Swimming in the Fishtank: A Look at One of Holland’s Most Unique Underground Musical Projects

IN 2012, the American shoe company Converse commissioned a song by the English animated music project/band Gorillaz as a part of a promotion for Gorillaz artist Jamie Hewlett’s Chuck Taylor All-Star collection. Albarn agreed to the proposition.

As time went on, this commissioned song evolved into something greater than a simple Gorillaz promo track. Converse introduced Hewlett and Albarn to the “3 Artists, 1 Song” campaign by Cornerstone, Inc. that had existed years prior, requesting that they participate and involve two more artists in the recording of the track. After a fair bit of nudging and convincing, Albarn brought on two unlikely accomplices: famed OutKast member André 3000 and LCD Soundsystem mastermind James Murphy.

Three artists, all hailed as exemplary music creators, all given just three days of studio time to see what they could come up with. On February 23, 2012, ‘DoYaThing’ was released to the public.

A dance-punk, a multi-instrumentalist pop artist, and a hip hop icon all walk into a studio. A thirteen minute long freakout of alternative dance, noise rock, electropop and experimental hip hop walks out, three days later.

‘DoYaThing’ is considered to be a musical marvel by many, even six years after it dropped. To date, it’s likely the most risqué and experimental piece either of the three collaborators have made on their own time, and stands as a monument to how even the most stylistically opposed artists can make something great together if they are passionate enough.

Believe it or not, though, the idea of collecting artists in a studio with limited recording time has existed for quite awhile, far before Converse tried it.

KONKURRENT

Konkurrent is a Dutch label that has existed since the mid 80’s, as they first emerged in 1985 as a “independent alternative” for then-industry giants during the rampant commercialization of music in the 1980’s. The label’s first claim to fame is releasing Faith No More’s ’85 debut We Care a Lot in Holland as, at the time of release, the only overseas version of the album. But a simple Netherlands release of an American album wasn’t exactly enough to cement Konkurrent as a “serious” label.

As the years trundled on, Konkurrent’s independent stature and love for noise rock eventually earned them relationships with many experimental, underground rock acts. This included big names like Pavement, Sonic Youth and The Ex. Their relationships and infatuation with these acts grew into the 1990’s, culminating late into the decade in Konkurrent’s most well-known endeavor to date- In The Fishtank.

The idea behind In The Fishtank was simple. Like most of Konkurrent’s sub-labels like Cycle (a branch that specialized in indie rock), In The Fishtank was designed specifically to cater to a particular facet of rock music. In this case, that facet was experimental/improvisational music from all across the musical spectrum, palatable or otherwise. Yet In The Fishtank had an interesting gimmick to it- Konkurrent would give an artist (or a combination of artists) exactly two days of studio time and one tape to fill up with material. This meant these studio performers had two days to write, demo, rehearse and record a tape’s worth of studio material that would then be released on the In The Fishtank label. This editorial will not only act as a retrospective look on said label, but as a sort of collective review of In the Fishtank’s most prolific projects. It should also be said that a few albums on the label will be left out to avoid waffling, but I urge you to go and listen to them as well.

In The Fishtank launched at a great time in 1996, as Konkurrent had successfully created ties with many acclaimed (and oft-outside-the-box) bands. This gave the label many choices when considering who to invite to the studio, but likely wanting to start small, they invited only a single band to record the debut In The Fishtank record.

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In Fishtank 1 by Nomeansno, released in 1996.

In The Fishtank 1 was released in 1996 on both CD and LP formats, the latter being pressed by the Belgian company Atomic Recordings, who would go on to press the Fishtank series on vinyl. Out of all the artists Konkurrent to nab to fit the Fishtank goal, the legendary post-hardcore act Nomeansno were probably the best pick for what they had in mind.

Nomeansno were in their quartet lineup that began with 1995’s  The Worldhood of the World (As Such)and they decided to re-record songs from their recent 90’s albums for In The Fishtank 1. While not exactly original, the tracks compiled on this EP are some of the most raucous and highly technical of Nomeansno’s discography. From the brash and crushing ‘The River’ to the extended version of the insanity-laced freakout ‘Joy’, a track originally restricted to only a minute and forty on the aforementioned Worldhood album, the first In The Fishtank is a quirky, heavy, and highly intricate piece of work that shows the potential of Konkurrent’s pet project.

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In The Fishtank 4 by Snuff, released in 1998.

Two years past and already In the Fishtank had garnered two more, fairly obscure artists- New York indie band Guv’ner and dub reggae band The Tassilli Players. While both interesting in their own right, both In the Fishtank 2 and In the Fishtank 3 (respective to the two aforementioned groups) weren’t nearly as baffling or intriguing as the fourth entry in the Fishtank series.

