Not So Polite: Wally Van Middendorp Of Minny Pops Interviewed
, November 16th, 2012 07:07
Nix Lowrey talks to a mainstay of the Dutch post punk scene about reformation, Joy Division and cheeky northerners. Wally portrait by Robin Butter. Live shot by Jos van Vliet
It would be remiss and inaccurate to claim that the until recently under-appreciated Minny Pops are a lost artefact from the Factory glory years. However, it is fair to say that they have only just begun to enjoy a small slice of the retro-active veneration enjoyed by many other acts on the Manchester label. Championed by Tim Burgess, in 2012 Minny Pops have entered into the consciousness of post punk fans wanting to look beyond the likes of Magazine and Gang Of Four. The Dutch post-punk scene of which they were the most successful act and perhaps also the progenitors, seems like it could be a rich seam for strip-mining by bloggers and DJs looking for glorious obscurities.
Mick Middles rightly claims in his review of their live recording Standstill to Motion, released at the beginning of this year, that "Minny Pops exude a European-powered confidence, allowing those sharp, tight rhythm figures to template fifteen songs that no longer seem lost in time, space and era".
After a support gig for Joy Division in Eindhoven, 1980, the band were courted by Rob Gretton who wanted them to sign to Factory. Their first FAC-numbered release, 'Dolphin's Spurt', was produced by Martin Hannett, who had been in part responsible for Joy Division's cavernous sound, and had come fresh from sterling work on releases by Magazine, The Psychedelic Furs and The Buzzcocks. Anecdotes suggest that Hannett's presence at the studio was perfunctory and passing mention has been made to him lying on the mixing room floor 'absorbing' the atmosphere while engineer Chris Nagle was the actual console jockey. However the post production on both the A-side and the magnificent B-side 'Goddess', bear Hannett sonic hallmarks. Albums followed on Factory Benelux and Minny Pop main man Wally Van Middendorp's own label Plurex. Minny Pops toured Europe and the US, and then, with not a bang, but a whimper, disappeared.
Van Middendorp had become sidetracked by the inviting embrace of proto-techno but vowed that while Minny Pops were dormant they were not finished.
It has taken over 20 years for him to make good on that promise of more music. Minny Pops are now touring and recording again. Performances in the UK in January of this year were received enthusiastically (they play London for the Quietus on November 26th), and were for some, near-revelatory; and dates in the Netherlands in April were sold out, the stuff of which pop mythology is made. Wally Van Middendorp joins us to talk about the rise, disintegration and rise again of Minny Pops.
Many people who know about Minny Pops would have heard of you through Factory Records. How did you get first get to support Joy Division and then sign to Factory?
Wally Van Middendorp: That was through a friend of mine who set up a band booking agency in Europe, based for a little out of Eindhoven in the south of Holland. When Joy Division did their first European tour, she was the European agent for Holland, Belgium and Germany. She asked me if we wanted to support them on a few dates, which we did.
How did that first gig in Eindhoven go?
WvM: I remember everything was very casual but when I had a conversation with Peter Hook recently (we played with him at a special warm up gig), what came back to me is that at the time Joy Division and later New Order, were always very, very supportive of the other bands on their bills. Peter laughed and said, 'Well, that was the normal thing you needed to do.' Other bands would charge you for the PA, lights and all that sort of stuff but I always found Rob Gretton and Factory as a label very artist friendly and supportive.
Was it on the strength of that gig that you were offered a single on Factory?
WvM: The whole idea about us recording a single on Factory was mentioned on that first night. Rob said something like, 'It would be great for you guys to record a single for our label.'
What was it like backstage? Were they intense people?
WvM: Actually, backstage I always found that they were extremely nice. It was an interesting mindset. We had this casual social time, backstage, there was lots of laughter and Peter Hook, Rob Gretton and Barney were all about winding people up. This is obviously before the band went on stage, because once they were on stage it was very serious, and all about delivering a great performance. It's interesting, thinking about it, they had a very northern English mindset.
How would you define that?
WvM: It has some connection with Dutch bluntness, but at the same time with a warmth to it. One time I stayed with Rob Gretton, it must have been about 1981 or '82 and I was in his living room. Rob really scared the shit out of me - when he saw me sitting in his chair with the remote control for his TV in my hand, he said, 'You, Dutch fuck face. Get out of my chair and hand over the remote control.' I thought, 'Well, that's a nice way to make somebody feel comfortable when they're your house guest.' Two hours later, Mike Pickering comes in. He was a friend of Rob's. Rob gives him the story about me using his chair and being the 'not so polite' foreign guest. At the time I couldn't believe it, but now I understand that was probably their way of taking the piss out of me.
Sounds like a bit of punk attitude - speaking of which, did you follow punk?
WvM: The start of punk music was a crucial turning point for me. I was always really into music but punk music in 1976 - 77 was showed me you didn't need to be multi-talented to run a fanzine, a label or be in a band. I am very much of that do-it-yourself generation. Once you have that mindset, it's relatively easy to meet people and have access to other people and labels and whatever comes your way. So, that's when I first started my label [Plurex].
Plurex became quite well known for spearheading a Dutch post-punk movement called 'Ultra'. How did that scene happen?
WvM: Every city had their own little iteration of punk. Rotterdam had a completely different scene to Amsterdam, for example. But thinking about punk more generally, if you look at the economic situation at the time in Holland, we were far better off than the UK. There was unemployment and Holland at that time was known for squatters movements, but I don't think it was as deeply rooted as the punk movement was in the UK. I think there were more 'wave' bands than 'punk' bands in Holland at that time and one of them was on my label called The Tapes. They were more, I would call it, angular rock, more like (I hate doing these comparisons) XTC or Talking Heads.
