The ice beneath my feet is singing: high-pitched, grainy crackles, underpinned by a deep low thud. A very deep low thud. Brush away the snow and lines of trapped air bubbles can be seen descending for about half a metre. Then blackness. Tap the surface – it’s harder than a concrete floor, and just as flat. But there’s that sound again, muted yet powerful: boi-iiing… BOI-iiiiiiiiinggg…
It is late morning, and we are in the middle of a lake. On a lake, to be more precise. The temperature here has been several degrees below zero for over a week, and the waterways are frozen solid. When Dutch people see ice, they know straight away what to do: they get their skates on. Lanes three or four metres wide are cleared of snow, creating a network of gleaming highways criss-crossing lakes, rivers, and canals. The skaters are fast and graceful, despite this being the first really thick ice for several years.
A typically Dutch attitude, perhaps: where others see adverse weather, they see a high-speed transport system. This resourcefulness, combined with a punk-inspired do-it-yourself attitude and an officially tolerated squatting culture, accounted for much of the Dutch independent music scene’s development in the Eighties and Nineties.
“Actually I had been playing in bands for a few years too long, I wasn’t really enjoying it anymore!” explains Romke Kleefstra, musician, ornithologist, and my guide for the day. “But I kept on going with the same kind of people, you know, “let’s do another rehearsal”… And at a certain point I was like, “I’m done with playing – I quit”. Then I bumped into Rutger [Zuydervelt], together with my brother. I was supporting my brother sometimes, because he was reciting at poetry festivals. And I just played a bit, and we mixed it with music which was already existing, like the music of William Basinski or Deathprod. We asked Rutger if we could use one of his pieces, but he said, “Why use something that already exists? Why not make something new?” And that’s how it started. We were going into the studio without any plan. And then it happened, and all of a sudden I thought “this is pretty cool…””
The result of that first session with Zuydervelt became the album “Piiptsjilling” (2008). Although originally billed as a one-off collaboration between Zuydervelt (under his Machinefabriek moniker) and Romke’s poet brother Jan, the trio soon found themselves in the studio again, this time joined on guitar and vocals by Mariska Baars (of Soccer Committee fame). “It actually became a band,” Romke says. “And it’s much fun to be together.”
The eponymous album was followed up in 2010 by “Wurdskrieme”. But the Kleefstra brothers were inspired by this new way of working, and were soon inviting other musicians to collaborate with them in a similar fashion, leading to the releases “Wink” with Anne-Chris Bakker (as the trio Kleefstra|Bakker|Kleefstra), “Sieleslyk” and “Tongerswel” with Gareth Davies, and “Deislieper” with Sytze Pruiksma (as Kleefstra|Pruiksma|Kleefstra). Piiptsjilling were also involved in an artist-in-residence programme on the island of Vlieland organised by the festival Into The Great Wide Open, along with Pruiksma, Peter and Heather Woods Broderick, Nils Frahm, Greg Haines, and the video artists 33one3rd, resulting in the Seeljocht live performances and accompanying CD.
“I’ve always been very much into improvisation music, you know, instant composing, like lots of jazz musicians were doing,” Kleefstra continues. “I had never really considered doing it myself, but when I started doing it, I really enjoyed it. It’s also really exciting, and even now when you’re playing festivals like Le Guess Who? or in Tokyo, I’m not actually even nervous when I go onstage, because I’m really curious to what will turn out this time. So it’s actually a really nice way of working.”
“It’s also nice to do different collaborations, because when you’re always in the same band, at a certain point you can grow a little bit bored with it. And this is always fresh, you know? Like, playing with Gareth Davies is so completely different from playing with Piiptsjilling, for instance. We did these recordings with Greg Haines in Berlin, and also other people came in, who were just there at that moment in the church that we were playing in. Nils was recording us, but also Peter Broderick was walking around there, we had Hilary Jeffery on trombone… So after three nights of recording we ended up with nine hours of music, and we couldn’t remember who played what! “Who’s playing that on the piano?” “Err, well… could be Nils, could be Greg, could be Peter…”! So that makes it really exciting, and that’s also the fun of it – it’s like playing around…”
Reviews of the Kleefstra brothers’ work tends to emphasise the influence of the sparse, windswept landscape of their native province of Fryslân, an association perhaps helped by the Frisian language of Jan’s poetry. Romke downplays this influence, however. “Of course, when you listen to the music we make, a lot of people are referring to Frisian landscapes, and the sea… But the people we make music with, like Rutger or Gareth Davies, they grew up in cities. And also when I’m making music, on stage or in the studio, it’s always improvised, it’s always instant composing, what we do. So Rutger and I for instance are not thinking of landscapes when we’re sitting on stage, we’re actually going with the flow of the music. But when you would be composing, then the chance is bigger that you’re referring to landscapes. Also Jan is doing so in his lyrics, because lyrics are also a way of composing. Maybe it influences [the fact] that you make quiet, dreamy music – but actually when you come from a city you can do the same!”
