Muzik | Feature | May 1997 | Photo: Stephen Sweet
FOLLOW THE SPEEDER
Don't mention the war. Unless you are in Rotterdam. Because if you are in Rotterdam, you really should know that on 14 May 1940, a mere two hours after the invading German forces had asked the Dutch to surrender, Luftwaffe bombers razed the entire inner city to the ground, causing 3,000 casualties in the process. Most of the dead were civilians.
As a result of the devastation, only a couple of buildings in the centre of Rotterdam are more than 50 years old. The train stations look like NASA outposts and the Savoy Hotel could be mistaken for a Milton Keynes secondary school. Some of the architecture is fascinating, but a lot of it is nasty. Still, unlike the traffic jammed streets of most European cities, everything here is planned for a modern existence. Hence the tennis court on the roof of the multi-storey car park near the Savoy.
Just behind the car park is a little enclave of cube-shaped houses pushed up into the sky on thick concrete blocks. The cubes are tilted so the exterior walls are set at 45 degrees, but the floors inside are straight and are connected by a spiral staircase running through the middle of each house. The buildings have become so popular with tourists that the local authority in Rotterdam has opened one of them up to the public.
"The tourists get a bit much sometimes," admits Jochem Paap, a cube dweller for almost two years. "Especially when you're having breakfast and look out of the window to see 15 Japanese blokes pointing their cameras at you."
The entire top floor of Jochem Paap's home is given over to the recording studio where he turns into Speedy J, purveyor of some of the most innovative electronic sounds around. The pseudonym dates back to when he started DJing in the mid-1980s, his super-fast mixing and scratching wowing crowds throughout the Netherlands. He doesn't DJ these days, though, except for an occasional slot at a small club round the corner from his house.
No longer having to keep up with the flavours of the week, the Dutchman's interest is now firmly focussed on his own records. And how. The latest Speedy J album, "Public Energy No 1", is intense beyond belief, sometimes even beyond comprehension. The same
goes for the single, "Ni Go Snix", a freeform electronic blues jam which doesn't appear on the album and has been remixed by Like A Tim and u-Ziqologist Mike Paradinas. It might not be easy listening but it's powerful stuff.
Noisy, rugged and dark, much of Speedy J's new material is a radical step on from the well-oiled cinematic techno of his previous albums, "Ginger" and "G-Force". It's probably going to come as a shock to some of his old fans.
"I realise that, but it's not something I'm worried about," says Jochem. "I don't make music to keep other people happy. I do it because I want to express myself, to explore what's going on inside my head. If you make music with the intention of pleasing a particular group of people, there'll always be another group who hate it. So it's far easier just to please yourself. I know some people will be pleased with this album and others will be offended by it. That's also fine by me."
Offended? Do you think some reactions might be that strong?
"Maybe. At the club where I sometimes DJ, I've played it three times, on three different occasions, and it's provoked some very interesting comments. People come up to me and around half of them are really angry, saying things like, 'What the fuck is this? Turn it off'. While the other half are like, 'What the fuck is this? I've got to have it'. So, yes, I think some people might be offended."
He pauses, then chuckles.
"But I really don't care," he adds with a mischievous grin.
Grabbing his coat, Jochem leads me on a tour of Rotterdam. Our first stop is a street full of record shops, almost all of the windows displaying the latest gabba releases. The Netherlands is the original home of gabba, with at least one representative of the genre popping up in the national singles chart every week. Seeing a television advert for a compilation album called "Total Fucking Gabba" during the mid-afternoon Dutch-dubbed "Benny Hill Show" is still a bit disconcerting, though. Just as well Mary Whitehouse doesn't live here.
If she did, she probably wouldn't think much of Rotterdam's coffee shops, either. Especially not one with a name as unsubtle as The Reefer, where we stop off for a quick, erm, coffee. Actually, in Jochem's case, a coffee is exactly what he has. He doesn't do drugs of any description, which seems strange given the mind-frying qualities of "Public Energy No 1".
"I wanted it to be less definable than my previous albums," he explains. "I didn't want people to be able to say, 'Oh, this is the bar where so-and-so comes in."
Not that there's any danger of that. There's too much spontaneity going on. Take the jerky, post-junglist sound of "In-Formation" and the accurately titled "Haywire".
"I used to spend a long time programming, but now I simply like to get my equipment running and start the process. I was too much of a perfectionist to do it before, too worried about making a mistake. But a little mistake doesn't make a good track bad. What counts is the feeling."
This has always been true of Speedy J's music. Listen to the way that "Ginger", the first track of his first album, gradually fills the room. It has an almost physical presence. In some ways, Jochem Paap is a sound sculptor rather than a musician.
"Mike Paradinas from u-Ziq and I once discussed what we each wanted to get across in our music. What was the feeling? Could you write it down? Or paint it? Whenever I'm recording, I have textures and pictures in my head, and I know exactly what they look like in terms of shape and colour and so on, even though I couldn't put them on paper. They're basically quite abstract, a bit mathematical, a bit industrial. In that sense, I'd say my inspiration isn't musical, it's practical.
