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Wednesday, May 21 1997
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I can't help feeling like I might be invading Carol Van Dijk's privacy. The Bettie Serveert singer -- swaddled in a gargantuan sweater, face curtained by heavy, blond hair, holding a Coke in one hand and a hand-rolled cigarette in the other -- gives off an air of self-containment so palpable that even the most rote interview question seems like a lunge at her innermost thoughts. It's a feeling that anyone who has listened to the Dutch foursome's music might understand. As the sole lyricist of the group, Van Dijk pens bird's-eye views of the loves, losses, and limitations of regular people that peek through the squalling, meandering guitars on Dust Bunnies, Bettie Serveert's third album. But that doesn't mean she wants to tell where they come from.

"I'm not much of a talker," she shrugs, by way of explaining how her lyrics come into being. Her low voice is further dwarfed by Wilco's sound check; we're sitting on the balcony of the Fillmore, where Bettie Serveert is the support act for a two-day run. "I'm more of a listener, so if I'm sitting with a bunch of people, most of the time I'll listen to what they're talking about. ... Sometimes I'll hear a sentence, you know -- 'That has a nice melody,' and I'll just write it down. It's weird, sometimes a song can write itself, like, in an hour. But sometimes I just have to walk around with this melody in my head, for weeks, until I finally know what the song is about, and before I can write the lyrics to it." She pauses. "And rhyming dictionaries can be a nice tool sometimes."

After their 1992 debut, Palomine, was issued to big slobbery kisses from the indie-rock crowd, 1994's follow-up Lamprey found the band suffering a backlash at the hands of the hype machine. So it's not surprising to find an indictment of the idol-making whims of the music industry called "Rudder" tucked into the slices of life on Dust Bunnies. "Bow down for the band on the cover," sings Van Dijk, over a melody so self-referentially, generically pop that the band should be choking on the tongue in their collective cheek. But although Van Dijk cops to the origins of the song ("It's about that part of the music business that's just ... ridiculous"), she adds that, in general, she and her bandmates have a laid-back approach to their success. "With Lamprey, there were a lot of high expectations because it was a second record. That was hard to live up to. People got disappointed because they thought it was going to be a million seller. Well, I could have told them it wasn't -- that's not what we were aiming for. It's not important, in the end."

The band's graceful noise is the sound of four friends who prefer to treat their music as an inadvertently successful pastime rather than a marketable commodity. "We were in our late 20s before we started Bettie Serveert, so we already had a whole life behind us," Van Dijk says. "Peter [Visser, guitar] had graduated from art school -- he's a painter -- and Berend [Dubbe, drummer] had his own radio program, making radio plays; he's very good at them, and he still does voice-overs. And Herman [Bunskoeke, bassist], in his spare time, was a disc jockey. So ... it was just a coincidence that it happened with Bettie Serveert."

A byproduct of this coincidence is Van Dijk's de facto status as Bettie Serveert's frontperson, a role which she is reluctant to assume. Her discomfort with being singled out for attention is further evidenced by her bewilderment when the subject of Bettie Serveert's occasional misfiling under "girl rock" comes up. "Huh. Well, it's easier to label it that way, I guess," she concedes. "People see a girl in the band and they're like 'Oh, OK. We know what that is.' They don't have to think about it."

A vacuum cleaner roars up and down the balcony, competing with a stuttering CD that has replaced Wilco's sound check, as Van Dijk continues. "We've been friends so long ... Berend and I have known each other 17 years now; half our lives. And Peter I've known for about 15; he's like my younger brother. So I never saw the difference in gender. I mean, obviously they're guys," she amends, chuckling, "and I'm not, but when it comes down to it, we all work just as hard. I don't see myself as being the frontperson. It's always been the four of us."

Yet given Bettie Serveert's strongly song-based aesthetic, Van Dijk's often cryptic lyrics regularly become a central focus. "Maybe this sounds a little silly," she explains hesitantly, "but I write the songs for myself. And I'm always surprised when other people like them." When she hears that one review of Dust Bunnies opines that the singer "elevates mopiness to a high art," however, she's more intrigued than annoyed. "I don't feel like a very moping person," she muses. "Some songs can be ... melancholic, I guess, but it's not just me. It's just as much in Peter's guitar, or whatever Herman is playing. But sometimes ... I guess if you feel very strongly about something, it's easier to write a song. So if you feel very strongly melancholic, the song is most probably going to sound that way."

"But," she adds, the reserved look on her face melting into a big grin, "that doesn't mean that we're like that on every song. No way. We just have too much fun." Still, Van Dijk admits that she occasionally misses her former occupation as a sound engineer. "It was a lot of fun," she says, smiling wistfully. "Sometimes even more than being on stage. Nobody really bothers about the person who's in back, in the dark, doing the sound -- unless you make a mistake. Mostly they ignore you, and you can just do your job, and then go home and write songs."

By Andi Zeisler

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Andi Zeisler

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