Photo: Press (DJ Marcelle/Another Nice Mess)
When we get on Skype to conduct this interview in mid-May, it’s already been a few weeks since Marcelle van Hoof had sent over her mix for our Groove podcast, the 300th in the series. She cannot remember what songs she used for it, she says. It is a pretty blunt admission to make, the kind you wouldn’t expect to come from a DJ. But van Hoof simply is not like other DJs. The fact that she does not remember which tracks she used for the mix attests to that, because it reflects how she plays when behind the decks, faced by an audience: spontaneous yet decisive, never looking back.
It is precisely this approach that also characterises her work as a producer. The tracks she has been putting out for roughly five years are written on the fly, never fully polished, documents of a certain time or state of mind rather than products of a laborious process. Her newest album, Explain the Food, bitte, is the third under her DJ Marcelle/Another Nice Mess moniker, following up on 2019 and 2020’s One Place for the First Time and Saturate the Market, Now!, respectively. Her own music, she points out before our interview, is something that she’d rather talk about than just “saying the same things all over again that I have said a hundred times already.” Half of what you hear in her DJ sets these days, she adds, is her own productions anyway.
Which again means that there’s no avoiding that subject. Though of course also a conversation with van Hoof is as full of twists and turns as her mix for our Groove podcast – a continuous flow that is never “safe and predictable” at all.
Your first steps are well documented: you fell in and out of love with punk, embraced post-punk and dub before starting out as a radio DJ. When did you start playing in clubs?
That’s impossible to say. At the end of the 1970s, I bought all these punk records and wanted to share them with people. Most people didn’t have a clue about exciting new music. That means I was DJing already when I was still in school. It’s always tricky to answer all these questions about your first this or that, because you grow into it. I started doing radio shows when I was about 18 years old and played here or there, but of course the club scene at the end of the 70s – you cannot compare that with today’s. I was playing my latest punk records mixed with dub or anything else that I fancied. I think the red thread running through all of this is that I am always quick at discovering new sounds. I was probably one of the first DJs in the Netherlands to play dubstep. Music for me should move forward and be interesting. It’s not about a format, but about an idea of what music is, and about pushing the boundaries of what music or what a DJ set is. So I always wanted to share with other people: “Listen to this, it is fantastic! And if you mix it with something else, it becomes something else altogether.” And that’s what I have been doing all my life. Today, it is my profession, but at the end of the 70s, there was no club scene to speak of and I just played after a gig by The Fall or whatever. I have never wanted to be an entertainer, giving people what they want, but be like: “Oh, hey, you’ve never heard of Lee ‘Scratch’ Perry or Cabaret Voltaire and that is also great!” And then I would mix it together with something completely different, to make the individual piece sound better. That’s my idea behind it, to not make it too one-dimensional, because music should be an adventure. That’s what all those post-punk bands told me: there are no rules. This mentality is the red thread that runs through my musical life. I do not stick to the music style, but the idea. Because I think you should always play the latest music, just as if you read today’s paper. Of course it can be interesting to read a newspaper from ten years ago; I am interested in history, but when I am performing it should be contemporary. This whole house is like a library of underground music from the past 40 years. But I don’t like it when music becomes safe and predictable and almost by definition when something has become history, it becomes safe in a way. When I go back to the music of my youth … I am not answering your question anymore… (laughs)
Please, go ahead!
If you listen to something like Joy Division today, it’s almost like The Doors or something. Everyone buys the t-shirts and it’s become a cliché. It’s like the Beatles, the Rolling Stones – Che Guevara t-shirts! All the same! But I have seen Joy Division and back then, that was dangerous music. But the moment music becomes safe and predictable, when it becomes something like a t-shirt, I lose interest. I may like to listen to old music in a private setting, but I would never play it in a live setting because there is too much retroism and safeness in music, not just in club music, but in any kind of music. In the Netherlands, within the mainstream music scene, it’s a compliment if you get told that you sound like the Beatles. It’s the same with club music. If you play some boring techno or house set like it has been done a million times – also on the Groove website! – people like that because it’s safe and something they have heard before. But for me, that’s extremely boring.
“Sometimes people think that what I do is a kind of joke, but it’s not for me. I have humour in me, sure, but as a DJ I am just doing something different with sounds.”
But what makes music adventurous or not safe nowadays? Can you pinpoint what you are looking for?
