How Peter Slager creates space with music
Happyplaces Stories (video)
I decided that I wanted to learn more from Peter, about how he comes to his lyrics, about his process and inspiration as he is largely responsible for the lyrics of BLØF. But also if he ever thinks about what his lyrics and the songs mean to people. How they might create space for people, for memories, stories. About the power of music, and his goals, dreams and ambitions. So I looked him up at his home in Middelburg, Zeeland.
One of the most defining images I remember from that day, that defines Peter as a portrait, but I unfortunately don’t have a picture from (which also would have been a bit awkward), was his toilet. In my memory, it was a bit of a shine, a mixed collection of memorabilia from landmark moments of the band and their achievements, mixed with family life and Buddhist artefacts. It would have been the perfect portrait image.
I got to know Peter through Bas Kennis, who I met in Amsterdam years ago at a design party. We had a great conversation there, and we stayed in conversation ever since. Always discussing new possibilities, in the field of music, technology, knowledge, innovation and whatever comes to heart and mind. Funtastic. Through Bas I got to learn more about the different lives musicians have besides recording and performing.
Peter (bass), together with Bas (keys, guitar), Pascal (singer, guitar) and Norman (drums, backing vocals) form the Dutch band BLØF, one of the most successful Dutch bands ever. They are a part of the Dutch musical landscape since 1992. Since 2006 they host Concert at SEA, a festival like no other. The annual two day festival in the province of Zeeland in the southwest of Holland has a unique location by the seafront. With 40,000 visitors per day it is one of the largests festivals in the Netherlands.
In our case, we are a small band, so naturally, I know how to write a song by myself, but I actually think the group process is what is most interesting.
Because you can start with music and lyrics, and you can create an interaction between the two. All these methods are possible. And they can all deliver something of quality. But they are completely different ways of working. When I started writing lyrics, I used to literally make an outline. A couplet of a certain length, with a set number of syllables, a chorus, another couplet, another chorus, a bridge and a final chorus. Or something like that.
Later on, this kind of switched to us, as a band, creating the music during our jamming sessions. Because of this, we would create the lyrics on the music we played. And sometimes this happened, because Pascal had a certain metre in mind. A certain melody, which he would ‘lalala’ to the music. Or I would be the one doing this. All of this is possible. Or you figure this out as a band. That Bas says: “Wait a minute! I think that this specific melody belongs on this change of accords”. And this way, this came to be a whole. But both methods work. And something in-between is also possible.
If you make the complete song by yourself with a guitar on your lap, from the accords to the melody and lyrics, it is often an interaction where you, while you are connecting the accords and are letting the melody determine the accords and vice versa. That is a very organic process. In my mind, it always looks like what it really is. Like an air sculpture, I think. To me, songs are still, no matter how invisible, they somehow take up a spot. And they are sculpted in air. And, the nice thing is that every time you play such a song, you recreate it. But it will never be the same. You can make it longer, you can play it louder or softer. You can make mistakes. You can mess up the lyrics and what not. And every time, it looks like the original, but it is different. I think this is what is so cool about music. It is an essentially different art form. Like Joni Mitchell said: “You cannot ask Van Gogh to paint The Starry Night again”. That is the nice thing about what we do. It is reproducible, yet different every time. Because the space it takes up, the vibrations it produces, are in a different space as well. Every time. It does not matter if we perform in Paradiso, on the Brouwersdam, or I don’t know, the Gigant in Apeldoorn, for example. It is a different place and space every time, with different people who take it all in. To me, that is one of the most special things about playing in a band. It still is.
Lyrics, that is my department, my topic. But I do notice, looking back after playing in this band for more than twenty years, there is a common theme somewhere. I never really thought about it in the beginning. I just wrote what I wanted to write. And I still don’t really think about it too much. I’ll just wait and see what I have come up with, you know. I have sometimes answered the question by saying: “I just do whatever”. Of course that is a little bit too simplistic. But sometimes it looks like what Harry Mulisch once described: “The story describes itself”. It writes itself. You are actually the medium of something. A certain topic, a content, a vibe, if you like. And you are the person who records it. With pen and ink, or with a keyboard. And then you create a song out of it. But these topics, in my case, are often about, freedom, and trying to determine your own fate. Having control over yourself. And also wanting to have control.
I don’t really want to force myself on people. So I do always try to give the listener freedom. Freedom of opinion. I enjoy it when people can create their own image that goes with the lyrics. Create their own feelings with it. And maybe that is why the lyrics are always about these topics. In that way, they are about themselves. It is about creating freedom in your mind and around you. Not just for yourself, but also for the people around you. That is what it is constantly about. That is my feeling, I think.
