Sunday, September 24, 2017


While My Guitar Gently Weeps:

An EXCLUSIVE interview 
NITS’ Henk Hofstede

There isn’t another band on the planet quite like Nits. Formed in Amsterdam in 1974, the band has never made the same album twice. During the first 18 years of the band’s career – when they were known as The Nits – their musical trajectory was not unlike XTC’s: their quirky early releases gave way to earthy, warm and thoughtfully crafted albums. Originally, their popularity was confined to their homeland of Holland but their fan base began growing slowly but surely. Their 1978 indie single, “Yes Or No,” became a Power Pop favorite in the U.S. while songs like “Umbrella” and “The Young Reporter” (both from 1979) generated worldwide interest once the band signed to Columbia/Sony. When the band scored a bona-fide career-changing hit with 1987’s “In The Dutch Mountains,” the Netherland’s best kept secret were finally a commercial success…

Remember when I said that the band never recorded the same album twice?  That rule also applies to their singles.  “In The Dutch Mountains” sounded like the work of a completely different band than “Yes Or No” and anything else off of their first eight albums. Nor does it sound like anything off of the 11 or so albums that have come since the …DUTCH MOUNTAINS full length. The band’s ability to grow/morph with each album is both a blessing and a curse.  While they never become boring and stale to their fan base, they also confuse the record label, radio DJs and casual listeners by refusing to stay the same. Out of 20 full-length and mini albums (not including live and compilation releases), only one has been released in the U.S. (‘94’s Pop smorgasbord DA DA DA). Their 2005 album LES NUITS brought a surge of interest from the UK but the band followed it up with the excellent DOING THE DISHES three years later which was – as you would expect – not exactly like LES NUITS and they quickly retreated to cult status again.

Regardless of their commercial success, Nits (‘The’-free since 1989’s live album URK) are truly remarkable. For the last 31 years, the band has revolved around singer/guitarist Henk Hofstede, drummer/percussionist Rob Kloet and keyboardist/vocalist Robert Jan Stips (formerly of Supersister, Gruppo Sportivo, etc.). Other members have come and gone (Stips even left for a while) yet these three musicians have continued to explore new musical avenues together, never afraid to abandon a winning formula in order to pursue the unknown. While they may have left their quirky, Beatles-influenced Pop days behind them, they have traveled a path that blends art, emotion and the deep love of music. Their albums may require a few spins before they grab hold, but they are always worthwhile. Nits has a back catalog that goes back 40 years, so you’ve got a lot of catching up to do!

ANGST, their 2017 album, is another step forward for Nits. Eschewing the standard Pop songwriting formula, the album was created from exploratory recording sessions that they later listened to and chose the best parts from. Some songs were re-recorded based on the original sessions while others were cut into shape. Regardless of the way the songs were created, they still feature the same melodic flair that the band is known for. The sounds, the song structures and the atmosphere may be different from album to album, but ANGST is still a classic Nits release. The most noticeable difference with this one though, is the absence of guitar.  Instead, Hofstede focused his attention on a dulcimer... but more about that later. Regardless of musical trends, this Dutch trio continue to explore new musical ground 40 years after their debut album was recorded.

With the release of ANGST, STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE was able to catch up with Henk Hofstede to discuss the album and more… 

STEPHEN SPAZ SCHNEE: I appreciate your time and it is an honor to speak to you.
HENK HOFSTEDE: Well it's an honor for me because I’ve seldom – or maybe never - done an interview with the United States.

SPAZ: Well, first off, I love the new record.
HENK: Well thank you. That's a very good start.

SPAZ: It's everything I expected and more. But then again, you never know what to expect from a Nits record.  
HENK: That's true.

SPAZ: Yeah, the only people that know what's going to happen is you guys.
HENK: That's also true because we don't know till the moment it’s ready. Until that time, it's still an open thing, it's still a question mark for us and it can change rapidly even in the last week that we're working on it.  That's the process, that's how we like to keep it.

SPAZ: How are you feeling about it now and the reaction you've had from the people that have heard it?
HENK: Yeah well, only a few people heard it. Even some very close friends haven’t heard it yet. I know that it has been sent to journalists in Holland. I did only one interview just last week, and next week everything will start, so then I'll hear what people think about it. We kept it really secret. We haven’t opened that door yet.

SPAZ: Much like the last record, the three of you have created a release that's sonically different from what you guys normally do.  Was it a conscious decision to move away from the prominent use of guitar?
HENK: No, not really.  It was there all the time.  I mean, I could grab my guitar during the sessions, but somehow I left it almost alone because I found a dulcimer. It’s a nice instrument, the dulcimer. I found it in a second-hand market a couple of months ago. We started recording the album and the market is on the way to the studio so I brought the dulcimer to the studio and I put it next to the guitar. I thought, "Wow, it's a new member of the family so let's give him some attention". That's more or less the reason why the guitar was a little bit neglected because on stage, I always use the guitar. But in this circumstance, we were just fooling around and I didn't think about it that much while working... that I neglected my guitar.  While my guitar gently weeps! (Laughs)

SPAZ: The band creates these audio soundscapes that successfully evokes the emotion of the lyrics.  Do you tend to have at least an idea when you go into the album how you want it to sound?
SPAZ: So, it just organically evolved?
HENK: Yes. To be honest, the whole album is based on three sessions we did. I'm talking about day sessions. Maybe I should be even more precise - it was afternoon sessions that we did in our studio where our engineer, Paul (Telman), always records almost everything that we are doing. Nowadays we do that on multi-track so even the weirdest or strange moments were recorded.  And then we started listening to what we did, there was such a great variety in what we found. We are not very conscious the moment that we are playing and recording. We don't even think about it - we just do it. That’s why some of the stuff is quite surprising. In this case, we really like it a lot most of the parts from those sessions we took and we re-arranged it in the computer. Some of the songs were re-recorded but most of the material is from those sessions. This is kind of a combination of soundscape and groove.

