Digging up Dutch Undergrounds – An Interview with Truus de Groot of Plus Instruments and Nasmak

March 25, 2014
by Richard Foster

truus 2

Truus de Groot is a legendary presence in ULTRA circles. A true musical pioneer whose interest in all sorts of noise – and a natural inquisitiveness – led to an incredibly inventive sound in her work in her band, Plus Instruments; plus a host of connections with people from other scenes, such as her band mate Lee Ranaldo (later Sonic Youth’s guitarist) and Alien Brains, aka Nigel Jacklin. I’d first met Truus just after the 2012 ULTRA revival, and got on well with her on a subsequent tour of Holland in 2013. Seeing that Truus now lives in the States, this interview was conducted by email, with two rounds of questions.

 

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. The full transcript – here an email string –  is in my possession and available on request. Notes and additions to make the text run smoothly are added in […].

 

(My first email, March 23, 2014)

Hi Truus,

Richard here. I wonder if you can help me; and would be very grateful if you could contribute. If not, no worries.

I have been asking a number of actors in the ULTRA / Dutch post punk scene to answer questions; broadly hinging round a sense of cultural worth, and round how the key actors defined their own identities and actions round that particular counter culture.

It always cracks me up that Dutch media use underground music from the Anglo-American “market” to make social points about their own country’s history. It’s as if punk and specifically post punk didn’t exist. [Note: here I mean Dutch post punk and punk in terms of Dutch media perception.]

Maybe that’s true for many; but I’d like to nail ULTRA’s point on the cultural map, academically.

My putative thesis question “to define to what extent did the Dutch ULTRA music scene of the early 1980s create and express a lasting and unique national identity?”

If you agree I’ll send 7-8 general, “pointer questions”. Hope that’s ok!

 

(Truus’s first email, March 23, 2014)
 
Hi Richard,
Yes, please send!  I hope I’ll make sense..
My best, Truus

 

(My second email, March 23, 2014)

 Hi Truus;
Great, thanks!

Please answer as fully as you can; then we can also promote it as an interview on Luifabriek (another site I edit) AND LET ME KNOW IF I NEED TO ASK ANYTHING ELSE!

(questions shown in Truus’s second mail)
 
 
(Truus’s second email, March 25, 2014)
 
Hey,  here it  is.  I hope I makes sense. It was so long ago and that period of my life was extremely overwhelming. I think I discovered I was an artist for real when I was like 17?  So the minute I set foot on stage it became a whirlwind. As you might know I was immediately recruited after my first ever show, to be in the first Doe Maar, [note: the extended, Festival of Fools line up in 1978], toured right away.  Joined Nasmak and our 3rd gig was Paradiso.  Really the speed was insane. So Ultra was a natural progression in a very tumultuous time of my life. I kept a diary but what did I write about?  Just myself, my grievances and joys, very introvert.  So here is the best I can do.  Please do edit my pathetic writing as you see fit.
Much Love
Truus

 1.What was the impetus for making the style of music you did?

Well honestly it came from the discovery that I could create something new, that was my own, without having any musical technical ability.  Throughout the 70’s growing up, or [throughout] my whole life I guess. I was intimidated by the bands I saw play live, the guitar solos, keyboard virtuosos, etc.  It seemed unattainable to get to such a level. And frankly I was bored by it (I had more fun hanging out with the roadies).  Sometime around ’75 or so I heard Yoko Ono, I had hear her before, but something clicked there.  Not that I liked her enormously, but it stirred something in me. Then a bit later I happened upon an experimental scene, met Michael Waisvisz [note: Dutch composer, performer and inventor of experimental electronic musical instruments. http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Michel_Waisvisz ] and that made a huge impression on me. He demonstrated that music could be something else than a set chord progression, and [demonstrated it] with such passion!  I first discovered I could sing, to my surprise.  I started picking up any instrument and just played it the way I thought sounded cool.  Then there was the No Wave New York record, and I heard something else altogether. Punk, the synth wave (or what do you call Fad Gadget,  Throbbing gristle etc.), that minimal punk thing like Wire, the moodiness of Joy Division, all of that inspired me.   Oh man and then I saw DEVO, Pere Ubu…the list is endless.    I was in Nasmak at that time, but they were still very chord progression oriented.  So I immediately established Plus Instruments as my alternative to create this “Noise” that did not adhere to conventional music making.  Nasmak was rather successful in Holland, but we just played sets. I just wanted to improvise.  I had a short attention span and became quickly bored with routines, that mindset does help to keep searching and [allows you to] re-invent yourself I believe. Funny enough [sic] we did a lot of crazy improvisation back–stage which is documented on the Indecent Exposure Cassettes.

