June 16, 2010

Opiate for the Punk Masses

This interview with Ralf Opiate was done over the course of december 2009 through email. Ralf has been an active member of the Dutch and U.K. punk scenes for years now and runs Opiate records and distro. Over the past couple of years he has released records by Dutch and British bands such as Kriegstanz, The Last Mile, Makiladoras, Burnt Cross, Whole in the Head, Wreck of Old '98 and his own bands Orwell Nation and Staathaat. He just co-released a split 10" by Seein Red and Mihoen. He also organizes gigs in the city of Brighton where he currently resides.

O.k. Let’s start off with a short introduction; who are you and what do you do in your daily life?

My name is Ralf, 31 years old, originally born in the Netherlands now living in Brighton (UK). I have been here on and off for the past 8/9 years now. I currently work in London. With my job being so busy and commuting there pretty much every day of the week, that pretty much takes up the majority of my time. In my few spare moments I keep myself busy with organizing gigs and tours, releasing the occasional record and doing a small distro. Every so many years I also seem to find myself in a band, but I’m not doing anything serious on that front at the moment.

Can you give a short history of how you became involved in punk and how your involvement developed over the years?

I grew up in a small village in the Southeast of Holland, with hardly any shops, definitely none that sold records. So when a bunch of us started to get into louder music around '87/'88, we relied heavily on older cousins making us tapes, which we’d then copy for each other. As a result we only knew and listened to whatever they decided to share with us, which was mainly metal/hardrock, and so I was really into bands like Helloween, Guns n’ Roses, Slayer, Iron Maiden, Motorhead and especially the 1st 4 Metallica albums.

This mutual tape copying continued when we all eventually went to highschool in the “bigger town” roughly 10km away, met new people and discovered new bands as a result of it. It was still pretty much metal we listened to at the time, but slowly punk started to sneak in as well. Initially more well known bands like The Clash and Sex Pistols, but the real shift for me personally happened when I met Johan, who currently plays in Union Town and still is one of my best friends to this day. I had spotted him for a while, his Guns N’ Roses shirts and school bag with ‘Sex Pistols’ written on it, clearly singling him out as a potential alley, but once we finally got talking and hit it off, he quickly introduced me to the whole new world he was just starting to discover as well. He was able to make me tapes of the more underground punk stuff happening in the early/mid 90s, as well as 80s classics like Minor Threat, Black Flag, Negative Approach, DOA etc. Which I then of course dutifully copied again for the others.

Coinciding with all of this, a really good DIY punk thing had slowly started to develop again in the area (after an 80s heyday with Pandemonium, Disgust etc.), which Johan also definitely helped introduce me to. I believe the first DIY gig we went to together was one that Slamsquad played, a good local band who together with bands like A$O had some key players in and around them who also started organizing gigs for other groups. The annual “punk picnics” they were heavily involved in, were really important for the local scene and definitely introduced a lot of kids to a punk world outside our own local area, as well as being the perfect setting for lots of young people to get to know each other. These events were completely DIY and for a lot of us very inspiring. They definitely shaped my views of punk itself and showed me what can be done if people get together and actually do something instead of just talking and complaining.

I think that period in the early/mid 90s built the foundation for a lot of people’s eventual involvement in the punk scene. Not to mention their longevity in doing so. Many of those who were getting into it and/or were around in the area back then, later on became very active in the wider Dutch scene as well. Bands like Insult, BSE, Mary Bell, Union Town, Mallorn, Hysteria, Orwell Nation, Staathaat, Inhume, Bile, Godverdomme, Radio Bikini etc. all have/had people with their original roots in that time and place. Bearing in mind how tiny and rural that area where we grew up actually is, it still amazes me. Proportionally it probably is the part of the country that produced the highest ratio of active punks in the past 20 years...

Anyway, after a while a bunch of us started to group together more; Johan, me and 3 others. We eventually started visiting towns outside our own area for gigs as well, which coincided with us slowly getting more actively involved in punk as a whole. There was never any doubt in any of our minds that if you really wanted to experience it properly, you had to get yourself involved. Johan, always the enthusiast and inspiration, started doing a fanzine. Me and 2 other friends started doing a newsletter. It kind of snowballed from there and it just never stopped for me.

