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volume 2
july 1999

The charm of activity as the essence of musical expression


  An interview with Henk Hofstede
  by Paul Rutten
  In September 1996 the European Music Office published its report on "Music in Europe". The second part of this study was titled "Music, Culture and Society in Europe" and edited by Paul Rutten. It contains six critical essays and five case studies on the cultural value of music in the European Union. For the occasion Paul Rutten conducted this interview with Henk Hofstede, front man of the Dutch band the Nits.

1 The Nits during the 1994 dAdAdA-tour in Cologne (photo by Tom Telman)

Henk Hofstede and the Nits. Henk Hofstede (1951) is singer, guitar player and front man of the Dutch band the Nits. The Nits have often been characterized as a European pop band. Their music is a unique blend of European sound flavours. Their perform live on many countries of the continent, from Finland to Italy and from Greece to Russia. They have a dedicated following in many European countries as well as Quebec. The United Kingdom and the United States did not show interest in the music of the Nits up until now. Their first album dates back from 1978. Since then they released over 15 albums, most of them on CBS/Sony Music. Their first Dutch chart success was Tutti Ragazzi in 1980. In the Dutch Mountains (1987) was their biggest international hit success. In this interview Henk Hofstede talks about European culture as a source of inspiration, his ambiguous relationship with America and rock and roll, about the music industry, his ambition to built a natural bridge between several art forms and about the charm of activity, the essence and main motivation for his musical activity.

2 European band. "I really do not know if a typical European band exists at all. What is European music? I cannot define it. From my point of view European music has much to do with "not being American". You can hear the difference between European and American music immediately. In the same way you can tell the difference between a European and an American movie. There are European directors who work in Hollywood who have made a step towards American culture like Paul Verhoeven and Jan de Bont. Those I would not not consider European filmmakers. I feel much more related to directors like Antonioni, Fellini and Bergman. They leave a mark in the US through their specific un-American, European style. I feel very much connected with Wim Wenders. He is influenced by American culture. Despite this fact, he is a typical European filmmaker, but he wants to work in the States, he is curious, he wants to have the experience. He had, like me, his shot of American rock and roll. If you played every record of artists like Bob Dylan, the Birds, Beach Boys, Patti Smith and Leonard Cohen you have a very intense relationship with American culture. It provided everything you could not find here. In the end you want to be a part of it somehow, you want to smell it! It is a fascinating country. For us, being a European band has to do with the places we play. We mainly play on the European continent. We did concerts in countries like Finland, Switzerland, Greece and Italy. We regularly play in cities like Helsinki, Zurich, Prague, Budapest and Athens."
3 Big dream. "We have not succeeded to establish contacts in the United States and the United Kingdom. We stopped the efforts to get known there. For most bands making it in the US and the UK is the big dream. Success in countries on the continent is OK., but the big ideal of the majority was and still is to make it there. We abandoned that idea. The trouble we had to go to, to achieve something in those countries was not worth the effort. This experience stands in sharp contrast to our experiences in unexpected European places. We go to Finland, Russia and Greece. If you consider that, we really are a European band."
4 English as the contact language. "When you are on tour you experience that English is the contact language. We sing in English most of the time. Sometimes I feel restricted in expressing myself, because English is not my mother tongue. But I read a lot in English literature. I have many friends on the continent: Finns, Swiss and French with whom I speak English. A lot of my contacts go through the English language. I see the restrictions but I also see the possibilities. If we would stick to Dutch we would mainly restrict ourselves to the Netherlands. There are many writers who use English and who have another mother tongue. Nabokov is the best example. English is his second language. It is hard, but writing in Dutch is also hard."
5 Reactions. "I do not perceive really different reactions to our music in different European countries. I think it is because you have to do with a certain specific kind of people who come to your concerts. People who come in Helsinki and people who come in Athens come with an explicit aim: to see us perform. They know our music. They react in a similar way. There are only subtle differences. In the northern countries the reactions are a bit more distant, compared to for instance people in Athens, who seem to have a more expressive and emotional tie with our music. They seem to relate much more to the lyrics. They make translations. They want to go to the bottom somehow. Songs with specific references to the country were you play, mostly provoke special reactions. When we played in Quebec last summer, two songs I wrote during my last stay there stroke a chord. The first was Mourir Avant Quinze Ans and the other was Whales of Tadoussac about the whales you can see near the village Tadoussac. If you introduce the song, there is an immediate reaction. We witness the same thing in for instance Finland. People react also when you include the name of their city in the song your playing. Anybody feels something when they hear it, it provokes a certain reaction. That is very human."
6 Artistic development and influences. "I have always been interested in British and American music, but when I started writing and playing music in the seventies, I discovered music which I consider really European, for instance the music of the German band Kraftwerk. I got interested in Da Da, one of the most interesting European art movements of this century. Other sources of inspiration became the music of Brecht and Weill and the French chanson. I absorbed all this, which is not to say that I wrote such music, but it more and more caught my attention. I combined these with influences from American music like rock and roll. I went to a process every artist goes to, firstly imitating and copying and later finding my own style, being inspired by things in your environment, things which are near to you, the music and the culture which surrounds you. I was also inspired by English folk music, bands like Fairport Convention and the Incredible String Band drew my attention. At this moment I feel a strong bond with Finnish folk music. There is a band called Värttina I admire a lot. In their music there is a strong resemblance with the music of Le Mystère des Voix Bulgares. It is not a kind of folk music which comes out of the museum, this is contemporary music within a certain tradition, with lyrics referring to contemporary experiences."
7 Bruce Springsteen. "I think that playing and writing of music is a very personal matter. I realize that I am caught in the middle of several influences. Holland, Amsterdam is a unbelievable fruitful place to assemble cultural inspiration. It serves as a passing hatch for cultural influences and at the same time absorbs many influences. In that context it is hard to be final in the choices you make, because there are always so many opportunities excluded if you make such a choice. I admire it when a European band decides to choose for a pure American style of music. I can imagine doing it for some time, but in a certain moment you feel uprooted. In the end this music has very little to do with the part of the earth you live on. When I travel in the United States, I can understand Bruce Springsteen much better. When I drive on the highway I play his music much longer on my car stereo than I do here. It has to with your environment, with landscapes, with cities. I live my life in Amsterdam and other European cities were we do our concerts. I feel connected with those cities and countries, be it Berlin, be it Zurich. A town like Zurich is for most people a meaningless town. But great artists and writers have worked there."
8 Rock and Roll is not the solution. "These are the influences I want to oppose to rock and roll. For me "rock and roll" is not the solution for all the things I want to say. There is a specific way of thinking within the rock industry which is not mine. To see a career as climbing a mountain and reaching the top, literally jumping off is not particularly attractive to me. I have always fought that idea. As romantic as it may be, I have different ideas about my own life. If you do not share the rock and roll mythology, some people consider you as being "not rock and roll". In their eyes you lose your credibility. In the end, that is fine with me. I rather live and combine some things, which in my view are in fact interconnected. Visual arts have a lot to do with music. There is a natural bridge between the visual arts and music. That bridge is much more natural than many people think. That is why we work a lot with visual effects during our concerts. Moreover we ourselves design our video's, CD inlays and the scenery for the concerts. For me it is a strange idea that a musician only writes his music. It is recorded with a producer who interferes in the artistic process. His image is produced by somebody else, his video's too. We have been able to keep everything in our own hands, from our first contract on."
9 Music industry. "CBS America, now Sony Music, never released any of our records. The Canadians did. I went to New York myself to talk with the people who are responsible. They really do not have a clue how to handle our music. However I think that there is a certain interest in European culture in the States. There is for instance an interest in European film. The music industry has not improved in the past years. It has become an ivory tower. I have seen so many things happen since the early eighties, when we got our first contract. The number of formalities in the music industry has increased. It brought something, so dear to me, which is music, in a completely different atmosphere. I never considered music a business. Music is art to me. The music industry wants to be a growing business, whereas art is a something with ups and downs. That is what makes it interesting. Like a writer who works on a book for eight years, and then something happens, you see what I mean? It is impossible to be on the front-page every day."
10 Making a living. "The main thing what surprises me in the music business here is that the biggest part of the recording artists in the Netherlands cannot make a living from their musical activities. It keeps surprising me. When you look at the many other people who make a living from music, look at the people working in the record business, or with the radio or as a journalist or a researcher as you do. Thousands of people can make their living except for the majority of the musicians. It even goes that far that when you, as we do, have made a living with music for over sixteen years, you are suspect in the eyes of some journalists. Some of them think a musician should not live in a decent house and should not earn money, can you imagine that!? Musicians on the continent are not very demanding, compared to the UK and the US. They have much more pronounced career expectations. If you have a top 10 hit in the UK your are talking about a lot more money compared to for instance the Netherlands."
11 "In the Dutch Mountains". "For me the essence of creating and playing music is that you feel good with it. For me it is fantastic to keep on doing the things I do. David Byrne has described it as the charm of activity. That may be more important than getting somewhere, reaching a top. We scored a big international hit with In the Dutch Mountains. We were in the top 10 in many countries. For more than half a year we went from TV-show to TV-show to "playback" our hit-record. That is not my best memory of playing music. It may be my worst actually, whereas for many people that is the height of success. In the end, we sold many records, but it was not a very satisfying experience. Don't get me wrong. What I like most about being in a band is to go to places, play there. I am a very curious person. My main motive is curiosity.
12 If you don't do it yourself ... We played five times in Quebec. We were invited several times for the big summer festival in Quebec city and played Montreal. We conquered ourselves a niche in this part of the world. Sony Canada mostly releases our CD's too late. Fans have acquired our record through import channels before the record company releases it. They mostly release the record when we come for a tour, whereas the record has been released in Holland six months before. We are not really an important band for them. We were invited to Japan by WOMAD. There are some people at WOMAD who like our music. We played this summer at the Reading Festival. We met Peter Gabriel there. It is a rather "un-commercial contact". These are people who like our music and invite us to come and play there. Part of the costs we had to take care for ourselves. If you don't do it yourself as a band, nothing happens."
  This essay originally appeared in: Rutten, Paul (ed.), Music, culture and society in Europe. Part II of: European Music Office, Music in Europe. Brussels, 1996, 135-139.
  1999 © Soundscapes