SPAZ: “Flowershop Forget-Me-Not” is engaging yet "Cow with Spleen" and "Two Sisters" are a little unsettling. However, all of it is extremely melodic. Do you enjoy creating these different atmospheres that are opposite yet work so well together?
HENK: Yeah, but I think that's also in a tradition. In the case of “Flowershop…”, we had so many colors. It was a kind of flower shop that we were sitting in - there were many bouquets around us. So many colors and smells so we didn’t have a choice but to create that atmosphere. That is
what I like in all the great Beatles albums from Revolver to Sergeant Pepper or Rubber Soul - that the atmosphere changes every time. It's not like when you play an album by The Cure when you have one atmosphere going on. That's also wonderful but it's not the way that we do it. Well, not that we talk about it that much -  it just happens.
SPAZ: It's almost telepathic between the three of you?
HENK: Yes, that's really true. We often wonder how we make the decisions on the spot. In a split second, we make decisions without thinking about it.  You cannot even draw it or write it down, it just happens.

SPAZ: A song like “Radio Orange” is very powerful even though it's stripped down and sparse. Is there a point when you feel that a song is too busy so you have to go back and take it apart and put it back together again?  
HENK: Of course! But strangely enough, in most cases we do it after the songs are there on the album. When we start playing, live we keep on changing them, stripping them bare sometimes. Or the opposite - sometimes we add new things in songs. Strangely enough, "Radio Orange" was more or less one take and that's why we chose it. When we listened back to it, we were thinking, "What is this?" We were kind of surprised by the emptiness in the song. And then this theme that Robert Jan is playing appears three or four times... like he's playing on a harmonium in a room somewhere in the past.  It really drives you back to the past.

SPAZ: Now, I'm not going to compare this album to any of the other records because that's kind of unfair, so I'm going to talk about this album in particular.  It's melodic, it has so many beautiful moments mixed in with some unsettling things, but it still operates outside the realm of what is considered commercial.  
HENK: I know, I know.
SPAZ: Do you care or have you ever cared about having hit singles?
HENK: No not really because I think it's useless to try to make a hit single… for us, anyway.  Let's be honest - some people can do that, but they put all their energy into it for a long time, and then maybe it happens… or not. There is really a great amount of work behind the successful single but we don't want to put our energy into that kind of thing because I don't think it's that important anymore. Maybe it never was for us, but some of the songs we created were ‘hit’ singles. We had a few well known songs like “In the Dutch Mountains and “Sketches of Spainand most of the people that are somehow connected to our music, they know about those songs. They brought us an audience.  It created a curiosity, "What is this band?  Maybe I should listen to them more or maybe I should go to a concert", and that's what they do and that is very important for us. The people are attracted to it and they want to hear, they want to listen more.

SPAZ:  You’ve released only one album in the U.S. in your 40-year career yet you still have a small yet dedicated fan base over here.  Does it surprise you that your music has reached and touched people in places that you've never really focused on?
HENK: Of course, but maybe surprised is not the real word.  Of course it still surprises me but nowadays of course as you know it's much easier to find music...

SPAZ: I’ve noticed that Nits fans are extremely hardcore.
HENK: Yeah, I know. Sometimes they know more than we do about our music. Let's say they know more details and you really can be surprised by how many details people know and it's great. That's wonderful.
SPAZ: Is that only in America, or is it pretty much everywhere?
HENK: That's probably everywhere.  Sometimes, of course, when you talk about Holland it is more difficult but when I go to places that are not the obvious choices for Rock and Pop bands - like when we go to Helsinki or Finland - you’ll find people that are really dedicated and they know a lot about you. That's wonderful, that's really a gift.

SPAZ: What's next for Nits?
HENK: Well, next is trying to get the new songs in a way that we really can play them live.  We are working on that now, we are rehearsing.  Last week, we started and next week we go back again to our studio/rehearsal room to prepare everything, to make choices on the songs, what kind of samples, how to play this, how to move things or add things.  That's always a difficult process because you never know how it works when you walk on stage and you play your new songs for the first time. But it's always a great adventure to play some songs live for the first time.

SPAZ: Before we close here, I have two personal questions. First, what happened to 'the' in front of Nits, where did that go?  
HENK: Yeah well, it just went.  It said goodbye and closed the door and it was gone - we couldn't find it anymore.  Sometimes it comes back.  (Laughs) Let's say it was more a decision about how you look at the word Nits and when you put 'the' in front of it, then you are listed alongside all the other ‘the’ words. When you are on a poster or in a magazine you see 'the' and then Nits but I thought we need to see these four letters:  N. I. T. S. I'm always playing with the typography and playing with four letters. That’s what I like and it's better for the image to have just four letters.  The 'the' is gone - it went to many new different ‘the’ bands.

SPAZ: Finally, are aware of the Power Pop scene in America? Well, "Yes Or No" tends to be talked about when people mention the name Nits!
HENK: Oh my God. That's very strange.
SPAZ: So, is there any chance in hell that that first album will ever be released on CD?
HENK: Yes, of course, because we have to do that. But the problem is it's in somebody else's hands so there are difficulties. Until now we didn't feel it was that important but of course one day it will be there again. It's old stuff but it is part of our history.

Thanks to Henk Hofstede
Special thanks to Aad Link, Marcel Hietbrink and Alex Jimenez
All photos by Tabea Hüberli  



Available NOW!

1 comment:

Mr.P said...

True explorers and pop masters ... they respect and are inspired by some of the best
to the point that their music deserves to be in the company of Pop greats. It just is.
Bring on 'Angst'! -Don