No, I can’t say what I am looking for, I only know it when I find it too predictable. What do you like about my mix? There’s always moments of surprise, the way I combine sounds, and that I think makes it always interesting – putting music in a different context. Sometimes people think that it’s a kind of joke, but it’s not for me. I have humour in me, sure, but as a DJ I am just doing something different with sounds. That’s one of the reasons why I play with three decks. I see my turntables as instruments and when I have an extra turntable, I have another instrument! Often when people hear my mixes, they sometimes think they hear one single track, but they are listening to three different things at the same time. If you put music in a different context, that always makes it more interesting. I am not looking for a specific style of music. Techno, electro – these words have completely lost their meaning. There’s still great techno being made, but the majority of it is extremely safe and predictable. So I lose interest. I can maybe make a boring record more exciting by playing some African singing on top, or sounds of people flushing their toilets. It can be anything! My sets are never rehearsed. This is what makes it not too safe for me, because I never know what I will end up playing.
You have also referred to your own sets as “compositions.” Can you explain what you mean by that?
I think I just did!
But that sounds like improvisation to me and not like composition.
Yeah, free composition. Maybe “composition” is the wrong word if you mean something that I have thought of or written down before. The first one to say this to me was Hans-Joachim Irmler of the band Faust. He booked me for a Klangbad festival around 15 years ago. He is not a person who is interested in club music at all, but he saw me playing and got interested. He told me: “What you are doing is like composing with sounds and records.” You can probably also call it live improvising, I don’t know. When you are making food, you can say that you are cooking, but you can also say that you are composing. You take different elements and make something new out of it.
…which brings us to your new LP Explain the Food, bitte. Could you explain the title, bitte?
I think it’s a great title!
It is, especially because I don’t know what it means!
I have many good titles. “The Vegans Are Backstage” is, I think, a very good title. Let’s say that with art in general, there is a danger that if you start explaining everything, it stops being funny. Explain the Food, bitte, that makes you think: “What the hell does she mean?”
You’ve seen the sleeve?
So you’ve seen me sitting there with my face mask on. I had this picture and thought it would be a great picture for a sleeve. It’s from when I was playing in Switzerland five, six months ago. So I came up with Explain the Food, bitte because there’s some food there. But what else does it mean? I don’t like it when everything is too obvious and too clear! There’s only one track title that I keep using, it’s “Technicians and Their Smoke Machines” (from One Place for the First Time) and “Technicians and Their Light Effects” (from Saturate the Market, Now!). On the new LP, that’s “Technicians Leaving the Club.” This is a thread that runs through my LPs, and there’s a story behind this. But for the rest, you shouldn’t explain too much. Of course in electronic music, you can make up any title you want. Sometimes the track title is already there before there’s a track! It was like this with “The Vegans Are Backstage.”
There are however some references in your track titles, like “The Kampala Road Bounce,” which I suppose refers to your connection with Uganda and especially the Nyege Nyege Festival.
If you see the video for it, it becomes obvious! I make a lot of videos myself, that’s a creative process that I also enjoy a lot.
Speaking of which, how do you go about making music? Though you have been DJing for such a long time, that is something you have only picked up doing fairly recently.
I did make some music before, remixes especially. But I am not interested in technology the same way that I would say many men are. (laughs) Like, “How does this work?,” spending days and days on end behind the machines. I try to avoid machines as much as possible, even computers. I don’t have a smartphone. It doesn’t suit me. But I have people around me. I was doing these mix albums on Klangbad some time ago and then Sebastian Schnitzenbaumer from Jahmoni in Munich told me that he’d give me a hand in recording music. “Marcelle, you are creative and very rhythmic and you are free in what you do.” That was very nice to hear. So he pushed me to make my own music, he helped me and since then, I haven’t stopped. I don’t spend much time recording music – when I think it’s good, it’s good. I think one of the reasons why I find so much music so boring is because people spend too much time fiddling around with it. It’s like in the old days when people would start playing guitar solos! That’s also something that I really hate, showing off how good you are. There’s a nice German word for that, “bemüht” (eager, zealous, or forced). Much music is viel zu bemüht. I try to stay away from that. Of course I also make shit music, but I don’t release it! But not because I think about how people will like it or because I think it has to fit into a certain mould, I don’t care about that. Especially nowadays, where there’s so many people who like what I do and become euphoric about it. One of the reasons for this is that I don’t give a fuck about what ordinary people may think about my music. I’m not doing it to be liked, because even if it’s nice to be liked, that’s not my intention. Because if you start doing that, every DJ set ends up sounding the same. I do want to be liked but to be heard!
But if people like you so much for what you are doing, doesn’t this also create a certain pressure – the thought that at some point they may not be surprised anymore by what you are doing?
