If someone asked you to name a British band, you could probably come up with 50 in a minute. If someone asked you to name a French band, chance are you would drop Phoenix, Daft Punk or Justice. A Swedish band? Not that hard.
But what about a Dutch band?
Odds are, unless you studied abroad in Amsterdam, you know very little about the indie scene over there. And if you’re like me, your knowledge of Dutch culture starts with Robin Van Persie and ends with weed. To amend that, here’s an introduction. Meet Utrecht’s I Am Oak.
Filling the massive hole left by Norway’s Kings of Convenience, Thijs Kuijken – the soft-spoken mastermind behind I Am Oak – crafts beautiful melancholy acoustic songs with a voice very similar to Jose Gonzalez. While I Am Oak sounds very much like a solo project on record, it is anything but in a live setting. Tracks like“On Trees and Birds and Fire” and “Palpable” explode on stage, complete with guitar solos and a pounding rhythm section. They’ve already achieved success and critical acclaim back home in the Netherlands.
I was incredibly lucky to catch their opening set at the Music Hall of Williamsburg as part of Brooklyn’s Northside Festival, one of their first ever shows in the United States. I had the chance to catch up with Thijs before the show and got to talk about his initial perception of the United States, how Nirvana can influence a folk band, and what it is like writing lyrics in a second language. Check out our conversation below and make sure not to compare them to Mumford and Sons!
Steven: Other than the shitty mainstream DJs that my roommates listen to, I know nothing about Dutch music. In your eyes, what am I missing out on?
Thijs: There’s a lot of interesting stuff that goes on. I think it’s similar to what’s going on in New York. The first show we did was at Goodbye Blue Monday, which is just a bar where every night, four or five bands play and there’s a lot of shitty bands and that’s the same everywhere I guess. Also in Holland, you have a lot of shitty bands and then there are a couple of good ones. So, that’s all over the world I guess. In Holland there’s a lot of interesting bands and for every interesting band, there’s 30-40 shitty bands. Because American culture is so popular, a lot of Dutch kids listen to American music growing up, as I did, and they sort of gives them an input and the output is sort of American in a way with a little twist of Europe.
Steven: So what American bands were you listening to growing up?
Thijs: Well, I listened to Guns ‘n’ Roses, Metallica and Nirvana. But I guess my interest in music was really came from Nirvana because I started realizing that the songs were really simple, just a couple of chords and a nice vocal line over it, and then I started thinking that maybe it’s possible for me to also try to do this thing. The playing isn’t perfect, so that made me realize that maybe it’s doable for someone like me to also just pick up a guitar and try some chords and make something out of it. Of course, what Kurt Cobain did was really really good and it takes a lot of talent to do it and you need that also to make good songs.
Steven: So if Nirvana’s an influence for you, how did you initially get into the folk music you play now?
Thijs: Maybe the Unplugged show. The acoustic guitar part is what interested me. In essence, the songs by Nirvana are just chords with a good vocal line and that’s what I started doing. When I moved from my hometown to Utrecht, where I live now, to study, I just took what guitar – and acoustic guitar – and I started making songs in my room. That’s the basics – just guitar, some chords, a good vocal line – and that’s the essence of the songs. I guess that’s not that different than Nirvana.
Steven: That makes a lot more sense now that I think about it. Your music is kind of similar to Kings of Convenience or early Jose Gonzalez. Did those kinds of artists influence you?
Thijs: Not at all. I really have no connection to them. My first record I made, I had this acoustic guitar/vocal basis and I started playing some drums over it, some bass guitar and I had a banjo that I never used, but for that record I started using it. As a result, this record became very folky because of that acoustic instrument vibe with the banjo and then people started comparing it even to Mumford and Sons. At that point, I had never even heard of that band and when I heard it, I really didn’t like it. It’s really easy to make that reference maybe because of the banjo and the folky undertone. People compare music they don’t know to other popular bands.
Steven: How often have you been compared to them?
