Our very own pioneering techno wizards Psychic Warriors of Gaia will be back on stage for the first time in 20 years! Read the fascinating interview below about their history, music, collaborations.... and future.
Interview by Tjeerd van Erve
Record shops and music schools; without those two one could conclude there would not have been any Psychick Warriors Ov Gaia. In the late seventies Robbert Heynen came to study in Tilburg and in his first week in town he decided to check out the local record store Tommy: “I was listening to this record that they had put on for me when my eye fell on a poster promoting a course for electronic instruments at the local music school. I immediately threw off my headset and asked where I could find Tivolistraat, I was sure that this course was already overbooked and afraid that I was too late to apply.” For Robbert, who had already been experimenting with synthesizers, this was the chance to dive deeper into the instrument.
In the late seventies and early eighties the music school of Tilburg held a unique position in the Netherlands and maybe even in Europe, with a school principal believing that electronic music and instruments were the instruments of the future and therefore should be taught. “The music school had a whole studio designed and designated for electronic music and the principal had asked Ernst Bonis to teach electronic music, sound synthesis and organology.” He was an absolute guru on electronic instruments and a specialist on sound synthesis with international fame, so I'm told by the three remaining members of Psychic Warriors Ov Gaia. Both Robbert and Reinier Brekelmans followed lessons from Bonis, something which Robbert describes as being a party for being able to use, being taught and experiment in that studio.
I meet the band only a 100 meters, maybe 200, away from the studio where Robbert dove deeper in the electronics. Thirty-seven years after that sprint – I imagine a young Robbert running from Nieuwlandstraat to Tivolistraat, somewhere early September 1979 – the four of us sip water and soda and talk about the techno history PWOG has become part of and the definitive end of the band, with the final PWOG show on the upcoming edition of Incubate; in so many ways a full circle. After Incubate's PWOG show is done, Tim Freeman and the other two leave no space for interpretation: there won't be any repeat. “And what better place to end it all than Tilburg, where it all once started.”, Freeman points out, “It has something symbolic, it completes the circle.”
"...the first time we met Robbert at his place, there was this tape-loop running all the way through the room passing the lampstand and back into the tape recorder"
This story starts in 1979. The influence of the progressive music school was crucial in the musical development of Robbert and offered unique recording and experimental possibilities for PWOG, but the band didn't form until 1987. In the years prior to their formation, the members all worked on their own projects and bands and met each other in the local scene or record shop. “We got to know Robbert because he was busy with these things and we were highly fascinated by what he did.”, Reinier explains. “There is this story, that the first time we met Robbert at his place, there was this tape-loop running all the way through the room passing the lampstand and back into the tape recorder. The old way to create a sample loop”, Tim adds. “At that time you could also buy a fairlight computer, but that was 100.000 guilder. A great computer, but for that you really had to have a studio. So this was the way to experiment.”
All the members of PWOG, besides Tim, whom is the Benjamin, were already active in the underground music scene of Tilburg before 1987, exploring industrial and experimenting with new music or discovering new music through record stores Tommy or Kereweerom. Especially Robbert has fond memories of Kereweerom, which was a private record collection the owner had opened for public use. “You could borrow a record for a week or two, and this way discover all kinds of new music. You must imagine that in the late 1970s Sjef [Wiersma; founder of Kereweerom] already had punk and new wave records in his collection, next to jazz and all kind of world music. This in a time when public libraries did not even have a music department yet. It was a way you could discover all kinds of new music, a true treat.”
But also the local record store was a source of inspiration and influence for the band. At that time, Tommy had a progressive and well-informed staff, which could work quite autonomously. With the right people behind the counter it had become a unique store in the region, maybe even in The Netherlands, offering new records of underground acts that you might otherwise only find in Boudisque in Amsterdam. Several days a week the (later) members of PWOG could be found in the shop, checking out the latest releases and letting themselves be informed by the new music. And it was this broad interest in new music that played an important role in the creation of PWOG.