No, no. I have been doing this for such a long time and I am so close to myself in this sense. So many DJs look like they’re filling out their tax forms, so serious and so cliché. Take a random Boiler Room gig, they all have the same attitude! There’s this male mould, it’s all about looking very seriously at the technique even when the music is totally boring. Everyone takes it so seriously! People spend not enough time on finding good music but more on the technology and acting like how they think a DJ should behave, or how a producer should behave. This is a generalisation, of course, but if you compare it to other arts like painting: you wouldn’t tell an artist that they can only use the colour blue, or it should be clear what the painting represents. I am not going to compare myself to Picasso, obviously, but that was totally abstract and you wouldn’t tell Picasso: “You can’t do this, because it is out of focus!” But an attitude like this is extremely pervasive in the DJ world, an extreme form of conservatism. The people are generally very nice and open-minded, most of them politically left like I am, interested in alternative lifestyles. But when it comes to DJing they are all like that. Those mixes on Groove, or Trax, Boiler Room – all the same! Because people look at it and think: “Oh, that’s the way you should do it.” I am now in my fifties, and why should a woman in her fifties go on about this, preaching that there is a broad spectrum of what a DJ set or a club track is? It can be anything as long as you like it! But it’s so limited. Maybe that’s due to neoliberalism – everyone wants to make it, everyone wants to make a living with it. There’s a glamourous aspect to it, which attracts a lot of people. There’s many young women who see me as a kind of role model and come to me because they want to be a DJ, too. When they ask me to teach them it becomes clear to me that they are skipping a step: liking and knowing music, because it should start with being excited about the music. But they try to skip that because they want to be on stage.
That is indeed neoliberal in the sense that some people think of themselves as a brand first and foremost.
Yeah, but at the same time those people, when you talk about other subjects with them, are not so neoliberal. When it comes to music however, there is an extreme competitiveness. I’ve seen people that I respect as musicians staging applause to put it online and say “I had a great night in Berlin!” It’s all fake! Since I started, music has been a way of life for me. I wanted to be surprised. Otherwise I wouldn’t have a collection of 20.000 records. I am always looking for spaces within music in which I can be free. And I have that so deep within me that I don’t worry about being too predictable. There’s a danger, of course. A while ago, I found a record with people screaming for help. You don’t go to a record shop and ask for a record like this because you don’t know that such a thing exists in the first place. I started my Boiler Room set in Uganda with that and then people started to expect me to start my sets all the time with sounds of people screaming for help. I’ll never do this! For me it’s important to always stay one step ahead of the audience.
But how do you do that? Doesn’t your being critical of technology create a certain limitation? Especially on the African continent, a lot of music is shared online rather than being pressed on vinyl.
Nyege Nyege put out vinyl records. There’s a DJ from Mali that I really like, DJ Diaki. I met him in Uganda and we like each other’s music. I asked him if I could buy some music from him, but of course he doesn’t have any records or even CDs. He gave me a USB stick. There were some 180 tracks on there! (laughs). What I do when I find some music online that I really, really like is that I press some dubplates. So I have some dubplates with DJ Diaki’s music, records which don’t exist. I don’t agree with what you say though, in a way I don’t care about technology, but what I do is very technical, just in a different way. Otherwise I couldn’t DJ like I do! When it comes to musical choices, limitations are good. You can only play so much music in a set and when you have everything at your disposal, the quality of DJ sets deteriorates, I think, because you are less critical. And speaking of limitations, I have 20.000 records and I am searching for new music all the time and I’m buying new music all the time. I think the notion that you do not have enough if you leave out music that’s only released digitally is false. You’re always missing out on things!
Right, but there is currently a lot of amazing club music coming from non-Western regions, Africa or Asia for example, that is simply not available on vinyl.
Sure, but people send me a lot of music, too, and I am searching for it on the internet, although not that fanatically – I’d rather go into a record store. And I have a whole stack of dubplates with a lot of people’s music. I find DJ Diaki’s music so thrilling that I have to play it live. And the only rule I have for playing live is that I only use vinyl. In my radio shows I also play MP3s or whatever.
You’ve said before that nowadays you play a lot of your own music in your sets. Have you considered playing live?
No, I have not considered that as much, also because when I make tracks … I think I make good music and people like it. I create it, play it, record it but if you would ask me two days later to play the same track again, I wouldn’t have an idea how! It’s like with my DJ sets, I could never play the same set twice.
On Explain the Food, bitte, there is a track made in collaboration with Michael Vincent Waller. That was probably not as spontaneous then, was it?
