Digging up Dutch undergrounds – an interview with Leonor Jonker

March 3, 2014
by Richard Foster

Leonor

Leonor Jonker (Amsterdam, 1987) writes about pop music, modern history and contemporary art. She was recently co-organiser of Graukunst at The Melkweg, and was heavily involved in the ULTRA events in 2012.   As if that’s not enough, Leonor has booked shows – mainly at De Vinger in Den Haag – for old school punk heroes like TV Smith (The Adverts), 999, The Lurkers and John Cooper Clarke. Leonor’s published titles are “No Future Nu” (which we discuss below) and “Music Travel the Berlin then and now. From Jazz Hell to Techno Heaven, the Music of Berlin from the inter war period”. She has written for Gonzo (circus), Incendiary Magazine, Boekman, Rock ‘n’ Roll High School Magazine, and Bladenbal.

A brief note: As I will use the interview for research purposes, 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, or legal matters, and 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.

 

(the tape starts mid conversation)
 

Richard: You were saying your book is gullible…

Leonor:  No, no! I wasn’t saying my book is gullible!

 

(Both laugh)

 

Richard: Actually it’s good,  a good place to start because before I turned the tape on you were saying in hindsight, after you’d written this [note: “No Future Nu”] what would you think are the things that you think you would reassess or re-explore?

Leonor:  Ahm …well I wrote the book in quite a short amount of time, and I did the research in the timespan of four to six months, so… erm a lot of information to come to terms with in a short amount of time. So I do have a vague plan to write a bigger book or a more thorough book on punk with all the knowledge I’ve gathered, just with a bit more time; because when I started writing the book and I didn’t really have a clue about punk in Holland. I knew the Ex, and the Ex is NOT in there!

 

(Both laugh)

 

Richard: No I noticed, I’ve seen one mention of The Ex in there, one I’ve come across… Why do you think it was important to nail punk and bits of post punk down, for Holland?  Is it, was it totally forgotten?

Leonor: Yeah! Well what was so strange to me is that I have been a fan of punk music and post punk since I was 15, and erm… I got more and more involved in the old school punk scene; and I started organizing gigs for bands like 999 and the Lurkers or whatever and… all the time… I knew the Ex; that was it. And I knew the Bibs but that was from about 1987 or something. But I didn’t know about Dutch punk because it’s just not mentioned.  And you don’t find the records if you go into a record shop.

Richard: Why do you think it’s not mentioned? Do people just want to forget that era?

Leonor:  Well it’s very marginal of course – in the UK of course it was huge. But here it never became a trend. Because the most important in my view the most interesting punk singles are the early ones, like Helmettes, erm, God’s Heart Attack, and Tits of course, I love that [note: “Daddy Is My Pusher” / “We’re So Glad Elvis Is Dead”] it’s one of my favourite singles (laughs). And by the time it started to be marketed… it… I mean these singles didn’t sell. Because people, apparently only wanted only the English stuff, so they were all being sold for 10 cents, a dubbeltje, you hear all these stories of the singles going for…

Richard: 500 Euros or something?

Leonor:  Yeah or whatever. I mean on the international market they are really wanted. And they all cost next to nothing at the time. So, it didn’t really catch on. The hype that was here was based on the British bands.

Richard: Do you still feel that goes on? Do people need the impetus to talk about Britain and America before they talk about their own country’s music?

Leonor: Well in the Netherlands it seems that erm… there’s always… people obviously follow what’s happening across the Noordzee. What was so funny writing the punk book was that, erm… I’m not sure I can explain this properly… You can see the history, and I’m aware of the punk history in the UK and I know the sort of the moments that were decisive in the trend from the Bill Grundy show and the Jubilee celebrations. Those were all moments that the press really hyped.

Richard: Sure; those moments were orchestrated by McLaren and it’s almost a case that the press and the bands are working together, in some strange way.

