Richard Foster – Discovering Dutch Undergrounds: Interview with Martijn Haas

It’s Pinkster (Whitsun) 2015. I’m sitting in the cafe Scheltema waiting for author Martijn Haas, who shares an interest in what makes the Netherlands of the early 80s tick. One of the better “bruin cafes” in the centre of Amsterdam. Scheltema has changed very little since the 80s (or the 60s, seemingly) its musty comfortable exterior still exuding a certain snarky “directness”, and unpretentious charm. Across the road, in the Amsterdam Museum forecourt, there’s a celebration of the 60th anniversary of Provo. Smoke bombs and happenings and speeches are the order of the day. Amsterdam has a street history that the scrubbing up of the centre and the inevitable slide into a nanosecond memory can’t fully erase. At least not yet. Martijn turns up and we start chatting. We both know what the interview’s going to be about, but it’s only fair to let Martijn explain his interests through describing his published work; three excellent reads on the Dutch counterculture from 77-84: “Bibikov for President, Politiek, poezie en performance 1981-1982“ (2012), “Dr. Rat, Godfather van de Nederlandse graffiti“ (2011) and “SKG: kunst, muziek & terreur 1978-1981“ (2010). All to be found on Lebowski.

RF: You have a fascination with the 77-83 era. And I notice that in your books (Bibikov, SKG, Dr. Rat) that you seem to make a point that the era was remarkable. What do you feel makes that era so remarkable in the Netherlands?

MH: It’s the second wave of the so called street revolution era we had in the Netherlands. The first one was Provo, which was of course before Paris 68; and basically promoting the same kind of ideas. And it’s a time that I can remember as a kid watching on television. And I am from Nijmegen, in the eastern part of the Netherlands, and a lot of stuff – a lot of rebellion – happened there as well. Probably on a similar scale to Amsterdam. We also had tanks on the streets in 81, there was a riot in, and around Piersonstraat. An old street of working class-homes in the centre of the city that the city council wanted to tear down. And my dad couldn’t go to work by his usual route. He came home that night and told us that the whole city was besieged! So (for me it’s) the whole depression mood of the era, the strikes on the TV and so on. Even when I was 10 or 11 years old, we were discussing the nuclear bomb, and the cold war in class . And I had a friend at school whose parents were totally into the peace movement. And we were talking like adults about these matters when we were small kids. And at that age my world was totally political. Maybe kids talk about jihad, but that was the stuff we talked about.

RF: Why did you want to write about it?

MH: Well I had an offer came to write about it, and I said yes. First with a different editor at a different company; I started with Prometheus. Someone said “that publishing house wants to have a book about that whole post-punk rebellion stuff, especially about the artistic side”. And I didn’t know then (this was back in 2005) that the chief editor was friends with Peter Klashorst and he was working on a biography of Klashorst but for some reason or other it never got published. So I sort of stepped in without really knowing much of the art side of it. I had seen the “Zomergasten” TV broadcast with Rob Scholte back in 1990 but I can remember Peter Klashorst from talk shows on the TV in the 80s, but apart from that I didn’t know much about that (art) side. I began to wonder what was so special about that element of the movement. I was more interested in the music. I was a huge fan of the Simon Reynolds book (ed note: “Rip It Up and Start Again; Post Punk 1978-1984”,(2005)) which was out round then. And the Joy Division film [ed note: “Closer” by Anton Corbijn] was out, and all the bands that copied the original sound from round time like Bloc Party – who I didn’t like… But yeah I had to make a sort of investigation I knew Ultra quite well, things from that movement were played a bit on the radio in the 1980s – every Wednesday evening with Gerard J Walhof. He talked about those times on his show in a humorous manner. So I thought it was worthwhile researching as a journalist; and worth writing about in its own right. I was in my mid-thirties too, and you need to write a book round that time (laughs). It was probably a chance to reexamine my own youth.

RF: Why did you centre in on those two characters? Dr. Rat and Mike von Bibikov?

