As a member of the tight-knit noise rock and post-punk formations The Sweet Release of Death and Neighbours Burning Neighbours, Alicia Breton Ferrer has been making dark music that keeps the listener in an iron grip. During the pandemic, the Rotterdam native suddenly stood on her own two feet and – more or less by accident – made her first solo record, in which the darkness is counterbalanced by playfulness and humor.
Written by: Dirk Baart
Photos: Cheonghyeon Park
“Yesterday I cut open a sandwich and for ten minutes I debated which half I should put hummus on and which half I would put other toppings on”, says Alicia Breton Ferrer, a lot more cheerful than you would expect if you are familiar with the music of the bands she is a part of. “The bottom of the bun is softer than the top, so you really have to consider the taste sensation. Then I thought, okay, maybe I'm taking too long on this choice. And I actually have that with everything in my life, except with that solo record. With that I thought: I'm just going to do this, whether it's crap or not."
Breton Ferrer walks in the sun on the Rotterdam Luchtsingel, a stone's throw from the house where she was born, the daughter of a Dutch mother and a Spanish father. She marvels at the center, where she hardly ever goes, and talks about the Chilean director, writer and actor Alejandro Jodorowsky (The Holy Mountain), a ghost from the past, when Breton Ferrer studied film. “He once explained how he and a friend decided that they would just walk straight ahead. Sometimes they ended up at a door and had to knock to ask if they could go straight through. Are we going to do that?” The reaction that the walk should eventually lead back to Rotterdam Central Station is quickly rejected. "Or not! Why do you always have to go back to where you came from?”
That fresh, optimistic view of things fits with Headache Sorbet, Breton Ferrer's solo debut that came out at the end of April via Subroutine Records imprint Glove Compartment, exactly one year after she started making it. For a moment she did not concern herself with the bands with which she had left an impression in recent years, but explored new territory. That did not go without a fight: “When the first lockdown started, I thought: now I'm going to make music myself, I'm going to learn a language, I'm going to work on sick skills. That didn't work at all, because I put pressure on it. I also missed all my bandmates very much.”
I'm just going to do this, whether it's crap or not."
That's no wonder: Breton Ferrer is a member of two very close-knit formations, in which all members have their own face, but in the end the unit always triumphs. The Sweet Release of Death in particular has been an anchor in Breton Ferrer's life for years. She formed the band with guitarist Martijn Tevel and drummer Sven Engelsman, whom she has known since she was fourteen, when they met in youth center Texmex in Spijkenisse, where she moved with her parents when she was four. “We are like siblings, we have been through so much together. We hardly need words.” After years in the 'underground', the band had a modest breakthrough with third album The Blissful Joy of Living. Breton Ferrer laughs a little at the word, breakthrough. And of course, the trio will never become a household name with their uncompromising noise rock, but still: de Volkskrant and NRC suddenly covered Breton Ferrer & co. suddenly, just like the renowned British platform The Quietus. The band played at Le Guess Who? and Noorderslag, a show at the sensational Italian festival Beaches Brew, was still in the offing.
In addition, Breton Ferrer has been working with Neighbors Burning Neighbours, the dynamic post-punk and noise-pop band she founded in 2018 with bassist Kat Kalkman, drummer Aram Scheeve and guitarist Daanie van den IJssel. In January 2020, the foursome released the double single ‘Softly / Grace’ on Subroutine Records. The group has already played at the Slovakian showcase festival MENT and toured extensively through Europe. Shows at Motel Mozaique and the Welsh festival FOCUS were canceled. “Neighbours are much newer. I didn't know Aram at all before we started the band, so we were discovering a lot more about each other. It is a lot more structured in the rehearsal room. With The Sweet Release of Death everything falls into place when it falls into place and there's no point in pushing that, with Neighbors we can write a song in two practice sessions because it's so focused.”
After the first lockdown, Breton Ferrer plays one more show with The Sweet Release of Death – or actually: nine shows of fifteen minutes, in front of a seated audience, with the hall lights on. After that, both bands go into hibernation. Sven Engelsman goes back to study, Aram Scheeve has a child to take care of. Daanie van den IJssel focuses entirely on their work in healthcare. Of course it's a hard pill to swallow, but Breton Ferrer soon manages to accept the situation. “The Sweet Release works best when we have something on the horizon. It's just what it is. The moment we come together, we don't have to search long for the click."
For Breton Ferrer personally, the pandemic does not come at a bad time. All those things on the horizon, they had become a little overwhelming. “I was on the eve of a burnout, which later also took hold. Besides touring, I also tried to earn money with a side job, because the bands are not financially viable yet. I was all over the place. For me personally, it was nice that everything was paused for a while, although you really shouldn't need a pandemic for that of course."
It takes about a month for Breton Ferrer to feel the need to make music again. “A craft club”, that's how she describes that initial phase. A solo album is not yet on the agenda. Something like that isn't necessarily on Breton Ferrer's bucket list either. “When I see someone performing alone, I always think: how do you dare to do this?” Still, the songs just keep coming. The circumstances are more or less the same as for The Blissful Joy of Living, when The Sweet Release of Death decided to stop playing shows in order to fully focus on the new record. It turned out to be a misjudgment at the time, which almost meant the end of the band. “It killed all creativity. For us, it was necessary to be in a certain energy.” Now the silence offered Breton Ferrer the space and time to make music in a casual way, without purpose, without responsibilities towards bandmates and without outside expectations. “There was nothing,” she sums up. “It could be anything.”
