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The joy of collaboration

With Kraak & Smaak's Wim Plug

2019 Nov 21     
2 Bit Thugs

Kraak & Smaak's new album features no fewer than 10 different guest artists. So what is it they enjoy about collaborations?

Released last month, Pleasure Centre is the sixth studio album from Dutch trio Kraak & Smaak. Where fifth album Juicy Fruit, released in 2016, saw them returning to the raw funk of their 2005 debut Boogie Angst, Pleasure Centre finds them back on housier, poppier, more song-led ground – and with a host of guest vocalists in tow.

IVAR and Berenice Van Leer, respectively the male and female vocalists in the Kraak & Smaak live band, naturally feature, with IVAR providing vocals on In Plain Sight, Van Leer singing I Think and the two of them duetting on Naked. But so too do (deep breath) Sanguita, Satchmode, imugi, Ivo FitzRoy, The Palms, Nic Hanson, Wolfgang Valbrun and Gavin Turek… which means there are more than three times as many guest artists on the album as there are actual band members!

With just two tracks – Pleasure Centre itself and Echo Park – credited solely to the Leiden trio, clearly collaboration has become central to the Kraak & Smaak method. But how are these collaborations lined up, and why are the band so keen on sharing the limelight with other artists?

We called up the band's Wim Plug – he's the dark-haired guy on the right in the pic above – to find out…

Out of 15 tracks on the new album, 13 are collaborations – that's quite a lot! Was it a deliberate decision to work with a lot of different people?

"No, I think we start out the same way with every album… if we come across people we'd like to work with then we try out different things, and for this album we had a lot of good stuff so it made sense to use it all! So yes, we've collaborated with lots of people, but it wasn't really a conscious decision."

You did actively go looking for people to work with, though, didn't you? The press release mentions you trawling Soundcloud to find collaborators…

"That's really about needing to find people at the right level. I think if you're a major international act it's probably easy to find people to work with, but for us, we need to find people who are perhaps just coming up, or on the verge of breaking through – on the last album we had Parcels, for instance. It's a nice way to work, just browsing Spotify and Soundcloud to find people we might work with."

Does having other people to work with help in terms of the notoriously difficult dynamics of working as a trio?

"Not really, because it's not like all three of us are in the studio all the time. Oscar is our main engineer, and we tend to start out with an instrumental demo. Then we consider whether it needs to be a song, and if it does we'll start checking out vocalists. And once we find a vocalist we want to work with, we'll think about writing a song for them.

"How the collaborations work can vary depending on where people are. So on this album, people like Wolfgang Valbrun and Izo FitzRoy are based quite nearby, so they came along to our studio, but then if someone's based in the United States that gets expensive, so the collaboration might be done remotely. But also, just because there are several US vocalists on the album, for the first time we decamped to Los Angeles for a month and did a lot of the groundwork for the album there."

"Having such a diverse range of collaborators does help from a creative point of view though, I think, because it allows each of the three of us to explore our different ideas. It's not like everything we try out works, but it helps you to stay fresh. We've been around for quite a few years now, so a good way to keep things fresh is to look around for up-and-coming artists and work with them."

So you're more interested in working with up-and-coming artists than this year's Top 5 artists on Beatport (for instance)?

"It depends. For instance, we had Mayer Hawthorne on the last album, and we worked with Ben Westbeech a few years ago. If a big name is the right person for the track we're certainly not averse to trying that, but in general it's just a bit easier doing it this way… you don't have to go through multiple layers of managers and agents who all want a cut!

"I think it's cool, as well, to be able to get someone in who's talented but isn't that well known yet, and then create something special."

Do you have any dream collaborators, though – anyone (alive or dead!) you'd really love to work with?

"Oh, that's a difficult question. Well, we sampled Donny Hathaway on our first album – all cleared, by the way! – so he's someone we'd love to work with if the chance ever came up. Serge Gainsbourg would be another one… we've always been big fans of his productions, songs and voice. And moreover, having such a larger-than-life character in our studio would blow our minds!"

With the collaborators on this album, is it all purely in terms of vocals, or have any of them contributed musically as well?

"Well, Nic Hanson is a talented instrumentalist as well but no, they're mostly vocalists by trade. And then some of those singers can also write, and some can't, so some of them have contributed from a songwriting point of view as well – such as IVAR, who's the singer in our live band. But not every singer is a great songwriter… and vice versa!"

With IVAR such a long-term collaborator, would it be fair to describe him as the fourth member of the band?

"You could argue that! We've done a lot with him over the past few years, we started out with him just singing in the live band but he's also a great songwriter so it made sense to do more with him. It's not like we absolutely need to, but he does represent a kind of Kraak & Smaak perspective on things, so that's why we work with him quite often. It's not just IVAR, though: Berenice Van Leer, who's the female singer in the live band, has also appeared on the last few albums, so she's another regular collaborator.

"But we are an international act, so it makes sense as well to be looking around and finding new people to work with from around the world."

Are the collaborations we hear on the album all you did, or did you try out different singers on different tracks?