MH: I started off with a book on SKG – the Stadskunst Guerilla – which was a movement around Erik Hobijn – which had a little bit in it about Dr Rat. Now… when I was writing that first book, I had already had lots of experience as a music journalist and had interviewed Robert Smith and the Cure and Henry Rollins for general interest magazines… all of that. I still thought of myself as someone coming from the world of rock journalism. And I thought, “let’s not dig too deep into the art world, because that’s not my territory.” But I could relate to the rock and roll aspects of the stories I had, and the post punk era in Holland. And those stories had a huge rock and roll DNA. First and foremost, they were really great stories. For example, Erik Hobijn did the SKG-night night in Paradiso with subsidised money (for youth culture and art funding) where he tried to sabotage the punk’s philosophy with crazy performances; he tried to “outpunk the punks”. He made up a lot of weird stuff; like having a classical quartet next to a pile of shit, provoking the punks (and the rest of the audience) to riot. This was actually a critical view of the actual environment in Holland at the time, a land which was full of riots that year (1980). The night ended with Paradiso being painted “peacefully white”[sic] in a last attempt to provoke everyone. The Paradiso audience was sent home (the board was afraid real turmoil would start). So, this was Erik Hobijn. I had a really good time hanging round in his lab with these big machines (laughs). And, as you can see, by the end of that time I had a lot of information!

…I was still at Prometheus, but I couldn’t find a specific subject for all of this. And then I came to Oscar van Gelderen from Lebowski. And I gave him a manuscript with all sorts of threads going in all sorts of directions, and with all sorts of information and interview material. And he said, “the book is rubbish; the manuscript is absolute shit” (laughs). But he also said, “you have a hell of a lot of research, so now you have to pick your subject. Let’s start with SKG”. And I thought you see a book in that? Those 6 guys with their spray painting, and punk performance on the streets? You think that’s a book? I am gonna do a book about Rob Scholte and you do one about SKG, and that’s how we’ll start. So the whole idea had more clarity. Which was weird, making a book about a small subject. So I had to find a deeper layer. But then I saw that Erik had assembled second post-war generation of people around him. Both his parents had a traumatic past. They had a really hard time here in wartime Amsterdam. And my father’s side are German Jews; so I thought, well I can relate to that. So there was more to it than rock and roll, it was a typical Amsterdam story that I shared a heritage with as well, you know? And just at that point Erik didn’t want to talk to me anymore! (Laughs). So I found another guy in the SKG, called Daniel Levenbach, who had had a brain hemorrhage, and was living at his parent’s home assisted by his mother and sister. And he was willing to tell everything about the whole SKG scene – which went around in this whole building basically [ed note – the NRC complex just off the Paleisstraat – the last place you can see original Dr Rat graffiti]. These people had a lot in common; they all came from the [ed note – old Jewish] area round the new concert building. They all had parents with a traumatic war past. Daniel Levenbach’s father was an Auschwitz survivor for example. So you could delve into the whole second generation thing. Then Erik got involved again after months of holding back. He wanted to read it and gave some “last minute” stuff.

Now, this book and the Dr. Rat book were in the same work flow. Oscar wanted to make a “1980s Library” and wanted to make a book on Dr. Rat. Which would be difficult because you had to work with all those around him; like Dr. Rat’s mother who had been in a Japanese camp in Indonesia (his father was a war refugee from Riga). I was tired of that world and needed a break, but Oscar pushed me to get it done in six months. Six months! Bam! And then his family became involved in the process as well, they knew I was writing it anyway. So they came to me and said “hey, if you’re gonna do that book we want to be involved. We’re not gonna do interviews but you have to let us read what you’re writing. So that book was made in cooperation with the family. For month after month, I went through a confidante of the family who read my stuff and gave all sorts of advice. The book was done in 6 months. And the great stuff came from people I interviewed, like (tattooist) Henk van Schiffmaker and (former girlfriend) Louise van Teylingen. They gave me art from their own archives, stuff that he’d made with his own blood, they let me photograph it. That was great stuff. And finding that little piece in here [ed note – the buck knife graffiti in Cafe Scheltema] was amazing! There’s a story with that. I had delivered the manuscript and someone rang me up and said “so you have everything now, you think?” I said yeah, and he said “But you don’t have any real artwork in the city to show. I know where some Dr. Rat artwork is, nobody knows it, not Diana Ozon, no-one.” (That’s what they said, though I really don’t know if Diana already knew about that graffiti.) Anyway. They said, “it’s in the back of the Scheltema.” And it was here where I had done most of my interviews! (Laughs.)

