FRANS DE WAARD
interview by Jason Gross
For most musicians I admire, I see their lives as cautionary examples but not Frans de Waard- I admit that I'm jealous of him. It's not just that he has a ridiculously long list of musical projects (under a multitude of names) and releases and collaborations, including all manner of electronic music. It's not just that he helped to run the European label juggernaut that is Staalplaat, which he documented in the recent book This Is Supposed To Be A Record Label (which chronicles another sort of cautionary example). It's not just that he's run a stalwart zine for decades- Vital Weekly, which stretches back further than PSF. It's just that he's done all of these things- that's why I'm jealous of him.
As a fellow writer/editor and chronicler of underground music, we'd been in touch for a long time and he'd been kind enough to write a wonderful piece on ambient cassette artist Enno Velthuys for PSF. I'd discuss other articles as a follow-up's, not realizing that a great article was staring me in the face- asking Frans about his own work. I'd been meaning to do that for a while and after some prodding, I finally wised up and interrogated him, which I'm glad I did and I think you'll be glad that I did too.
PSF: For projects like Modelbau and Freiband, you seem to define them by technique, but do you also find there's a certain aesthetic quality that separates them too?
FDW: Oh yes, absolutely. Technology is only one small aspect for me. I am by no means a very technically-minded guy. I didn't open up a radio as a kid to see what happened inside. I can't solder. Everything I know about technology is only what people showed me over the years. It also means I don't favor any technology. I didn't abandon the four track for a laptop and then a modular synth. I don't use one of the latter and (I) still use laptops.
Each of my musical project names is a defined thing of its own, which allows me to explore whatever it is. From 2000 to 2010, Freiband was my main solo project, starting out as the last analogue thing I ever did, but from then on, (it was) laptop only. I got bored in the end, using just a laptop on stage and decided it was time to do something new, which became Modelbau, which is more an open project to use whatever it fits (as) necessary. In preparing for these in my studio, I use pretty much the same set-up; all of the preparations I record and use for releases; also I record all concerts but hardly use these for releases. I am not sure why. In concert, I also use some old Walkman machines, shortwave radio, and field recordings from my laptop, but also the iVCS app from my iPad, contact microphones and electromagnetic pick-ups. I still do music as Freiband, still only laptop, but usually very quick projects with something I call 'action composing.' By transforming large blocks of sound with granular synthesis and putting them together in a rather loose way (so not looking at the micro detail of each second), I do quite a bit of remixes and such.
There isn't an overall aesthetic quality I look for. It is instead what the project calls for. These days, I am very busy with creating more ambient techno tunes, as QST and Quest (the first being quite rhythmic, the second more ambient), which involves (using an) iPad again and is quite clean, as opposed to the 'dirty' sound of Modelbau. For me, it is important to use these different names, even when no one ever seems to know what is that I am doing really. Over the years, I noted that many people have no clue what it is that I'm doing. Locally, everybody seems to think I am that noise-drone bloke.
PSF: Related to that, when you work on these different projects, do you find common/similar threads that connect them musically (and perhaps wonder if they seep into each other a bit)?
FDW: Sometimes, surely. To give an example. I played a solo concert in Winnipeg earlier this year, which was part Modelbau, part QST, part Quest and surely had some kind of Freiband processed sounds in there. I put that on my Bandcamp as 'Frans de Waard,' but it doesn't compare, I think, with the music I released as Frans de Waard. The upcoming Frans de Waard CD on White Paddy Mountain is perhaps much more Quest, in terms of its ambient approach. Perhaps the most common thread with all my music is that I still can't play any instrument, and that keeping up a steady beat is very difficult for me. If Brian Eno thought of non-musicianship he must have thought of me (he said jokingly); that man could play guitar a bit, even that I can't pull off.
PSF: You started out in the cassette culture of the '80's, which was obviously tied to the technology of that time. How do you find the digital culture aesthetic to be different to that?
FDW: I do think it is very different indeed. Many of the digital tools, like blogs, insta(gram) and what have you, including music software like Ableton Live, are all working with templates, which I believe is a serious limitation of the creative mind. In the old days, when one was doing a cover for a release, fanzine or piece of music, it was all scissors, paste and there were only very few examples to be seen as an inspiration. You couldn't watch or hear it online, so you were limited to what your local record store had for you or what you bought through a mail order. These days, one opens a blog, chooses a template and 'personalizes' it a bit, but it's a blog, and one massive template and they're all the same.