 2. Were there many like-minded people in Eindhoven then?

 To name a few:  I played around with my then band mate Bregt Camphuijzen, Rick van Iersel (Der Junge Hund).  Then there was Remko Scha and Paul Panhuizen who had the Apollohuis.  I did spin off bands, improvised with Toon Bressers and played with Joop van Brakel and Maria van Heeswijk (wife of Dick Verdult aka Dick Eldemasiado).  At that time Dick was a film maker and around him swirled an endless source of inspiration [sic] to create art on all levels. His home became one of the places that I would seek out, it was just all about art and creating it but not on a pretentious level.  Just raw and any medium.  I would hang out in De Effenaar and there was a cool scene of visual [artists], musicians and just fans who all somehow were enamored with whatever wave explosion. [Note: here Truus means developments of the new wave.] It was not a huge scene and I would veer off to Amsterdam, Rotterdam and Den Haag doing the same thing.  I was always eager to jump into improvisations by any means possible.  I really lived for art, as I do now.

2a. What was Holland like in that period? How did someone into “post punk” / experimental music “function” socially back then?

 I was young, so I did not think too much..ha ha or maybe too much, but that was on my own in my solitude.  I hung out with an art scene.  I fell in love every other few months and would passionately follow that desire.  It was always paired with creating art, music, very driven.  I was always very busy.  I was also very self-centered.   There was a heavy dose of teen angst, I was dismayed with the world.  At the same time [I was] always desperately looking for love, passion and the beauty of life.  I guess I was very emotional and quite moody (still am).  I relished my independence (living alone) and always had some impossible crush on some unattainable man.   It seemed I always had to needlessly torture myself.  I am a chick after all…  And yes, I was always broke.  Dole was denied to me because they [note: I take it the Dutch WW] declared that playing in a band was NOT a job.  I did appeal this and incredibly won when I was already living in NYC for a year or so.

 3. ULTRA is based a lot round Amsterdam. Did you feel you had to go to Amsterdam to make a point or could Plus Instruments function away from the Randstad/capital?

Plus Instruments could very much function away from that, but playing in Amsterdam was more fun.  There were more like minded people.  And really Amsterdam was a real city, it had energy.  To play there you were validated.  If you went there and had a great evening / night and step off the train the next day in Eindhoven it would be such a let down.  I mean there was this stigma of being from below the rivers, which I was.  South versus North.  They’d make fun of how I talk. Ha ha how insane for such a small country! So even though they were a colder lot of people, it made me want to be there more!  I wanted to be part of it.  In fact I really started getting bored with Eindhoven, I was thinking all the time to move to London or Berlin.  I remember I even wanted Nasmak to move with me, but I knew that was impossible with Henk or Theo [note: Henk Janssen, singer and Theo van Eenbergen bass guitar] who at that time were more homebodies.  For Theo that later changed big time!

4. Did it (ULTRA) feel an especially or specifically Dutch expression, artistically?  If not what were the bits you think were Dutch?

 It was indeed a Dutch expression; I don’t think I heard anything from another country referred to as Ultra if that is what you are asking.  [Note: I wasn’t! I meant an aesthetic expression, a movement. Hoist by my own vague petard!]  In the Ultra scene there was quite a variety, there was some real grungy stuff but also real mechanical stuff,  punky even funky etc.  So it really was a movement having perhaps a common philosophy?  An attitude. Design and art was a good part of it. I think in a very Dutch way.   To veer off the common [note: Truus here means common path], innovate, but with a good deal of soul yet the stoicism of the Dutch..  I mean look at Minny Pops.  They were quite mechanical, and Wally as a singer he was machine-like but intense.  But, he had soul in that setting.  At least this is how I saw it.

