September 10, 2014
by Jasper Willems
I meet up with Benjamin van Gaalen (vocals) and Tim Mooij (skins) at De Arend, a benign and folksy tavern in the western quarter of Amsterdam. Mooij has an affinity for these hearty places. Last time we spoke was about three years ago, when he and Van Gaalen were still one half of noise-rock iconoclasts Stairs To Nowhere. We did what would be the band’s final interview at Café ‘t Stoplicht, another congenial pub preserving the bygone musk of tobacco, polaroids and lacquered timber. Right before the article was published, Stairs To Nowhere decided to call it quits. “There was nothing left to give in that band. We basically exhausted ourselves.”, Tim reflects.
Even when reading the piece in shoddy Google Translate-English, the reason why becomes quite apparent. Whether it’s setting piano’s on fire (and subsequently recording on them), dropping vocals with a Chinese shock collar (!) or capturing the wrecking of an entire studio on tape…Stairs To Nowhere was an all-out endeavor. Their shows had a punk sensibility to them, with Mooij frantically dismantling and re-assembling his drum kit, often mid-song. Yet at the same time, the band’s operation was undoubtedly methodical, contrived and ambitious.
Stairs To Nowhere made some waves trespassing the abandoned Vredenburg premises (all while capturing it on video) to set up and play in its hollowed-out shell. The local authorities weren’t too pleased. Thankfully, Tipper Gore inadvertently taught us that nothing sparks mass appeal more than controversy. Stairs To Nowhere seemed hellbent to capitalize on that notion by going by the extreme, whatever that ‘extreme’ might entail. Their music had a bohemian zest and zeal, yet at the same time they were a sophisticated and arty bunch of guys. Occasionally, they diverged into ostentatious humbug, and this arguably became the band’s most glaring foible. As a result, they were incredibly difficult to pigeonhole, which – in retrospect – made them such an exciting band to watch.
Even after their seemingly inevitable demise, I remained a Stairs To Nowhere fan to this day. Last January, Ben sent me a message out of the blue, announcing he and Tim were starting a new band. Needless to say, I was overjoyed and intrigued. While adapting some of the Stairs’ unruliness (Tim’s distinctive refractory drum form, obviously, being the ubiquitous factor), Tijger Salto is an entirely different animal.
“Everything in Stairs To Nowhere was so ‘important'”, Tim quips, deliberately uttering the last word in condescending manner. “I realized I still had something left in the tank. We rejoiced in the prospect of making music without that sense of ‘importance’, right Ben?”
Ben simply nods.
“Other than unleashing a bucketload of energy…”, Tim inquires. “…what’s the point of playing punk rock anyway?”
“Nothing, I guess,”, Ben answers. “You cannot be about-face in doing so, anyway.”
“Make no mistake, we had a complete blast with Stairs.”, he continues. “Both Tim and myself were entirely different individuals at the time. We had completely different ambitions. It was quite liberating to just leave all of that behind us. We took that into account when we started Tijger Salto. Our maxim is basically: ‘Alright, shoot! Let’s just DO it…regardless!’ We simply want to steer clear from any quarreling regarding the musical direction of this band. I mean, it’s great to be part of some conjoined MO. But once you skip the part where you tediously debate the music’s direction and just let it happen anyway – regardless whether you like it or not – something better could come up the next time around.” Ben explains that Tijger Salto nurtures a sequencing of ideas, all of them addressed emphatically with a Pavlovian “yes!” “Whenever we find out a song doesn’t work live, we simply ditch it. We’re a pretty prolific band, so it’s no big deal anyway.”
Where Stairs To Nowhere applied these bizarre elaborate song titles, Tijger Salto skips that part entirely as well: the songs are simply numbered. The band is Ben’s first crack at being a lead vocalist and frontman. He enjoys immersing in that role head-on, acting out on stage, right down to screaming the track numbers as if calling plays from a playbook. “It’s fun. There’s something about screaming your lungs out, to end up completely exhausted on your back ignorant of the fact that you’re still only halfway through the set!”
