Interview: The Black Atlantic

The Black Atlantic - Photo by Anneke Hymmen

The Black Atlantic – Photo by Anneke Hymmen

To say that 2013 has been a rough one for Geert van der Velde would be the understatement of the year. After playing successfully for nearly half a decade in indie-folk outfit The Black Atlantic, his bandmates left the project one by one to pursue other musical projects. To add insult to injury, the management, label, and booking agency all followed suit, parting ways with van der Velde and leaving him in a bout of uncertainty.

But while some might take this progression of events as a sign to throw in the towel, the admittedly downhearted van der Velde saw it as an opportunity to reinvent himself rather than simply giving up.

“I look at this as a transitional period,” he said. “Sometimes you just have to adapt to the changes put in front of you and play the cards you’ve been dealt. So, I’m trying to do just that.”

More specifically, what this means for van der Velde is a true return to his roots, where he is in control of every step of the process, something that has as many positives as it does negatives.

“I’m almost completely back to square one,” he explained, noting that he once again has to do everything on his own. “I’m booking my own tours. I’m releasing my own music and financing it all myself. It’s a lot of work and it’s a lot at the same time. But, I’ve been here before and I’ve worked through this before. So, I’m just going to keep my head down and keep moving forward. I found there’s nothing else I want to do more.”

One can’t help but admire his dedication to continuing at The Black Atlantic, particularly when little else this year, other than the encouragement and support of fans, has served to reaffirm his music trajectory.

“It all happened in a really short amount of time, and all of a sudden I had no one to work with or who seemed to believe in [what I did]. I felt pretty abandoned. I started doubting whether I should still be writing music…I haven’t gotten any breaks. And, I’m not even close to where I had hoped I’d be with The Black Atlantic this year,” van der Velde shared. “But, what has kept me going is writing and recording the songs. The inherent pleasure I get from finishing a song and envisioning it being recorded and arranged [is motivating. Now,] releasing this new EP of solo acoustic songs is just a way for me to reconnect with that joy. To write music for music’s sake.”

He is referring to Enshrine, a three-song release that comes out on Nov. 7. The songs on the album are the result of what came out when van der Velde started writing again when the band dissolved, so they are fresh and raw, which also comes across in the recording, which was done in a 13th-century church.

“I recorded this EP live and straight to tape with absolutely no post-production or mixing done afterward. So each recording of a song is absolutely pure in that sense. There’s no correction. And there was no room for error. I did do multiple takes of songs of course, and we picked out the best ones. But, I hear mistakes all over the place: tiny things like strings bending slightly out of tune, or my arm scraping against the guitar, or a not perfectly played chord and so on, and so on. But, I’ve kept all of that. I had to,” van der Velde said of the release. “I wanted it to be that kind of a time capsule as well. I figured if I was going to tour solo for awhile, I should have some kind of release that reflects exactly that. So that’s why I did it this way.”

In addition to the overall stripped-down feel of the songs, the lyrics themselves are unguarded, creating an invitation for the listener to get comfortable with van der Velde’s imagery and world. One such example is in Amor Fati, a song that speaks directly of what transpired this year.

Amor Fati (’embrace your fate’ or ‘love of fate’) is definitely…an affirmation-concept that helped me make sense of the stuff I went through this year,” van der Velde shared.

Preceding the release of the EP, van der Velde planned a solo tour throughout the Netherlands, Germany, and Switzerland at smaller venues and clubs and even living rooms. After a few warm up dates earlier this month, he took a break, then starts up again tomorrow with 20 dates in total before the end of the year.

And naturally, with just van der Velde at the helm, the overall experience will be much different than shows of the past.

“For starters, you can’t make as much noise with just an acoustic guitar. So it will definitely be a very different experience playing solo each night. The energy will be different. It definitely feels more vulnerable but it’s also freeing in a way that I think it might change people’s perspective on the songs as well,” he said. “The emphasis will be on my voice and the lyrics more, I’ve noticed. Which is nice because I put a lot of work into my lyrics but they were always kind of obscured by the arrangements and harmonies. So, it’s interesting and challenging to perform that way. I can’t hide behind the wall of sound. And I have to really inhabit the lyrics more again to perform them.”

For now, he will also avoid using pre-recorded parts or samplers and let his guitar and his voice do the work. Admittedly, van der Velde–a self-proclaimed “recovering perfectionist”–does miss the different music parts working together to create the sound texture, but he doesn’t want them to be manufactured either.

“I don’t like the idea of essential melodies, or vocal harmonies, or beats…not actually being played. If it can’t be played live then I’ll do without it,” he said. “I would like experiment with looping myself live in the future, though, for solo shows. But, the songs I’ve written thus far don’t lend themselves to that unless I completely re-envision them.”

But where the music will only consist of van der Velde, touring solo has afforded him the opportunity to bring along his family, including his wife, two kids, and mother.

“I always have a really hard time adjusting to the schedule and the kids’ rhythm when I come back from a tour, or a longer period of recording away. I sometimes don’t see them for a full month. Same goes for my wife and [me]. It doesn’t get easier but you learn how to deal with it better,” he said. “Now that I’m touring solo for the first time in almost 5 years, I wanted to take the opportunity to bring them for the first time. My daughter is almost four and will soon to go school. My son will turn two on tour. So, they’re at an age where we can take them. It’ll be an experiment for all of us. Hopefully we’ll like it and we get to do it more together.”

Of course, van der Velde is also open to the possibility of a new line-up, which would change things once again. Seeing as 2014 will bring about a new album, he also shared that it could bring new members, but that the overall goal is simply to write and play and keep on going.

“I have enough material for a new album. It’s just a matter of finishing the lyrics and vocal melodies, and then working out the arrangements for a full band. Once that’s done, I’m going to get a band together to rehearse those songs. And, once we’ve rehearsed we’ll either tour the songs for a bit to really flesh them out, and then go into the studio to record. Or, if I can’t find the right people, I’ll just record everything that I can myself and just ask some friends to play the instruments that I envision but can’t play myself, like drums or strings or brass,” van der Velde said. “[But] my main focus is on finishing the writing for the album this year. I don’t want to put all my energy into getting a new band in shape by rehearsing a lot. In the meantime, I’m releasing this new EP and I may even release another one early next year just to get out there and play and try out lots of new songs.”

The Black Atlantic will play at Acker Stadt Palast in Berlin on Thursday, Oct. 24, as part of the Autumn Sweater Festival. The show begins at 22.00

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