Luifabriek interview jangle-pop maestros Naive Set: Achieving joyous suavity in just under three minutes

March 21, 2014
by Jasper Willems

Wouldn’t you
Like that?
Promise to
Settle up
Stay in love
Forever from now – Naive Set – “Like That”

Maaaan.

When Luifabriek stumbled upon an article by esteemed colleagues Noisey.NL, which enlisted (sic) “nine artists who will never make it in 2014”, we’re quite baffled by the inclusion of Amsterdam-based quartet Naive Set. While we do acknowledge Noisey’s playful jeer, we feel Subroutine Records unearthed something a lot more people should be enjoying as of right now. Suffice to say, Naive Set’s debut LP Reclining Nude is a complete and utter joyride. Not the kind that instills an adrenaline rush, but more that feeling of sly satisfaction after making a snappy remark to shut up some lewd stranger, or discovering a life hack that rids your remaining existence of one less minor annoyance.

These twelve succinct, waft guitar pop gems, all clocking in under the three minute mark, manage to convert sentimental punch drunk gibberish into impromptu suave repartee. Take for instance the awkward coolness (or cool awkwardness) of “A Table Apart”: Mikey Casalaina’s blasé devil-may-care lull persuading even the most square-faced bore to enter some sleazy titty bar with a heartbreaker’s strut  – as the lyrics clearly find the narrator perusing his own frazzled ticker. Indeed, such brilliant sophisticated pop craft should be celebrated with unabashed hyperbole.

Unfortunately, Noisey’s article may actually prove right in the end. Nonetheless, Luifabriek persistently feels Naive Set should get their proper due sooner rather than later.

We seek out Casalaina, Caspar Stalenhoef, Matthias Kreutzer and Jan-Pieter van Weel in Amsterdam. Right after another lengthy rehearsal, the foursome joins Luifabriek at Café Schiller stationed at the periphery of the Rembrandtplein.

Substitute bass player

As a native speaker, I can say there are plentiful Dutch bands who really know their way around the English language with clever phrasings. Another Subroutine stalwart, Apneu, is a pretty fine example. While I’m at it, let me take the liberty to namedrop Hallo Venray’s  Henk Koorn, Vox Von Braun ‘s Wymer Vaatstra and S As In Assassin’s Steven Kemp.

That said, in Naive Set’s case, having a real native speaker manning the forefront is undeniably an asset.  Bass player Caspar Stalenhoef, a mild-mannered, articulate fellow, agrees: “Jan-Pieter and myself are Dutch, Matthias is German. For us, English will always be a second language. We’ve been in many other bands, so having a native speaker really helps.”

Stalenhoef’s buddy Michael “Mikey” Casalaina was born in the US: he grew up near New York, moved to New Jersey and eventually, after graduating from Rutgers University, settled in Philadelphia. Remarkably enough, it was in Philly – not Amsterdam – where Naive Set’s genesis transpired, about six years ago.

Mikey: ‘I actually met Caspar in Philly, while he was traveling. He knew my (now) ex-girlfriend, who was studying abroad at the time.’
Caspar: ‘As I went to look her up, I met Mikey there.’
Mikey: ‘She didn’t have an apartment at the time. While I didn’t own a couch, I had an extra mattress, so Caspar ended up crashing at my place.’

The two quickly became acquainted through music. ‘I was in a band at the time’, Mikey recalls. The band in question being Shout Magic, who applied a similar light-hearted vibe to Naive Set, with a bit of seventies-folk and jazzy trumpet thrown in the mix. Mikey: ‘We were set to play that Friday night. Our bass player had just moved to Boston.’ Kind of a drawback, considering the fact that most bands consist of a bunch of musicians and one bass player. Mikey invited Caspar to attend his show. ‘It might be kind of lame, y’know, without a bass player. Suddenly Caspar’s all like: “I can play bass pretty well.” So we got him to listen to our songs on his iPod. He came to our next rehearsal and picked it up right away.’ Caspar ended up playing with Mikey’s band throughout the entire show.

‘And it ruled!’, Mikey smirks.

A close friendship between the two bloomed. At one point during his trip, Caspar filled Mikey in about the Dutch underground music scene. Stalenhoef had already played in various bands (like for example About Paris) at the time and Casalaina was intrigued by what he heard. ‘In Philly or New York, you play in some bar…and it’s usually owned by some asshole that just wants to make money’, he explains. ‘You get this weird competitive struggle. If you don’t bring in more than fifteen people, the owner gets mad at you. That’s not how you build a music scene. You end up playing with some random metal band, because they essentially don’t give a shit who’s playing on stage.’

Caspar: ‘It’s more like, whatever band is available at the time. Here in Holland, we have all these subsidized venues, squats and small stages. In the US you either play in a basement or some big commercial venue.’