After Stairs broke up, he and Tim still kept in touch regularly. Both stray towards their other artistic interests: Tim ventures into professional photography while Ben tries his hand in performing in plays. Tim: “Nowadays I work as a coordinator at a photo museum. I gave Ben a leg up, so now he works there as well. He even became my boss for a short period of time…but that couldn’t persist, as I wouldn’t allow it!”*laughs*
Ben tells Luifabriek he always toyed with the idea of fronting a heavy rock band. “Once we decided to make music together again, I told Tim I would love to do just that. In the meantime, I actually attended some singing lessons, although that might be a bit obsolete for this type of music. But it was obvious from the start we needed a third member.” After playing with different people for awhile, Tim and Ben stumbled upon Rob de Witte through mutual connections.
Ben: “During our first rehearsal he initially intended become our guitar player. Luckily I took my bass to the rehearsal space as well, just in case. So, we jammed for a bit. Then suddenly, he looked at my bass and acknowledged: ‘I’m really more of a bass player, you know.’ So he picked up my bass and proceeded to unleash this unbelievably heavy, loud bass sound.” Once De Witte joined in with the fracas, Tijger Salto quickly established their haphazard yet free-spirited songwriting approach.
Ever since starting the band, Tim feels he once again filled a creative void: “To me , I just needed that place again where I could completely unwind.” No question about it: Mooij appears to be more relaxed than three years ago. He seems to have found a nice balance between his professional craft, his marriage and having that place to fulfill some of his personal idiosyncrasies. A difference with three years ago: now he simply needs that outlet alone, not all the other baggage that comes along with playing in a band. “Tijger Salto is just a vehicle for me to keep myself occupied, to meet new people and to seek out new experiences.”
Tim doesn’t just express himself behind his kit, but through the band’s visuals as well. He creates all the artwork and videos for Tijger Salto. “Photography is something I put my heart and soul into.”, he explains. ‘But I work meticulously with all this pristine, professional material and equipment every day. I need that other side where I can basically cause some serious racket. To just mess around for the sake of messing around. For the artwork, I use the cheapest and ugliest material imaginable.” He briefly transforms back into the Tim Mooij I interviewed three years ago, cracking ideas with large hand gestures, unable to contain his excitement. “Recently, I made this new video with the most terrible resolution. Half of it is basically made by a dog holding camera in its mouth.”
Mooij creates these deliciously asinine collages with the most random of components. Because hey, why the fuck not? “I usually type in these crazy search terms on YouTube and continue clicking six or so times. Next, I look at the number of views. If the video has less than twenty-five total views, it’s sufficiently obscure and therefor fits the criteria.”
Tijger Salto’s devil-may-care proclivity on their own creative output seems to be a symptom of boredom. It could be a zeitgeist thing, simply acting intuitively upon an apathy towards the sheer amount of information we assimilate every day. Ben agrees: “Absolutely. Everybody is kind of post-everything these days. The monomania, you know, just being fixated on one single scene or subculture, it’s a thing of the past. Back when people embraced the gabber-movement in the nineties, they attributed every facet they associate with gabber to their own lives. Nowadays you have folk musicians doing noise…or metal heads doing electronic music. People seem to be more open-minded, because all these barriers have been lifted. We are starting to realize that all of us attain some level of diversity. It’s not like back in the day where everybody went through the same motions within a limited configuration of media outlets.”
Remarkably enough, by going about things on a whim, opportunities kind of materialized naturally for the band. “The shows actually came along pretty quickly!”, Tim asserts. Ben thinks he knows why: “It’s no hassle to get shows if you don’t have any far-reaching demands. We simply need a mic, a drum kit and two amps, the basic backline you can find anywhere. After just our second show, we were selected to be part of the Popronde. Things went pretty smooth right off the bat.”
Putting the kibosh on boredom by creating something out of boredom – to ultimately come up with a blueprint that feels genuinely fresh and exciting – somehow created the kind of chaos rift where accidents loom. Only a handful of Tijger Salto shows in, the infirmary had to tend to both Ben and Tim: the former nursing a cracked rib, the latter needing to stitch up a large gash in his hand. The band had to cease rehearsing for three weeks. “But it was worth it!”, Tim cracks.