5. What would you think its legacy is?

Break the barriers of the bands that were just emanating British and US bands and create its [note: by its I’m guessing Truus means “our”] own wave.  Blend a variety of styles, stir it up with art, fashion, experimentation and improvisation. It was a mindset perhaps. We looked good, correct me if I am wrong but I believe we were all wearing stuff from the 50’s and 60’s, so good looking too!

TRuus 4

5a. Do you think it’s been fairly represented with all the recent interest?

 It needs much more attention and it should convey some of the experimental aspect.  I mean back then there was this explosion, and strong enthusiasm for new stuff.  And book more Plus Instruments shows (ha ha ha)… I think you would need a week-long festival to truly covey it.  Not one night at De Melkweg. Worm would be a good venue for that.  You could do film, workshops etc.

 6.  I read a lot of back copies of early VINYLs, and there seems to be this Utopian aspect to a lot of the writing and an attempt to connect with like minded souls through West Europe. Is that how you felt?

Hmm maybe.  There was a definite thirst.  I did correspond with a number of people all the time via glorious snail mail.  I do believe we felt we were creating our own wave with an international appeal, no borders that is.  And we felt like spreading that gospel.  The little flexidisc [note: the monthly free flexidisc given away in VINYL] was such a good thing too.  I was always sending cassettes back and forward it was the way to get stuff going.  I had ongoing communications [sic] with so many people. We would somehow connect.  I was always eager to start talking with bands that played in the local venues and make contacts.. I was a bit of a arty groupie perhaps.  (Ultimately that is how I landed in the US.)  But really we did not really emanate the stuff that was out there, we had a unique art movement here. [Note: Truus must mean “emulate” rather than “emanate”  here; though emanate – even though it makes no sense in the sentence – is also quite illuminating in this setting, so I left it in!]

 7. You had a lot of encounters or collaborations with musicians or writers from Britain and America at that time. Can you tell me about them? What do you think was their attraction for the Dutch scene?

From my own experience, the musicians I have taken to Holland, they always were taken by the eagerness of people to start playing together.  Just the social scene, this “Gezellig” thing, there are not many places in the world where that is so prevalent.  You knock on the door and hang out, have a beer, shoot the shit and start making art!  With the squats, some of them venues, you could just plug in and make it a night.   There were recreational drugs around, [and that] did not hurt to set the mood. Not that I cared but the people from abroad were taken by that.  And in the US you would have to be booked in a venue to play.  No squats.  Oh, there were some art collectives but it was always booked.  There was just no opportunity for spontaneity.   I was not very familiar with the UK scene, just played there a few times but it did not appear to have such a “just do it” scene.  In Holland you could start something and there would be a way to perform somehow for a crowd.  And the Dutch would always be very pleased and eager to be acquainted with someone from the UK or US.  Probably even more than French or German.  Although I personally was quite enamored by the German scene.

7a.  And what did you want to take from the Anglo-American, or German scenes? What did you see in those scenes/musicians that you didn’t see in Holland?

