October 8, 2014
by Richard Foster
1. That funny Incubate feeling
(Jasper) Come September when Incubate arises, I always get this epiphany. I can’t really put my finger on it. There’s just something different about it, the way all these subcultures interweave and conjoin. It’s even evident in the artists themselves. My first taste of the action was an extraordinary performance by noisenik Nadja and Italian hiphop group Uoki Toki on Wednesday at the Paradox. And on Saturday, German/American duo Vin Blanc / White Wine was fantastic as well, kind of this malleable cabaret pop. Portland native Joe Haege completely lets himself go, moving to Leipzig on the mend of a broken marriage. I saw him struggling so badly with his former band Tu Fawning two years ago, and this seems like a redeeming repartee of that. Dear god… I’m digressing already.
Anyway, the point is, Incubate to me feels different from a lot of festivals, because they make it abundantly clear from the get-go that it’s about us, not about the people pulling the strings. In a way, everyone pulls a string, thanks to the Pay What You Want-system always gauging to what extent it matters to you. There is that trust factor. “We are here because of you, and we can expand or scale down depending on your fortitude.” They allow people to get involved: do you want to blog or start a fanzine? Sure, here ya go…why not? Do you want your own label showcase? Why, we’ll make sure you do! Etcetera. Anything to make Incubate more ubiquitous.
(Richard) I don’t get the feelings that I get at Incubate anywhere else. This year I’ve written about a lot of festivals (more of that somewhere else) and I have had a hell of a lot of fun at all of them. Each one has had moments that were special; each one had a set of “USPs” that could in some way be transferred into an enjoyable and memorable personal experience. (And, yes; wretch, wretch, the idea of USPs… but there again things like gourmet food, payment by chip, appealing to a musical/cultural elite, basing a festival in a pretty city centre, promoting the Dutch music industry, or piling up headliners are deliberately set up by these festivals as USPs.) But Incubate has none of these things to lure people in, apart from the fact I have no fucking idea what to expect.
The festival still has the feel that a bunch of scruffs are holding their own private party because the music and art they like isn’t something that attracts the Gemeente-general public-music industry-media circle jerk that operates in the Netherlands; and the locals are slightly, but tolerantly bemused. Incubate’s organisers act like an incrowd who don’t try to be an incrowd. In these ways it’s the ultimate word of mouth festival. And it’s certainly the one where you feel at ease. You can behave as you wish (outside of public urinating, public goat sex, etc. ad nauseum) and your opinion, or way of expressing yourself feels like it matters; even if you’ve no real wish to express them. You’re not a “punter”. Or part of a festival crowd. You can be autonomous and anonymous and feel comfortable about that state of affairs. And because of that you really feel like you want to give something back.
(Jasper) There is a reason why Incubate makes a concentrated effort to alter the aesthetics of Tilburg during the week, whether it’s pianos, pictures or friggin’ Hermann Nitsch to put things into a different perspective. It equates to the “Keep Tilburg Weird”-credo director Joost Heijthuijsen proclaimed in Dutch newspaper Brabants Dagblad. In a growing landscape of festivals, most entrepreneurs seem all too eager to be exhibitionistic fulfilling their own festival pipe dream, ushering media and public to go see their lavishing bill up on the poster walls. Perhaps this observation may be more perception than reality (not to mention a little harsh), but at least Incubate tries to do the exact opposite, make it about the people, the city…and not themselves. It’s about us.
(Tjeerd) Tilburg IS a weird city. It is a city without a face. When you enter Tilburg by train, either from the West or the East, you drive through a mishmash of architectural styles, all hailing from different periods. There seems to be no plan behind it, as if it just happened to spring out of the ground. Blocks of modern architecture mixed with older more gentler styles, without any decent connection. It is stupendously ugly and lacks any form of identity. But it is Tilburg, and I love it. In all its ugliness, it is the shining heart of the BeNeLux, a town that doesn’t attract people because of its architecture but because of the people that live there. Or better, the initiatives of the people that live there, as the people of Tilburg like to do most things themselves.