"Genre borders were not as definitive back then anyway"
As they did not listen to one specific kind of music, nor records that just stuck to one style, PWOG wanted to do the same. Not stick to one style, but just blend all these things together. Robbert refers to sampler tapes that the label Touch used to publish in the eighties, which were mixes of as many bands, sound artists as they were of styles, while Tim points out that Love's Secret Domain of Coil also was an eclectic album. “Genre borders were not as definitive back then anyway.” Reinier explains. “We, or at least I, just wanted to create what I felt I had to create. At first I was not that much interested in all the acid, trance and house music. For me PWOG was just a follow-up on the industrial path that I had been walking up until then. We weren't focused on doing something new, we were just busy with making our own music and bringing in all the new records and music we had just heard.”
Talking to these three men I get the impression that their three main binding factors are music, the experiment and the experience created by those two, not really knowing if these three can be seen separately. Surely though this was fundamental in the foundation of the Katharos Foundation in 1985/1986, a collective of artists and performers in Tilburg. According to discogs, its members “[were] engaged in music, performance, and other activities to emphasize in an explicit and penetrative way their personal search for expression and manifestation of the diversity and complexity of both individual and social life”. A foundation that can be seen as the ultimate birth ground of PWOG, as all members were part of this collective playing in bands such as the industrial The Infants (later Sluagh Ghairm) or V.M.R..
As far as underground can go, PWOG started out in the basement of a student complex where Reinier used to live at the time. On Sundays, when most of the students would be off to their parents, they would make music there. But as things go, at a certain point some people started to complain about the noise. So that's when Reinier, Robbert and Reinoud van den Broek (one of the founding members of PWOG and Katharos Foundation and later also one of the salesmen at Tommy) moved in above the dance club Swinge By Dinge. “We were looking for a place where we could make noise and what better place than above a place where there is already?”, explains Reinier, “Besides, we were looking for a place where we could all live together and make music.” So they designed one of the rooms as a small studio, big mixing table in the middle and all samplers, Atari computers and all other equipment around it, creating the possibility to make music whenever they felt like it.
That studio became an instrument in itself. Not only in the manner the band used it to create songs, often by jamming with the equipment and recording it to later pick out the good parts and making them into songs, but also in their live sets. Unlike many popular dance acts at that time, “such as 2Unlimited”, Robbert says laughing, PWOG would bring in their whole studio and create the music live. According to Tim (the sound-engineer of the band) this was quite unique in a time where most of the dance acts were touring with tapes or pre-recorded sets. “That's also why we came with the first demo tape, to warn bookers. This is what you'll get!”, Robbert says with another laugh; “It was to let bookers hear what we did, but also to let them know we were coming in as a live act.”
"Record Of Breaks is partly built on the malfunction of the technology"
That first self-titled tape is the blueprint of everything that PWOG does afterwards. Not one of the four tracks on the album take the same curves or sound the same, yet all are recognizably from one and the same group. The same can be said for Ov Biospheres And Sacred Grooves: A Document Of New Edge Folk Classics - not your typical dance record. Experimentalism brings the band wherever they can go. Whether the group took techno, tribal trance, ambient or acid house, there is this constant line in their sound that is purely PWOG. Also Record Of Breaks, PWOG's last full length release (1995), is a showcase of this experimental drift. Every song has its own take, taking influences from ambient, trance, trip hop and other new records the guys were listening to around that time; the band here also explores the limitations of the equipment they are using. “At a certain moment the sampler got stuck and started to create rhythmic noises of its own. When it started to repeat this, it became clear that we had to use that in the music.”, Reinier explains. “It was rather interesting that the machine could just start making a noise which we didn't create and kept repeating it. ”So Record Of Breaks is partly built on the malfunction of the technology. A take solely used on that album, as the 12” Kraak from the same year took the unwanted sounds of vinyl (the hiss, the dust, the little scratches) to create the rough and dirty techno, an experiment only used on that record.
This experimentalism kept PWOG reinventing itself, with their broad interest keeping all options open. But still by 1997 the collective disbanded. The remaining members (Robbert had left PWOG in 1992 to focus on his solo work) basically just thought it had been enough. “It was everything around the band, the circumstances and the expectations from all sides. From labels, but also within the collective.”, Tim clarifies, with Reinier adding that there can be this moment where you've just had it all. After PWOG Reinier actually broke with music altogether. “I did three efforts to create a triphop song, but after that I was really done with beats. It wasn't until 2007 that I actually started thinking about making music again and I ended up in the more experimental electro-acoustic field - the free and vague experimental work.”