"Not much. Of course, the nice thing about being able to produce in your own studio is that you can try different things and see what works… so when we did the second album, for instance, with Ben Westbeech on there… at first we gave the instrumental to a Dutch guy, but that didn't really work, so we looked around and found Ben, who absolutely nailed it. So we used that, but then we ended up using the Dutch guy's vocal on a completely different track.

"But that was then. These days, we mostly ask people to perform on a particular track, and that's it. Sure, sometimes we'll end up not using what they've recorded and trying something else, but it's not like we got all the different vocalists to sing all the different songs, and then worked it all out at the end!"

The album seems to gel quite nicely… none of the vocals feel 'tacked on', they all feel right for the song. But doesn't that create problems in a live context? Because I"m guessing you won't be taking 10 different vocalists out on the road…

"I'm glad you think that… I think doing so much of the album in LA helped, in terms of it feeing coherent rather than just a compilation of songs.

"But you're right, we won't be touring with lots of singers. We'll have as many as we can for the release party, but generally speaking it's IVAR and Berenice – luckily they're both very broad in their range of abilities, so we'll just work out what songs they can do and which they can't. It's not like we have to play every song live, because we've got six albums' worth of material to draw from and audiences will want to hear a lot of the older songs anyway."

Moving on from the collaborations on this album to the idea of collaborating more generally, any collab-related advice for up-and-coming producers?

"Well, what works for us is just to listen to a lot of music and see where you fit into it all. As far as vocalists go, then if you have a particular sound or style in mind that can inform the choice of vocalist. So then you can look around – you can look around locally or you can do what we do and get on Spotify and Soundcloud! I think if you're in the UK it's probably easier to find someone good locally… it's just that where we come from in Holland, there aren't as many singers around. Or not as many songwriters, in particular, because English isn't our first language.

"You also need to find people who are on the same sort of level as you. You know, if you're already well-established you can find well-established singers, but if you're just starting out it might be more practical to find a vocalist who's just starting out as well."

Is it a good idea to look outside your own genre, as well?

"Yes, it's good to keep an open mind and try out different things. Every singer has their own unique qualities, so trying something a bit 'outside the box' can help you create something special."

What about royalty splits and so on – is it a good idea to get that all sorted out beforehand?

"Well, it's a good idea to have a rough agreement in place, at least. With Kraak & Smaak, we've been doing this for a while now, so that side of things all runs pretty smoothly these days, but yes, some idea of how that's going to work is good.

"It's a balancing act, though, because if you get bogged down in those sort of discussions too early, it becomes all about the money and that can have a negative effect in terms of the creative process. So it's a bit double-edged."

A friend once told me about the time he had a very famous disco diva in his studio, which he described as "a dream come true that turned into a nightmare"… have you had any similar experiences?

"Once or twice, yes! If you work with someone who USED to be famous and successful but isn't so much now, that can sometimes cause problems in terms of what their expectations are. But usually we've been fine: the bigger problem we might have is that sometimes it just doesn't 'click'. You can be in the studio all day and end up not achieving anything much.

"Sometimes it can be a bit awkward as well if, for instance, they've told you 'Sure, I can write as well!' and then they hand you a lyric and you're like, 'No,you really can't…"! But that hasn't happened too often, and it doesn't really happen the other way round, because if we've written the song but they want to change something, we're generally okay with that – nothing's carved in stone."

Speaking of songs… this album's very song-based and quite poppy again, compared to the last one which was a bit of a return to an earlier Kraak & Smaak sound that was a bit more raw and funky. Was that deliberate?

"Not really… I dunno, maybe it goes in twos with us! Or maybe, like you said the last album was a bit of a return to the sound of the first album, so maybe this is us taking that sound a bit further but with a bit more polish.

"I don't know, these things emerge organically with us. It wasn't like there was a band meeting where we sat down and said, 'Right, this is the concept'. It's just what comes out from working with the different people, and maybe with this album, making it in LA brought out that west coast perspective, that folky Laurel Canyon vibe, I don't know."

Finally, what else is going on with Kraak & Smaak right now that iDJ readers need to know about?

"Well, we've already started work on the remix package for the album, and we'll be doing some live shows in Holland this autumn/winter. And then we're playing The Garage in London on 20 March, and hopefully we'll be doing a few other UK gigs around that – we've been talking to an up-and-coming UK band about doing some shows with them so watch this space!

"There'll be some US dates as well, hopefully, and then it'll be time to start thinking about the new album. But that's a process that always takes a while, and in the meantime we've got the remix album to think about, plus doing some remixes for other people and maybe doing some more dancefloor-focused stuff as well. Because this album is very song-based, so we need to do some stuff for the DJs as well. Can't forget them!"

Words: Russell Deeks

Pleasure Centre is out now on Boogie Angst

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Tags: Kraak & Smaak, Wim Plug, Boogie Angst, IVAR, Berenice Van Leer, Sanguita, Satchmode, imugi, Ivo FitzRoy, The Palms, Nic Hanson, Wolfgang Valbrun, Gavin Turek, Parcels, Ben Westbeech, Serge Gainsbourg, Donny Hathaway, Mayer Hawthorne