March 11, 2016
by Jasper Willems
Back in the day, people used to love going to the arcades. Five tokens. One game. And hopefully, beat that game before all the tokens were spent. Usually, that was wishful thinking. But nevertheless, really really fun! Further, the inevitability of running out of tokens in the back of your mind only made you try harder not to friggin’ lose. It’s nothing like the games of today, which play out like interactive movies that grant the player an infinite amount of lives to live. Which ultimately instills a sense of ennui, or boredom, regardless of how lifelike the graphics get.
Much like playing those old arcade games, listening to Amber Arcades’ debut LP Fading Lines from start to finish only makes you want to play it over and over again. The album was recorded in New York by Dutch songwriter Annelotte de Graaf in just two weeks time. She spent ten years worth of savings on two brief but inspiring weeks. And after that – just maybe – emerge on the other side with a masterpiece.
The result is – at the very least – close: ten incandescent tunes that, at times, harken back to surrealist pop paragons like Stereolab, Broadcast and Yo La Tengo. Amber Arcades’ music propels personal reflections of life on an emotional treadmill. Sometimes instilling this mirage-like daze, but alternately, the music ignites with the cosmic velocity of a Higgs Boson particle, like on helical afterburner Turning Light.
By and large, there’s an immediacy, a nowness to this LP that’s joyous. It’s not an album that hauls the listener through a wormhole of narrative confessionals. These songs perpetuate this feeling of unadulterated, existential bliss. The song Constant’s Dream for instance opens with the line “What do you want to see before you die?”. That could be a mortifying premise by itself. But De Graaf’s lilting vocals immediately turn this inevitable prospect into something light…something wholesome, timeless and uplifting.
We meet Annelotte, a naturally attractive, no nonsense, no frills girl, at one of her favorite taverns in downtown Utrecht. Even amidst the roaring confab of the regulars, her chirpy voice rings out through the room. At the moment, De Graaf is juggling both her job at the Dutch Immigration and Naturalisation Service and an increasingly busy nascent musical career. This in a time where many great Dutch alternative bands, such as Subroutine Records stalwarts Naive Set and Nouveau Vélo opt for a more “hobbyist trajectory”. Both of these bands released incredible records over the past two years. Nevertheless, they have to have to work their musical endeavors around family life and the whole nine-to-five grind.
By comparison, Amber Arcades is definitely a more adventurous operation: releasing Fading Lines on UK label Heavenly Recordings, enlisting Ben Greenberg (The Men, Beach Fossils) as producer and performing at SXSW in March. Annelotte: ‘This is definitely the time of my life to pursue music, because amidst all the touring and not having a lot of money, it’s just fine. I don’t have kids or a mortgage to worry about at this stage of my life. Plus, I love moving around a lot and touring, the whole insecurity aspect of it.’
Fading Lines documents Annelotte’s wide-eyed soulsearching, her intent on filling life to the brim with all these different experiences. ‘You know what my favorite book is? Siddhartha by Hermann Hesse, which is loosely inspired I think by Buddhism. I’m not a Buddisht myself per se, but I definitely find that story interesting. because it depicts all these different phases in Siddhartha’s life: a rich kid, a son of a king or prince or whatever. Then he leaves that behind and immerses himself in living ascetically in the woods, just meditating. Then he became like a salesman, part of the bourgeois…he really seems to live many different lives into one. That’s my biggest goal in life I guess, to also experience all these different kinds of lives!’
Music just happens to be one of them. Her parents encouraged Annelotte play the violin at an early age, and later the guitar. She didn’t particularly enjoy playing “only classical stuff”. De Graaf tells Louder Than War she basically had to unlearn some preconceived notions to actually start enjoying it. ‘I’ve heard some people say the make music because they want to be remembered when they’re gone. That’s not really why I’m making music. I can imagine that after ten years or so, (making music) will lose its charm somewhat. I mean, I love doing it now…and maybe I’ll still be making music in ten years. But then maybe I won’t…’ She pauses briefly.
‘Because there is still so much other stuff I still want to do and experience, you know? I studied law and I would love to become a lawyer someday. Music’s great and all… but so is a lot of other stuff. I have a lot of friends who work as lawyers now, who always have the best stories about these strange cases and the clients they represent. And it’s super interesting to talk to them about it. I would love to experience that kind of life too someday.’
Annelotte also helps run the Dutch branch of the World Wide Opportunities On Organic Farms (or WWOOF) foundation. ‘I’m interested in living off the grid and growing your own organic food. In twenty years I’d love to buy a farm somewhere in Portugal and have some chickens! It’s amazing, I find that idea very fulfilling. Just to see something grow, I guess it’s the most basic of fulfillments you can get. It’s probably like this really old part of your brain or something that’s like “Yessss! Seeing this grow, I can eat it!” And it tastes so good when you grow it yourself. I don’t know if that’s actually physically a thing that it tastes better or maybe it’s simply in your own mind. Either way, it tastes better.’
Even within the musical spectrum, Annelotte enjoys picking fruit from all the different trees, without worrying about how she’s going to be perceived as an artist. One of her early projects was a band called Oh Brave Wide Eyes, an introspective folk duo with luscious vocal harmonies. The earlier Amber Arcades work went on a similarly folksy route, albeit more raw and emotive. Recently, Annelotte formed Boner Petit, a loosey-goosey indie-rock band with Amber Arcades-members that gives her free reign to venture into more silly, or random territories.
