SPECJALNE - Wywiad
Interview with Elisabeth Esselink aka Solex
August 21, 2019, Amsterdam
by Borys Dejnarowicz
So, let's start from the beginning. What's the proper spelling of your first name?
Officially, in my passport, it's Elisabeth. But in the Netherlands people just call me Liesbeth, because it's more common here, it's a Dutch name.
The word "Solex" has something to do with a motorcycle brand, right?
Yeah, it's true. It's a Hungarian thing – a cross between a bicycle and a scooter. It goes very slow... I chose it because it's a very cool vehicle. Also, at the time, it was the name of my cat, because it snored quite loudly – it made the same sound as the engine of the Solex. So actually it was a double meaning, a little joke I made. And I also thought it was a good word – sounding nice and looking as a nice logo when printed. As for the motorcycle itself – I was never into this kind of things, it was something for elderly people, mostly.
That famous record store you owned in Amsterdam.... Is it still around?
No, I stopped it. But the logo is still there, on the front, painted on the window. The address is Koningsstraat 52.
foto: Substance Only
What records did you choose to sample? The ones that you liked the most?
Not necessarily... I had some limitations. For me it was important that it wasn't very well known, because otherwise you've got to get in trouble and clear these samples. Also, if possible, I tried to sample one, single, separated track of an instrument at a time. Just guitar or just drums, and so on. That way it's easier to properly mix these samples and create something completely new in terms of chord changes or melody. You're not stuck in a pattern that someone invented before you. Most of the time it was the outro or the intro of the song.
How long did it usually take to find the right, say, guitar part for a given song?
It happened very quickly, you mostly have to check song intros and outros... And I immediately knew if it was something I could use. Normally I worked on many songs at the same time. Ten or even twenty songs, simultaneously. So if I had a song that still needed guitar and I found a guitar part, I would use it.
You sampled exclusively from vinyl, right?
No, that's a myth. I mostly sampled from CDs, only sometimes from vinyl. I also recorded some unknown local bands when they performed live, and I sampled from that as well. They never knew... Otherwise it gets very difficult. I stood very close by the speaker, didn't get that much of surround sounds, so the quality was nice. But no one ever discovered their stuff on my records. Sometimes I would receive an e-mail from someone saying "Oh, I recognize that part, it's mine...", but they were never correct, really. So, knock knock, but to this day I was never caught [laughter].
Limitations in art help create something unique and original?
That's so true. And I had lots of limitations. That was the entire concept. You have to use your creativity to solve the problems that you have to face because of these limitations. I guess it works for most artists. For instance, technically I don't have skills to master an instrument very well myself. I played classical Spanish guitar for years, but I didn't do it for so many years that I totally forgot how to do it. I also played drums in a girl band for a while, but I was very bad at that as well [laughter]. Sampling is basically a solution for that, of course. And since sampling is very addictive, so, there you go...
But sampling these snippets and then mixing them together, you've become someone even greater – in my opinion – than merely a sideman: a conductor of an nonexisting orchestra, a musical director of sorts...
Well, yeah, basically... a composer. I learned a lot from playing in various bands here in Amsterdam and in Leiden – it's a student city close to the Hague. I started off as a singer in a new wave band, when I was 18 or something like that. And then I sang in a noise guitar band, and we even made a record. Then I played drums in girl bands. So after all that I just knew what the function of every instrument is – which one holds the groove, which one holds the melody...
Apart from the real instruments, very often you use "found sound" like people talking, birds chirping, some car horn, a machine gun...
Yes, I love it. It could be anything, really. I think the coolest sound I ever recorded outside was one day when it was really, really windy. And the wind made a kind of a whistling sound, really nice. I was in a very narrow alley, here in Amsterdam and recorded that "pheeeewww..." sound, but I don't really remember what song it ended up in.
Your singing style is also very peculiar. It has an innocent comedy vibe to it and you use it as another instrument.
I must say thay I don't really like it when people really can sing, actually... For example I'm a big fan of Lou Reed. You can't really say that he's a very good singer. And yet I adore The Velvet Underground. Most bands that I like aren't about a technically skilled vocalist. It's true that my voice is just another colour in the arrangement palette. My vocals are not very loud in the mix, because for me all the instruments are equally important. Only together they're strong. That's why I don't consider myself as a singer-songwriter – then the vocals are really important, because they deliver a story.
