Describing the music of Brooklyn-based Netherlands is hardly an easy task. Erik Wunder (of Cobalt and Man’s Gin), who gets the credit for introducing me to these guys, defines their style as “hyper-noise-punk-electro-psychedelic-metal.” This seemingly convoluted tag oddly fits the outfit that doesn’t shy away from embracing divergent styles in a high-octane manner. The trio’s second full-length Silicon Vapor is one of the most invigorating rock records of the year, juxtaposing eccentric musical ideas with enticing melodies deeply ingrained in the rock tradition. These qualities are combined with extremely fuzzed-out tunings of instruments that certainly distinguish Netherlands from the pack. Here’s my interview with Timo Ellis, the trio’s frontman whose impressive resume includes collaborations with Yoko Ono, Melvins and John Zorn over his extensive 20-year career as a session musician.
What motivated you to form Netherlands?
I’d had a band called Bird Of Doom in the early 2000s. After its natural dissolution, I really wanted to maintain an outlet for my weirder rock inclinations!
Your music is rather difficult to pin down as you combine many different subgenres of rock, punk and even metal. How would you define your style?
I’ve made loads of dramatically different types of records besides the rock stuff. I think I’m up to 33 albums at this point: 17 LPs and 16 EPs. So, I think other styles of music end up naturally coming out a bit in Netherlands. I usually describe it as “high energy post-punk/aqua-metal.” Lately I’ve just been referring to it as “partly cloudy.”
Sonically, your output is totally fuzzed-out. What kind of equipment do you use to create this sound? What are your inspirations in this regard?
I use a bitchin’ old ‘67 Marshall Super Lead (full stack!) along with tons of different pedals, out of which the Boss Fuzz is prominently featured on a lot of stuff. If I had to pick some main sonic inspirations I’d say Melt-Banana, Melvins, Pixeltan, The Locust and Flipper.
Another defining element of your output is the use of synth bass. Why did you decide to incorporate it into your music?
I wanted sonically to get away (at least a little bit) from the traditional “guitar/ bass/ drums” format, and the synth bass sounds gorgeously thick and menacing! What it might lack as far as the natural dynamic decay of the notes, it more than makes up for in other ways. One of them is that there are so many more colors and sounds available. Plus, it never goes out of tune.
Silicon Vapor sounds original, while still shows deep reverence for tradition. It tends to be sonically experimental, yet it still boasts infectious melodies and hooks. Which quality do you think is more important for you as a songwriter: off-kilter musical ideas or accessibility?
Thank you! I think the influence of 1970s pop music runs through the DNA of most of the rock music I write. However, in Netherlands there definitely is an obvious range between what I’d call the “poppier” melody-driven numbers, and on the other end the “progressive screamers.” I suppose in many cases I’m subconsciously trying to write songs that ARE simultaneously accessible and off-kilter. It depends on the situation which aspect becomes more prominent.
Netherlands is a power trio. What do you reckon are the advantages of only three people being in your band, and what are the potential drawbacks?
I think originally I opted for the trio format mainly because it seemed logistically easier to coordinate schedules and practices. Besides, musically I thought I could definitely still get across something cool and exciting enough with only three people. I haven’t really experienced any “unique to trio” problems yet, other than the usual band personnel problems that involve egos, changing priorities and our drug problems.
Your lyrics often seethe with abstract concepts and ideas as opposed to a more self-referential approach. What do you draw your inspiration from?
In recent years I’ve loosened up from the explicitly “self-referential” type of lyric writing, which I still do in other contexts. I think I just got a bit older and less self-conscious about feeling like I even needed to make sense, or be liked and understood quite as much. Reading the Coum Transmissions biography (Wreckers of Civilization about Genesis P-Orridge’s radical performance group prior to forming Throbbing Gristle) was hugely liberating for me in that I finally realized that as an artist it’s my job to be unflinchingly honest, uncensored and as free as possible if I actually want to grow artistically, and as a person. Other artists presumably have this realization way earlier in their process than I did but I’m a reasonably shy and self-conscious person, and it’s taken me a while to bust out of the deeply socially conditioned “inclusion/people pleasing” mindset. Again, there’s a paradoxical yet functional balance to be successfully struck here between a total “fuck off” and “love me/dig this.”
Which songs of yours are you particularly happy about? Which ones do you find the most representative and fun to play live?
From the new record I really like “Robot Fail.” For me it’s got one of the most successfully evocative narratives. “Sixteen” is pretty cool too, I think. The more brutal numbers are always more fun to play live. From the first record (Fantasmatic) “Archtieuthis vs. Terdukken” is almost theme-like in its succinct fury combined with gleeful stupidity. I think “Atro City Sleepers” (also from the first record) could be called the quintessential Neth song in that it’s pretty damn aggressive, but also has some emotional range. “Stallions” and “Lord It Over” are pretty emblematic of the band’s “vibe” as well.
Nowadays such websites as spotify, bandcamp and facebook are playing a major part in the promotion process. Are you pleased with the changes that have recently been taking place in the music industry? What do you regard as the best way of promotion for independent bands such as yours?
Honestly I feel like I’m still getting a grip on the whole “new media landscape” and how to maximize all the new tech for the most exposure and success for the band. There are the obvious benefits to the whole DIY “indie” model of the business: owning your masters, getting more, or all of the money from sales. But there are also the drawbacks, which include the necessity to build up one’s entire presence on all these new, fast changing networks from scratch, and personally fund (or crowdsource, which definitely isn’t always easy or possible) the creation of all the various forms of content needed to build one’s “brand.” Essentially it seems like: non-stop videos, touring, merch, and savvy content generating and hyping social media engagement until it catches on. And lest we forget, um, hopefully actually making decent fuckin’ music too??!
What do you think the future holds for Netherlands? Do you have any specific touring plans?
World domination beloved by everyone, Grammys, Oscars, Nobel Prizes, polo parties, sailing into the sunset for the rest of time…joking! Yeah, I want just to try and make great music and generate enough visibility and success to do this comfortably full time! I’m a workaholic and I just wanna stay busy doing this for the foreseeable future. Nothing too extravagant. I’m definitely optimistic about all of it. We’ll be going all over the states in 2014 and hopefully Europe later in the year as well! PEACE!!!
Silicon Vapor is streaming here in its entirety: