GW Sok interview.
Last October I caught a track by ‘King Champion Sounds’ on Radio 6 and was excited by something that sounded somewhere between ‘The Beat’ and ‘The Psychedelic Furs’-although that may be contested! Later that month I was lucky to see them at a small venue just outside Highbury and Islington Tube-brilliant! At the gig I got a copy of their album read the lyrics and realised they were pretty left leaning in their content, turned out the lead singer and lyricist is GW Sok, renown Dutch anarchist and ex lead singer with The Ex who was happy to do an interview.
The Ex emerged from the Dutch squat scene of the late 70s as an anarcho punk/art band. Can you describe the Dutch anarchist squat scene of that time, does it still exist now?
In the late 70s the Netherlands suffered from a huge economic crisis. Unemployment rates were high, and so for the youth there were no jobs. And no possibilities of affordable housing either. (Sounds familiar, right?) Squatting solved some of these problems for us. We were on the dole, but didn’t need much money as we didn’t need no luxuries. Squatted housing was cheap, although not totally for free, as a lot of time was invested to for repair and renovation. But the great thing was, that we had a lot of free time. Time which we could spend on the things that we felt was important. Art, music, magazines, soup-kitchens, alternative shops and restaurants, stuff like that. And next to that many of [us] were busy with activist activities, such as anti-militarist actions, demonstrations against the weapon industry, support-groups for Latin-American refugees, etc. Not all of these were necessarily “anarchist” initiatives, the Left was a quite varied environment, where everybody more or less helped and supported each other.
How did you become ‘an anarchist’, what authors have you found helpful?
Basically I became some kind of anarchist once I entered the Amsterdam alternative scene, being a squatter, playing in a punk band, and supporting certain leftwing causes. But in a way I never really called myself an anarchist. We (i.e. The Ex) preferred to call ourselves “friends of anarchism”. We liked the ideas and ideals of anarchism, but not the nihilist versions of that. The anarchist struggle before and during the Spanish Civil War was a great inspiration, not the mindless smashing of shopwindows during a demonstration. We saw too many people doing stupid senseless destructive things who called themselves anarchists… Easy targets for the rightwing media to give anarchy a bad name. We didn’t want to be part of that negative idea of anarchy.
As for the serious anarchists… well, they often were really too serious, in our opinion. Not much of a sense of humour there to be found. I guess that’s also why I didn’t read much from the oldtime authors. So I do not really have any favourites in that department. My/our idea of anarchism was mainly shaped in present-day-life and via articles and discussions in the leftwing media from that time.
You have written lyrics and columns for over 30 years, have you found your subject matter has changed over time as well as your understanding of things?
In a way I still write about things that I care about. Things that concern us all, that I’m worried about, or angry, or happy. I don’t try to convert people, but I do like to comment on things happening around us, and I do like to say where I stand in these matters. I don’t think that will ever really change. But the way I express myself can change, I don’t feel obliged to stick to a certain routine. Looking back, with the knowledge of today, I might have wished to approach certain topics a bit differently, but I don’t have any regrets about what I wrote back then. True, certain things I now understand better, and with the years I also learned to express myself better, but that’s an important fact of life: the learning and understanding never stops.
One of the things I noticed online was the frequency of collaborations you have been involved in, both as part of The Ex and as an individual musician. Is that something you find particularly valuable? Why?
It is very inspiring to work with other people from time to time. With The Ex, we were always the same four or five people, so after a while you kind of know what you can expect from each other. Then, when you work with people from outside your own inner circle, your own inspiration gets fuelled anew by their creativity and it helps you to explore parts of your own Self which you sometimes didn’t even realize they were there. These collaborations can help you look at your own ways of expression and push them into new directions. Sometimes the results were kinda so-so, but often they were beyond expectation.
You decided to leave The Ex in 2009, what have you been involved in over the last 4 years. Have things worked out how you imagined they would?
To be honest, when I left, I had no idea what it would be like. The main thing was that I realized that after 30 years with The Ex it was time for a change. Somehow my life had become too much The Ex, I was unable to use my creativity in side- or solo-projects outside the band. I’d feel guilty using my texts there, instead of for The Ex. Or I’d get stuck with something unfinished when The Ex machine demanded too much of my attention for a longer time.
