Enjoy a rare Dutch treat with Racoon
By Naughty Mickie
Photos by Martijn Lieffers and Courtesy www.racoon.nl 

Racoon has been so successful in Holland that the Dutch government helped them release their album, "Another Day" (PIAS), in the United States. It hit our shores October 2, 2007 thanks to indie distributor RedEye and has been meeting rave reviews, a flood of views on YouTube and a growing fan base.

This is the group's third album and the first for the independent label PIAS, which stands for Play It Again Sam. The group has  had two previous releases with Sony BMG. This time, their album is heading for Platinum status with more than 120,000 copies sold.

The band also reaches out worldwide, as they covered John Lennon's "Working Class Hero" for Amnesty International's Make Some Noise project to raise funds for Darfur. Racoon, vocalist Bart van der Weide, guitarist Dennis Huige, bassist Stefan de Kroon and drummer Paul Bukkens, has played only one time in the states previously, at the 2006 South by Southwest conference in Austin, Texas, but they have toured Holland, Belgium, Germany and the U.K. They are making a name for themselves and will soon be considered among Holland's hottest exports, which include Golden Earring, Shocking Blue, Gruppo Sportivo, Urban Dance Squad, Herman Brood and Bettie Serveert. To top things off, Racoon is already working on their next album.

"Our first rehearsal was November '97," De Kroon recalls. "We were friends for quite a while, we all knew each other from other bands and we all come from a small town here. We had all spent quite some time playing in different bands and at one point all those bands collapsed so we decided to start a new one. That's how we got together."

For the unfamiliar, I ask De Kroon to describe Racoon's sound.

"It's got a lot of singer/songwriter edge to it I think. It's quite pure, it's mainly acoustic. The thing we focus on a lot is writing a decent song, so we don't care too much about our hair," De Kroon laughs, "things like polishing things up in the studio, stuff like that. We try to keep it pure and simple. Our main instrument is acoustic guitar, we do a little bit of electric guitar. Some people describe it as folkish. It takes a lot of time to craft a song until, in our view, it's perfect."

So why did they choose to be dubbed with the name of a masked night creature that is best known for getting into garbage cans?

"Well, by lack of anything else to be honest," admits De Kroon. "It just sounded good. We saw a documentary on Discovery Channel featuring all kinds of raccoons and the name stuck with us. We couldn't come up with anything better. For a Dutch band to use an English name, of course, you need to try to not be too complicated. Racoon I think is a word that everybody understands and can pronounce. We stuck to it."

As per my usual, I seek to learn more about my subject, such as when they first became involved with music.

"From six years on I started playing piano," De Kroon says. "I had a classical education for a few years up till I was 12 I think and then not much for a few years and then I started picking up the drums and bass guitar when I was about 18. I've been playing ever since. I play piano, bass guitar and drums and I sing a bit, that's about it for me."

Wait, I think, you play bass and drums- how did you decide which to play for Racoon?

"I used to be a drummer for a while and then I began to write songs as well." De Kroon explains, "I wanted to be involved in where that was concerned, so I decided to pick up the bass guitar and that way I could sing. It's easier to sing with bass guitar than behind the drums."

We catch back up with his college days.

"I was a bit of a dropout there, I never finished any higher education, but the other guys did," De Kroon tells me. "The singer did and the guitar player was busy writing his thesis about the time the band got really busy, so he never got to finish as well. We all have some education, we all have high school, what you call high school, we all did that, so it's education of life."

And what about day jobs?

"It's bound to be a famous story." De Kroon shares, "For a year or two, between our second and our third album, me and Bart, our singer, we were garbage men for about two years, just to pay for everyday life and funding the album. That was quite a good job to do actually."

"Did you make good money? In America you do," I say.

"We thought we would, but no. In Holland, you make just enough to get by. We did some gigs all that time to play for the record." De Kroon adds that music has been the band's only job for just short of the past three years. "We all quit our day jobs
and dedicated ourselves to music again which is great. That's always been our main objective to be honest, to make a living making music and now we've succeeded and I think it's going to be like that for a while I hope."

"I've got two kids, so that's a job in itself I think and a hobby maybe," De Kroon laughs as he goes on. "I enjoy myself very much reading to my kids and playing with them all kinds of stuff, I think we all do. We go to the beach a lot, I try to go outside a lot with them because it's a healthy thing to do. I like reading a lot, so does the singer, he's always in a book. Music is still a hobby as well as it is our job. I hang out in the pubs, that's quite a hobby as well."

The members of Racoon also enjoy reading, De Kroon tells me, "Bart is really into fantasy. I like fantasy every now and then, but not too much. We exchange books sometimes, but mainly we exchange music- 'This new record and blah, blah blah.' That goes on with us all the time.

"I just finished a book by Bill Bryson, 'A Little History About Most Everything' I think it's called in English (The title is actually "A Short History of Nearly Everything")." De Kroon continues, "I like scientific written in a popular way, I like literature, I like pop as well. I like science fiction, Douglas Adams, he's a very funny, fantasy type of writer. Anything I can get my hands on actually. I've been reading a lot of biographies lately, musical biographies or history."

We return to discuss Racoon's creative process.

"There's three of us who write- Bart and Dennis, the singer and the guitar player, they most of the time write together as a duo, so to speak, a singer and songwriter in two persons," says De Kroon. "And me myself, I write on my own a lot and sometimes with the two guys, so there's three captains on one ship trying to get their ideas across. We all got ourselves a little Dictaphone, a little gizmo to record everything from our speech to bits of music and bits of lyrics. We always keep that in our pockets and record anything that comes to mind.  And once in a while we put it all in a big pile and start working out the best bits and try putting them together and throwing a lot of it away," he laughs. "That's writing."

