More about: The Sweet Release Of Death
“Friends of mine are always joking that when I touch the guitar it’s just dissonance. I can’t play a major chord for shit,” says Martijn Tevel [pictured centre, in the above press shot].
Speaking towards the end of the below Q and A with Gigwise, the Rotterdammer, known as a guitarist with a penchant for destructive sounds, is recalling his general style which is driving the new Sweet Release Of Death album. Titled The Blissful Joy Of Living, across six tracks spanning just under 20 minutes, the listener is immersed in one of the most creative, thrilling – and, by his own concession, nerve-wracking – listens of the year.
And this by no means undermines the magnetic power of the three-piece as a unit, as it’s irrefutably there, but Martijn’s characteristic approach – dissonance – on six strings has a lot to do with the above mentioned LP’s appeal. Ultimately, the Dutchman inhabits the songs deeply, crafting darkly-atmospheric, primal energetic emotions through his instrument, which truly envelops the listener in the most affecting way.
Key to this, perhaps, is Tevel's choice not to be a catch all crowd-pleaser but go with his gut: “I think guitar sounds that sound ugly to a lot of people could be beautiful to me.” Being obsessional, and a grafter, is also key. Handcrafting nearly every pedal used on the record – this includes the lead guitar and bass as played by singer-bassist Alicia Bretón Ferrer – he’s a gone above and beyond. Asked to describe the characteristics of one of the key pedals used the guitarist says – with the air of someone whose life’s indebted to handmade rock n’ roll, goth, punk and so on – that, “It just destroys nearly everything, especially the low end, which I really like.” That’s what we like to hear.
Finding beauty in extreme sound, and having a neat way with a soldering iron, may be notable traits – and endearing ones to me – but far from the basis of the whole conversation with this master craftsman.
In this career-spanning interview, to understand what led Tevel to become who he is as an artist today, I ask about his formative experiences as a younger adult on the Dutch underground. I also hear all about the new record, the thriving, close-knit Rotterdam scene, plans for a mini UK tour and more….
Delve into the world of The Sweet Release of Death below:
Gigwise: Hi Martijn. How’s it going?
Martijn Tevel: Good, got a show later tonight.
Gigwise: Good stuff. What do you think is special about the three of you together [Alicia Bretón Ferrer (vocals/bass), Sven Engelsman (drums) join Tevel on stage]? People come away quite breathless from your shows.
MT: Well, we’ve known each other for 17 years and have been in this band together eight or nine years. The music has changed a lot over that period of time.
GW: What’s changed?
MT: In the beginning we were just trying stuff out and not really sure where to go. I was singing and Alicia was singing but later on it condensed into what it is now. I stopped singing and started making more guitar noise. Alicia slowly became the focus point of the band. I think the second album was where we found something and thought, ‘This is it, this is what we want to make.’ Specifically, the opening song on the last album, ‘The End’, when I heard that back for the first time, I felt like we’d found our sound.
GW: It sounds positive. Not so positive was when you posted the new album on social media on release day and said it was one of the most difficult periods as a band. What happened there?
MT: This one was really heavy. The last one we went in without a plan but had a lot of creative energy and everything just flowed. This time, we went into the studio, not really planning an album. We had a few new songs and thought maybe do an EP or something but we didn’t really have a clear idea about it. We went in and got four songs down and then we were like, ‘We’re doing well’. The songs were good and we thought it would be a shame to make it a single or an EP so we might push and make it an album. But that’s when it bit us in the arse. Some of the material didn’t work. Sometimes you go into the studio with a song it doesn’t work – you can’t get the vibe right. We started to worry, ‘We only have six songs or something, is that an album?’ We also ran out of money because recording is expensive as fuck – a vinyl record is really expensive. A lot of worries came into play but somehow it all came together in the end.
GW: Were there some dodgy band meetings?
MT: There were some bad vibes in the studio because of not getting a particular song out. We record our sessions live and then we add on the other elements so then you keep that live feeling, the feeling of a band playing as opposed to layers of tracks. We had one song planned which we just couldn’t get right, and after 100 times we broke down. It was pretty bad, we were all like, ‘I don’t know if the band is going to make it to the end of the year, not the way this is going.’
GW: What’s it called?
MT: ‘Humans’. We’ll be playing it at Rockaway Beach festival. It’s in our live set. Maybe because it’s too fresh or too complicated, we just couldn’t get it for the record.
GW: What are some of the benefits of going into the studio without over planning?
MT: The benefits are you can get some really crazy stuff out of it. The last song on the album, ‘The Weather is Great Today’, that’s a lot of studio experimentation.
GW: Yeah, it feels like a hip-hop track, almost.
MT: It’s not so far from hip-hop, the beat. Sven made it on a drum computer as opposed to his kit. There’s some crazy sounds in there and none of that was planned. We have some really creative producers we work with, too so that really, really helps.
GW: Who was in the studio except the band members?
MT: We recorded in a studio called Katzwijm studio currently run by Tammo Kersbergen and Floyd Atema, and they sat in at the controls. They are carrying on the legacy of the previous guy running it: former Space Siren guitarist Corno Zwetsloot – he sadly passed away. It’s fucking gorgeous, all analog and has a really big tape machine.
