Words and Photos by Kyle Rother
SXSW for many can be quite a daunting process. By the end of the week, your legs are straight stiff, your back is in a permanent slouch and your ears have probably lost the ability to pick up high frequencies. There are literally hundreds of bands to see, lines to wait in, BBQ to be eaten and press to push past - and all that free beer usually doesn't help matters of coordination. This year though there were a select few bands that were "must-sees," one in particular being a four-piece from Holland, Alamo Race Track.
Released here in the States on Minty Fresh last summer, their sophomore album, Black Cat John Brown, garnered a few glowing reviews, one from The Tripwire itself, and put forth the notion that the Dutch quartet might be onto something with their quirky, warm, reverb-tinged pop. The album had already done very well overseas, due in large part to both its solidity and an impromptu taping of its title track in a small dressing room. The video made its way onto YouTube, where it was viewed by the hundreds of thousands in a matter of days. Along with the cyber-fame came tours across France and Holland and a couple of stops in the States for last year's SXSW and the most recent CMJ.
As probably the biggest surprise for me last summer, I wasn't going to miss a chance to see them in what has been one of the few stops in the United States. Luckily, the day of their last show in Austin, I got the chance to sit down with Ralph Mulder, Leonard Lucier, Guy Bours and Djurre de Haan and have a chat about their journey, their name, their stray cats and their time in Austin.
So this is your second trip to SXSW?
Oh, third. How is this comparing to the previous two?
Leonard: It's a bit more crowded.
Djurre: You can't get in anywhere.
Ralph: I can't really remember, but the last two times felt like you could really get in easily, and now it's like anytime I want to see a band I'm standing in line.
Yeah, I understand. The only party I can get into is the one I'm working. Other than that, have you gotten a chance to see many other bands?
Ralph: Well a few here and there. We went to a parking lot at Guadelupe, there are free concerts from 12 in the afternoon, so we just sit there, drink free beers.
Djurre: We saw The Dodos.
Ralph: Yeah, The Dodos were really nice.
How many more shows have you guys got?
Ralph: Just one, tonight.
Ok, well I'll be trying to get in, I may just be waiting in line.
Ralph: Well it's a Dutch night so I think it will be easy to get in. (laughs)
So have you had any free time during the day, aside from your free beer, to go out and see the sights here in town?
Ralph: No but that's something we did the last few times. The first time we actually rented a car and just drove around, went to places. To see what kind of atmosphere there was in Austin.
You enjoy it?
Ralph: Yeah, it's really liberal. It's free, it kind of feels like anything is possible.
I'd like to get a little backstory on you guys, as it's strange for me to research you guys, because everything I've tried to find, history-wise, is in Dutch, and I don't know any Dutch, but from what I gather you guys formed in '01?
Ralph: Yeah I think '01 is about right. In Amsterdam, we were all playing in different bands. Then we just sort of started forming this one. Djurre (bassist) is new this year, but yeah, it is all based in Amsterdam.
Leonard: But we were all friends before.
So besides the new member, what has evolved with ART in its 7 or so years?
Ralph: Well we're a four-piece band basically, but when we play in Europe we've started to invite friends to join us onstage. We don't really do that here in the states. But we've sort of evolved there in the sense that we've kind of stepped out of just being four and just had some friends to contribute. More hands you know? More hands, more instruments.
Ralph: Right, yeah.
Kind of stepping back a little more, the name, Alamo Race Track? It's sort of strange for a Texan to hear from a Dutch band...
Ralph: Yeah (laughing), it's really weird I guess. The name was already there. I've had this map for a long time, because you know I've always wanted to travel here. So I just picked out all these names, and I always imagined you know all these 19th Century horse races and these tracks with all these weeds like it's not been used. Then I saw the name Alamo and I thought, hey it sounds okay. I mean, we needed a name, but I never thought we'd be playing in the United States and when we show up it's everywhere.
So no connection to San Antonio then?
Ralph: Well no, I mean I think there was an Alamo Race Track in San Antonio.
Djurre: Not anymore though.
Ralph: No, I think it's a car park or something now, but like I said, the idea of an old 19th Century race track not in use anymore kind of appealed to me.
So the album has gotten pretty good press around here, and it's gotten big obviously in Europe through the whole YouTube thing... do you guys absolutely love the internet because of that?
Ralph: Because of all the attention?
Ralph: Yeah, well it helped a lot. It wasn't like we planned it though, you know? I'm not a big fan of the Internet per se, but in this case when I saw the video and everybody was like 'Hey what's this?' You know, "YouTube"... I'd never heard of it. So for us of course it's a good thing.
Do you feel like because of that video sometimes you guys are sort of expected to maybe bring along an acoustic and some drum sticks and look for a guy with the video camera?
Ralph: Yeah, well there was a moment after that where a lot of people wanted that same thing. Like in France, that Vincent Moon guy, everybody wants you to you know... 'Oh can you play that again?' But I didn't mind that much, with that stripped down kind of thing.
Djurre: And they are actually really good films (La Blogotheque). We did one at CMJ as well.
Where you're up on the balconies?
Guy: Yeah that was Paris, but we also made one in New York.