 Well first of all Holland was very limited.  There was only so far you could get there. After I played the 300th hole in the wall, I had seen all I wanted to see.  In Holland you are to stay on a certain level.   Even if you are successful it is not looked upon as some great accomplishment.  I remember Barry Hay from Golden Earring coming backstage at a Nasmak concert.  He was totally down to earth, sweet, kind, flirting with me. I remember we even kissed.  I mean he had a few number Ones in America, the world!  “Radar (fucking) Love”!!  That is just so Dutch.  In the US he would be this untouchable celebrity rolling down his window in a limo….
 …For the Germans I felt they had an intensity that the Dutch did not have.  They seemed to play harder and maybe there was more anger there.  Germany was rather hostile then, to live there I mean.  I toured there and just by having red hair you were basically yelled at and scorned.  Not fun.  So their reaction was more intense.  Which I liked a lot!  We were all a bit angry then.   But from my German friends I got a lot of true passion and they could party like nobody’s business.  And the Cold War then, that whole East German thing,  how weird was that?  The island of Berlin set in the middle of Communism.
 But… From America, I wanted to learn about its strong music roots.  Of all there was! Rock, blues, jazz, you name it.  I knew it was all there.  And I wanted to discover it and see how I could use that in my music.  I was really thirsty for knowledge when I went to the US.  Initially Americans seemed so open, eager to meet, learn, but later on I realized that is just their culture.  The way they acted, as in socially acceptable.  There was no “Gezellig”. I moved to NYC and the kindness would be very superficial.  I soon learned everybody is just watching their own back.  I felt so lonely there!  It took me years to figure out who was my friend and who was not.  Because it is hard when people just always say, wow that is great, then turn around and say you suck.  I came from Holland where people pretty much tell it like it is, they are blunt.  I was so naïve, it probably saved me!  But having said all that, there was a reason.  Live was hard there.  To live in NYC you had to earn a living, you had to hustle and make it work, do stuff, WORK!   Not just collect your dole every week.  So yes it was very competitive.  You had to be good and kind.  The easier thing would have been to return to Eindhoven.  But how boring that would have been!

Truus 3

 

(My third email, March 25, 2014)

Aha! This is great! Thanks so much!

You leave LOTS of clues in these answers to things that have been bouncing round my mind about ULTRA  – I’m intrigued! So I’m going to ask you a further couple of questions based on your answers then I’ll add them to the mix and publish.

(Truus) ” I did correspond with a number of people all the time via glorious snail mail.  I do believe we felt we were creating our own wave with an international appeal, no borders that is. ”

(Me) Who did you correspond with and can you remember what the musical/aesthetic tone, or direction was? Did they see anything “Dutch” about your approach and try to emulate it?

(Truus) “Break the barriers of the bands that were just emanating British and US bands and create its own wave.”

(Me) Do you mean NL bands copying Anglo-American bands, or Anglo-American bands? Breaking the Anglo-American rock market up a bit, you mean?

 

(Truus’s third email, March 25, 2014)
 

Hi,

I hope these answers make more sense.   I wish you success with your Thesis!

(Truus) ” I did correspond with a number of people all the time via glorious snail mail.  I do believe we felt we were creating our own wave with an international appeal, no borders that is. ”

(Me) Who did you correspond with and can you remember what the musical/aesthetic tone, or direction was? Did they see anything “Dutch” about your approach and try to emulate it?

 Oh man it was so long ago!  OK there was Mayo Thompson (Red Crayola),  we discussed music, art, his amazing band.  Nigel, [note: Jacklin, aka Alien Brains] we did an enormous amount of cassette trading and he eventually came and jammed with me in Eindhoven,  and David Linton (US, then playing with Rhys Chatham).  Jackie Hildish (aus Lauter Liebe, Germany) he was also road manager for DAF but made really cool music.  Kiddy Kidney (Sprung aus den Wolken, Germany).  There were more but my memory sucks.

(Truus) “Break the barriers of the bands that were just emanating British and US bands and create its own wave.”

(Me) Do you mean NL bands copying Anglo-American bands, or Anglo-American bands? Breaking the Anglo-American rock market up a bit, you mean?

 Hm..funny question? Anglo-American bands, or Anglo-American bands? [Note: Looking back that’s really unclear. What I actually meant was, Dutch bands copying UK/US acts AND UK/US acts].
I mean most bands were just copying American or English bands, as they have been for decades.  Nothing new, just same old. And they were hoping to penetrate the international market of course.  Nothing new, nothing innovative.   But not that there is anything wrong with that.  There were many Dutch bands that were singing strictly with a English accent.  They wanted to be them.  It’s still the same now…

TRUUS

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