There seems little doubt that were they not so geographically challenged, the Nits would be one of the most widely respected bands in the world today -- at least on a par with smart-as-a-whip types like XTC and Prefab Sprout. Certainly few can match their sheer creative stamina: how many other bands can claim to be still reinventing themselves after 30 years and nearly 20 albums? But the Nits come from Holland. And furthermore, the occasional tour of the U.S. and Canada aside, they quickly made it clear that their only concession to the big outside world, where real rock stars wear shades indoors, would be to sing in English. That aside, anyone wanting them to tailor their unique brand of art-pop to the demands of a broader audience could go hang. In particular, the Nits specialize in making their latest album sound as little like the last as possible -- a marketing man's nightmare. This has simultaneously guaranteed them a modest degree of success across continental Europe, where fans appreciate their fierce integrity and commitment to playing intimate venues, and denied a lot of people in Britain and America some wonderfully inventive -- and very accessible -- music.
In retrospect, you can only wonder what was on the members' collective mind in 1974 when they formed the band in Amsterdam and decided that calling themselves the Nits was a good career move. Apparently, they felt it suggested an insectoid link to the Beatles, but in pop history only Prefab Sprout and lugubrious Aussies My Friend the Chocolate Cake have made more teeth-grindingly inappropriate choices. Initially, the band consisted of Henk Hofstede (vocals, guitar, keyboards), Rob Kloet (drums), Michiel Peters (guitar, vocals), and Alex Roelofs (bass), and it was this lineup that recorded the independently released single "Yes or No" in 1975 and their eponymous debut album in 1978.
On this and the next three albums -- Tent (1979), New Flat ( 1980), and Work (1981) -- the Nits carved themselves a slice of the post-new wave action that spawned bands like XTC and Talking Heads. Indeed, Hofstede has conceded that both were big influences on the band in those early days, along with the literary approach of Leonard Cohen. Although Hofstede's melodies had often betrayed the odd Beatles influence, this only came to the fore on the Nits' 1983 album Omsk. Where before the band's reluctance to conform had often resulted in a self-conscious quirkiness, suddenly it showed signs of blossoming into something with genuine depth and distinctiveness. Something moreover that drew as much on European traditions like chanson and musical theater as it did on British and American pop. It was also no accident that the album marked the arrival of keyboard player Robert Jan Stips. Having previously worked with the band as a producer, the one-time Golden Earring and Supersister member gave the Nits a whole new orchestral dimension with his rich array of individually tailored samples.
Omsk and the mini-album that followed it six months later -- Kilo -- also established Hofstede as a genuinely gifted singer. Most listeners instantly pick up on his voice's John Lennon-ish edge, but there's also a touch of Elvis Costello -- without the ever-looming threat of a sneer -- in the way Hofstede nails a ballad like "Dapper Street" or "Mask." He's also a powerful presence on-stage, simultaneously charismatic and affable.
In the years that followed Omsk, the Nits always seemed to be on a mission never to retrace their own musical footsteps. Adieu, Sweet Bahnhof in 1984, helmed by Stars on 45 producer Jaap Eggermont, was the closest they ever came to courting commercial success, though it includes two of their most memorable songs in "Mask" and the title track -- a wistful waltz whose melody once heard is never forgotten. Henk followed in 1986, an album whose heavy reliance on sampled sounds and surrealistic songs like "Port of Amsterdam" and "Bike in Head" contrasted sharply with both its glossy predecessor and the altogether more sober 1987 album In the Dutch Mountains, whose title track gave the band their biggest hit. That in turn was followed in 1990 by the kaleidoscopic Giant Normal Dwarf, conceived by Hofstede as a kind of fairy tale for his newborn child, but sounding more than anything like a joyous expedition to the candy striped psychedelia of "Strawberry Fields Forever" and "Glass Onion."
In 1992, Ting was a more stripped-back affair, with Stips' piano the dominant sound, and later that year the Nits (who were by then just known as Nits) recorded Hjuvi with a full symphony orchestra. Mostly composed by Stips, the piece mixed songs with instrumental compositions in the style of composers ranging from Satie to the Gershwins, and was mostly led by Stips at the piano. Da Da Da followed in 1994, even securing a release in the U.S. and U.K., though as usual Sony had no idea how to promote it.
By this point, the Nits were reduced to a three-piece, with Alex Roelofs having bailed out in 1981 and Michiel Peters following in 1985. And though subsequently they were often augmented by other musicians, a trio they would remain until 1996 when Stips also departed to form his own band, Stips Egotrip, leaving only founding members Hofstede and Rob Kloet.
It's worth noting Kloet's important contribution to the band. No mere time-keeper, he's a master of economy -- the polar opposite of Keith Moon -- whose minimalist interjections nevertheless keep the bombast and rhetoric of rock at bay while applying the very sleekest forward thrust. Someone once described him as less a drummer, more a percussionist, and that's spot on. He's never heard simply laying down an off-the-shelf rock rhythm, and it's significant that he always gets a co-composer credit.
With the band down to a core of two members, Hofstede nevertheless ensured their 1997 album Alankomaat still boasted the kind of lush textures with which the band had become associated by focusing much more heavily than usual on his own role as a keyboard player. Similarly, on 2000s Wool (their first for new label Play It Again Sam), Hofstede drafted in a string sextet, a jazz trumpeter and various soulful backing singers to compensate for the Stips-shaped hole in the band's sound.
After a six-year absence, however, Stips returned for the 2003 album 1974. Though the title refers to the band's year of formation, it nevertheless contained little that might be described as backward-looking. In fact, after the somewhat subdued and tightly arranged music of Alankomaat and Wool, it represented a return to a more playful and spontaneous style. There remained a suspicion, though, that Hofstede had expended some of his best music on a 2002 solo album -- comprising music written for a video installation -- called Het Draagbare Huis ("The Portable House") and was fresh out of top-notch material.
In their 30-odd years of existence, the Nits have notched several chart successes in their homeland and been showered with awards. Around the time of In the Dutch Mountains, it seemed international stardom was theirs for the taking. Yet only two of their albums have been released in the U.S. and U.K., and though they can boast a small but loyal following in Canada -- where they have doubtless benefited from the endorsement of the Barenaked Ladies -- they remain one of rock's best-kept secrets. And you suspect they wouldn't have it any other way. ~ Chris Evans