sort of personal level it was sort of very pleasing and rewarding to get recognition from ahm… well respected writers. I didn’t know what their personal motives were, I trust they are…. they were great and professional writers; and were not looking for like, “let’s find a new hip next thing from Holland” I think for a guy like Andy Gill… you know he was… accepted. It was more that our supporters… were… It was interesting because I thought Paul Morley was at a certain time, maybe it was the Factory connection there, but it was more Paul Morley and Dave McCulloch. Andy Gill was more the Sheffield connection through the New Musical Express, he was more broad… he looked at us, The Tapes, Nasmak, Soviet Sex… whatever. He was more interested in the indie scene in Holland. I think with us it was more Dave McCulloch, and Paul Morley. Most of the time with his single reviews, we were single of the week. So, I think it was rewarding because these people had shitloads of records in front of them and if they could pick… pick our record and say it there was something wrong with it. They could say, horrible track, what’s wrong with this band?
RICHARD: The reason I ask that question is… nowadays it seems… a lot of Dutch labels, say Koen ter Heegde at Subroutine Records… are very keen to get British affirmation. You now, it’s not about say what I or the Quietus or Mojo write; maybe it’s more the fact is that it’s in English and that is the real bottom line. And I’m not really sure that was the case with you?
WALLY: Well… naw… I think what it is; I think there’s a pattern. It’s not being recognized in your home territory. I mean a guy like Koen, or any of the other labels. We talked about this stuff. Remember, we did a side show two years ago or one years ago outside the Eurosonic festival [note: Wally and I did a bingo at Subroutine’s first Sound of Young Holland / fifth showcase evening, January 2012] and don’t these things get pulled into the Eurosonic mainstream eventually? I think Koen’s night will be pulled in there eventually.
But you need to be really need to be pig headed, push yourself into the mainstream and push yourself right back out to the outside again. That’s tough that’s a tough old thing to do, because once you’ve been outside and trying to struggle and trying to get bloody recognition for five to ten years, when you finally get that recognition what does that do to you?
WALLY: I mean look at you, not because you’re Dutch, but because you were on that list, right? [note: my magazine, Incendiary magazine was added to the long list for the Dutch pop media prize 2013]. I mean did you call them up and say “can I have my name removed?”
RICHARD: (Laughing) No of course not!
WALLY: But that would be a statement wouldn’t it? Say “I’m sorry guys…” and then that would really make you look like an ass, but it would be semi-public, to make a little stir. “Guys look at this I’m on the list get me off!” (Laughs). So I don’t know Richard… you get the recognition in one of the biggest global music markets; full stop. So Dutch artists, they focus on getting into the UK, and outside of Urban Dance Squad, Golden Earring, or Herman Brood in Germany say, in Holland there hasn’t really been that much. So if a local band, in France or Germany can really be professional and never get out of France or Germany, they can still make a living, And Holland is tough. So you have to go abroad.
RICHARD: So a lot of the considerations in terms of a band’s worth are physical; because it’s a small country. The borders… I think there’s a thousand miles of borders around the country, and to have so much border space without a huge amount of musical infrastructure… I can see this but I’m also wondering… it’d be very easy to answer my question if the considerations were primarily physical; or contextual. I’m wondering about this idea of Calvinism which you threw out, which suggests some aesthetic consideration in valuing Dutch music doesn’t it? What I’d like to find out is why Dutch artists always hint to me about their own society, and why this seemingly ongoing debate between independent Dutch musicians and their own society never seems to be fulfilled. There seems to be a divide, between the mass and media and independent Dutch bands. They can’t really come to an “agreement” as to their worth. Why can’t they get on, do you think?
WALLY: In music? In music? In popular music? It’s all very clear. Simply because it originates from the UK and the US.
RICHARD: Still so strong?
