Incendiary were able to sit down with two of Rotterdam’s Rats on Rafts, singer David Fagan, a naturally chatty soul who is comfortable leading any conversation and bassist Florian who contented himself with the odd interjection when appropriate. Beers were cracked open, packets of crisps were consumed and off we went…
IN: So you didn’t get lost in Leiden did you? (Incendiary towers is notoriously hard to find).
DF: No.. I live in Rotterdam, but work in Warmond, photographing clothes. I never really come to Leiden. You know the area around Warmond? The Bollenstreek? Not really “me”, you know.
IN: When I first moved to Holland it was only for three months so I could start painting again. The classic British and Irish expat story in Holland: come for three months and work in the Bollenstreek and stay a decade.
DF: Oh Florian’s from the Hoek of Holland which is full of hard drinking Christian farmers you know? They can’t really speak Dutch you know… (Florian laughs) it’s a crazy place. I’ve got a thing about Leiden, I hate Leiden, but I don’t hate the town I’ve just got a thing about the students. I hate the students. I remember me da taking me to the Museum van Oudheden to see the Egyptian temple. Must have been seven or eight. I loved coming here to see the museums, but when you talk to the students they always say “oh yeah we don’t behave like this in Leiden”... they all try to be very posh and behave “netjes”, and they’re all too young to behave the way they do, and I dunno…
IN: Tell us about Rotterdam
DF: I know it’s an ugly town but it’s really got something special you know? Cos it’s like an underground town, and you always know that you’re in Rotterdam through the attitude of the people, I can’t really describe it better to be honest.
IN: It’s the only town in Holland I feel pretty comfortable in, I know it’s tough and know there’s the whole reputation of the place as a heavy hard town, but it’s a bit like Manchester or a northern British city.
DF: Well sometimes when we invite friends over - and they’ve never been to Rotterdam - and we say just come and have a drink, see how it goes, man, and nobody ever dares… they’re afraid of Rotterdam, and that’s what I like about it, nobody’s afraid of Amsterdam, but that’s a creepier place than Rotterdam. It’s tough, don’t get me wrong; just before new year a few Irish friends came over to stay with my auntie, my auntie lives in a bad part of Rotterdam, anyway they invited me to a pub and I said no, band practise and that, anyway the next thing I hear is that they’d walked into this pub and there was a shooting, some guy got shot twice… but my friends just shrugged and said, fair enough we’ll just go to the next place… mental. The Irish are funny like that.
(I should point out at this point that David is half Irish…)
DF: …we used to practise in Maashaven, and Maashaven is seen generally as the worst place in Rotterdam and we never had any hassle, someone once nicked me lighter I think, that was it.
IN: Whereas Amsterdam…
DF: I also feel that Amsterdam is fake, like they still hang on to this idea that they’re the only ones who understand freedom, like they’re free and it’s still 1966 or something, it doesn’t make sense because in Amsterdam, everything is about tourists. Or prostitutes… And the tourists go to the shittiest coffee shops in Holland. If you’re gonna go to a coffee shop you’re best going to a smaller town like Leiden or Delft.
IN: Amsterdam interests me due to the Provos and the Ajax team of the 60s. It’s as if since then there’s been just the punk squat scene in the late ‘70s and nothing else, creatively. Rotterdam is totally different in this respect as well.
DF: The football culture is more working class in Rotterdam. I mean you can meet anyone in Holland, anywhere, and there’s a good chance they support Ajax, but Rotterdammers tend to support their local teams, Feyenoord, Sparta or Excelsior, which is my team. They used to have an Irish lad called David Connolly; he played at Excelsior and Feyenoord. He would always kick in one or two… (Pause) It’s a very depressing time in Rotterdam at the moment because you can really feel that the football going badly is affecting the town.
FL: Yeah man, its black.
DF: Feyenoord haven’t been this shit in about 50 years. It’s very personal for people there.
IN: The idea of Rotterdam as a creative, commercial powerhouse has been really pushed the last 5 years or so hasn’t it? I’ve really noticed that.