PSF: Having a large catalog of work like you do, does it become an inspiration for present and future works? Do you consciously try to build on your previous work or perhaps try to avoid certain previous patterns?
FDW: When I believe a project has ran its course, I will abandon it, but not indefinitely. Goem and Shifts are now part of the past, as I believe everything that could have been done in those projects was done, and there is no point in repeating oneself. Some projects die out because band members move on or have no time. Wieman, for instance, is very project based, doing one-off projects and I see Roel not a lot, so nothing else happens. Kapotte Muziek only gets together for a concert, and we never seek out one; we only come when invited, which might be once every two years. Beequeen split up out of musical differences. The Tobacconists is something I can only do when Scott Foust and me meet up, which is hardly ever (very sad to say). But this year, I played already three times with Wouter Jaspers as Ezdanitoff, which is more than in the past 4 years, so there is another cycle of that. QST/Quest was something I did in the '90's, more Quest than QST as I didn't have any proper technology to do 'dance' music, but I gave that up when I started Freiband and realized I could do more digital ambient, but in 2014 I started again simply because new technology became available for me that enabled to do exactly that kind of music.
And sometimes I go back to old technology to explore that again. 'Let's see what happens if I use this (again)...' is something I apply a lot. When doing all the QST work, somebody asked me for some Quest music (which he never replied to, so now it will be released by Where Ambient Lives in August I believe) and I did some more ambient music, and thought it would worthwhile researching how it would sound when recorded on a four track cassette machine, like I did in the old days; it turned out to be great (and sadly the machine broke down shortly after that; I have to look into repair). So everything is always building on older music or technology. Plus sometimes, I take something other old as a direct inspiration; the four old records by Dome for instance directly inspired ‘A Secret Place’ by the Tobacconists. QST has now a demo ready of music that is inspired by the mid '90's sound by Silent Records and Fax +49-69/450464. I don't believe what I do is in anyway 'avant-garde'; I merely look to do music I would like to hear for a while.
PSF: In your book about Staalplaat, did you see writing that as something cathartic? What kind of lessons do you think you learned from working at the label?
FDW: For a long time after I left Staalplaat in 2003, I got questions dealing with the label, distribution and the store. For instance, when people thought VW was a pre-auditioning for Staalplaat's distribution. "I send you a promo for VW, now what about distribution?” so naturally I was annoyed by it. Also. people believed for a long time I started Staalplaat etc., but by 2010, that was over. As with many things in life, I believe that time is a great filter. What I did then, I wouldn't do these days.
Time changes perception. That's with Staalplaat but also with my own music. I hardly listen to my own music but I realize that what I thought was great 15 years (ago), I may view differently these days. These days I don't mind talking about Staalplaat and so I thought it was the right moment to write a book and in doing that, I realized a few things. Despite some of the shit I/we encountered, it was a great time; 'the best of times, the worst of times,' I realize, is very true. I also realized that the way Staalplaat operated is not how record companies these days operate. With online sales and presence, one has to do things very differently, and as a way to run a label, Staalplaat of the '90's is very much a thing of the past.
I must admit I didn't draw any lessons from working there; I would do things a bit differently of course, if I were to run a label at all. I would spend as much money on advertising as on the release itself. That's the only way to get noted and that's something a lot of small labels that I deal with don't see, but also we didn't see that back then. However, I gave up running a label, since I noted that distributors don't like what I release and more and more, everything is centered around a few well-selling labels (no names here). Everything seems to be about hype; well-known 'underground' artists (again, no names) playing on the bigger festivals and having a stream of mediocre releases on the hip label bunch. I could almost sound cynical.
PSF: With Vital Weekly, do you consciously try to set your work apart from other publications that cover the same ground (such as the Wire)?
FDW: Not really, I would think. I never think in terms of strategies when it comes to my own music or writing. I simply want to do what I like. If that is not very commercial or along with the zeitgeist, then so be it. A long time ago someone, suggested to make VW more open, so that everyone could vent an opinion, or respond to reviews; a bit like a blog, I guess. I was against it, still am. It is not that I am afraid of critique of the reviews (or the English spelling, which, of course, sucks big time), or that I am against the opinion of others, but I am very much in the pro-punk spirit: if you think something sucks, and you can do it better, do it yourself.
