Fifteen years ago, in the summer of 2005, the journey began for VERA volunteers Niek Hofstetter and Koen ter Heegde. Record label Subroutine Records sees the light of day with an EP by fellow Groningen artist and musician friend AWKWARD i. The label has since become an indispensable part of the Dutch alternative music landscape. Despite both men not having earned a single dime for all those years. “But if we hadn’t done this, we’d be playing football.”
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Photos: Félice Hofhuizen
The fact that bands on Subroutine Records are now being highlighted extensively in the Volkskrant, are playing Noorderslag and in such venues as EKKO and Rotown; the fact there is appreciation for Subroutine as a brand – Niek Hofstetter and Koen ter Heegde have always thought it was “too late”. “We were very fond of the bands we worked with, but the way the industry was built up at the time, Subroutine just didn't fit in at the time.”
Stoically but full of passion, the two have been involved with the label for fifteen years now, which is still growing and is attracting more attention from abroad. Without significant sums to enforce anything, a young band like The Homesick could become an international success with the help of Hofstetter and Ter Heegde. After an acclaimed album with Subroutine, Youth Hunt (2017), the trio from Dokkum made the transfer to the prestigious Sub Pop label for their second album. It is perhaps the most remarkable example of what the two-man label can achieve, but Subroutine has many more beautiful stories.
Subroutine is no longer a Groningen company. Hofstetter lives and works in Amsterdam, Ter Heegde in Rotterdam. There, we talked to the two about fifteen years of Subroutine.
Let us begin in the now. It's been a weird year, but you've had some great releases already; Global Charming is doing really well; at the beginning of this year, The Homesick made its debut with Sub Pop, thanks in part to your years of dedication. How is Subroutine doing in 2020? Niek Hofstetter: “You already said it: the year started on a high and we wanted to be able to continue at that level. We wanted to make it a great year. This year was not only our fifteenth anniversary, but we also celebrated our hundredth release and the fiftieth band we have worked with.”
Koen ter Heegde: “In the first week, we started the year with The Sweet Release of Death at the Rockaway Beach festival in the UK. They had just released their album (third album The Blissful Joy of Living, ed.), they had done Le Guess Who? and a great European tour, but something like Rockaway Beach in particular – a gigantic bingo hall on the south coast where they played for about 800 people, on the same day as The Jesus and Mary Chain – was really special to be a part of."
Hofstetter: “There was a huge queue at the merch table and people came up to the band all weekend: 'You were great!' Then you know: okay, we’ve moved up a notch, the Brits think it’s great. Because when it comes to music, they are quite nationalistic. That was a great start to the year.”
“Compared to five years ago, we have started to operate more internationally. We have tried very hard with Subroutine to help bands get further abroad as well."Koen ter Heegde
With a blistering performance at Noorderslag a week later, The Sweet Release of Death seemed to be officially breaking through at home and abroad. They had gone through a difficult period and a near breakup, were at their peak after almost ten years and ready for the world. But the band's packed summer – of course – fell through; a major setback.
However, The Sweet Release of Death has already proven to be in it for the long haul, just as its home base Subroutine has continued to grow slowly but surely over the past fifteen years.
Ter Heegde: “Compared to five years ago, we have started to operate more internationally. We have tried very hard with Subroutine to help bands get further abroad as well. And I think that for The Sweet Release – but also for The Homesick, because those are similar stories – a lot of new doors have been opened, after which those bands were also taken more seriously in the Netherlands.”
“You grow together, that's what we did with The Homesick. With The Homesick the story had really been completed, so we were happy to send out the press statement that the band was going to Sub Pop ourselves. That is also very special for us, to experience a band from the very beginning – I was at their third ever performance, I already arranged their fourth.”
The Subroutine favourite of… Jaap van der Velde (The Homesick, Korfbal): Rats on Rafts - Tape Hiss (2016, SR066)
“Tape Hiss is my favourite record to be released on Subroutine. Rats on Rafts’ music I think is unique, because their songs seem so simple on the one hand (lots of repetition, simple motives), but at the same time, every little sound or dynamic alteration is always so perfectly executed. Rats on Rafts was (and still is) one of the few Dutch guitar bands that do something that’s so distinct. Apart from that, The Homesick has often shared a bill with Rats on Rafts and I have fond memories of those nights."
The growing success of Subroutine is therefore inextricably linked to the success of bands such as The Homesick, The Sweet Release of Death, and the overall well-being of the Dutch scene. And if you ask Hofstetter and Ter Heegde, that scene has only become healthier and livelier in recent years.
