Digging Up Dutch Undergrounds – An Interview with Harold Schellinx of The Young Lions and Author of ULTRA

April 9, 2014
by Richard Foster

Harold 1Harold at the Sonic Protest Festival – pic – Emmanuel Rébus

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

HS: They still going? I thought they were…

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.

HS Why they disappear…

Yeah cos your book was almost like a detective novel wasn’t it? It was like a Sherlock Holmes story.

(Both laugh)
HS Why? You tell me why it’s like Sherlock Holmes? Well…You know that the concerts that we organized; with Wally and Rob [note Wally and Rob Scholte]. We just stopped after six months. And we felt it turned into a fashion thing and it was not what it was meant to be. And the kind of radical experimentation, the doing different things, shaping things and for six months, that spirit… but then the name was picked up and it turned into more synthy, New Romantics / Blitz things, that was again copying from the stuff that was going on in Britain at the time. Which meant we lost interest…

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.

HS No! Business was far… at least for Rob and me… Wally had a business spirit in a way. But we were not concerned at all with business. That’s maybe a big difference [note: with the music industry]. But why was that? I don’t know…

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…

HS No! No managers, no press, no master plans… And… anyway… What was the music industry in Holland at the time? (Laughs). I have to ask you something now. In the interview with Wally you mention something that phrase, ‘ook in het Nederlands’! Where the hell did you read that!?  Let me see! I was not specifically concerned with the ‘Nederlands’!

(Harold starts searching the book. Given the phrase has a combination of very popular letters, we can’t find it quickly.)

HS I can’t find it. But anyway it struck you!

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]

HS: What… was that about the music?

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.

HS (Laughs) Yeah…
…OK I’m going to look it up as I remembered this morning about that phrase you used in Wally’s interview, and I thought I should ask you about it. Let me see, let me see…

(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!)

HS Because I’m not specifically concerned with ‘Nederlands’… And I always saw things as being erm… not related to nationality.

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…

HS (Laughs) Now, that’s absolutely true!

Or when people are really obsessed by doing everything themselves; not doing things in a collective manner. Like when Dirk…

HS Yes; Dirk was moaning about his record with the Nijmegen groups. [Note: see Dirk’s interview when we talk about his proposed Nijmegen sampler]

Or The Ex…

HS A bit later, they were a bit later but they were fantastic anyway, but they do not appear in the ULTRA book because for some reason at the time they were ‘just’ a punk band. I mean ‘just’ a punk band in style… They are only mentioned once in the book [note: page 165]. But anyway… It was a small scene, around Wally and around the Rietveld. It was very intimate and everyone was close.

Was the Rietveld important? Or was it because it was in Amsterdam and everyone knew the Rietveld and there were other

HS It was the core from which the other things started to blossom, and it began to attract other things. It was the thing to do at the time at the Rietveld; to make music, to do records, to do concerts. I was not at the Rietveld, I was not a Rietveld guy at all, but this artistic input gave a lot of inspiration. As I mention in the book when Rob [note: Scholte] came to me and I joined The Young Lions [note: page 129], I mention yes ‘this is it!’ This is original, and new, and this is… I didn’t talk of it in those terms at the time but it was music with great originality in approach.

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.

HS No. Not 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…

HS (Laughs) it was not a private members club of course! But you know these sort of occasions they’re sort of… they are a specific group. And it stays that way; unless you get covered by media that reaches outside the specific group. Which is what happened towards the end of the ULTRA thing; when we got covered by Oor, which was… something, but we had worked hard for this. And we deserved it. And then it was over! (Laughs)

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’.

HS We absolutely had that feeling even though Paul Evers [note: writer of the ULTRA piece in Oor February 1981] he, he says it’s not true. He denies that. [note: see pages 242-243]  

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.

HS They create things.

And it’s creative, theatrical.

HS That what happened at the time, I don’t follow the British press now, but at the time this idea of trying to find something and then making something even bigger.

True lies! But in Holland…

HS Not at all. No.

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.

HS Nope. But then there is also a problem that the people in the scene were only really interested in getting things on tape. But there were no producers. And most of the production was pretty lousy from a quality point of view. No money to make things sound the way we wanted. I mean the Young Lions record that we did with Wally, [note: ‘No News, Strange Rumours’ (Plurex), 1980] it’s a fine impression but it was made in maybe one, day, two days? Go in there, play it and then wrap it up do things more or less straight… and that was…
…. And actually right after the ULTRA concerts that Wally and Rob and I had done, when we stopped organising this, I went to London, because the band stopped… I somehow lost interest… And with a band like Minny Pops that was Wally, and he was different. And the format just had reached an end, and many of these ULTRA bands they never had the idea that they could be like British bands, they never had that same outlook. When I first went to London one of the first bands I met were The Birthday Party who were on tour and they’d just come from Australia. And they came there together and they came there to make a career you know? And this idea that everybody holds on and looks to just push it…. They [note: the Birthday Party] were like that phrase The Young Lions had; they always started their concerts [sic] ‘through training and battle’… now that was not very Dutch. Not a Dutch idea.