Do you still have any favourites from the early days of the label?
WvM: There are a few great records on Plurex, including releases by the Young Lions, a Dutch band called Nasmak, Nexda. Very interesting, very independent sounding bands, not heavily influenced by anyone, very pure.
You worked with legendary Factory producer Martin Hannett on the 'Dolphin's Spurt' single. How was that?
WvM: He was there but it was Chris Nagle, the engineer, who was running all of the recordings.
What was Martin doing?
WvM: He was there somewhere, I guess. They had us track as many takes as possible so that I guess Martin wanted to have lots of instrument tracks to do the mix with. And then there was an extremely long wait, of at least three or four months before we got the mix.
When you heard it did you like it?
WvM: I thought it was brilliant. Well balanced with a deep sound both high and spacious. It was really great but when we heard it our synth player was nearly crying.
WvM: He couldn't hear himself in the mix. He asked me, 'Am I even on the track?' I said, 'Two minutes into the song you're... somewhere here, right? Isn't that you?' You know, it was an interpretation of our track by a great producer. Martin did a really great job in finding a proper balance between the instruments, something not so obvious.
Minny Pops seemed to suddenly disappear after the mid 80s. What happened?
WvM: I think we got stuck. As a live band we became stuck because of one too many line up changes. Also, with gigging, I thought we were just going around in circles, playing the same type of venues in Holland and there were no other opportunities coming up for international dates, so I didn't know what the next step should be.
I said to the guys in the band that maybe as a live band we should take a break. Maybe it was only in my mind that we fully discussed it to tell you the truth however. We never had band meetings. I told them that gigging had become stale and that we should stop and focus on recording an album. I'm not actually sure when we ended. Somehow I lost track, we lost track. Maybe my mindset was moving somewhere else.
What were you moving on to?
WvM: I released two other records on Factory under the name of Streetlife. Actually, it was funny this week, when we had Tim Burgess DJ at our warm-up gig, he showed me the 12" of Streetlife and said that he really likes that track. Between 82 and 85 my mind was in many places but maybe not with enough focus. I wasn't really clear where I wanted to go, doing a little bit of everything - music, DJing, running clubs, the label - and ending up maybe with nothing. But I never thought that Minny Pops were finished. I knew there could be a moment, whenever the time was right, when we could come back.
WvM: I had been discussing it with various band members over the last two or three years. I wanted to do a new interpretation, new versions of our music, to see if it was still workable, so I invited the band to come back together to discuss the possibility.
Earlier this year when we spoke first you were reluctant to make any new material, I remember you said, “There's so much going on with that current thing that I want to achieve, and I still feel that we need to go through more steps to get to that level of possibly doing new music.” What changed?
WvM: In March, I think, we added another person to line up, someone who deals with sound manipulation and programming. This moved us forward towards making new versions of our original songs. In January when we first reformed we had closer to our original sound, but by April came new interpretations of our songs.
And that encouraged you to make a new record?
WvM: Tim Burgess of OGenesis invited us to record a single, and to be honest I was pretty nervous about it. I asked all the band to come up with and work on material, but things seemed very up in the air, just a few ideas. When we went into the rehearsal room though somehow things suddenly just clicked and we came up with two new songs. And while I think they are both typical Minny Pops songs, they sound very organic - and I think that's a major departure from our early work. Tim was producing and he encouraged us to record it all in one take, and I think it worked really well. It feels very light - I do think a major step forward for us.
Given that the recording went well, are you going to do more?
WvM: I don't know if I want to record more material. The recording process did work very well, and I do feel yes we could have maybe kept writing more... maybe we could record another two songs - but now I'm just happy with what we did, and not thinking too much ahead.
I was going to ask whether you have any aspirations for next year, after 2012 has gone so well for the band. Perhaps after what you just said that's a redundant question?
WvM: It has been so strange putting this whole thing back together: the dates in Holland were definitely a one-off. everything else outside Holland is open for consideration.
You wouldn't do any more shows in The Netherlands?
WvM: I wonder what I would do if a great opportunity were to come up in Holland again? I think I'd pass, because I'm also a man of principle. If you say you're only doing one gig in Holland then that's what you do. I don't think it's fair to anyone or to our band history to change that.
But outside the Netherlands?
WvM: I don't know what is next. When I started putting the band together last year I planned everything for 2012, although the recording of a single for OGenesis was a bonus I never expected it happen. We'll do the Quietus show on Nov 26th and that is definitely our last gig for this year, and then I can't say any more. We'll see what happens after the single is released. If there are opportunities, I'll consider them, if they're not the right opportunities, then nothing might happen.
For now I'm just looking forward to our gig in November, and let's see what happens with the band. I continue to use the word 'band', we are a band now I guess. I don't know what they're thinking of their future in Minny Pops, so we will take it as it comes.
But you're happy with how 2012 has gone for you, after reforming the project with trepidation?
WvM: I feel really happy everything has been more than I expected and performing feels really great. It hasn't been an easy process. We used to be a very static band in the 80s, but now we've become much looser and the songs have become freer. We performed acoustically this year, at Kendall Calling, and for me that show was possibly the most fun I've ever had performing.
Minny Pops play for the Quietus and O Genesis at London's Lexington on Monday November 26th. Support comes from Pavlov's Children and a reading of Ian Rankin's short story A Little Bit Of Powder, recorded for O Genesis. Tickets here