Go Focus Yourself… The THIJS VAN LEER Interview

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The initial plan was to post an interview with Thijs Van Leer (or part of it) that originally appeared in #136 of Record Collector magazine but then, incredibly, a previously unpublished interview from November 2008 came to light in the Boot Room archives… and here it is. The occasion was 27.11.07 and Focus’s gig at The Picturedome in Holmfirth, the breath-takingly beautiful chunk of Yorkshire where they film The Last Of The Summer Wine. Birdman, my boon companion and I, were honoured to be received by Thijs in his hotel room and as dusk settled over the dales (a truly magical setting) he discoursed freely on all things Focus. First on the agenda was wunderkind guitarist Niels Van Der Steenhoven, who had recently replaced Jan Dumee in the line-up.

So, Thijs… how is Niels settling into the band?

Too good… it’s not just that he’s learned it, it’s that he totally understands our thing. We already knew that he was a virtuoso, but it’s really amazing that he’s glued in so well.

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You’ve had young guitarists like Jan Dumee, Menno Gootjes and Eef Albers in the band before… were all these guys really steeped in the history of Focus?

I must say that a lot of them took Focus as their model of how to approach music and the reason we could find so many beautiful young guitarists was that they all agreed that Focus compositions are timeless. That’s not what I say, that’s what they say and why they take it so seriously.

I agree. I listen to a track like Anonymous 2 all the time and it’s still revealing fresh things to me…

Yep…

It doesn’t age at all and in that sense it’s more like classical music than “pop” music. It’s more like jazz, too. I mean, something like Anonymous 2 makes much more sense when listened to with Bitches Brew as a reference point rather than the more usual comparisons that are made with Genesis, Yes…

Of course… what it’s got is a very horizontal form of improvisation, chord wise… a lot of Anonymous 2 is only one chord. Maybe also the intensity of it, which people didn’t perhaps expected from these cold musicians (laughs)… the alertness, the tension, everyone being completely there, this is what I saw in all of Miles’ groups, not only the Bitches Brew period but also with Coltrane and Cannonball Adderley and also the beautiful quintet with Herbie Hancock and Wayne Shorter, they all adhered to that law of total concentration, total devotion… yeah, let’s call it devotion…but also as a group member to be able to listen to the others, to make space for them.

People criticised the Mother Focus album for allegedly taking this abrupt jazz turn, but in fact…

… the jazz was always there, yes, although we don’t use the triplet of mainstream jazz, but there’s always that 16-to-the-bar thing. That’s what all the jazz rock guys also did… Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, everybody. Actually, I think rather than Miles Davis it was Larry Coryell who really started jazz-rock…

… with Eleventh House…

… yeah. I don’t actually like the compositions all that much, but I do think he’s the godfather of the whole jazz-rock thing. I was very influenced by Weather Report for a while there, I even exchanged my Hammond organ for a Fender Rhodes at one point but now I’m back playing the Hammond.

What happened with Jan Dumee… did he just want to go and do his own thing?

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Jan was a good friend, I was very pleased with his musicality, his compositions were pretty good (we still play one of them, Tamara’s Move) but I really wanted more of a challenge on stage. I said to him we’re an instrumental group, there’s no lead singer and certainly no sex symbol to please the eye of the audience, so we need something else. I wanted more of a challenge from him on stage, for him to really put some fire under my butt, so that there is battle whose resolution is the music and the audience becoming united as one thing. Jan said: “ Yes, I’m gonna work on that”, but it just didn’t happen so six months later I asked him one last time…

There always has been a lot of physical interactivity between the members of Focus on stage…

Yes, I need contact with my fellow musicians. I have it with Pierre. just one little look and we’re off. Sometimes we don’t even have to look…

Pierre is such a great drummer, but it’s said that his crisis of confidence was a big part of the band’s decline in the 1970s…

He didn’t doubt himself. He doubted that he was getting the credit he deserved. He had a very long working relationship with Jan, going back to when he was 13…

… in Johnny &  His Cellar Rockers…

brainbox-net copyYes, so they had a very long and pure relationship, then suddenly their was this  friendship between Jan and me which was probably a difficult thing for Pierre to swallow. We shared a sense of humour, including dirty jokes which is something Pierre doesn’t care for, so that was it… I was always laughing my ass off when Jan was telling jokes and Pierre would be silent so maybe I was the disturbing factor in their friendship, I don’t know… then Pierre was the first to leave. Later on I asked Jan to leave the band because he didn’t want to play my music anymore, but that was much later…

That was on the eve of Focus’s 1976 UK tour… you had Philip Catherine joining the band with two days notice and you suffered a dope bust as soon as you arrived in the country… turbulent times!

