Perfect Sound Forever


The West Coast Sound of Holland
By Illés Plompen
(June 2020)

Every few years, there seems to be a newfound appreciation for some half-forgotten style that hit its peak twenty to thirty years earlier. Whether it's neo-soul, psychobilly, third wave ska or the umpteenth post-punk revival, every genre gets their brief resurgence at one point or another. But few revivals were as vibrant, long-lasting and commercially successful as the '00's synthpop and electro craze. Not only did this trend bring us some excellent records (Vitalic's Okay Cowboy, Crystal Castles self-titled debut, Solvent's Apples and Synthesizers, most of the DFA catalog), it became the decade's defining party soundtrack and led to creating some of its biggest popstars. But where did this sudden interest in analog synthesizers and pre-rave drum sounds come from? Some loft in New York city? Some ultra-exclusive club in Berlin? No. It all came from a small city on the west coast of The Netherlands called The Hague. Home to one of the most important Dutch record labels of all time: Bunker Records.

Okay, maybe I'm kind of exaggerating there. Bunker is definitely one of The Netherlands' most significant labels in terms of stylistic influence, and it still has a huge cult following among electronic music fans all over the world. But is it solely responsible for the 00s electro/synthpop revival? No, probably not. Considering the popularity of those styles during their heyday, and the fact that most styles make some kind of comeback twenty or thirty years after the fact, it's safe to say that - even without the existence of Bunker - the '00's craze for retro synths, robotic vocals and "Blue Monday"-style basslines was bound to happen. That being said, Bunker were years ahead of the pack, toying around with these sounds as far back as the early '90's, and their slick combination of industrial minimalism and disco-inspired immediacy laid the groundwork for the somewhat controversial electroclash movement - a scene that the label wanted nothing to do with from day one, but I'll get to that later. Here, I will delve into the history of Bunker Records and examine its musical and cultural impact on the West coast of Holland and beyond.

The history of Bunker can be traced back to one man: Guy Tavares. Although Tavares was born in The Hague, he spent most of his childhood in a small town called Alphen aan de Rijn. When he moved back to The Hague in his late teens, he studied philosophy, history and biology at Leiden University, and eventually got involved in the local squatter scene. Around 1991, he formed the now-legendary Unit Moebius; a harsh acid-techno duo consisting of Tavares and his childhood friend Jan Duivenvoorden. Because of the extremely stripped back, lo-fi sound of their early recordings, Unit Moebius struggled to find a record label willing to release their music. So, in true D.I.Y. fashion, Tavares started his own label, which he named 'bunker' in reference to the numerous WWII bomb shelters spread across The Hague's coast line. Bunker released the first two Unit Moebius records (both untitled, but commonly referred to by their catalog numbers, Bunker 001 and Bunker 002) with the money they made from their legendary 'Acid Planet' parties - a series of indoor raves they organized in The Hague, known for their extraordinary length (over twelve hours) and freaky, hypnotic atmosphere, which was enhanced by the attendants' use of an extremely poignant type of LSD, provided by Tavares & company. The Acid Planet raves planted the seeds for what would soon become known as 'The West Coast Sound of Holland': a burgeoning electro scene led by a motley crew of nerds, squatters, ravers and junkies.

From the mid '90's onwards, Bunker gradually expanded their roster, releasing records by Rude 66, Ra-X, Orgue Electronique and Legowelt. While the label kept its raw sound and minimal sleeve designs, the music became more and more inspired by old-school electro as opposed to techno or acid-house: while the early Unit Moebius records sound kind of like a Dutch answer to Underground Resistance, the late '90's and early '00's output of artists like Legowelt is a lot more to-the-point, and generally favors a strong melodic hook over the militant beats and dark, trippy textures of second-wave Detroit techno. Take tracks like "Do You Really Care" and "The Republic" from Legowelt's outstanding Wirtschaftswunder EP (2000), which combine a pounding, four-to-the-floor drum with these colorful, analogue synth-lines, making it sound like Man-Machine-era Kraftwerk updated for the Ecstasy generation. Because while 'dark' and 'raw' are definitely the first words that come to mind when describing Bunker's sound, there's a certain warmth and playfulness to it that is completely absent from most of the overtly serious Detroit techno and headache-inducing hardcore and gabber music that was coming out at the time.