Haarlem-based indie label Geertruida thought Tijger Salto was worth it as well. They immediately insisted on releasing a pair of EPs. Ben actually knows Geertruida co-founder Marijn Westerlaken from way back, as they picked up saxophone together in their teens. Westerlaken shares Ben’s fondness for punk rock and noise frenzy, most evident with his own band Those Foreign Kids. “It’s kind of what I’ve been noticing in music these days. You have all this up-to-the-minute urbane ‘indie’ music that’s supposed to be all the rage. Everyone seems to want to have an opinion on those type of bands. And then there’s that side that’s into punk rock or metal. These people are more like: ‘If these guys even remotely sound like some of the bands I idolized growing up, they’re ace in my book!'”
Van Gaalen makes a really valid point here. Whenever a band seeks to create havoc without being preoccupied conquering the radio stations, it supposedly becomes part of a niche. Yet the word niche doesn’t do the music justice, because it’s such a narrow term on its own. The sheer diversity in great Dutch underground rock is simply unreal these days. The aforementioned Those Foreign Kids, Space Siren, Kleinindustrie, Vox Von Braun, Rats On Rafts, WOLVON, Katadreuffe. All of them excel at some form of bedlam, yet none of them sounds like a blatant copy of luminaries from the past. Tijger Salto is yet another band that has a familiar type of energy, yet a brew to call their own. At best, the musicians’ accumulated influences simply filter through.
To simplify, a good racket is a good racket. Becoming that lightning rod is Van Gaalen’s true aim: “It’s much more fun to just experience it for yourself. Without lofty ambitions, it’s no big deal if only a single person shows up.” Tim: “Having about thirty people show up is idyllic. In all honesty, that would totally make my day!”
This doesn’t mean Tijger Salto take everything in their stride. On the surface, they may come across as this puerile bunch who revel in piss takes and absurdism. That’s a false assumption. Just the act of playing serves a genuinely important purpose within the ephemeral predicament called existence. “Often times, we enter the rehearsal room completely exasperated.”, Ben remarks. “You know, work, hangovers, women…that kind of stuff. Whenever that shared tension arises we feel the need to set up as fast as possible. Just plug in and let her rip. And you know what? After three hours or so we leave the room completely relaxed!” He later adds: “To me it has become a form of therapy, I guess. With Tijger Salto, I can procrastinate all the therapy I’ll need in the future for a few years.”
Ben stresses there is definitely a level of seriousness in the music, reinforced by a build-up of thoughts and ruminations he has accumulated over the years in notebooks. These scribbles often present an entry point for his lyrics. “It’s something I always wanted to scrutinize, which I can do now. It’s kind of a hard sell for me if I don’t channel a genuine level of anguish or frustration. It has to be real.”
Stairs To Nowhere has become their cautionary tale of burning out prematurely. While Tijger Salto is an even heavier band, they are not the kind to wallow in pure destruction or resentment. Ben:”It’s healthy to purge myself of certain frustrations, but I always try to perpetuate an element of hope as well.” He takes former Gallows-frontman Frank Carter as precedent. “(Carter) left Gallows because the sheer rage tore him up from the inside. I realized you can also take a middle ground. You can treasure that outlet as long as it’s constructive, instead of becoming a complete wrecking ball.”
Tim: “That rage has an expiration date, for sure. You do get older, you know. To a certain degree, there is a healing power within all that destruction…” You can sense Tim backpedalling, reluctant of what to say next. God forbid, he doesn’t want to regurgitate the same maunder he alluded to three years ago. But you can tell it’s truly his genuine belief. “To me, those two things are connected. The way I see it, I exert tons of energy behind the drums. I can’t really project that energy anywhere. It builds from within until I just explode. I feel fortunate to still have that.” He glances at Ben. “It’s up to you to conduct all that energy somewhere.”
Ben: “Well, I believe anyone who wanders this planet overextends him or herself over a period of time, adding more and more stress. Some people can discretely unload it little by little. But you can also choose to just dump it all at once, by producing something that’s really loud, for instance.”
Tim: “Especially when you happen to be a sensitive guy, which I consider myself to be. I always try to be as amenable as possible to whatever I encounter in this world. But I can imagine being fifty years old with a bad back saying, ‘I might give bossa nova a shot!'”*laughs*
Also watch: Tijger Salto live at SUB071