De Kroon finds inspiration everywhere, "I write music all the time. Bart, he's really into lyrics. When we're writing, I think  95 percent of our lyrics are Bart's doing and five percent may be mine. My main thing is music. I'll play the bass guitar and write the songs with lyrics that go like 'dee-dah dee-dah', " laughs De Kroon. "The words are gibberish."

"Do you write using the piano?" I wonder.

"Sometimes, but guitar a lot," responds De Kroon. "I'm a crappy guitar player, but for some reason it works.  Because when you get too good on it then you tend to maybe get too technical and lost in yourself. I'm a crappy guitar player, so it's a good instrument for me to write on.

"Bart's here as well and he's says, 'The best songs are only written with one finger, the best parts played with one or two fingers.' Our guitar player doesn't agree. " De Kroon goes on, "I think he's a very good guitar player, so he's maybe the other way around a bit. He always tries to come up with a very beautiful register or piece of music, which is good as well. I think the two combine together to make up really diverse songwriting, I hope anyway."

Not having spent much time in the U.S., I can't ask De Kroon to compare scenes, but I can ask him for his thoughts on music in Holland and Europe.

"In Holland it's a lot of British music at the moment," says De Kroon. "The whole new wave of bands has transferred into things like The View, all that kind of stuff. It's really popular at the moment. Market Five from Canada or The Killers from the U.S.  Plus we have a local scene, the Dutch bands, I think, are getting better at what they do. That scene used to be, for quite a few years, nothing good came out of it until we were on the top, which is not modest maybe, but for the last few years it's doing really well, there's a lot of good music coming out. The pop scene here with different bands and quite a few guitar bands and everything in between.

"In Holland, I think there will always be Dutch music with Dutch lyrics, we call it, you know German schlagers? It's hard to explain, it's all in Dutch so you can sing along. It's people's music, that's a good description," continues De Kroon. "And rock music is always popular here, guitars. And also, our kind of music, we're pretty big as well. That singer/songwriter feel is getting more and more popular over here, it's a bit of a little rest between all the others. There's quite a few artists who do stuff on their own in the moment, which I have never seen for years. It's getting more and more popular, just a guy or a girl with a guitar."

Has the Internet helped Racoon?

"I think so," De Kroon assents, "Our record came out at just the right time, just at a time when everybody was maybe getting fed up with, another thing that's big here is house music, they got a bit fed up with it after a while, so it's just the right time I think."

Now for the most important question-- why has the Dutch government stepped in to help this rock band?

"It's not so easy for a Dutch band to get further ground, especially in the U.S., so our manager, she decided to, there's a few
organizations that raise funds to subsidize you a bit, so we started writing to them and, because we have quite a success here in Holland, there's opportunities maybe in the U.S. as well," De Kroon replies. "She proposed the plan to them. They took the bait and gave us some money to do promoting and marketing. We still pay a lot ourselves, but every little bit helps to make the step. It's a big step to release an album in the U.S. I think, especially if you don't want it to die a slow death. We want to be very serious about this kind of thing, so to be subsidized a little bit is very lucky."

Racoon was helped by musicXport.nl, a joint project of Buma Cultuur and the Dutch Rock & Pop Institute, financed by the Dutch Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the Ministry of Economic Affairs and the Ministry of Education, Cultural Affairs and Science.

To back their album, the band is hoping to secure some tours.

"It would be nice to hook up with a U.S. band and maybe do a support tour for a few weeks, but then again, it's not the easiest thing in the world to accomplish, so we'll do our best to try," De Kroon says. "For us, as a Dutch band, it's really hard. Nobody knows you yet, so it's a waste of time and money. We have to start all over again in the U.S."

So, what's next for Racoon?

"We're about three-quarters away from finishing a new album." De Kroon explains, "We've been working very hard, February up till now (September). We've been in the studio for a while and then had a little holiday for about a week before and we'll go back in the studio tomorrow and hopefully finish it in a week and a half. We've got to do some backing vocals, mixing and mastering and then it's going to be released here in Holland in February of next year. We've got to do a lot of touring in Holland, the festivals and the clubs. In the meantime, hopefully, we'll get booked in the U.S. That would be great for us. We like to play in Holland, but I think our music is international enough to try and make it in the rest of the world."

Some bands have enough material for lots of releases.

"We work per album, but there's always a lot of ideas that get stashed away for a later time," says De Kroon. "We always have a little shelf of ideas so we can pick some out. That's the starting point for our new album. We're never completely dry of ideas, thank God."

I tease De Kroon that when ideas dry up, he should head to the pub to refresh.

"That happens when you drink, yeah, more beer, more beer," laughs De Kroon. "Then it will come again.

"We have a feeling that our music could do well in America because they're open to our kind of music. It's not that we've made it our mission to conquer America or anything like that, but it would be really nice if we could get something going over there and hopefully people will start enjoying our music and discovering us," De Kroon continues. "Because we've got other albums that, well, aren't going to come out in the America, but there's that back catalog that people can dig into and hopefully have fun with."

"But people do make the effort to find and purchase imports if they like a band," I remark.

"With this release, yeah, we hope that will happen." De Kroon states, "I think Americans are very open. When they like something, they really promote it as well. You're all very enthusiastic, especially about music, but about all kinds of things and I think that works for us a bit."

Learn more about Racoon and when they're coming to your part of the world at www.racoon.nl

Also, visit my blog at http://mickieszoo.blogspot.com

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