Space and time
Sometimes you just have to sit or stand somewhere for a long time and take things in. That is a sponge-like activity. A visit to the supermarket, I’ve always said. Or to the post office. Although there are not that many post offices left. A visit to whatever place or store that attracts people can give you something to use in a song later on. Because you often pick up sentences or minor events in these places. This can even be something that happened or something that was said a year ago. But this antenna to pick up signals is always present. And I think that all pop music derives from tinkering and mumbling. What is more, I can imagine that even classical composers sometimes tinker and mumble to shape to their compositions.
To make a beginning somewhere. Yeah, tinkling and mumbling. That’s what it is. That is how it begins. But I do think that you use or create space with this. Everything takes up space. It is also time, you know. You have to bridge a certain gap. And this takes a certain amount of time. That is why we can express distance in time and vice versa. These things will always be connected. They are the two axis. Or three, really. It is always what music is, you know. Even by playing, you are bridging gaps. Music also needs time to move from point A to point B. A vibration is fast, but still takes a while. When we perform on the Brouwersdam, a large terrain, you realise that you have to play towards the back row. That is also what we do, you know. You have to actively send it somewhere. And literally aim it somewhere. Your PA stacks need to be aimed. All of this has to do with being a musician, you know. And it does not matter if you perform at a local bar where your audience is right in front of you and everything goes faster, or of you perform at a large stage, a wide place. A field, or stadium. It is all about space and time being interwoven. The way I see it, you will never become independent of these elements.
Place and space
A band has two careers, I think. One career is on record, so to say. Where you record your songs. And one career is where you reproduce the songs you have recorded. The stage. These are two different things. But at the same time, they are always connected, of course. But writing a song, intuitively, I would say that I need space. Like with running, for example you move into space. When I go for a run, I often think about songs. About the song I am making, or about the song that I wish to make. I then use the space I run through to get to that song. It is difficult to explain what happens in your mind. Anyway, I do need this space to eventually get to that song. And I also need space where I sit. You know, this place, where I am sitting right now to me, it is also like some sort of hut. This is where I feel good and where I am literally at home. And where I where I can do everything. And where I am often in the right mood to do things. On the other hand, I used to think that you need inspiration. And that is true, but you can also just sit down and, you know, tinker and mumble. It is work. In a way that, you can just make a song. Right now, I can decide: “Okay, I am going to make a song”. And by the end of the day, I will have that song. And whether that is a good song, or a song I had made before but slightly different or a song that is so strange, that I may never use it because it does not suit BLØF, or because if does not suit whatever I am doing at that time, that is the question. But it has also simply become work. And I enjoy this. You know, I have faith that if I decide right now to make a song, a song will come. And I enjoy it like this. Being less dependent of that what you think is inspiration. It is always there, as long as you take the space and time to shape it. I wonder what this is like when you are a painter. I have never painted, for example. It seems like a great thing to do. But I can imagine that it is more or less the same. And that you also function as some sort of medium. Standing in front of a blank space with a paintbrush or a spray can. Let it all happen, eventually. Freek de Jonge used to say: “The first sentence is always easy, you write it down and there it is. And the last sentence is also easy, because that is where it ends”. It is actually not that complicated. But knowing that it will turn out good, and feeling that you want to continue doing it, that can be complicated.
I prefer writing a song in a couple of hours, or in a day. You can then still edit the song. But you also have songs that take months to make. You work on it with the band and have already made about six demos. But still, it does not feel like you have the right hooks. Or the lyrics still do not work. It does not give you this feeling. Or the topic does not come through. Yet, after a month or four, you can have this one word, sentence, or expression you picked up in the supermarket and think: “Of course”. It is often like a lock that has to be opened. But sometimes you cannot find the key. That is what I am looking for all day. Whether I am walking around the city, doing nothing in particular or walking down the street mumbling things or just sitting here and staring into nothingness, that is what I am constantly looking for. Looking for the feeling of this sentence, or this word or melody that makes me go: “Of course!”. “I need to bend this into… I need to finish this, you know”. Before that, I have already had about ten or twenty mumbles that were unsuccessful. So somehow, you might have to develop a feeling for picking out the right mumbles to create an air sculpture.