Let’s take music. Most of the organisations in Tilburg don’t come top down, but start at the bottom. Even a “Moloch”* like 013 started out as a peoples initiative. Noorderligt, Bat Cave and Muzikantenwinkel, the front runners of 013, were all initiatives that sprung “from the soil”, and were not implemented in a top-down manner, as with many of the festivals that were going on. DIY is ingrained in Tilburg culture, if there is no stage for our bands, we will create it ourselves, such as a festival as Stationstreet in the past, simply started because some Tilburg schoolkids were not able to play anywhere. As well as that it died when more opportunities arose. Incubate fits perfectly in this picture, started ten years ago by four guys from as many different underground scenes.
(Richard) I like Tilburg a lot. There’s something anonymous about the town, it doesn’t throw out the “look at me” messages you get in the Randstad. And also because it (like Leiden still, just about) has a strong working class, or a lower middle class presence in the centre. It’s not been gentrified/Disneyfied to the extent that Amsterdam has, or Rotterdam is being, and certainly it has absolutely nothing in common with Utrecht which always feels a very sniffy city in the centre. Now don’t take this the wrong way but I think the amount of meat-based snack / fast food / traditional fare outlets in the centre is an important signifier here. Tilburg doesn’t have the Randstad glut of olive merchants, artisan bread shops, tote bag and complicated-coffee-option stops, pretend Southeast Asian noodle/wok joints with free wifi; none of it.
That I go on about being able to get decent chips and a large portion of trad-bad grub for relatively little may sound like me celebrating the extremely parochial, being reverse elitist and sound immensely patronising. It shouldn’t be, as I am a Northern Englishman whose heart will forever be addicted to black pudding and pies AND one who fights an ever-ongoing war with eating vegan. Weekend pagan, part-time punk, occasional vegan. That’s me. What I mean is, Tilburg doesn’t try to pretend what it is through its shops. It doesn’t bullshit itself. Eating is eating; not a statement of “fuck you I’m better than all of this”.
(Jasper) It’s kind of interesting what Tjeerd said about these small underground scenes making stuff happen under the same roof. In Rotterdam I notice a lot of scenes – while still affiliated to certain extent – remain somewhat quarantined. In Tilburg, movements like metal (and all its sub genres) and stoner rock remain omnipresent, not to mention the more left field heavier music Roadburn-crowd is drawn to. Yet there is always this open-mindedness that allow music heads to enrich one another. A kindred. I think Incubate recognizes that too, they celebrate deep-rooted subcultures like metal, hardcore and hiphop. That’s fun thing too, to see such a diverse and impassioned crowd mingling together seamlessly. I think that cultural aspect undervalued in the snowballing festival market. Le Guess Who? is doing an increasingly fine job at this as well.
3. Dutch bands and Dead Neanderthals’ Endless Voids
(Jasper) Anyway, let’s talk bands. I’m always happy to see Incubate allow Dutch bands to create a soapbox to do something special. That Dead Neanderthals Endless Voids show was something else. Left a lot to the imagination, because I’m not so much a pundit in ambient and drone music. Which kind of was serendipitous in this case. It allowed me to soak that whole thing in upfront. I really admire Rene Aquarius and Otto Kokke for their openness. I think that really attributes to their success, that really wide-eyed attitude of “why not?”. They have a confidence about them I wish many other Dutch bands would adapt. They kick in doors and just make stuff happen. Most left-field artists kind of indulgently remain in their own comfort zone., but these guys are really accessible, outward personalities. They reside from Nijmegen, which is also a lively student town, yet a relatively isolated demographic. Nijmegen and Tilburg have that in common.
(Richard) Incubate has always allowed Dutch bands in their showcases. I’m not saying that it’s without complications and negotiations that will piss bands in the Netherlands off, and of course Incubate have to negotiate their own way through the cultural cringe / Hollands propoganda aspect of promoting Dutch bands. But they make the final decision as to how they pitch their festival; otherwise it would descend into a free for all. Having hosted a showcase here with Louder than War’s John Robb and Marcel van Schooten from Smikkelbaard, I’m speaking from experience. But there are a lot of Dutch bands and always have been. To my knowledge this is the one established alternative festival that has – from day one – continued to ensure Dutch bands are promoted both through a separate showcase, or within the main “international” programme and as such available for scrutiny by a wider press and public. In the context of an internationally pitched festival. And the way Incubate promotes itself in the main means that established international journalists approach what Incubate presents with a totally open, “non-nationalist” mindset. I can also vouch for this.
