April 9, 2014
by Richard Foster
I met Harold Shellinx, author, Young Lion and musical polymath at Kuub gallery Utrecht, where the night before he performed at Rob Scholte’s art exhibition, quite appropriately also called: Ultra!. Harold now lives in Paris, in several ways carrying on what he started over thirty years ago in Amsterdam. This being Utrecht centre we found one of those soulless but perfectly pleasant cafés where smoothies and hand ground coffees seem to be the law. So, in this most un-ULTRA of settings we sat down to chew the cud over Harold’s book, probably the definitive – and I would bet the only – biographical document that will get written about this scene.
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 – including information from corrections in an email string – is in my possession and available on request. Notes and additions to make the text run smoothly are added in […].
OK let’s start now. Now what interests me is why, in a country that had so much support, such as Stichting Pop Nederlands, you’d think they
Getting their arse kicked by politicians for sure. [Note: now it’s now the Nationale Pop Institute, and I’m not sure what it’s remit or power is – except I doubt it will get anywhere near the funding it once enjoyed]
Well, Holland seems to have, or had a whole range of social cultural or musical ‘things’ [note: institutes] that fund and bring things [note: artistic endeavours] up to a certain level. Then they seemed to stop and either ignore work or keep things parochial. And this place, Holland becomes a black hole [note: for musicians’ profiles] it seems. Now ULTRA is avant garde, confident, outward looking, and had a lot of international connections. And yet when it stops it just disappears completely. And I want to know why people knew more about Minny Pops in England than in Holland. And when we did 2012, we had to go to England to get press to then get attention here. We had to work really hard! So from your experience I want to know why these things fizzle out.
Yeah cos your book was almost like a detective novel wasn’t it? It was like a Sherlock Holmes story.(Both laugh)
I remember reading this in the book, and Wally’s remark; saying something like, ‘where else could we go’? [Note: Wally van Middendorp on finishing Minny Pops in 1983/4 was stating that Minny Pops couldn’t just keep playing the Dutch club circuit over and over again page 246]. And there were two feelings that I got from this, I thought this brittleness, this ‘I can’t do any more’… it’s like you’re hitting a glass ceiling.(Harold laughs)
And actually I then thought, no this is really confident – that it’s so artistic to say ‘nope, finished’; because that’s not the music business.
I also notice that there are no managers on the scene. OK you’ve got Wally and you’ve got Dirk [note: Dirk Polak] but they do everything. There’s no impresario thing, like say Tony Wilson at Factory at the same time. And no links into the Dutch music industry…
(Harold starts searching the book. Given the phrase has a combination of very popular letters, we can’t find it quickly.)
Yeah I’ll tell you why. Because it amazed I seem to hear that a lot. It’s a phrase I notice a lot in the press, ‘ook in het Nederlands’ [sic]
I think you were talking about punk when Wally started off with The Tits. This sense of ‘also in Holland’ struck me. It’s always apart. And this apartness… people don’t even realise this apartness.
(We spend some time looking for it. The combination of popular words doesn’t make it easy to find. At all.)
I’ll send you the link.* (see notes below for the correspondence on this point!)
No! And the whole thing wasn’t… I’ve been reading a lot of the VINYLs, reading your interviews with Fred Frith, for example [note: VINYL issue 8, November 1981]. And it’s a great magazine in the first year or so, it’s a brilliant magazine. And everything in that is transnational. The agenda is music and art and the avant garde, and it’s about how far can you go with music. And it doesn’t matter where anyone comes from. And I remember that interview you did with Minioon [note: VINYL issue 2, March 1981] where you discuss the use of German as a singing language; not because of any national issues with that language [note: Minioon were from Den Bosch] but because they liked the sound of it, and it helps their music.
…So no I don’t think ULTRA is particularly ‘Dutch’ Dutch, but you have signs of it – localism… people not going anywhere but their own city…
Or when people are really obsessed by doing everything themselves; not doing things in a collective manner. Like when Dirk…
Or The Ex…
Was the Rietveld important? Or was it because it was in Amsterdam and everyone knew the Rietveld and there were other
This approach. All the bands approach music in a rarified way, the way Truus de Groot did things with Plus Instruments. They are not the ideas you’d associate with being in a rock band at all.
