I recently stumbled upon this clickbait article that compared photo’s taken by amateurs and professional photographers from the same vantage point. The difference, obviously, is how a pro can augment reality and depict those seemingly everyday, ephemeral instances as something resplendent and surreal. A Henk Koorn-song is kind of the sonic equivalent of that. His work often renders some kind of silly, commonplace situation or interaction into wistful melodies and visceral jolts of energy. Like those professional pictures, Koorn’s songs immortalize and embellish seemingly trivial moments one would otherwise forget. Moments when you embrace a benign sense of weightlessness and alertness without being burdened by the past or future. To have fun and accept wherever the chips may fall.
Koorn’s longtime band Hallo Venray has an old school, purist charm, drawing from familiar influences like Neil Young and the Velvets, but in a sly and subversive way. In a career spanning three decades – unfortunately – they barely garnered a steady following beyond Dutch borders, unlike their peers Bettie Serveert, who successfully signed with Matador in the nineties.
For all that, Koorn and company embraced a different kind of ambition. To them, the act of playing music is about embracing the absurdity of the moment, rather than chasing the accolades. In thirty years, Hallo Venray have sustained their excellence through stubborn reinvention. And they’ve never stopped doing so, even during stretches where the music press lost track of them. The band's daredevil mindset might not have won them the popularity contest here, but it did make them a great band. Hallo Venray shows don't blow you away immediately, nor does the band seek to do so with the tiresome stock mannerisms bigger arena-rock bands keep in their playbook. No, they're more of the Crazy Horse-archetype: they go all-out on the most random, happenstance moments instead of grandstanding with a predictable end-of-the-show climax. When they play, there's always this constant lingering tension that could unravel at any given moment.
We meet Koorn in his studio, located just outside of The Hague's inner city. He seems right at home here, among the small business owners just in earshot of the center's expanding flash point of boutique establishments and chain stores. Judging by some of the construction sites and empty buildings, things are not exactly looking up. Koorn isolates his studio with beach sand (hence the name Sahara Sound), which is kind of ironic, given Koorn's disdain for beaches, or water in general. He not-so-fondly remembers spending the hot summers of his salad days on Fire Island, New York. "Everyone is supposed to have a good time on the beach. But I never did. Well, I do like the beach when it's cold, empty…when the waves crash violently. You know, the natural forces. Once it's warm and full of people, it's just horrid. Everyone is lying there, and you have to somehow maneuver yourself around them. If you lay down yourself, someone inadvertently kicks sand all over you."
Koorn spent his first nine years growing up in the United States. Which explains why he grasps the intricacies of the English language well. "It was my first language, so I was quite lucky in retrospect. I still think and speak in very simple language, simple words. I've never got around to understanding English language like a grown-up would. But I think most good lyrics employ simple, understandable words." He mentions the Neil Young-albums Tonight's The Night and On The Beach (talk about an album that subverts the quaint idyllic image of living on the beach) as examples. Koorn is, unabashedly, a devoted Neil Young-adept; he once recorded a Neil Young cover-album with Hallo Venray. Along with Doug Martsch of Built To Spill and maybe a handful of others, Koorn was able to record 'Cortez The Killer' faithfully and do it justice. Not an easy feat.
When the Koorn family was located in the US, his father worked in the optic industry, making "binoculars, lenses, scopes and night vision goggles". Which is kind of funny, considering he would eventually father a child whose first album's called You Don't Hit A Guy With Glasses On. Koorn is a somewhat mousy individual; understated and meek in his demeanor. Not the laddy frontman you often encounter in bands from The Hague, where the Mod and Nederbiet-subcultures are more pervasive than in other Dutch cities. The most famous band from The Hague is Golden Earring, and their history is fettered with more rock clichés than you can throw a stick at. Unlike a prototypical rocker like Barry Hay, Koorn is not one to show his cards quickly: sometimes you're not sure whether he's joking or being dead serious.
It's conceivable that Koorn's wry, observational songwriting style was spawned by his days in the States, and the ensuing culture shock of adjusting to life in The Netherlands. He clearly recalls one specific childhood incident that shaped him. "Back then you had to do swimming lessons over here. But in the States, all it took to get your certification was to dive from the lowest board and swim to the edge of the pool. My older brother succeeded. But as the younger brother, the first thing you want to do is impress. So I dove too. But, the problem was, I couldn't swim." No one tried to warn Koorn, so he submerged, panic-stricken, and had to be saved. It was as much a lesson in humility as a snap-action gaining of wisdom. "I was naive… but that was a good thing! It made me a fearless person.”