So, when I left, I thought I was done with music and I wanted to focus on merely writing and graphic-design.
In the second half of 2009, however, I ended up on stage again, as part of a Dutch theatre-play, and I realized that I still liked to perform and play with text. Then I met this French group from Toulouse, Cannibales & Vahinés, for a project. Which went quite well, and we decided to keep on working together (on a slight irregular basis, though, as we live about 1200 kilometers apart). Then I met with other people/bands, who asked me for collaborations, and it hasn’t stopped since.
I hadn’t realized or imagined that, once I had left The Ex, others would/could be interested in working with me. And I felt really free now to do so, when I would like the people or the project. It’s a bit scary too, also, because it doesn’t guarantee any steady income at all. But, well, it’s now five years since I left The Ex and I am still alive and doing the things I like best.
I saw you with King Champion Sounds in October, the lyrics on ‘World of Confusion’ deal with xenophobia and the ‘Fortress Europe’ mentality. Is that something you see increasing across Europe?
Yes, I do. But I have seen it increasing for a long, long time already. The lyrics of “World of confusion” are slightly adapted version of “Euroconfusion”, a text from 1992, which in a way is the year of the birth of this Fortress Europe. But the problem is bigger than that. Worldwide there are so many people on the run trying to find a safe home, and there’s no easy solution. Simply saying welcome or fuckoff won’t solve it. But, for me, as I see it, this xenophobia is closely connected with the present economic crisis, as it builds on fear. Fear for the unknown, for the people we are not familiar with, who are different from us. And so we’re told they’re gonna take over our jobs, our cities, our countries. This fear is fed by politicians who use it to gain votes. But I haven’t heard them come up with any proper solution yet.
Once we learn to get to know each other better, we can take away some of this fear. And if we think that there are too many foreigners invading our countries, then perhaps we should make a better effort trying to give the refugees less reason to come to us: we should help try to improve the situation in their home-countries.
The song ‘Orbit Macht Frei’ compares television with religion. Could you elaborate on that?
I guess most explanation can be found in the text itself. But, in short: televison is a drug, like religion is a drug. Just like the internet (which, in my opinion, is also a kind of television) it makes people stupid, and keeps people stupid, both out of free will. It could have been such a great medium, but the amount of drivel is increasing, leaving less and less room for intelligence.
You have spent 30 years in activism and stimulating others to thought! How have you sustained that and avoided cynicism and getting jaded?!
I think the main thing that kept/keeps me/us going, is the fact that we are happy with the lives we live. We believe in working together with like-minded people, we don’t believe in greed. We enjoy sharing things, we don’t need much luxury. We try to keep an open mind, and we meet a lot of friendly, great, inspiring people everywhere, it makes us realize we are not alone in this. Maybe we cannot change the whole world for the better, but we can change our part of the world, step by step by step, meeting and making new friends one by one, day by day. It’s not that difficult, in a way. And we laugh a lot, even when we’re tired, and once you can laugh you don’t feel tired anymore.
Holland is a relatively small country, is there a sense of cohesion among the anarchist community there? Have you any insights that could help us here in the UK?
Not sure if I can be of much help with that. As I see it, the Dutch anarchist community is quite small. Some are organized, some are not. I guess the organized ones kind of automatically have international contacts and collaborations, especially due to the fact that Holland indeed is small.
Have you any plans and projects for 2014?
Plans there are aplenty, but you never know which ones you’ll be able to realize. With Cannibales & Vahinés we’re trying to organize shows in Russia, I want to publish a book of Dutch poems, maybe also one in English. I might like to release a compilation-CD of me with some of the artists I’ve been working with the last couple of years.
Projects that are sure include a spring album with UK’s Action Beat (their first album with vocals) with a two week tour in April. My duo The And (voice and guitar) will record some tracks this month for a 7” an 10” release later in the year. I’m working with Cannibales & Vahinés on new songs. Through the year I’m working with several artists (mostly French, I don’t know why that is) on various musical projects. And, of course, there’s King Champion Sounds. The first album was very well received, so now we are busy with new songs to put out later in the year when we go touring again.
And since it is 2014 and The Ex will celebrate their 35th anniversary, so will I because, although I was born a few years earlier, G.W. Sok was also born in 1979.