GW: Can hear the quality. It sounds really punchy – like a big sounding rock record.
MT: Yeah. When I was listening to the test pressing at Sven’s place, I was sat between two speakers and was like, ‘Ah, this is a pretty nervous record’. There’s a lot of energy in there. I think the panic and nervousness of it all came across really well.
GW: You’re touring this hectic atmosphere around and turning a lot of heads in the process. What do you think draws people to this type of music?
MT: It’s probably the same thing that draws me to music. There’s a certain allure to strange, dark material. Growing up I listened to a lot of The Cure. It’s always been fascinating to me. When I started playing guitar that’s something I gravitated towards naturally. Friends of mine are always joking that when I touch the guitar it’s just dissonance. I can’t play a major chord for shit. And – [in terms of audience] it hasn’t always been this way. When we started out people didn’t understand what we were doing; yet, somehow, gradually, people have become so positive about it.
GW: How do you approach laying down a guitar track? What are you thinking you want to achieve?
MT: There is some kind of energy I want to get across. You know ‘Sway’ [lead single] it’s a really primal sound to me. And I don’t see it as playing notes; I’m using the guitar to push that out. That’s how I lay the groundwork for Alicia to fill in a lot of the rhythm with the bass parts and the meaning with singing; and Sven will provide the rhythms. I’m there pushing that energy out and creating an atmosphere and within that atmosphere the song works.
GW: Is it quite draining to get into that state of mind?
MT: It can be, sometimes it doesn’t come out of you. But it doesn’t have to be. You know, this is just what we do. Performing live is a clash of energy. I’ve made something and I want to get it out there and it has a lot to do with that energy for me. When you get that back from an audience something really special can happen. This may not be the easiest music to appreciate so when a full crowd really digs this that’s important to me.
GW: It’s quite cool that there’s this space opening up for it. It’s unprecedented, really. The Dutch underground has got a lot more popular in recent months – but still.
MT: Yeah, it often feels unprecedented. I’m here reading some really positive reviews. Two, three years ago this wasn’t happening. And obviously we’ve grown and put out material, but just like you said, I feel like appreciation for this kind of music, and these kinds of bands is growing. I see it all around us. There are some Dutch bands that are doing really, really well at the moment and also playing internationally. Something is happening. There’s something in the air, I don’t know what it is. Our label [Subroutine Records] have been really pushing us and helping us through this process – it’s not like we’ve done this on our own – we’ve had some great help. But like you said, there is a space opening up and I’m happy as fuck with it.
GW: You're often cited to be part of a Rotterdam scene. I’m curious as to your own impression of that – do you feel part of something or do you feel like a singular, loner force?
MT: The Rotterdam scene is a real thing. We know a lot of good bands and musicians here. Rotterdam isn’t that big so when there’s a cool band playing you look around and you know everyone there. As to whether, we really, really feel connected? I don’t know – we know the guys. I see everyone in a different light to most because I repair gear in Rotterdam. I see a lot of the bands here [points around his studio] because they all play old amplifiers and they break down. Do you know Iguana Death Cult? They are always in and out because they are touring a lot and breaking things all the time.
GW: They got a record deal recently. That was cool to see.
MT: Yeah. That’s just to give you an idea of how small that scene is. If you see a band doing well out of Rotterdam the chances of me knowing them are 100 percent. Alicia has another band called Neighbours Burning Neighbours and they just went to the studio and recorded some new tracks so there’s something coming and it’s really cool. So, yeah, the scene is alive – small but alive.
GW: From your perspective as a technician, what do you think the difference in personalising your effect pedals as opposed to buying them in is?
MT: It’s a very big difference for me because a lot of the things Alicia and I play with at the moment I built myself. For example, we’re playing with a pedal based on a 1970s Dan Armstrong Green Ringer. It just sounds crazy. Originally it went directly into your guitar but I’ve remade it as a pedal. It just goes on and off, there are no controls. It sounds so broken.
GW: Tell me about the pedal you've named after the album [The Blissful Joy Of Living] and manufactured to sell as merch.
MT: It’s pretty minimalistic and I think it’s in spirit with the album. I used to use a complicated pedal with all kinds of switches to get a big gain sound. But I was like, ‘I want something simple to get that sound and came up with it’. [Selling it as merch] is something I wanted to do for a long time as I’ve always wanted to do something with these random skills I have and thought someone might appreciate it. I didn’t expect it to do so well, I am building 25 of them right now for mail order.
GW: So what are you charging for the album [vinyl] and the pedal?
MT: It’s 100 euros for the set. [subject to availability and demand]
GW: That’s cool.
MT: Obviously it’s a simple pedal but it’s hand built by me and that’s worth something. I don’t think it’s a crazy price for something like that I use it live as well and it’s all over the album. It’s pretty destructive, it’s almost like a full range fuzz or distortion. You know when you play with an overdrive it distorts a narrow frequency band: it doesn’t distort your low end because it will become muddy; it doesn’t distort the top, top end because it will be ice picks in your ear. Essentially, there’s a lot of stuff going to make sure it’s narrow. And this one’s wide and just destroys nearly everything – especially the low end, which I really like.