Why is that? Why is this self-destructive nature?

HS Now, Richard, I don’t see it as self-destructive but maybe a fatalistic idea that it’s impossible to make a career making this sort of music but I don’t know.

 

Harold 2pic – 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’.

HS It’s one of the things that always amazed me as the time, there were so many people playing in bands at the time; but they always had a way out; there was always an escape.  But being in a band ‘because this is what we want to do’… (Silence) It was something we tried but it wasn’t something we pushed into seeing it as a way to live [sic] and have a career.

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.

HS It’s where you live! (Laughs)

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?

HS That’s fatalism? No, no, that’s just to do with the content. You had this period we wanted to do something now and next week we wanted to do something different. Not continuing, not starting to repeat formulas, etcetera. That’s not what I mean by this fatalism, no. Not at all. It’s difficult. It’s also difficult because I wrote the book and everything is in the book! (Laughs). I mean it’s this sort of feel that I feel… It’s four hundred pages and it’s not something that as far as I’m concerned could be condensed in a few one liners. But there is this feeling that there were so many people involved making great music and having so many great ideas and making great things but never with the idea that ‘this is what we are going to do and we are never going to do anything else but this.’ Erm… One of the things that I really actually regret in that respect is that the sonic documents that we made are not representative enough of the potential of this…

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.

HS No.

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.

HS That’s very true.

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.

HS Yes. Absolutely.

And ‘Sparks in A Dark Room’. But ‘Drastic Measures Drastic Movement’… That’s like something Devo would have done.

HS (Laughs) It’s absolutely a great, original, fine album; still.

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.

HS I’d agree.

This ties into your book a bit. How do you feel when you see all this stuff down?

HS (Looks at me sideways) Yeah… It’s only four hundred pages! What, what is your question here? (Laughs)

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?

HS From the era you mean or in general?

OK, let’s say the era.

HS I don’t think so. (Laughs) I mean yes, we were at Rob’s expo last night [note: Rob Scholte ‘Ultra!’ currently running at KuuB Utrecht] and the guy showed a little video about Rob talking about his totem poles and there were all these guys, sort of art historians talking about it, and Rob then came up and said ‘what do you see? You see pots’. (Laughs) And this is how I feel about the book! What do you see? You see words! You find what you want!
…But no it [note: the book] did not change my opinion of the era. And I wrote it in a very short time; a couple of months. I started in September and it was finished around Christmas; [note: 2011] all in one go. And that was because… now this, Richard, this is important. I was totally against retro. And still am. Completely. Now; I found it a very enriching experience to do this but in a short time span. I just like to do new things.

And you’re a bit like Terrie from The Ex, you just keep doing things

HS And as you will no doubt be aware, keep doing things that are more strange [sic] than thirty years ago!

Some of your stuff is wild!

HS I do not consider it as being wild (smiles). But I do not want to revive things. I mean there was talk to do things again with the original Young Lions, erm… not to re-do things but to do something completely new. But that did not happen for many reasons; also because of Rob’s difficult situation. But obviously we would never go on stage and do the same songs and things we did thirty years ago. Maybe another project, another thing would be nice – to see what happens if you put the same people together 35 years later.
… And then we met up and had a ‘go’ four or five years ago, when we were the four of us [note: without Rob Scholte] and hell! It sounded JUST like thirty years ago! (Laughs)

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.

