Rotterdam’s Lewsberg: “Perfection is boring.”

Hailing from the Netherlands, four-piece rock band Lewsberg came to our attention while listening to an episode of 3RRR’s Teenage Hate radio show. Their latest release LP In This House is elegant, stripped down rock n roll with simple, eloquent storytelling. Gimmie spoke with vocalist-guitarist Arie Van Vliet and guitarist Michiel Klein.

Why is music important to you?

ARIE: Music makes things easier.

MICHIEL: Easier in the way that it can help you deal with the absurdity of life.

A: Yes, exactly.

What interests you about making your own music?

M: Why only listen to music? Or carefully try to reproduce old music? Why not make your own music?

A: Sometimes I am so bored of making music, of tuning my guitar, of singing our songs again and again, of the music industry, that I almost decide to quit playing and start doing something completely different. But in these occasions, I’ve always realised right in time that nothing else would give me satisfaction either. So I guess that’s the reason why I keep on making music.

M: And you still wonder why people call you a nihilist? I think it’s important to realise that you can make music without having to follow the ‘rules’ in the music industry or in society in general.

Lewsberg are from Rotterdam; what’s it like where you live? Can you describe your neighbourhood for us?

A: Rotterdam used to be a pretty rough city, unpolished, with a lot of concrete and with a lot of space for outsiders of all sorts. Until very recently. A couple of years ago Rotterdam started changing, and all the imperfect buildings and people had to pay the price. Rotterdam these days is a city where the streets are tidy, the flowers blossom and the people smile. But I miss the Rotterdam that welcomed anyone, the city where you could park on the sidewalk and pee against a bus shelter.

M: Rotterdam was not a city that welcomed you with open arms when I moved here around twelve years ago. You had to make an effort and have quite some stamina before it started to feel like home. But I think this is a good thing. Things shouldn’t come too easy.

I understand that the band’s name was inspired by writer Robert Loesberg and that reading his first novel Enige Defecten changed the way you looked at language and how it can be used completely; can you please elaborate on this a little and tell us how it changed the way you look at language?

A: I always thought pleasing people was the main goal of writing a book. Or maybe even the main goal of creating things in general. Until I read ‘Enige Defecten’, and I realised that you can use language in a completely different way. That you don’t have to take the reader into account. That you can decide to annoy a reader. With the way you use language, or with the stories you tell.

Another thing I found out while reading ‘Enige Defecten’, is that I have a preference for rather boring stories. Stories that don’t have a start or an end, everyday scenes, thoughts without morals.

Photo by Cheonghyeon Park.

We really love the Lewsberg sound: bare-boned and not hiding the mistakes; why was it important for you to not hide mistakes?

M: I’ve never understood people who say they want to write the perfect song. Perfection is boring. It suggests that there is nothing left to add or to change. It’s static. It leaves no space for alternatives. And I think alternatives are very important. There is not just one way, the right way. There are a lot of ways, all with mistakes. Why do people think it’s important to hide mistakes?

A: Now we’re talking about hiding mistakes… That’s the thing that really frustrates me about how Rotterdam, or the world, is changing. That most people think the world is a better place when all bumps have been eliminated, when all mistakes are erased. But they’ve never asked themselves why this would necessarily be a good thing.

I know that you don’t make your songs lyrically personal and that you write more from the perspective of an observer about everyday ordinary things; what inspired you to write this way?

A: To be honest, I think I am an observer. I have never really been a part of anything, I’ve always been the witness. I feel comfortable in this role, it makes me feel at ease in almost every situation. So actually, it just feels natural to write this way. This is just the way I experience things.

What was one of the most interesting things for you about writing or recording your latest album In This House?

A: We recorded our album during a heat wave. We never had such warm days before in the Netherlands. Most people stayed inside, because it was too warm outside. Henk’s studio, where we recorded, is a dark and cool place in a narrow alley in The Hague’s city centre. We forgot about the heat outside while we were working on our music. I’ll never forget the feeling I experienced each time I opened the front door of the studio, right before walking into a hot, bright, silent world.

What was the idea behind the minimalist cover art of the album?

