It is quite the shock when, after two heartfelt songs about relational paranoia and everyday uncertainty, a flaming drum computer suddenly emerges and gabber track ‘Machteloos’ erupts, followed a little later by screeching garage rock, and then an an almost evangelical ode to infamous shopping mall Hoog Catharijne. No, Multimens, Lucky Fonz III's seventh album, is not a record of nuances. Multimens is a schizophrenic record that almost sounds like another record with every track and that is exactly how it was conceived. Why else would he have collaborated with fourteen(!!) different producers?
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Photos: David van Dartel
The location of the conversation, where Otto Wichers will offer explanation, is a restaurant he often frequents, right on the Dijksgracht and a stone's throw from the Maritime Museum. “Have you noticed that the Maritime Museum is surrounded by water on all sides? It really is an island – and it used to be one of the largest buildings in Europe,” he says later as we walk back. Oh, and: “In the summer you go for a really nice swim here.” And: “Until a few years ago, this area was still off-limits. Back then, Geert Wilders and Ayaan Hirsi Ali lived here and all that, the security was super tight.”
Wichers talks easily, so surprisingly, Multimens starts with a call to himself to start talking, ‘Misschien is dat goed’ (‘Maybe that would be good’). Wichers has always been an honest songwriter, especially since he switched to singing in Dutch full-time, free from poetic conventions. ‘Ik wil dat niemand me belt. Net zo lang totdat ik me eenzaam voel, omdat niemand me belt’ (‘I don't want anyone to call me, right until I feel lonely, because no one’s calling me’)’ he sang on ‘Houd Je Nog Van Mij?’. But whenever he opened up, it was always to himself, and that had to change on Multimens. Multimens is the story of a man who approaches the world with open arms in order to get to know himself. It is an obvious theme on a record that, musically, tries to escape any sort of theme at all.
When did you think to yourself: you know what, I'm going to ask a different producer for every track? “Actually four years ago already. The original plan for In Je Nakie was to work with all kinds of different producers. And I tried it then too, but somehow it didn't work. I had a different problem with each producer. With one it was a logistical problem, with the other we couldn't quite figure it out artistically, the other didn't want to. That record was released six months later than it should have been, because after six months I thought: it just doesn't work. And the joke, of course, is: if you have some problem with all kinds of different people, whether those are time problems, or artistic problems, or it just doesn't click or something, then you know: oh, it's just me. Do you know what I mean? There were all these weird issues and all combined I thought: maybe I'm just not ready for this or I'm not mentally open enough or something. Because of course I come from a very solipsistic world. I'm very much someone who, early in my career, in response to all the negative reactions to what I was doing, built a kind of wall. Like: here I want to have a place for myself, where I can do what I want, where I can be as free and vulnerable as I want. In the end you make your music in that world and it is appreciated because it has that feeling, that it is really something very personal about someone. But hey, that was fourteen years ago. And at a certain point I thought: I can go on like this forever, but I also thought to myself: there is a moment when that wall protects you and there is a moment when that wall isolates you.”
"If you have a problem with all these different kinds of people, then you know: oh, it's me."
“I had already written a lot of the songs on this album for a theater tour. And that show was really the story of someone who wanted to be more in touch with the world, and for the world to also be more in touch with him – for there to be some kind of energy going back and forth. A lot of those songs are also about someone wanting to look over that wall. It all starts with ‘Praten’. 'Ruwe Bolster, Blanke Pit' is also about that wall. And at a certain point I thought: if this is the theme of those songs, and if I tried this last time, and if it's still in my head now, then I just have to try this thing again."
“I had made a list of producers and I thought it would be healthy to see how other people work, see what happens if I let them in, between my walls; just give them my material and see what they do with it. I thought: if I work with people I find interesting, people I trust artistically, then something cool has to come out of it, right? And somehow it was much easier now. Maybe I've been a bit more open myself, with maybe a little more self-confidence. In the end I even produced a song myself."
That's '909', the last track on the record. Is that also the last song that you finished? “Yes, almost. In fact, when I started on the record, I didn't possess that technique at all.”
So it's really been quite a learning process – to finally be able to end the record with '909'? “It is also a little ironic, of course, to end with something that I’ve made in such a solipsistic way.”
Back to square one. “Haha yes, back to square one. But actually '909' is also about having a happy relationship with the world around you. And the 909, that's a drum machine – the Roland TR909. A lot of songs on the album are about my relationships with things, with stuff, basically functioning as a symbol for the world around me. In 'In De Loop Der Jaren' it is about a scarf that goes out into the world and then comes back into my own world. '909' is about that drum machine, my relationship with that thing, and with it my relationship with beats, in a way that also affects the album. And in 'Huisraad' it's about the stuff in your house, the sheets that start to sing. It's all a metaphor for contacting that world. And the funny thing is: in the end, the story of those songs has also become the story of their creation. I actually like that a lot. The creation is also the process that is sung about on the album. At the beginning it's: ‘Praten, misschien moet je praten, begin eens met praten’ (‘Talk, maybe you need to talk, why don’t you start to talk’) And it ends with someone who is very much in tune – with these devices and with the world.”
