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Interview – Dead Neanderthals

Photo by Thijmen Sietsma
Photo by Thijmen Sietsma

Call it jazz or metal, it does not matter. Dead Neanderthals are pushing boundaries between the two genres, finding the balance (or lack thereof) between free form music and extremity of metal.

The duo are about to play Roadburn, so we spoke with both members of Dead Neanderthals about their career and their latest efforts with Fantoom, as well as their work progress as a band and their relationship with the metal and jazz scenes. The themes of their albums, the production cycle of their releases and their choice of artwork is further explained, and some very intriguing future plans are revealed.

—Spyros Stasis

So, would you like to give a brief history of the band? I heard you started this project as an email collaboration.

René Aquarius [drums]:Yes, we started the band as an email collaboration. We knew each other through a mutual friend and after a while we started talking about doing “something” together. We both didn’t have a clue what that “something” would be, so I just sent some crappy drum recordings to Otto to see what was going to happen. He turned those shitty files into actual cool songs, so we had our first full length in no time. After a while we started talking about doing live shows, so we rented a rehearsal space in our hometown and started preparing our very first live set (back then 10 songs in 13 minutes or so…). We’ve been doing that for almost 6 years now.

Otto Kokke [saxophone]: Though no more email collabs, maybe we should do that again. But that will probably lead to something way different than what we started with. Or not.

Your latest album, Sluimer, was released under the name Fantoom. What is the deal with this exactly? Is it an extension of Dead Neanderthals or a new entity? Will this project see Dirk Serries [electric guitar] and Martina Verhoeven [double bass] as permanent, full-time members?

Aquarius: We knew Dirk’s work for a long time and liked it a lot. After working together on the Endless Voids gig in 2014, Dirk introduced Otto and me to his wife Martina and at some point we all said: let’s hit the studio and record something!

Kokke: Which is exactly what we did. We just set up our stuff, talked for 2 minutes about what the hell we thought we were going to do and then played for 38 minutes with the tape rolling. After that we decided immediately not to do any other takes. So we had literally played 38 minutes together before the release show. But essentially it’s a project we did with the four of us aside from Dead Neanderthals. We might do more shows, or even another album, who knows?

How would compare the sound of Fantoom to Dead Neanderthals?

Kokke: I’d say half the sound of Fantoom is not us, and that the half that is us is one aspect of Dead Neanderthals. It’s more paced, less hectic, and takes more time to develop than most of what we do. But of course you can’t just say these aspects are Dead Neanderthals and these are Dirk and Martina’s.

Aquarius: Yeah, I agree with Otto. When playing with Martina and Dirk, everything fell into place in a very natural way and it felt quite different than when we play with just the two of us. Mission accomplished I’d say.

Dead Neanderthals is rooted in improvisation. Can you discuss how it is that you go about structuring your ideas for the albums? Is it a complete improv jam session or is there a more meticulous thinking behind this? And is it the same with all the albums, or does that aspect change?

Aquarius: It’s always a mix of composition and improvisation.

Kokke: Except when it isn’t. It’s not really a conscious decision to do one or the other. An idea for something new can be based on anything, a sound, an approach, an example or a structure.

But it’s hard to avoid structure/composition, even if it is just saying “let’s play for 15 minutes”. That already dictates your improv somewhat. And the other way around as well, like we’d even be able to play the exact same thing twice.

Aquarius: At the end of the day: does it even matter whether it is improvisation or composition? I think it’s most important to use whatever feels right.

I find your evolution as a band fascinating. Back when I was listening to Polaris I considered it a great avant-jazz record, but then when I went to Prime, the whole process became even more chaotic and frantic. Even then, you put out a drone/jazz album in Endless Voids! And then, you make a sort of return to the Polaris sound with Worship the Sun. Does this signify the start of new cycle for the band? Is there a plan for its evolution, or are you just going with your gut?

Aquarius: Thanks, glad you like the diversity. We are most definitely going by our gut. So it’s not really a deliberate cycle that we’re going through, we just get bored/frustrated/fed-up with one thing at some point and just switch to something else we’re more into at that moment. It’s all about the moment. To be honest I don’t really see it as a cycle. I like to think we’re on parallel tracks, slowly developing ideas in the realms of drone, metal and free jazz at the same time.

Since your music is instrumental, I would like to find out what is it that inspires your themes. How do album titles like Polaris and Prime, come into play with your concepts as a band? I know where the title for “Plissken” and “Yamatsuka Eye” come from, but that’s about it.