‘Well nowadays, you can definitely find some really cool in-between places’, Mikey nuances. ‘When Caspar told me about some of these Dutch venues, where you get like this big vegetarian meals for free, I was like: “oh my god, it’s like HEAVEN over there!”‘

His encounter with Stalenhoef left a definitive imprint on Casalaina. He became more and more affixed with the idea of leaving for Europe. On top of that, Mikey also happens to be of Italian heritage, even owning an Italian passport. It made his decision to head overseas to Amsterdam all the more convenient.

 

Moon & Sun

By the time Casalaina arrived (about four years ago), Matthias Kreutzer, a young graphic designer from Saarbrücken, Germany had been living in Amsterdam for six years. Kreutzer, a buoyant chap with thick German accent, played exclusively with punk and hardcore bands in the early going. ‘I think I was fourteen or fifteen years old when I first played in my first shitty punk band. With my oldest best friend I played in a total of three punk bands. Then I moved on to hardcore and nineties screamo.’ Kreutzer tells Luifabriek it took awhile before he became infatuated with other types of music. ‘Mikey and I share a similar musical upbringing. There were all these little microcosms of music I missed out on, great bands like Spacemen 3 and Pavement.’

Unlike Casalaina, Kreutzer wasn’t immediately enticed by Dutch underground music when he arrived in Amsterdam *ten years ago. ‘When I first came here to do live shows, I had the feeling there wasn’t much going on’, Matthias acknowledges. Only after meeting multi-instrumentalist Jan-Pieter van Weel, a self-proclaimed “manusje van alles” who plays in a plethora of bands, did Matthias understand the vastness of it all. ‘Through him, we met all these cool people, like Marc (van der Holst) and Brenda (Bosma). The whole Groningen-crowd. Meeting so many people involved with music, it was the first time I realized there was this Dutch underground or something.’ Apart from working as a graphic designer, Matthias travels back to Saarbrücken twice a month to teach at Arts School NBKSaar.

*It’s important to stress here that the playing field for aspiring bands was entirely different in 2004 as opposed to 2010 (when Mikey arrived).

The aforementioned “manusje van alles” Jan-Pieter van Weel is undoubtedly the most well-rehearsed of the four, having studied Musicology back in 2000. These days he works occasionally at the Muziekgebouw, but considers fatherhood his full-time job. ‘I was a pretty lonely guy, usually just playing guitar by myself in my room. I started playing in bands around 2005 with The Burmania’s.’ The Burmania’s have in fact recorded an album once with Jan Schenk, whom Jan-Pieter would later join in The Hospital Bombers. Jan-Pieter met Schenk and Marc van der Holst at a Hospital Bombers-show where his friend, former Burmanias-guitarist Uinko Eerenstein, performed as opening act. It became fruitful musical kinship, as Schenk would eventually produce Reclining Nude as well.

By the time Mikey arrived in The Netherlands, a now indoctrinated Matthias was performing under the moniker Empire Cheese. He released a 7″ EP called Efficient Use Of Space on a small label called Knife Slits Water Musik.

‘I stumbled upon (the rest of the band) during my first or second week in Amsterdam’, Mikey reminisces. Caspar invited him to a show at OCCII on January 14th, 2010: a bill with Empire Cheese, Moon & Sun and Two Dead Cats (yes, that’s an actual band, ladies and gents). At the time, Caspar played in Moon & Sun, a project by Swedish songstress Monica Tormell. Moon & Sun revel in gossamer lo-fi pop embellished with Tormells enchanting voice. This was the night when all four band members became entangled in perpetuity.

As if intending to capture a remnant of their conception, Naive Set decided to record their own swinging’ version of the Moon & Sun-track “Bo” for Reclining Nude.

Caspar: ‘All four of us have been involved with Monica’s project one way or the other. Jan-Pieter has actually played one show with Moon & Sun as well’
Mikey: ‘I’ve seen Moon & Sun play enough instances that I kind of knew the songs by heart. So I figured, why not do (a cover)?
Matthias: ‘We wanted to do a couple of covers at first, but that particular one we wanted to record, maybe because it was so different from Monica’s version.’

Turns of phrase

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It didn’t take long for Mikey to ease his way into Amsterdam’s close-knit enclave of musical oddities, as he avidly began writing songs of his own. ‘I had a bunch of demo’s I wanted to see fleshed out.’ Upon hearing Mikey’s ideas, Matthias and Caspar quickly heeded the call. The trio figured this entailed more than just some pet project. Working meticulously on their music, the realization of having some golden tunes at their disposal struck.

Caspar: ‘Moon & Sun was always an off-and-on kinda thing. This really felt I had my own band to work on seriously. It didn’t feel like a side project at all.’

