Personal Trainer: Birth of a Band

Personal Trainer are one of the most volatile, interesting bands to crop up in recent years. Based in Amsterdam, the band were picked up by indie label Holm Front, run predominantly by Sports Team’s Henry Young. Through Holm Front’s drive to champion new talent, Personal Trainer had two of their earlier singles (‘The Lazer’ and ‘Stormchaser of the Month’) pressed exclusively onto vinyl. For most in the UK scene, this was their first introduction to Personal Trainer, though they feel like a band born for the London audience, with their electronic sound and chaotic presence primed to find its true home in sticky cramped rooms like The Windmill or The George Tavern. It begs the question, is the UK ready for the Amsterdam bred havoc? Having played with the likes of Pip Blom, Sports Team and Hinds, Personal Trainer are way past cutting their teeth on the UK scene. 

Currently a collective made up of friends and friends of friends, frontman Willem Smit expresses his need for reform. Personal Trainer started as an idea where all members would be interchangeable – driving an unspoken tension and energy on stage, bringing different people together and making for a lot more rehearsal time that a ‘conventional’ band would need. I believe this is what The Magic Gang had always planned to do, yet found a line up that worked and stuck with it. Personal Trainer seem to be leaning that way, too. The lack of ability to polish tracks and therefore being unable to develop as a set unit seems to be something that Personal Trainer want to move away from. 

As I set up the zoom call with Willem and percussionist Kilian Kayser, I think to myself “am I about to speak to the next best band of my lifetime?” and I think we’ll all just have to wait and find out. I was greeted by the smiley faces of two of what feels like a 100-membered band. Coddling cups of what I’m assuming was coffee, the two jolly men peer at me through the laptop webcam as I attempt to ask well rounded, interesting questions while also attempting to not completely freak out. 

Personal Trainer’s debut EP Gazebo, featuring singles ‘Muscle Memory’ and ‘Politics’ marks the end of the ‘collective’ and the start of them being a ‘real band’. ‘Muscle Memory’ showcases the slick, solid, rhythmic side of the band. Before the song descends into chaos with the chorus, the song is light and fluffy; I like to imagine the band stringing out all the choruses of ‘Muscle Memory’ in order to wreak the most havoc, causing the crowd to ‘go wild’ as the kids say. ‘Politics’ is a track of equal valour and rhythmic prowess; a social commentary with the perfect backing track and a catchy chorus you’ll have in your head for weeks. The ultimate question is: will this EP be the one that marks the birth of a new chapter in Personal Trainer’s story? 

Your new single ‘Muscle Memory’ features on your new EP Gazebo, how do you think it differentiates from the rest of your discography?

Willem: I guess most of our music that we’ve put out has been a little more like uplifting poppy, rock ‘n’ roll songs. This one’s a little more sad I guess, it’s a bit more emo. That’s how I would describe it. We’ve had other songs that have the same kind of theme, that same feeling. It’s a bit different to the more uplifting pop songs. 

What was it like recording the EP, what’s the situation in the Netherlands at the minute with Covid and everything? 

Willem: Well actually, most of it I think all of it actually was recorded before the whole Covid thing. I recorded it here, in the space where my girlfriend and I live. 

Willem picks up his laptop and gives me a virtual room tour, consisting of a high bookshelf displaying their favorite CDs, their 7 inch single and other collectibles. Displayed vinyls, posters and mounted guitars are carefully collated on the walls, and on the floor lie humongous amps, guitars and a piano. 

This is kind of the studio situation – it’s basically a computer with some music stuff. I basically record all stuff here and get all of the recorded stuff to Casper [van der Lans, bassist], who also mixes everything with me. We kind of try to ‘pimp’ the songs after I’ve recorded them not that properly most of the time. He really knows what he’s doing and I don’t, so we try and get it to a nice level together. We’re recording more stuff now, it’s just we’re trying to keep it the same way, because we like it that way – just the two of us. But it also works now because we don’t need a lot of people in a room together. 

There actually is one song on the EP that was recorded live in Bristol that was like eight of us in that room and that wouldn’t be possible now, so we can’t do that kind of stuff now but we can still work our way around it.

As you just mentioned Bristol, what about the touring situation for you guys with Brexit and everything? 

Willem: It’s really hard to tell really, especially with the whole Covid thing going on. There is some funding by the Dutch government that helps people to grow by helping them out financially to tour, in the UK for instance. And I’m kind of hoping – Kilian knows a lot about it actually! 

Kilian: So, I’m both a percussionist in the band and also a music journalist. My new research is about how Brexit affects both Dutch band touring in the UK and how the UK’s bands are afflicted touring in Europe. I think we have some shows planned in May, and if they don’t go ahead which will probably happen, we will go eventually and the costs will be higher. Luckily the funding for covering transit costs, the cover fees are costs as well – it’s like a fund they use if you go to the US or anything. So for us, hopefully that will be grounded so we can still go there, but it’s definitely a tighter spot. If you want to go there more often or if you’re a smaller band and you don’t have a reputation in the Netherlands or you don’t have you have [publications like] Wax liking your music, it’s really hard to get the funding or money to pay for your carnet or visas and stuff. This is our call to all the British bands we like to please still come to the Netherlands because we like you! 

Willem: Just the good ones though! 

You guys are signed to Holm Front, how do you think being picked up by them has influenced you as a band or individuals?