Yeah (laughs)… that was terrible. I really didn’t know that I had these two tiny pieces of hash in my bag, and it was discovered by a guy who must have had a third eye…

… or good sniffer dogs…

No, no dogs, just the guy!

Maybe somebody tipped him off..

I had a very quick trial, I had to stay at the police station and somebody from the record company bailed me out. I kept saying that I did not know it was in my bag… and I really didn’t know… otherwise they wouldn’t have let me enter the country anymore.

We can’t have that! There’s an apocryphal story that ran in the music papers, saying that before one college gig you were huddled around a juke box in the bar, playing Hocus Pocus over and over so that Philip could learn it…

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No, that’s not true. What happened was that the day before we arrived in the UK I wrote down all the guitar parts, 14 pages, and he played on stage at Cardiff, reading all these parts that were glued to a chair… note perfect! The tour was very successful but when it ended I didn’t want to continue with that band. I asked Akkerman to come back, three times, but three times he refused. His no was no… OK, I can understand that.

But you made an album together in 1985…

The blue one,  just called Focus

Presumably you were getting on better then?

Yes, we thought we would do it as just a duet, no hassle anymore with the rhythm section people and we just had a Linn Drum behind us… the record company was initially very enthusiastic about that record but when they heard the results they though there was no hit single, so every penny of promotional money was withdrawn… the project was killed.

But if something like House Of The King can be a hit, why not King Kong from that album?

I thought so… I like that, also.

Speaking of rhythm sections, as we were, Jan Akkerman told me that original Focus bassist Martijn Dresden was a very eccentric guy… is that how you remember him?

He was a guy with vision. He was the son of the guy who was conducting an orchestra in which my father was the first flute player and I was the piccolo player. Martijn’s father had an inferiority complex because his own father was the self made man behind the Amsterdam Conservatory and he was always putting down Martijn’s father, who was a beautiful cello player. So what did Martijn’s father do to him? Exactly the same, always putting him down. So Martijn had many problems, he was already on hard drugs when he was 15 or 16 and we didn’t know, it was a total secret.

He sang the song Happy Nightmare (Mescaline) on your first album…

Yes, I asked him to sing it because I thought he had more experience of that kind of thing than the rest of us. He sang it very well, also Black Beauty, which we now do as an instrumental… but not tonight.

What about Anonymous, which is one of the really signature Focus pieces?

We rehearsed it but we’re not playing it on this tour, I don’t know why… probably because it’s too long. We’re leaving it out again…. but we will be playing Round Goes The Gossip, which we always avoided before because it’s a very difficult tune to play, totally uncommercial and that’s the first song off a double album that went gold in America… how is that possible?!? Those were different days!

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Focus appeared out of the blue in the early ‘70s and just took the world by storm… any memories of those times, e.g. the legendary Whistle Test appearances and your memorable turn at the Reading Festival?

You must remember that there were two factors that were already helping us a lot. One is that we were signed to Radio Luxembourg, the only legal pirate station in Europe, and they had English language programmes presented by people like Kid Jensen. They were playing us already every hour at least once, so the English audience was already familiar with some of our tunes… you could then talk about a red carpet kind of situation. The other thing was that the first time we came to England there was a big power strike and no band could play  for lack of electricity… even the traffic lights in London were out! We were afraid to go, we thought in England they have so many stars already in pop and rock… they’re chauvinistic also, so what do they care about a Dutch band? You know… but our management had the idea to send us over here with our own generator. So we performed and the very fact that we played got the audience on our side from the off, not even the music… it was like we were pioneers, you know? That made it for us. And then I must say the skill… the band consisted of musicians with a certain kind of virtuosity and originality. We were not afraid of using classical elements… not just quoting them, like some of the other “Prog” bands did, but of composing our own in a manner reminiscent of Brahms or Bach or Mozart. We made a big impression with such things as the timing of Jan Akkerman and Pierre Van Der Linden together, a very black feel, don’t forget that, another things was we were also open to… all kinds of folk music from all over the world, so it was like a total amalgamation of styles and I must say I’m very happy that people accepted what we were doing and that we could even make a name for ourselves and get a lot of coverage. We also wanted to spread the news that there was a possibility of making that tasteful kind of mixture of styles, while retaining a unique sound that could be recognised as that of Focus.

