Luifabriek interview Niek Hilkmann: “I pick the side of those who end up lost in translation.”

December 18, 2014
by Jasper Willems

Last year, Niek Hilkmann ditched his Yoshimi!-moniker to fully embrace the Dutch native tongue. Not just to evoke his own songcraft more vividly; as Hilkmann has a point to make. Coining his music De Nieuwe Nederlandse Naïviteit (The New Dutch Naivity) is a”positive” call to arms against the disconnect caused by Dutch artists’ continued obeisance to English and American music.

The disparities between the Dutch and English language isn’t lost on us either. After all, we at Luifabriek deliberately publish articles in English to level the playing field a bit between Dutch and international music. That may sound a bit naive, but if that’s what it takes to hold homegrown talent at face value, we’ll keep at it. As we visit Niek Hilkmann‘s apartment at the periphery of downtown Rotterdam, he doesn’t mind us applying the same to him:  “I basically take this stance because I feel there is an abundance of Dutch music sung and written in English. It’s nice to offer something different for a change.”

Hilkmann’s a sharp-witted interviewee. For instance, where most musicians would utter the hackneyed term ‘creative process’ with a straight face, Hilkmann seems ambivalent, sidestepping this verbal pitfall by enclosing the two words in brackets. “I suppose you’ll be adding a ton of inverted commas by the time you write all this stuff down”, he quips.

Briefly exploring Hilkmann’s place reveals a vast array of obsessions: musical instruments, vintage game sets, artifacts and paintings, a VHS collection of B-movies, floppy disks, many many books, ranging from scientific to poetry. ‘Obsessions’ puts it quite negatively, really: Hilkmann is simply unusually curious about the world he inhabits, immersing himself completely into anything that sparks his interest. Pick up or point towards any random object between these walls and Niek will tell a compelling story about it. One is about a postcard of the Tower of the Apocalypse in Belgium, whose builder Robert Garcet believed in a pacifist civilization that lived before the prehistoric age.

While it’s easy to dismiss someone like Garcet as some loony, you can’t deny the weight of his message, materializing and transmitting these strong beliefs into this huge sanctuary. Nor can you deny that upon further inspection, his outsider take on established history and doctrine makes you – at the very least – stop to think things through a bit. In a way, the same can be said about Hilkmann’s body of work with Yoshimi! and other projects. His endearingly flimsy stage antics may seem like haphazard buffoonery for the casual bystander, a closer look reveals a much deeper, more serious undercurrent.

The Palindroom/Kapot split single you released recently seems to draw from things that end up in pieces. It’s a recurring thing in the videos you make as well.

“Let’s just say that I’ve become pretty preoccupied with all things broken in pieces beyond repair. Or things that have never really amounted to anything.”

Like the dodo? I’ve noticed that dodo skull replica lying on the shelf. You have actually done a conceptual piece about that. Is that what sort of kickstarted your inspiration?

“Ah, I assume you’ve seen the Dodo Drama video I did last year? To me, the dodo is the iconic image of something that has ceased to exist completely, yet somehow took on a completely different shape throughout history. In fact, there is no definitive representation of the creature’s true appearance, which been distorted by so many different sources through the centuries. By the time the dodo went extinct, it found a second life in literature and fiction, Alice In Wonderland being the most famous example. To me, the birds do not only represent extinction, but human incompetence as well. It’s generally assumed that the dodos pretty much brought their annihilation upon themselves, being fat and clumsy, when in reality they were probably slim and able. It’s an example of historiography always choosing the side of the winner. The ‘real’ dodo only became ‘real’ after the first man laid eyes on it. What we know about the bird now is based on how it was described by people who didn’t even do that. However, these are also the ones who projected ideas upon it and created images that got stuck. This happens all the time and not only with dodo’s. Plenty of objects, plants, animals, stories and human beings end up lost in translation.”

“This is actually a pretty fitting allegory to a lot of my personal views. Often times, I end up picking the side of the ones who end up lost in translation. To me at least, that’s more interesting. It’s impossible to know the true dodo now. I’m pretty sure that there are plenty of other things I will never know the true extent of, but I’d rather be unquestionably wrong about something than ‘insightfully’ settle for a complete lack of conviction. You often see people falling into relativism, just so that they can keep something which doesn’t fit into their lives at bay. The misfits deserve better than that. Let me put it this way: when you happen to have an unusually large nose at elementary school, you’re an outcast by default. I find it quite riveting when something ever so slightly out of the box gets vindicated. Some consideration should not be too much to ask for.”

