Dinamies In De Stad: An Interview With Lewsberg

Richard Foster meets Rotterdam foursome Lewsberg to discuss their sonic volte face, the changing nature of their home city, playing with the brain and their favourite biscuits

Photos by Tommy Ventevogel

Rotterdam is changing, fast. The mythos of the cheap, creative, tough-but-welcoming working city is now slowly morphing into a Brave New World of regeneration and opportunity. The usual homogenisations are underway. In the city centre particularly, there is an awful lot of “playing at shops” and in some quarters one can’t move for bougie takes on artisan fast food outlets, urban gardenistas, and creative collectives; centres of energy where ardent souls revel in the concrete surrounds and hope for socio-cultural revolution. It could be Shoreditch, or anywhere. This isn’t the grijze stad of legend. There again this huge port city, with the most diverse demographics in the Netherlands, can’t be summed up by some pithy remarks about in-crowds.

One act known for their Rotterdam roots, Lewsberg, are also changing. The band has, to date, made four albums which can be crudely divided into two camps. The first two records – Lewsberg and In This House – are laconic, sometimes swinging rockers that hinged on singer Arie van Vliet’s dry delivery and Michiel Klein’s coruscating guitar playing. They toy with the afterglow of an image of Rotterdam that had already gone west with the deaths of bindipping city poets such as C.B. Vaandrager, Jules Deelder and Frans Vogel. The latest long players – In Your Hands and Out And About (released this month) are minimal, “mnemonic” recordings that sound like diary entries.

Their newer, “quieter” music is seductive. A sound world that gets into your head like a good short story. Madly, this new approach doesn’t require too much of a leap from what went before, it’s just Lewsberg operating in a different climate. Like Maigret, winkled out of Paris and sent to investigate a crime in le Midi, the new songs give the impression that the four musicians are on a beach somewhere, in the shade reading a book or eating an ice cream, looking at the passers-by.

Talking of Maigret, and the Rotterdam poets of the 1960s, it’s hard not to bring up literary references with this band: after all the name Lewsberg is drawn from the “difficult” Rotterdam writer of the 1970s, Robert Loesberg, whose novel Enige Defecten (loosely translated as Some Imperfections) needs some patience. There was an early single, too: ‘Non-Fiction Writer’. Lots of songs have a feeling of rapportage to them, and hint at the writer’s craft of constant readjustments and redefinitions. Van Vliet acknowledges this. “There are things that we are always busy with. And at some point we can incorporate the idea in what we do.” Klein also finds the repetitive nature of the music “interesting”, it being “Lewsberg, 100 per cent. If I make music then I have no rush in making a point. Over time, I can get a lot out of a little, you know?”

The last two records also document a band exploring other possibilities and different voices; three vocalists instead of one. There is certainly a wariness of getting stuck in the mores of a live music circuit that increasingly resembles a hall of mirrors, where the same platitudes and assumptions around being a “successful act” resemble a straitjacket. Van Vliet also “began writing texts in a new way,” which prompted new ventures into sound. Maybe they are keen not to be pigeonholed after early grassroots recognition. Maybe it’s their idea of music for a new society.

Klein: “There is a structure inside the band, but it’s also how people see us. We are trying to break through all the assumptions to give everyone in Lewsberg an equal footing. That is a wider, social act. It’s Lewsberg and everybody.”

Even in their noisier moments, Lewsberg revels in the sound of silence. The uneasiness that comes from awkward pauses, things left unsaid. Each question is met with a long silence. Time is taken to think about the correct reply. As all aspects of Lewsberg matter. In answering, van Vliet is courteous and thoughtful almost to the point of catatonia. Klein, whose quiet scholarly air often hides a sharp sense of fun, regularly demands a re-run of a question, as if he’s the prosecution lawyer in a small claims court. We miss the fizzing chatterbox of the band, bassist Shalitia Dietrich, who would have turned most conversations on their head and demanded a rematch. Drummer Marrit Meinema, once of Yuko Yuko now of brilliant fem-punks Venus Tropicaux alongside Dietrich, and a very outgoing soul, is content to listen in.

Even saying what their favourite biscuit is matters. This question, used as an easy way to finish an interview, is picked apart and examined in some detail; like a seagull opening a crisp wrapper on the street. For the record: Meinema offers a kermis biscuitje – a rectangle with holes in it, with sugar on top. According to her, they are very boring and plain. Meinema also tells me that Dietrich loves cheesy Scottish oatcakes. Van Vliet is lost in thought; he can’t ever remember eating three biscuits in a row. However, on the prompting of Klein he remembers a good, God-fearing, working class biscuit maker, Punselie, from Gouda. And switches his allegiance to them. Klein mentions the classic gevulde koek, a greasy hand-sized disc of pastry filled with sugary almond paste, and companion to many a Dutch social gathering. But, he stresses, only the cheaper homebrand versions of a particular, fairly upmarket supermarket chain, the ones from the second shelf which – despite their reduction in butter content – taste better. Dietrich finally appears, as we are packing up in time for a photo shoot. She quickly affirms her love of cheesy Scottish oatcakes, laughs, and bounds off to talk to snapper Tommy Ventevogel, yet another multi-talented Rotterdam scenester. The biscuit question has taken seven minutes to answer.

