Greetings From The Netherlands: A Rollicking Chat With Amsterdam’s Indie Songwriter Rogier Van Kralingen

Hailing from Amsterdam, rock band Kralingen brings an indie sound that is unlike most: unpredictable, emotional, and moody, and their music brings listeners to a whole other world.

Driven by guitar and a symphonic sound, their singles show inspiration from artists like Jimi Hendrix and Pink Floyd. With the driving force being the instruments and compositions, the musical technique is easily recognizable. Breaking down the walls of standard singer-songwriter progressions, they are pushing the boundaries to allow a more emotional and complex work of art to develop. 

The trio consists of Rogier van Kralingen (vocals, guitar), Victor Butzelaar (pianist, composer), and Arjan van Asselt (drummer, producer). Starting out in a band as kids, Rogier and Victor went through different band formations while Arjan was recording orchestras. Being more than a band, they are friends who are there for each other, and who crave to create something original.

With current and future collaborations with artists such as Marianna Kocsány, Janice Wong, DMA’s, Sticky Fingers, Bootleg Rascal, and Djilani, poetry is created through lyrics that give the music a natural feel. Leaning more on the acoustic side, at least for now, the down to earth melodies are enjoyed by those who love rhythmic and original hooks. 

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Knowing that true strength and character comes from difficulties and growing through discomfort, Kralingen embraces new ideas, views, and inspirations that will make them better musicians, but also better friends with those they work and come in contact with. Music is fun, and they don’t want to lose the sense of it being an expression. They are not afraid to take on new musical directions and see what works and what doesn’t. Inspired by life itself, their mysterious lyrics make the listener curious to know more.

We got the chance to shoot some questions overseas to Rogier to learn more about the music scene in Amsterdam, the band, and more.

So what is the music scene like in Amsterdam, and are certain genres more popular than others?

Well, you’ve immediately hit the reason why we’re reaching out to the world, to you guys at Music Mecca, to everyone reading this… it’s bad for live bands. I mean, seriously bad.

Two decades ago or so, live music was very much alive in Amsterdam, but it’s a small town, and when electronic music took over, there wasn’t a lot of space left for other things. And the irony is, I myself even contributed to that! As a kid, I was also a House music DJ, and I had a pretty nice run with pretty big crowds before we decided to get back to acoustic and band stuff. It was a fantastic time, completely new music, gigantic buzz, but it almost killed the live music scene. Nowadays, there is not much support left for local artists. We have a thriving hip hop scene, with a very unique tongue-in-cheek rap style I like a lot, but musically I feel that this style is losing its steam now. Also, national radio stations in my tiny country are owned by the big publishers, so they don’t support or play any new artists. So, we musicians are finding each other in cool spots, half-legal buildings, poetry nights… it’s gone underground. Outside of Amsterdam the live scene is okay, there are great festivals, good venues in the east of the country. For bands from across the world, it’s a very good scene with very good crowds. But for the Dutch bands… being indie in Amsterdam really means being indie. 

There is thankfully still the beacon of Paradiso, which is a venue so incredible you’ll have to see it to believe it, that does support local bands. But it’s hard. It’s okay though, we can connect to the world. And bands coming over here is actually the main reason you are reading this. I had almost given up, but I became friends with some traveling Australian bands in my city. They picked me up and inspired me to start playing again. So, in return, I’m trying to put a lot of soul back in the live scene in Amsterdam whenever and wherever I play. 

How and when did music enter your life, and when did you realize it was something you wanted to dedicate your life to?

My story starts when I was eight years old. Me and my older brother liked some super cheesy jazz saxophone player, I think it was Kenny G or David Sanborn, and my parents took us to a concert at the North Sea Jazz Festival. Afterwards, my mom wanted to get her kids home, but my dad insisted we’d stay, because he knew which act was coming next. I was sitting on my dad’s neck when Miles Davis himself stepped on stage. He was so mindboggingly good, it was life defining. I knew then, without doubt, I was a musician. My dad’s neck probably still hurts.   

A couple of years later, we moved to a new town and I met Victor Butzelaar, our piano player and composer. I was dabbling with a guitar, and had been singing ever since I was three years old… but he? At the age of ten Vic had already mastered the piano. By the time we hit puberty he was writing whole new classical pieces, had crowds literally crying when he played them live. It was insane. To this day I have not found a piano player better than him. He just has this instinct for notes, it’s amazing. Don’t tell him I told you this, because in our musical styles we can still clash after all these decades… but I’ve loved every single second of working with him. 

Later in our student years, we met up with Arjan van Asselt who is our producer and drummer. Nowadays, Arjan does all the major recordings for opera and classical music in Amsterdam, but back then he was just this sound nerd. He’d trap a wasp in the first sound-vacuum studio, just to see how the wasp would react to his own buzzing. That kind of stuff. Legend. We met doing illegal parties that went for 24 hours straight, when we were doing the first live streaming sessions in The Netherlands on the internet. We actually hacked a satellite to do it. I did music programming, he was the engineer and we just clicked. He’ll never tell you this himself, he’s too modest, but recording my guitar is easy for him. Usually he’s editing twenty violins or so!!  