HS It’s not for me! Sorry! No, I think the attention given was good because many of the people deserved the attention. But what I did enjoy were the concert evenings [note: ‘Ultra Nieuwe!’] where the young bands played as well and got the main stage. That’s how it should be. That was a good side of this ULTRA 2012 stuff, but looking back we got to know these young kids who do things and maybe not sounding the same [sic] but with the same sort of intentionality, and the same sort of spirit. There is a lot of that going on actually. All over the world this sort of music is being produced in bigger quantities than ever and recorded in bigger quality than ever, and it’s good to see that. And that was a great experience; because, I also had this sort of ‘after ULTRA’ period where I started to do this sort of more conceptual, more formalised, electronic music which brought me into mathematics. And for about fifteen years after ULTRA I hardly touched music. It was this whole post ULTRA and post Amphibious period; because of course after ULTRA, with Ronald [note: Heiloo] and Tim [note: Benjamin] from the Young Lions we did good and strange things, not only the record we did with Dagmar Krause… [note: http://soundblog.bandcamp.com/album/commuters] which was also a little bit of a statement, because what was left of ULTRA, or what followed had turned into a little bit of a fashion thing with all the synthesizers, and Ronald and I made a record with minimalistic piano music, which actually was meant as a statement. And afterwards we entered into this period of fictive pop musicians, this whole series of fictions [sic], bands we had imagined, Dutch disco bands, a Polish agitprop band called Bogdan Wlosik  [note: http://soundblog.bandcamp.com/album/bogdan-wlosik and http://www.harsmedia.com/SoundBlog/Archief/00602.php#00602 and damned underground it is too], we had Agonie Ajournée, a French Joy Division like, no, not Joy Division that’s wrong [note: I think it sounds more a mix of postrock, underpowered early Amon Düül 1 kraut and long, ‘Dragnet’ era Fall-like jams, to be honest] but a French avant garde postpunk band  living and working in the north of France and not finding any chance of getting their music out there, except – and that was the other fiction part – if  they could get their lead singer to commit suicide. I mean we had all of these pop fictions which never… things got stuck at some point.
… After that I went into the sort of switch and started to think that music was all about structure. And I became a mathematician. But after that time, I realised that this was an illusion on my part, because I do not think that music is all about structure because you cannot have music without sound. You need sound.

You do!

HS …And how do you say that? ‘Ik kwam tot bezinning!’ (Laughs) [note; I came to my senses – a rough and ready translation] and had this urge again to do things with sound, and I started to do things in Paris and one of the first things I did was a performance at the Placard, [note: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=SZnMG5C-Pyg] I don’t know if you know what the Placard is but it was something that was initiated by Erik Minkkinen; well this is stupid to say but I will say this anyway. He was the lead guitarist of Sister Iodine [note: http://sisteriodine.bandcamp.com/] which is the French equivalent of Sonic Youth. And he wanted to start organising concerts in Paris. And to organise concerts in Paris… it’s difficult. So they wanted to do this concert and he said ‘well I’m going to do them at home’, and he had the idea that they were going to do headphone concerts, so he would play in his ‘placard’ – his cupboard, and downstairs in the bar people can listen to the streaming music using headphones. And this has turned into an international festival which is still going on. And one of the first things I started to do was one of these Placard concerts in Paris It was really great to see you know, because it was in the summer and people were walking the streets you know and you see the windows open and you see smoke and beers and things… and you don’t hear a sound!

(Both laugh)

…And I had a déjà vu; it was like I was on one of the ULTRA evenings, although it was silent. But what struck me that after all this time, the spirit for this kind of music was so much alive. And this amazing international scene of underground, ex… ach I HATE this word experimental. After over 30 years this music is no longer experimental.

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?

HS Yes! Yes I know this!

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’.

HS Ah yes, yes, this television thing!

And it showed this whole ‘doom denken’ debate in a studio…

HS Ah yes, yes, I remember it. The punks versus the school kids.

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…

HS Is that true?

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?

HS It’s a very good point. I really have no idea.

(Both laugh)

HS But it must be related to the Dutch merchant spirit. Ever since the fifteenth and sixteenth centuries, the Dutch have been looking outside, to get stuff. We sailed the seas, we get stuff elsewhere. It’s difficult to explain further. I mean I’ve been mostly living outside of Holland this past twenty years and I still get this strange feeling that…. [Note: Harold starts wringing his hands, and a pained expression comes on his face] you cannot see this on the record.

For the record Harold’s moving his hands about!

(Both laugh)

HS When I watch the Dutch news, this ‘looking outside’ is always there. And the Calvinist spirit; which is also a very important ingredient and one about which Peter [note: Peter Mertens pages 109-15] says [sic] in my book, the Calvinism which was in Minny Pops, that which Wally had. I think that is a big part of the Dutchness in ULTRA. And of course this… this… it changes now but the fact that everything back then was Anglophone in pop music. We wouldn’t even consider – without real argument – we’d just dismiss the suggestion that we would do our lyrics in Dutch. This was out of the question. Without any argument you know? If you sing in Dutch it doesn’t sound good!