Speaking of stories. What are your lyrics about?
Most of the times there is a story there, but I never had a big message to the world. They're more about small, common, everyday life situations. You can compare it to photography. Sometimes I like the photographs of everyday life situations more. Like when you're having breakfast. Don't take pictures on someone's birthday or on holiday. Take them when's something's happening every day. So my lyrics, they're not big subjects, but rather snippets of everyday life. Some of these snippets I heard on English language TV. And some other I heard on the street. In Amsterdam a lot of people speak English.
And why are Solex songs only in English? Ever considered singing in Dutch?
No, I love English. I don't like the way Dutch sounds. It's too harsh.
As a fan, I can say that I can't really compare Solex recordings to anything else. It's especially funny in the age of streaming services, where stuff is perfectly categorized. But the usual "fans also like" and "related artists" tags don't work in your case. Was that your aim or dit it happen by chance?
Not really an aim, I just wanted to make music that I wanted to listen to myself. Of course a cliche can be really good or useful. But you can also play around with cliches. I think my music is still pop and a lot of elements in it were used before. But I tried to juggle with it, you know? And see where it ends.
Three of your four "proper", song-oriented albums were released on Matador, a legendary US indie rock label. Do you feel any association with that scene?
Well, I like most of the bands they put out. I did a few tours in the US and I became friends with people who worked there, actually with some of the band members too. So I really felt at home there. It's a very eclectic label and they're very do-it-yourself, so I liked it.
The fourth one, The Laughing Stock Of Indie Rock, was released on Discmeister.
It's my own label. But I just put out one record myself and after that I'll never do that again. So much hassle. It takes so much energy, you have to deal with all the formal stuff like licensing for other countries... It's a lot of work and I wouldn't ever do that again [laughter].
What are your favourite artists? At the moment, or of all time?
Recently I listened to a lot of old French music, from the Sixties, chansons et cetera. I really like Brassens. Maybe because I just returned from France, where I was on holiday. I also wanted to make my French a bit better, so I listened to a lot of French music, for the language. And the artist that I most admire is PJ Harvey. She's such an excellent musician... Especially when she just started, the things that she did rhythmically, it was mindblowing. Now she's a bit more mellow and it's easier to listen to, but the old stuff was very inspiring for me.
And what about rap music? In the song "Low Kick and Hard Bop" you try some rapping.
It was a bit of an experiment. But it's not really a rap song, because I can't rap [laughter]. Now that's a good example of a situation when limitations can bring something completely new [laughter]. However, you can say that I was in my hip hop phase back then, maybe. I think Q-Tip is really good. I also listened to some Boo-Yaa T.R.I.B.E. at the time.
"Have You No Shame, Girl?" is a rare Solex song that I can honestly compare to someone else's work. I'm thinking about Beck.
Yeah, I was inspired by Beck. When he first released that "Loser" song, I thought it was great. It was a great example of how you could make a catchy pop song with just a sampler. But it wasn't techno or dance music. It's electronic music, but it can go to any genre.
A lot of Low Kick album sounds like a deconstruction of Sixties, or even Fifties, music. These are your favourite decades in music?
You can say that. I really like how it sounded, and they way they mixed things back then. Besides, it was a very exciting period in music making, because so many new things were happening. Since then of course also other genres were new, like hip hop or jungle. And that's inspiring as well. But I think in the Sixties it wasn't only about music, it was also about the attitude. A lot things were changing, it was a very liberating time for a lot of people.
Never had an opportunity to see your concert. Do you invite guest musicians?
For the first three records I had the drummer and the guitarist who also sang backing vocals. That line-up was more like a real live band. And then for the fourth one I asked a girl drummer, cause she also could also do very good backing vocals. So it was more of an electronic live act with two singers.
What are your plans for the Solex project?
Actually I'm working on a new thing right now. It takes a lot of time. It's different than my previous albums. I cannot really explain it... It's maybe a little more cinematic. But there will be a lot of vocals, as well. So it's going to be more similar to the regular Solex albums, than to the Solex Ahoy! project. It's not finished though. I hope it will be out next year. But I cannot promise now that I will perform this material live. First I need to finish the album and find a label. And depending on the attention it gets, I'll decide with the record company whether I should tour, or not.