An opera of blazing funk… 909originals catches up with Kraak & Smaak

For close to two decades now, Dutch trio Kraak & Smaak have cultivated a unique blend of funk, soul and electronica across six full-length albums and countless remix projects.

Performing as both a DJ act and full live band, Oscar de Jong, Mark Kneppers and Wim Plug have long kept things interesting – if you were to try to define their sound, you could take a dash of Marvin Gaye, a dollop of Hercules & Love Affair, a smidgen of Cassius, a pinch of Moloko… while still being unable to capture just what makes the group unique.

Their most recent long player, 2019’s Pleasure Centre (released on their own Boogie Angst imprint, also home to Rotterdam-based Moods), was reportedly inspired by a trip to the America’s West Coast, and has since spawned two remix albums, while 2018’s cowbell-infused single I’ll Be Loving You is one of the most upbeat boogie tracks we’ve heard in years.

Their most recent single, Persuade You, sees them team up with longstanding live collaborator IVAR, aka Ivar Vermeulen, and has been described as an ‘opera of blazing funk’ – very much in keeping, therefore, with their output to date. You can buy/stream it here.

909originals caught up with them.

Hi guys, thanks for talking to us. First off, how was 2021 for you? Were you badly affected by the pandemic?

Just as in 2020, we managed to cope and went with the flow as much as possible, as we couldn’t do anything about it anyway. Luckily, good streaming figures helped us out financially, and our label Boogie Angst continues to perform well too.

We were also able to do at least some Dutch and European live shows and DJ sets again from summer onwards. Besides, there now was plenty of time to camp out in the studio, working on new material and quite a few remix requests. We also finally released a special project, Scirocco, which we aimed to finish for a long time, a soundtrack mini-album inspired by 60s and 70s Italian and French movie scores.

But it wasn’t at all perfect. Our confirmed USA live tour fell through because of an enormous visa backlog at the local US Consulate, and a significant number of us caught corona after a small Eastern European live tour last month. Recently, things have worsened again over here, so the immediate future is a bit blurry once more regarding performing at least.

So, all in all, a mixed bag, probably very similar to other music acts we assume.

What was it like to get back on the road after lockdown measures eased?

Our first major festival gig was in Hungary, and weirdly enough, as soon as we entered the stage, it felt like just before the pandemic. Beforehand we were quite nervous, as it had been quite a while, playing before a live audience.

However, what we did notice since, is that crowds were so enthusiastic and elated all the time – you could really feel that people were extremely happy to be able to attend concerts again.

How would you describe your latest single, Persuade You?

This last year we have been getting into late 60’s and early 70’s era soul and funk again, and Persuade You has been a logical outcome of that interest, I guess. I’d say classy retro vibes combined with great songwriting by our regular vocal collaborator Ivar Vermeulen – who is also in our live band – that reflect the sound of Stax and Motown of that period. But of course with the added K&S flavor to make it more ‘now’.

Although we are not totally sure yet if this sound will be the way to go for our next album, at least some of the upcoming singles will have a similar vibe to this song.

One of the things that has always struck me about your sound is how ‘organic’ it seems, a nod to the classic pop tunes of yesteryear, which often featured a full band. Is that how you define your sound?

We have always strived for a sound that incorporated the feel of live with the feel of modern dance and pop music productions, and over the years we managed to become better and better at that, I think.

But it mustn’t be retro for the sake of retro, there needs to be a modern-day urgency to it as well. In doing so, we apparently have developed a sound that is unmistakably ‘K&S’, at least that is what people always say.

I guess that’s the best compliment you can ever receive as producer and musician, being known for a particular and original sound.

Pleasure Centre was a huge album – you have mentioned before that it was inspired by some time you spent on the west coast of the US. What’s the story there?

Before making Pleasure Centre we really started to suck up the sound of 70s and 80s West Coast acts – a ‘genre’ often overlooked because of a too poppy, commercial or soft reputation among many DJ’s and producers. It all just felt too sweet, slick and plastic to be taken seriously, you know?

But when we started digging, we found lots of goodies and gems, one way or the other fitting the sound we were looking for at that moment. Since then, we became big fans and hence the idea took hold to spend some time in LA to work with vocalists we’d like to work with and get inspired by the California way of things.

You have now released two separate remix albums of Pleasure Centre, while remix albums for Juicy Fruit and Chrome Waves were released in the past. I’m thinking that all these remixes must be a learning experience for you – i.e. you get to hear your tracks in a new light?

I think that has a lot to do with the fact that we also have a rather eclectic DJ background next to making music. Remixing, whether by us or for us, has always played a big role in our approach to music, hence the abundance of remixes by and for us over the years.

We are open-minded in that regard and have never considered a song a closed book once recorded and released. Sometimes a remix is even better than the original or comes to full and better bloom on the dancefloor when worked over by the right club producer.

It’s also a good way to keep in touch with developments in electronic music and the DJ world, which is constantly changing.

How do you select who you would like to remix your tracks?

We all have our wishes, but above all you need to feel if something might fit with a particular remixer and whether that person can give the track a new or different life, next to the original.

Plus, we are of course not a major league act, so we have to be careful with big names, and instead rely on our network built up over the years and hopefully a good reputation ‘in the scene’ to make things work at reasonable fees.

But it’s fun to think about it, discover and discuss new names, make lists, and the joy you experience when it turns out the way you’d like too, for example as with Yuksek’s remix of Sweet Time.

We’re coming up on 20 years since Kraak & Smaak was founded – how has your approach to making music changed in that time?

We started out with an Atari, a Rhodes, a Clavinet, a Nordlead and loads of samples we’d like to use – our first album Boogie Angst is mostly that. But it took off immensely right away, and with that more possibilities came, new gear, new ideas, etc.

We already found out quickly that we wanted to do much more, use live instruments, use live vocals. Hence the albums following Boogie Angst became more and more diverse in terms of instruments, styles and so forth. We especially devoted much time to find the right vocalists and song writers as well; we always took pride in picking up, still relatively unknown, new singers at every new album, or trying to convince already established ones to work with us, for example Ben Westbeech, Romanthony, etc.

I think we have now arrived at a situation in which the core of our music is mostly song-based, but we continue to take into account the electronic, dancefloor side of things as well.

I read somewhere that your name was originally chosen as a joke, but you never got round to changing it. Is that true?

Err… correct! When we sent our first demos around and got picked up by the UK label Jalapeno Records, we didn’t have an artist name yet. The label suggested to use Kraak & Smaak, the name of my one-man DJ company. It’s a Dutch proverb, meaning that something’s ‘crunchy and tasty’. But in English you tend to pronounce it as ‘Crack & Smack’… ahem!

Anyway, we used that a header on the letter we sent alongside the demos, to look more professional, haha. So, ok, that sounded cool for a 12” or two, not knowing that the project was going to take off beyond that and turning into a 20-year long career, lol.

What does the year ahead have in store for Kraak & Smaak?

We are working on new singles, a few remixes here and there, and are slowly moving towards a new album. We’re also working on a mix cd and are aiming to take another shot at touring the US in 2022 and hopefully lots more international live and DJ gigs once possible again.

Moreover, our label Boogie Angst is growing and needs attention as well, with Moods and ourselves as flag bearers, but with lots of new acts knocking on the door too. All in all, enough to do we’d say!

Thanks to Kraak & Smaak for chatting to us. You can buy/stream Persuade You by clicking here.

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