Everything is exactly what it is on Kwartet Niek Hilkmann's debut, which was released last January by Excelsior Recordings. At the same time, Een Teken aan de Wand is a record of doubt. In plain language, the Rotterdam singer at the helm tries his utmost to make no statements whatsoever; to, in all his meandering, steer clear of both banks.
Written by: Ruben van Dijk
Photos: Kamiel Scholten
Niek Hilkmann likes to follow regional news. Halfway through a roughly two-hour conversation about the a large variety of subjects – from the postcolonial exoticism of the indoor palm tree, Dutch gezelligheid as a capitalist vehicle and the gentrification of Rotterdam’s Charlois neighbourhood, to cultural subsidies and lockdown riots – he starts to tell the tale of 'Grandpa K'nex ', a 78-year-old resident of Breda whose self-built, two-meter high K'nex Ferris wheel was stolen from the stairwell of his flat early this year. “Naturally, the man couldn’t comprehend it. ‘Why would someone do such a thing?’ A TV news report was made about it [by Omroep Brabant, ed.], followed by a fundraiser. Everyone thought it was so sad, something had to be done about it. And so they raised ten thousand euros within a single day. They had to stop the fundraiser because it kept raising more money. It actually became disproportionate, because why would you give that man ten thousand euros? What is that all about?!"
“And so they handed it to him – with some flowers and a large cardboard check. Which was followed by someone who came and said, "Grandpa, I've already built you a K'nex Ferris wheel!" And he gives him a Ferris wheel that’s just like the one he had, about the same size. Grandpa K'nex asks: "Is there an engine in it?" "Yeah." Everyone’s laughing, ha-ha-ha. And so within four days this man has received ten thousand euros, a brand new Ferris wheel and a lot of media attention, and well… what does that mean in the end?”
“Ten thousand euros!,” Hilkmann exclaims once more, in surprise – not that he’s intending to pass any final judgment on it. “You can't ignore the good intentions that people have. It would be cynical to say: this is simply ridiculous. People want to do something good, they see this man, they’re touched by it and so they donate. Within their immediate power, they have no notion of what they can actually do. But the proportions, the hyperfocus. It's all wrong. When you consider all the suffering there is in the world and what is happening here…”
Hilkmann knows “at least twenty more examples” of regional news stories and reports that have fascinated him endlessly. (At this point, we haven’t even touched upon the song he wrote in response to a Man Bijt Hond-item — about a boy obsessed with one specific fairground attraction).
A conversation with Hilkmann is a succession of such anecdotes and practical examples linked to philosophical insights and almost academic lectures. It feels as thoughtful and articulate as it seems to be stream-of-consciousness. In that regard, listening to Een Teken aan de Wand, the first album by the so-called Kwartet Niek Hilkmann, is a comparable experience. One moment brash and trivial at first sight, full of absurd imagery and linguistic platitudes that seem to come out of nowhere; unexpectedly gripping a moment later. On the album’s closing track, 'Zaamslag', he ponders: ‘Ik zet al jaren niet mijn wekker. De dag lijkt mij wel lang genoeg. Ik eet vanavond wel een cracker. Alles begint toch niet zo vroeg.’ (‘I haven’t set an alarm in years. The days seem long enough to me. I’ll just eat a cracker tonight. Things don’t start that early anyways.’) It is as obvious as it is inscrutable.
A weird face
The songs for Een Teken aan de Wand were created long before a band was formed around it. And although the band – consisting of Hilkmann, his brother Ruud, Arie van Vliet (Lewsberg) and Dennis Vedder – recorded all the songs live, in all their spontaneity, the writing process was a matter of endless tinkering.
Hilkmann deliberately went in search of the biggest conversation killers of the Dutch language. “People use sayings and platitudes to say something they don't really want to get into. It is a shortcut, a way to get straight to the point or to ignore it completely. This year I've heard so many variations of 'it is what it is'. It becomes a linguistic barrier, just so you no longer have to talk about things. With COVID and all the disappointment that comes with it, people just think: everyone is going through this, so my experience of it is irrelevant. Which is a way of denying your very real feelings.”