‘I only started to think seriously about music very recently, I guess I’m a late bloomer. The first band I ever joined was in 2010 when I was studying in Philadelphia. I guess I already thought I’d miss the boat or something at that time Because I had all these friends that were 21 who had already put out a record. Was was like “oh i’m 21 and I’m just learning to play the mandolin”. I can only play something like four chords on the guitar. So I was like, oh I missed that boat, I’m just going to have fun and not care too much about it’
Could De Graaf’s inquisitive personality perhaps have anything to do with her upbringing? Her parents, who divorced when she was about seven, are both likewise free spirits, eager to enrich their lives in as many ways as humanly possible. ‘My parents lived in a hippie commune in Ireland when I was three. They simply wanted to experience living there for awhile. I think it was in this old monastery or something. It was pretty cool… I vaguely remember small things, like being in the middle of a forest.’
One of Annelotte’s earliest musical memories was hearing a tape. It contained a worship song addressed to Bhagwan, otherwise known as Osho, a flamboyant guru (he owned a whopping 93 Roll’s Royces) who led a spiritual movement in the eighties that promoted free love and self realization. ‘My parents weren’t followers of Bhagwan, but I did discover a lot of spiritual stuff by hanging out with them. My dad was a pretty hardcore Buddhist for quite some time. And my mom… well, she believes everything! She believes in both aliens and heaven, but also in reincarnation… Well, pretty much everything!”
She doesn’t deny that spirituality plays a huge part on the record. ‘As I was writing a lot of stuff for this record I was reading this book called Synchronicity by Carl Jung. Because it’s about magical realism. I needed that in my view of life. I wouldn’t say I’m a spiritual person. I just like the feeling of being connected to things. Not necessarily that everything happens for a reason, I’m not sure I believe that. But more to the connectedness of everything in the universe. Being a part of that.’
The lush centerpiece of Fading Lines, Apophenia, was named after a term generally used for perceiving set patterns in random data, which of course could be applied to any form of religion or culture. But according to Annelotte, the song is more about “wondering about things” rather than “accepting big truths”. ‘I maintained a skeptical mind about these things myself, because I also saw a negative side of spirituality’, she reluctantly continues. ‘It’s kind of a weird combination.’
‘Because for example, when we lived in Ireland, my parents got really sick at some point. It was like this macrobiotic eating diet, you were only allowed to follow a macrobiotic diet. There was like this lady who strictly regulated everyone’s eating habits. Even if you bought your own food, it had to be locked in this closet, which she would guard. You could only have a rice cracker with her permission. So people eventually got sick there, but they weren’t allowed to visit a doctor because of their own “emotional issues”. First they had to deal with those issues personally before getting permission to visit a doctor. My parents told me about this later.’
Sometimes, however, it’s clever to lock something up and guard it for later use. And patiently wait until the time is right. It was Annelotte’s mom who convinced her to open up a savings account at age sixteen. “I was saving, yeah, but I didn’t know what for. My mom is single, so she’s always been really good with money. But she didn’t have a lot of it. So she always encouraged me to save. I was sixteen so I was like, “Oh I should start a savings account”. I don’t know yet for what, but I should do that. I always had the idea to take a year off between my studies and travel or whatever.’
So De Graaf kept saving and saving. Ten years. A handful of tokens buys you quick thrill, like the old arcades games. But by spending lots and lots of them, you soon figure there’s something more weighty at play. For one, Annelotte started listening to different music about three years ago. ‘My musical spectrum was pretty limited for a long while. I was pretty much solely listening to folky stuff. Then I met Richard Foster (Incendiary/Louder Than War/Quietus) and some other good friends, who showed me all sorts of weird shit… So I started listening more to bands like Deerhunter, DIIV, Dirty Beaches, Stereolab, Broadcast, Suicide. That happened at a later stage, after I released that first self-titled EP in 2013.’
That fresh discovery of new influences happened to coincide with personal loss. That’s when Fading Lines truly found its genesis. ‘Lines can be many things , like a lifeline for instance’, De Graaf answers when asked about the album title. ‘I wrote a lot of the lyrics right after my grandpa died, and he was like my first close family member who passed. I was just amazed at how peaceful he was, and how he looked back on his life and just be like “Yeah, it’s been good. I’m ready to go!” That was super inspiring.’
‘He didn’t live a particularly extravagant life. He worked as farmer. He became a factory worker. He retired. He made a couple of journeys. And that was it. It was a good, regular life. It was enough. He did everything he wanted to do, became everything he aspired to be. A farmer, and a husband, that was just it. He was at peace with it, and seeing him go into his own death like that. That really inspired me. Fading Lines, I guess came mostly from the idea… that even if he had his more fucked up moments as well, the lines between all those moments kind of faded. It just became peace. In him, you know? Those different experiences, those lines faded into one and that was it… he was at peace with it.’
Earlier during the interview, Annelotte half-jokingly told Louder Than War she too has her life mapped out. ‘Pretty much. But just in vague lines! I’m definitely obsessed with lives as a whole you know? The whole “art of life”…’ She immediately backpedals, laughing off the “cheesy” last part about “the art of life”. ‘That sounds like total a cliché, I know.’
So does calling a work of art a masterpiece, retrospectively. And in Amber Arcades’ case, we’re totally at peace with that NOW.
Thanks to Nick Helderman for the pictures.