U.K. punk rockers Snuff came fairly late to the punk game with Snuff Said, their 1989 debut LP. But their sense of quirkiness was at least able to get them a small cult following, even if they were still relegated to the obscure. This quirkiness showed when they entered Konkurrent’s Fishtank studio- In two days, the band came out with just over ten minutes of studio material. For that ten minutes, Snuff throws as much as they can at the wall in the little time allotted- horn fanfare, catchy skate punk akin to The Offspring, melodic hardcore, and good old fashioned punk rock. To call their sonic onslaught lasting or formidable would be a stretch, but it is certainly memorable and is simply a dip into the vast range of music that the Fishtank series would go onto encompass.

Sidenote: this is the best song.

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In the Fishtank 5 by both Tortoise and The Ex, released in 1999. It’s the first Fishtank album to feature two different artists on one recording.

A year later, the 1999 collaborative EP between Chicago post-rock forerunners Tortoise and Dutch art punk/noise rockers The Ex marked the first time Konkurrent invited two (rather different) artists into their studio at the same time. It also acts as one of the strangest Fishtank recordings to date, contrasting well the attitudes of both bands- the deluded chaos of The Ex and the unequivocal precision of Tortoise. Both were artists with explosively different mindsets when it came to making music, yet when they combined they made an extraordinary record. In this case, extraordinary refers more to the unordinary-ness of the recording than it does the above-average quality, as it isn’t exactly the most well put together or cohesive record out there. Even considering it’s hapless nature due to short studio time, it does have several astonishing moments that are legitimately impressive. ‘Pleasure As Usual’ is a meandering, lo-fi/hi-fi-contrasting tune that is more of a musical poem than a rocking tune- doodling guitar, swirling guitar tones and low quality drum loops (likely an addition by Tortoise, who were known partly for their inclusion of minimalist electronic elements on their earlier recordings) set a backdrop for off-the-cuff rhythmic ramblings Ex vocalist G.W. Sok.

Although not the most focused record the Fishtank series has to offer, Fishtank 5 set a precedent  that when two artists would enter the studio, no matter how different they were from eachother, something that was at the very least interesting would come out.

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In The Fishtank 7 by Low and Dirty Three, released in May 2001.

Compared to the Tortoise and The Ex collaboration, In The Fishtank 7 makes a bit more objective sense paring-wise. Minnesota’s Low, a group that made great strides in the underground scene with their immensely dreary and slow-burning  I Could Live in Hope in 1994, and the semi-similar yet more folk-oriented Dirty Three from Melbourne were both a part of the “slowcore” scene during the 1990’s.

The output from these two venerated bands goes about as well as you might expect- Low put on their longest faces and trudges out lugubrious, atmospheric guitar and drum work, as is their specialty. Dirty Three act less like a separate entity to Low and much more like an accompaniment to their sound, following along with Low’s dreary patterns with splashes of rustic contemporary folk with additions of violin and crooning female vocals. Dirty Three’s infatuation with folk is made clear with the cover of Neil Young and Crazy Horse’s 1969 track ‘Down by the River’ as track two.

Both of these trios are famous in their own right, and likely given more creative and studio time they could have made one awe-inspiring album, but tracks like ‘Invitation Day’ certainly put across that even with two days of recording time the bands can still create an at least semi-impactful half-hour album with even the most limited of resources.

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In the Fishtank 10 by Motorpsycho and the Jaga Jazzist horn section, released in October 2003.

Of all the albums we’ve discussed thus far, there hasn’t been one that has been exactly formidable enough to be much more than collections of interesting ideas jumbled together performed by talented individuals with little rhyme or reason. However, in 2003, the tenth installment of the Fishtank series was going to change all of that.

Motorpsycho and Jaga Jazzist, both fairly obscure Norweigan acts with formidable discographies layered with revolutionary ideas in their own rights, are very different in terms of sound but are perfect for eachother in terms of collaboration. Motorpsycho began as a prog-oriented stoner metal band way back in 1991, but slowly began to morph into a graceful monster that produced monolithic album after monolithic album- Demon Box in 1993, Timothy’s Monster in 1994, Blissard in 1996, Trust Us in ’98- during the nineties you were guaranteed that Motorpsycho would likely be pushing the envelope of progressive and alternative music almost every year.

Jaga Jazzist were a bit of a different story. Emerging from the Scandinavian “future jazz” scene, Jaga soon made a name for themselves when their 2001 major-label debut A Livingroom Hush was named jazz album of the year by the BBC. What they pioneered was nothing short of unique in it’s own right- the concept of fusing experimental electronics with the classic American art form, henceforth dubbed “nu jazz”, was popularized and mainly spearheaded by Jaga Jazzist. Later on in their career they would begin to shift closer to fast-paced jazz/prog rock mixed with elements of post rock, such as 2005’s What We Must or 2010’s One-Armed Bandit.