At one point, Koorn shows a picture from his childhood of himself, his brother and two lady friends dressed in Halloween-costumes. His brother, standing on the far left, is dressed as an astronaut. Koorn leans close to him, his face obscured by a plastic mask of Wendy the Good Little Witch. Set in a quaint American suburb, the image oozes childlike innocence, set at an age when you're still oblivious to the rude awakenings and fears that await. In that time frame, just a few miles out, The Velvet Underground, one of Koorn's other staple influences, embodied a seedy, stark realism as an antithesis to the flower power hedonism prevalent out West. But Koorn was just a kid whose dad bought him a cheap guitar at the mall, awestruck by The Beatles' legendary Ed Sullivan-performance.
Speaking of stark realism: compare that childhood Halloween picture to the somewhat sinister-looking cover art of Hallo Venray's latest album Where's The Funky Party?. Koorn, wearing a plastic clown mask and hoody, emerges from a sewer in some bleak monochrome inner city street like a Batman villain. Really, could you find a more palpable contrast between youth and adulthood than Wendy the Witch and this Joker/Alex DeLarge-like anarchist? Not to mention the notion that witches are supposed to be wicked and clowns are supposed to be fun.
When Koorn returned to the neighborhood he grew up in, he noticed how his old neighbourhood wasn't what it used to be. "You could feel the change in the sixties: everyone looked cool, you had the best-looking cars," Koorn reflects with his signature sheepish laugh. "When I came back to visit New York in the early nineties, the city appeared to have become more colorless, more grim. It looked more like Europe to me. It's like they are downsizing or something." But amidst all the (political) change that happened across half a century, Koorn, at age fifty-six, stayed true to his intrepid, jokester ways. Aesthetically, the album art epitomizes Hallo Venray to a tee: fearless, stubborn, and droll.
Sonically, Funky Party is split into this likewise duality between guilelessness and melancholy (even though Koorn insists the choice to structure the album this way was strictly pragmatic). The first half of the album is a gleeful, supercharged affair. Shorter songs, such as the title track, burst into a frenzy like a band with dabbler’s enthusiasm. Koorn likens Funky Party as a callback to Hallo Venray's genesis in 1987, when the band predominantly played the Dutch squat circuit. The opening title track gleefully mashes a keyboard "Hey!"-vocal sample, which sounds remarkably like Koorn's own nasal voice. Which was, of course, the entire reason for Koorn to use it in the first place: "That's what so funny about it." Another notable track is the Velvets-sounding 'Ball', which references Koorn growing up playing baseball with his dad on the streets. The rhythm section of Henk Jonkers (drums) and Peter Konings (bass) creates this kinetic, hot potato kind of levity.
After six songs of unadulterated zest, Funky Party rings to a halt during its second act: 'Stories', 'A Different Kind Of Air' and 'Look Outside' highlight Hallo Venray's more spacious and contemplative side. 'A Different Kind Of Air' is a spectacular shoegazey workout, a perfect storm that precedes the album's most breathtaking, emotionally naked moment. In its simmering nine-minute majesty, 'Look Outside' trudges hypnotically like a ship rocking on calm waters, radiating a misty ambience that's on par with the best work of Talk Talk, Slowdive and Cocteau Twins. The unearthly, shape-shifting guitars and synths evoke poignant moods behind the brevity of Koorn's soft, subdued mantra; the song never soars too high or drifts too low. It's arguably the most beautiful piece of music Hallo Venray has ever written.
Koorn wrote 'Look Outside' in a situation that's quite the opposite of the music's deft tranquility. "In the summer of 2015, there were intense riots in The Hague [sparked by the death of an Aruban-Dutch citizen during a run-in with police]. It was very tense everywhere in town. I wrote something like 'Horses Are Standing Outside', which later changed to 'Never Look Outside'.” In other words, the song sprung from a situation in which you'd rather not look outside and see how, in Koorn's own words, "terrible" things could get. "That's how some songs just originate. You start by exploring them. You have written the song and seen the backdrop, and they have a conversation with one another. They help you understand things in a certain way. That's how I like to work. We once had six radically different drafts for 'Look Outside' which were all good, but not good enough."
Going back to the moment when Koorn heedlessly dove into that pool to impress his older brother: he didn't quite understand at the time how his parents could've allowed such recklessness. Why didn't they protect him from his own foolhardiness? Back in The Netherlands, Koorn was set to inherit the farm owned by his grandfather. As much as he enjoyed milking cows, by then, songwriting became second nature to him. "I had no idea that writing songs was such a special thing. I felt it was natural to me, so I assumed it would feel natural to other people too. Just like walking or talking", he shrugs.