I also wanted to ask you about the nights at Oktopus club… When it stops and everyone goes to De Koer [note: De Koer nightclub set up at the end of the original ULTRA movement]. You say you’d done everything at the Oktopus… It sounds like some private members club…
I thought that was a funny thing in the book when you were hinting that ‘of course they’d read the British press!’ [Note: That Oor had read the NME article ‘Why Not to Hate The Dutch’, by Andy Gill, about the ULTRA / postpunk scene in Holland from November 1980] And you could see that, reading your book, that Oor must have felt ‘ooh we can’t get left out as this scene; after all it is in our own back yard’.
And in the book you point out that British people like Gill and Morley [note: British rock journalist Paul Morley] etcetera… the way they write… and this is a key thing, how British writers write about music opposed to how it happens in Holland. It’s broad-brush and they write up things that sound more than it is.
And it’s creative, theatrical.
True lies! But in Holland…
Which in some ways hampers the fact this scene, this music is really great! So you have basically no press on your side apart from the magazine [note: VINYL] you have to make yourselves.
Why is that? Why is this self-destructive nature?
pic – Emmanuel Rébus
Interesting you use fatalistic there. People seem to have this attitude… You know like with Wally, ‘What were we supposed to do, play Holland again’, and Truus saying in her interview with me, ‘when you’ve played Holland three hundred times’.
So, music as a secondary expression? Not the driving force. It’s not the Sons of the Stage idea. It’s what British people, for example, can be good at, the stage.
What you notice in your book, when things become fashionable it’s time to move on. That bit with Diana Ozon [sic] [note: Diana comments on who are real, or fashionable ULTRA types, page 314] and that’s where Dutch people think it’s successful; when it’s fashionable. Then they run with it. But with this it was a case of ‘we want out’, now that’s fatalism?
Yeah! You can see some of the videos and hear some of the music. And there are tantalising glimpses into this thing that you can never fully get.
I said in one of the interviews, I can’t remember which one, that ULTRA is like this thing that the internet turns round and looks at and questions, ‘what is ULTRA?’ It can’t be digitized, or fractionalised as it’s not part of the internet world and as such it’s a bit of a mystery.
And at times, say the Minny Pops gig in Manchester, you felt you got a glimpse or an understanding of that feeling. Like a portal, but yeah it’s pre digital, some of the records are still in boxes. And it’s weird that it can’t be captured and explained now. Only ‘Drastic Measures Drastic Movement’ captures it.
And ‘Sparks in A Dark Room’. But ‘Drastic Measures Drastic Movement’… That’s like something Devo would have done.
The reason I got really interested in this, [note: ULTRA] and maybe the reason you wrote the book is that it’s almost finding its time now. Things that were so futuristic [sic]. Where people’s ears are detuned.
This ties into your book a bit. How do you feel when you see all this stuff down?
Well, when you make a document like your book, and you see it back, you must have different feelings when you’ve done it. It’s then public. Something outside of you, something you have distance from. So what do you feel about it all? Do you feel different?
OK, let’s say the era.
And you’re a bit like Terrie from The Ex, you just keep doing things
Some of your stuff is wild!
I’m gonna move on to 2012 now. How did you feel with the exhibition here at Centraal [note: ‘God Save The Queen – Punk in Holland’ Exhibition, Centraal Museum, Utrecht]? I mean, we did try to do stuff on that tour going round Holland, [note: ‘Ultra Nieuwe!’ March to April 2012]; that was totally new. I remember reviewing the exhibition here – even though it was really good – and calling it a ‘punk Kringloop’ in my review.
There is a new way of listening to things. Like Julian Cope says in his writings on pop and rock, [note: an idea Cope often returns to in ‘Japrocksampler’ and ‘Copendium’] our idea of noise is different now because we’ve been desensitized to the wider range of electronic sounds we hear – it means we are totally open to listening to white noise, and this is exciting!
…In terms of ULTRA – and in terms of popular music, not classical electronic music, but popular music, it was one of the early outlier stones; you know you have a stone circle and there’s often a stone that lines up with the circle a few feet away… well ULTRA is one of the main outlier stones for this sort of electronic popular music [note: I’d also say Throbbing Gristle, Cabaret Voltaire, Les Rallizes Denudeare also in this bracket].
