Luifabriek interview Nouveau Vélo: “The most important thing’s that we can perform music that’s inherently ‘us'”

March 1, 2015
by Jasper Willems

“Watch out for the blue lights!”, Nouveau Vélo’s Rolf Hupkes warns us on Blue Lights, the seventh track of the Brabo healing pop group’s eponymous debut LP.

Turning 32 today, I – should – count myself lucky. Listening for months to Nouveau Vélo’s first full-length effort, I’ve come to realize – hailing from Brabant myself – there’s something I need to get off my chest: I’ve never learnt how to ride a bike across the city without completely freaking out. It’s this neurotic mental whammy I conveniently blame on the Asperger’s syndrome I’ve been coping with all my life. Even though ‘syndrome’ has this negative connotation, I prefer to simply call it a cute lil’ quirk. This is completely beside the point.

Thing is, I really do enjoy the vibrant city life, but it winds me up superfluously each and every day. Even as a mere pedestrian strolling downtown Rotterdam, I wait on the cars turning the corner several yards away, the cuckoo drug addict speaking in tongues, the obnoxious street salesmen and women ‘conveniently’ treading across your trajectory, the tram lines zipping along the traffic lights, the Evel Knievel-wannabes perpetually haunted by night sweats after watching A Bronx Tale…well, everything basically, before I even allow my right foot to touch the zebra crossing. Imagine keeping tabs on those things at three times the speed? Gawd! Basically, I would die, right?

In fact, I almost did, one time in Utrecht: I had this internship at a community center, and one day I had the fool’s audacity to shepherd a bunch of kids to the bowling alley. I fell at the intersection, an incoming Volkswagen screeched to a halt just in time and the kids gave me a ribbing the rest of the way. From that point on, I kind of stopped being embarrassed about it. I mean, let’s face it, it’s kind of funny and ridiculous, isn’t it?

Perhaps subconsciously, this is why I’ve become so blatantly obsessed en enamored with Nouveau Vélo’s music, releasing a record last year that reaches far beyond quaint stylistics, creating this spectral, fragmented riptide, tugging at the candid struggles we all have to face sooner or later. “Music that pulls at the odd loose thread in the settled pattern of Dutch life”, as one review aptly put it. Obviously, this band holds no pretense to ‘reach the top’ or hope to achieve the “on-Nederlands goede” pipe dream of fame and prosperity.

Illumination

As a matter of fact, Hupkes, Niek Leenders, Bart Haverkort and Twan Welten are preoccupied with a different kind of dream, one that manifests itself inward. You see, once you hit your mid-twenties, your ideals tend to shift from the present towards the future: have that nice house, have a spouse, have that 9-to-5 job, have some beautiful kids and sufficient wealth to live to lament your existence in a rocking chair. But… it’s not that simple, is it? It never is. So instead of laying claim to enlightenment, Nouveau Vélo’s glinting, sweeping pop gems go lost and adrift in a haze of doubts and self-inquiry. “Are you still here, stuck in rewind?”, Hupkes muses on Still Here, attempting to rally himself to hide his tears, stand up straight and leave his grief behind.

“Whenever we’re rehearsing together, it feels like an escape. We can finally steer clear from the strain of our daily lives and do something completely different”, the singer, guitarist and (part-time) drummer tells us over a pint at Light Vessel 11, a makeshift restaurant anchored at Rotterdam’s Wijnhaven where Nouveau Vélo is scheduled to perform. At such a homely place, performing musicians stick out even more than at a regular venue, always emanating this ‘air of cool’. The four individuals sitting beside me are the complete antithesis: an unassuming, humble bunch struggling to articulate themselves beyond small talk and simply having a laugh. They have no substantial ‘message’ to communicate within their music, no ready-made answers to show for the given questions. As Bart asks for some coupons at the counter, the waitress momentarily gives him a puzzled glance. “Oh wait, you’re with the band!”

It is kind of puzzling isn’t it, why so many musicians humblebrag their way to ‘relevancy’, whilst true humility is somehow frowned upon. “The band is just a hobby”, Rolf downplays at one point, just like he downplayed it when Nouveau Vélo’s appeared at popular Dutch talk show De Wereld Draait Door. Hupkes attempted to explain to show host Matthijs van Nieuwkerk why the band’s Noorderslag-gig is more about simply enjoying themselves, rather than treating it like some make-or-break thing. This was widely misunderstood as simply ‘not giving much of a crap’. “The most important thing’s that we can perform music that’s inherently ‘us'”, Leenders explains. “Especially compared to three years ago, we’ve become bolder, writing more personal songs.” It’s really tempting to cross-reference Sean Connery’s line in The Last Crusade here, about the Holy Grail not being a prize, simply a quest to find some sort of illumination (sic). I wonder which is more important?

