INTERVIEW: Bettie Serveert
- Al Muzer
Only a fool or someone with a poor command of the English language would accuse Bettie Serveert of producing "happy" pop music.
Despite bright, occasionally jangly riffs, shimmering hooks, an obvious love for radio-friendly melodies and the clear, coy voice of singer/guitarist/songwriter Carol van Dijk; the deep lyrical focus and thoughtful instrumental approach taken by the Netherlands four-piece on Dust Bunnies makes Aimee Mann sound like Up With People! in comparison.
By pitting van Dijk's deep, compassionate, rainy day observations against the deceptively warm backing of Peter Visser's Neil Young-inspired guitar heroics and the solid rhythmic pulse laid down by drummer Berend Dubbe and bassist Herman Bunskoeke, the "open diary" feel and heart-on-sleeve slant of the group's vocals is nicely offset by an instrumental sound perfectly-suited for Top 40 radio.
Everyone's favorite Dutch treat when their debut effort, Palomine, snuck its way up the alternative charts in 1992, the understated music and warm, heartfelt lyrics on songs such as "Leg," "Tom Boy," "Kid's Alright," "Balentine," "Brain-Tag" and the wistful title track were a perfect counterbalance for the anger and aggression popular at the time, and the album became one of the surprise hits of the year.
"One of my biggest dreams, seven or eight years ago, was to visit the states at least once in my life, you know?" marvels Dubbe during a recent phone call from Amsterdam. "And now we've been over there so many times that it's actually quite amazing. We never planned on, or dreamed of, the level of success Palomine eventually reached or the attention the record brought us. I mean," he chuckles, "we started the band with the intention of playing out no more than a couple of times a month just for the fun of it."
Still attempting to come to terms with the "overnight" success thrust on them courtesy of their debut, the group barely had time to recover from an exhausting global tour when they found themselves - ready or not - back in the studio working on Lamprey, their not-quite-as-well-received 1995 follow-up effort.
"There was a lot of strain," Dubbe comments on the recording process for Lamprey. "There were a lot of monkeys on a lot of backs for that album. The hardest part, for us, was starting out with nothing, which we basically did, and then, all of a sudden, bang! We were overloaded with attention and found ourselves trying to live up to our reviews."
Suffering from an overly-busy instrumental approach and a feeling of general restlessness, Lamprey, while coming close to stacking up song-for-song against Palomine, failed to make an impact on the charts or, for that matter on the fans and critics who'd so openly embraced the band a mere three years earlier.
"This is a much brighter sounding album," Dubbe says of Dust Bunnies. "The second record became much darker and more somber than we wanted it to become. It was written during a period when there was a lot of uncertainty within the band. Plus, that second record thing [sophomore slump]?" he asks. "Well, we actually had it!"
Re-focusing on the simplicity of their debut while retaining just enough edge from their second effort; the recently released, 13-song Dust Bunnies is a glowing commercial and artistic achievement.
"This takes us back to, like, the first record," offers Dubbe. "But, without the sloppiness of that album. The pre-production time we spent in this little hole in New York City with Bryce [Pavement/Spacehog producer Bryce Goggin] before we entered the studio really, I think, helped the record in the long run. Bryce was actually going, 'Well where are you going with that part? Why did you play that there?' " he laughs. "And we actually had to answer to someone, which was a little difficult. I think it really paid off on the record, though."
Recorded with Goggin behind the boards near Woodstock, New York, at Todd Rundgren's Bearsville Studios, songs such as "Rudder," "Geek," "Co-Coward," "What Friends?" and "Story In A Nutshell" have already drawn considerable press, MTV and radio attention while the band's upcoming arena tour with The Wallflowers and Counting Crows should be all it takes to completely convince casual fans that Bettie Serveert's Palomine was no fluke.
"We're really looking forward to those shows," Dubbe says of the Crows/Wallflowers/Serveert bills. "It'll be three weeks spent in big arenas - which is gonna be totally new for us and, I think, a little weird. It should be a real adventure. Oh, yeah, we're also looking at a small tour with Son Volt to happen sometime not long after that."
"You know," he adds thoughtfully, "the next few weeks are gonna be where it either happens for us, or it doesn't. A lot of people who don't know us at all are gonna see us play - whether they want to or not - so these shows are really important."
"We just played on a bill with Ben Folds Five," he says as he quickly changes the subject, "which, I think, was a totally weird combination of bands. I mean, we've got great songs. Those guys've got great songs x but, still, for some reason, we just didn't seem to connect musically."
"There were two very distinct camps of people in the crowd," Dubbe laughs as he recalls a wall of stone-faced non-fans. "Although I did see more than a few Ben Folds Five fans who looked like they were enjoying our music the longer we played."
"I really love sitting up there behind the drums," he chuckles. "You can see everything. You know, there are more and more shows where I see more and more people singing along with Carol. And more shows with a lot of girls - and a lot of men - out there pining for her."
"Although, sometimes," he says quietly, "it does get a little bit scary up there. A little weird looking out into the crowd and seeing so many people so intensely involved in the music - and so many people so intensely involved in the lead singer."