Djurre: But it's not ready yet. They're still editing it. They had us walk around New York and play in a van, in the middle of the street with people reacted to us. Police officers going around...
So you've got these sort of homemade videos in France, you guys got a little more attention there before back home in Holland, right?
Ralph: Yes, first in France.
Is that a strange feeling going away and being more popular than you are back home?
Leonard: Yeah it is a bit strange, but France is a really nice country to play in ... a really nice audience.
Djurre: Really good food.
Guy: Really nice wine!
Ralph: And there's more possibilities anyway. Holland is kind of small you know, there's not a lot, you kind of have the tour and there's maybe 15 or 20 nice venues and that's it. And France of course is something that's new, and it's nice to be abroad because of the food and the country or whatever, but they have a lot of festivals. There's more to do there. They have so many summer festivals. It's so beautiful there, like Dardogne, the old medieval castles and such. The most fantastic venues and the audience is full of people who really listen.
Sort of open-minded?
Ralph: Yeah, open-minded to music. There's a lot of American bands playing there, as well. We played a few times there with The National, really nice guys. So there's a lot of possibilities. France is a really nice place to tour, and ... well.
And that's that?
Ralph: And that's that.
I've been to Holland a couple of times and the overall feel from the cities, the people, the country is very warm and inviting. How much of this, of the country goes into your music?
Ralph: Well, the places where you're from I guess, the places I grew up is very important for me. But it's probably like anywhere else in the world. I think it's normal for wherever you're from... I'm a big nature fan so I grew up with a lot of cycling and bird watching, and that's a secure place for me. There's a lot of space in my head for that, and when I'm restless I go there and think of songs. But then again a lot of songs were written in Australia for this album, as well as Amsterdam.
Djurre: But I think you're always influenced by where you're from. It's natural.
Ralph: Yes, it's the culture, the mentality that I get inspired by.
Djurre: Your starting mentality is always influenced by where you grew up.
So what influenced the English nature of the music... to write in English rather than Dutch? Is it sort of a speed bump to have to deal with writing in Dutch?
Ralph: Well when you're writing in Dutch... then you tour in Holland and Belgium and then you're done. (laughs)
Leonard: But also, all the music we've been listening to all our youth has been English.
Ralph: And you know, books and films and everything. I mean Holland looks west; it has a lot of English TV and film. And music you know, I grew up listening to the music of my parents, and that's all English. It's what we all grew up on, basically Bob Dylan and The Beatles. There was no Dutch music in my parents' house so... I think the first thing I put on when I was younger was Sgt. Pepper. That's probably something that always stays.
Cool. Moving on to touring, I wanted to get your info on what seemed like a special tour you guys did back in December, The Nightwriters Tour?
Leonard: Well, it was a special one-time thing we did, where a few Dutch writers were invited to read some of their work.
Ralph: And they wanted to have more of a nightclub feel to it. So they wanted to combine it with Pop music. They wanted to have it with the whole, (puffs over a mimed book) dust in the air, reading in a library...
Djurre: "Real Literature"
So it was real smoky, everyone was in their black turtlenecks, you had your stand up bass...
(They all start chuckling and snapping their fingers.)
Looking ahead, are there more plans for touring? Another record on the horizon?
Ralph: Both. Touring and we've got a few assignments, like a remix for an African film, that's the first thing.
Djurre: It's for Darfur. Proceeds going there, and we're contributing a song to that.
Ralph: And then we'll tour France and Holland again, and hopefully Canada in May and the United States.
Looking forward to a big US tour, or as big as you can...
Ralph: And the rest is just writing a new album.
Sounds great. That's pretty much it. One last question though, coming from a guy that has a big, fat, orange cat roaming the neighborhood, at my front porch day and night always purring for food, I had to know... what's up with John Brown? Real cat? Still alive and kicking?
Ralph: Yeah, yeah he is. And you know he was the starting point for the song. And I mean it doesn't necessarily have to go along with the literal meaning, there are other meanings to take away from it, but there were actually cats on the roof that me and my ex-girlfriend used to give names to, and that one we actually named John Brown. I think because she was just reading a book about John Brown, he was a politician in the 19th Century in the States. Working for Civil Rights and stuff. He was a really interesting character, and my girlfriend was reading that book at the time, so she called him Black Cat John Brown. I don't know why.
Leonard: And he always came in.
Ralph: Yeah when I was making that song, it was in the winter, and he was actually sitting there outside every night on the windowpane. Like he was listening or something, it was like he was a ghost at the window or something. It was really weird, kind of scary to have this cat like sitting there, looking at me, 'What are you doing? Are you writing a song about me? Don't you think of writing that song.'
Well hopefully he's pleased with it all. I think it turned out really well.
Ralph: Yeah, hopefully he is pleased... or she, who knows?
We digressed from there, chatting about our respective tabby cats and then I eventually parted ways with the friendly Dutchmen. I did manage to sneak into their show (Minty Fresh showcase) later that night, where they played just short of every song off Black Cat John Brown. By the time show was over and I'd wished them luck on their return flight home it was near 2am (their set didn't start until 1!) and I was thrown back out onto the grime and pavement of 6th Street, to make my way home like a stray cat under the pale moonlight.