Kokke: That’s always a thought process afterwards. I envy bands with lyrics, makes song titles so easy. Usually we end up slapping on something we find cool and seems to fit. I think we both have a very good sense of what we feel doesn’t fit a record or song.

Aquarius: We’re always looking for something that’s not too graphic and leaves room for interpretation. I think it gives the music something extra. In any case, we always send a lot of ideas back and forth until we find something that seems to ‘fit’. Regarding the inspiration for titles, it usually comes from movies, books, games, everyday life, horror, being devoured by the cosmic abyss. The usual.

I would like to discuss in more detail the production of your albums? Where do you guys record? Is it a set studio that you always visit, or does it change? Do you go about it by yourselves, or do you use an engineer?

Kokke: Marlon Wolterink of White Noise Studio is our go-to guy. Even when we record something ourselves it will usually end up with him tweaking, mixing or mastering.

Aquarius: Yeah, Marlon is the man. He helped us out so many times. He knows what type of sound we like, so we usually work quite quickly when we’re at the studio.

There is also a large dose of metal and especially grindcore in Dead Neanderthals. Can you discuss how do you consolidate these sides with the free jazz sound? What are the points that connect these genres?

Aquarius: Interesting question. I don’t think there’s a very conscious choice to connect those two genres, it’s just in our DNA. The stuff we grew up with.

Kokke: If you play fast, loud and crappy enough, you’ll never guess the difference.

Aquarius: Haha! I think there’s truth in that. The intensity and the energy really connect the genres. Even though early Reek of Putrefaction by Carcass is really something else compared to Interstellar Space by Coltrane.

Do you feel embraced by the jazz and metal communities, or do you not feel accepted by them? Do you think that these communities are conservative in any way?

Kokke: If it’s ‘jazz’ and ‘metal’, we’re doing very poorly in those scenes. That’s the conservative core all genres have. If it’s ‘non traditional jazz’ and ‘adventurous metal’ I’d say the people that are into the edges of a genre and open to something different accept us well enough. Unfortunately that’s quite the minority of course.

Aquarius: It’s interesting though. Sometimes we share the bill with free jazz bands like Yes Deer (we played with them last week), sometimes with Jucifer or Napalm Death and sometimes with bands that are doing ‘similar’ things with their band, like Shining (The Norwegian one). It keeps things fresh. Not every gig feels the same and you meet a lot of different people from different backgrounds. One day you play in a proper jazz club and the next day you play in a squat surrounded by punks. How cool is that? I wouldn’t have it any other way!

Is there a big community in the New Wave of Dutch Heavy Jazz currently in Holland? Any more bands that we should keep an eye out for?

Kokke: Ha! we just invented that [term] because we thought it would be hilarious to call ourselves ‘jazz’ and it’s cooler to say you’re part of a movement than just a band. Still, there are a number of bands that fit pretty well together stylistically and much to our surprise TNWODHJ name would seem to fit a bit. What I see around us is not so much a scene or community but a loose network of bands and people that support each other and collaborate.

Aquarius: Yes, more of a network indeed, but a healthy one. Most bands are quite active and set up shows whenever they can. Also an unhealthy dose of touring is involved, which is cool because that way we ended up sharing the bill with Amsterdam-based trio Cactus Truck when we were touring France. Fun times! So, when looking for bands you should definitely check out Cactus Truck as mentioned above. You should also check out Rotterdam-based trio Albatre. Both bands are mixing up improv with elements of punk, metal and noise.

You guys have been very active since your inception back in 2011, so what other plans do you have for Dead Neanderthals in the near future? Also, are there any other collaborations in the horizon?

Aquarius: Tons of stuff we’re working on at the same time. Our next release will be our full length with Dutch experimental techno producer Drvg Cvltvre.

Kokke: Next to that there is another collaboration in the works, and a duo album currently in hiccup mode not getting done. And a special one-off project we did that we should make a nice release of.

Aquarius: Oh, and there’s a track we did with London-based sax player Colin Webster. It will be released soon on a split 7-inch with Sly and the Family Drone on God Unknown Records. Looking forward to that one too. Damn, busy times.

Do you have any upcoming gigs?

Aquarius: Oh yes! We’re planning on doing a short tour in Portugal at the end of May. Furthermore we’re going to play at the Roadburn Festival this year. Super stoked for that one. Sharing the bill with The Body and Repulsion is like a dream come true.

Kokke: And maybe in 2016 we’ll do our big American tour. Or not.

Aquarius: I’d prefer Japan.

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