A totally new sound…

Yes, like what Mendelssohn called “songs without words”, that was the principle of it.

The Shadows set the precedent for this in popular music, with Hank Marvin’s guitar taking the vocal line…

Ah, he was a big influence, of course. He covered Sylvia, have you heard it?

No (I have now – Oz).

It’s beautiful, well done Hank. A little different from the way that Akkerman did it, but really nice. But in the early ‘70s we were the only instrumental band having hits…

… and from an “unfashionable” country…

Mariska 3Well some Dutch bands did have hits… Golden Earring with Radar Love, Maggie McNeil with Hello, How Do You Do? We had Tea Set and of course, Shocking Blue (above) … she just died, the girl who sang on Venus… Mariska Veres… I went to her funeral and I played the flute as the coffin went down, just a flute solo. I was just about to do an album of Hungarian songs with her…

Another missed opportunity… Focus is a band that’s never recorded two consecutive studio albums with the same line up. Have you sought constant change with the idea of keeping everybody on their mettle, or is there a version of the band that you would really like to have held together?

I was very satisfied at the time when we had Bert, Jan and Pierre in the band. It’s not me who wanted to change that at all. Now, finally, after all these years, I can say again that I do not want to change the current line-up. Niels isn’t just great, he’s absolutely amazing and Bobby is not only the bottom, he’s also a good writer and a very good producer. He co-produced the album. And of course Pierre… forget about it, he’s phenomenal! And we now have three generations in the band, with Niels who’s 28, Bobby is 42 and Pierre’s even older than I am, though he looks much younger. It’s music that makes this possible, age doesn’t come into it.

When I spoke to Jan Akkerman he was really quite dismissive of Bert Ruiter as a player…

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Sic…

Really? Burt brought a lot of r’n’b to the band because he came out of that kind of group, having played in Full House in Utrecht, he played with jazz people, he came out of a very warm bed, you know. He was playing very basic, like the tuba part, but with Jan Akkerman and me playing so many notes it was very welcome to have somebody who wasn’t playing busily, high  on the neck like Stanley Clarke does…

Noel Redding filled exactly the same role in the Jimi Hendrix Experience… is it true that you considered Mitch Mitchell for the drum stool when Pierre left the band, before you decided on Colin Allen?

Oh yeah, he’s a guy I’ve still got a lot of admiration for, he’s inspired me a lot. You could maybe compare him also a little bit to Pierre.

Focus and Jan Akkerman are both touring constantly these days… is there any sense in which you’re checking each other out, spurring each other on to top each other?

No, I’m flattered and honoured that he still plays my material but that’s it, and I’m not checking anything. Sometimes I meet people who attend his concerts and ours and some comparisons are made, but that’s just a pleasure for me.

When I saw the reformed Focus you played Hocus Pocus and I thought that’s pretty hot, then I saw Akkerman and he played it better, then I saw you again and you topped his version…

It’s different, he plays it with no yodelling, in fact I think he even calls it “Hocus Pocus: No Yodel”. Vanessa Mae recorded a cover version with her violin taking the yodelling part… did you hear it?

Yeah, it’s pretty good.

I like it a lot. I met her once and I proposed to her… ha ha, proposed to her that we collaborate on a version of Hocus Pocus to be released as a single. She was very keen to do it too, but when I spoke to her management, it was: “We’ll let you know”, you know…

As you get older is it harder to do these amazing vocalisations that the fans have come to expect?

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No, only the high voice has gone. My falsetto – in fact it used to be a castrato – went round about the time I turned 50, but I gained an extra register below… it grew downwards (laughs.) But now in the hall it’s the public who yodel the high bits for me…

It’s nice that you’ve had Akkerman, this guitar god in the band, but the fans still accept new, younger people like Jan Dumee and Niels and don’t give them a hard time.

You know why they accept them? Because they’re so good!

I know, but in other bands no matter how good the new guy is, the fans will never forgive him for not being the old guy.

I can imagine. You know, what Akkerman did in Focus was unprecedented, but I do think that he needs a good composer next to him. It doesn’t have to be me, but you know when Akkerman has a counterpart, I think he’s at his best. I’m not saying that he’s a bad composer, but when he had another composer to work with, it gave him another thing. I’ve always said as much to him and it’s always made him angry.