I never comment on other publications; I also rarely read them, I must admit, with a few exceptions. I do read a lot of books on music however. As I am not really buying any new music, I hardly need to read about new releases I guess.
PSF: What would you advise other people who want to start their own publication?
FDW: I have very little to offer in terms of advice really. For everything you do in life, and that is literal almost (everything), ask yourself 'why do you want to do it,' 'what do you want to achieve' and 'how do you want to do this.' Lots of people see something as VW as a way of getting 'a bunch of freebies, which are sold in a half hidden garage sale' so that's what they want too. I do VW on a daily basis, have not really another income and have done this for 22 years now (31 years if you count Vital, the paper fanzine), simply because I believe there is so much music out there that needs to be heard and talked about. I (we) don't offer journalism, but we write personal reviews. 'This is the band, that's the history, this is how it sounds' and at the very end, there is a personal note ('great,' 'a bit long'). If making money by creating click bait is your thing as well as this kind of music, you'd better rethink that. If there is any advise to share, I'd say be honest. If you have no idea what it is you are writing about, just say so; don't pretend to know if you don't. I do that a lot actually; because there is much music on this desk I have no idea about, but in all honesty I will tell you so.
PSF: Do you see in any way that one aspect of your work has had an effect on other aspects of your work? In other words, does your work as a writer or editor have some bearing on your work as a musician or vice versa?
FDW: Well, obviously it does. I believe things don't exist in a vacuum. I am obviously interested in all things electronic and experimental music (even when I hardly use the word 'experimental' myself), to compose and to write about. I think it would be impossible not to pick up influences from the work of others. Plus, perhaps it is sometimes difficult to ignore those influences. When writing about music, I think about 'how was this made?' and when I later work on my own music (which, by the way, is not as much as I would love to do), I try to apply similar approaches; or at least how I imagined them to be and see if that works out. In my early years, I read about Steve Reich and the way he used tape-loops in "Come Out" and tried to do it myself, and realized you could layer these loops on end and create some dense drone music with it.
And sometimes, I decide that something is not for me at all; the whole modular synth scene for instance is not my cup of tea when it comes to choosing instruments or sources. (This is) partly because I can't afford it and partly because I find working with them too complex for a simple soul like myself. In the last few years, I spend time learning various apps for the iPad, which give me all that I need, along with the analogue stuff that I am also using. There is the Korg gadget for all things 'dance' music in QST/Quest and the iVCS (the VCS3 synth app) for Modelbau to use, as part of its overall sound.
PSF: What advice would you give to other 'non-musicians'?
FDW: I am not sure, really. Perhaps I am not really the kind of 'advice' guy. What kind of 'advice' does one need? I would never say 'use this piece of software or hardware, that will do the trick' for instance, as I think one should choose what suits one best. Investigate and keep an open mind in choosing whatever you think you need. Formulate a clear idea of what it is that you want and try creating that result (and along the way you'll have some diversions, which is fine of course; that always happens when I work. I knock over something by accident and that results in something unplanned but highly useable), other than 'knock around and see what happens.' Maybe that approach works for some people, but it surely doesn't work for me. Time is too valuable to lose with hanging around and seeing what is going to happen. A good work ethic is helpful, but that surely is something that goes for a lot of areas.
It's important is to ignore any criticism: 'oh you can't play an instrument, so you are not a musician.' More and more, that whole notion of 'you have to learn the proper way' is coming back (perhaps because of the overall conservatism in society) with 'rock academies' where you can learn to be a pop musician and all that and the best thing is to ignore all that. It is something I see here in The Netherlands quite a bit, and it probably happens in a lot of other countries too. It is, I think, the commodification of pop music, a tool to earn money, a marketing trick and it will never ever result in something that you never heard of.
Just be your own and act accordingly.
QST/Quest on Bandcamp
Frans de Waard At Forthwith, Winnipeg, February 10, 2017
Also see Frans de Waard's article on Enno Velthuys
And an excerpt from Frans de Waard's book De Nederlandse Cassette Catalogus
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