October 2, 2014
by Jasper Willems
Martijn Tevel has a penchant for writing these short stories. They usually start out idyllic, yet turn the corner on a whim. That kind of quaint Kafkaesque imagery is very much a fixture within his band The Sweet Release of Death‘s erratic sonic cascades. The Rotterdam-based noise rock trio enjoy a tenuous balancing act between bliss and peril within the concise space of their songs.
Whenever I do my weekly run, I pass by the Kunsthal near the park, where both Tevel and Alicia Breton Ferrer work. Martijn is always kind enough to fill my water bottle, and I’ve been calling him Judah Martijn ever since he first obliged to do so. But even the kindest of souls are not without darker traits.
“Those stories usually come to me in times of seclusion and peril.”, Martijn explains. “I can be a pretty aggressive person as well.” One story involves squeezing a neighbor’s pet chihuahua to death and leaving its corpse in the shower. “The story’s really about Spijkenisse, where the three of us grew up. It started with revisiting places from my youth. I decided to finish it when my girlfriend broke up with me.” He semi-mockingly lets out resonant sigh, as if a relief washes over him.
“We were discussing this in Poland, about losing stuff, having things stolen from you. If I’d lose my guitar… I would just stand up and walk casually towards the Spijkenisse bridge. And jump off. For me, that would be the way to go.” He pauses briefly, and smirks.”But of course, that’s not what I want at all! I could never seriously consider doing such disturbing things.” Martijn explains this is the same thing Murakami and Salinger apply in their novels, using reality as a starting point for a fictional narrative. Tevel professes an admiration for someone like Tyler The Creator, who likewise uses disturbing imagery in his lyrics to move the listener. Writing and playing music is just a vehicle for him to blow off steam. Alicia too has her zany idiosyncrasies, expressing herself through her work as a filmmaker, director photographer and illustrator. She directed videos by Cusack, Space Siren and her own band, and even made a low budget horror flick about zombies in lingerie, Meisjes van de Dood.
Tevel (guitar), Breton Ferrer (bass & vocals) and Sven Engelsman (drums) have been enjoying the perks their new rehearsal space at SoundPort, a large building block, hold. Tevel: “Here, we are able to rehearse twice a week, for roughly the same amount of money we used to spend on just a single rehearsal at our old place. Plus the fact that we have a key… We can get in whenever we want, and we can finally play with our own gear. I mean, that alone’s been a big difference to us. Especially once you become a bit more serious about making music, you relish having the extra time to put work into it. Our previous space was more of a hangout, where we would socialize more. Here we can really go to work, we’ve become more prolific as a result.”
Gradually, the band has been working in new material to their shows, to complement the material off their wicked debut LP, “Bulb”, recorded by the one and only Corno Zwetsloot (Space Siren) at his Katzwijm studio. Zwetsloot, notorious for his tough love approach, has really whipped the band into shape, evident by The Sweet Release of Death’s exceptional show at Rotown during Rotterdam’s Eendracht festival. Alicia: “I can’t believe the way they announced us there… *bellows out mock heavy metal growl* “The Sweet Release of Deathhhhh…!”
Ever since coming out from the other side of the Katzwijm-sessions, The Sweet Release of Death have really embraced playing hard-to-get during live shows with their music’s gossamer mood swings. Watching fellow townsfolk The Afterveins jump gregariously into the fray with their electrifying rough-and-tumble shenanigans is a sight to see… Yet there is something to be said about The Sweet Release of Death’s more methodical and steady refinements with each performance. “We sort of eased into what we do.” Alicia explains. “There was some critique, because there weren’t any moments in our set to settle in and help build a certain tension.” “The studio has really changed our outlook on performing, definitely…”, Martijn adds.
Alicia: “Not just Corno, but people in general kind of pointed out that – because our songs are kind of short and fleeting – that moment of tension never arises.”
Martijn: “Before we worked with Corno, we were playing on tenterhooks, working through our set kind of anxiously and abruptly.” Alicia: “Which in turn made tuning or stage banter in-between songs kind of awkward.”
Martijn: “I feel we can still improve a lot in that, it making things flow a bit better.”
Alicia: “My ideal set would make pleasantries like saying “thank you” obsolete.”
Next to Sven’s clean, razor-edged drumming lashing at the music’s prickly nerves, Alicia’s passive-aggressive delivery belies her saccharine-sweet voice. Like Kim Deal, she brings her instrument to the forefront, which perhaps stems from her time playing keys in King Kong Klub (Sven manned the skins in that band as well). “Whenever you play in a band as a threesome, the bass often serves as an undercurrent… That kind of equates to more straightforward music. I like to apply more of a melodic element.”, she says.
This gives Tevel free reign to experiment lavishly with a vast array of custom-made effect pedals. He utilizes them differently than friend and counterpart Marijn Westerlaken (Those Foreign Kids), who treats that huge myriad of effects like some drunken orchestra. Tevel is more concerned with what the song itself demands. “There is not a whole lot to work with being a three-piece band. I try to really fill a lot of the melodic space by adding kind of singular sounds. I use a lot of delay, which is basically my bread and butter in every song we do. When I first started making music, The Thermals was like the ultimate band to me. Fucking amazing, but that’s not the kind of music I aim to make. I want it to sound interesting, even though it’s just the three of us. We’re not the typical rock trio, our movements within the music… There’s a lot more going on there.” Sometimes, this means leaving out any embellishment whatsoever. “At the moment, we’re working on a song that’s completely stripped of effects, it’s completely clean.”