Leonor: Yeah, but there are hypes, at certain points, the climaxes of press attention. And the funny thing is that at those moments nothing special was going on here, punk wise, BUT you can see at the time something about punk was happening in the UK, the number of articles rose. Suddenly; and it’s really strange. And I checked a lot of the press from the time; I borrowed a lot from Oscar Smit’s archive because he saved all those articles. And the most interesting thing was to notice how many articles there were when there was a lot going on in the UK [note: “a lot going on”, in this context is a lot of punk news]. But without it being directly mentioned; it was just that the journalists were aware of it

Richard: What is this fascination with Britain?{note: here I mean by extension, British music of the period 1977-1983] I mean you were part of Graukunst and by extension involved in Grauzone recently, which of course has a lot of British and American music, and I was watching the Andere Tijden programme again recently (VPRO’s “Jeugd van Tegenwoordig” broadcast from 2009) but every bit of music… was British

Leonor: Yeah, yeah… Exactly, but that’s going back to what I said earlier. It’s so strange that I was a HUGE fan of punk and post punk from my 15th until I started writing this book. And when I started I knew Minny Pops and I knew The Ex. And Minny Pops I only knew by chance, because I picked it up on Lastfm. And that now, looking back, that’s just odd. And when I started looking back, when I started reading about Oscar Smit from example, I mean I know him, but I never knew; I never knew what scene he was in. In never knew how interesting his story was and what his work was.
…. And when I started writing this I felt it was like opening a goldmine, or Tutankhamun’s grave… (Laughs)

Richard: Let’s talk about the book….  As well as you there’s Jouke Turpijn’s book [note: “80’s Dilemma”], and Martijn Haas has obviously written two books on this [note: “Bibikov for president: Politiek, poëzie en performance 1981-1982” and on the Amsterdam punk graffiti legend Dr Rat, “Dr. Rat, godfather van de Nederlandse graffiti”.] I like your book and Martijn’s books a lot. You and Martijn do capture a lot of atmosphere from that era. Do you think that there’s a cultural reassessment of that era now in Holland? The Dutch seem suddenly keen on things from the recent past; I mean you look at the VPRO Gids cover this week [note: 2014, edition #8 Feb 22–28, with Cruyff on the cover. The magazine is entitled “Johan”] and the Ramses Shaffy thing recently. Are the Dutch actually interested in their own past? Is it important to them? Or is it something where it’s a mostly based round a fashion, and then people move on?

Leonor: Yeah, I mean with the book there was a little hype. There was a hype around mine and Martijn’s books, which centred round the God Save The Queen exhibition; that was really orchestrated. In hindsight, especially. I mean, it was also a kind of coincidence that there were a lot of people doing similar things around the same time. And when Oscar van Gelderen of course, and Wally [note: van Middendorp] saw that, they of course used it to the max, to do things they wanted to. I think generally… of course people are always generally interested in the past, to tell us something about where we are now. But I don’t think erm….
….Of course now in the Netherlands you have this anti cultural atmosphere which is kind of frightening. You get bookshops closing and erm, like my sister has just had to choose what courses she wants to do for her exams – she’s in the third grade now she’s  fourteen – and she can’t pick just a cultural path now like I did; a long time ago now (laughs). I could choose cultuur maatschappij. If she wants to do culture, she has to do something with the economy as well. That’s just for me, an example of a dangerous turn in Holland.

Richard: Treating the arts like businesses effectively – which in some way is an incompatible fit, with nothing in between?

Leonor: Either like businesses or like hobbies, so that’s a scary development.

Richard: Do you think why people are looking back at these things…. Do you think people actually understand what they are writing about [note: I mean when they write about recent cultural history]? (Laughs) I mean I’m asking you as someone who’s written one of these books, (laughs) Do you think people really get what went on I Holland during that period? Do you think there’s a general appreciation of that or do they just think that there was fighting in Amsterdam, and it was grim and there was a bomb.

Leonor: I feel like I do get it, but that also comes, of course, with an amount of imagination, and that comes with not being there. I have vague memories of Amsterdam from when I was very small, and Amsterdam seemed to me pretty gritty as a town looking back, say around 1990. So I have always been fascinated by gritty stuff so to a three year old maybe I only looked at the graffiti and the trash containers and the trams because from very early on I was sort of intrigued by the filthy street scenes. But, erm… yeah but I do… you have to be an imaginative. To me; I’m a historian and when I, erm… comes across the story from the past or I speak with someone who has a story about the past or when I see a document or a photograph or a film it comes to life for me, but not everyone has that. But that’s a personal thing for me and I hope I’ve sort of made it happen, as a writer, because that’s my ambition (I’m looking to concentrate on short stories). So it’s about communicating a feeling. I can’t really comment much on Jouke Turpijn’s book, but I remember that it had absolutely not [sic] the feel of the period. It didn’t bring it to life at all.

