Photos by Isolde Woudstra
It doesn’t take long to fall hard for the electro-pop music world of Lars Meijer. Maybe just a song or two. Maybe just the first thirty seconds of a song. His strong ability for melody, propulsive rhythms, and a knack for creating a sound that feels familiar enough that you connect immediately, but distant enough from what came before it that it still feels like uncharted territory makes Hunter Complex one of the premier electronic composers working today.
Meijer began recording as Hunter Complex in 2008, with his debut self-titled album coming out in 2010. In 2013 Lars Meijer released Hunter Complex’ sophomore album, the excellent Heat. Heat showed the sound of Hunter Complex evolving into something a little darker and into something wholly Lars Meijer. On January 23rd, the third Hunter Complex album will be released on the excellent Death Waltz Originals label. Open Sea lives up to the promise of Heat and goes all in. Bigger melodies, bigger beats, and the neon glint of the mid-80s sounds and synth excesses are beautifully present and accounted for.
I had the chance to sit down and talk with Lars Meijer about Hunter Complex, his musical beginnings, synthesizers, and Robert Pollard.
J. Hubner: Hey Lars. So where did you grow up?
Lars Meijer: I grew up in Hoofddorp, the Netherlands. It’s a commuter city near Schiphol Airport, a suburb of Amsterdam so to speak.
J. Hubner: What was Hoofddorp like?
Lars Meijer: I had a teacher in primary school who noticed me liking a Simple Minds track during a school party. He fed with us with new music and introduced us to Prince, Velvet Underground, Talking Heads, the basics. We used to go to the libraries of nearby cities like Heemstede and Haarlem to rent CDs. That was an exciting time. That you heard the name Kraftwerk, but had no idea what it sounded like and you went to the library to look for Radioactivity and it was actually there. But Hoofddorp itself was pretty boring.
J. Hubner: So what did you do for fun and excitement besides hitting up the library for CDs?
Lars Meijer: There was one place where we could hang out, a squatted place called De Hoeve. I saw a lot of bands there, but the music scene in Hoofddorp was actually kind of terrible. There was a big hardcore, nederhop (‘Dutch hiphop’) and crossover scene. And the guys at the bar played a lot of dub reggae. We hung out on the streets a lot, smoking pot, drinking booze. I remember lots of weird evenings, like one with a pyromaniac fella from another school setting fire to all the bins around the runways of the airport.
J. Hubner: Whoa. That sounds like something you’d file under ‘bad decisions’.
Lars Meijer: They came after us with dogs. Scary shit.
J. Hubner: So when did music take hold with you?
Lars Meijer: I have a vivid memory of recording “Nikita” by Elton John with my small tape recorder at my grandma’s house in Amsterdam. And also leaving Christmas dinner table early to record Ben Liebrand’s (a world famous Dutch DJ) end-of-year mixes. Those are awesome, I know them by heart. ‘86, ‘87 and ‘88 are the best ones. For me those three years were the golden age of pop music. The variety of genres of music that was in the charts back then, it’s mind blowing.
J. Hubner: What was the first album you bought with your own money?
Lars Meijer: Either it was Make It Big by Wham! or Hunting High and Low by A-ha. I used to put the Wham! record in front of my window, to impress a girl next door. But of course it got warped by sunlight. That album has “Everything She Wants” and “Freedom” on it. George Michael sure knew how to write brilliant pop tracks. Hunting High and Low I bought on tape and it’s still one of my favourites. It has synths, that happy/sad kind of vibe and Morten Harket’s haunting voice. But I mainly bought 7”’s back then. I remember having to choose between “It’s a Sin” by the Pet Shop Boys and “The Living Daylights” by A-ha. Big decisions when you are 9-year-old kid.
J. Hubner: Those are big decisions. I probably would’ve gone with A-ha. Though, in 1987 when I was 13-years old I probably would’ve gone with something more of the hair metal persuasion, sadly.
So when did you start playing an instrument?
Lars Meijer: Back then at music school, if you wanted to play an instrument you had to do a year of playing the recorder and learning music basics first. After the year my teacher discouraged me to continue with any wind instruments, because I wasn’t very good at it. I didn’t care, because I wanted to play the synthesizer, just like Jean-Michel Jarre. My keyboard teacher sold me my first synth: the Roland Alpha Juno-2, for only 50 guilders.
J. Hubner: What was your first band?
Lars Meijer: I actually started out on my own, when I was 11, recording improvised music with my keyboard (a Yamaha PSR-16, from 1988). The first tape I recorded was called Atlantic Seashores, so you see I haven’t made any progress when it comes to titles, haha.