‘Het is wat het is en soms is dat juis mis’ (‘It is what it is and sometimes that’s exactly what’s wrong’), Hilkmann sings on the title track, and ‘Het duurt al zo lang en het blijft nog wel even aan de gang’ (‘It’s been going on for so long, and it will keep going on for a while longer.’) He sometimes just blurts out things, he confesses, because it is such an interesting form of language, but: “The question is always: where can you place such a shortcut? Where are you allowed to be shallow and how far can you take it? I also make a conscious decision sometimes to add a more ‘out there’ line every now and again, something that just isn't right. ‘Je bent hardnekkig, net als een giraffe.’ (‘You're headstrong, just like a giraffe.’) Obviously, that’s really not about anything at all.”
"There's an idea that a lot of people share that if they're not having a good time, that's a problem."
“There are certain phrases where we know what happens when you use them. If you want to make people sad, there are tricks for that. If you want to make them laugh, there are tricks. I find it interesting to play with that.” Hilkmann cites 'Een raar gezicht' as an example. ‘Ik zie jou vaker hier. Je hebt een raar gezicht. Je houdt het altijd maar een beetje uit het licht’, he sings (‘I see you here often. You have a weird face. You always just keep it a little out of the light’.) “It's the most honest and emotional song on the record for me. It's something very personal even. But most people will think that "weird face"—which is such a blunt expression—is almost at odds with that. It raises a lot of questions and I like that it is not so clear-cut.”
Een Teken aan de Wand is an album about “very Dutch things, Dutch themes, sayings and proverbs.” This can be seen in the postcards that Hilkmann made himself, some of which ended up on the album cover, and in the song 'Gezelligheid'. The opening sentence - ‘Tja, de één drinkt het liefste wijn en de ander jus d’orange’ (‘Well, some people prefer wine and the other orange juice’) – is rare autobiographical moment. For years Hilkmann didn’t drink a drop of alcohol; quite an effective way to spoil the fun. “Originally, that song was written out of a kind of discomfort that comes from the social pressure to have fun and to be gezellig —and the existential emptiness that comes with that, of course. There's an idea shared by a lot of people that if they're not having a good time, that's a problem. That makes gezelligheid almost an obligation and as soon as something becomes an obligation, it becomes problematic. Not drinking alcohol, that is a huge social stigma, because wine is nice and beer is fun. But that doesn't work for everyone and isn't fun for everyone. The song isn't necessarily a criticism of gezelligheid in general either. I'm not saying: people shouldn't have a good time, or it's stupid if you drink beer and you’re having a good time. I try to give a voice to the contrary, because it exists. It's the self-doubt that comes with it. That applies to almost everything that is normative and gezelligheid certainly is.”
Doubt and uncertainty are a grateful source of inspiration. “I'm not one to take a position anyway – whether that's good or bad, I'm not even sure. That doubt should also be sung about. Not everyone has such a strong opinion about everything, but in a polarized landscape like now that seems almost necessary.”
Pop music intelligentsia
The conversation turns to another topic that, as an extension of his exploration and playful manipulation of all that is normative, is immensely dear to Hilkmann: the Dutch song and pop culture of the early 1960s. He tells about Top of Flop, the immensely popular youth program that was broadcast by VARA from 1961 to 1965 and presented by Herman Stok. “Initially they took the hits from America in that program, which they would then listen to in the TV studio. The audience consisted exclusively of teenagers, who sat there listening all well-behaved and almost without emotion, and then you had four adults – usually two old men in suits and two younger ladies – who would give their opinion and decide whether a song was 'top' or 'flop'. That is incredibly normative, of course, having an elite, a kind of intelligentsia that decides for the youth what good and bad pop music is. You can also see this shifting entirely within the five years this programme lasted. And in the end, it was the young people themselves who were allowed to be on the jury to give their opinion.”