I then moved to Groningen, became friends with those who shared the same vision there (great people like Mark Shikari/Graanrepubliek Records) got involved in putting on gigs, started doing a distro, ended up in bands, etc. That’s kind of been the theme of the story wherever I have lived since, I just always try to involve myself in what is happening locally and try and figure out a way to contribute to it.

You run Opiate records; what’s the idea behind the label? What would you say is the common thread that ties all the releases together?

There’s definitely a specific common thread, but it’s not a musical one. It’s just me trying to help out friends and I only release records by people I actually know who do something that inspires me. In doing this, I am not so much interested in punk as just one specific 'sound', as one pre-agreed easily marketable set of chords if you will. I like to think of it as something that's more than just music anyway, with ideals, principles, community & politics still very much at its heart. To me that's the only way it remains relevant and to ensure it can never really be co-opted by the mainstream or by businessmen looking for a quick buck. It makes sure we retain that 'complete control' both the Big Boys and The Clash sang about I guess.

I know some people might view all this as somewhat ‘idealistic’, as if that would be a bad thing anyway. But with punk surviving as a credible underground movement for over 30 years now, I'd say there's room for this kind of idealistic optimism. That's in a time where I personally also feel some people are slightly losing sight of what's important and what makes us 'punks’. When I open a MRR these days - with all these new 'labels' just seemingly out to hype their latest pointless release with limited editions, limited pressings, special covers and whatever other mainstream record industry bullshit they can come up with to copy – it does make me wonder sometimes and does become a bit demoralizing. Personally it seems to me that if your only reason for existence as a 'label' is to sell something, however pointless, to the kids - based on style over any fucking content,
making things purposely rare instead of trying your outmost best to spread the message and making your releases available as cheap as possible to the kids (not just to the scene 'elite') – you have failed to grasp the absolute basic fundamentals. You are not helping to create a community, you are ultimately helping to destroy it, and that’s exactly the opposite of what I am interested in, and am hoping to achieve, by doing my own 'record label'.

You’re very outspoken about punk and DIY and how you view it; why is DIY so important to you? What does it mean to you?

The easy answer would be to say that I care about DIY because I care about punk. Basically I simply don’t see how the latter can exist or survive in any meaningful without the former. It is ultimately the DIY foundation, principles and ideology that gives the punk scene its strength and resilience and is what ensures it remains relevant. It is the one thing that stops it from becoming yet another product that can easily be bought, sold and controlled by, for lack of a better word, 'the system'. DIY is what makes punk inspiring. It’s anarchism in action. It empowers young and old kids alike, giving them complete control to fight back in whatever way suits their own personality, circumstances and opinions best. It is a fucking radical idea if you think about it: don’t wait around, don’t swallow the shit others feed you. Get up and do it yourself, your voice, your opinions. It plants the seeds of true resistance in every new generation of punks. And it is the one and only reason why punk still fucking matters.

Do you then (and if yes, how?) still view punk as a valid means of resistance?

Definitely! I don’t see why it wouldn’t be. What’s actually changed? It has lost nothing of its the power to educate, because we own our own means of communication. Nothing of its power to organize because we are its organisation. People who try and portray the political side of punk as something of yesteryear either have not been paying attention or have their own personal agenda in doing so. Punk is by definition political and has been at least since the late 70s. It, and everything that is connected with it or grew out of it, has always been at the forefront of resistance against the capitalist system. Our means of organisation are extremely political and have proven time and time again to hold a huge potential for 'resistance'. Not only that, we share between us a long detailed history of 'radical' ideas that are kept alive through lyrics, zines, benefits, bands and the worldwide DIY ‘network of friends’. They inspire each new generation coming into our community, showing them alternatives they would otherwise never have been exposed to. Punk opened up a whole new world for me. It changed my life and the way I look at things, and you’d be hard pressed to find many punks who do not have a similar experience. Yeah, that all sounds idealistic and it’s not something you hear people say as much anymore nowadays, but it doesn’t make it any less true. It’s something I think we should remind ourselves of more often. It probably wouldn’t hurt to sometimes make some more effort to keep that side alive. To reach out more actively to the new generations coming in and to share ideas and politics we by now might take for granted ourselves, but which won’t be to them yet.

With all the focus on records and new releases (and since I know you love records yourself as well) doesn’t punk run the risk of becoming a hobbyist clique of late 20/mid 30-ish recordcollectors?