Robbert soon dropped the music too. After some years of working on his solo output, he moved to Canada where he barely worked on music in private. Only five years ago he started working on new stuff, but just like Reinier he now focuses on even more experimental music. Or as he describes it himself: “tatters of sound, no beats, no precision work, working on the harmonies and letting these just play out against each other.” Only Tim stayed active all these years, as sound-engineer and in collaborations with others. Work that brought Tim in contact with The Black Dog (IDM from Sheffield), a contact that actually would bring the three men back together. Not as PWOG, but as part of Dadavistic Orchestra. “When The Black Dog played a show in The Netherlands, they invited us to come and meet. It soon turned out that they wanted to do something with us. The initial plan was to do a show together. But as that didn't pan out, we actually thought that was it.”, Tim recalls. “Then they proposed to record an album together.”
This collaboration resulted in two EPs, one album and a live set in Geneva where the members of the collective met for the first time. “We recorded the EPs and album using file transfer on a shared server. We actually only met one day before the live show, where we exchanged the ideas we had. You couldn't have really called it a rehearsal.”, Reinier says with a smile on his face, while the other three laugh. “It was quite an experience though,” adds Tim, “we were invited to play on an acousmonium, a PA system with over a hundred speakers which can all be regulated in different groups. A real honor to be asked to play over that system.” “...and quite an adventure for Tim, who had to learn how to operate the system in one day!”, Reinier interrupts.
This collaboration sparked the fire again, getting Robbert, Reinier and Tim thinking on further collaboration. Not so much as PWOG, but in a sense in making music together again and taking on other challenges like this. It wasn't until the re-release of the first demo tape last year on vinyl that the three started thinking about doing a show as PWOG again. “Suddenly there were different requests for live performances. We were kind of surprised by all this renewed interest. But Reinier knew Vincent [Koreman: artistic director of Incubate] and had talked with him about the possibilities at Incubate.”, Tim says, looking at Reinier. “We actually had the idea to do several things during Incubate, had it still been in its old form. And Vincent agreed with it all! An electro-acoustic set, a dance set and something to be created with the audience during the festival itself. But then the festival changed form, and now only the dance set is left.”
A dance set in the old tradition of PWOG, or as Tim describes it: “We'll be there, but you won't see us.”. Something they also did in the past. It was never about the band, or its members. Actually they kind of cherish the anonymity, fitting with the idea of the early techno, and always tried to stay off the stage while performing. “We always believed that the music should speak for itself and people should be dancing, not looking at us. The original idea was to have us play in between deejays and just fade in in the beginning and fade out in the end, just like you'd do with records whilst mixing.”, explains Reinier. “Also with the new material we have created, it is designed to force, ehm...., for people to dance to. Well, actually, it is impossible nót to dance to it.”
PWOG will be exclusively playing live-material during their Incubate set. Does this mean we might expect a new PWOG release sooner or later? I dare to drop the question. But the three remain firm: after Incubate PWOG is no more. They don't know yet what will happen with these new songs. But whatever may happens, it will not be under the name of Psychic Warriors Ov Gaia. “We might take on new projects, and will surely keep working together. Maybe in the line of what we did with Dadavistic Orchestra, or in a setting where we create something for an art gallery. But it will be under a different name. We are open for any kind of new interesting projects.”, Robbert confirms firmly as Reinier adds; “I just don't see us doing another club tour, driving a van from place to place in promoting an album. Those days are done and over. I do see the use of it, to spread your name, but at the moment I just don't feel like it.”. The other two men nod, confirming. Meaning we'll have a lot to expect from PWOG in the future, but just not as PWOG, the band that once brought together the rough and experimental of industrial with the fun and individual experience of dance.
Psychic Warriors of Gaia will play Incubate Festival on Saturday the 10th of September. Tickets are available.