Headache Sorbet – the solo record that would eventually emerge – is not worlds away from The Sweet Release of Death and Neighbors Burning Neighbours, but it does have a different backbone. Breton Ferrer largely ignored her guitar. Instead, she laid the foundation for the album with a Casio keyboard, with a sound that's precisely irritating enough. It gives the record a sharp edge, but not in the very heavy way we know from The Sweet Release of Death. No, Headache Sorbet is more pointed, more reminiscent of Yeah Yeah Yeahs and Le Tigre, who Breton Ferrer cites as early inspirations. “Those Casio sounds are super penetrating, so if you listen to that all day long… When I started the album, I had a constant headache.”
“I've always listened to electronic music, but it's never been present so strongly in my own music,” explains Breton Ferrer. “I once had a roommate who was very into electronic music. I would hear the same beat for weeks, which he was fine-tuning all the time. Electronic music gives you much more control, but it also keeps you tinkering with something for much longer. I don't like that. I like unpredictable sounds.”
Breton Ferrer did manage to keep that unpredictability on Headache Sorbet. The record sounds casual, indeed like a hobby project that accidentally grew into a full album. Breton Ferrer mostly worked on the songs in the evenings and at night, when she felt like it. Alone at home with her cat Iggy, who could not be kept away from the microphones and occasionally makes an appearance in the recordings. “At one point I was really putting my back into the recording, but with my headphones on I saw that everything in the room was shaking. Then apparently the neighbors had turned George Michael on blast. I think that was the sign, OK, it's done now. Or maybe they were just listening to George Michael and didn't mean anything by it."
Breton Ferrer was born with the liberal approach she exhibits on Headache Sorbet. It was handed to her not by her mother, but by her Spanish father, who did not grow up in his homeland and only returned there after the Franco dictatorship had fallen. “Before that, he worked as a lawyer for an insurance company in Paris,” says Breton Ferrer. “But he didn't last long. He chose to live for music. One day – back in Spain – he was performing and a blond lady from the Netherlands was on holiday with her mother. She thought: oh, that's a nice man. That week they went on a date and immediately fell in love with each other. My grandmother then arranged performances for his band in Rotterdam. His bandmates eventually went back to Spain, but he didn't.”
“My mother was always the structured one. I always had in my head: that's the good side of the family. She made sure we had a house and food. So I've been trying to be like that for a long time. That didn't work at all, because that's not me. In fact, all my life I've been trying to make my peace with the fact that, like my father, I have to live my life as a musician.”
With lead single 'Having Fun', Headache Sorbet even contains a direct ode to Breton Ferrer's Spanish background, including hand claps and flamenco singing. And 'Control' contains a flute part by Breton Ferrer's father. “I didn't have anything for the middle part of that song yet. I tried to push myself to come up with something, but in the end I let it all go. Later that week, my mother sent me a voice memo of the whistles my father had been making for a week. She hated it and was ashamed, because my father played all kinds of overtones with the door wide open. She secretly recorded it to complain to me. She said, "You probably like this, don't you?" Just because it's kind of noisy. I heard it and immediately thought it would fit the song perfectly. It also turned out to be in the same key as the rest of the song!”
“I tried for a long time to be like my mother, but it didn't work out at all”
That confidence in her own choices and intuition is an important gain that Breton Ferrer achieved in the process towards Headache Sorbet. For someone who is used to making more or less democratic decisions in the dynamics of a band and who can doubt about her sandwich for ten minutes, Breton Ferrer's solo debut came about quite instinctively. The advice of the bandmates involved was also kindly ignored. “Kat was very involved because I was just sending them demos all the time. But they actually always disagreed with the choices I made, because they have a very different taste than I do. “This and this in the mix, I disagree. But you must have meant it that way again.” And I did.”
Forming a vision on your recordings, that's what Breton Ferrer – who paid a lot of attention to Headache Sorbet’s production and experimented extensively with different microphone settings – learned from Corno Zwetsloot, who became an icon of the Dutch underground as producer of Katzwijm Studio. The guitarist of Space Siren and Zoppo, among others, recorded the debut album of The Sweet Release of Death and was also involved in the trio’s second album before his death in 2014. Zwetsloot can't necessarily be heard in the production of Headache Sorbet or the other releases in which Breton Ferrer was involved, but mainly encouraged Breton Ferrer and her bandmates to make well-considered choices themselves in that area. The ability to do so served her better than ever on Headache Sorbet. “I never experienced Corno as someone who imposed something on you, but rather as someone who tried to extract your own opinion from you. When we knocked on his door, he asked, “Do you just want to record a bit of fun or do you want to get the most out of it?” The fact that we then learned to listen and form an opinion as musicians has ultimately been more important than the songs that emerged from the recordings. Back then, we would have been better off making an EP than an album. But it has really shaped the way Sven, Martijn and I make music and make choices in our lives in general.”
Headache Sorbet is out via Glove Compartment. Listen on Bandcamp, where the album is available on tape. Watch a new live session for 'Delete' below.