Ter Heegde: “The most important change, and the reason that The Homesick (from 2014, ed.) was able to have such a kickstart, took place a few years earlier – around 2011, 2012, when we first started working with WOLVON. The boys from WOLVON, Ruben and Ike, had started Lepel Concerts (concert organisation, ed.). That was actually when we started to get a lot more active as a label in the live dimension of the releases we were working on. Before that, many bands already played shows on a regular basis, but we started to realize more and more that we could be more proactive in that area. The networks that were created as a result, because we made a breakthrough into the live circuit for the first time - I think that's an underestimated factor. Before that, it was quite difficult even for more alternative Dutch bands to make the step up to the small room of Tivoli Oudegracht, for example, because such a band did not get the chance. In that respect, the situation is really different now in the Netherlands, and bands get more opportunities to play venues like EKKO, Patronaat or Rotown. And the moment those bands play live, there is also a community in those cities of people who like to go to shows, who are involved with those bands. When a band eventually moves to a bigger platform, those people go along and you let the whole scene grow slowly.”
Hofstetter: “In addition: when WOLVON played, something happened on stage, you went to go see them for that very reason. And you saw that more and more people were starting to feel inspired. Then The Homesick came on the scene and a lot of people were inspired by that. They were just eighteen-year-old boys standing on stage as if they had been playing together for thirty years. They had everything under control. We come from a much earlier period and you always saw bands reluctantly come onto the stage: they played their songs and wanted to get off the stage again. That was a very fearful way of playing. The entire group around The Homesick had swagger, something that many Dutch bands have picked up afterwards. Now, if you see a Dutch band on stage, you have to look carefully for any Dutch faces, because it could also just be a British or an American band.”
THE SUBROUTINE FAVOURITE OF… Ike de Zeeuw (WOLVON): Space Siren – Double 7″ (2010, SR021), Space Siren – Songs for a Dead Pilot (2015, SR063), Homemade Empire – Defenestration (2012, SR042)
“An extremely difficult question, because there’s a couple of all-time favourites in there. But at the moment I’ve been playing Space Siren’s Double 7″ -EP a lot again. Brilliantly layered noise rock that’s also extremely fragile and catchy. Pop music as it’s supposed to be. And Corno’s guitar sounds are sublime. Space Siren will forever hold a special place in my heart, and the fact that we got to contribute to Songs for a Dead Pilot, their final release, is one of the things I’m most proud of.” And an honourable mention for Homemade Empire, because, out of all Subroutine releases, I’ve listened to that one the most, and because Bart (de Kroon, ed.) is by and large the best singer-songwriter of the Netherlands.”
What constitutes that change, the fact that live performances have become so much more vibrant? Ter Heegde: “I think it's a matter of increased self-confidence and people being much more mutually engaged in each other's performances. In a micro scene like Lepel, where the bands actually play for each other, you have much more give-and-take criticism. Bands have started to look abroad more, and they’re also appreciated there. And yes, playing a lot – that is of course the golden rule – just makes you better, especially if it is done on a small scale, so that you are really in touch with your audience and community.”
Someone who has left a huge mark – on the Subroutine circle and the scene in general – and whose influence is still visible is the late Corno Zwetsloot, frontman of Space Siren and founder of studio Next To Jaap (now Katzwijm) in Voorhout. Both The Sweet Release of Death and WOLVON recorded with Zwetsloot, as well as label mates The Avonden, ZEA and New YX.
Hofstetter: “The great thing about Corno was that he didn’t mince words. If he didn't like something, he said it very clearly – and really very clearly. To a point where you think: Ouch, this hurts, Corno. And then he kept going. That man was also quite critical of how we were doing things - usually in a constructive way.”
In what sense? Hofstetter: “He taught us to think long and hard about what we wanted with our label. When we worked with a band where it was us who took the lead every time, because we thought that was quite normal, he said: if the band doesn't want to, it will never be. And if we pulled our hands off it, those bands would indeed fall apart. He had had many bands in the studio before and would tell us in time which ones we definitely should avoid.”
“Space Siren was really an exemplary band. They gave everything for the music; everything around it was auxiliary. That pure working ethic inspired a lot of bands during that period. WOLVON has it too, for example; Marc van der Holst (of The Avonden, ed.), The Sweet Release of Death, HOWRAH, they all have past with Corno and they are all the same kind of people. They just want to make the coolest things and are hardly satisfied with anything less. That way of thinking works very well for us.”
