Bands that last for decades often feel the need to renew themselves, if only to avoid that treacherous routine. The Fire Harvest is not such a band. With their third full-length, Open Water, the Utrecht company unaffectedly follows the tide: slowcore and alt-country, threatening and simmering in the oppressive void. You are inclined to say that not many Dutch bands are indebted to artists like Songs:Ohia, Codeine and Low. But then you're wrong: in Utrecht alone there are quite a few soul mates active within this framework, together with The Fire Harvest part of a close, persistent scene.
30 minutes later than planned we meet half of the band, the Gerben brothers (vocals/guitar) and Gibson Houwer (drums), at Vechtclub XL, a flourishing meeting place on the periphery of the city. Fortunately, they were not agitated tapping the watches on arrival. This year it's just spring weather in February, ergo, a good time to jack up the trailer in which the backline is transported.
Although The Fire Harvest makes blood curdling music at times, the Houwers are sober figures, almost to the point of being clumsy. Eagerly sitting on the talking chair does not suit them, and in fact it is quite disarming for a band that has been making music within an intimate circle for so long. Even under the modest sun Gerben and Gibson look a bit uneasy: as if further explanation tarnishes the mystery of their music. Revelations are suspiciously relativized, and the so-called 'magical creative process' 'nuances' Gerben with the beautiful term 'klootviolen' (assholes, loosely translated). Both brothers grew up in Sneek, so that Randstad elan is not obvious in the bones anyway. Better with your feet firmly on the ground than all that floating stuff.
“Music is the packaging material for hanging out together for a bit. A band is, of course, just as much playing for big kids.”
Yet 'klootviolen' Gerben, Gibson and the other brother, Maarten Houwer, have been together in the band for more than twenty years now. “It started with We vs. Death,” Gibson recalls. “Maarten did the sound and I traveled as a light man. We not only loved the band, but also just that the three of us were out and about." We vs. Death – with Gerben as drummer – has made quite some progress in the past decade: the band has toured Europe, Japan and Canada, among other places, and released two records on the Zabel Muziek label, which was disbanded in 2008.
We vs. Death was the first band in which Gerben could make the music he wanted to make, of which The Fire Harvest is still an extension of. As a teenager, he initially tried to find soul mates in England; at that time he had exchanged Britpop for more alternative music. After a year of wandering around with his guitar, he returned to Utrecht to study. Suddenly a band ad appeared in the local music store with the right references: 'sounds like' Karate, Songs: Ohia, Red House Painters, Palace Brothers. The only problem: the band in question was looking for a drummer, not a guitarist. That didn't stop Gerben this time: "It didn't matter to us who played which instrument, we just wanted to make this music."
The ultimate celebration
We vs. Death found itself in a perfect storm from the year 2000: post-rock reigned supreme with bands like Sigur Rós, Godspeed You! Black Emperor and Explosions In The Sky, and We vs. At the time, Death was labeled by the media quite easily as the Dutch counterpart of this movement. Although they are now tapping those same musical touchstones, Gerben and Gibson stood with We vs. Death very different in the shoes. The name says it all: it's black or white, now or never, a matter of what Gerben calls "total surrender", sailing the ambitious course.
Still, the waters may have been a little too wild for a professional career as a musician. Ten years ago, in 2009, We vs. Death stopped. Funnily enough, the 'We' is still active within the Utrecht guitar scene. Bassist Marten Timan released the beautiful Release under his own pseudonym Boyle in 2015 with the American SNFW Records. Former guitarist Bart de Kroon has been playing beautiful, ragged altfolk like Homemade Empire for a while now. If we have to give all the projects in which this circle of friends has been involved a place in this article, we will soon be a few paragraphs further - with the playlist below you will certainly come a long way.
The Fire Harvest wasn't born in 2012 because of the success of We vs. Death to match. The band started like most bands within the Utrecht DIY scene: to maintain connections, to be inspired by other creatives. And secretly, it's just an excuse "to get together," as Gibson adamantly puts it. “And then something will happen organically.” Gerben nods: “It's the ultimate celebration of that friendship: you just want to stay close to these guys. We want to have something to do. We don't go out for a night out somewhere to chat. Music is the packing material for hanging out around each other for a bit. For example, you can also go bowling together, which is also fun. A band is of course just as much playing for big kids.”
Gibson: “We do take it very seriously.”
Gerben: “We do our best, I mean, children take play very seriously. It is the business of children to play seriously, and to really try their best for it.”
Making the musician's life more beautiful than it actually is, that is no longer for Gerben and Gibson. Still, that doesn't explain why both brothers still diligently play in bands after more than a decade, and continue to make their rehearsal space available to put on DIY shows. As the topic of conversation shifts from The Fire Harvest to the overall Dutch scene, both Gerben and Gibson go into critical mode. The established infrastructure, they say, isn't doing enough to accommodate local bands, leaving the scene naturally reliant on its own to host DIY-scale live shows. But in the end they do so with a lot of love and camaraderie. The great collective, the we-feeling, is more important than feeding egos; it's done because beautiful music just deserves a place. With that setting, a scene will continue to run smoothly.