DF: Yeah, BUT you’ve got to remember that most money that comes into Holland makes its way in via the harbour in Rotterdam, all the money that comes in there feeds Amsterdam and Utrecht you know? Amsterdam is a sub-creative kind of…. shithole… (Laughs). Ah it’s pretty but… people who play in bands, or paint or whatever, you know if you work, if you put some effort in… I hate these people who just moan on about not having to work… I mean no-one wants to work, but we need to work. Take the money and do something else.
(We are listening to Simple Minds Reel to Reel Cacophony at this point. David interjects in his musings on all things Rotterdam to mention about the record.)
This is quite cool… I’d heard Simple Minds were good before they went popular, I’d never heard this though… and the drums are a bit like a Can record, Tago Mago, what year is that, about 1968?
DF: The Can drums sound is a great sound, the Stone Roses and Happy Mondays nicked that didn’t they? You know that record, from Love, Forever Changes? That’s a dead good one that.
IN: Rats always had a real love affair with good classic LPs and bands though didn’t you? I mean when I first saw you with Pony Pack, I thought “who has had a word with these lads about the Fall? They’ve got that energy & spirit”. Because you’d captured that Post Punk spirit, which if you’re just into the fashionable aspect of borrowing a sound, well in my opinion, you can’t do that…
DF: Well that is a good question, I dunno I had a... we ALL had a session of totally getting into the Fall: I remember saying this is the best band I ever heard and I wanted to be exactly like the Fall. I wanted to do exactly as Mark E Smith did, but it’s also I was discovering my own kind of sound, and so were the rest of the band. It’s just every time we do a new song, it just ends up somewhere sounding a bit like the Fall! (Laughs)… it’s kinda hard because you don’t really think hard about what you’re doing, just whether it’s a good tune.
IN: You work with tunes don’t you?
DF: We really, and I mean, really, believe that we are employees of the song. The song writes itself and we have to learn how to play it. You have to listen to the music to see what it does, you know? The songs really do write themselves.
IN: I always draw the analogy that painting is like riding a horse, you can try to make it go the way you want but ultimately you end up getting dragged elsewhere.
DF: Yeah but you shouldn’t … if it’s really obvious in what you want to do then it becomes too driven from the head and then it goes wrong. Then you need to eliminate things. When we were just starting we used to have a lot of parts in a song, and we’d stick them in, and we’d think it was just funny, to go into a different part.
FL: Yeah you’d go into another song every one minute.
DF: But the joke ended! And people got back to us and were really confused as to what we did. We have two audiences, those who like the early songs and those who like what we do now. I think it’s important to keep having fun you know? Like last week we started playing Rock and Roll part 2 by Gary Glitter. We kinda made a psychedelic version of it and we don’t know how to actually play the song. We don’t know the structures, so it actually sounds more like Iron Butterfly.
IN: The Human League covered it & charted with it way back when?
IN: Yup, back in the day when Mr. Glitter’s dreadful criminal activities were not known…
DF: Well that’s the funny thing because he is a very bad man, he’s an arsehole and should be put down, but made some stunning records, which we love… and those two drummers... I always love two drummers, Adam Ant, the Fall, it’s great.
IN: you freak people out a bit with your ideas then…
DF: Yeah we get that a lot, we get people saying “oh this sounds like Devo or Talking Heads and the Cure”, and we’re like, “well… if you’re thinking that you’re just trying to find a sound to latch our songs on, then you’re missing the point.” The songs are the thing, and each song is different, it writes itself, it may well be that the song sounds a bit like the Stone Roses you can’t hide your influences. I‘ve been really listening to Captain Beefheart a lot, and I know lots of bands listen to Captain Beefheart, but you know when I listen to him I also hear Howlin’ Wolf. But if people can’t pin you to one sound, if you can sound like a chameleon, I think that’s okay. I really think it’s bad to just have one sound. Like loads of bands just want to sound like Joy Division and we don’t believe them. I mean the Editors. What the fuck’s that about? It’s like Pearl Jam mixed with Joy Division. I mean Smokers Outside, what the fuck is that for shallow arty crap?
IN: (Laughs) I lost me rag about the White Lies recently
DF: I read about that you compared them to the Chameleons eh?
IN: Yeah, just to show real vs. fake: because a lot of promotional stuff has been happening round that new White Lies record, and all this stuff about why they are the best thing since sliced bread, blah blah.