My only gripe is the naming of these things. Incubate Zero? It’s as bad as Le Mini Who? or the Live XS “Locals Only” feature. The language of belittlement, the giveaway and the margin. I think Incubate missed a trick here. Previously the side shows I went to had a more aspirational feeling. Previously labels would club together and promote a wider bunch of bands; the Subroutine showcases always had other labels’ bands on. For sure; it had to be about promoting those labels in the end, there had to be an amount of underlying self-interest involved. BUT there would be an attempt to accentuate the positive in the scene.
Now, there’s a subtle shift in the side programme that still needs to work out where it’s going. It’s a bit too much like Popronde without being Popronde with its “Lekker avondtje uit. Lekker achtergrond muziek” appeal. It’s heroic Incubate and the bars involved developed this showcase over more stages, for more days and for nothing, something the labels could not negotiate with the bars; but even if we take the name Zero as meant (as in free) it still throws out a feeling that this is a second tier event, and the free stuff is there as a loss leader. Maybe I’ve done one too many tours of duty in the Dutch pop “underground” (another term yours truly and a few others used to band about as a joke eight or so years ago which then became monetised and another term of marginalisation) and am getting shellshocked and seeing things that aren’t there. But it doesn’t feel right. Naive Set are better than a lot of international acts I see. That needs to be reflected somehow, and the fact Naive Set played in front of 15 people (never to return to Incubate again due to booking policy) needs to be addressed; again, somehow. It just seems such a high waste, or under-cooked strategy. Answers on a postcard.
(Jasper) Naive Set should definitely make a return, their gig at Studio Tilburg displayed a lot of growth. They really worked on the flow of their set without sacrificing their off-beat, the real McCoy-charm. It’s just subtle things, like prolonging the intro to “Honest”… It really makes a difference. It’s not just frantically scurrying through the songs like before, but finding entry points to really stress their personality on stage. And I mean, come on, that opening riff to “Like That” is just gold. The Sweet Release Of Death made huge strides as well. The trio’s malicious, gothy noise rock simmers deceptively through Alicia Breton Ferrer’s saccharine vocal delivery. Martijn Tevel’s crafty playing finally permeates a sense of space, allowing subtle overtones to glint over the music’s feral onslaught. TSROD’s not some impulsive jumble anymore… This band has become really, really tight. Finally, The Afterveins, another Rotterdam trio, put the kibosh on with total reckless abandon. Their somewhat featherbrained antics off stage notwithstanding, these kids put on a riveting energetic show once the stage lights go on, slow burning their jitterbug psych tunes into a blissful discordant mess.
Any of these bands would’ve held their own within Incubate’s regular programme.
Like Richard said, it kind of destroys the music’s face value to continue ushering these great innovative Dutch bands into “free-for-all” subdivisions like Mini-Who? or Zero, as if they were inferior. They’re not, and once the playing field is even, people will recognize this. I’m fully convinced of this. Maybe it works both ways. Maybe Dutch bands need to be more opportunistic in a way. Like I said, Dead Neanderthals are really assertive in what they need to do, and I think that really attributes to their appeal on an international scale. They are what The Joker refers to as “dogs chasing cars”, kind of jumping at every opportunity and just enjoy doing it. And by doing so, validating their music on an international scale. It’s not a bad blueprint, seeing they took full advantage of the well-deserved platform Incubate gave them.
(Richard) The Dead Neanderthals and “heavy friends” gig was truly brilliant and no, I’m not a person who can pick up the slight gradations of tone and octave above a specific decibel level, and critisise in the correct sonic context. I leave that to Sonic Wizards like Bob Rusche, and just dig the noise. It was incredible because this bunch of Hairies and Wild Men managed to subvert the stuffy Theaters Tilburg into a ceremony in a fucking burial mound; with sacred offerings to the ancestors being conjured up through a whole range of antediluvian blarings, rumbles and growlings. Playing in two banks of four also helped; the theatre of the whole show was incredible; and being actually IN a pitch black theatre made it all the more so.
