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In Extremis

New Wave Of Dutch Heavy Jazz: Dead Neanderthals Interviewed
Stewart Smith , May 14th, 2013 06:00

Dutch free-jazz/metal/grindcore duo Dead Neanderthals bring their incendiary noise to the UK's shores this week. In advance of their shows, they speak with Stewart Smith about disjointed drums and a 'tongue-in-cheek' connection to jazz

Photo by Sas Schilten

'FUCK conventions and FUCK expectations', declaims the website of Dutch heavy jazz brutes Dead Neanderthals. Whether forcing the twitching viscera of free jazz through a grindcore blender, slicing the eyeball of European improvisation with a metal blade, or eviscerating the whole lot in a maelstrom of noise, the sax-drums duo of Otto Kokke and Rene Aquarius pay little heed to the boundaries of genre.

Following 2012's mighty Jazzhammer/Stormannsgalskap, a pounding headache of rampaging blastbeats, distorted foghorn drones and radioactive seagull squalls, the band has gone entirely acoustic with fourth album Polaris. Putting the fuzz pedals to one side doesn't mean the band has gone mellow, however. Polaris, mastered by Norwegian noise king Lasse Marhaug, might take their music closer to free jazz than before, but it retains the punk energy and dynamic extremities of old.

Despite their fearsome sound and sweary rhetoric, Dead Neanderthals turn out to be thoroughly affable gents. Over a slightly erratic Skype connection, Otto and Rene discuss their musical practice, upcoming collaborations and the Dutch underground music scene.

To start at the beginning, can you tell us how Dead Neanderthals came to be?

Otto Kokke: Well, actually we were in a Google chat and I asked him, 'Rene, you want to start a band?' We didn't have any idea of what we would be doing so I just said to Rene, 'could you record some drums?' So that's what we did. He recorded around five basic drum tracks of varying length, emailed them to me and then I put some sax parts over it. And then we had half of our first album. We hadn't played together ever before, it was all just through email. We knew from each other the different kinds of music we liked, so I'm not saying it wasn't a surprise the way it came out, but we knew it would be...

Rene Aquarius: We knew it would be fast and loud and harsh, but we didn't know exactly how it was going to come out, if it was going to be more metal, more jazz or whatever. It just happened and we both liked it, it worked well.

OK: After half a year we started rehearsing together and then we came up with the idea of playing live. We had to come up with tracks we could actually play live, because the first album had too many layers on it.

To what extent is your music improvised?

OK: The structure is composed. What happens within the structure, at least for the sax parts, is somewhat improvised, which means that there is an idea but usually I don't stick to it.

RA: But this is for the first two albums. The first one had a lot of improvisation. We didn't play together, but we basically just did something. When we started rehearsing our second album came out, and the rhythm parts were really structured and the sax parts were partially structured. Then our third album, Jazzhammer, was really structured. There was some improvisation on the sax and some other parts, but most of it was structured. The new album Polaris is complete improvisation.

In addition to being improvised, Polaris is all-acoustic. What made you leave the pedals in their boxes this time?

OK: We were working on an album in the line of Jazzhammer.

RA: Lots of effects, lots of distortion, long tracks.

OK: We were getting somewhere, but we felt we were not getting as far as we wanted to.

RA: We weren't happy with what we had yet. It was ok, but not good enough. After a couple of weeks of trying all sorts of things we just said, fuck it, let's try something else. We had both been listening to a lot of free jazz so we thought, let's do something like that. It was the first time we did an actual improvisation, so we decided to record and see how it sounded. When we started listening to the tracks, we were really happy how they sounded and quickly decided this was going to be the new album. The first one was quite bad – well, it was okay-ish, but not good enough - so we deleted that. There were only two tracks we shaved a bit off – the rest is complete.

OK: Then we mixed it, which wasn't too hard, because it's only one drum track and one sax track. We recorded really crappily and the sound was amazingly good. And then we sent it off to Lasse and he mastered it and made it immensely better. The sound you hear on the record, all the credit goes to Lasse. He made it come to life.

The drum parts don't really swing like jazz, or have the regular attack of metal. They're quite weird, disjointed...

RA: Yeah, my idea is to give a background of rhythm, but not in the way you usually have. I just want to have a structured layer in the back for Otto to play on. It works really well, but I don't think it's for everybody. You just have to let go of any ideas you have about how a drumbeat should sound and then maybe you can enjoy it. For me it was important to have that feeling to the music.

OK: It's there for the sax to build upon. But on the other hand, we're two people – drums are 50% of what we do – so it's something that's at times quite programmed, that's the free part, because actually I get to decide about the drums. When I start to play something that's louder, or melodically grabs more attention, then automatically the drums or the rhythm part go into the background because that's what you're used to hearing in other music. You learn that the rhythm is the background thing.

RA: Except if you're a drummer. [laughs]

OK: I guess that's one of the main ingredients in the interaction we have as a band. We play with who's in the background, who's in the foreground. That's actually quite fun because you're not just playing a song, you're playing with each other, there's a playfulness there.

RA: You're shifting the focus from each instrument to the other.

With your sax playing, are things you deliberately try to avoid?

OK: Things I avoid? I avoid playing Bon Jovi... [laughs]. I'm trying to avoid something you'd expect, that's obvious. Next to that I try to avoid things that are too melodic, because I might then end up playing really stupid shit. What I try to do is not do too much repetition, because that's when people start deciphering what you're doing, noticing structure here and there. What I try to do is maybe play some little melodic thing, repeat it once or twice, then go on to the next thing, otherwise it would be boring. I come to get bored a lot faster while playing than the average listener would while listening to it, so really steps up the dynamic and the changes within the song.