So you have this list of producers you want to collaborate with. How do you then decide with whom you want to make which track? De Sluwe Vos for ‘Zoenen’, for example, I thought that was a very interesting combination. You were introduced to him through his house music, I imagine. "Yeah! I once heard a track by him called ‘OG Anthem’. Which also really has a 909 sound. And at one point I thought: I'm going to make a new album and ask all those producers, and then I have to have him on it too. But they picked those songs themselves. Often I would just come into the studio and play the guitar or piano, like: I have these songs lying around. And usually they would react very enthusiastically to one thing, and they all chose something completely different than I expected. Someone like Sluwe Vos, he’s not at all used to pop music, so I think he chose just such a poppy song, because there is also something new to discover for him. I like that actually. 'App Me' was produced by Henk Koorn, the singer of Hallo Venray, which really is the most indie you can be in the Netherlands, who went for the most poppy track. I think Cartiez is the most poppy producer among them, and he has made quite a psychologically complex song [‘Praten’, ed.]."
How much creative freedom do you give those producers when you come to them with that song? "Yeah, a lot! I gave them almost complete freedom. I thought, I'll just give them carte blanche at first, and then I'll see which way it goes, and if I don't think it's cool, I can intervene. Look, the funny thing is: the songs were already finished. The melody is there, the lyrics are there, the chords are there and my voice is there. The rhythm isn't there yet, the instrumentation and the arrangements aren't there yet, you know, and maybe you can adjust the tempo. But still, for a singer-songwriter like me, the song is already quite defined. So that also gave me confidence, because at that point, the song really couldn’t go wrong for me anymore."
I found it very striking that songs like 'Ik Had Nog Willen Zeggen' and 'Machteloos' have a lot in common thematically, but in the end sound so completely different. Is that also something that mainly happened in that production phase? “Look, if you have a lyric like 'Ik Had Nog Willen Zeggen’... That is obviously quite a mysterious lyric, because you do not know what is going on and it is also about not knowing what is going on. You could make a sad song out of that or you could make a really paranoid song out of it. And Kubus clearly chose the latter. I played the song for him and he really went with that part of it. He put in those paranoid beats underneath, really turning it into the story of a nervous, paranoid guy. You hear a guy that is just a little unstrung. While, if you were to put in some nice little strings, it would emphasize the sadness in that relationship instead. You would almost think: this isn’t going to end well. So I liked that. In any song, there’s always some latent elements. Singer-songwriter music is always a bit abstract by definition, not everything is filled in and it's minimalist in a way, including the way I play it live. But those different emotions are actually latent and you can emphasize that with production. ‘Machteloos’ you could easily turn into this ballad with a string quartet, and then it would become this very mournful song. Now it's kind of become a battle song about someone who's just had enough – because of all those hysterical drums. So that production is actually a very personal interpretation of what's in those songs, of what's already in there, and that's what gets brought out.”
But I imagine they could very much redefine the song as well. “You could say that, yes. Or maybe it’s a kind of framing, enlarging this one aspect of it. Take ‘Ruwe Bolster, Blanke Pit', for example. It has become more of a rock song and I hadn't thought of that beforehand. I just went into the studio with St. Tropez. They had a kind of pop-up studio at Amsterdam Central Station and they asked if I wanted to come by. I was not at all intending to record something for the album there. I had just flown back from America at the time, so I was completely whacked, I hadn't slept, and I went straight from the airport to Central, so to speak. I really had no ambition at all. I thought: this won't work, we'll just have a nice afternoon. Then I said to them: can't we do a song of mine – these are the chords, that's how it should be. And then we played it a few times. It was just this funny thing. But I remember singing and thinking to myself: this sounds pretty good? I did feel it. It was also great to play the electric guitar myself, because I hardly ever do that. And then I heard it back the next day and I really thought: wooowww. I thought it was so greasy. Everything in this song actually comes out so beautifully. How those guitars click together, that's exactly the aggression of the song. I also really like the beginning, because I completely messed up the countdown, like a train that almost derails, and it just worked so well. So I called them up and said: guys, this is such a cool recording, it has exactly the vibe I'm looking for – can't I just put this on my album like this? Then I don't have to produce this anymore. That was really such a moment… It felt quite liberating to be able to say: I'm going to put this on my album, even if it is a live performance. We only cut the audience, because you heard three or four people clapping somewhere.”
That’s something I really noticed: that songs like 'Ruwe Bolster, Blanke Pit' and also 'In Utrecht Wonen Meisjes’ have a much rawer sound than, for example, '909' or 'App Me'. That is of course the logical outcome of having fourteen producers on the record, but how does it relate to Multimens, the album title, and that multitude of personalities? “Yes, the concept of the record is that of someone going out into the world. And what happens when you go out and interact with the world? Then you just discover other sides of yourself. Then you see that the world is much more diverse. When you experience the vastness and versatility of the world, you also experience the versatility of the world within yourself. And that's kind of the multi-human concept.”