GW: I want to rewind a little bit. Where did you grow up?
MT: In Spijkenisse, half an hour from Rotterdam. Sven and Alicia grew up there, too. We went to the same school but I’m a bit older than they are. I left when they came in.
GW: When did you get into guitar?
MT: I started playing guitar really late. When I was 19 I started going to an alternative venue in Spijk where a lot of alternative bands played and I got quite heavily into it, going to see bands most weekends. I found myself hanging out a lot with people in bands – Sven and Alicia were drumming in bands back then and friends of mine. I got fed up being the only one not playing an instrument so on my 20th birthday I picked up a guitar for the first time. One of my main early influences were The Thermals, I was really into that shit – you should listen to their first album, it’s very short as well. I really just started getting obsessed with just the sound of guitar. When I started getting into effect boxes [it was no going back]. I’d be like, ‘Oh this sounds broken, this beautiful, this sounds like a cave’. I started getting slowly obsessed with not per se – it doesn’t sound ugly to me – but guitar sounds that sounds are ugly to a lot of people could be beautiful to me.
GW: OK. How did you manage to convince players who were already accomplished that you are in a band with now to let u have a chance to grow your ability?
MT: I don’t know, they were playing, but also just starting out. Somehow this small bubble of people in formed in Spijk where everyone played an instrument and a lot of bands came out of that.
GW: Which bands?
MT: Alicia used to play in The Cuties; I played in a band called Black Dog Society; there was Surface Noise. None of them went anywhere. I think The Cuties had a record label and were the biggest. Alicia dropped out of it and a few years later we started playing with The Sweet Release.
GW: When was the definitive beginning of The Sweet Release Of Death?
MT: I really have to reach to give you an exact date. I remember I wasn’t playing in any band; or maybe I was playing bass in a friends band. But I knew that Alicia was in a band with a record label but really tired of it. I also knew Sven’s band had just quit. It was after a really bad summer when I lived in the attic of my parents' house; I had written some depressing songs there. So, in consideration of the fact they were dropping out of their bands, I just e-mailed them these songs and said, ‘Maybe we could get together and do something?' So we just started fucking around with some songs from there, really. I think I was tired of not playing in a band.
GW: Did that lift you out of a depression?
MT: I don’t know if it lifted me out but it helped – it changed my life for the better. That’s crazy, it was just a stupid email and now we’re here with our third album.
GW: Do you still play some of those demos in your set?
MT: No. We threw away so much material. I don’t think we play anything from the first album. But there was music before the first album I don’t think it’s [any good]. Sometimes we hear it and have shameful memories. I suppose there’s some good stuff but it’s very different to what we’re doing now.
GW: Well the new record’s really on point. When did you first take to the studio – a few months ago?
MT: We started last year. We hadn’t been playing much, just trying to work on new material. And we eventually finished it this year. We were really down in the dumps back in January : the album wasn’t coming together, and we hadn’t played for six months, we were at a standstill. But later that month we had some gigs in Amsterdam and Groningen with big turn outs and an excitable energy and that was a turning point; it was like, ‘Wow, this is why we’re doing this’.
GW: Well looking forward to seeing it in the UK. The Rockaway Beach show is a good get [John Cale, The Jesus And Mary Chain, Fontaines D.C headline].
MT: I’m excited about it. The line-up seems pretty cool, man. I heard it’s taking place in some resort [Butlin’s] it looks crazy, that’s what makes it interesting and fun to do. And we haven’t been out to the UK much. We played a lot smaller gigs there last year. But it was a tour that was planned late, you know, and it was hard to get a lot of gigs. We played two or three gigs and went back home. This seems a bit more high profile.
GW: And will there be any more UK shows around it?
MT: Koen [ter Heegde, from Subroutine Records] is working very hard, we are going to try to do some gigs around it. Maybe some in London and one in Brighton, we’ll have to see.
GW: Well, hope to see more dates soon. Catch you soon.
The Sweet Release of Death - The Blissful Joy of Living is out now on all major streaming platforms. The vinyl can be found here.
The Sweet Release Of Death 2020 UK gig dates:
11 January 2020 - Rockaway Beach, Bognor Regis
The Blissful Joy of Living Europe autumn tour 2019:
18 - Leeuwarden, Zalen Schaaf
19 - Rotterdam, Left of the Dial / WORM
26 - Amsterdam, Helicopterland
01 - Groningen, Fridaynite
02 - Eindhoven, Stroomhuis
07 - Utrecht, Le Guess Who? / EKKO
10 - Ljubljana, Klub Gromka
11 - Zagreb, AKC Attack
12 - Belgrade, Kvaka 22
13 - Bratislava, FUGA
14 - Brno, Kabinet MÚZ
15 - Vienna, Weberknecht
16 - Prague, Underdogs
30 - Den Haag, Submarine Festival
04 - Amsterdam - OCCII
06 - Haarlem - Patronaat Haarlem
More about: The Sweet Release Of Death