DF: It’s all too posed, you know
IN: No-one knows why you should be in a band anymore... I ask, which band or which set or artists have character and intelligence and personality? Where is it all? There is a sense of total confusion and people like White Lies are just trying to grab as much money from the crumbling traditional set-up. They’re like sheep.
DF: I understand we live in a time where there’s been so much great music from the past that is instantly available, and it’s sort of stopped people from listening to themselves. If you’re going to make a record you need to listen to what’s in there… You know that American called Ariel Pink? He’s a great example of someone who takes from so many different kinds of music but he always ends up making the music his own. He is THE guy at the moment who is interesting us. I mean 10 years ago you had all these British bands comin’ up. I mean, I thought the Libertines were alright after that you got Franz Ferdinand, who you can dance to, nothing wrong with that, but then you’ve got Arctic Monkeys and I just don’t understand it; it’s like a conveyer belt of the same light stuff…
IN: No-one has the time to listen or evaluate in their own time, time is now a commodity that is boxed- in a corner in most people’s lives. So you get bands that provide instant gratification.
DF: It’s all goin’ too fast
IN: And you get lots of little know-all professors running the scene. Everything’s an equation.
FL: It’s true
DF: Like somebody comin’ up to you and saying “oh your guitar is out of tune”, as if I give a fuck. If we are ever getting to a situation where we can’t do what we want to do, when the music we make is not about what we want to do anymore, then we’ll quit. One out, all out. And I hate talking to musicians... especially if they’re in bands I don’t like. A lot of those guys just want to sit around and get money. And they can only talk about crap music. It’s always better for a musician to talk to people who don’t make music, because I think the listener is way more important than someone with a guitar who’s normally just trying to get somewhere with that guitar and they’re not totally sure where they are going with the instrument…
..I mean I know we are the only band who has any understanding of the musical history of Rotterdam and of the bands that came out of Rotterdam; there are a few good bands now but a lot of people don’t know their history. Who knows The Minny Pops, for instance, now? Like we’ve done a cover of Kiem, right? They were this band from Rotterdam who had this sound, in fact the only band to define the sound that can be directly pinned back to the harbour, to the working class Rotterdam roots. When I first heard that I was completely amazed, like the drummer playing on a drum made out of parts from a boat. Actually off a boat. I think they played one gig and suddenly things took off for them and they became a big band.
IN: Well for you to pick up on that is so rare because I feel in general there’s such a lack of confidence in Dutch bands from Dutch audiences
DF: No, that’s because I feel that people don’t know what good Dutch bands we’ve had, like Kiem, The Minny Pops or the Ex. We discovered there was a whole great punk and wave scene in Rotterdam and nobody remembers them because they sing with a Dutch accent you know.
…That’s what I like about England where there have been a lot of great bands that never got anywhere and then people look back and realise they made a huge mistake in not appreciating those records, but here it just disappears, because to be honest if you’re living in England would you be interested in hearing from a band from Rotterdam? Outside of John Peel probably no-one would. He did a session with the great Dutch band from Eindhoven, Nasmak, and he called it the best record that defined the whole post punk sound, and that’s a band that nobody our age knows anything about that.
You have got to do what you want but don’t actually care what’s going on in the outside world; a lot of the good bands from Holland are like that. But on the other hand, that’s what I really like about England, especially Manchester. That's the best town to celebrate their own achievements: Stone Roses were special and I can understand ‘cos they have something no-one else has. What annoys me about the Dutch scene; Harry Merry, he’s a bit weird, you know, but a lot of people can’t accept his music, yet Ariel Pink is a massive fan of his work. Don’t you think its fucking wrong that Harry is still playing in the same fucking bar over here for 50 people and he’s had like 10 American tours? Fuckin’ hell.
IN: That’s just the Dutch press…
DF: Ah you know what? If a Dutch band gets big you can put your life savings on it that they’re fuckin’ shit. Like De Staat or something what’s that about? And they actually ripped us off, man. After we did the cover of Moneyman they did a cover of Kiem, they just nicked it…
FL: Yeah, man.
Later we all go down to the pub and have some left-over haggis, which is a first for the band. Spicy stuff indeed.