“Our plan was find to an affordable, large studio about four hours drive from Amsterdam, away from all distractions, with a house where the band could stay and cook their own meals,” recalls Carol van Dyk, lead vocalist for Bettie Serveert and, along with guitarist Peter Visser and bassist Herman Bunskoeke, a founding member of the band. “That’s when we found the La Chapelle Studios in remote Waimes, the highest point of the Belgium Ardennes.”
It is apt that the acclaimed Dutch indie band would choose a spot of such desolate beauty, the very adjectives so often used to describe Bettie Serveert’s music, to record its latest album, Pharmacy of Love. The Ardennes – a region extending through Belgium, Luxembourg and France – is a range of densely forested mountains with steep-sided valleys carved by its fast-flowing rivers. Charlemagne fought in the Ardennes, as did forces in World War I and World War II, with the Battle of the Bulge commencing in late 1944.
With a population of less than 7,000, Waimes offered exactly the isolation Bettie Serveert craved in April of 2009, after having spent three months rehearsing the new songs in Amsterdam. Yet once within the walls of the studio, they quickly shattered the silence, producing the loudest album of their career.
“For this record, we really wanted to hit the distortion pedals again,” says Visser, who co-produced the album with van Dyk.
With its “back to basics” approach, Pharmacy of Love captures the kind of raw, contagious energy that has long characterized Bettie Serveert’s live shows. A sense of immediacy permeates the album, which was recorded live in the studio in just four days; The band documented the proceedings on video, using footage from the sessions in the video for lead single/EP Deny All.
“Because our previous drummer was too wrapped up in his domestic life, we asked a friend of ours, Joppe Molenaar of the Dutch band Voicst, to play on this record,” says van Dyk. “He really added great gusto and a wild energy to the songs!” adds Visser. Two tracks, Change4Me and What They Call Love, were recorded in late 2007 with two other guest drummers at the IJland Studio in Amsterdam, where they later laid down some of the vocals and mixed the album with Remko Schouten.
In an age that’s “sad galore,” as van Dyk sings on "Semaphore", Bettie Serveert cloaks the starkest emotions with verve and aplomb, bringing a breezy melody and silken vocals to a song laden with the realization that “it won’t get easier/it never will.” From the urgent Deny All to the anguished album closer, What They Call Love, Pharmacy of Love is a masterful collection of songs that are by turns raucous and rousing, shimmering and shiver inducing. Facing down their demons and navigating love’s often-treacherous terrain, this is a band that, after 18 years and nine albums, has not mellowed with age.
Bettie Serveert – which translates as “Bettie to serve,” a reference to Dutch tennis player Bettie Stove, who lost the Wimbledon Ladies Final in 1977 – had its roots in the celebrated underground band de Artsen (the Doctors), which Bunskoeke and Visser were members of. Van Dyk, who was born in Vancouver, BC but raised in The Netherlands, was hired as de Artsen’s live-sound mixer, and shortly thereafter the three formed Bettie Serveert as a side project, bringing roadie Berend Dubbe onboard as drummer. They disbanded after playing just a single gig in 1986, but reformed in 1990 and quickly caught the ear of Matador, Brinkman and 4AD's Guernica label.
With Carol van Dyk's seductive voice and striking lyrics, Peter Visser’s emotional guitar playing and the band's bittersweet melodies and cool cover of Sebadoh's “Healthy Sick,” Palomine, their 1992 debut endeared them immediately to the press. Bettie Serveert also quickly became a favorite at college radio, with singles “Tom Boy” and “Kid’s Allright” receiving substantial airplay.
Lamprey, which Melody Maker praised for having the most tangled, desolate, real life guitar sound of the year, was released in 1995. Touring extensively with the likes of Belly, Dinosaur Jr, Buffalo Tom, Superchunk, Come and Jeff Buckley, Bette Serveert soon climbed to the top of the indie underground with their trademark heavy, sweet guitar sound.
They returned in fine form with the 1997 release of Dust Bunnies. Recorded at Bearsville studio in Woodstock, NY with producer Bryce Goggin (Pavement, Lemonheads), it was the band’s first album recorded entirely in the States. In 1998 the group released a live album of Velvet Underground cover versions, Bettie Serveert Plays Venus In Furs and other Velvet Underground songs. After their tours with Wilco, Counting Crows and Wallflowers, Berend Dubbe left in early 1998 and was replaced by Reinier Veldman, former drummer of de Artsen.
With the release of 2000’s Private Suit, produced by John Parish (PJ Harvey), Bettie Serveert launched its own independent label, Palomine Records. They took a brief sabbatical before returning in 2003 with Log 22, a veritable sonic trip captured by Visser’s 16-track home recorder, and 2004’s ambitious Attagirl. To celebrate its 15th anniversary, Bettie Serveert released a CD paired with its first-ever DVD in 2006. The title – Bare Stripped Naked – and the occasion might have led some to expect an unplugged retrospective, but they packed the semi-acoustic package with primarily new material, described by allmusic.com as “a rousing and heroic reminder of what a great band they were and continue to be.” With Pharmacy of Love – released in the U.S. by Second Motion Records and in Canada via Sound of Pop – Bettie Serveert reaffirms its place in indie rock, offering an antidote for the cynicism and inertia of our times and reminding us: chiding
You’ve got to make a choice, that’s your life
How many times did it pass you by?
Grab it by the throat, grab it while you can
Don’t say that you don’t understand
-- from Deny All