Thijs: In the beginning a lot, but in Holland we started growing a bit and getting our own identity so the reference wore off a little bit. Also, it’s kind of annoying because you’re working on your own stuff and you’re trying to be your own thing and you don’t really want to be compared to those bands, but I know where it comes from. In the beginning, we were also compared to Sufjan Stevens a lot, which I can see. I listen to him and I really like him, but it’s not something I had in mind when I was making my music, but it happens because people need a reference if they don’t know you.
Steven: So in Holland, you’re critically acclaimed and have won awards. What does that mean to you? I know every musician will say, “we’re not in it for the awards,” but it has to carry some weight, right?
Thijs: It’s a nice validation that you’re doing something that’s worth doing. Of course, it’s worth doing because I like doing it and I get something out of it. If it turns around, then other people get something out of it, which is really nice to hear and an award presses on that and makes it more real. Maybe not though actually, since the most real thing is when people actually come up to you after a show and say they really liked it and they listened to it a lot or they went through a tough time and it helped them get out of it. Those are the most flattering things to hear and that really gives you a boost to keep doing it.
Steven: So do you ever think about how you want your music to be listened to by your fans when you’re writing or recording it?
Thijs: No, not specifically, but what I always did when I started making music was listening to music with my headphones, preferably at night, from beginning to end and really taking the time to do it. I guess I don’t expect people to do that with my albums, but it’s what I want people to do because there’s so much work that’s put into an album and the way the songs work with each other from beginning to end. I put a lot of attention into that so I hope that people listen to it like that. Of course, you can listen to a couple of loose songs, but the best way to experience an album is to just listen to it from beginning to end, preferably with headphones on.
Steven: How much attention do you put into the tracklisting? Do they all flow thematically or is it random?
Thijs: It’s definitely not random, but it comes out intuitively. When I have all of the songs together, usually there’s a few that need to be together because of the sound or the theme. Maybe all of my albums are kind of concept albums that center around one theme. My second album, Oasem, was a story about this guy – me – just going from one horizon to another horizon. The first song is called “Horizon” and the last was “Horizon 2.” In between, he goes through these landscapes and various experiences, which makes it much more of a linear album. The songs are tracklisted on content in this case.
Steven: So did these experiences actually happen or is it more fictional?
Thijs: It’s more of a fictional journey.
Steven: Despite that your lyrics sound very personal. As a listener, how do we know what’s actually you and what’s not?
Thijs: All of my songs are personal and the fictional part is not making up stories, but it’s giving them a different shape and telling this story more metaphorically.
Steven: How are you able to sing these songs night after night? Does it take you back to the place where you were when you first wrote them or have they turned into something else over the years?
Thijs: They really do turn into something else, which is what I really like about songs that are written in a certain way so that they are not literal and constricted to one event or feeling. The songs I write are always written with an open character to them so that the meaning can change and be transformed by the listener. Even if I write a song based on a certain event, four years later, the song could mean something completely different to me. That’s what I love so much about music and poetry because it’s so open and you can let it live.
Steven: So that’s a perfect segue into talking about your most recent release Ols Songd? How do you pronounce that?
Thijs: It’s actually just “Old Songs” with the two letters mixed up, which is based on the feeling of old memories that can get a little bit mixed up in your head.
Steven: These songs were first released in 2008, five years before you re-recorded them for Ols Songd. How did these songs change over time?
Thijs: The songs basically stayed the same, with me changing a couple things here and there, but the meaning is also sort of the same as well. They came from these feelings I had even before I wrote them; these feelings that sometimes come back to you, which is why I was able to remake the album five years later since I was in the same vibe again.
Steven: It’s gotten great reviews across the board as well. Did you ever think, “Where were all these people five years ago?”
Thijs: Not really. I was just starting out back then and it takes time to get noticed as a small band from Holland!
Steven: So you said that each album has a different theme. How does this album differ from the one before it, Nowhere or Tammensaari?
Thijs: It’s hard to say, but each album comes from a specific stage in my life. You change a bit every few years so the content of each album changes as well. It’s really intuitive how I write, so lots of times, I write songs and then a little bit later, I get this realization as to what these songs are actually about.