The Bibikov book… that was one where I found I was able to relate most to, with my memories of the era. Because a segment of that book has a description of the huge peace demonstrations. You have to remember there were two huge demonstrations of half a million people on the streets. The first one was ’81 the second one was ’83. The first one, I didn’t go to. I remember that I went to my friend whose parents were so involved in the peace movement. And I lied about it and I said something like, “my father went but I was too young so I couldn’t.” I was SO ashamed that I didn’t go to it as a young kid of 10 years old. And with the second one in ’83, I definitely wanted to go. And that was basically my first journalistic job because I went there with my camera. And I stood on the trucks to make photos. I can remember that day, from minute to minute. That was the first time I saw punks in a “big time” way. And the hardcore music screaming from the squat buildings, all those buildings that have since been renovated! (Laughs)

RF: I notice that for the Dutch side, the era’s much more societal. You can see it in other forms like art and protest much more than in the UK, where the music takes precedence; and that’s not surprising given the power of the Anglo-American music industry. But the Dutch music movement is much more artistic. And it fails, probably because the music isn’t the main thing. Do you agree?

MH: Ach… It fails in a way. Because it’s to do with the lens you put on it. It was never meant to succeed in the first place. Even the Provos said something like that; after two years “it’s dead”. I think a couple of guys wanted to become big time stars like Peter Klashorst and Rob Scholte.

But… well; let me tell you something. Jip Golsteijn was a Dutch journalist writing for De Telegraaf, “the Godfather of Dutch music journalism” once told me something. In the late 1980s there was this band called Urban Dance Squad. Funk rock; that late 80s mix of hip-hop with urban rock and roll. And we thought everything of that band; EVERYTHING. And I thought they were the best thing ever from Holland. But Jip Golsteijn said; “they’ve done one good album and they’re gonna tour in the UK and the US, and there will be a band in every place that can play what they do, and these other bands are gonna copy what Urban Dance Squad do, and these other bands are gonna come back better. Because they will play more, and they will have to have more of a struggle to get what they want. A sort of Darwinism; a “survival of the fittest” thing. And after a couple of years Urban Dance Squad will have to come back and prove themselves. And that’s a struggle they will lose. Because they’re pampered over here, and they don’t have the mentality of a good rock and roll band.” And I was really angry you know, and I couldn’t relate to that. But that happened; exactly how he said. Because in 1992, they had Rage Against The Machine at Pinkpop. And those guys did exactly what Urban Dance Squad did. And the guys from Urban Dance Squad were so angry because not only did they copy them, Rage Against The Machine did it harder, better, and rougher. And they became world famous. And no-one knows Urban Dance Squad now.

RF: You mentioned a similar idea, obliquely through a set of questions to Joost Niemoller in the Bibikov book, that there’s a sort of fatalism. Is it fatalism? Do you think it was good that Wally said back in 1983, “fuck it we’re stopping” with Minny Pops? Is that a good or bad thing in your opinion? In your Dutch opinion? Because in my British opinion I think it’s a bad thing.

MH: You know it’s childish to think that you can win in a sport that is not really yours. Now where’s Anouk going? Maybe Sweden. Where’s Jett Rebel going? In Holland we think everything of those guys, but what do they do outside the border? Now, Golden Earring; they went to number one in the US. But the singer of Golden Earring, he’s from India, he’s raised in an English environment.

RF: I’m trying to get my head round this still; in the sense that you have a small land with a big boundary. And you’d think on one level, the constant musical influences coming in would spark creativity. But anything that could be really musically creative here disappears or sinks in a vacuum…

MH: Dutch people don’t believe in themselves, you know. I’ve been thinking about this a lot over the last few days, because you have mentioned this yourself a few times before. My answer is; let’s turn it around. Where do Siouxsie or Robert Smith get their confidence from? And all that eccentricity? You know Wally (van Middendorp), he’s not eccentric in the way Siouxsie is. Or weird in the way bands like Nurse with Wound or Coil are weird. We are serious people who like to make money. We have to adapt to other forms and cultures. We are basically not that culturally strong, not within ourselves. I think the Siouxsie thing is linked to Bowie, and the idea of coming into London from the suburbs. And you can get projected onto the world stage in 5 minutes. And you come from a street culture and a music hall tradition and a folk culture. And we don’t have it! (Laughs).