So how did the vision for Kralingen come together?

Vic and I started out as kids with a band called The Frontal Assault of The Raped Space Pigs, based on The Muppet Show. We then formed a rock band called Belly Hair, named after the first belly hairs of a friend of ours. It’s still a running gag. We had different formations, made some interesting combo’s of electronic and acoustic music under the name Earopener, which is now the name of our boutique label. After that, Vic went full pro and has released piano albums that are reaching millions of plays, plus lots of film and video game music. He has an entire fanbase now of young musicians who are emulating his work! 

Arjan was already doing the orchestras back then and was losing interest in band music because it wasn’t challenging enough for him. But he stuck around with Victor, produced a lot of his work, and from there our network of musicians grew. I’m the last of all of my music friends to make the jump to full professional. And I can lean on their experience. Even more than a band, we are friends who help each other out and share a common drive to be original.  

“I was sitting on my dad’s neck when Miles Davis himself stepped on stage. He was so mindboggingly good, it was life defining. I knew then, without doubt, I was a musician. My dad’s neck probably still hurts.”

Who or what are some artistic inspirations that have inspired your sound most?

Probably Radiohead, Norah Jones, and Jimi Hendrix the most. With a touch of the symphonic from Pink Floyd and Supertramp. My guitar play started as an acoustic version of Hendrix when I was a kid, although not as good, it helped me develop a style that is dynamic on an acoustic guitar. With the guitar we try to move far beyond the usual chord strumming, and we kick out the clichéd and boring wailing of most singer-songwriters while we’re at it.

In the quieter songs the boys push me towards Nick Drake. It’s in my natural voice to reach that and you can hear it in the “Intoxicated” track for instance. In writing lyrics, we take from Anthony Kiedis. Not in singing style, but in the poetry of the words. At the moment we are incorporating a little surf rock, giving it an ocean and campfire feel. We also look a lot at Norah Jones. Our style is not as jazzy, but our approach to music is similar. We want to grow into a collective, work with a lot of musicians on and off stage. Do a lot of musical explorations. That’s what gives us satisfaction, that’s our drive: we want to be uncomfortable and try everything new. Just to see if we can pull it off.  

Is the songwriting a collective effort within the band?

Very much so. We usually start with my acoustic guitar. The way I play is already quite ‘big’ and makes for a good baseline. But it’s also really, really rough. I’m an emotional guy, so the first iterations of songs are often too raw. They can work well live… but in the studio they just don’t. It’s like the difference between theater and film. In the theater you need to be loud, but on film you need to be the opposite, subtle, smart. I’m pretty okay at the former, but Vic and Arjan are masters at the latter. They cut the tracks in chunks, add a huge amount of instruments, bring in new musicians, add compositions, push me out of my comfort zone in my singing… they are the driving force behind the tracks. 

In the songwriting process, which typically comes first for you- the lyrics or the melody?

The melody in my head. Some songs come from us fooling around. But most of the time a melody forms in my head, without words, just the notes. I start writing arrangements in my mind. I then record them and put them on the shelf. When something happens in my life or in the world that inspires me to write, I start to add small parts of lyrics to the melody. After that, the song usually writes itself. It’s then in a good enough shape to perform solo but nowhere near good enough to record. At that point, the boys take over. 

How did the collaborations with Bootleg Rascal, Elliott Hammond, and Marianna Kocsany come about?

That’s actually the best story I can tell you here. It’s also the reason why I wrote “Heaven’s Devils”.

A few years back I was doing solo performances in between acts on a small outside stage on our independence day called Kings Day. A friendly booker had found a band for the main show that night. I had heard of them before, liked it, but hadn’t really listened much yet. It was Sticky Fingers from Sydney, whose extra band member is guitarist Jimmy Young from Bootleg Rascal. I have a very nice apartment in the city, and these boys needed a place to stay. When someone asked me if I wanted to host an Australian rock band for a couple of nights, I naturally asked him if he was out of his freaking mind. But then Jimmy stepped out of the tour bus. I had one look in his eyes and before I knew it I had invited them over to my place. They ended up staying for ten days. It was chaos. But the music… incredible. 

Seeing them on stage, and having all these jams with them, ignited my fire to play again. After that, I’ve had all their friends come over and stay or play at my place. Bootleg Rascal, The Delta Riggs, DMA’s, Planet, True Vibe Nation and later Angus Stone all came by and became friends. They invited me over to Sydney, gave me tickets for festivals, places to sleep… they treated me like a king. And one day, at a festival in Byron Bay, Sticky Fingers entered a stage of 30,000 people in a valley. There was screaming, running, women showing their breasts, beer flying around… and then the penny dropped. These funny guys that had been playing this tiny little stage in Amsterdam with me were actually freaking rock stars. It reminded me that if you want to be successful, you have to connect with everyone, everywhere, no matter how big or small the stage is. I grabbed a beer with my friends Dirk and Amy, and just like at that concert with Miles Davis when I was eight years old, I pledged to myself to get back on stage again. And this time, never to step off. 