Matthias adds: ‘This time, it wasn’t about playing in a band just for the sake of playing in a band. But to make music I personally really like. As a teenager, I played in bands with friends just because that was a fun thing to do. With Naive Set, this has really changed. It’s a different story now for me.’

They started rehearsing in a small soundproof storage space downtown. Mikey:  ‘It was the super strangest place to rehearse, you could look right over the Dam square and watch all the pedestrians. The room belonged to the brother of the guy who owned the complex, who was this old blues musician. He put in these soundproof walls. We were able to rent it through another band. That was the first place where we started playing as a band.’ Because it was a residential area, Mikey says the band was forced to play with more restraint. Serendipitously, this restraint would eventually serve Naive Set’s songwriting MO to a tee.

To complement it however, would require someone who could give the music a deft but steady pulse.

Mikey: ‘We were all hearing this specific drumming in our heads.’
Caspar: ‘Jan-Pieter became the last addition to the band.’
Jan-Pieter: ‘It was like plunging into a ready-made bed.”

According to Matthias, Naive Set became a full-fledged band “when Jan-Pieter hit the snare for the first time”.

Not long after, Naive Set (named after a book Matthias stumbled upon about Naive Set Theory, apparently some kind of mathematical conjecture) settled for a bigger rehearsal space, shared with Jan-Pieter’s other band Spilt Milk. A former Jehova’s Witness Church, to be exact. Mikey: ‘It was cool to finding our sound in this big space with our own amplifiers. We have been really luckily with rehearsal spaces up til now.’  Unfortunately, the band recently had relocate to a public rental space.

What Mikey implies by “finding our sound” is that he actually recorded each and every rehearsal. Matthias: ‘It’s really genius actually, Mikey made the effort to listen to everything and cut it up.’

Mikey: ‘It worked better when we were rehearsing at the church, because we were able to push everything directly to the mixing console, straight into the laptop. I had all these files I could chop up and bundle. This allowed us to save these little momentary things that would get lost otherwise. It’s something I always wanted to do.’

Other than writing deceptively intricate pop melodies within a short time span, Naive Sets lyrical approach seem very much based around “these nice turns of phrase”, as Caspar puts it. Matthias reacts wide-eyed to the notion of somebody acknowledging the lyrics in the first place. ‘We just figured the other week: we have never discussed the lyrics. We discuss the music all the time, but not so much the lyrics. They’re mostly written by Mikey.’

‘Music has the ability to trigger a lot of nostalgia in me’, Mikey explains. ‘Most art ingeneral, really, has a way of summoning specific memories. It’s kind of like smelling something that reminds you of your grandma’s house. A lot of songs start with that sentiment. With “The Art Of Nodding”, I kind of went back to a time when I was younger.’

Does being away from that homegrown environment, an ocean apart, carry any weight in that? Mikey doesn’t believe so. ‘Most songs emit a sense of longing. It’s not so much America as it is being youthful, you know? You just miss these people from the past or certain aspects of who you used to be as a person. Then you find yourself in a different place, a happy place nonetheless. But that sense of longing lingers.’

He later concedes: ‘Well, the line “everyone speaks the language apart for you” (Setting The Sun), that one’s pretty clear.That feeling I get a lot, because my Dutch is still shit.’ (laughs)

 

“Everything is so clear!”

Producer Jan Schenk had a big hand in Reclining Nude’s intrinsic and crisp sound palette. Mikey: ‘Jan has some firm ideas of his own, which was really healthy for us. Because we are really open-minded about stuff. You play different variations of something you really like and subsequently stack ‘em up. Jan is more like (slams both hands on the table): “Boys. make up your mind!”

Matthias: ‘I think we’re really humble and Jan is like the exact opposite. At first we actually wanted to record a 7” instead. We imagined it sounding really lo-fi. And then Jan suddenly recorded this clean cut pop album (laughs) I remember having kind of a hard time with it. Shit, this like a totally different idea! I was like “Jan, can you make it a bit more rough sounding?” Everything is so clear! You can hear everything so well! For me, this was a lot to process. It was really Jan’s idea. That’s what he loves, bands that write proper pop songs.’

Mikey: ‘I think he heard what we truly sounded like. It’s funny, during the second day of recording, Jan says: “You sound like a band you always know but never listen to” and we were like: “What the fuck does that mean”? And he goes: “Like The Feelies”. I had The Feelies listed in my iTunes for five years, sitting there collecting dust. I had no idea what they really sounded like, because I never really listened to them.’

Jan’s persistence to make it a full-length instead of a 7” paid off, especially considering the fact that Naive Set had plenty of songs to record. Caspar: ‘For me, personally, especially at a time where many artists record at home, we were actually going to a studio. So it’s kind of an economic thing that justified making a proper full-length record, instead of a 7”. We felt like we wanted to make something complete that’s really worth our time.’