…Anyway I’m going to ask you a question I ask everyone; what was specifically Dutch about this whole thing?
And you will also notice that I get angry about this programme about that period, the [note VPRO programme] ‘Andere Tijden – De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig, Punk’.
And it showed this whole ‘doom denken’ debate in a studio…
Now they showed it as part of this retrospective; and I was watching it and I’m thinking, every piece of music they use is British, and I asked myself this question which I now ask to you, ‘why do Dutch media people have to make a cultural point about their own culture by using someone else’s music?’ I doubt whether the bloody Belgians would have this…
I think there’s more attempts… and even though they have two music scenes because of the language… Well, when I get records in [note: for my own magazine, Belgian labels do make more of being Flemish, or Walloon, through talking of cultural sponsorships to press releases] they make a point of it…
…Anyway this weird idea of this country’s music [note: I mean the Netherlands] in that era? Why is it so empty, outside of one or two people, say? And where is the Dutchness?
For the record Harold’s moving his hands about!
Which is… bullshit! [Note: Minny Pops do sing a number of songs in Dutch; most notably ‘Kogel’ – recorded here at what I think is the last ULTRA night, April 1981 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=YUw0cXIzEJc]
But the British postpunk bands were also doing this. Simon Reynolds makes a very good point in ‘Rip It Up and Start Again’; some British bands were engaging in this complete plunder of the European Modernist, or Dada movements. Bauhaus, Cabaret Voltaire, blah, blah, blah … And then you have people like the Associates playing up the glamour of Europe [note: through songs like ‘White Car in Germany’, performed here on the VPRO about 1983 http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6pDVXaO9YlQ&feature=kp] And there’s a time where there was really a chance to use… I remember your book quoting the review Paul Morley did of a Minny Pops record, of Wally van Middendorp’s voice sounding exciting and mysterious because it had a Dutch accent [note: page 120]. And I know the Dutch like their money, I’d have thought ‘ah that’s a money making opportunity; we can market it and make it a product’. But no, seemingly.
Again I feel that this touches on one of the fault lines of my argument; at the time there’s this Dutch industry that is almost like… hamstrung. And as a musician you are an amateur if you get subsidy from Stichting Pop Nederlands. And therefore you’re being controlled by the fact that you could lose your subsidy. Your record companies are often controlled by the Anglo-American head offices. And they seem to swallow the party line. You wonder why there’s this passivity; no-one’s trying to turn things upside down. Apart from you lot; you tried to do it without anything, but with no real hope of winning! So it’s like the best and the worst of Holland; a place where you can do nearly anything artistically, immediately, and get a head start, and then not get very far doing it.
OK something else. You now live abroad, and you come from the ‘Deep South’, Maastricht…
And you come into a completely different angle to this, this Rietveld / ULTRA scene. And Truus in her interview mentioned that she was treated like an outsider in Amsterdam [note: Truus de Groot is from Eindhoven, see my interview]. And I was wondering did you feel alien or did it come across as something you recognised?
Ah, OK… because sometimes you read things in VINYL- things like the South of the Border issue [note: ‘Ten Zuiden Ter Grenzen’, Issue 7, September 1981] this edition with all the Belgian and French bands. It’s very inspiring. And very instructive, seemingly. The Belgian bands, the way the Belgians seem to moan about things is different from the way the Dutch moan about things.
Yeah, sort of. And with the Belgians it’s more a case of ‘no-one understands us.’ More existential. With the Dutch is about the hassles of playing in youth centres, and misunderstandings on practical lines. In one of the VINYLs there’s a Leiden punk band who talk about not being able to play the new punk café in the LVC because they’re too loud for … a punk café! What was their name Ach! [Note it’s an interview with Cheap ‘N Nasty, Issue 2, March 1981]. Or Haarlem when the scene report [note: in Issue 2] moans about there’s only Amigo’s record shop. But with the Belgians it’s different, it’s more grounded on aesthetic lines. And because you came from that way you may have had a different take on things.
I think the early VINYLs are brilliant. You read ‘em and you think, it’s some of the best and most exciting music writing in this country. What I’ve come across anyway.