This in a way is testament to their strong sense of self.

Van Vliet: “I don’t care what people think about what we do and how we do it. For me it’s logical. There has to be a reason, as in most things that you do in your life. As long as you’re responsible for it I couldn’t really care what people think.”

Klein: “I find it so weird to try to make something you want everyone to like. That is never an option.”

In a rare quick retort, when asked what is the attraction of Lewsberg as a band, all answer that they don’t know, and laugh.

We meet in a printshop some way to the north of Rotterdam Central Station: ironically a creative collective but one, it must be said, that has been in the city for a long time. Like Lewsberg, an increasingly venerable civic institution and an accepted part of the city’s social fabric. An entity that is vanzelfsprekend.

Klein: “We have always organised events in the city; mainly for music made by our friends and contemporaries here. And in that way, I think we are definitely a social band. Then again, we don’t have any social media, and we are maybe seen as having a more reserved character than others. We don’t communicate much during shows. We aren’t very showbiz. But we rub along fine with our peers.”

Yet there is an increasingly Janus-like aspect to their character: they are seen, but not seen. In town, but somewhere else. Klein has recently moved to Groningen. Drummer Meinema, from the Frisian town of Dokkum, suggests that Lewsberg and their new music may be developing a more Northern psyche: “I would definitely give us a ‘Made in Friesland’ badge.”

Van Vliet, who is from Rotterdam, isn’t overly concerned in continually pushing the city through the band’s story, either. “On one side, Rotterdam’s history is my history, but it is very chauvinistic to continually use that side of your identity.” Klein, however demurs, as Lewsberg’s initial pitch was to those enamoured of the city’s concrete and steel image. “I think at the beginning of the band – certainly when you see the cover of the first record, [which shows a city factory] and our interest in the Rotterdam poets, like Vogel and Vaandrager, Arie and I looked in our backyard rather than from elsewhere. But it was more abstract, this search. It wasn’t necessarily a social or civic thing. We were looking inwards in our own circle, and in that way Lewsberg is a Rotterdam band.”

Klein continues, visibly warming to his theme. “I also think that Lewsberg began before the whole thing with gentrifying started. I came to Rotterdam to live here when it was affordable, and set up events in places that were still empty in the centre; such as on the Teilingerstraat, and the Meent, in the 2000s and 2010s. There was also a thing back then where, if you said, ‘I live in Rotterdam,’, people would say, ‘Why do you live in Rotterdam?’ I think back then the city was more boasted about than now. There’s no need now. Rotterdam was always the ugly duckling, back then.”

I return to ask about the new sense of calm and stillness that pervades the latest two records. As 2021’s In Your Hands was an abrupt volte face stylistically, and shocking for some; especially after the bump and grind of In This House. The template that initially made them successful, that of an intelligent, voyeuristic East Coast-style rock and roll band, with sharply defined lyrics and bruising guitar parts, is currently jettisoned in favour of the aforementioned soft, maybe gauche sounds that play with pregnant silences. Where does this obsession with playing with silences come from? Meinema beams back at me: “I’m saying nothing.” Van Vliet (after an inevitable silence), answers: “Deconstructivism. It’s about denying a bit what music is, or what music is seen to be derived from, and rebuilding music with the fewest possible elements. I have to say I haven’t worked out any principles or theories about the music. So don’t quote me.”

Klein, Lewsberg’s musical polymath, realises that this isn’t going to fully answer the question, which someone, of course, must answer, fully. “Arie and I have different backgrounds in music. For me it’s not playing with deconstructivism per se, for me it’s about making and playing music. I read somewhere that researchers are busy with what people find interesting and attractive about music. Apparently, we are so fascinated because organised sound – music – creates positive responses in your brain. It plays with expectation patterns, with answers we would look for in our lives. And music is something that happens in our lives a lot. Music is a game between melodies the listener knows or doesn’t.

How does Lewsberg play with the brain, then? “To play with the state between recognising a tune and being surprised by one, that is where the power of attraction for us is. This point overrides the format; in any situation. So, it’s about expectations. Maybe that sounds academic, but for me it’s dead simple and can be a very playful approach. We aren’t, as a band, interested in setting up a punchline.”

Arie rounds matters off by tossing another, more personal element of Lewsberg’s character into the mix. Not without the inevitable depreciating coda: “We don’t go in for the obvious gesture, like a lot of bands do, that I think is one of the attractive things about Lewsberg actually. We sometimes underplay our strengths, which is also questionable, maybe.”

And though Lewsberg will return to certain ways, there will always be an element of surprise, a game of catching out the listener, rock’s tropes firmly inverted.

They won’t make a prog rock record will they?

Michiel Klein: “Won’t we?”

Lewsberg’s new album Out And About is released later this month

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