I put it to him that their music doesn’t really sound like it was recorded on the Costa del Sol. “No!” he laughs. “We played at this festival, ‘Explore the North’, and there were some discussions about if there was a ‘northern’ feeling. Of course I think it makes a difference if you come from Scandinavia or if you come from Spain. We’re in between, but I feel more connected to Scandinavia than to Spain. Yeah, it’s no Costa del Sol!”
The bright winter sunlight is streaming through the window into Romke’s living room, doing its best to hide the fact that this is not the Mediterranean. It’s hard not to see a connection between the powerful silence of the rural landscape and the quietness that weighs on Romke’s music, always just about to erupt into noise. “The people I always played with are kind of surprised that I make such quiet music,” he says. “My biggest inspirations weren’t quiet bands – like The Ex from Amsterdam, and people like Sonic Youth, a lot of stuff from the Eighties, you know… noisy bands. Like Loop, for instance. And they’re like, “Don’t you want to slam that Jazzmaster harder than you do now?”. I was always making noise, and I think I’m still doing kind of the same thing – but doing it silently, with a guitar. I always call it silent noise. And still also experimental, you know – working with tools on the guitar and building your stuff. To me it’s still the same thing, only maybe a bit dreamier or quieter.”
In an age and a genre where many musicians are plugging guitars into their laptops and making them sound like just about anything other than a guitar, Romke’s playing is notable for the way in which he approaches the instrument as a guitarist, taking advantage of its intrinsic sonic and material properties. Effects are minimal and simple – tremolo, distortion, feedback, pickup hum… “I noticed that when we play with, whoever, I’m the only one using an amp,” Romke states. “Oh, well, Mariska [Baars] from Piiptsjilling, she’s also using amps, but everyone else is playing through Ableton or whatever. I have effects, but I have maybe… five or six? It’s a bit of the old-fashioned way of putting your gear up, and plugging into the amp. And putting the amp pretty loud!”
“One guitarist I’ve become really interested in in the last few years is Steven R. Smith, who also worked together with Gareth Davies. And this guy is also only on amps, and actually he’s still recording on tape, he’s cutting his tapes and putting them back together again. His way of playing guitar is incredible. It’s also distorted guitar sounds and really ‘back to basics’. That’s one of the guitarists I like very much.”
Throughout the discussion Romke makes frequent references to forthcoming releases, and at one point I have to stop and ask him to list them all. It’s a long list: two new Piiptsjilling albums, a new Kleefstra|Bakker|Kleefstra album called “Griis”, another album of material from the “Deislieper” sessions, and a couple of new collaborations still being worked on, including a new group called The Alvaret Ensemble featuring the Kleefstras, Pruiksma, and Haines. “Actually we’re trying to publish more than Machinefabriek!” Romke jokes. “We recorded stuff already in 2009 and 2010 which all got released in 2011, and even this year some of that will be released. I don’t have the feeling that we’re doing that much. Almost everything we do is leading to a release, and that’s different than it was, because when I was in bands, sometimes you’d record stuff which was never released, because the label wasn’t interested, or whatever. And now a lot of stuff just gets released. That’s different. There’s also a lot of labels now.”
Four years on from the first Piiptsjilling album, there’s no sign yet of having exhausted the possibilities offered by this improvised approach to making music. Indeed, the band still often find themselves surprised by the results: “We were doing a session with Peter Broderick for [radio station] VPRO that was recorded, and at a certain point Rutger thought, “oh, I should turn my noise down a bit now”. And then he realised, “…hey, that’s not mine! Oh, that’s Romke, damn!”. And that’s really funny, because especially in Piiptsjilling it constantly works like that, and we’re surprised ourselves by what is happening.”
Meanwhile, back out on the lake, locals are making the most of the opportunity to skate – because who knows when the thaw will come? Warmer weather is predicted for tomorrow, but no one is certain how long it will take for such thick ice to melt. If there is after all a connection between Romke’s music and the Frisian landscape, perhaps it lies in the fact that, from a certain perspective, nature also appears improvised.