A: I don’t think it’s really minimalist. There’s actually an entire world behind the black surface.

M: I see it as an invitation for people to fill in some of the blanks for themselves.

Being a native Dutch-speaker; how does your limited knowledge of the English language shape or contribute to your song writing process?

A: The boundaries of a language that I don’t fully have a grip on, make it easier for me to write. When I write things in Dutch, the words leave my pen too quickly. I like language when it’s compact, when it doesn’t say more than needed. When you write things in a language that isn’t your first language, that’s one of the things you get for free. Besides, writing in English makes it possible to write with the necessary distance from the subjects I want to depict.

I enjoy how you have different versions of the same song – single versions are different from the album versions and live versions are different from the recorded versions; what was the thought behind having the different versions?

M: I once read this great quote by Matt Valentine (MV & EE / Tower) in an interview: “It just seems ridiculous to play things the same way each time, I mean, you ever brush your teeth the same way?” And although Lewsberg is not a psychedelic improvisation outfit like Tower Recordings, this remark is just so relatable. He also talks about “making sure the emotion of the environment is captured”. I wouldn’t use these words exactly but obviously the environment is very important in relation to how songs are performed. The environment can be different things. Is a song placed on a single or an album? Where is it placed on the album? Where is it placed in a live set? Because a previous song will affect how the next song is being played. Where is the performance taking place? Is it a crowded place or almost empty? There are just so many factors that can and will influence a performance, both during recordings and live shows, and I think it’s good to be conscious about this and embrace it.

A: That’s one thing we really enjoyed about the recent shows. That we played in circumstances we had never played before. We never played shows for a seated audience before, we never played shows for only fifty people in a hall with a capacity of four thousand people before, we never played five shows in three hours before. Completely new circumstances, that allowed us to play our songs in a different way, both intentionally and unintentionally.

You played your first live shows in nine months; how did it feel?

A: At first I wasn’t really looking forward to it. I didn’t touch my guitar for almost six months and I hadn’t missed making music at all. Plus I didn’t feel the urge to be on a stage after six months of isolation. But looking back on these first live shows, I have to admit it was nice to be on the road again. Though it was exhausting to talk to people after the shows. After spending so much time without seeing too many people, I wasn’t used to talking to strangers anymore. Sometimes people were really emotional about the gig, because for many people it was the first gig they attended in 2020.

I’ve heard that you love to read! What was the last thing you read that you found really fascinating? What was it that piqued your interest?

M: Lately I’ve been reading some of the poetry by Hendrik de Vries, a Dutch poet and painter from Groningen, a town in the North of the Netherlands, also the town where I was born and grew up. He started his literary career around 100 years ago. He was something of an outsider, literal in a geographic way, but also because he was really traditionalist in the way he structured his poetry in an age where experimenting with free verse was the trend in avant-garde circles. The language itself is also kind of old-fashioned and archaic but very personal, wild, melancholic, scary and dreamlike. Surrealist in a way. It’s not poetry that I can understand or fathom, but the images and atmospheres it conjures are just so strong. Fascinating is the right word.

A: I didn’t read a proper book for ages, but thanks to the lockdown I discovered reading again. I read a lot of Dutch books, from dead writers like Gerard Reve to young writers like Marieke Lucas Rijneveld. And I loved reading the first two books of Danish writer Tove Ditlevsen’s Copenhagen Trilogy. Now I’m waiting for the third book to come out in Dutch. All these books have in common that nothing is really happening. If a writer can put that nothing into words, I’ll read the book. But if I had to pick one book that really left an impression this year, it’s Bell Hooks’ The Will To Change: Men, Masculinity, and Love, an explanation and denunciation of patriarchy. I read it in August, and I still think about it almost every day.

Is there anything else you’d like to share with us?

A: We’ve started a label recently, called Soft Office. The first release came out today (on Friday, November 13th), it’s Austin-based band Chronophage’s second album The Pig Kissed Album. If you like Lewsberg, it could be interesting to keep an eye on these releases, since this is the music we like. You can find more info on Soft Office’s Bandcamp-page.

Please check out: Lewsberg.net; on bandcamp.