Although the staff's excessive drug use and anti-commercial attitude would keep Bunker from ever reaching an audience beyond its dedicated cult-following, they inspired a slew of musicians and producers in The Hague and nearby cities like Rotterdam to start experimenting with this druggy, lo-fi electro sound. Out of this grew labels like Viewlexx, Murder Capital and Clone, with artists like Duplex, Alden Tyrell, Pametex and of course I-F, who managed to score a minor hit with his 1998 masterpiece "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass." Because while mainstream radio play was almost non-existent, the scene's idiosyncratic sound attracted an unexpectedly large audience of electronic music geeks around the globe, which made the press eager to call it 'The West Coast Sound of Holland' (a name that has a bit of a knowing wink to it, considering The Netherlands is one of the smallest countries in the world - making the division of different musical regions a little ridiculous). Around the turn of the century/millennium, The West Coast Sound of Holland even found its way into New York's underground club scene, with tracks by Legowelt, I-F and Alden Tyrell becoming staples for a new generation of hip, extravagant art-school dropouts who would eventually kickstart the electroclash revolution. Because even though Bunker and its following openly despise electroclash for being too dumbed down and blatantly commercial - I-F even went as far as to write the 'Anti-Electroclash-Manifest', a document he and several other West Coast artists signed, swearing they'd never jump on the electroclash-bandwagon - you can't deny that Bunker and The West Coast Sound of Holland have been a massive stylistic influence on electroclash acts like Fisherspooner, Miss Kittin & The Hacker and Felix Da Housecat, which would eventually trickle-down to late '00's pop divas like Lady Gaga. Who would've thought?

Despite that, Bunker is still going strong until this day, continuing to put out excellent music by both seasoned vets (Legowelt, Unit Moebius) and promising up-and-comers (Klankman, Jacqueline Boom-Boom), and continuing to inspire young Dutch musicians with its infectious, stripped-back style. Because although Bunker and The West Coast Sound of Holland could easily be dismissed as nothing more than a retro-movement, fetishizing over a lost era of analogue synths and crappy drum machines, I would argue that The West Coast Sound is more than the sum of its parts. Listen to a track like I-F's "Space Invaders Are Smoking Grass" or Legowelt's "Disco Rout" and imagine it was actually made in the early '80's. You just can't... Sure, the melodies and instrumental pallet are very reminiscent of that era, but the linear song structure, hypnotic arpeggios and sheer abrasiveness of the production show that some of the lessons of '90's rave simply can't be unlearned. Luckily, Guy Tavares has never worried much about claims of Bunker not deserving their legendary status due to their retro aesthetic. In a recent interview with Dutch music publication 3voor12 he summed it up perfectly:
"Bunker stands for a certain kind of musical itch and that will always be the case. I don't believe in innovation. [...] It's narcissistic to think that you can do something innovative. What comes out is what you've already put into it. You're a product of your environment." (3voor12, September 14th, translated).
And while I find that statement a little cynical and I don't fully agree with it, I think it suits Bunker's stubborn, what-you-see-is-what-you-get nature. Because it's that stubbornness that has defined the label and The Westcoast Sound of Holland for almost thirty years now, and it continues to be an important characteristic of not just Dutch electro, but Dutch popular music across the board. Whether it's De Jeugd van Tegenwoordig, Gesloten Cirkel, Palmbomen II or Goldband, you can hear a bit of Bunker in all of it.

Bunker on Facebook:

Bunker on Bandcamp:

Bookmark and Share

Check out the rest of PERFECT SOUND FOREVER