Richard: I thought it was quite dry. I understand that it’s more of an academic work…

[Note: changing tack] The more you talk to people who were active in this period, you get this thing that it was very small, and that you were fighting this Calvinist practical outlook that the Dutch have…

Leonor: Yeah.

Richard: And that there was nothing in the set-up of Holland then that was, you know, sympathetic to what they did. And then it becomes a fashion, like ULTRA did.

Leonor: Yeah.

Richard: And then it gets spat out again. Do you think that is something that happens now, like we saw in 2012.

Leonor: I was so involved in it that I was….the thing is I was involved in the whole ULTRA 2012 project  and the Vinyl thing, and I was one of the editors… like with any project you sort of want to leave it behind you  and move on. To other people it was less abrupt, but to me it was like finished, and then it was really like (takes a deep breath) it’s finished! (Laughs) and then it was like a BLACK HOLE! (Laughs) Because the press attention was like suddenly stopped, as it does. But on the other side, now I am getting to the point that I can now put it in its proper place maybe.
…And I still get asked to do stuff because of this. And doing Graukunst that’s a direct line from this book.

Richard: I was reading an article from Andy Bennett recently, and how I read it generally was that you shouldn’t be overly critical of looking back, that things say like Grauzone are a recalibration of something; and bits from the past and now coming together is actually quite a good thing. So, do you think things like Grauzone/Graukunst are good things or bad things?

[Note: Andy Bennett, “Popular Music, Cultural Memory and Everyday Aesthetics,” in Philosophical and Cultural Theories of Music, ed. Eduardo De La Fuente and Peter Murphy, vol 8 of Social and Critical Theory, ed. John Rundell, Danielle Petherbridge, Jeremy Smith, Jean-Phillipe Deranty and Robert Sinnerbrink , (Leiden, Boston: Brill, 2010), 243-262.]

Leonor: Ahm… Well Graukunst of course is very much about collecting past and present. And that is the idea behind Grauzone too, of course, but for me Grauzone is a different story and I can’t comment. But Graukunst works, because we had three artists from completely different generations, so what we wanted to do was to distil the exciting bit about certain artists from 1980s New York, but they were not connected at the time, Alan Vega, Richard Kern, John Fekner; at the time they were three completely different scenes, but they all have a certain sort of feel in common; grittiness rawness… And that is what interests us, so we were trying to find modern artists who gave off kind of the same feel. Which was pretty hard! But we found some in the end.

Richard: I wonder about the early 80s in Holland, the words people pick out to describe the period; you get doom denken, fighting, angst, no money, the bomb, etcetera… But there’s a lot of individuality. Is that what’s missing now?

Leonor:  Yeah, but it’s not just at that time, because in the early 80s of course there was the “tijdsgeest” [sic] and that made it on a bigger scale, this against the grain type feeling. I think it was just erm… it just had a bigger presence then. But long before the 80s there were always individuals. The Beats, Provos, you can go on. And of course there’s the same feel, the same outlook on life there. Nonconformity. And young people still have that today. It might not be so pronounced, and there are still many people who are non-conformist.

Richard: I just wonder about … you see I don’t believe for one minute that the parallel between the “crisis” now and the 1980s is the full story [note: about Holland, how Holland uses the 1980s]. And it’s almost childish of the media to make it out that way. When you had the book out when you talked to the media, the mainstream media, did you have any real appreciation of that era. Or did they have an agenda they had to colour in?

Leonor: Well, in my interviews of course people wanted to know how come I’m interested in punk and I had to tell the story over and over again. And the second set of questions was usually hey we have a crisis now we had a crisis then. And I said okay but it’s a bit different now…

Richard: Is there a sort of way of thinking here, that leads to unimaginative questions?

Leonor:  It seems to be but I can’t compare it to another country of course. I’ve never talked to press from the UK. But yeah… it’s …. Speaking for Holland the press just wants an easy story, easy to write up, easy to understand for anyone. And yeah… I mean if you dive into more complicated stuff… you can do it but you get the interview and it’s not in there. So and… even if we get like. Me and Natasja [note: Natasja Alers, Grauzone organiser /Graukunst co-organiser] got this interview with “Het Parool” over Graukunst. And it was the same old story. It doesn’t matter; I mean I don’t mind. But… I’m happy to have the exhibition in the paper.
…But getting back to Grauzone, to me… and I’m not involved with the programme….  Of course there are the old post punk bands but I’m more interested in the young bands that are there. And they are maybe too inspired by the old bands. And… hey you know… going back to your first question what I wanted to put in my book, what is missing, is erm… a chapter on the Rats on Rafts. That’s what’s really missing; they really should have been in there and I really regret it. I was listening to the record for the first time while I was editing the book and there just wasn’t time. They played at my book presentation. And Rats on Rafts for me really capture the essence of what… what is interesting to me about 80s culture. They capture this DIY thing. And they’re so individual. I just really, really like them. And Yokocola capture the same feel. And it’s been a long wait since Rats’ last LP for me to get so excited again.
Anyway, Rats missed out….