And when you said you weren’t journalists in the book…
No I don’t think you did! I think it’s great!
The incredible thing with VINYL is there’s never a sense of nationality though. Scenes are picked up as important, like the Eric’s scene in Liverpool. But the only time nationality is mentioned directly is Dirk’s ‘Invals Hoek’ piece [note: in Issue 8]. The rest is very utopian…
I read a few of the late ones, they were really boring.
Yes I do.
You have good writers Theo Ploeg, etcetera. But the reason why it’s good is that the people writing are not, on the whole, career journalists. This is the problem with in my opinion, a lot of Dutch music journalism. I mean it’s really great to constantly talk about Spotify. Is it?
Why do people want to talk about fucking streams all day? Talking about the means as a more important component than the content may be ‘relevant’ to society or the business – whatever that is, but at the end of the day it doesn’t matter what the music comes out of. It’s arse about tit. And the more you value the means above the product, then that surely means you don’t care about the actual product. That’s mad. And musicians become sweatshop workers. Not owning the means to their own production. Marxist stuff. That’s why VINYL is so refreshing to read, 30 years on.
…Oh yeah as a final point, talking of VINYL. I was analysing all the adverts and it made me think… this forward thinking movement is all into 50’s clothes!
OK last, last thing! You know when I called your book like a Sherlock Holmes book? Well, because it’s a pre internet thing… And because all the interviewees are providing me with such a mix of information, the whole ULTRA thing feels like a mystery. And because of the size and diverse strands of your book, I could say that it’s like Wilkie Collins, with ‘The Moon Stone’!
A good question! I think yes it would. Because the reason that sparked this investigation is that that era is forgotten and people like Wally should have been on the cultural map years ago.
…And, and I’m thinking that it’s such a smoke and mirrors game with ULTRA. Because ULTRA is NOT fully documented on the internet; something that Rats on Rafts, say or the Subroutine and Narrominded bands are. ULTRA is NOT granular, not deconstructed. The idea that everything can be broken down into a machine part; fractionalisation. It links into what Weber and Adorno and Benjamin wrote about; the syncopation of music, but it’s happening in a digital manner. But in another way, then and now, then is exactly the same as now. ULTRA and all the current underground are small, skint, outsiders, often with limited distribution, promotion and concert opportunities, frustrated at banging their heads against the wall, patronised by the media, or else on the point of becoming fashionable which could also be a kiss of death here… So it’s the same and I expect a similar analysis will happen to these bands now. The only difference in the analysis will be the amount of information; there’s lots for these bands now, and very little for your lot
Maybe he should have a word with his boss, Gerard Walhof! He was in Minny Pops! Maybe he should promote his own past more!
*Time for an explanation! As stated, we can’t find the phrase on the day – but then I do find it when thumbing through the book later that evening. ‘Ook in Nederland’ is the opening phrase of the last paragraph of page 10, after a paragraph describing what ULTRA stood for and a brief explanation of what was happening musically with postpunk, ‘over de hele wereld’, to directly quote Harold. In the interview with Wally and without the book to hand – I’d started a question with ‘ook in het Nederlands’; (idiotically in hindsight since ‘het Nederlands’ means ‘in Dutch’, not in ‘The Netherlands’). Now, I’m fairly sure that I’ve read the sense of Harold’s sentence; as ‘this postpunk and experimental music was also happening in the Netherlands as well as – for example – the UK or USA’. And my reading, true or false in the context of Harold’s book, was broadened in my interview with Wally to include a phrase, or a written construction (one that creates an impression that a reader would ‘sense’ as meaning ‘also in Holland’) that I’ve seen been bandied about in the popular press. Harold should have the last say, of course.
Harold: I keep finding it interesting that you picked this out so specifically. ‘Also the Dutch – or better: a pretty specific faction of us kids – where hit by the experimental post-punk spirit…’, as a simple matter-of-fact. It probably might not not have happened, as (pop) musical wise of course we grew up ‘with our ears mostly turned outwards’. The Dutch that I am referring to are the ones that knew and devoured classical avant-garde, Krautrock, Canterbury stuff, Zappa, free jazz, Duchamp, Fluxus, the works…