You have coined your music De Nieuwe Nederlandse Naïviteit (The New Dutch Naivity), ardently criticizing Dutch artists’ testimonial to English and American pop music. According to you, it creates a disconnect in Dutch pop music that dulls its potential to sharply reflect its demographic.

“I basically take this stance because I feel there is an abundance of Dutch music sung and written in English. There are bands who use English as a imitative pretext that doesn’t enable them to fully express what they’re trying to get across. A lot of that gets lost in translation. It’s basically a simulacrum of something that’s been done better in the past. The average Dutch singer-songwriter isn’t exactly Joni Mitchell. Feeling compelled to sing about a deceased loved one in English – to me, that’s kind of strange. I notice a lot of Dutch bands ripping off a particular paradigm, completely ignorant of what made that music special to begin with. A good example being the current wave of bands applying the stylistics of that 90’s British psychedelic rock sound. For example, a band like Spacemen 3. No one can replicate the intangibles that truly characterized their music.*

*Well for one, no one’s going to take the amount of drugs they did.
 
And those who try end up as a pastiche more often than not.

“Exactly. Another funny example being the recent testimonial by Harold Schellinx of the ULTRA movement. There were at least twenty people paying their respects and romanticizing it. If that’s what it takes to validate some terrific Dutch music, I honestly don’t mind. But I do mind it completely eclipsing other music from that same era, the Uitholling Overdwars compilation LP for instance. Those artists made some really terrific original music in the Dutch lingo. For some reason, that stuff hasn’t been as obtainable to people.”

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Tell me more about Uitholling Overdwars.

“Basically it was an attempt to pioneer the Dutch counterpart to the Neue Deutsche Welle, artists who administer pop sensibilities yet still maintain punk-like aesthetics. My cup of tea, really! Some of the bands actually made it big: Doe Maar and Toontje Lager were figureheads in the movement during the late seventies. Both of them eventually tailored a more commercially appealing sound. The whole LP is strangely beautiful; one half of the artists found an audience, while the other half withered into complete obscurity. If you ask me which band I enjoy more, De Div or Tedje en De Flikkers, I would say Tedje en De Flikkers each and every time! They’re marvelous! Tedje en De Flikkers actually did find some moderate success in the end, appearing on national TV in 2003 and getting thumbs ups from the queer scene with lyrics like ‘Ik ben een hoer’ (I am a hooker).’ There is a very thin line between failing as an artist and being dismissed as a complete wacko. Uitholling Overdwars is a nice example of a record where this line has been blurred. Once you put Lepeltje by Dorpsstraat, a song about someone’s discomfort with getting a fork with his soup, next to Doe Maar, you’ll realize it’s basically the same idea.

Has the Dutch language been a revelation to you personally as well?

“It’s definitely coming easier now. Singing in Dutch makes music less of a machismo-thing, I feel. It’s nice to help other musicians facing a similar crossroads as well. I’m not just talking about Ricky De Sire, with whom I play now and then. But what I admire about Ricky, is that he commits himself to music full-time, up to a point where ‘good taste’ is no longer a creative issue. People often misinterpret his lyrics as a joke. Well, Dubbele Penetratie for instance is funny and brilliant…not to mention completely truthful! It’s an ode to someone who happens to like this sort of sexual activity next to a range of other things, such as cats and Chopin. For the most part, Ricky De Sire accurately documents his life into songs. When you listen to some of the lyrics, this can be a bit disturbing at times. I really enjoy performing and working with Ricky, because he is another one of those people who doesn’t mind falling overboard as long as he is true to himself.”

“Once an artist isn’t easily compartmentalized into a processed image, people have trouble tapping into it. Harry Merry for instance has presided extremely well over his craft the last few years, making highly original music within his own set of rules. Him singing the way he does in that sailor suit makes the bystander somewhat uncomfortable. A show like Man Bijt Hond then tries to ‘normalize’ it, when in fact, they’re shoehorning him into some dog and pony show. I curated a festival called Ver Uit De Maat at WORM where similarly unique artist perform, to hopefully emphasize that these type of musicians really aren’t all that weird. They are pretty commonplace, actually. Their lack of exposure only attributes to the fact that they tend to fall in-between the seams. While in fact, there is no ‘normative human being’. It’s just something forced upon you that only causes frustration once you try to appease it.”