The best band never really wins, but the ones with the strongest characters. And I think people like Siouxsie and Robert Smith… they are so strong and such clever strategic people. Especially Smith. He’s way beyond similar Dutch artists. He can really play. He’s really thought through his image. And with that image there has to be a theatrical side to it. Only the British can get away with it. When I was watching TV in the early 80s you would have bands like Fun Boy Three and Thompson Twins; even that rubbish came from another world! Come on! What’s THAT? (Laughs) We’re so normal compared to that, we’re so easy going!

RF: But you have such playful characters in NL. Like Bibikov. These people also get attention at the time, maybe because the scene’s small and they link into a wider fabric of a city…

MH: Well the reason there is a book on Bibikov and Dr. Rat is that it all happened in Amsterdam. Every city has its own Bibikov or Rat but here in Amsterdam we have media. But you can also say they were manifestations of the movement that went on all the time here. If you would have experienced it at the time, in the moment, you would have seen all the squat riots and then you go see an Ultra band, you would have experienced it as part of a movement. And I think that cultural movement on the streets in Amsterdam – and some other cities – was bigger than all those little bands. The street movement was the thing. It was a whirlwind.

RF: But it’s not something that can be used as a springboard for a musical career, in the classic British-American rock and roll sense is it?

MH: No; these moments happen a few times in Holland, once in the Provo times and then a few times later, with the post punk era which is best called the rebellion era, phase two. It normally happens that there is a guy on the street doing something, and a couple of ideology people [sic] getting into it. With Provo there was Robert Jasper Grootveld doing things on the Spui, and the other guy, Roel van Duin; he came in. He had read Bakunin and other anarchistic / Communist stuff, and he had read that Bakunin had written somewhere that you always have to find a street movement to start your revolution. You need the street and then you can go. And maybe with Ultra, Wally was the ideologue. He knew about Factory and Malcolm McClaren and those kind of people. And he wanted to do it here in Amsterdam. So he needed a couple of bands to start a movement. He just had to pump it into a couple of bands’ heads to start a movement! (Laughs.)

RF: You get more of the street stuff, the street demo stuff in Europe than in Britain, where I think it’s more of a suburban or individual desire that manifests itself in clubs, that then get picked up into the music or fashion industries. Here on the continent, the tradition of street culture has more to do with 1848, maybe. Thinking of that how did this street movements succeed? Did you think any of the street movement you describe have a legacy, for instance?

MH: If you think about pro’s and con’s. The pro side would be that Holland had a tradition of very determined, sometimes violent street rebellion. Maybe because I saw the Provo documentary this last week then, we were there before Paris and we were good at it! That demonstration thing. And, as 10 or 15 people have already told you, that whole Calvinist thing, the way that we the Dutch want to teach the whole world how life should be led… that idea is sort of dead now. Nowadays we are walking behind [sic], but back then we led the world. I don’t know if you know the term, “Hollanditis?”

RF: No.

MH: It was a big term in the early 80s. We were so proud that the street revolts of the 60s and the 80s got on British television. Maybe for one second on the BBC news. That pride was Hollanditis; a Dutch disease. We were proud of being able to spread the word; telling everyone how to live their lives.

RF: That is your interpretation of the Calvinist, preacher thing?

MH: Yeah yeah! And you know, it was really strong in the 60s and the 80s. There was a need to explain things; especially the things that went wrong in the early part of the century. And maybe Wally was sort of explaining to his world, “this is how I think music should be made”. We thought of Amsterdam as an ideal world.

RJF In his interview with me, Rob Scholte portrayed the Netherlands as being an experimental country…

MH: Yeah.

RF: What strikes me more and more is that this whole outlook is naive.

MH: It’s totally naive. Totally. We were sort of partying while the world was collapsing. We didn’t know… But it was necessary you know. Especially after everything that had happened after the Second World War; it was necessary. We needed to breathe. We needed to show what we felt.