WALLY: Oh yeah, I mean go into a bar in the UK. There will be a great jukebox. I mean at one moment you could hear, ahm… a great track from New Order and next moment it could be Spandau Ballet. But it’s in the same jukebox. You go into stores and you hear great music from Bowie to… ahm… somebody like Chvrches. And anything in between. Here; it’s not daring, it’s not challenging, people play the same record all over again because it might upset other people. So it’s all about….
RICHARD: Why is behaviour so important in Holland? I mean let’s try to think about it in the context of ULTRA.
Wally: Wait, wait. There only one answer. Right? Religion. Calvinism. Christian Reformed Religion. Right? Let’s talk about my home town. My parents told me about the farmers in this town that I grew up in, the black stockings we called them, farmers in the Bible belt. They told me, farmers had to go to church on a Sunday; they had to walk to church because it was the day of the Lord. They came in for the morning service, and they left after the afternoon service, because they had to basically look after the animals, they had to milk the cow. Once the son of the minister got a bike shop, they were “allowed” to cycle. Well, my dad used to… he would look onto the town square, (my parents weren’t part of all that, and that church wasn’t the worst one) and he’d see women all dressed up in skirts and headdresses. And there were some tougher sections in that town [note: tougher as in religiously stricter] so let’s not even go there, let’s not even think about it, it’s in that thing. Except for the southern parts of Holland, which is different, but you know that. But it’s there, over a big part of Holland, and in the south there’s the Catholic Church, especially in Limburg. And Limburg could be Belgium in that regard.
I think it’s deeply rooted in Dutch society.
RICHARD: How do you think this panned, or pans out in the media? I mean I always used to think this country was like living in 1964 or 2034, you know, extremes. Laid back and forward looking or incredibly controlling. Are people – unwittingly -scared to push out because of these too extreme ideas of living, say the media are scared of doing something different? Is it because of battling this deep rooted Calvinism?
WALLY: I think that is all ahm… no… that… all has to do with getting the numbers.
Richard: So a practicality and Calvinism at the same time?
WALLY: No, no…. You know, 3FM is a public station but it’s not like studio Brussels. It’s like BBC Radio 1 being told to lower the demographic and compete with the commercial stations. It shouldn’t be but it is. And of course in the UK you have things like XFM and BBC 6Music. It’s all about scale, purely about scale. So in Belgium they’re smart enough to have Studio Brussels, and in Holland once we went – and it’s interesting going back to an idea of religion with all the broadcasting organisations with ahm, vertical programming – once we went to horizontal programming we lost that diversity. Because now all the output is common. Back then, TROS was more soul minded, NCRV was classic minded, VPRO was extreme, AO was religious, ahm… AVRO was in the middle, KLO was pretty progressive and VARA was progressive. So it went on the scale. A political spectrum that was very interesting and very diverse, but very factional. And that’s the weird bit. That factional thing was the weird bit.
There are all these parties like CDA… they are all factions of the Catholics and Christian parties, all these little factions brought together to compromise. We used to have many more parties. So I think that political spectrum that showed a lot of diversity, that also reflects itself in Christian schools and Islam schools and public schools, is very great. Because we are an open minded society, and the threshold voting here is really great, because it allows self-expression and diversity. So maybe that stuff being factional never allows a unified voice to come out. The unified voice only comes out when we are “going into” international sports.
RICHARD: Yeah and that’s the one place where you can make an argument for a perennially strong, creative and high profile Dutch identity vis the rest of the world. You can look at football and see something that is quite liberated, free, and very expressive; and the funny thing is you always see great individuals within that structure, and it’s a confident thing. I wonder why Dutch music can’t be like Dutch football in the way it promotes itself to an outside world. I’m not talking internally in Holland here. It has a powerful, open and fun image. In music you think to yourself, why can’t it be like this? I mean, here I can talk specifically about the time that affects you… I was reading a lot of old Vinyl magazines, and looking at the cover for the VPRO’s ULTRA/punk “revival week” in 2012, and the Andere Tijden punk programmes from 2009, and all of them… ALL of them, had shitloads of British music to make points about Holland. So in the Andere Tijden programme… you had interviews with these Dutch kids from back then and to illustrate the “Doom denken” generation, They even had Granada TV’s programme, Something Else showing Joy Division’s “She’s Lost Control”, and I thought, NO fucker saw that in Holland at the time! It was a BRITISH regional TV programme! And you think why can’t they put Minny Pops on, to illustrate the point, or the Young Lions, and why, most of all, is this stuff not there? Why do you need another country’s statements about a time to make your country’s point?