Silently but surely
For the neutral listener, The Fire Harvest may sound desolate and desolate, but make no mistake, behind the unpretentious, laconic attitude the brothers cannot completely disguise their beaming and enthusiasm. Also in the rehearsal room of the band we see subtle indications that Gerben, Gibson, Jacco van Elst (also frontman of the great This Leo Sunrise) and Nicolai Adolfs regularly have a pleasant evening in the playground. There are about twenty beer bottles parked on the fridge, and a makeshift disco floor has been installed in the rehearsal room. The previous album, which was produced by Canadian country eccentric Daniel Romano, was of course entitled Singing, Dancing, Drinking.
For Open Water, The Fire Harvest again teamed up with a Canadian: Michael Feuerstack. That northern sobriety seems to please. Gibson nods: “We did a tour of Germany with him four years ago, when we played as his backing band and support act. That went very well, and Nicolai had known him for some time. He's a really nice guy.” As with the collaboration with Romano, Feuerstack more or less acted as the fifth band member, but a band member who – at the request of The Fire Harvest itself – took the lead. “Michael played along and then took the songs to Canada to mix everything up. But Open Water was also his playground. There are elements on the record that we did not come up with ourselves.”
Perhaps that is also a bit of what Open Water represents: working out the music nicely without too many bells and whistles, and blindly trusting each other's input because, in addition to friendship, everyone is also a fan of each other. When you hear Gerben and Gibson talk about how the songs come about, it sometimes almost sounds like The Fire Harvest is just a fledgling band, not a tight-knit collective of experienced workhorses. Gerben works on rudimentary ideas on his iPad, which he presents to the rest of the band. “The songs are usually just finished enough to play together, but not finished enough that everyone knows who is going to play what,” Gerben explains. listen, I still regularly wonder: “Did we do that first?” My demo is secretly more of a proposal to be able to play together afterwards. And what comes out is just what comes out.” Gibson: “So it's nice that someone like Michael is pointing the way.”
"The songs are usually just finished enough to play together, but not finished enough that everyone knows who is going to play what."
Gerben confesses that he and Adolfs are both taking guitar lessons again, if only to creatively tighten the thumbscrews a bit, in order to play with more sharpness and intention. “I understand a little bit better how it all works now, I also like that you become more 'musical' in that sense. I also notice that we are talking about that more and more. Previously it was just: 'I play these chords, so you can easily follow'. It's funny that you suddenly communicate differently when you add new knowledge and skills.”
That elusive horizon
On closing track 'The Sun And The Sea' Gerben sings: "To draw a heart means nothing to me / It's just an organ we need". Between the band's barren silences, his voice sears like a freshly opened wound. The Fire Harvest is certainly not a band that wants to gloss over, so then you wonder where exactly that urgency comes from. “The sun and sea are essentially part of the same particles as me”, Gerben continues cynically in the song. For the better part of his childhood he chased that wild dream, the freedom of making music with friends and like-minded people. Can something so pure and altruistic – within all those strange twists and wild rapids that accompany adulthood, fatherhood and responsibilities – survive?
Gerben, with a slight twinkle in his eye, makes a tentative attempt to decipher this familiar dilemma: “When you're 22, you think you've come a long way. After that you realize more and more that the capriciousness of society produces quite a few 'immature' impulses. I consider this band an escape from the world, and when I come home to my wife and kids too. And if I'm at work and have to boss everyone around, I might as well escape. And there are quite a few areas in common, because you always have to relate to your own adult behavior and the immature behavior of others. And that's exactly what you try to show a little maturity in. And you hope that people will go along with that too. I mentioned earlier in this conversation that The Fire Harvest is our playground, but we have to make it "grown up" because people will come and watch. That record has to be finished on time, we have to be at the shows on time.” He smiles shyly. “And you expect mature answers to the questions you ask.”
The ideal solution is hard to find, and The Fire Harvest doesn't really care about that. The older you get, the more you stop and doubt the steps you take, that's just the way it is. It's two steps forward, then one step back, as The Fire Harvest captures so beautifully in songs like 'River Dam' and 'Spring'. What is freedom really, and where exactly do you find that freedom in a shrinking, troubled world? Perhaps in those small moments, where you can hang up the disco lights in the rehearsal room for a while, or invite friends to play a game, regardless of expectations and frameworks.
'Picture Of A Man' is another gripping track that seems to stumble over itself, ignorant and confused - where exactly the illusions end and real life begins is unclear. The video clip captures that stark contrast with two images mixed up: carefree bungling freedom and a seriously stoic Gerben Houwer.
“And that's about it,” Gerben continues. “All those worlds all belong together to some extent. They are not separate worlds. No one is forcing you to see it differently. And in our world we can finally set the rules ourselves, and determine the direction.” It is therefore a relief for The Fire Harvest not to be caught between ship and shore, to share something that the foursome can be sure of. Besides the inevitable end of the ride, of course.
“Some people sail to open waters to get closer to one another, to never get lost”
Gerben sighs again. "It's not that complicated either."
Open Water from The Fire Harvest is now out on Subroutine and Snowstar.
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.