In a playlist that Hilkmann put together for his current label Excelsior, his musical predilection for the above period clearly shines through. Contemporary inspirations such as The Avonden, Meindert Talma and De Witte Kunst are alternated with, among others, Irene Lardy, Rob de Nijs and close harmony group The Fouryo's. “In the Netherlands you had the productions of Jack Bulterman. If there was an American hit that he thought had potential, he would have translated and recorded them within a week. He had a whole roster of stars – Willeke Alberti, Rob de Nijs, The Fouryo's – who he would bring in to record. There's a certain charm to that, because it's always a kind of a bastardized version of what it originally was. If you want to get to the bottom of the zeitgeist of that period, you have to listen to that.”
This charmingly clumsy youth culture, carefully crafted by men in suits, came to an abrupt end on August 8, 1964, when the Rolling Stones performed in the Kurhaus in The Hague. “Everyone went crazy, of course, people threw chairs, the police had to come. And the support act was The Fouryo's, they were booed away from the stage! That was the transition, the moment when the Dutch language was completely denounced in the youth culture. After 1970, hardly anyone in the Netherlands dared to venture into it, partly because what was made before was largely a by-product of the American pop industry, which was also presented to be such a normative thing – why would one want to listen to that?!?”
“We now live in such a cynical time that it is perhaps very rebellious to say: sometimes it just is what it is and you shouldn't look too much into it.”
Normally not so political
For Hilkmann, however, the music from that period remains a highly appealing source of inspiration, as does the schlager music that follows later and in which, even after '64, the cultural straitjacket that intrigues him has remained intact. The simple lyrics, songs that are about nothing sometimes, the naivety – in certain ways, it is perhaps more provocative than much of the Dutch pop music that is being made now. According to Hilkmann, many Dutch musicians have the idea “that a good song should always be about something and must be very serious. But I think there must also be a kind of pleasant spontaneity in it. We now live in such a cynical age, where everyone is so used to reading everything with an ironic subtext, that it might be quite rebellious to say: sometimes it just is what it is and you shouldn't look too much into it." Een Teken aan de Wand is therefore “absolutely not intended to be ironic. That's really not the intention. Then you don't really take anything seriously."
Hilkmann also wants to emphasize that Een Teken aan de Wand is not a political record and that he is not out to give any general social criticism. Yet he is startled a few times during the conversation when he suddenly turns out to have strayed far from the original subject. “Gosh, I do talk a lot about politics now. I don't normally do that, you know."
Hilkmann wrote the song 'Turbo Polyp' about the 35-year-old fairground fanatic Maikel, whose obsession with that one particular attraction was captured by Man Bijt Hond in a five-part series and temporarily turned Maikel into something of a Dutch celebrity. “The whole song is written from a certain ambiguity, because I asked myself: what does this mean? Why do people think this is so beautiful? And is that a good thing or a bad thing? If you read the comments below, they are almost purely positive. Everyone thinks it's fantastic, but why? In that sense, it's a bit like the issue surrounding Grandpa K'nex. In fact, Maikel has not delivered an achievement that will benefit people in a broader sense. His merit is that he’s completely surrendered himself to one specific interest. You could interpret people’s appreciation of that as a response to the broadening of our culture. People have the idea that they should have opinions about cancel culture, about gender and ethnicity, about feminism, about everything. It could be that that narrowing, that admiration for Maikel's obsession is a way to deal with that, to take back that range of action."
Ambiguity and doubt come up again and again on Een Teken aan de Wand – and during our conversation. “It is also just made very difficult now that certain discussions are hijacked by extreme opinions and there seems to be almost no middle ground. I see that as the greatest danger: wanting to reduce everything to an easily digestible story.” It seems almost inevitable – Hilkmann's deliberate lack of agenda also becomes an agenda in itself.
It seems almost inevitable – Hilkmann's deliberate lack of agenda becomes an agenda in itself.
Een Teken aan de Wand is out now Excelsior Recordings and can be bought here .
Editor's note: this article was originally published in Dutch. Some quotes may have been altered in the translation.