"With the new album, I wanted to push that idea further, to look harder and dig deeper. I didn't want to be careful, because careful music doesn't excite me. If I have an idea, I always like to get the most out of it. If I do a hard track, I'll do a really hard track. It's no use compromising. I hate compromising. Compromising in music doesn't benefit anyone."
Which neatly leads us to "As The Bubble Expands", the ferocious climax of "Public Energy No 1".
"It's basically a percussion loop of tablas and congos rolled through a few boxes and a bell sound I made on an old synth. I like the vibrations of the bell, you just can't ignore it, it's quite threatening. I ran the track, twisted some knobs and had it finished in about half an hour. It's a very noisy number. Whatever I did, I couldn't stop the sound getting harder and harder. It seemed to have a life of its own. In the end, I was like, 'Woooaghhh!'.
"The main reason I am able to make tracks like 'As The Bubble Expands' is because everything in my studio is connected. It's totally modular, like one huge synth. I can make all kinds of set-ups and I'll often push a sound through 10 or 12 different boxes before I'm happy with it. It also helps that I know my equipment inside out, so there's no barrier between feeling, thinking and doing."
The idea of being at one with technology isn't new, of course. The folk who complain that there's no real soul in electronic music have been throwing that one up for years.
"The people who say it's only pushing buttons? I think the opposite is true. You have to put more of yourself into music made with electronic equipment because you have to get over that barrier. But even when I'm pushing buttons, it's me doing it. If I went to a friend's studio to make a track, it would still sound like me. If he came to my studio and used my stuff, it would still sound like him. It's the equipment as an extension of the person rather than the other way round."
So how come such a genuinely nice bloke as Jochem makes the kind of off-kilter sounds he does? The man doesn't seem to fit the music.
"You thought I had a dark side?" he laughs. "No, no, no. I'm just going after things that have never been translated into sound before. Sorry to disappoint you!"
The next stop on our tour is the delightfully named Bongers. If you're thinking this must be a hardcore coffee shop, think again. Bongers is a cafe which looks like a fairground carousel with walls and specialises in poffertjes, a kind of profiterole-cum-Yorkshire pudding served with syrup and ice cream. The owner, Mr Bonger, wears a white lab coat and uses a metal prong to turn thousands of poffertjes in their little cooking pots every day.
"And he's been doing it since the place opened in the 1950s," says Jochem.
Leaving Mr Bonger to his imminent repetitive strain injury, we head for the Blue Fish, an eaterie in a tunnel underneath one of Rotterdam's busiest roads. The entrance is, quite literally, a hole in the ground. Sitting at a table on a small stage framed by gold lame curtains, we talk about football violence, proportional representation, cats and philosophy. Somewhere along the line, we also chat about the cover of "Public Energy No 1", a computer manipulated image of a crop circle by Ben Liebrand, sometime dance music producer and plainly a genius on an Apple Mac.
"Although I do like the sleeve designs of my earlier albums, they're in a typical 'intelligent techno' style," says Jochem. "So this time, I wanted to do something different in order to get away from the idea of what everybody thinks I am. After Ben and I had brainstormed the crop circle concept, I decided to come up with track titles somehow connected with that. The only exception is 'Drainpipe'. We then took bits of articles about crop circles, chopped them up and put the text on the inner sleeve. It's hard to read, but circle people will understand it."
I must be a square person, then. I thought the text was about cows.
"Cattle mutilation," declares Jochem.
"It's about cattle mutilation. In places where circles are common, farmers have found cows that have been ripped open and their organs removed, but there are no bloodstains and no marks on the ground. Nothing at all. In some cases, hundreds of cows have been mutilated in this way without any trace of human involvement. A lot of people say it's aliens, of course. I don't actually believe that myself, but I find it pretty interesting."
Not the best dinner table topic we could have chosen, mind. Good job we didn't order steak.
With midnight past, we head for Erasmusburg, the main bridge spanning the Rhine-Meuse delta, which flows into the North Sea near Rotterdam. It also spans the traditionally separate communities in the north and south of the city.
"The Erasmusberg only opened around six months ago," says Jochem. "There was a big ceremony, with thousands of people from the north and the south meeting at a ribbon tied acrss the middle of the bridge. Some dignitary cut the ribbon, a few people at the front of the two groups shook hands, and then everybody turned round and walked back home again. It was fucking bizarre."
But then Rotterdam is a bizarre place – to an outsider, at any rate. With endless glass and concrete everywhere you look, it's completely different to Amsterdam. There's not much of a party atmosphere. It's difficult to understand why Jochem Paap should have spent all of his 27 years in and around this place.
"Why does anyone live anywhere?" he shrugs. "I have most of my friends here, I have my work here, I feel at home here. It's as simple as that. I don't mix as easily with people from other cities as I do with those from Rotterdam, but I can see how it would take some people a bit of getting used to."
Does the fact that it's a very new city influence your music?
"The environment is one of the major factors in the way you look at things, so I'm sure that affects my sound. I'm not too clear in what way, but I know that my music would be totally different if I lived on an island in the Pacific rather than in a cube in the sky."
Ah yes, the cube in the sky. Suddenly it all makes perfect sense. Sort of.