Richard: You think that… I don’t mind about these things… but what I note about every kind of festival that does this, this has nothing It doesn’t do anything there’s not a real point because it tales things out of context. You start t devalue what made things remarkable in the first place.

Leonor: A band like Yokocola should be there. You get Mecano which is really great; but I’d like to get more interesting young and gritty bands. Like Yokocola, but that’s my personal taste (laughs). I Mean I like Pop1280, they’re alright but they don’t really interest me. And on the record, bands like Stabil Elite, Y… It’s a really nice record [note: Grauzone’s limited compilation LP]. But I was writing the bios and it was nearly all “influenced by Joy Division, influenced by Suicide”… and it’s really obvious they are. But obviously a lot of people really liked it, and who am I to say they can’t like it?

Richard: There’s nothing wrong with that in a way. I mean musicians always take from other past musicians. Those 80s bands were stealing from Nuggets, and Vinyl magazine is stuffed full of ads for vintage clothes!

Leonor:  I don’t mean like that I mean of course it’s no problem to take from the past. But it’s erm…. You know you have bands that are… you know, the whole thing about bands from the early 80s was that they were influenced  from Nuggets, Glam, Bowie, Velvets reggae, Stockhausen, whatever, you can’t a one to one copy. And with a lot of young generation bands it just feels like whoa, it’s really obvious.

Richard: A new product on the same conveyor belt isn’t it.

Leonor: Yeah it’s just not as exciting or as stimulating.

Richard: So it’s about mentality, an individual mentality

Leonor:  Yeah very much. Because musically there are some great acts on Grauzone, say but I like it when it’s messier. And it’s also personal taste, because I also really like the choppy guitar

Richard: I should say the reason we mention Grauzone so much is nothing to do with being against the festival because we are obviously not. No; it’s because it’s based in Holland and we are trying to talk about Holland specifically for the purposes of this thesis interview, and how Holland deals with its past! (Laughs) Though you can look at other festivals like ReWire or New Forms etc. And we should also say that lots of people in Manchester really hate the gentrification / reselling of the Factory Madchester thing too. They also find it really boring.

…I’m fascinated by the “time portal” aspect; with Adrienne Groen in the Vinyl 2012 piece she wrote, she states although that she didn’t really know everything that was going on she got very into researching the period. It was fascinating that – maybe because it’s such a close period that people haven’t really thought about it or written about it historically. We have the recent VPRO programmes, and of the new generation you’re one of the first to do so in the cultural sphere, you, Martijn, Jouke Turpijn, Harold Schellinx, maybe – though Harold’s book is a memoir too.

Leonor:  And don’t forget Fred de Vries and Jerry Goossens’ book [note: “Het Gejuich Was Massaal”]. That’s a very good book and it was the first… I mean he looks at the underground of the early 80s  and he compares the underground in the UK, Holland, South Africa, I dunno where else, erm… Germany, through portraits, so he looks like Zounds, Blixa Bargeld and the Ex I think…. And I think that’s very interesting, the parallels.

Richard: I’m reading the Vinyl magazines from the time and three things really stand out; first there’s no sense of national identity, this is driven by specific groups of people who are driven by this new sound; the post punk sound. They [note: the actors, in this case the musicians] all feel there’s something in the air, and they all want to talk and make music about it. And they all feel that they are a small group on the outside, and they all talk about the fact that there are limited facilities for what they want to do, and that they get hassle off the cops, blah, blah, blah… What you don’t notice is that they don’t use identity as being Dutch or British to reflect on what they do

Leonor:  No; but it seems to me that the local identity is very important. ULTRA of course, yeah they always go on about V2 [note: den Bosch club set up by members from ULTRA band, Minioon] or whatever, but ULTRA is essentially Amsterdam. Rotterdam has the Rondos and little local scenes were quite you know

Richard: People don’t bother with nationality in these scenes…

Leonor:  Yeah it was more based round smaller groups.

