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Simple and Loud

After 20 years, Bettie Serveert keeps re-defining the alternative-rock sound

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The Dutch rock band Bettie Serveert was formed in 1990, but guitarist Peter Visser says he and his bandmates aren't focused on celebrating a 20th anniversary.

Instead, they're looking ahead to 2012.

"That's when the first album, Palomine, would have a 20th birthday," says Visser via cell phone from a tour stop in Denver. "We got an e-mail from our first drummer, saying, 'It's the 20th, and what are we going to do with that?' So that's under discussion right now."

Bettie Serveert will perform Saturday night, Oct. 16, as the headliner on the Rialto Theatre stage for Fall Club Crawl® 2010, sponsored by the Tucson Weekly.

Released in 1992 to critical acclaim and the adoration of a cult of fans, Palomine helped bring garage rock closer to the mainstream. Although the group has remained primarily at an indie/college level of success in the United States, Palomine joined such landmark albums as the Smashing Pumpkins' Gish, Nirvana's Nevermind and Pearl Jam's Ten (all released in 1991) to help define the alternative rock sound of the early 1990s—albeit on a smaller scale.

Bettie Serveert had something that all of those acts did not: magnetic lead singer and songwriter Carol van Dyk, whose personal lyrics, sultry voice and low-key stage presence allowed her to quietly assume a place in the history of excellent female frontpersons, fitting in between Blondie's Debbie Harry and Garbage's Shirley Manson.

Van Dyk writes all the lyrics, and the creation of whole songs usually comes about in partnership with Visser, he says.

"With some songs, she comes in with the skeleton of an arrangement. Sometimes, the two of us will collaborate on shaping the songs, and make demos to give to the band."

To increase the band's appeal to Americans, van Dyk always has sung and written lyrics in English.

"You have to keep in mind Carol was born in Canada, and English is her first language," Visser says. "We have heard her sing in Dutch a couple of times, and that's been, ah, something. An experience, let's say."

Most children in the Netherlands, as in other Scandinavian countries, grow up learning English in school, so it's not unusual for bands there to include English lyrics, Visser says, adding that English is the language of rock 'n' roll.

"Definitely, it is the best language for rock music, and English-speaking people invented rock 'n' roll. All of the bands I listened to growing up were English-speaking bands." Among his early favorites were The Beatles and Neil Young; he later moved on to Captain Beefheart and Nick Cave, he says.

The influence of all of those artists can be heard in the sound of the Betties, which is oriented toward pure pop melodies, Visser's expressive guitar textures and an unrelenting rhythmic momentum—but it also can stray outside the lines to embrace rough-and-tumble noise.

Earlier this year, Bettie Serveert released its ninth album, Pharmacy of Love. Recorded in a remote studio in rural Belgium, the new disc is a return to the aggressive raw sound of Palomine.

"In a sense, those two albums are bookends for various reasons," Visser says. "We've been through so many phases. We started out as a simple rock band, and after years and years of experiments and dance influences, using sampling machines and doing acoustic albums, we thought it was about time we came full circle and are now keeping it simple and loud again. We had spent a couple of tours playing only acoustic music, and personally wanted to bring back the distortion pedal. It feels good to come back to this place."

The band's name, by the way, means "Bettie serves" or "Bettie to serve" in Dutch, and is a reference to Dutch professional tennis player Betty Stöve. These days, fans and band members use "the Betties" as shorthand.

Since the band's beginning, Bettie Serveert has included van Dyk, Visser and bassist Herman Bunskoeke. Berend Dubbe played drums with the group until 1998. Since, then several musicians have occupied the drum chair. On the latest album, it's been Joppe Molenaar, of the band Voicst.

"We have sort of had the Spinal Tap experience with drummers over the years," Visser says.

They all haven't exploded, though. "No, more like imploded."

Speaking of the Betties' first drummer, Dubbe—who, as mentioned before, is interested in celebrating the 20th anniversary of Palomine—his career is thriving, Visser says.

"He's the voice of a TV station in Holland. Every time I turn on the television, I hear his voice, and I have to smile. I hear the irony of his voice, although the regular listeners probably do not. After he left the Betties, he started his own music project called Bauer, and he has provided the soundtrack music for several worldwide commercials."

Visser says he and the other Betties are looking forward to playing their debut gig in Tucson.

"We've never played there, oddly enough—only in Phoenix, until this tour. I know Giant Sand is from (Tucson), and I have played with Howe Gelb before. So maybe I can get him to come down."

Bettie Serveert plays at midnight at the Rialto Theatre.

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