But that’s not the whole story. There is a bit of an embarrassing tail. A while later I was driving in my car to France for a holiday with my then girlfriend, and I wanted to impress her and hit all the high notes from a Radiohead album. It should’ve been easy. Turned out I couldn’t. I screeched. I had blocked my singing voice in my mind. It was panicky. I found a Hungarian jazz singer who picked me up called Erika Kertèsz, but she was going to go back to Hungary at some point. And then on an open mic night somewhere in town I ran into a friend of hers, a singer as well as a singing teacher, called Marianna Kocsany, with a heavenly voice. And when these two women had somehow found my voice again, after a lot of fun and loving singing sessions, I just had to ask Marianna to sing with me on “Slowest of Falls”. Her voice elevated the song into true beauty. You only have to hear her line once, and it’ll stick in your mind forever: “What if we fell…”.      

Can you talk in more detail about the Aussie inspiration behind writing your single “Heaven’s Devils”?

All these Aussies were constantly getting into trouble. One of the guys found himself in jail for the night, sleeping off his hangover, another ‘mooning’ the Pulitzer hotel bar across my street during breakfast hours, some super funny sexual escapades… they’re rock stars. You get the picture. I started giving them the nickname ‘Gremlins’. Very fitting. 

But then something more serious happened. A mutual friend of ours got swindled. Some of us wanted to go after the guy, but Beaker Best, drummer of Sticky Fingers, said something really wise: “We’re devilish sometimes yeah, but we’re a different kind of devil”. He meant we don’t go overboard, we don’t do stuff to other people that is truly damaging. We may be gremlins, may push it sometimes, but ultimately we’re musicians. We’re about spreading love. 

So I wrote “Heaven’s Devils” with that in mind. To remind people you can make mistakes, but not to hurt others. You can be a little devilish, but if you’re aware of your own shadow side, heaven is actually where you belong. I quote the The Delta Riggs in it, so frontman Elliot Hammond did the harmonica solo. And Bootleg Rascal I mention too, so they did the background vocals, with a bit of intentional cheesiness I might add. Johnny Took from DMA’s had a role too when he was in Amsterdam writing, although his guitar thing didn’t end up in the song, I think he’s one of the wolf howlers. So yeah, in the end it basically became a tribute to Aussie bands, and to the spirit of the Australian people: fun, edgy, but always with love.    

The songs you have out right now are driven by a lot of guitar solos. Do those come naturally when you write, or do you later decide a guitar solo would fit the song?

Right now they are the start of the songs. I’m good at finding original hooks that are somewhere between a guitar solo and rhythmic guitar play. Listening to Jimi Hendrix as a kid made me an agile guitar player but my weapon of choice is very much the acoustic guitar, not the electric, which makes it sound more down to earth. Actually, the songs we’ve released so far are even light on the dynamics. I can take it much, much further. But we really also try to tone that down. We don’t need to go overboard to make our point. Right now, the guitar is still the baseline, and we’ll probably keep that up for an album or so… but after that it’ll change. I know Arjan and Vic, and I know myself, and at some point we’re going to want to change the process again. Probably by taking out the guitar. Just to challenge ourselves. We play for the fun of it. But we’re also not kidding around. As musicians, we belong to the hardcore. 

What is one of your proudest moments with Kralingen?

Hahaha, I’m gonna go all squishy here… but it’s working with other people. My philosophy on life is that true strength comes from challenging yourself and being okay with the uncomfortable. You can only do that by embracing other points of view, new inspirations. And you get those from working with talented people. I’ve had my successes as a writer already, and although we don’t have many listeners yet with this new project, I just feel confident that the music will become a success too. Simply because I know that working with these incredible artists will only make us grow and become better musicians. And better friends too. 

What might fans of Kralingen expect to close out the year or going into 2021?

Fans can expect a steady flow of new releases. We work in batches, but we’re being meticulous. The first track in the new year will be a beautiful song called “Wildfireflood,” which will star an amazing cello player, which I’ll reveal to you guys at Music Mecca in a couple of months. I’ll release a really dark, strong Dutch song with a friend of mine called Djilani in the beginning of 2021. After that, expect a track with a poetry collective called Labyrinth, one or two more surf rock oriented songs probably, and a new interpretation of an old song of mine, Bruce Springsteen style. And the first videos will start to appear in spring. I’m not going to give away everything… but the theme is dancing. And after that… who knows where the music will take us. To quote “Heaven’s Devils”: “Our work is far from done”. And then something about bringing the house down, if I remember correctly. I’m sure it’ll be a blast!

Photo by Marieke de Lorijn

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