In Conversation: Hanyo Van Oosterom
Hanyo Van Oosterom is a musician and artist living in Rotterdam. We talk to him about his album Red Lantern at The Kallikatsou which was inspired by his time in Patmos, Greece. While he was there, he spent long periods living in seclusion in a cave. The album is his attempted to recreate the experience. He also discusses his admiration for poet Robert Lax (who had previously moved from the USA to Patmos), jamming back in Rotterdam with the likes of Jon Hassell, Tony Allen and Archie Shepp and his gratitude to record label Astral Industries.
CB: I first heard about your music in a record store in east London called Low Company. The guys who run it recommended it. I bought Red Lantern at the Kallikatsou.
HVO: My last album.
CB: Yeah. It blew me away.
HVO: I really appreciated the ending of your review. The way you said that 'real beauty is both simple and complex at the same time', that 'beauty appears amongst distress'. That's everything I try to do [with my music].
CB: One of the things that really interested me about the record was using water and liquid as a symbol. I also hear that in Deepchord's records. He has these liquid elements in his music.
HVO: I've sampled his work - from his YouTube feed actually. The samples I make are from a low definition. It almost sounds like a cassette.
CB: There's something I enjoy about YouTube's audio processing. When I listen to a full album I find it adds a translucent quality to it.
HVO: The YouTube samples I use are recorded on a cassette deck. I uploaded those and started meddling. I feel that one of the most important things in any art is that there are different layers and contrast. Too much quality is hard to take. Much like ourselves. We are not perfect. There's not a philosophy behind it, just being constantly impulsive.
CB: It seems that there are elements of mysticism influencing the music.
HVO: There is a mystical inspiration for sure. I explored yoga to the max and lived like a monk for ten years. I got lost in it and I got found in it. Then I made a series of albums based upon magical formulas of the Veda. Not so interesting anymore now. You can learn a lot from it but then you have to go back to what you are. To where you come from, where you are rooted. To find your own way.
Actually, the great mystics say you have to dig the dirt. If you meditate, you get a promise of something that might happen. That's a good thing but a part of everything. The world is still there and you have to deal with it. That's where transformation starts. It took me some decades but I'm dealing with it.
CB: It feels like that for me too. I feel like I'm still at the very start.
HVO: We all are, man. In the 80s there were a few hippie freaks coming to our first ambient shows. Most of them were punks. They had a connection because they are not afraid of dark spots.
CB: You credit the American poet Robert Lax in the Mantra Recordings. How has he influenced you?
HVO: Ah man he was a great poet. He was part of the inner circle of some greats. He got big in the USA of course with all the other poets. He wanted to get away from his success and he went to Patmos [Greece]. He was not hiding but in a way he was. He just wanted to have a silent life. He was still being chased by people waiting for him to come out of his small house and give interviews or take photos. Then he began to disguise himself as a priest. He grew his beard and his hair. In the end, no one knew he was Robert Lax. The locals knew, but they let him be himself and treated him like one of them.
His story is very interesting. He ended up very minimalistic. It's a bit like ambient music. It's the way I work, actually. You make something or paint something - 'sound paint' - then you start stripping back. The few elements that are left will tell the story even better. It's what Robert Lax was doing with words.
CB: Is it his voice on the beginning of the Mantra Recordings?
HVO: Yeah. It’s sampled from Youtube.
HVO: Two locals from Patmos who looked after him when he was getting old told me it was a good plan. 'Man, Robert would love this music' they said. So I used a few samples [in our new album].
CB: Do you feel like this is a direct continuation of your other work or is it a new area and a new world?
HVO: I have no idea. I deleted a lot. I think we had material for 4 double albums at least.
CB: You deleted it?!
HVO: Yes. It didn't surprise me. I have to get a good feeling, surprise myself and be proud. When I finish a record, the next day I have to feel an energy. If it doesn't happen then I'm repeating myself and I'd rather stop.
CB: Some artists say that after they write something, they never listen to it again. I also know artists who make music for themselves. They are trying to invent the music they would most want to hear. They listen to their own music a lot. I wondered where you fit on that spectrum.
HVO: I live with my music. I listen to it - maybe even too much. An album can be a thousand hours of work. Maybe it even gets obsessive. However, once if finished, I don't listen to it anymore. Only when friends come who haven't heard about it. I enjoy it and can even be proud of it during those times. But when it's finished, I'm into the next album.
It reminds me of birds. I love birds, man. I feed them and I have them in my garden. They come close to me. Every year I feed and take care of some of them and then they have to go. It's such a moment. They have to go and build a new nest or live a new life somewhere else.
Art can be a hard process but come on, we are lucky bastards to be doing it.