You set him up beautifully, for instance, at some points on the Hamburger Concerto album and he steps up to the plate and delivers these beautiful guitar solos…

We always complimented each other very well. I listen to this stuff now and, for instance, Focus II from the album Moving Waves always brings me to tears, not only what Jan was playing but what Pierre was doing as well.

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He always complains: “Ah, but the drums are too soft on that track” and I reply: “I’m just listening to what you were playing there”, it was so far ahead of its time, so symphonic, and the timing… you’ll hear it tonight, we play Focus II and it only grew. It’s better now so it’s unbelievable for me and I’m so thankful. The thing is, all the years that I didn’t do Focus material it was because of what people in the business, people like Mike Vernon and Seymour Stein, said to me. I met Mike in London and I met Seymour in Cannes and showed them some material and they said they were only interested in it if Jan was on board again, then they would put some backing into it, and that kind of influenced me to believe that I couldn’t do it by myself. I was not interested in doing Focus anymore because I thought, of course, I have to believe the people who made a lot more money than we did ourselves. Seymour Stein made his first million dollars on Focus… we didn’t, he did! I don’t regret that, but it’s true.

People like that saying they were only interested in that partnership, this influenced me for years… it was only young people like Bobby Jacobs, Jan Dumee and Ruben Van Roon, those three started to rehearse the old material just because they thought it was timeless music and then they asked me to join the group, I didn’t know what they were rehearsing. Bobby phoned me on a rainy day and said: “Please come 120 kilometres, bringing your Hammond organ” and I said no. I was having one of my very rare moments of down time and I was in the house just surfing channels on the TV but no, he said: “You’ve gotta come now” and he kept on phoning so finally I went there with the Hammond organ, drove there and through the closed door I heard some of the old material (gestures signifying an upsurge of emotion) and it was not just the material, but the way they were playing it, as a guitar trio. I immediately unpacked my Hammond and there it was. We started off as a band called ‘Hocus Pocus – A Tribute To Focus” and we wanted to play in cafes and little clubs and then this mad manager came along called Willem Hubers and he said: “What I’m hearing is Focus. If you want me to manage you you have to re-baptise yourselves into Focus again” then we had a gathering with the four for two and a half minutes and said yes, then we went immediately to Brazil and now we are very big there and in Mexico… we never went there in the old days because it was too dangerous, in the sense that you wouldn’t get paid but nowadays you can do better deals. So now we do go there and in places like Rio, San Paolo, we are hot and again we’ve been asked to headline a massive rock festival in Mexico….

House Of The King has always been used a lot on British TV… but everybody still thinks it’s Jethro Tull!

They always do…

What happened during the Hamburger Concerto period? The music changed a  bit, you had Colin Allen in the band…

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Many people regard that as their favourite Focus album… it’s very Spanish. Much more Spanish than Eruption. I think the title track, the Concerto itself, is maybe too much a replica of Eruption but it was heavily influenced, especially what Jan Akkerman contributed, by Joe Walsh. We played nine gigs co-headlining with Joe in Texas and he was playing major chords (Thijs vocalises the riff to “Rocky Mountain Way”). We had been playing only minor chords, doric scales… what they call “jazzy”, but it’s just a minor bluesy scale. Suddenly Jan said: “I think the new thing is major chords” and he admitted that this was the influence of Joe. And so Hamburger Concerto started – the introduction is by Hayden you know, the Hayden variations on Brahms. That’s very major, but in the middle parts again it’s very Spanish. But Hocus Pocus is also very Spanish… it’s all very Spanish!

Jan will do a solo album were he’s trying to sound like Z Z Top, then he’ll do another one where he wants to sound like Django… he seems to go through this succession of phases where he’s enthusing about something or other.

I cannot judge. I know that he idolised Z Z Top and I can understand that because it’s a real r’n’b thing, a real rock’n’roll feel that we all like. I agree with Jan that it’s smoking… sulphurous… this indefinable swing that starts to suddenly swell up.

So, where did it start to go wrong with Colin?

You know he was playing some of the places we just played, I think he started Stone The Crows again (in fact at this time Colin was playing in the British Blues Quintet with Maggie Bell, Zoot Money, Colin Hodgkinson and Miller Anderson – Oz). That’s where he came from. You know Maggie Bell lost her husband Les Harvey, he was electrocuted on stage, Colin left the band and then he was free to join Focus… but it’s not true that Focus deteriorated because Colin joined the band. Listen to his playing on something like Harem Scarem… it really cooks!