Depending on who you are dealing with, you are also a different version of yourself. “Sure, you sometimes meet someone you don't know and all of a sudden you hear yourself saying things that you would never say otherwise. It’s already part of you, but someone else brings it out. That can be good or bad. But to be that version, you have to interact.”
As is often the case in the conversation, Wichers takes a siding, and only he knows that that siding also happens to pass the next station. “I don't like ‘reference art’ or ‘reference music’. Imagine thinking to yourself: I'm going to make a soul record. And then thinking to yourself: what does a soul record need? I need brass instruments, a funky bass line and I need to sing with a little more affect, and when you add those things up and put them together, you have soul. I don’t believe that stuff. A lot of music and art is made this way, and I just think it's cool when things are what they're about. If the work itself embodies what the theme is, like how the creative process here actually embodies the whole story. And then I also shouldn't be afraid to do what I've done. Because the sonic coherence is lost, but what is gained is the vastness of the palette, of the sound palette, and that is an embodiment of what I want to talk about, about that multi-human. The idea that all of that can exist in one person.”
"I would also participate in pigeonholing if I only allowed myself to think: I have a guitar, a harmonica and I’ll fill ten albums in a row with just that.”
“In that sense, it's almost a political statement. The sound also becomes a political statement, because what you’re actually saying is: people are not one thing. You can't take someone you don't know, label them and say, 'That's you’. And that, of course, is one of the biggest underlying problems today. That people look at each other and think: that is a gay man, that is a Moroccan, that is a Muslim, that is a Christian, that is an atheist, that is an academic. People are never that alone. You never meet someone, get to know them and think: yes, this person is just his category. Nobody ever. But political thinking still exists along those lines and I have a problem with that. And this is my way of resisting, because I also think that as an artist you should say: I'm not going to participate in that. I would also participate in pigeonholing if I only allowed myself to think: I have a guitar, a harmonica and I fill ten albums in a row with just that. Then it can still be beautiful, but I find that really problematic.”
And you take that to the extreme on this record. “I fetishize it, absolutely. Maybe it's arrogance, but I also thought to myself: it's possible to do this now. People are listening. Back when I was a teenager, you were a gabber, or a skater or an alto or something. It was also more of an identity marker back then. Like: that's my music and that's who I am. Now you can just create your playlist on Spotify. People put everything on shuffle, so I can also make a record that sounds like it's on shuffle.”
You'd be fine with it if people listen to this record on shuffle? “Yes, because it's all different anyway, so it doesn't matter. I think you can appreciate it on shuffle too. The nice thing about shuffle is that sometimes you get contrasts that you normally don't get. Of course I put a lot of thought into this album, because I did feel I needed some coherence. It shouldn’t just sound like a collection of things. It's a bit like making a collage."
A collage is not random either. “It's not like you’re just chucking some stuff on the floo. It's not like tipping over a garbage can and saying: now it's a collage. I also thought: the coherence comes from my voice and the theme. You can experience it as one story. Like you just said, ‘Ik Had Nog Willen Zeggen’ and ‘Machteloos’ deal with the same issues. ‘Machteloos’ is more about a kind of existential paranoia, ‘Ik Had Nog Willen Zeggen’ about a kind of banal, everyday relational paranoia.”
At 3FM you recently called this album a kind of confrontation therapy. "Yeah, for sure. I always did everything on my own, everything very much within myself. With In Je Nakie… That turned out to be a beautiful record, but the original idea didn't work out. And that bothered me quite a bit at the time. It felt like I was just unable to collaborate. Have I been this protective of myself? The funny thing is, and that’s such a paradox: there was a moment when I thought: I have to protect myself, otherwise I can't move forward. And then at a certain point I thought: I have to break down that wall around myself, otherwise I can't move forward. Otherwise you just end up somewhere in space. And I do want to stay grounded with my music. My favorite music is always partly out there in space, partly grounded on Earth. Anyone can do something really freaky and anyone can do something really banal, but I like it when those things come together. That's what I like the most about this album. In a way it's a very freaky record. You’ll think: this is a little weird, or something. But on the other hand, it's also the most accessible thing I've ever made. I’ve noticed that a lot of children understand this record. A lot of older people who mostly know me for my theater shows, they think it's really cool. It's really crazy actually. It's a super weird record and at the same time it's consumed in a much more ‘normal’ way than my other records. All my favorite artists always have a little bit of that. It's half stardust, half clods and grimy earth."
Wichers sees an end station, long before the conversation is over. “I really learned a lot from it too – about collaborating as an artist with the world around me. Also because I found out that all those producers all work so differently. In a way I’ve accepted my solipsism a little more because of this. I’ve worked with all these producers and all those people are all so different. Some are very emotional in the process, they have no idea what they’re doing until they suddenly have ten minutes of deep focus. And others get to work as if they were in an office. Like: this has to happen and at the end of the day it's done. As a result, I have now also come up with the following: there is no one right way. It's just about being able to serve yourself in all those different ways.”
Multimens is out via Top Notch. Lucky Fonz III will be touring throughout the Netherlands in the coming month.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.