Richard: What about now? Do people think more of nationality now?

Leonor:  I dunno

Richard: Do you worry about that, do you… I think people think more about the nationality of the music now in Holland than they ever did; I think they think “hey, Dutch bands!”

Leonor:  Yeah. Maybe it’s a thing with media like “De Wereld Draait Door” and that reaches everybody, and everybody in Holland, whereas the internet reaches everybody. But I think things like “De Wereld Draait Door” is erm… I don’t watch it but it is a like… a national iconic thing, it’s like the Hema, it’s a brand, and everyone knows it so…

Richard: I’m trying to find out whether post punk had a specific Dutch identity and outside of very few snippets, people from the period mostly moan about their local town, in one Cheap N Nasty, a punk band from Leiden moan about the LVC [note: Vinyl Issue 2, March 1981].

Leonor:  Yeah and that’s now as well. I live in Rotterdam I can’t step outside in Rotterdam without hearing someone in Rotterdam complaining about the pop culture. It’s crazy. You go to the Albert Hein and you meet someone and they say “it’s disgusting there’s no pop podium in Rotterdam” (laughs). We started doing interviews, me and Mark Ritsema so we speak to people who we think are interesting in the Rotterdam scene. And every time we ask… of course we have to ask stuff about Rotterdam… And without exception there is a strong feeling of being connected to Rotterdam, but they’re always complaining! About Rotterdam as well. Not about the bands, but the infrastructure.

Richard: I think there’s much more a debate about nationality now…. I don’t that was a big deal for the underground back then. I think they were often more interested in the practicality of playing in their own back yard…

…I was going to ask you one more question about your book. What do you feel now about that period? What do you think is the most striking thing about that period 78 to 82, for you now, after all that research, and things have been able to marinate in your brain?

 

(Both laugh)

 

Leonor:  Ahm…. Well just going back to the uniqueness of the Dutch scene. I really like to play Dutch old school punk to British punks, like Steve Lake of Zounds. When I get a chance to play them the stuff I play it. I don’t have much Dutch vinyl but I always play it and it always blows them away. And I always play the compilation by Jerry Goossens, [note: “I’m Sure We’re Gonna Make It”] and that’s SUCH a great and particular sound, it really is. So I think it’s really…. Well not underestimated, because the singles are really expensive internationally, they go for a lot of money.

Richard: But they’re not going to find their place in the Dutch pantheon next to Herman Brood or Golden Earring.

Leonor: No! It won’t.

Richard: And that’s really stupid.

Leonor: Yeah it’s a very remarkable thing.

Richard: I like bits of Herman Brood and even bits of Golden Earring. But I think Helmettes is just as fucking good.

Leonor: It’s all to do with marketing skills as well here. One of my favourite post punk bands is Punishment of Luxury. And they’re… you know, they’re not really small. Not many people know them in Holland I know that. But a band like that in Holland, there is just too little a market for them [sic]. From the start. But ahm… the time…. What… really what I’ve kept from writing this book is the sentence with which I started out at the beginning with [sic] the feeling of the do it yourself attitude; that’s at the core of this book right, and I began to write it before I met my publisher and I thought right, I’m going to do this. And I like to work like that. And that’s a particular strength with me; just doing what I think is good. And maybe also… I was 24 when I started, and I dunno about other people but I still have to learn how egos work with memory. It’s getting back to this gullible thing..

Richard: Oh yeah you can’t take everything verbatim all the time. I’ll remember that when I transcribe this!

 

(Both laugh)

 

Richard: But yeah this is an era that is now being mythologised and well… it’s not the whole story. I lived through the 80s and in many ways they were shit! (Laughs) The North of England, this supposed place of cultural happenings that everyone fondly remembers was mainly a place of no work, poor services, violence, miserable people and no idea when you’d get a job when you left college!

Leonor: Every era in time is gonna be mythologised and I mean I walk down the street and I see people wearing Uggs and I think there will come a time when  people think it’s great to write about, but that’s how history and past and present and memory works. And I find that’s something that’s interesting to explore. I was recently writing a story about New York. And I was there in June last year. And the way I write it I am consciously mythologising it. I am making it into something that transcends. I mean that’s what literature is supposed to do. It’s very funny how it works because people pick it up as real and relate to it, even if it’s warped!

Leonor 2

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