CB: There is a strangeness in your music because it can sound quite simplistic and minimal but then you have a depth. To me, that's where the sense of immersion or a submersion happens. It feels like the music goes over you and you're inside it.
HVO: I hope so. For me, this is something I can define or conclude afterward. When I work, basically I have no idea. Going back to the Deepchord samples, I don't even know how computers really work.
CB: What does your process look like?
HVO: I'm old school. I'm heading up to 60 years old. I feel comfortable with a tape recorder or a simple harddisk recorder. I record everything live. One take. Editing is interesting, I have the latest Pro Tools and Logic, all that shit. It's been two years but I never touch it. I stick to what I know.
CB: You want to work in what you're most fluent in don't you? You can then stop thinking and lose yourself in it.
HVO: If you're a biker you ride your bike. People can tell you, 'man take a car or a boat' but you step on your bike and you know where to go.
I found this Audacity programme - it's the most simple, free downloadable one there is. It's so limited. But maybe the limitations are good. When I look around me, people can get lost in their edits. They can edit to the max. Tuning, adjusting, quantizing. All this shit. Man, our recordings are full of mistakes. Different rhythms mixed randomly together. But somehow it works.
CB: That's a challenge of modern technology: the infinite ways of editing. People have got hundreds of plugins and the idea of infinite possibilities hanging over them. There's a Lars Von Trier film, Five Obstructions and it's about the idea that having things in the way can help you to be more creative.
HVO: Yes, there are many possibilities now. It’s almost too much. But meanwhile, we can use it the way we want. It's the same with instruments. If you're in control and you decide when and how to use the instrument, it's always ok. If you are not, it controls you and you're lost. You end up fucked up.
CB: [laughs] Yeah.
HVO: Talking about the work process, the main man next to me, behind me and in front of me is Jacobus Derwort. We started this journey together 35 years ago and started Chi.
Soon we met a great musician Willem Cramer, also from Rotterdam. He added an important element of realism to our music. Later we invited Michel Banabila (samples), Fyko van Leeuwen (visuals) and Jurgen Brouwer (sound) to join Chi. Together we set the foundation. We released The Original Recordings and did some great live shows back in the days. But all good things pass and we all moved on.
Now after all these years I ended up just like I started: together with Jacobus again. We still perform live with other people which makes me very happy but basically, we are the foundation of the renewed Chi Factory.
CB: That's a great thing to have.
HVO: We have been friends for 45 years. He feels close like a brother. It's me and him but he's not the kind of guy that speaks a lot. He is the secret weapon. He's a storyteller of sound. Music needs a story, maybe very minimalistic, but this story gives sound wings. It connects.
CB: You play everything between the two of you?
HVO: We play a bit of everything. Our first band was called The Jones. I was the singer and drummer. Jacobus was the saxophone player. We were a cult-rock band and local heroes. The music was very pure, loud, deep and dark. With good ambient music, this part is always there.
CB: The punk side?
HVO: The dark side.
CB: I find there is a dark side to your music.
HVO: Not the dark side where you get lost. That's dangerous.
CB: The music that moves me the most has a balance to it: the interaction of opposing forces. Rather than just one or the other.
HVO: It is.
CB: It speaks a greater truth.
HVO: And this isn't unique. If you go back to music from Africa or Aboriginals or the music from the native Indians, it's all there. It's all in that culture.
You have to be prepared. You should not go digging in the dirt or searching in the dark unprepared.
CB: I don't think an easy life is a good life. I think you need some hardship.
HVO: The easy life is not for me. But still, you need to be prepared and have a strong foundation. When you look around the music business, when people get successful, it's almost always where it goes openly wrong. I remember I booked Amy Winehouse in Rotterdam when almost nobody knew her. We spent some time together and she was so nice. And then shit happens. Nick Drake, Jimi Hendrix, Nina Simone. It's hard to be successful.
CB: It sounds like your whole life has been in music.
HVO: Yes. It's not always easy to live as a musician so you always try to do things that are connected to music. I've been organising events, promoting and playing myself. I run a label and I'm a producer.
CB: What events do you run?
HVO: All kinds of events. From 2014-2017 I did instant composing events. I invited people from all around the world to play together and perform without any preparation. I'm lucky. I've played with some incredible musicians. Jon Hassell came over to play with us. Tony Allen, the drummer for Fela Kuti was great to play with. He was wonderful to be around. We improvised and it was almost easy. Also, great poets like Kain the Poet, Ursula Rucker, Anthony Joseph and the soul-gospel singer Dwight Trible joined our “Numoonlab” sessions. You can still find the recordings on Youtube.