It’s kind of everywhere in popular media, that ‘normative human being’. Three out of four men nominated for Esquire’s Best Dressed Man are dressed in a suit. Who won again? Danny Vera? Dave von Raven?

“Dave is actually a fine example of someone commodifying something that doesn’t really fit the ‘normative’. You know, recapturing the glory of those old Nederbeat singles. I really enjoy that, and there’s some really good stuff in there as well. Especially those older The Madd-singles, before they signed to Excelsior, those are excellent! I really enjoy that music and I appreciate the effort that The Kik is putting into bringing it to a larger audience, but there is a darker side to this story. I’m a big fan of female beat artists like Leontien Snel and Els Molenaar as well. It’s inspiring watching people like that make music under their own name. It’s part of the reason why I started doing that myself. Well, to be perfectly honest, I’m actually not quite sure yet why I chose to do so. I guess it comes down to this: by performing as Niek Hilkmann, I have no reason left to deceive the audience.”

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Does it bother you though, whenever an artist like Dave von Raven chooses to be submissive to commodify music that doesn’t abide to modern trends and stylistics?

“That’s the thing, by then you’ve become that endearing zealot who exhibits his niche as a form of mass-entertainment. Subsequently you cold-call Armand to play Ben Ik Te Min with you on stage… Like he did during ‘de veelste grote nederbiet show’. I mean, that man has released over four decades of great music. It’s a bit irritating that this holds more entertainment value than personal value. To me, that’s not the essence of that music. Since we’ve been discussing Dutch pop history, I’d like to point out that the alternative music scenes have been just as condescending towards popular Dutch chansonneurs like Rob de Nijs and Liesbeth List. That’s quality stuff right there. Whenever I listen to a tune like De Pieper, I always scoff at the song’s subject matter, in this case losing virginity, but the lyrics and arrangements are simply top shelf.”

“Wait, allow me to play you this one song. It’s one of my biggest recent discoveries. The song is called Ik Ben Al Een Tijd Mijn Geheugen Kwijt. I’ll let you listen first without giving away the singer.”

*Niek plays Luifabriek the song and eventually concedes once the following lyric is sung:
Ik ramde een lantarenpaal, een standbeeld en een huis/De politie is op zoek naar mij en ik zit rustig thuis

“That particular line would’ve given it away, because I’m not familiar with any singer besides Pierre Kartner (more widely known under his Vader Abraham-moniker) who could get away with rhyming “huis” and “thuis”. Lately I’ve been performing this song live. I haven’t had much interest doing covers in the past, but this song I couldn’t resist. It’s a virtue by itself to perform a song like this without making some droll mockery out of it. Being ‘funny’ is one thing, being ‘witty’ is another, do you know what I mean?”

When performing, do you try to subvert the notion that many people initially think you’re just ‘being funny’?

“Well…I have performed in judo gear and I’ve done ten-minute medleys consisting of songs by Trio (German Neue Welle group, ed.). Perhaps you need a drink or two first before getting your kicks out of that, but I don’t drink alcohol myself. I sometimes feel this might be the one thing that could make me into an outside artist. Not everything I do might be the best way to communicate what I try to achieve… But where would we be if nothing could go wrong? Lots of great music is a gilding of error. It’s hard to convince people that you offer more than entertainment, though, when the industry expects you to tag yourself. Circumstances at festivals can be quite horrid. I still have difficulty shutting out people screaming and slurring as I’m trying to channel as tune like Dissonant Akkoordje. The virtue is to remain as outgoing and upbeat as possible during the time that you are given. Laughing about it would be a logical first response at least, because a song like Dissonant Akkoordje invokes feelings of discomfort. That said, there are usually about four or five people who seem to ‘get it’.”

Do you feel the need to intentionally keep your songs somewhat cryptic? Or do you gradually feel compelled to show your bones a bit more?

“I feel I’m being truthful. A song sung about your dog passing away only sounds funny when you’re not listening at all. All of my songs initially come across as whimsical, but they genuinely tackle some pretty heavy stuff. Collie is a song about my dog, but of course she isn’t the first to die. We’ve all had our share of grief and depression. However, Trixie was a Welsh Corgi and not a border collie like the dog in the song. Some stuff is better changed or left unsaid and I guess that’s the point really. Tragedy only becomes lifelike once you hold something different to the light on the other end.”

Niek Hilkmann’s curated Ver Uit De Maat Festival will kick off next Sunday. His new album called Knak will be released early 2015.

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