I don’t think punk will ever ‘become’ something. It is ultimately defined by our actions and combined efforts. Remember those stickers that said: 'punk can’t be destroyed, because it never existed'? I never really understood what it meant then, but it has started to make real sense as I’ve gotten older and been involved longer. It comes back to what we talked about before; because punk is organized along DIY foundations, no one is going to dictate to us what this is about nor going to be able to kill if off. It is what we want it to be and we can shape it however we see fit.

Now having said that, I do know where you’re coming from of course. There are elements sneaking in I’d like to see us counter more vocally, but it’s probably also not something that should be overestimated. When you talk to the people who really keep the scene alive, not just the people who post more actively on internet forums, you realize a lot of them still work from a different template and are involved for reasons that go much deeper than just getting certain records. Most really aren’t that interested, or even aware, of all the supposed 'must have! limited to 50 copies' releases that say little and contribute even less.

Now I love records and I definitely buy a lot, but it doesn’t stop me or similar people around me from continuing to contribute to the scene as a whole. I love punk. I don’t want to be on the sidelines. I want to be involved and I want to see everything, hear everything. I get excited. I love every element of it. I don’t care about getting the original first pressing or coloured vinyl, and think all this limited bullshit is corrosive, but not enough to really affect the basic foundation. As long as there are people who are angry, there will be people who find a place in punk and will continue to make sure it never ends up becoming the above nightmare scenario.

What’s the biggest difference between Amsterdam and Brighton? Why move back to Brighton?

I initially moved to Brighton to be with my girlfriend. She didn’t have a passport at the time due to her being a refugee and with the European immigration laws being what they are, this was the only place where we could be together. When she finally got her passport and moved back to Bosnia for a while to be with family, I thought I’d give Amsterdam a try. I loved it and we planned to live there together for a bit, but ended up moving back to the UK when she got offered a job at an anti-hunting charity in London.

I love Brighton though, so it wasn’t much of a sacrifice to move back. It’s a beautiful place and a great easygoing seaside town. Like Amsterdam, it is very different from the rest of the country it’s in and in a real 'bubble of it’s own'. Brighton, like Amsterdam, is basically the kind of place people who can’t or don’t want to live in the rest of the country move to. It’s the gay capital of the UK. You can get vegan/veggie food in pretty much every pub/restaurant/shop here and we probably have the same concentration of organic, health food, hippy etc. shops cities like San Francisco (a town, despite the difference in size, Brighton is actually often compared to) have. It just really suits me here. I left the area where my parents live because even though there are some really good people there, I wanted to live in places where people had more political and social ideas comparable to my own and where things were generally just a lot more open-minded. Both Brighton and Amsterdam tick that box. Life is just too short to live life in a boring soul-destroying places as far as I am concerned.

I think one main difference for me between the two cities – besides the wider cultural and political differences between the two countries itself – is that the squat culture and all that is connected to it (which is so present in Amsterdam and underpins the Dutch punk scene as a whole) is a lot less part of it over here. Or when it is, is so in a very different way.

When I lived in Amsterdam I was involved in the OCCII – an autonomous space, run by great people with a healthy non-bullshit political attitude – which is the place I organized all the gigs I did. In Brighton I try and do them in our two local autonomous places - the Cowley Club or the Westhill Community Centre for bigger shows – as well when these are available, but ultimately you do end up having to use pubs sometimes, which is perfectly fine and just the way it is, but it does create a totally different atmosphere and scene.

What’s the scene in Brighton like? What cool projects, bands, initiatives, zines, etc. should we be on the look-out for?

All in all Brighton is a very social and outgoing place and that’s reflected in the scene; punk, noise and all things related, with pretty regular socializing outside of gigs. It’s a pretty transient town, which means things go through motions, although there’s a strong core of mostly older folks who are firmly rooted here and consistently support whatever is going on. It has been pretty active band-wise for a few years, but we might be starting to hit somewhat of a slow patch. Then again people are always working on new projects, so who knows. Hopefully the new schoolyear (we have 2 universities here) will see the arrival of some fresh faces eager to get involved as well.