RF: The more I live here, the more I notice there is a different kind of pressure here. Maybe it’s to do with living on or below sea level. And having no rock under your feet. When you go to the UK you do feel a different kind of pressure; the pressure to do things quickly, with all the rock under your feet. I do think you are subliminally, or incrementally affected by your surroundings. The UK is often impatient; here things don’t disappear completely; they hang around, or just lay down and wait for a few decades.

MH: That’s because it’s small too. Did you hear that the whole of Holland knows each other. The guy behind you will know someone who you know. It’s like those Brazilian jails; with 50 people in one small room. The only way to survive is to cooperate. You are looking at each other, and respect each other in a way, because otherwise you eat each other.

RF: And that’s also why social or cultural things are picked up so quickly here.

MH: Almost too early, or too opportunistically.

RF: And thrown away very quickly. But people don’t fully forget an idea or what was interesting about a trend. They tend to remember snippets or phrases or one or two aspects that will “explain away” an old cultural idea. Which means that when it comes to a legacy for something, it’s often dismissed with a handy phrase. It links into the idea of time here. Now with that in mind, you are trying to build up a legacy with your work of that era. And, being a professional journalist, how did you view the 2012 anniversary; when you saw that message of Ultra being recreated in Holland?

MH: Well, it was nice to have something. Basically we rehashed the same thing. We became a sort of mini artistic movement ourselves; a sort of replay [sic] of what happened. We became our own subjects! (Laughs.) We also did street performance in a way. I can remember going to Weesperplein metro station and doing a reading there and we were reliving the 1980s, standing there and talking about the 1980s and watching old Neon movies. So journalistically, or scientifically speaking, we didn’t distance ourselves too much from the events. We were so enthusiastic about it. It happens a lot with pop journalism, you get really close to your subject; and that’s basically what happened. Looking back, well…. I was disappointed by the fact that basically the only people really interested seemed to be those who were the original members of the movement, and they were checking to see if they had been included. At least that was how I initially experienced it. Later on I realised that there were other people, a lot of younger people reading it. But at the moment itself I didn’t see it. I saw a reunion party of the VPRO / Vinyl gang having a beer (Laughs!) It was also really brilliant how Wally worked with the idea. He was really the person that drove it. Because 10 years earlier Wally had already re-released the Minny Pops albums without anyone noticing. I can remember the 2 Minny Pops CDs lying there in the shop and there was silence [sic]. This time, he saw that there was the SKG book already, he saw there was something new coming, and he did what he did earlier, he jumped on the wave. He had something going on. At the moment he’s still doing things.

RF: The 2012 thing… It almost reinforced an idea the Dutch have about themselves; it was based round media outlets such as the VPRO, the Groene Amsterdammer, and it was like an easy-feed underground history for the chattering classes. And whilst it wasn’t disappointing, it was maybe confusing people by oversimplifying; because it misses the point of a very strange period. For me, this was a period where Holland reformed into what it is now. This is a period where things got realigned culturally and we still see that legacy today. But that got missed. One thing I have about this era which sort of got waylaid is the idea that this generation is the one that put parties on a pedestal. Parties, and club nights. People like Gonnie Rietveld and Ronnie Kroes, Eddy de Clercq, or Ted Langenbach. At Mazzo and De Koer for example. These people are brilliant at driving that club atmosphere. And that is what we see now as a dominant form of entertainment, and maybe social control in the Netherlands. All of them get out of the post-punk scene to do the party thing. Maybe ahead of acid house movement and certainly ahead of the postmodern ’90s party scene.

MH: I totally agree. I’m from 1971, so I experienced the late 80s. I remember when the book of Simon Reynolds came out in 2005 I think. And I remember someone ringing me up and saying, “finally there’s a book about the 1980s”. But when I read the book I saw it was concentrating on the period ’77-84. And I thought, eh? Because I thought the really big things happened in the late 80s. Hip-hop started here in the late 80s and acid house, and grunge exploded around 91, but it had its roots round 87-88… but I read Reynolds, and I understood that the late 80s needed the Year Zero of punk and the DIY movement of post-punk in Holland. I knew that VPRO radio had roots in the punk movement, and things like The Roxy came from the Vinyl thing. So Simon Reynolds opened my eyes and I could relate Reynolds’ work to a Dutch version. Going back to the point you mention; you are right, it was a period where things were getting rebuilt. When I was at Prometheus I wanted to make a book about this. But I found it was impossible. I couldn’t make one story out of it. There were so many different strands, like the Simon Reynolds book. And then you have different books basically. And Simon Reynolds has good stories to tell; PiL, Joy Division and so on. In Holland I didn’t have that good set of stories to work with. Oscar said no, no, tell the small stories, but I wondered if people would be interested in such small stories. […] Basically 2000 people have bought and read these small stories. (Laughs.)

