It was 1992 when their iconic debut album ‘Palomine’, via the short-lived but glorious 4AD subsidiary label Guernica, was released and suddenly the Dutch four-piece stepped into the spotlight and on everyone’s lips. Outstanding fuzzy bittersweet ballads as ‘Leg’ and ‘Brain Tag’ and sonic noise-pop gems as ‘Balentine’ & ‘Under The Surface’, magnified by Vancouver-born Carol van Dijk’s seductive and affected vocals and Peter Visser’s piercing and noisy driven guitar, left their mark and stood out the Amsterdam finest from the indie pack.
That classic album will remain the inevitable benchmark of Bettie Serveert’s career, but after two and half decades of ups and very few downs, following their creative path without any external interference, with just the sad departure of original drummer Berend Dubbe, the band has just celebrated, in great shape, their 26th anniversary with an amazing and unforgettable hometown performance at the Paradiso Club in Amsterdam.
The limited coloured vinyl edition of their brilliant 11th studio full length ‘Damaged Good’ has recently been released by record store/label Schoolkids Records in occasion of the US Tenth Annual Record Store Day. A solid and fresh album from a band still extraordinarily full of energy, enthusiasm, inspiration and, above all, always on the move.
Thanks so much for the interview. Some years ago I found in a Berlin flea market a record with a red-written blue cover by a band called De Artsen, when I saw the name of Peter Visser in the line-up with my great excitement I easily linked it to the band, one of the best kept secrets of being a records’ digger! From that group started Bettie Serveert’s long lasting ‘adventure’, please can you talk about that early period?
Peter: Wow! That De Artsen record was put out by Glitterhouse Records in Germany in the late eighties. But after just 2 LPs the singer quit. Meanwhile, Carol, Berend and I were recording songs on cassette. A friend of ours who worked at Semaphore Records in Holland sent such a tape to Gerard Cosloy from Matador Records in New York. Later on, during a visit to Matador they showed us a note from their “demo book”, saying something like: ‘‘Bettie Serveert, the guys from De Artsen. Must contact them’’.
Carol: De Artsen were such a great band, I was a huge fan of them and used to be their live-mixer. If their singer hadn’t left, it’s quite possible that Bettie Serveert never would’ve existed. Peter and I played in some bands in Arnhem in ’86, one of them was called Betty Serveert. It only lasted 6 months, b/c our drummer left and De Artsen started to play more gigs. After Peter and I moved to Amsterdam in ’87, we started Bettie Serveert in ’91 with Berend Dubbe on drums and Herman Bunskoeke on bass. Our first demo was recorded late ’91 and that’s the one our friend sent to Matador!
When you look back at your childhood/teenage years, do you remember when and where you started to get passionate about music and other forms of art and what were your first beloved songs and artists?
Peter: I was having breakfast at the kitchen table when ‘Hello, Goodbye’ by The Beatles came on. That started it all. I guess I was about 8 years old.
Carol: Since I was 7 years old, I really wanted to have piano lessοns, but it was too expensive, so instead I started taking classical music lessons at school, where I learned to read & write music. I got my 1st acoustic guitar when I was 14 and started writing songs at age 16. They were horrible. I never thought I would be a live musician, because I was very shy. Instead, when I was 11, I wanted to go to art school to study graphic design. That didn’t happen, because I didn’t have the money. As a child, I heard a lot of classical music, but also The Irish Roves, who were very popular in Vancouver. I remember hearing Petula Clark singing ‘Don’t Sleep In The Subway’ on the radio, while my parents were driving into Vancouver and wondered ‘why on earth would someone want to sleep in the subway?’, Hey, I was 5. When I was 8, I heard a lot of jazz music that my grandfather used to play all the time. I became a big Beatles fan when I was 10, but also listened to the Rolling Stones, Bob Dylan & Neil Young records that my neighbor had. And I listened a lot to glam rock as a teenager.
I lived in London at the start of the 90’s and I well remember the hype surrounding your name alongside The Breeders and The Lemonheads. I was also lucky to see your memorable gig at the New Cross Venue with Tanya Donnelly’s Belly in 1992 and your performance at Reading Festival the year later. Can you tell me a little bit about that buzzing and exciting period and experience? Was it all hunky-dory?
Peter: That tour with Belly was our first trip outside of Holland. We had no money. We got no dinner at the venues, but every day there were guys from the record company A&R in the dressing room promising us a golden future. So one day someone from some record company asked us what we wanted the most and we said: “Dinner!” So, he took us to an Indian restaurant. Best meal ever! That period was really exiting for us all, but it put a lot of pressure on Carol, there she had to deliver the goods! The album after ‘Palomine‘ had to be better, and had to sell more than the first one. To be honest: we really had no clue about the record industry and we were very naïve.