Photo by Thijmen Sietsma

A number of your track titles pay tribute to your inspirations, 'Yamatsuka Eye', for example. Were the tracks written with this in mind, or is the naming a retrospective act?

OK: We listened a lot to Naked City [John Zorn's schizoid jazz-punk-whatever project, of which the Boredoms leader was a member]. Not so much now, but I grew up on Naked City and it has come up as a reference over the years, so we had that in the back of our heads and thought ok, let's have that inspire a track title. We had a short track so that seemed fitting.

So with 'Plissken' you weren't trying to come up with an alternative soundtrack to Escape From New York?

OK: [laughs] No, because why would you make an alternative soundtrack when the original is so awesome? Actually, the soundtrack of The Thing, another Kurt Russell and John Carpenter movie, with a John Carpenter soundtrack, was a reference point for something we did that will come out later, a collaboration with Machinefabriek, he's a Dutch noise/soundscape guy.

RA: Yeah, at some point we decided to work with him. We made an album and are looking at mixing it now. One of the tracks we made with him was inspired by the soundtrack to The Thing. Really minimal and menacing – it turned out really well.

Is it a studio project or live collaboration?

OK: It was another email project. At some point, via Twitter I think, he got in contact and asked 'maybe I should do a remix with you guys?' And so we thought, no way, no remixes, let's just collaborate. So we said, maybe we should do a song. He said, maybe I'll have some time later this month. And 24 hours later we got a 20 minute droney/noisey track in our email inbox. We thought, okay, this is something we can work with. So we booked our studio four days later and started recording and we got a really cool track out of that. It was all done within a week.

RA: The first track was started by him with the drone and the second was started by us with a drum and synth track.

OK: Yeah, very noisy and much louder and harsher than the stuff he did. So it would be great to have that on vinyl, with one loud side and one quiet side, with influences of both artists.

Have you done other projects like that and how does that change the dynamic of you playing together?

OK: Yeah, we have. For this, the dynamic was that we didn't know each other, so at first it was very tentative, sending something, wondering what he was going to send back. So there was a small period of sending things back and forth, getting to know each other.

Another project we did recently was with Colin Webster, the British saxophone player. We did a show with him in London last year and we met him again in December. He was in Holland for a show with one of his other bands. Accidentally we had a studio booked on that day, so when we heard he was coming so we though let's invite him if he has the time and see what comes out of that. So we did two hours of improvisation.

RA: Two saxophones and drums in the studio, which was really weird, but it all came together. We did an improv record, which is quite different from Polaris. It's quite open and very quiet. I think it turned out really well. It's cool that you can hear the different influences of the three of us.

How are you received by the jazz community?

OK: I think they don't like it. The jazzers that are quite conservative, I don't think they'd call it jazz, which is something we do call it, with a bit of tongue in cheek, because neither of us have jazz backgrounds.

RA: I'm definitely not calling myself a jazz musician. [laughs]

OK: So basically that means we don't make jazz. Although Polaris is very much in the free tradition, which a lot of jazz people exclude from the standard jazz.

So I guess your tag, 'the new wave of Dutch heavy jazz' isn't entirely serious?

OK: It's something that evolved as a joke for us, because people were referring to us as jazz, while we were like 'fuck jazz!' But somehow that kept recurring and we thought it was quite funny, so we started calling ourselves the new wave of Dutch heavy jazz, because we like Iron Maiden a lot, which again, shows something about our background [i.e. it's a play on The New Wave Of British Heavy Metal]. And then we actually started doing some free stuff and somehow it makes calling it jazz more acceptable.

Would you place yourself alongside heavy jazz influenced acts like The Thing, Moha or Zu?

OK: If you asked the saxophone player from Zu if he played jazz he'd probably hit you [laughter]. If it's jazz, it's some weird, demented cousin of jazz. I think the conservative jazz people will probably hate it.

RA: But yeah, fans of Mats Gustaffson will probably like it, or Zu and Mombu Mombu. It's ridiculous how many good bands there are.

Are you more accepted in the underground rock scene?

OK: In the rock community we do quite well. We're the weird band at festivals. People actually like that. We've been playing a lot of rock venues. It's cool that people don't run away. And we have a huge grindcore following. We're weird for everybody, so we fit a lot of genres.

Beyond The Ex and the Incubate Festival, most British music fans know little of the Dutch scene. Is there a strong underground there?

RA: The underground in Holland at this moment I think is quite fantastic. You have cool bands like Albatre and Cactus Truck and Donné et Desirée. They're all friends to us and at some point we all decided to play together. There was this mini underground noise fest we played in Nijmegen. The week after, we played in Rotterdam in a squat. That was a great night. It was literally freezing, but a lot of people came and watched the show.

OK: I don't think it's really different from any country in Western Europe. The general Dutch public is maybe a bit less adventurous than, for example, Belgium, Germany or the UK. For example, in the UK the Kaiser Chiefs are like housewife rock – in Holland they are considered alternative [chuckles] which says something about mainstream taste here. But there is an underground that is quite nice. There's still a lot of room for bands to play.

RA: If you want to want to start a weird band you just go ahead and do it. It's a real micro-scene. Everyone knows each other, everybody helps each other with shows and it's all very romantic. It's nice that everybody helps and the people that help with shows, put you in a squat, cook for you.

And now you're coming to the UK.

OK: We're coming to London on the 16th of May, we're playing the Vortex. We're going there with Colin Webster and our buddies from Rotterdam, Albatre.

Polaris is out now on Utech Records.

Dead Neanderthals, with Colin Webster and Albarte, play London's Vortex Jazz Club on Thursday May 16, and Brighton's Cowley Club on Friday May 17.