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]

HS Absolutely and I’m as guilty as the rest of us. And that [note: the use of the Dutch, or of any language] of course immediately links all the things you do to things, or ideas that come from real spaces. Even though the matter of our music – certainly the case with The Young Lions – was more inspired by Dada than Chuck Berry or rock and roll; or more general art, without any specific tradition.

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.

HS But this thing Richard, this is what was missing; this sort of thinking; the sort of strategy, the sort of strategic backing and marketing. It was absolutely not considered and nobody considered doing it. And the in the least [sic] was the record companies, or promoters… because the major record companies in Holland were just subsidies of the big companies like EMI; almost back office areas.

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.

HS Did you talk to Mark, Mark Honingh? You should! Because he did a really good job trying to programme ULTRA- style evenings in the Paradiso just after ULTRA had ended [note: the “ULTRA” – D-Days]. He has remained the closest in the spirit. He’s a big fan and an enthusiast, and a big maker of music; his music for me is one of the big undiscovered treasures of Dutch music. He’s really underground.

OK something else. You now live abroad, and you come from the ‘Deep South’, Maastricht…

HS Which might as well be abroad! (Laughs)

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?

HS No not at all alien it was a sort of recognition of something that I felt all along. ‘This is what it should be!’ What I had been looking for.

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.

HS Ah come on tell me the difference in how the Belgians moan about things. No, let me guess, with the Dutch it will be ‘we do not have places to play… blah, blah, blah…’

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.

HS Yes, I see your point. Of course, here, VINYL was erm… incredibly important because it was news for ULTRA related bands, because most of the writers in VINYL were in ULTRA related bands, and in some ways they did this to give themselves a context. And this context did not come natural. I mean there was Wally, there was Dirk but there was nothing else! To work and to develop, and to meet people, you cannot work in a void. And VINYL provided a context.

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.

HS Absolutely.

And when you said you weren’t journalists in the book…

HS But I didn’t say that in a negative way!

No I don’t think you did! I think it’s great!

HS The way that Arjen… [note: Arjen Schrama, editor] he was amazing in giving it this professionalism. But, no Holland did not have a Disques du Crépuscule, or anything like that, they had Plurex or… oh what was the other label called…

1000 Idiots?

HS No, that’s the punk one. No, Dirk’s label.

Torso.

HS Torso! Yes! Now, these labels. They were independent record labels; and yes they did provide some outlet but they didn’t provide a context. For instance Crépuscule did in Belgium, bringing things from the outside, putting things together, putting local things next to Joy Division, and whatever… and I always thought VINYL was the sort of the context we had in Holland; one that was like the context provided in Belgium with Crépuscule. VINYL would put This Heat next to Tox Modell. And why not? (Laughs)

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…

HS Because what we were very strict about and what was very important in the first three years of VINYL is that we wanted to talk about the music! (Harold bangs his hand forcibly on the table). Not on the bullshit. It was a big shame that VINYL didn’t survive, had to sell out.

I read a few of the late ones, they were really boring.

HS Adapting to the market, in a way. But on the other hand things don’t have to live on eternally. I mean, do you like Gonzo? [Note: http://www.gonzocircus.com/]

Yes I do.

HS I sometimes see Gonzo being like VINYL could have become.

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?

HS What’s Spotify (Laughs)

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!

HS That was the fashion of the time! You must remember ‘The Face’. It was the same thing. When I was in London, together with my Belgian girlfriend we went shopping for 1950s clothes. And a specific advert in VINYL, well we were renting space off them. What was the place called?

Salty Dog.

HS Yes, that’s it. And it wasn’t easy to get adverts and we needed adverts. And of course with VINYL was the Flexi was a great thing, [note: the free flexi disc that came with each copy of VINYL]  we had Pere Ubu on it, and Cocteau Twins as well as all the Dutch bands; looking outside and inside Holland. And it was a great shame that that did not become a record label.

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’!

(Both laugh)

HS You really did think that if you would be covering similar things from now in this way in thirty years; do you think that would be different?

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.

HS Oh absolutely! Let me state here that The Young Lions were one of the most brilliant bands that ever walked this earth! (Laughs)

…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

HS It’s not on Spotify! Which was Atze de Vries’s remark when we did the ‘ULTRA – Einde’ thing at the Melkweg. ‘You can’t listen to these things, it’s not on Spotify!’

(Both laugh)

Maybe he should have a word with his boss, Gerard Walhof! He was in Minny Pops! Maybe he should promote his own past more!

HS Ach, you know I think that most of us at least, we are all very happy because we did this stuff and that is the important thing, not whether it’s on Spotify. The important thing is that we did it!

 

*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…

 

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