The Sweet Release of Death have had a successful string of shows the past two years, including a slot at Sounddrive Festival in Poland alongside bands such as Connan Mockasin and Still Corners. In Poland, they have garnered a strong following, and a tight camaraderie with some of the local bands there. “We felt a kinship with the people in Poland”, Martijn explains. “For the first time, we were playing for a crowd that was completely unfamiliar with our music. We were still very tentative whether or not we were on the right track. A lot of the times, we couldn’t really gauge whether our music was getting across to the people we played for. Whether they really appreciated it. We were still in the process of recording our first album, which is usually a stage when a band is still sort of on the fence, still questioning if the material is any good. In retrospect, playing these shows in Poland was a revelation to us, to the overall mentality of the band. The hesitancy is completely over.”
Last night, they performed a brand new song called “Pawel Is Dead”, named after one of the band’s friends from Krakow. Sven:”When we were back home, Pawel updated his Facebook-page, saying ‘Pawel is dead, because hangover!’ We thought that was hilarious!”
Operating on a different playing field, The Sweet Release of Death realize their music could make an impact on people on their own terms, given the right stage. “On the event pages there, we were initially compared to The Ex”, Alicia remembers. “In Poland, they know The Ex really well, to an extent where they used their name to refer to other bands.” Like The Ex, The Sweet Release of Death adamantly refuse to sign on any record label, preferring a DIY-modus operandi for the time being. When asked about considering signing on a label, all three band members ardently defend their choice to be autonomous as a group.
Sven: “Labels like Subroutine and Geertruida are close friends of ours who have really helped us set up gigs. At one point we’ve spent three months woo’ing labels, which was basically three months down the drain. Eventually we discovered we could make a lot of stuff happen without any aid of a record label.”
Martijn: “We used to think it was important. But as it turns out, it really isn’t. We should have released “Bulb” independently right off the bat. At first we were pretty ambivalent about it, to piecemeal ourselves back into this music scene, to gain a bit of notoriety again. It wasn’t working out for us. We felt like pariahs. It really took awhile before we figured out we were pretty effective doing things by ourselves.”
Alicia: “I remember Geertruida saying they liked our demo’s better than the songs that made the record, whereas the three of us were really excited by the way the album turned out. It may not fit the proclivity of what’s all-the-rage these days…” Sven: “It’s the way we believe The Sweet Release of Death should sound like. As for the recordings we did beforehand, we actually thought the opposite.”
Martijn: “Now we’re not even considering it. When we record something new, it’ll be on our own terms. We would love to work with Corno again. As for those other labels, we are great friends with all of them. If we want to play a Geertruida showcase for instance, they will hook us up.” Alicia: “Koen (ter Heegde, Subroutine, ed.) really helped us establish connections in Poland, which helped us get some gigs there. Just helping one another out, that’s the most important thing. Label or no label, it’s hard labour either way.”
Martijn: “If I look at what we have accomplished thus far, we can honestly say we’re happy where we are now. We’ve toured through Poland, we have released our first full-length and we’re getting plenty of requests to play. All those experiences allow us to let go of certain stuff whenever we feel entitled to do so. If we’ll always remain that “leuke undergroundbandje” here, it’s no big deal to us. There are more places for us to explore. That’s why it’s so important to be able to do it ourselves.”
As implied in the beginning of this article, there is something oddly quaint about The Sweet Release of Death’s volatile moon-stricken pounce. While Alicia stresses the songs are highly personal, albeit no self-pitying perusal to speak of…On the contrary, there’s more of an ecstasy going on. As the band admits to undergoing a steep learning curve, a riff like “30 Dances” is already quite an amazing feat to write. “Objectively speaking, the best song on “Bulb””, Martijn muses. “The first draft of the song was just the heavy guitar bit. It was kind of more expansive structure-wise, compared to now.”
Like a prancing, punch drunk leper, the melody mediates affection and disdain to a point where you can’t differentiate between them. There’s that preeminent buoyancy…. The feeling you get by sticking your head out of the car window whilst driving. A seemingly innocent, yet self-destructive act at the same time. It makes sense that The Sweet Release of Death are not the types to wallow in private bedroom angst, they are more bookish in a sense… Allowing aesthetics from outside influences to filter through their narrative. Martijn admits to reading a lot of Kafka, Salinger and Murakami, while Alicia mentions Jean Cocteau and Miranda July.
“”Remember Moonlight” definitely draws from Cocteau’s Les Enfants Terribles”, Martijn reveals. Martijn and Alicia briefly discuss the book’s subject matter, with Martijn pointing out its (sic) “self-destructive, obsessive” sentiment. The Sweet Release of Death, the name itself has Greek Tragedy written all over it. “At least once a year, both Martijn and myself undergo this lengthy “emo”-period. Not that we’re dyeing our hair black and just be wretched all the time”, she emphasizes. “But there are certain feelings you can’t really do without. The darker feelings trigger the most creativity.”
“It’s basically feeling shitty and longing to become a hermit, and at the same time acknowledging that this is impossible to do”, Martijn adds. “Both Alicia and myself have those feelings. I’m consider myself to be a pretty sociable guy and I’m doing well most of the time… But there are times where I’m the exact opposite.” Alicia: “I think our songs channel that sense of solitude, wanting to live under a rock. Not just feelings of sadness, but a sense of relief and happiness as well. That’s also something you could harness.”