Marc van der Holst of The Avonden dedicated the closing number of What a circle is (2016) to Corno Zwetsloot:
Ter Heegde: “Corno was a real champion, a constant form of criticism, but also someone who was very concerned with the self-sustained idea of being a band. Arranging your own shit, having your own van, knowing how everything works, just being ready, making sure everything is right when you are on stage, making sure that everything works in your favor. I think that has seriously made a difference over the years. I definitely think that bands are different on stage in terms of equipment than they were a few years ago – and that's really Corno's legacy.”
A band like Global Charming, which debuted with Subroutine this year, really wants international airplay, touring, et cetera. How important is that to you? Is it also okay if a band just wants to make a beautiful album? Hofstetter: “We usually enter into a collaboration by roughly exploring what the goals are, both theirs and ours. The moment a band says: we want to reach for the stars, but you notice that they don't have what it takes to cancel plans for the music, or they don’t do an important gig because it’s their mom’s birthday, or whatever, then we also take a step back. The Homesick always could and would play. Korfbal had that too. WOLVON had that. Space Siren always wanted to play too. And Global Charming, that’s also such a band: 'give us a date and we'll be there'. That is just incredibly inspiring and encouraging. Global Charming also has two visual artists in the band, who want the artwork, the videos, the sound to be perfect. Everything has to be right and that also means that we have to kick it up a notch.”
Ter Heegde: “At the same time, we don't refuse bands that can’t do as much, but then you start a different collaboration. Then we might invest a little less from the Subroutine savings account, because then you know: if a band doesn't play live, you won’t be selling as many records. But we have, certainly in the past five years, released plenty of albums that way.”
Hofstetter: “Here in Rotterdam, there’s Joep van Lieshout (visual artist, ed.). He does a lot of ‘free work’ and he does work that really sells. And because he sells things, he can keep a whole club of artists working in his workshop to make things that are cool. We also try to do things a little like that with bands. We put out a band because we like the music. We will collaborate at the level that the band would prefer, but we have to stay realistic.”
THE SUBROUTINE FAVOURITE OF… Alicia Breton Ferrer (The Sweet Release of Death, Neighbours Burning Neighbours): Space Siren – Songs for a Dead Pilot (2015, SR063)
“Songs for a Dead Pilot: two of Space Siren’s most beautiful songs - the last one they made, as a farewell - and the most beautiful Space Siren covers by Zea and Wolvon as a tribute. This album’s release tour, after Corno’s passing, felt like a travelling wake of the indie scene, all around the country. This release anchors down a time for me, and proves the significance of this music in my life and the larger scene. It’s not about success or capital, but about community, about a way of living; living together through and for music, making it and celebrating it.”
Success and a long life span are therefore not a given for every band. It makes it all the more remarkable that Hofstetter and Ter Heegde have been engaged in what is still a "full-time hobby" for fifteen years, seven days a week. While many musicians and many labels make the choice over time to do something that is more financially attractive, Subroutine has "always been about music and not about what we could earn from it."
Hofstetter: “We don't have the same taste, but we do have an overlap in taste. And I'm quite a purist about those things: if I can't bear the music, why should I get behind it? If we have an overlap, we can support it together and we can both propagate it. We should be able to do it together. And as long as we feel that we are enthusiastic together, it won’t take much effort and it’ll be fun to do. Of course there’s times where you’re at your desk or in a meeting and you’re feeling disappointed, thinking: this is not how I imagined it. But the drive has always been there.”
Ter Heegde: “I started booking more shows myself, so I now earn some money in the periphery of what we do with Subroutine, but Subroutine itself has always been a non-profit. It is a kind of corporation where the front-runners make the money come in, making it possible for the bands that don’t sell as much. That is a starting point that we have always presented to every band and to which everyone agrees. Nobody puts out a record on Subroutine to make a lot of money, but you do try to make things happen. And people are also responsible for each other in that. That's really important."
Hofstetter: “Ultimately, the starting point is simply that we can continue to do this and that every new band that comes into the spotlight casts a positive light on the bands that came before it. I really think that's how it works, that an association is made with other Subroutine bands."
Ter Heegde: “They make each other stronger.”
You're not afraid that if one band does very well, other bands will end up disregarded? Ter Heegde: “No, not at all.”
Hofstetter: “Every time we are amazed at how vital the Dutch scene is. The moment a star player leaves us – Rats (on Rafts, ed.), The Homesick as the best example, but also a Nouveau Vélo – a new band comes around every time that actually fills that gap, ensuring we can move up another step.”