Carol: Wow, you were there at both shows? Supporting Belly was our first real tour ever and like Peter said a total learning experience for us. And playing at Reading Festival is still something we’re very proud of. The line-up those 3 days was incredible.
You had always to deal with the unavoidable constant comparisons with the ‘classic’ ‘Palomine’. Did you initially feel any pressure? What were your relationships with the music industry and record labels and the specialised press?
Peter: One reviewer once said that we can never please the press. When we try something new they will say: stick to what you are good at, in other words: make more Palomine-music. But if we do they will say: it’s more of the same, there is no development. Matador never interfered with the artistic side of our music. We have had the luxury of always having total artistic freedom. But we have heard the famous record company line: “I don’t hear a single!”
Carol: Regarding trying to make another ‘Palomine’ album: ‘I’m damned if I don’t, I’m damned if I do’ (part of the lyrics in ‘Brickwall’). To be honest, we’re still very happy that we made that album and they can’t take that away from us.
What is your usual composition process and how did it develop and refine in the years? Do you start with some kind of structured plan (like a blueprint perhaps) or is it more a result of chance and improvisation?
Peter: Most of the time Carol comes up with an idea, or a fully developed song. And mostly after that she and I start working on it until there is a structure or a demo of the song. Then we go into the practice space and try to make it work with the 4 of us. We can all come up with ideas for the song but the one who wrote the song (mostly Carol) has the final word on how the song should be.
Carol: Haha, what Peter said! But sometimes Peter and I sit down with our guitars and write a song together, like for instance the song ‘Damaged Good’. We wrote that one in the dressing room of a Dutch venue in Jan 2013, when the rest of the band was out having dinner. ‘You’ve Changed’ is one of the few songs where Peter and I wrote the lyrics together; usually I do the lyrics on my own. ‘Digital Sin (Nr 7)’ started out as a jam-session between Peter and our drummer Joppe Molenaar. The first couple of weeks I just listened, because I had no idea what they were doing. Then the three of us started working on a structure, Peter & Joppe mainly wrote the first half and I added the last half. But it’s mostly their ‘baby’, to be honest. ‘Deny All’ was written while riding my bike in Amsterdam, humming the bass-line and hearing the lyrics in my head. By the time I got home, I picked up my guitar and recorded the entire song in a couple of hours. Some songs just write themselves. So, basically there is no blueprint, anything goes.
How did your approach to the lyrics writing evolve over the years? What about your apparently personal oblique lyrics and what are the main themes of the new album?
Carol: Peter said a while back that my lyrics have become more direct and I guess he’s right. They’ve always been personal, but in the past I used a lot of metaphors to sort of ‘obscure’ the meaning. Maybe it’s because throughout the years I started to feel more comfortable in my own skin and that had an effect on the way I write these days? Don’t get me wrong, not every song is about me personally, some are about people that are close to me, some are inspired by a book or film or anything that triggers an emotion. On the other hand, sometimes writing lyrics is like using words to paint an imaginary picture or to describe a movie that’s playing in my head. Yeah, that sounds pretty vague. But the sound of certain syllables can arouse particular feelings; it’s like ‘‘painting with words’’. Regarding our last album, ‘Damaged Good’ to me means ‘‘positively damaged’’. Everyone has emotional ‘‘baggage’’. We all go through the same things differently and you can’t make a comparison. But what can be compared is the way someone deals with stuff and tries to turn a negative experience into something positive.
Your third LP ‘Dust Bunnies’ coincided with the end of your contract with Beggars Banquet, in 2000 when the band decided to take a full creative control over everything – from A to Z – on your own and started your label, Palomine Records. Was this a necessity but also the savior of your artistic integrity? Is the DIY ethos still relevant and essential in these days of liquid, quick and superficial music consumption?
Peter: As said we’ve always had creative control. Having our own record company (and being our own management) and the D.I.Y. approach is about having control on every aspect of being a band.
After two and half decades, except for the, I guess initially painful, departure of your drummer, the band stood together on its three core members, what do you most admire and sometimes ‘can’t stand’ about each other?
Peter: Ha ha! Dirty laundry! Well I can tell you that I admire our gift of (mostly) knowing when to shut up when you sometimes want to say something really ugly to the other.
Carol: Totally agree with Peter here. And then there’s the fact that we learned how to be on tour together, knowing when to leave each other alone. Peter, Herman and I have been friends for 30 years now, so we already knew each other very well, but being on long tours means we REALLY got to be in each others back-pocket! Of course there are moments when we want to stick each other behind the wallpaper, but in the end we know that we need each other to make it work. We can’t do it on our own. We’re a dysfunctional family, but a family nonetheless. We’re not technically skilled players, so we need each other in order to make the kind of music that we love.