J. Hubner: So has it been large bodies of water and synthesizers from the beginning?
Lars Meijer: I wanted to make music like Vangelis, Jarre, Kitaro, Tomita. But to quote Mickey Rourke in the Wrestler: “Then that Cobain pussy had to come and ruin it all”. And like every other teen in those days, I started playing Nirvana songs in bands. My first band was Stagehadder (which means ‘louder and louder’). Besides Nirvana, we also played Hendrix, The Doors and Prince. Jantijn, the lead vocalist in the band, even wrote ‘slave’ on his cheek! It was fun and we got drunk and high, but it wasn’t musically satisfying. But thanks to grunge I also got into the lo-fi movement. Robert Pollard of Guided by Voices was (and still is actually!) a big influence. I started using a 4-track to record music. From ‘94 to ‘99 I recorded tapes under the name Larz, which went from noisy pop songs and melancholic piano tunes to electronic experiments and what not. I actually released an LP on the American label Blackbean and Placenta.
J. Hubner: So was your deep dive into electronic where Hunter Complex begins? Or were you working on electronic and synth music with Psychon and Living Ornaments, too?
Lars Meijer: I was using synths with Psychon as well. We recorded our improvisations on mini-disc and then we took weeks to edit the tracks down to a listenable album. I’m still very proud of the results. Later we started using the computer more, especially with Living Ornaments. We used old school software like CoolEdit and Fruity Loops to manipulate sounds. We actually released a track on a Skam Record compilation about cats. Ed Macfarlane from Friendly Fires is on that compilation too.
J. Hubner: How did your synth setup come together after Living Ornaments?
Lars Meijer: Synths have always been my go-to-instruments, so after I quit Living Ornaments I started nosing around Markplaats (the Dutch eBay) to see if I could find the synths that had the sounds I loved. I noticed that instruments like the DX7 and D-50 were actually pretty cheap. Everything fell into place then, I finally could make the music I wanted to make with those instruments.
J. Hubner: Who were some influences on you musically going into Hunter Complex?
Lars Meijer: I don’t know if you can hear it on ‘Open Sea’, but my influences around the time of writing were Roedelius (his solo work and his work with Cluster), Mark Isham (his 80s records like Vapour Drawings and the heartfelt soundtrack to Trouble in Mind), Tangerine Dream (I finally completed my TD vinyl collection with Destination Berlin from 1989!), Klaus Schulze and the Innovative Communication, Windham Hill and ECM labels.
J. Hubner: I can hear a gradual shift in the music of Hunter Complex from your 2010 debut to ‘Heat’ in 2013 and now with ‘Open Sea’. First the vocals, which are now completely gone on ‘Open Sea’. I really liked your vocals on ‘Heat’. They put me in mind of that point in the late 70s/early 80s where the post-punk bands put away their guitars and bought synths and sequencers. Like Ian Curtis, but with better tonal control. Though on ‘Open Sea’ we can clearly concentrate on your production and arranging skills. What made you decide to go all-instrumental on your Death Waltz Originals debut?
Lars Meijer: When I started doing gigs after my debut album in 2010, I sang and played synth along with an iPod. That felt really bad, like I was singing in a karaoke bar. I didn’t want to do that when I released Heat back in 2013. So I created a live set, without vocals, but with an MPC for the beats and the midi for two synths: my Roland D-50 and my Roland Alpha Juno-2. I use fragments from obscure 70s and 80s movies as visuals, so that the audience has something to look at while I play my music. Those tracks started to take shape while I did more gigs and they ended up being the basis for ‘Open Sea’ and the follow-up. So it’s not that I made a conscious decision not to sing anymore, it just happened.
J. Hubner: So how long was the writing and recording process for ‘Open Sea’? Which was the first track written for the album and which was the last?
Lars Meijer: The first track I wrote was “Night City”. I started writing this album with the book Neuromancer by William Gibson in mind. “Night City” is a fictive location in that cyberpunk classic. It has that dark, metropolitan, neon, Asian vibe to it. Like the Black Rain movie from 1989. Actually that score by Hans Zimmer was a big influence too, I love those digital kalimba sounds! The rhythm of “Night City” is almost a carbon copy of the beat of “Heat”, it actually started out live as “Heat Mirage”.
J. Hubner: Can you tell me about your writing process?
Lars Meijer: I like to work in the evening and at night. When your brain isn’t 100% there anymore, that’s when the best melodies arrive. After I record something, no matter how long, I put on my secret Soundcloud account and play it in the train on my way to and from work, let it simmer. Sometimes the idea for another part comes half a year later. I like to work on multiple tracks at a time.