Ter Heegde: “Last December I was visiting an old friend in Kosovo, whom I actually see every year, and he asked me: how did things end up with that one band? ‘Which band do you mean?’ ‘Yeah, that one band… They were doing so well and you were so proud of that!' And he meant Vox Von Braun, but it has been eight years since that band released their last record. But that was indeed one of those bands that made it big for a while, that was allowed to go to De Wereld Draait Door, that got reviewed in the Volkskrant and played during the Noorderslag weekend. At that time, that was the band we 'scored' with, but in the meantime, after Vox Von Braun, there have been a lot of those kinds of bands that all have had their moment."
If I may take a pessimistic look at this. There is always a band that’s having a moment. You are now fifteen years into this. That is longer than almost any band that has ever been part of your label. Isn't it also frustrating that bands in the Netherlands often have such a short lifespan? Hofstetter: “Mauro Pawlowski once said: as a band you can only make two good records and then you just have to stop. And I don't always agree, but for a lot of bands there is quite a grain of truth in it. Some bands have told their story and then can't move on."
Ter Heegde: “Not every band can live as many new lives as The Ex and reinvent themselves every time. The moment other things in your life become more important because you just have to pay your rent, or you start a family, then those are hard choices that have to be made. I have no problem with that either.”
“What I think is perhaps the best example of a band that was already active before we started the label is The Fire Harvest, which actually consists entirely of veterans who used to be active with two or three different labels themselves, and are now just friends making music. Once every few years they make a record, play a few shows in the Netherlands and hopefully a nice tour through Belgium or Germany. But then work and family calls again and that's totally okay. That is a band that has started to set their own pace in their own way, that knows the ropes and has not become cynical about it. They are just people who want to make beautiful things together. A band is not a mythical creature.”
THE SUBROUTINE FAVOURITE OF… Marc van der Holst (The Avonden): Steve French – Lightning Tiger Running (2019, SR093)
“I had already seen Steve French play a couple of times. The same song ten times over (the one people were already playing in the 90s); unintelligible, other than the word ‘eucalyptus’; another band featuring Willem Smit… Brilliant, in other words, but I always forgot to buy their album Lighting Tiger Running. Until I was bored in the Katzwijm Studio (where the album was recorded) and noticed that the store only had one copy left. I still owe Ineke so much money, those twelve euros won’t make much of a difference. And what a beautiful record it turns out to be. They only play the very best parts of that same song from the nineties, with a kind of joy that didn’t even exist in the nineties, at least not in the Netherlands. Also, I don’t think I’ve heard anyone sing off-key as beautifully, with lyrics that turn out to be very intelligible on the album; inimitable, clearly written by someone who’s been smoking just a little too much - or not enough, or just the right amount. ‘You… eucalyptus.’ Maybe take another hit?”
How come, where bands keep taking new forms and calling it quits, Subroutine has remained so constant?
Ter Heegde: “I think that, speaking from myself, also has to do with Niek's unflappable nature. I am a bit more impulsive and if I had made all the decisions, we would have been out of money after five years. We complement each other well in that regard.”
Hofstetter: “I find myself more and more often having the majority of the records we release on repeat. We get those demos at a fairly early stage. Then it is mixed and mastered. And by the time the release is there – which often takes months, if not six months or a year – I'm still not done listening. It's actually a bit like how I used to experience music in my newspaper route. You put something in your Walkman and if you had to walk the newspaper for an hour and a half, you just listened to the same tape the whole time. You really started to understand those records, you started to absorb them – and I actually have that with our bands now too.”
Naturally, all plans for Subroutine this year are also on hold. No European tour for The Sweet Release Death, no festival buzz for Global Charming. At the same time, Hofstetter and Ter Heegde manage to find a way, even now that the circumstances are stacked against them, as has perhaps always been the case for Subroutine. The release of the fourth album of the Amsterdam band Apneu, Silvester, at the beginning of September was an unexpected success; now that the small venues are forced to remain closed and the big acts stay home, the band could suddenly play an almost sold-out show in the large room of Paradiso. The label's birthday could also be celebrated: albeit without a bar, with thirty people in the large hall of the Patronaat and two bands that had to cancel at the last minute with corona complaints. But there was celebration. And now the gaze is turned forward again, as it has been for fifteen years.
Later this year, albums by Price and Slow Worries will be released on Subroutine; the album Nachtschade (2016) by The Avonden is released on LP for the first time.
Subroutine and The Sweet Release of Death, among others, play an important role in Rotterdam Goddamn: an outsider's testimony, the book by Jasper Willems that will be published on 18 December and published by Front. Rotterdam Goddamn can be ordered here. Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.