Every now and then, I really enjoy, I find it very liberating to write in English. Especially because this means that your lyrics will not be endlessly studied. The marvellous thing about the Dutch language is that it evokes more anger with people, it evokes more fear with people. People are less indifferent to it. English lyrics, the biggest nonsense, are accepted without anyone making a fuss. But the moment you start writing and singing in Dutch… Something completely different happens. This is also exactly why I want to do it. And why? I think it is important to do this. This has something to do with a deeper identity. When we were making Umoja, the record for which we recorded our Dutch songs in different countries with local musicians and singers. I interviewed the musicians that worked with us. Those were very interesting conversations. Sometimes there was a slight language barrier, like in Japan. I went to interview one of the members of Kodo, the drumming troupe with whom we played. And she was the only one who answered my question with a question. She asked me: “What makes your music your music?” To me, that was kind of the eye-opener of the project. I realised that it is the fact that we sing in Dutch. Because that is about who I am. The language I speak is, that is the identity. And part of this is music. And that goes beyond such borders. But fact remains that Pascal sings in Dutch and that I put these words into his mouth. But somehow, there is something… That is how you get close to people’s identity, when you start singing in Dutch. This evokes different responses then when you deliver nonsense in broken English. People are much more forgiving when you sing in English. I know examples of singers who sing in English but who had a native speaker ask them in what language they were singing. This is English! “Really?” It is so bad and incomprehensible and with all kinds of…
English is the universal language of pop music. So especially in pop music, it is completely accepted. And Dutch — despite all emancipatory intentions, maybe even from different bands that have sung in Dutch throughout the years, and with bands like Doe Maar, they were not just the small bands, which were a big hit — has never really become a pop language. It could be one. I was also triggered by The Scene. When I heard them on the radio I was like: “So it is possible!”. Up until that time, I had provided myself with English lyrics. I am glad I started writing in Dutch. But, to get back to your question: it can be very liberating not always having to justify every syllable. To just write in English. People then think: “Oh, he does that too. Cool song.” And then this entire dimension disappears. It is interesting, the way this works. And maybe this is also some sort of inferiority complex about our language. The thought that it sounds weird, maybe. But I have gotten used to it and I also think that it is important for bands and singers to continue singing in Dutch. With the idea that our language is so small, we are stuck in like a continuous polder model. And for many people it is difficult to get out of this. While my thought is always that, I believe, the language of the heart is your mother tongue. The language you are born into.
Whenever I get emotional, when I am very happy or really sad or angry, I notice that I begin thinking in Zeelandic, even. Talking to myself, if you like. I was raised with a dialect. So this actually is my mother tongue. This comes back to me at emotional moments. This says something, you know. That is not a coincidence. This is not just how it works for me. I do not believe that. I am sure that when it really matters, there is no Dutch person who uses English. This might change, because, you know English is becoming more and more a second language to people. This is not a bad thing, things progress and develop. But I think, for my generation, Dutch is still the number one language to express yourself. The language that makes you feel. And, again, that is why I think it is important for bands to continue singing in Dutch. It is fascinating how, we know, BLØF sometimes evokes anger. And that is not frustration on my part. I think it is fascinating. Sometimes I think it is annoying, because people often use as their sole argument: “those incomprehensible lyrics”. I do not understand this, because I feel that my lyrics are fairly straightforward. But I think that this anger mostly comes from the fact that we use every Dutch person’s identity. The Dutch language. And when you do this on a certain tone or in a jargon they do not like, you cross someone. At the end of the night, I do want to see people smile. I am fine with people crying or going crazy and not having thought about anything at all. I still think it is nice to see that people enjoyed their evening. I could be very pompous about the message I want to give my audience. But on the other hand, I often think: “Jesus, it is only pop music, you know”.
People just have to enjoy their evening. Done. But in the end, this hopefully contributes to people’s happiness. For me, this is still an important reason to go to a concert or a film or something else. The beauty and comfort. I want to see something beautiful. Or hear something beautiful. Or feel something beautiful. And this gives me comfort. I enjoy this. This makes me happier. Maybe this is also why I do what I do. Why I make music and why I write songs. You know, because, I want to make people aware of things. A friend of mine once said: “Happiness does not know how to narrate itself”. This is true. But maybe this is not necessary when you make music. Maybe this is exactly what it delivers. No matter if this is in a minor or major scale, the beauty of it is what can bring you happiness. I think this is the cool thing about making music. Being able to do this every single time. And every time, you have to win over the audience. Even when it is our own show and people deliberately bought tickets. But even more so on festivals, where not everyone is a fan of your music. I think it is cool when you manage to win over those who usually dislike your music. And if you do not succeed, not a problem either. Because I did not think I would succeed in the first place. But if it does work, it is nice. So, yes. From that perspective, we do want to please people. This is not coquetry, which is something completely different. But I do want people to have an awesome night. Enjoying themselves and leaving with a smile on their face. And remaining happy for at least some days after the concert, hopefully. So that it echoes. If the soundtrack of their happiness is our song, I am automatically happy as well.
I just dream of getting old and being able to create things for as long as possible. Making things. What makes me happiest is getting up with nothing and going to bed with a song that is finished. I still think this is one of the most special things about what we do. I want to make other things. I would also like to make films and books. Paintings, even. To me, the best feeling comes from creating things. Starting with nothing and ending with something. And the intangible feeling of creating something by walking around, tinkling and mumbling. I still think this is the best feeling in the world. I hope I can continue doing this for many years to come. As much as possible. That is my dream, really. And I am living it. So I cannot complain.