Colin seemed to have integrated into the band really well but then there seemed to be an abrupt parting of the ways…

Jan took him out, he sacked him from the band.

Jan told me that you sacked Colin Allen.

Fuck him! No, no, it’s not true… no, Jan was really fed up with Colin, there was some kind of personal thing going on between them.

Jan told me that he only recently realised what a good drummer Colin was because when he was in the band, he (Jan) was obsessed with getting Pierre back.

I don’t know, it’s possible, I can’t make a judgement for him, you know? Colin’s a lovely man, great character and he knows a lot about rock and roll history as well. I’d love to see your interview with him. I would like to see him again. The only guys I’ve seen recently, being in London very briefly, were Chick Corea and John McLaughlin. It was a Chick Corea concert together with his banjo player and one of the people in the audience was John McLaughlin… I’m very good friends with Chick, he’s stayed at my home and Chick wanted to produce my Latin mass, which I wrote and called Dona Nobis Pacem. Chick wanted to do that in his home studio in LA but I had already done that with two Chilean guys. Even Chi Coltrane wanted to do that with me, she wanted to sing some English over the Latin words. That is, I think, my best work.

Everybody says that, but it’s really hard to track down… (I’ve got a copy now and it’s frickin’ sublime – Oz.)

It was never going to sell well, something like that, but it is definitely my best work.

What happened with the short lived Focus line-up of the late ‘90s, which included Bert, Hans Cleuver and the young guitarist Menno Gootjes? (Menno pictured above… he would replace Niels Van Der Steenhoven in the Focus line up shortly after this interview – Oz.)

We played just one gig and that was it. That came about because Bert said to me, I’m going to go with you to my attic to record 23 songs… most of them were my compositions, because Bert said that I was the soul of the band, the composer and so on. I felt flattered so I went to his house and we worked for months on a concept with what I thought was strong material and Hans Cleuver, the original Focus drummer, was interested to join with us… he has a drum school in Den Haag that is flourishing but he was keen to play again, so we auditioned for guitarists and we found Menno…

Wasn’t he a schoolmate of Bobby’s?

He was the teacher of Niels! He played a very good part. In the end there was already posters made and everything and we were on the verge of going on tour and making a record… suddenly Bert Ruiter himself said we are not mature enough to do it, it needs at least half a year more. So I said: “Sorry, fuck you!” and that was the end of our friendship. We were real friends, but that was the end of it…

He had stuck with you through many line-ups…

Burt was so positive about doing it and suddenly he pulled out. Was he afraid? I don’t know… he didn’t want to go to America, he didn’t feel we were strong enough, the material and the way we were playing it. Maybe he was right… anyway, this band died very quickly.

Did any of that material appear on your comeback albums Focus 8 or New Skin?

Yeah, the title song from Focus 8 was totally prepared by Bert and me and I still like the song very much, though we’re not going to play it here tonight.

Do you have any contact details for Bert?

His wife was the singer in the band Earth & Fire and now she’s the head of the big cultural assembly in Holland, she’s a very important person and also on the jury of Holland’s Pop Idol show… hey, you should give some credit to our tour manager Geert Scheijgrond, whom I always introduce as a non-playing member of the band… in fact he plays guitar like Jeff Beck and he’s the only one of us who looks “rock’n’roll”…

Thijs, I don’t believe you could go anywhere in the world and not be regarded as “rock’n’roll”… anyway, is Introspection still the biggest selling album in Holland?

In the days of LPs it was, but I think there are now a few classical CDs that have outsold it. I sold about two and half million LPs in Holland, which is a lot.

Finally, any amusing anecdotes about Focus’s time as the house band for the original Amsterdam production of the musical Hair? That must have been pretty wild…

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The wild thing was that there were naked people on stage very night we played, which was unheard of… girls… there were boys too, but we were only interested in the girls. The thing was for us it was the first reason to live, the first money we made, being the nucleus of a nine piece orchestra and it also gave us the opportunity to rehearse our own stuff every afternoon because we didn’t have to pay rent and the gear was there in this big circus tent where the production took place in Amsterdam. And Victor Spinnetti was there as producer, the dead guy, he did Magical Mystery Tour with The Beatles. We had so much fun…

At this point Thijs was called to the soundcheck and took us along. Round Goes The Gossip… Sheer Prog Heaven! And then there was the gig…

http://www.focustheband.com

This piece previously appeared on the now defunct Bootroom Of Ozymandias blog.

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