At the moment I'm working at a new Chi Factory series. We will invite special guests to perform and improvise together live on stage. I've been reaching out to some people who I admire. Basically, we will start from scratch and see where we will get. Still looking for these beautiful mistakes.
CB: Are you going to record the music you produce?
HVO: Of course. Deepchord should be there. Also, I will invite Jan Jellinek that I met at the Intrinsic festival in France. Another musician I have made links with during my time in Patmos is Phil Manzanera, the guitar player for Roxy Music. We jammed together on the beach there. I'd like to do one with him.
CB: Can you tell me about the link you made with Astral Industries [a London based record label]? The whole feel of the label, your music, the atmosphere and even the cover art all feels very connected.
HVO: Ario came out of the blue. He is the secret. He sent me an email about a cassette we released 30 years ago. I said, of course you can put it out. His email was so simple, so honest, so pure. We don't have a contract. I met him and said yes, let's do this. I like control over things - for example, I would have never chosen the artwork of Theo Elsworth but now I love it. It's good to follow somebody's vision.
CB: Sometimes you have to give things away creatively to other people's vision.
HVO: Yes but you can end up getting a lot back.
CB: The way they use those illustrations really adds to the label.
HVO: Theo is a great artist. You can not imagine the hard and long work of hand painting a cover like this. It’s a pure expression of passion. Ario also does this out of passion. He really listens to music I send him and he gives me very good advice. I use his feedback. He's basically our executive producer. He doesn't like the term but we use it anyway to express our respect. His team are wizards too. Noel Summerville does the best mastering I ever heard. Rubadub are soldiers of the unknown. Without them, this would not work. They make it possible.
We have done four albums now in two years. Which is a lot. We have done a reissue of Bamboo Recordings and used some old material. Then Kallikatsou, which I've been recording for the last twenty years. And also the remix of Deepchord. Now we are finishing Mantra Recordings, the fifth Chi Factory album. This one is completely new, completely here and now. It's like a circle closing. I hope we make more but you never know.
[stops and thinks]
It's interesting, your magazine is also about film. I've been thinking how inspired I've been for Andrei Tarkovsky. When I began making music as Chi, I was watching his work. I watched Nostalghia at least ten times. You find deeper layers. The colours and images - of course they are inspiring.
CB: What was your experience like in Patmos?
HVO: I try not to talk too much about the experience I had in the cave. But still, sometimes I feel I need to. I came there the first time in the eighties totally fucked up after a long tour with a soul-funk band. I really needed a break. I found the cave by accident. Staying there turned me inside out. After some weeks my mind came to rest and I started hearing distant music at night. Strange sounds. It was sometimes even scary but I kept hearing them.
When I went home, I decided to recreate the sounds I heard. That's how it started. The music found me. Later Jacobus joined me and we stayed there together. It was magic. I can recommend it to everybody. But I will never start advising that everybody should go to this cave [laughs]. Please don't.
CB: How do you feel about the first CHI album having its moment 30 years later?
HVO: It's a blessing. You also have to be lucky. There are many great musicians I know and it's never happened for them.
I once read an interview with David Sylvian from [the band] Japan when he made his solo album Brilliant Trees (if you haven't heard that you should, it's a mind blower) and I remember him talking about it. He said that he knew at least ten people who were close to him that made even more interesting music than he could but he was lucky to have the connection with a great team. The music has to find you and then you have to be lucky to find the right people to bring it out there.
CB: Is the next album calling you?
HVO: The next album (after Mantra Recordings) is almost finished. It's another remix I've made. I can't say more than that for now.
Then comes the hard part, I will have to find something new. Or it will have to find me. It’s never finished. What helps is reading parts of the Mysticism Of Sound by the great Sufi poet, musician and mystic Inayat Khan. It's the only book I still read. Sometimes just a few lines. It reveals all the secrets of sound. You can find it online like almost anything these days.
Apart from that I just get on with my life. I meet people. I’m now the booker of a small but beautiful jazzclub (Jazzcafe Dizzy) in Rotterdam. We do over 200 shows a year. I see incredible talent from around the world. I meet young people that are fresh, talented and open to explore the unexpected.
Pure improvised jazz has always been an inspiration. I once performed doing soundscapes with the great Archie Shepp in the eighties in Rotterdam. One show with him taught me everything you need to know. Improvisation is the key.
Maybe I will make an ambient jazz album soon. Who knows. I love the piano playing of Nina Simone. Also how Mulatu Astatke uses the Wurlitzer piano and his vibraphone to play Ethiopian jazz. Or the harp of Alice Coltrane. What’s in a name. Let’s just do it. It's also nice to hear Jacobus again on his saxophone after all these years. Maybe I will even sing. Hope we all live long enough to make and see it happen. Nobody knows where the rainbow goes when she meets the sun.