Mikey: ‘And because all these songs came to me around the same time, that coherence really made this album work.’

 

“That punk band”

With the record ready and mixed, Matthias was especially antsy to release it independently last summer – without aid of a label. Caspar: ‘We didn’t think we had time looking for a label’ In retrospect, all four band members are relieved Reclining Nude was picked up by Subroutine Records. Caspar: ‘(Subroutine’s) Koen ter Heegde actually came by the studio at one point.’

Mikey: ‘We drank beers and hung out together. (Koen) is this really cool guy. But it’s kind of a weird courting ritual or something, knowing that he has a label, and you’re a band…’
Caspar: ‘You kind of hope if he’s interested. We just hit it off, I think. We were into the same kind of music. He had previously booked us for one of his Subroutine events at this festival in Leeuwarden, Welcome To The Village.’
Mikey: ’It felt like dating or something. you get that confirmation e-mail and you’re like: “He likes me!!!!”’

So far, it’s turning out to be the right call. Since joining the Subroutine roster, Naive Set has already enjoyed two solid openings slots at marquee venues: at the Melkweg with Crystal Stilts and Tivoli De Helling with Of Montreal, as well as a slot at Subroutines The Sound Of Young Holland bash at O’ Ceallaigh during the Eurosonic festivities.

Matthias: ‘I hated it. I was really frustrated because I felt we went all the way to Groningen just to drink one beer too many and play sloppy.’ (laughs)
Caspar: ‘I think we set a new record for the amount of beers before a live show. We sort of became “that punk band” again. We’re all really critical about ourselves, so we did a debriefing after the show.’

“That punk band” refers to some of the earlier trial-and error moments Naive Set had to overcome during their first few shows, before Subroutine came into the equation. Unlike label mates WOLVON, Naive Set aren’t the type of guys that embrace the masochistic, primordial fatalism-side of performing, you know, just for kicks. ‘Them WOLVON guys always joke around with us, telling us to use fuzz pedals and stuff’, Matthias cracks.

As with most well-educated, brainy blokes with ho-hum day jobs, the only time to do something crazy or stupid is during the weekends. As the demand for shows grows, Caspar remains optimistic about the situation: ‘When I was still studying I was playing in bands non-stop. Now I’m working and I’m still playing in bands! So in a way it’s all the same you know.’ Playing a show once or twice every week is a welcome departure from a job as event coordinator at the Jewish Historical Museum.

Even when Naive Set has an off night, they manage to divert the circumstances in this gleeful knee-jerk way. All in good fun, as Mikey recalls the very first show, when the FOH-guy managed to make them sound like “the fucking Stone Temple Pilots or something”.

The most legendary one thus far was a gig with Rotterdam cult hero *Ricky De Sire at a venue called Maloe Melo. Naive Set arrived at 9pm only to take the stage at around 2am. Mikey: ‘That’s like a full work day…’

*Note that Ricky De Sire’s bandmate is none other than YCR’s Arie van Vliet. With that guy around, disaster’s always afoot.

Caspar: ‘We played right after this Beatles-coverband called The Net Neatles.’

Matthias recalls that instead of WOLVON, it was the owner of Maloe Melo encouraging the band to turn it up.

‘WOLVON should’ve been there’, Caspar dryly remarks.

Mikey: ‘The decibel scale was blinking. As we went on stage, we were so incredibly drunk. We didn’t think about checking the volume level.’ That night Naive Set pretty much dialed it in and went full throttle like “that punk band” of old. ‘It wasn’t that good. I felt bad for the people who came to the show.’

Caspar: ‘They were also drunk.’

Luckily, someone like Hanna Vink (music curator for popular Dutch entertainment & news digest  De Wereld Draait Door) wasn’t around either. According to some sources, she did attend the Groningen-show at O’ Ceallaigh’s.

Caspar: ‘I heard someone from De Wereld Draait Door was there, I wasn’t aware it was her.’
Mikey:’ There was a lot of Guinness…’
Caspar: ‘And Richard James Foster was there! Meindert Talma was there. Plus Arnold de Boer, Suit & Tie Johns…it was a really great line-up. It was really cool to be part of that, to have played there that weekend.’

No high hopes for De Wereld Draait Door?

‘We’re probably on their blacklist by now’, Caspar jests. Well, at least Naive Set has one song, namely, You Will The Sea, ready to play in its entirety.

‘We have one good minute’, Mikey snickers.

Caspar: ‘Well, according to Noisey we weren’t going to make it anyway!’

Fortunately, Naive Set WILL be playing at Roodkapje next Saturday, along with Arie van Vliet’s Boring Pop no less! Then again…*frantic Bernard Herrmann strings*

 

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