Like Jasper said, there are a lot of interconnections in this world which you normally see individually, or in group level. Here, brought together you realise what a fantastic scene the Dutch have if they bury their mutual mistrust, or play on their connections and pull together. I once read an article in a column in Vinyl magazine; “Invalshoek” (written in 1981 by Mecano’s Dirk Polak) that the Dutch could, if they acted more communally and generously, and stopped trying to rip each other off achieve great things musically. Even if they took nationalist tropes as a springboard. This is a BIG issue in the Netherlands for me; every “semi-powerful” scene or organisation involved in Dutch music treats all other (Dutch) co-participants as a punter, and / or denegrates them, justifying that behaviour because they are Dutch and not “worth” the hassle or incentive of acting in a different way. And seen from here, as an insider-outsider this is a weird, self-loathing and mutually destructive modus operandi; especially when the music scene contracts in quality or in number. Of course I’m paraphrasing wildly but if these Hairies can dust themselves off from their eternal sleep under the Hundebedden and pull themselves together to create Earth shattering vibes, then so the fuck can everyone else.
(Jasper) I’ve always had this huge fantasy about a climate where all independent labels merge into one big consortium. I think that would really turn the table on Dutch music as whole. But a lot of Dutch bands (as do Dead Neanderthals with Norwegianism) believe in the basic ideal of a record label: not just a practical means to release music, but also devise the aesthetics and stylistics of their proclivity. The way a label like Factory imposed a certain DIY-framework, I think a lot of musicians these days are starry-eyed by that notion. Unfortunately, with the magnitude of music being released, plus the sheer necessity of giving your records a place, these tiny labels have become microcosms of this particular idyllic version of the record label. Everyone wants to release music on their own terms. I personally love that, yet it’s a shame bigger Dutch media condescendingly frown upon that “hobby project” sort of thing. While in fact, a lot of these artists and entrepreneurs are really serious about moving people with what they do. It’s all genuine uncompromising stuff… Or to put it more radically…John Peel-stuff.
(Richard) The hobbyist element you mention is important when we talk about Dutch bands; and in the context of the Netherlands it’s always been a two-edged sword. I’m sure that it was an amateur hobbyist state of mind that essentially “launched” Incubate (please, Incubate dudes, tell me if I’m wrong) but still acts as a subliminal brake on the labels – in that, who takes the part time labels seriously here? Not the Hilversum media as you say, not even the semi-official organisations like Subbacultcha… not really, REALLY, deep down. Weird that practising the same sort of amateur-level hobbyism can be both an incentive and a difficulty. And I must say that Factory’s utopian-authortarian policy towards accounts and artwork (as in Tacitus’s sense of the Pax Romana – “to pacify we make a desert”) wouldn’t work here. In fact some of the Ultra bunch tried it and failed miserably.
4. Polish stuff
(Tjeerd) We should mention that Incubate this year was also a “Polish experience”. Every country has its own set of adventurous and experimental underground bands, but I didn’t know much about Poland. Actually I only knew that former Incubate booker Peter Meeuwsen had gone to Poland on several occasions to check out one or another festival and filled my social media timelines with enthusiastic remarks. It should’ve triggered me back then, but I had my eye on the Netherlands, Italy and the usual Anglo-Saxon, American suspects. Luckily the Polish Ministry of Culture and National Heritage thought it wise to finance a project for cutting edge Polish bands to come to Tilburg giving me (erm, us) the opportunity to under go bands such as Baaba, Hokei and Innercity Ensemble. The last named band took me on a real trip; I actually zoned out, drifted of in a world between sleep and reality. In sound they are somewhat comparable to The Boxhead Ensemble and what they did in the late nineties; building up a sound that took you elsewhere but here. But I must say that Hokei and Baaba also shook me. Both in a different way, but both bringing in elements of jazz into rock or – in the case of Hokei – into Fugazi-like posthardcore. Strikingly good bands, but what struck me most was the simple fact that the Polish Ministry of Culture sees it worthy to put money into a project that promotes the unique sound of ‘the underground’. It makes me wonder if the Netherlands has ever or will ever even consider the promoting of the own subversive, instead of setting up projects to bring bands such as Go Back To The Zoo or Chef’s Special abroad, bands with a sound that all European countries already have covered. But don’t get me wrong, I’d love to see these bands abroad. Preferably 52 weeks in the year.