For In the Fishtank 10, Konkurrent got the Motorpsycho trio and the horn section of Jaga Jazzist, not the full band. So for the most part, the album is Motorpsycho-oriented with part of Jaga Jazzist making up the rich backdrop with miscellaneous percussion, backing vocals, and a whole lotta brass. This particular album is quite subdued, relying partly on light psychedelic undertones and muted drums to carry though long, jam-oriented stints like ‘Bombay Brassière’. The atmosphere created using the method of steady, hypnotic hooks is nothing short of beautiful and perfectly textured. The second track, for instance, titled ‘Pills, Powders and Passion Plays’ (an extended cover of a song from Motorpsycho’s Angels and Daemons at Play from ’97) turns what was originally a brash, punkish tune into a methodical, lethargic epic of emotion. On the more energetic side, you have ‘Theme de Yoyo’, a cover of the Art Ensemble of Chicago’s 1970 avant-jazz track, which coincides a characteristically insane free jazz angle with a pounding, soulful funk hook in a way that I believe outstrips the original. At the end of the record, there’s the 20-minute long ‘Tristano’, a track that is not only the longest in the Fishtank series, but the longest that either of the bands have ever created. For the most part, it’s a slow, plodding rock suite punctuated by a few instances of experimental electronics and free jazz. In the last five minutes or so though it really begins to kick up dust with a raw bass line and elaborate drum fills. Good, but not as much as the first half of the LP.

I think it would be foolhardy to call In the Fishtank 10 the peak of the Fishtank label, but it certainly is the most impressive and stands as one of the most popular to date.

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In the Fishtank 14 by both Isis and Aereogramme, released in September 2006.

Following the trend of increasingly interesting band combinations, In the Fishtank 14 brought in two rising stars in the post-1990’s post-rock scene: Glasgow’s Aereogramme and Boston’s Isis. Isis practically defined the post-metal/atmospheric sludge metal movement in the 00’s with groundbreaking releases like Oceanic and Panopticon, both of which expounded on the ideas set forth by progenitors Neurosis with a more slick, stylistic production and playing style. Aereogramme on the other hand, indie-tinged post-rockers, fell largely under the radar of popular culture. Regardless, albums like Sleep and Release and Seclusion are fairly distinguishable examples of the genre, and still hold up today.

Although both of these groups are part of the “post-rock” genre, their attitude and music are very different from eachother. Isis practically pioneered the idea of the epic feats of exhilarating yet gradual metal music that reached almost heavenly proportions at their best moments, while Aereogramme lifted much from art rock and shoegaze to posit a very melancholic yet gentle brand of music. When these two artists combine, however, something magical happens. The otherwise inoffensive Aereogramme is given a sharp, heavy edge that they wouldn’t otherwise have, and Isis are given a healthy dose of pensivity and gentleness that can sometimes get lost in their explosive presentation. Thus, a reciprocal relationship unlike many of the other Fishtank albums is born. With only three tracks, these two bands work in unison to create some quite awe-inspiring spectacle that harmonizes dissonant sludge metal with quiet, conscious post-rock perfectly.

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In the Fishtank 15, by both Fennesz and Sparklehorse, released in September 2009.

Now, finally, we approach the most recent entry in the Fishtank series: In the Fishtank 15, released in 2009. This time, the duo consists of two lone musicians- Mark Linkous (who goes under the pseudonym Sparklehorse) and Christian Fennesz. Linkous made quite a name for himself with his first three albums, and especially his third, It’s a Wonderful Life from 2001. Fennesz, although he started his career in late 90’s, didn’t begin to receive his due attention until 2001’s Endless Summer, a warm combination of glitch electronic and electroacoustic music.

For being one of if not the most experimental releases under the Fishtank moniker, In the Fishtank 15 may just be the most safely-played. Sparklehorse and Fennesz, both highly creative individuals in their own right, mainly create a quiet, atmospheric, and generally inoffensive 40 minutes of music. Little of Fennesz’s glitch style intrudes on the mainly ambient-oriented album, give a few moments of haphazard, avant-garde electronicisms. Even though the album isn’t nearly as intricate as Fishtank 10 or as cohesive as Fishtank 5Fishtank 15 still hits a few lovely moments. ‘If My Heart’ in particular is a nice electric guitar-oriented piece, layered on by an ocean of glittery electronics that create quite a nice atmosphere. ‘Mark’s Guitar Piece’ as well is a very nice, introspective tune that does register quite a bit of emotion even without a lick of lyrics involved. The entire album though, as a whole, can relegated to the category of “beautiful background music” and nothing more.

Since Fishtank 15, Konkurrent has yet to return to their oft-beloved series, and although Konkurrent’s website states that In the Fishtank has new work planned, we’re close to rounding the 10-year corner since their last release. Regardless of the label’s future, it is one of the brightest-shining beacons of how music, no matter the style, is the penultimate universal language.


SOURCES:
https://www.konkurrent.nl/label/in_the_fishtank/
https://rateyourmusic.com/label/in_the_fishtank/
http://www.nme.com/news/music/gorillaz-13-1280109
https://www.complex.com/music/2012/02/gorillaz-andr-3000-james-murphy-doyathing

 

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