Your latest, 10th studio album ‘Damaged Good’ has celebrated the 25th anniversary of the band; Did it evolve naturally out of the rehearsal sessions, or was that the sound you were going for straight from the start? How does this ‘new adventure’ differ from anything else you’ve done and what were its influences?
Peter: Having an idea of how the next album should sound is something you can throw out of the window when you write a song that doesn’t fit that idea but is too great a song to not include on the album. While mixing we can decide if we want it to sound “live” or “produced” etc. Songs present themselves and you have to follow where the song wants to go. That is sometimes a lot of work because you have to find out what is best for a song with every new song.
Carol: Every record we make is a new adventure, which means we have to find a sound that fits the songs. We’ve already started recording new songs, but we can’t say what the next album is going to sound like until it’s done.
To celebrate this year’s Record Store Day in the USA you have released a colored vinyl (limited edition) of your latest album ‘Damaged Good’ and a single on 7” format in collaboration with North Carolina’s Schoolkids Records, a glorious historical record shop since 1974! How did you come up with this project? Has Schoolkids Records’ owner Stephen Judge been your long-term fan? Are any of you vinyl junkies?
Peter: That 7” single ‘Symmetry/ Slow Grind’ was from the Raleigh band The Veldt. But indeed we had the ‘Damaged Good’ LP out with gatefold cover and transparent magenta vinyl. Looks cool! We know Stephen from the days that he was still with Red Eye Distribution. And when he started a record company, it felt kind of natural to go with him for the U.S. With this LP coming out we had forgotten that the manufacturing time in the U.S. is much longer than in Holland. That meant that, with a tour already scheduled, there would be 2 different release dates which can be a real nightmare with import issues. So therefore Stephen suggested the RSD release idea and with that we came up with our most fantastic ideas of what the LP could look like.
I’ve often wondered why there are/were so few indie/alternative rock bands from Netherlands unlike in Scandinavia for example – what are the reasons for this? Can you recommend any new Dutch bands at the moment?
Peter: There are a lot of indie/alternative bands in Holland. Maybe not all of them are very well known outside of Holland. Just to name a few: My Baby, Moses And The Firstborn, Amber Arcades, Drive By Wire, Hallo Venray, Claw Boys Claw, Reiger, Orange Maplewood and many others!
You’ve recently finished a national tour with an acclaimed gig/birthday at the Amsterdam’s Paradiso. Having played live so many times over the years, do you feel any more comfortable with your performance? Or are you still hard on yourself? What has been your live highlight so far?
Peter: Still hard on myself/ourselves! And even with the drum kit and the bass guitar falling apart during the Paradiso show it was a great night! Highlight so far in 25 years you mean? Wow! I guess the Knitting Factory in N.Y.C. That was our first show in the U.S. that started it all, Central Park New York in the pouring rain where the audience was soaking wet but didn’t leave, Roskilde, Pinkpop (Holland) etc.
Carol: We still get nervous right before a gig. If that should ever disappear, it probably means that we should stop. But after so many years it’s nice to have a certain routine and to know that no matter what happens, we’ll land on our feet. I’ve always been an introvert, but I’m not so painfully shy like I used to be. Highlight? The ones Peter just mentioned and so many more.
What kind of music and who are you personally listening to at the moment?
Peter: I still listen to a lot of my old favorites like Captain Beefheart, Nick Cave, Pavement, Sonic Youth, The Beatles, David Bowie, and also to some internet alternative rock stations to discover new (or new to me) bands.
Carol: Right now I’m listening to a lot of early Queen stuff. My younger sister used to play their records, but back then I was listening to the Ramones. I’ve just listened to Daughter’s ‘Candles’ and K.Flay’s ‘Blood In The Cut’, really like both. Some Japandroids and Slade, some Otis Redding and Aretha Franklin songs. And the earlier live shows of Elvis Costello on YouTube, awesome stuff. His band was so amazing, both Pete (drummer) and Bruce (bass player) Thomas (who are not related) were absolutely brilliant. Oh, and I like ‘Amar Pelos Dois’ by Salvador Sobral, who won Eurovision! In a strange way it reminds me a bit of Rufus Wainwright, the same sort of effortless and laid-back way of singing, except it’s in Portuguese.
Many thanks for being our welcome guest, just the last question: do you have any next plans that you can tell us about?
Peter: You’re welcome. At the moment we are writing new songs, we’ll do some summer festivals and there is a new tour in the making for the end of this year/beginning next year.
Carol: Thanks for having us! It doesn’t happen very often that we get such specific questions. We’re in the studio right now working on new stuff and if all goes well, we might release a song later this year!
Photo credits: Sjors Schuitemaker (1st one), Mark Bakker (2nd one)