(Richard) I have to say that for the record, Wally’s gone completely silent! (Both laugh).
RICHARD: Did it not drive you a little bit mad, back then doing ULTRA, or Oktopus or Plurex?
WALLY: No! But I think people… you know the people in the squatter scenes or whatever scenes we had. We had major riots in Amsterdam at the time. Amsterdam was unique in Holland, we had the tanks moving in and what have you. There was no looking around checking that “oh is Berlin watching or what have you”. It stood on its own and there was a generation and people didn’t say oh it’s fashionable to be squatting let’s all do that, no; it was fuck the government and the anti-nuke demonstrations late in the eighties and that was a real movement and that had parallels in other countries, it wasn’t a mirror effect! Now, to talk about these programmes, people in Belgium would definitely put their own music on and say, this was the sound of Belgium at the time.
RICHARD: So do you think this is more about now than then, then – about the way people look back?
WALLY: People are not thinking that, that if you illustrate something from that era, that you start illustrating the point with Dutch music and not international music. Yeah.
RICHARD: They’ve stopped thinking you mean?
RICHARD: As in it’s a case of an over-developed sense of security, it’s too easy to go on You Tube to find some band popular from 1979 and use that regardless of whether it’s in the correct context, no sensitivity?
WALLY: Yeah; I think they look at things on an international scale and then they do know there are some Dutch bands from that scene, but then think, “oh you know, Joy Division will have a bigger appeal than Nasmak.” So again, not recognizing the achievements of their own culture. So again that’s the inferiority complex.
RICHARD: Yeah and also a sort of practicality; that the choice of music is effectively turned into an equation to solve, in terms of demographics and numbers.
RICHARD: OK, one last question, did you feel at the time – and this is about the Dutch industry again – that there was anything there you felt you could work with or did you feel completely alone when you were busy with ULTRA and Plurex? Did you feel you had to do it for yourself?
WALLY: I think there were patches, people, local movements that were connected in a better way or a lesser way. I always think I had an ahm… a very strong connection with Eindhoven and a strong connection with Tom or Carlos at Effenaar, who were doing advanced programming, and even Apeldoorn, where Gigant was sometimes more ahead of Paradiso. There were patches and open minded people. Interesting to see Torso van had a different approach to running a label. 100 Idiots was very much an art school thing; interesting. I remember two other things. I remember the starting scene in Rotterdam at the time… whatever that scene was… and also what I call “The Ex crowd”. I remember doing this little stencilled brochure, called Start Your Own Label. And I remember having a meeting, I’m sure I did, I remember having a meeting at V&D cafeteria in Amsterdam with Terrie! You should ask him and ask if he remembers. We had a meeting and he asked at the time what to do. You know, at the time it was all about The Ex giving the middle finger to the promotional organisations. And I thought that’s great, and great for them to position themselves like that but to a certain extent, you still need to get a record pressed. And that process uses vinyl, and vinyl is not totally green. You know, for my fanzine I went to some Socialist Workers printing press and used recycled ink and paper but I the end it was fucking ink. (Smiles). I think at that that time, I was pretty much working with a Rietveld-Eindhoven connection. And there was Rotterdam. And The Ex. All these things are crucial. But they were all working on their own, especially The Ex, because they wanted to be on their own in some important ways.
Tags: dutch, Minny Pops, Plurex, subroutine, The Ex, ULTRA