I get a lot of remix requests. What I really like is that people from all corners of the musical world appreciate me. The original album (2019’s Moments on Unseen Worlds) is just piano playing and I like it a lot. I play lots of modern classical at home. He had the idea of releasing a remix album and asked me. That was a real compliment for me because his music is removed from the club world. At the time, I was working on music to go along with a literature text. I read a lot of novels and there’s a female Dutch writer, Esther Gerritsen, that I really appreciate and I said to myself that I’d like to put that to music. Without thinking about releasing it, though. And then this remix request came in and then I thought of the music and that it may fit. Because how do you remix a piano track? With a club track, you just pick out some elements, but it was just a piano track! So I used music I already had and combined it with extracts from that. Of course I used some echo and delay, cut it up, but I combined it. In his view, I remixed the track and he was extremely pleased with it. In mine however, I made my own music, using his piano as a sample. The initial idea was his, but it’s not a remix compared to one that I made for Osheyack & Nahash, for example. I felt honoured to have been asked, but the music was already there and I just combined it with that, much like I could play a piano track over a techno beat in my DJ sets – as a sample. The track is called “For Papa,” it’s something he did with his father in mind. That made it a personal thing and that is also why music is so important to me. I became an orphan at a very young age. I had no parents and then punk started and music and its lyrics and especially attitude became a sort of education. It was a coincidence that this song was called “For Papa,” but I could not make a song with that name because I have no a father since I was 11. So I called it “The Orphan Serenade.”
Speaking of the topics that influence music, you have said that music should “reflect the sick society that we live in.”
A lot of music is far too smooth, too one-dimensional. But real life is totally chaotic. You have all these emotions inside of you. I am angry at a lot of things in society and am supporting a new Dutch political party, BIJ1. If you take my DJ sets, which have different emotions: sometimes very aggressive, or very funny, or weird, or confusing, or thrilling, I think that’s a reflection of society. You are suddenly surprised, you are suddenly shocked, you burst into tears. This is what I meant. I was friends with John Peel and we once spoke about why he was using vinyl even though it can come with so much surface noise. He always said: “Well, life has surface noise!” You shouldn’t smoothen that out. Any music is political and if you’re not political, that’s also political! Especially in the DJ world, there is a lot of escapism, both in music and in the parties – taking drugs, not wanting to take part in real life. Of course I can’t tell how people react to my music, but if there’s one thing that it’s not for me, it’s escapism. It can go in any direction, just like life does.
Stream: DJ Marcelle/Another Nice Mess – Groove Podcast 300 (Groovin’ With Mrs. Right)
01. Rendeece – Mora Burning Part 4
02. Jan Jelinek – Karlheinz Stockhausen, Which Difficulties Are Involved In Conserving Electronic Music On Magnetic Tape?
03. DJ Marcelle/Another Nice Mess – DJ Marcelle: The Musical (excerpt)
04. Johannes Maria Haslinger, Cico Beck, Markus Acher – Five Ladies And Two Rhythms
05. Stine Janvin – Zen Garden
06. Narki Brillans – I’ve Got US Dollars
07. Arrigo Lora-Totino – Toccata Vocale
08. DJ Diaki – Calaman
09. Dominique Grimaud – Dress Shop For Cars
10. Pavel Milyakov – Black Sea
11. DJ Marcelle/Another Nice Mess – Technicians Leaving The Club
12. Model Home – No Threshold
13. The Bug – One Dog Riddim
14. Ploy – Snorkeling
15. Alvin Curran (compiler) – Fog Horns With Slowly Arriving Ship, Battersea Park, NYC, 1982
16. Techno Animal (Guest: Porter Ricks) – Demonoid
17. Alvin Curran (compiler) – Bingo Game In Florence, Italy, early 1980’s
18. Felix K – Silent Money
19. Longmoor No. 600 Light
20. Nour Mobarak – Lint Roller
21. Annea Lockwood – Amazonia Dreaming
22. Theatre Of Hate – Do You Believe In The Westworld (The Version)
23. Lori Goldston – Cruel Sister
24. Carnforth No. 44963
25. Dolo Percussion – Dolo 2
26. Zoë McPherson – Growth (Monk Report)
27. Loco # 4000 Class Union Pacific
28. DJ Marcelle/Another Nice Mess – The Orphan Serenade (feat. Michael Vincent Waller)
29. Muslimgauze – Desert Gulag
30. Mark E. Smith – “You’re Probably Right, Marcelle”