Femke Dekker received her first record player at the age of five. It’s hardly surprising then that music is now an intrinsic part of her life and her work. In her home of Amsterdam, she holds a residency on one of the city’s radio pillars, Red Light Radio, with her beautifully curated show, Tuesday Night Prayer Meeting, while alongside friend Nicole Martens she DJs under the guise of Strange Boutique.
Alongside her musical ventures she is the founder of My Little Underground, a moniker that covers her various pursuits into the world of contemporary art, design and editorial, including her role as contemporary arts curator for Trouw’s successor De School, and as editor of Ja Ja Ja Nee Nee Nee, an online radio station for art and contemporary culture.
We spoke to Femke about the nostalgic impact of Stevie Wonder’s Songs in The Key Of Life, her run-ins with some not so pleasant record shop owners and how, given the chance, she wouldn’t mind combing through Kim Gordon’s record collection.
DJs and producers often mention their musical education came through their family’s record collection. Was this the case for you? Can you pick out any pivotal records from your upbringing that informed your musical journey?
Yes, definitively. Music was always around from the moment I was born. My dad is a huge jazz fan so I grew up on a very steady diet of jazz giants such as Mingus and Coltrane.
My parents gave me my first record player when I was five years old; a portable slot-in for 7” singles and with it a Jackson Five, Ricky Lee Jones and Donna Summer single. My dad also used to make mixtapes – literally tapes as they were cassettes – for the parties my parents hosted. I guess the apple never fell far from the tree.
And once I turned twelve or thirteen, I of course started to listen to (hardcore) punk to piss off the parents. So the records that were pivotal to my upbringing range from Art Blakey & the Jazzmessengers ‘Keystone 3’ album to Fugazi’s ’13 Songs’, and everything in between. And some records just have this emotional hold over you, that has less to do with their musical influence than their nostalgic impact. Like whenever I hear Stevie Wonder’s Songs in The Key Of Life I can almost smell and feel the time when I lived in the States with my parents and my dad played this record non stop.
People buy records for a multiple of reasons. What first drew you to collecting records and what motivates you to continue digging after all these years?
I still don’t really consider myself a collector. I just happen to have a fair amount of records that I’ve accumulated over the years. As records were always around me; it only felt natural as a kid to save up your pocket money to buy an album. And I’ve been buying them ever since. Like books there is so much out there to discover, whether its old or new, so there is this continuous incentive as there’s always a piece of music that excites you.
Where do you store your records and how do you file them?
Oh dear. Truth? Currently my records take up most of our living room as they’ve outgrown the shelves. And as they’re pretty much everywhere, the filing system consists of a non alphabetical and a chronological list that resides in my head. I do kind of know where everything is though, weirdly enough. There is the wish of a custom build shelving system where everything is in perfect catalogued order… It is on the to do list for 2018. Also because it drives the significant other nuts when he stumbles over piles of records.
What are your favourite spots to go digging and why?
At the risk of stating the obvious, its Red Light Records in Amsterdam. Its not only the carefully curated selection of records but also about the people working there and everybody you run into when visiting. But I also love digging when on holiday; I can spend hours at flea markets and garage sales. Always ask your friends for advice when visiting new territories. I just came back from a trip to Melbourne and my friend Lauren took me to this amazing place that just had stacks and stacks of records. Another friend gave me his list of favourite stores in Melbourne, like Licorice Pie and Skydiver.
Digging isn’t just about the records you find, but the people who help you find them. Who are some of the colourful characters you’ve met on your travels in record stores round the world? Any unsung heroes you’d like to shout out?
There have been a few but I wouldn’t necessary call them unsung heroes… I remember this guy in Paris who refused to sell any records to foreigners; he overheard me speaking Dutch to a friend and then went on to explain to us that there was nothing there for us as he only sold French records. It was nice to be able to tell him where to stick it in fluent French. Or the owner of an Amsterdam store who each time I would walk in would ask me whether I was looking for something for my boyfriend… So yes colourful, but not very pleasant. But I have to say the cliché run in with the grumpy record store owner has been a while ago. I mostly meet very helpful store owners that are really proud of their selections.
Is there a record (or records), that has continued to be illusive over the years?
I have a small list of records that would be amazing to find in a record store, but with platforms like Discogs everything seems to be available nowadays and it drives up the price of some records to ridiculous levels. I take more pleasure in finding a cheap record I’ve never heard of that turns out to be amazing without it being some sought after crazy expensive release. That said, if anyone owns a copy of the Schizo 7” by the same title that they would like to get rid off….
Do you prefer record shopping as a solitary process or with friends to nerd out with and search for strange sounds together? If the latter, who do you like to go digging with?
Mostly solitary but I’m always happy to bump into people and discuss our finds or just hang out in the store for a drink or two.
Walking into a record shop can be quite a daunting experience. Do you have a digging process that helps you hone in on what you’re after?
See how they’ve classified their sections and then go for the one that fits your mood at that moment. Although it makes for chaotic shopping and confused travel companions who prefer a more structured system.
Dig on your own for a while and then when you either ring up the records you’ve found or have a selection of records you would like to listen to, strike up a conversation with the staff. Its always nice to hear what they would recommend and there might be something there for you.