"I wanted to start playing immediately but couldn’t find a band. I figured: I’ll just play by myself. I wanted to quit studying electrical engineering. The second plan was to go into music. So I told my parents, who weren’t too happy with that decision." This time, though, it wasn't just Koorn's pride on the line, but his future. "My dad told me: 'You can choose to do music, but I want you to do shows on a professional stage within two months. So you can prove to that you’re fit to play music for a living. So I started to write this one-hour performance of poems, cabaret, songs, all kinds of shit. Then I booked student clubs, cafés. And I just started playing. One night it could become a disaster, and another night it could be a huge success."
Koorn's pre-Hallo Venray solo performances were, in many ways, prototypical. He'd do all sorts of wacky things to keep the audience's attention span. Koorn would sing songs while hoola-hooping, Grace Jones-style, or read poems while simultaneously riding a skateboard. He describes one of his favorite tricks: "On stage, I would put a bag on the table, and sabotaged one of the table legs, so it would collapse mid-show. Of course, that started a big, chaotic mess. I acted surprised to the audience once the table fell. Some people were extremely disturbed, other were just confused. But I liked that confusion." One thing that Koorn didn't particularly like was the somewhat elitist environment of the theatre crowd. Deep down, he simply wanted to make a racket with a bunch of friends, in a more grounded way. And eventually, that's what Hallo Venray would become.
Last May, Hallo Venray celebrated their 30th anniversary at Amsterdam's famous Paradiso. This wasn't a typical day for Koorn, Jonkers and Konings. It was unfamiliar territory for them to suddenly stand at the center of attention, as various local bands performed one Hallo Venray track and one original song. In-between performances, the beamer on stage kept showing stock footage of Hallo Venray's NSFW Pinkpop performance, set during the peak of the band's popularity in the early nineties. In those days Hallo Venray leaned more heavily on Koorn's songwriting and zany theatrics to make an impression. As part of the tribute, Koorn and Konings played a brief set with the old Hallo Venray lineup, giving former guitarist Toon Moerland and former drummer Dim Veldhuizen a moment to shine once more. Even Dutch sax legend Hans Dulfer showed up to perform his contribution to the song 'Las Vegas' live.
This set, though a tinge obligatory, showed how solid Hallo Venray already were in their heyday. But in all honesty, in 2000, the band soared to a whole other stratosphere as a trio, once Henk Jonkers became their new skinsman. Following the overproduced A Million Planes To Fly (likely Hallo Venray’s most concentrated effort to make some noise abroad), Jonkers debuted on the excellent, subdued I'm Not A Senseless person, at least I don't want to be. Koorn: "(Jonkers) is very musical person. Once he joined the band, it changed the way I play guitar. He's such a good drummer, I always give him the green light."
Watching the Koorn-Jonkers-Konings dynamic perform is an absolute feast. It's not surprising how Jonkers, ruggedly bent over his kit like a rhinoceros on the verge of charging, became the catalyst for Hallo Venray's remarkable turn-of-the-millennium transformation. His giddy, white-hot playing style is the perfect foil for Koorn to cut himself loose, as Konings's stout bass throbs serve as the mediator. This thrilling tension wasn't contrived by Koorn clowning around on a pogo stick, but by three musicians harnessing their peerless, razor-sharp chemistry.
How's this for a climax: during a punishing version of 'Japanese Cars', two of the opening bands, Canshaker Pi and Apneu, launched a rampant stage invasion in a rather inebriated state. Out of the blue, one of the band members of Apneu stumbled over Koorn’s guitar cable, bending the jack. Exactly the kind of slapstick moment that often informs Hallo Venray's songs. A lot of musicians, especially during their landmark 30th-anniversary show, would've been fuming. But not Koorn. To him and his bandmates, it was simply another sweet incentive to bend chaos in their favor: Jonkers started jackhammering his skins so frantically you could see his sweat form a cloud of mist. Konings cranked up his bass to Lemmy-levels. To compensate for his now useless guitar, Koorn kept screaming like a complete madman: “I Hate Japanese Cars! I Hate Japanese Cars!”
Koorn describes how he considers 'Japanese Cars' (one of the more popular Hallo Venray songs) a happy accident. When the band recorded their most well-received album, The More I Laugh, The Hornier Due Gets, he had about one minute and thirty seconds of tape left. To use up the rest of the space, Koorn promptly decided to lump two unfinished song ideas together and rev the thing up with fervid punk rock abandon. Fearless and happenstance, in true Hallo Venray fashion. Indeed, that silly snafu at the end of the Paradiso gig became a strangely iconic way to cap thirty years of plugging away. The song and the situation were, once again, of odd significance to one another. And something tells me Henk Koorn wouldn't have had it any other way.
Hallo Venray's fourteenth album Where's The Funky Party? is out now via Excelsior Recordings. You can order the album at Excelsior's shop.
Photo Credit: Joni Spaan