A few bands have disbanded over the past few years, including more known names like Burning Times, End The Agony and Fall Of Efrafa (who played their last gig at the Westhill here last night – with people from all over the world travelling down to see them one more time). Some of the still active ones include Constant State of Terror (metallic crust punk w/ ex-MTA & Substandard folks), Burnt Cross (really great anarcho punk) and Flatpig (long running old-timers). Jovian is a seriously amazing new band with End The Agony people, while Sceptres (angular punk like X) and Serf Combat (melodic punk) have locals in their ranks as well. The noise scene is also very healthy, with lots of good people doing stuff I might not always understand, but which is always DIY, creative, inspiring and ultimately punk as fuck.

Zine wise there’s some real quality – and zine culture as a whole is incidentally much more part of punk here than it is in Holland – with Remains Of A Caveman, Zonked, Morgenmuffel and The New Wave Of Cut N’ Paste being the cream of the crop and well worth searching out.

Other than that we have a little punk shop (Punkerbunker) and the previously mentioned Cowley Club that besides gigs also does a weekly vegan evening meal and sells a good selection of political books/zines among many other things. Finally there’s a bunch of people who do labels, with Tadpole Records run by Darren being the best and most active.

I know you work in an non-profit organization in London; what kind of work do you do exactly; how does the work you do relate to how you view punk? Do you ever feel a conflict between working within the system and maybe more radical ideas that you have about what society should look like?

I work as the ‘Information Coordinator’ for a small pan-London wide homelessness charity. I am responsible for the information team. We manage our client’s data (which includes things like their individual support needs and work that’s being done by frontline staff to address them) and make sure support workers have the ability to record the information they need to. We monitor and analyse the information to ensure that often vulnerable & chaotic people get the care they require and should be entitled to, and as an organisation we’re able to prove this to current, and potential future, funders. In this capacity I also do a lot of work with our fundraising team on bids for new projects, and provide data & reports to a variety of other interested parties. Basically it means making visible and tangible the work we do as an organisation with our clients.

I am lucky enough to work in a place and with people who hold values that are in line with mine. It’s a pretty non-hierarchical organisation where the motive is most definitely not ‘profit’ or ‘growth’ but instead focussed clearly on helping to turn people’s lives around, all the while treating them with dignity and respect – which sadly enough isn’t always the way at some of the bigger organisations in the sector. Our recruitment policy for staff is pretty gruelling and long, you really need to want to work here basically, but as a result the people I work with are pretty much all excellent at their job and have a real 'above and beyond' attitude and enthusiasm to helping our clients. It is inspiring how far some clients can come with the right support and I am very happy to be able to contribute to something like that on a daily basis. To me the issues our clients are faced with are at the core of what’s wrong with the capitalist political system, and fighting back through our work fits in well with how I view punk as well.

I don’t feel any conflicts about this set up. Sometimes you might like things to be different, but this is the real world and I very much believe in being part of that. We have to deal with the society we have right now first, before we can even hope to get to something that’s better. For your politics to matter, I don’t think completely isolating yourself from the system is the best way forward. I know there’s a strand in punk and supposed (!) radical circles that disagrees with this and even likes to dismiss anyone outright who either has a job or at least doesn’t work in one of the ‘approved’ ones/sectors, but I never had much time for that. I definitely have certain ‘radical’ ideas, but also care about them seriously enough not to go down that isolationist path that’s ultimately doomed for failure. Whether you work in the charity sector or somewhere else, I think Zounds hit the nail on the head when they said : “if you got a job/you can be an agent/you can work for revolution/in your place of employment.“

Why did Staathaat break up? I’ve heard rumours of Staathaat getting back together. Is that true? If not, are you thinking about starting any other bands?

Against all the odds we kept it going for another year or so after I moved back to the UK, even cramming in gigs/tours around Spain, France, Belgium and Holland, but all things come to an end at some point and in the case of Staathaat it was when Thale, who played guitar, wanted to focus on other things musically. I have not heard anything about us playing again, but I do know the 3 of them have recently started jamming with a new band. That’s probably where your wires got crossed? Myself, I am always thinking about starting new bands, but I am also a bit picky when it comes to the people I’d like to do that with. I’ve been a bit spoilt in the past where I always managed to do something with punks with similar ideas and beliefs, and though that’s not always easy to find, it matters more to me than people’s musical ability. One day I am sure I’ll do something else, but in the mean time I’ve got enough on already to keep me way too busy…proven by the fact it took me a good few months to even complete the questions above!

1 comment:

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Opiate Addiction