Willem: I don’t think musically per se. They’re just really nice guys and it helped us a lot that they put their heart in getting us somewhere in the UK. We don’t know anyone else in the UK really, but they really know what’s going on there, and they’re pretty hip so- 

Kilian: I think individually they inspired me and probably some other bands to buy some clothing.

Willem: To me it’s really inspiring that Henry [Young, Sports Team guitarist and co-founder of Holm Front] just helps us and we don’t have to do anything for him or … 

Kilian: He’s doing such nice work without expecting something back.

Willem: And with passion, and that’s inspiring. I guess that would be a good influence.

You refer to yourselves as a collective – just how many people are involved in the project?

Willem: It started off as just a project of me making music and then asking a load of people to play along on stage, and it kind of turned into this idea of a shifting live line up. Every time you’d come see us or watch us play there would be different people, so it would be interesting every time, But mostly for us. I like the idea of having at least three people who don’t exactly know what they’re supposed to do in three seconds, so there would always be a little bit of tension because people weren’t exactly sure what to do all the time. I really liked that at first, but now I just want to be a rockstar. That idea kind of blew over, so I had this idea of ending the whole collective thing and just changing into this proper band with set band members, and we’re doing this thing in the Netherlands where we’re playing two shows at the same time now to kind of end it all, the whole thing with the shifting members. It seemed kind of arrogant to me too because I would be there every time and it didn’t make any sense, because that would mean I wouldn’t be replaceable or anything. Which I don’t believe, I think I’m very replaceable.

Kilian: I think everyone’s replaceable, luckily our friends are all really great at replacing each other.

Willem: Yeah, they’re all really great musicians. I mean, we’ve had up to 20 or a little more play with us and they’re all really great and really inspiring people. 

Kilian: They all have really cool bands on their own; Amsterdam is kind of like south London I would say. 

Willem: Yeah, at first it was just Amsterdam bands and then all over the Netherlands. We’ve had some members of UK bands playing with us too. Some guys from the band Home Counties, I’m a big fan of Home Counties. And Bull, I like Bull. 

The two shows thing, it’s kind of a crescendo of you guys ending one era and starting another, would you say?    

Willem: Kind of, that’s what it feels like to me. I’m kind of done with the whole kind of idea of it. 

With the EP, do you think that’ll be the start of your ‘new era’ or do you think a lot more in your future that will signify that? 

Willem: The EP is kind of a compilation of songs we made a while back, I guess a year and a half ago. I think it was finished about a year ago maybe a little later. We just keep making music, it’s mostly just the shifting members thing that I’m a bit fed up with. It’s still kind of practical that we know a lot of people who could fill in for other people if someone gets corona or something. It’s very practical, but it’s a lot of rehearsing. I just want to be a band, like a proper band. 

And then you guys can develop within yourselves? 

Willem: Yeah, get a little more focused, still keep the whole hectic live thing going on but be a little more focused. 

What’s your guys’ favourite place to play ever?  

Willem: I really liked playing Kilian’s kitchen once; he and his room-mates organised this show in their kitchen. There were a bunch of cool bands, Pip Blom played, and we played – there was a guy called Karl who was really cool too.

Kilian: I remember him because we played in our kitchen and we were just moving out. He played in my empty student room and we made a little stage for him out of a shopping cart but he needed to grip the ceiling in order to balance. I forgot that my light switch was on but there was only wires, it was kind of sketchy, so he got electrocuted the whole show, and afterwards he was like “what was that?”. It was kind of funny I guess, that night was nice but it just brings back nicer memories of a lot of people in a very tiny room. 

Willem: I miss that actually, and we’ve played a lot of nice places…

Kilian: In the UK as well, I liked the Bristol one on the boat.. Thekla! 

Willem: There was this weird one in Edinburgh where there was this large hall where they would normally do weddings I guess? We were one of the shows there. I think Hinds did a show there and two other bands. What was it called?

Kilian: It was called the Caves, it looked like a church tomb carved into stone. The dressing room was like a tomb with a candle, the vibe being really gothic. After we played, our keyboard player Abel took over a karaoke bar and I think that was the most fun. He just started playing, it was like a karaoke live band, like a jam session. 

Willem: That was the first Personal Trainer show I saw not being on stage and actually in a karaoke band. 

That’s real rock n roll right there. 

Kilian: As for dream venues.. I would like to be – you know that ferry between the Netherlands and Hull for example – they have this night band and I’d like to play like that band.

Willem: I would like to play a show where the boat [rocks side to side] and all the amps go to one side and then back to the other, that’s probably the dream right now. 

Kilian: I would also really like to play Stonehenge because I think it’s a really cool place. One of those 360° shows. 

I think they filmed Doctor Who there so surely you could do it.

Willem: If Doctor Who did it…

Kilian: It would be really cool if Willem could be the next Doctor Who.

Do you guys have any album plans or anything like that? 

Willem: Kind of, I’m recording a lot with Casper, and we’re kind of working on the album and new stuff – we’re not sure yet. We’re working towards this EP release now, and then hopefully playing first in the UK and then gradually working towards finishing an album!

Words: Willow Shields // Photos: Personal Trainer

Personal Trainer’s ‘Gazebo’ EP is out now via Holm Front. Stream and purchase the record via Bandcamp.

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