How big a role does album artwork play in your digging?
An attractive record sleeve is always an incentive. Although chances that the record itself isn’t great are relatively high. My DJ partner Nicole once did and entire in-store set just by judging the records on their cover and picking them from the bins. It turned out pretty amazing.
Could you tell us a bit about the mix you’ve done for us?
I recorded the mix on a Monday morning at the Red Light Radio studio so I guess you kind of hear that I needed to get the engine started. Its works its way from ambient to a more percussive gloomy sound but I approached it very much as I would a radio show; which is a quite organic process. So its records that I have been listening to recently and I added some Dutch sounds into the mix, for instance Terekke, Max Abysmal, Job Sifre, Upsammy and Moon&Sun, as well as a track from 1976 by artists Lawrence Weiner and Coosje van Bruggen. The Stamp The Wax mix is named after a sentence from that amazing record; ‘Within the context of gains and losses (Nothing to Loose)’.
Any standouts in the mix you’d like to mention?
Another of my recent favourites is a forthcoming re-release by Dutch musician Spinvis who collaborated with a poet called Simon Vinkenoog. Vinkenoog passed away a couple of years ago but I’m really happy people are rediscovering his work. He was our own original beat poet, part of the influential Provo movement in the late 60’s and organiser of the first ever happening in the Netherlands.
Casting the net wider now, who are some of the record collectors you most admire and why?
I don’t think it’s the collector I admire; its the person that loves music and that you can connect with through said music, whether or not they have thousands of records or own everything on a USB. I do have a lot of friends that own some exceptionally nice records though. And I wouldn’t mind going through Kim Gordon’s collection given the chance.
And are there any young collectors emerging who we should keep a close eye on?
There’s three women I would like to put in the spot light; Lieneke, who also happens to be Red Light Radio’s studio manager, is definitively one to keep an eye on; she recently did an amazing mix for Faff radio. There’s Merel, who was a guest on Deep Sea Discotheque a while ago and blew my mind and Fenna Fiction who has this beautiful wavy percussive flow. Then there’s all the other amazing selectors at Red Light, from Boris de Vries’ weekly Brainfried show to the monthly Bossoyo set. And a special mention should be made to the guys from Utrecht’s Stranded FM, notably Luke Cohlen and Tala Drum Corps, and the Deep Sea Discotheque crew from Den Haag.
You founded My Little Underground, a moniker that covers your editorial work as well as the different events, co-creative projects and art shows that you curate. Can you tell us a bit about the different things that you cover? Anything coming up that you’re excited about?
I mostly work on the crossing of contemporary art and design, trying to find different platforms to exhibit my ideas. I’m the contemporary arts curator for De School, a club in Amsterdam, where I try to push the boundaries of contemporary art out of the context of a white cube. I’m an editor for Ja Ja Ja Nee Nee Nee, an online radio station for art and contemporary culture, and I regularly teach at art schools such as the Sandberg Instituut.
I think of all platforms I love radio the most; we have some really nice collaborations coming up and we’ve been asked to host a panel for the Europan Lab 2018 during Nuits Sonores in Lyon on 8th May. At De School I have an upcoming exhibition with the design collective Goys and Birls celebrating the launch of their NXS publication. And in May I’ll be curating the cultural program for a Dutch festival called Lente Kabinet. So yeah, quite exiting and busy!
Under the guise of Strange Boutique you DJ with your friend Nicole Martens. When did you both begin this project together? Does it make more enjoyable having somebody else to share the good (and bad) experiences with?
It all began when Nicole and I joined an all girl DJ and VJ collective in 2004. The collective disbanded soon after but we kept in touch and when I was hosting a series of parties with Young Marco and Orpheu the Wizard I asked Nicole to design the flyer. As Marco and Orpheu were a duo back then, I also felt like I wanted someone next to me to share the fun with. So I asked Nicole to join me in the booth and we’ve been together ever since. Its so nice to have someone to play records with; you react on each others choices and a set really becomes the sum of the parts. And yes for better and for worse. Its great to share the worst as well. We sometimes call ourselves Statler and Waldorf as we like shouting boo from our balcony seats.
You also hold a residency on Red Light Radio with your show Tuesday Night Prayer Meeting. What do you try to explore with your radio shows? Is there a specific theme that runs through them?
My show comes together in quite an organic way; I usually know my first record and my last record and will build two hours around it improvising as I go. Initially Tuesday Night Prayer Meeting – named after Charles Mingus’ ‘Wednesday Night Prayer Meeting’ – was a spiritual jazz orientated show, allowing me to play records I couldn’t play in clubs. But over the years it has just become this monthly zen out zone for me to play records I really love, no matter the genre. I feel really lucky that Hugo and Orpheu from Red Light have let me do what ever it is I do for so long.
And finally is there anything else coming up on the horizon that’s getting you excited?
I have to say this is already a highlight of 2018; I’m in great company! I also just finished a mix for Rubber in The Hague that has little to do with music but where I could just play around with field recordings. And I’m really looking forward to summer; hopefully a heatwave or two, enough time to hang with my friends and playing at a couple of really nice festivals such as Strange Sounds From Beyond and Dekmantel’s Selectors. So far 2018 has not disappointed.
Photo credit: Jascha Sandles