RF: But this says something about the role of the individual in Holland in this period. Post-punk was supposed to be an individual time, and the Dutch are supposed to be very forthright and open, but Dutch people are very reserved and stick together. There’s more of a group mentality and manifestation here. What you notice with the individuals in the post-punk times – the ones you write about too – is that they are always the casualties. They die, drop out, or move out of the country, or get laughed at. Using Reynolds again, you see the difference of the role of the individual in Britain and here. Lydon, Alan Horne, etc. These people want to remain individual, and somehow (just about) win. But Bibikov wants to have a movement. Deep down he wants to be head of the crowd. Dr. Rat wants a gang deep down. And fail, being alone. When the Dutch are confronted with something that’s radical and promotes individual action, how do you feel they project themselves? Or feel, deep down? Is it schizophrenic

MH: They don’t know each other and they don’t know themselves, and all those post-punk people in Holland. I bet if they look in the mirror they see an empty space! (Both laugh long and hard). Ach, what I mean is that they possibly don’t see anything besides their history which is based more on architectural, arty, political or religious movements rather than on folk or pop movements. But all those interviews you did come down to the question, “who am I?” There’s a lack of confidence and a lack of identification music- wise. Because you identify yourselves with a movement which is originally from the United States and Britain. And it’s not your native language so you have to find out a way to do that. Music-wise, Ultra was a start for making music on a DIY level that ended with the that Rock n Roll school in Tilburg. The idea of “educating ourselves to make music”. Sure, there is a Year Zero. But the Year Zero people in Holland have to come up with ideas themselves. Why did the Sex Pistols become a great band? I don’t really know, but I think the answer lies with John Lydon. He had studied Shakespeare and the stage, he had an Anglo-Irish folk tradition to draw on. And no-one has that in Holland. No-one has that history of struggle; maybe Dirk Polak or The Ex?

RF: Hiding underground, the idea of disappearing. And moments that flash up Post-punk makes brilliant clubs, look at the way people like things happen here that go elsewhere.

MH: You should get to know the Eddy (de Clercq) story, it’s all there. And how he started in Holland. Back in 1976, Amsterdam was one big boring hippy town. Eddy’s thing is that the Dutch are second and the Belgians are always first when it comes to club culture. That’s his thing. The Belgians have this tradition of roadside bars which hosted parties, and they have their own Northern Soul movement, Popcorn. So he brought that to Amsterdam because he couldn’t do his thing in Belgium, you know you couldn’t be gay in Belgium, and he got hassle from the police there. He came to Amsterdam and saw the nightlife wasn’t good. So basically he started up a new form of nightlife. And he started here, in this squat (the old NRC squat)and the second was De Koer. He is one of the best sources to go to, when you talk of how and where it started.

And you mustn’t underestimate the international influence that was actually in Holland at the time. One of the best bands in that period, when you listen back, is Suspect. And there’s only one Dutch guy, Rob Scholte. The rest are Hungarian, German… And then there was Minimal Compact too, who had links with Tuxedo Moon, came from Israel. One other guy who worked with Minimal Compact and has a strong international aspect is Dirk Polak. He really worked with an international outlook. He is sort of like Bibikov in that he is a baby boomer who found his voice here in the post-punk era. If he’d have had the resources they have now he really could have made something and been famous. And although he wasn’t really considered Ultra, he can see himself in the mirror. He came from a Jewish-Russian background and he still has that folk tradition.

Luifabriek, June 17, 2015

Martijn Haas – SKG: kunst, muziek & terreur 1978-1981–kunst-muziek-en-terreur-1978-1981-T2461.html

Martijn Haas – Dr. Rat: Godfather van de Nederlandse graffiti–Rat-T2516.html

Martijn Haas – Bibikov for president: Politiek, poëzie en performance 1981-1982