J. Hubner: Where do you find inspiration? The album is simply stunning. It’s like a cross between a Michael Mann film score, heady sci-fi vibes, and a German disco in 1981.
Lars Meijer: Funny that you mention Michael Mann, he had the best soundtrack artists, with Jan Hammer’s Miami Vice score being my favourite. That’s in my top ten of best albums. I get very inspired by watching movies. I like to dig deep in careers of actors, directors and soundtrack artists. You end up seeing the best stuff that way, when you follow different leads.
J. Hubner: You seem like someone that values quality gear. Can you give me a rundown of the hardware you used for ‘Open Sea’? Do you have a piece of equipment that is invaluable to your music making? Something you’d replace every time?
Lars Meijer: I like to go through synthesizers banks and patches that other people made for inspiration. A lot of those sounds where created in the eighties, especially for the DX7 and D-50, and it’s like travelling through time when you play with them. I used these synths for ‘Open Sea’: Casio CZ-5000, Ensoniq SQ2 32 Voice, Kawai K1 rII, Korg M1R, Korg Monotron Analogue Ribbon Synthesizer, Roland Alpha Juno 2, Roland D-50 and Yamaha DX7.
J. Hubner: Do you work with hardware and software? Digital and analog?
Lars Meijer: Yes, both. But all the sounds come from real machines. Not that I dislike software synths. But they give you too much possibilities and I don’t have time for that. I’m too impatient to twiddle digital knobs. I rather have a good preset bank on my Kurzweil. I use plugins to fine tune the sounds, but most of the work is done on the mixing desk.
J. Hubner: How did you get hooked up with Spencer Hickman and Death Waltz Originals? Between Pentagram Home Video, Timothy Fife, Law Unit, Graham Reznick, and Pye Corner Audio you’re in pretty good company.
Lars Meijer: I’ve been following Death Waltz since the first release: the soundtrack to Escape from New York by John Carpenter. I actually just saw that movie a couple of months before he released that record. I never saw that stuff when I was a teen. Maybe I was living under a rock, or maybe I wasn’t interested, I can’t really remember. Thanks to Death Waltz, and all the other soundtrack labels that followed, I discovered lots of new music and movies. I first got in touch with Spencer after I interviewed him for the Belgian magazine Gonzo (circus) back in 2014. Death Waltz Originals has some brilliant releases, so I’m in very good company indeed!
J. Hubner: Besides your own work, you do remix work as well. You did the amazing remix for Alone In the Woods’ ‘You Never Came Up For Air” back in April of 2018 for the Burning Witches Records’ RSD release ‘Communion’. What do you enjoy about remixing tracks?
Lars Meijer: I’m not really a remixer, but more of a remaker. On the remix of that Alone in the Woods track, there’s not a single original sound left. I like to take the best melodies (that lead on “You Never Came Up For Air” is brilliant!) and recreate the track with my own sounds and colours and add melodies and parts that I think should have been in there. I did a remix for a Dutch band called Apneu and I created completely new music around the vocals. The track now sounds like OMD instead of Pavement. I also have a rule that there should be a musical joke in there. In the Apneu track the singer sings ‘I’ve got a feeling’, after that line I put in a quote of the Black Eyed Peas track with that name, just to fuck with them.
J. Hubner: What is one record that you have played and gotten lost in more than any record? One that you would recommend to anyone and everyone? One that is permanently part of your musical DNA?
Lars Meijer: I’m a big Prince fan and collect all of his stuff. I would make you a mixtape of unreleased tracks that will blow your mind. Tracks like “Come Elektra Tuesday”, “Wally”, “I Wonder”, “Cosmic Day”, “Open Book”. That is really my musical DNA, along with Scoundrel Days by A-ha, Bee Thousand by Guided by Voices, Miami Vice by Jan Hammer, Flashpoint by Tangerine Dream, Sparke in the Rain by Simple Minds, Linquidity by Sun Ra, to name a few.
J. Hubner: ‘Open Sea’ has been a long time coming. I think there was talk of its release as far back as late 2016 even. In that time, have you been working on a follow-up? What do you have planned next?
Lars Meijer: I finished Open Sea in February 2017 and have been working on the follow-up ever since. And I’m very happy to tell you it’s done! It’s coming out on one of my favourite labels. More info on that one later! But the follow-up to the follow-up is already in the works too. It’s going to be called Call of the Wild or The Garden, I’m not sure yet, but I really like where it’s heading.
Open Sea will be released Wednesday, January 23rd thru Death Waltz Originals. Head to Mondo’s website next Wednesday and order Hunter Complex’ Open Sea. You’ll be glad you did. It’s incredible. And be on the look out for the follow-up, and the follow-up’s follow-up.