Steven: I’m assuming English wasn’t your first language. Since you first learned Dutch, does that make it harder to write lyrics in English? Why do you use English instead of Dutch?
Thijs: I only listen to music that is sung in English and I’ve never had any interest in Dutch music. I really dislike the Dutch language soundwise, so it’s really not attractive to me to sing in Dutch. In a weird way, I think I’m able to express myself better in English since there’s a little distance. It makes it easier to go into this different world, this poetic universe. I really like the sound of English words, which just adds to the poetic character of the songs.
Steven: How did you manage to flourish so much better with English? Your lyrics are incredibly metaphorical and beautiful, much more so than many other folk artists who have spoken English their whole life.
Thijs: I’m just really interested in the English language. I read a lot of books and listen to a lot of good music with good lyrics and watch good movies. I think it’s just a really interesting language. We start out learning English in grade school and we have a lot of movies and series on TV in English so from an early age, I was comfortable with the English language. On top of that, I really like the poetic quality and depth of the language because a lot of words have a deeper meaning in English than in the Dutch language.
Steven: So you’ve become popular in Holland, but since this is the second time you’ve been in the USA, do you feel the need to extensively tour the United States and “break America” or are you more focused on retaining your popularity back home?
Thijs: I’m open to coming here more often, but Europe is a really nice and convenient place to play since it’s relatively easy to get from country to country. We can do everything by van there, but to get to the US, it’s a big hassle with the visas, flights, etc. It’s a big step to come to the US but I’d love to come back here and it’s definitely an ambition of mine. I’d love to try to get bigger here, but there are so many good American bands and you really don’t need any bands from Europe to come over here!
Steven: So why do you think it is that Dutch bands haven’t made that big of a splash in the US, whereas Swedish bands have?
Thijs: It has to do with what’s in fashion, I guess. Maybe Danish bands are hip one year and British bands are big the next. Hopefully, we’ll be lucky and Dutch bands will finally get a break! I think it has a lot to do with which bands are getting picked up in the press, which has to do with taste and what’s “in.” Holland is such a small country, so maybe people forget about us sometimes!
Steven: So the first time you came to the United States was for SXSW in 2012. Of all places to go to and see America for the first time, you chose Texas. Was that a big culture shock?
Thijs: I guess Austin is a bit of an exception and we didn’t have a chance to get out. It was really hot and sweaty there, but I really liked it. It kind of reminds me of Brooklyn, but that might have just been because of SXSW. There was a lot happening and I really liked the vibe.
Steven: How do you think Northside Festival and SXSW compare since they’re pretty similar?
Thijs: I think this is better because it is a lot smaller still. It means that there’s a bit more attention for every band and a bit of a better chance of being seen.
Steven: How do you think crowds differ between here and Europe?
Thijs: There’s a difference between crowds everywhere, I think. It’s hard to gauge a difference with the US and UK since we’ve only played festival shows and showcase festival shows, which are way different than regular club shows.
Steven: So how does your music work in a festival setting as an acoustic folk artist?
Thijs: It works for us because we’ve expanded our sound recently. I play electric guitar also and we have a full band. If we need to, we can just give a little bit more power, which works for outside festival shows. These city festival shows with inside venues like this one really works well for us because I think our music works best at indoor venues, preferably midsized or smaller where the connection can be made between the audience and the band.
Steven: With a bigger band, you’ve been able to expand your sound. During the writing and recording phase, is it still 100% coming from you or does the band have more of a say?
Thijs: I make all of the basics – the guitar, voice, and beginnings of the songs – and the first two albums I did by myself. For the third album, I just made the basics and we arranged it all together. The band played a pretty big part with how it all came together.
Steven: So ask every band this question, and you may hate me for it, but what are your top 5 favorite records?
Thijs: Oh… shit. Well…
- World of Echo – Arthur Russell
- Wind’s Poem – Mount Eerie
- Magic Wand – Little Wings
- Hounds of Love – Kate Bush
- Arranged Waves – Stephen Steinbrink