Wait For Me

Nouveau Vélo’s newly displayed emotional depth is astounding, especially when you consider that – at first – it wasn’t always as palpable. The first EPs Courgette, Moestuin and Daze displayed a handful of waft, ethereal and happy-go-lucky toe-tappers. Tunes like The Beginning Of It All and What To Do (“I want to sound like Jozef K/We don’t care what our parents say”) encompass the wide-eyed wanderlust inherent to a bunch of small town kids. Summer Hit/Winter Version’s cheeky off-beat serenade could’ve been penned by a young Jonathan Richman.

Once they released Moestuin independently, fad Dutch blogs had easy license to peg Nouveau Vélo as the ‘polder equivalent’ to indie-darlings DIIV, Crystal Stilts and Real Estate. The notable difference of course being Nouveau Vélo’s more grounded, garden-variety approach, aptly and faithfully reflecting their modest outset. Suffice is to say, here wasn’t much to do in tiny provincial Laarbeek, but it gave these four high school students all the more incentive to bond over a mutual interest: guitar-based music.

Upon bringing it up, Haverkort, the band’s pragmatic no bullshit taker, shares a brief moment of jeer with Niek: “I still remember exactly how I found out you played the guitar. At a local gas station, I saw guitar chords written on your hands.” Noticeably embarrassed whilst confessing the song in question, Niek tells us to keep it off the record. Bart: “Basically, we made all kinds of horrible music at first. It took some soul searching.” Niek: “Drinking beer and hanging at the local discotheque was more of a priority at first.” Rolf then tells us de band juggled with many different line-ups over the years, forcing him to basically switch from piano to guitar to drums and back.

One day, Eindhoven’s resident indie rock paragon Joep Van Son (Nikoo, The Sugarettes) attended one of Nouveau Vélo’s gigs and rang the bell. Promptly, things went abuzz. “If you check the number of listeners on our Bandcamp-page, you can see this huge peak on that exact date”, Haverkort reflects. He jokingly adds: “We were like, do we have to go all the way to Eindhoven? Really?” Niek: “We kept sending demo’s out. It’s just that we had no idea where to begin. Once people started taking us seriously, it was kind of a shocker.”

Not long after appearing on the national radar, Nouveau Vélo got drafted by the Popronde, a prominent Dutch live music platform. Unfortunately, drummer Twan Welten fell ill just as de band was set to play the first few dates. “It’s difficult to explain”, Welten ponders. “I’ve been out of the running a good year-and-a-half. Luckily, I nearly made a full-recovery. I gave Rolf my consent to continue doing live shows on drums until I got back.” A strange kind of providence as it turns out: Rolf’s rudimentary take on the drums shaped Nouveau Vélo’s sound for the better, applying an ascending Neu!-like propulsion to the music. Per usual, Haverkort puts it as matter-of-fact as possible: “No present without the past. It always makes a difference.”

Find A Way

Interestingly enough, Nouveau Vélo’s 2013 EP Daze (Subroutine) was recorded at Amsterdam’s Bijlmer district, a far cry from Helmond, Laarbeek or Beek en Donk. In retrospect, this six-song recording became the necessary stepping stone between Moestuin and the full-length, although there were still some voids left to fill. Welten’s absence forced Nouveau Velo to rethink their disposition with his eventual return safe in mind. Their growth as a trio on stage got rewarded by  joining the Belmont Bookings-roster and playing slots at Incubate and Into The Great Wide Open two years ago. In this band, however, friendship always trumps lofty ambition, and with Welten back in the fold Nouveau Vélo has been performing at the height of their powers.

It became all the more obvious that one doesn’t necessarily need the big city to dream big dreams. Growing restless, Rolf returned home to Laarbeek to live with his girlfriend. “I was done living in Amsterdam for various reasons. But most of all I wanted to be close to my family.” “We feel we maintain a stronger kinship to our roots than most people we run into”, Niek adds. “We basically wanted to show our parents, our aunts and uncles and our grandparents what it is we do.” The day after this interview, Nouveau Vélo presented their new album at Café van de Burgt in Beek en Donk, where Haverkort has been working part-time as a bartender to this day. Rolf: “Our family can now simply take their bikes. No need to go all the way to Eindhoven, right?”

Even whilst playing further out, Nouveau Vélo finds a way to keep their kinship to home close by. For their pending show at Paradiso next Wednesday, they hired a bus traveling from Beek en Donk all the way to Amsterdam and back. On March 8th, Nouveau Vélo is set to perform at this year’s Where The Wild Things Are festival.  Buy your tickets here!