Thijs van Leer interviewed by Martin Hudson

Wondrous Stories (England) - August 1997


Martin When was the last time that you played in England?
Thijs It was in 1976 in the last tour I did with FOCUS, with Philip Catherine on the guitar, Bert Ruiter on the bass and Dave Kemper on the Drums.
Martin Thijs, you made several changes in the band until the end of FOCUS. Recently I spoke to Roger Hogdson (Supertramp), and he told me that when the band reached success, things began to be bad. Did something similar happen with FOCUS?
Thijs I could say yes, but it is a long history.
Martin As much musical as personal?
Thijs Musically, really, there were never disagreements, but the subject is that now we have a formation that I cannot speak so much about, but as soon as I have the novelties, I will tell you. We are in the half of the rehearsals and in one month I will be more sure on the members.
Martin Are you thinking on recording an album and touring again?
Thijs Yes, we are working to that.
Martin What did you make in these years?
Thijs I recorded a series of albums called " Introspection ", with a complete orchestra and me as flutist and first soloist. It was an explosion of sales, mainly in Holland and Belgium besides the rest of the world. It was the most sold album, and I have continued to work in this line for several years, up to now.
Martin Is the idea of reforming FOCUS yours?
Thijs Yes.
Martin So when you left FOCUS was to do a solo career and not to form another band?
Thijs In this period I formed other bands, including the group " CONXI " which I am working within now (97). It is formed by musicians from Holland and Senegal, who sing and dance with wonderful percussions.
Martin Is it very ethnic?
Thijs We can say so. I don't like the expression " World Music " a lot, but it is the mix of two continents, and I believe it was a rich and happy idea.
Martin This way you maintained your career in Holland.
Thijs Yes, but we also played in the other countries with this band. Before I had a heavy group called Van Leer with an American singer and me in the keyboards and flute, I were the main composer.
Martin When you began with FOCUS it was as a progressive-rock band. Do you really believe in the word "progressive"?
Thijs Yes, was called this way and we were pioneers in this combination of different sounds, before the use of the word " fusion ". Later people called it fusion ", jazz-rock ", but FOCUS, without a doubt, was a rock band with strong rootses of the classic music of the European continent and with the rhythm & blues, basically.

Thijs van Leer in his farm, Mill - Holland
Martin Was the largest impact of FOCUS in Holland?
Thijs No, England and America, in the English-speaking countries much more than in Holland.
Martin I remember that FOCUS was really the first Dutch band that entered in the British market and also Golden Earring along the USA.
Thijs Yes, but they didn't make live presentations. Otherwise we made the two things, shows and records sessions, and in this way, I believe, FOCUS was the only one group.
Martin Particularly why do you think that FOCUS was so succesful?
Thijs To be polite, I would say that we were talented (laughters). There's also a people's wish to go to a rock show, to sit down on the ground and to listen, and after three or four songs begin to dance. Our work was very introspective as a "concert", so in the end, the last half hour was of rock and roll. This was a tendency, but we didn't consider that our music follows a tendency, it survived its time, the seventies. We went very spread and until today that is so incredible that the music of FOCUS could be defined as unbounded. It was not a fashion.
Martin I know what you refer to. It was exactly the same with bands as Supertramp, Yes or Genesis. When you do look back, are you surprised with the success of FOCUS? Could you have imagined this?
Thijs Not so much fame, but I felt in my veins while I composed the first record it would produce some type of reaction.
Martin Wasn't it the perfect moment?
Thijs Yes, being reconsidered now, yes. Our first tour in England was in 1971, when there was an enormous movement. We arrived with two trucks, one of them loaded with equipments and the other with a electricity generator. This was exactly our first victory, because we arrived there at the right moment, when neither many English bands were not playing for lack of electric energy, nor the lights of the streets worked in London.
Martin I remember that the first time that I saw you personally, FOCUS were a very well formed band, but also very classic. Do you agree?
Thijs Classic yes, let's say that we didn't produce nor mentioned the classic masters of the past centuries, as some groups made. I composed in the style of FOCUS 1,2 and 3 that was classic and its rootses inside of the European continental tradition.
Martin But some of the instruments that you used belong to the classic music, like the flute and the harpischord.
Thijs Yes, but it didn't have the main role inside our quartet that we were: Hammond organ, guitar, bass and drums.
Martin Let's return to the beginning, Thijs. How was the FOCUS formation back in the seventies?
Thijs We began as a trio, we were Hans Cleuver in the drums and vocal, Martin Dresden in the bass and vocal and me in the organ Hammond and vocal, we got in this way a good harmony of three voices. We met one another in a Radio studio, making jazz and poetry and later we began to play Traffic songs. This was what moved me for the rock music, since before I was interested in the jazz and in the classic music. We made some Dylan's covers and also of Richard Harris' "MacArthur Park", and the remaining was my own compositions. Therefore we rename the trio like FOCUS, but we didn't still get to record with this name. Through Martin Dresden we called Jan Akkerman with his guitar, we invited him to a rehearsal, meantime in this time he was with a group called Brainbox. When Jan decided to be with us we formed a quartet. Then through our company that was RTM ( Luxemburg radio) they sent us to London to record in the studio ' Old Church Street Sound Techniques' with engineer Gerry Boyce and Hubert Terheggen responsible for the production that resulted in " In and Out of Focus ", an album with a lot of my compositions and lyrics in English.
Martin Would you have preferred to sing in Dutch?
Thijs No, would have made the choice of not singing at least (laughing), this was really our weak point as neither my pronunciation nor my voice was good. So we decided to be just an instrumental band, which extracted its power from its own lacks (laughters). Besides 'In and Out of Focus' we recorded our first single 'House of the King' that was a hit in the Holland. Suddenly we began to have a certain fame, we could play in a twenty centimeters higher stage (laughters) and the disc-jockeys played our music on the radios. Then another change happened, because Jan Akkerman wanted Pierre van der Linden, drummer of Brainbox, to join us, and I was in the doubt of to continue with my old friends of the beginning or to be with new FOCUS, with a new bassist, Cyril Havermans, and with so much doubts I decided for the last option. This way we had a new formation in studio to record ' Moving Waves' and was with this line-up that we recorded the classic ' Hocus-Pocus ' that was created in the rehearsals' room.
Martin Very interesting!
Thijs Yes, first we did the guitar part and later I began to sing as the Tyroleses accompanied by the organ.
Martin Did you always sing this way?
Thijs No, never. I never had made this before. I studied piano and flute a lot, but I never had sung like this and it was very good. Mike Vernon became our producer, we knew him from John Mayall's group and 'Stone The Crows'. In that night, after we record this magic theme, we asked what name would give to the song and I said: " It needs to be something that rhymes with FOCUS, and that is HOCUS-POCUS ".
Martin So, it has appeared this way.
Thijs Yes and we got the title ' Brightest Hope' of Melody-Maker, made a great presentation in ' Oval Cricket', and ' Hocus-Pocus ' became a great success in America. Our first important concert was in New York where people put a red carpet to us, and we played in the 'Philarmonic Hall' with the tickets sold out. All the east coast radios transmitted this show and our legs were shaking.
Martin Some cultural shock. Did it change your life from night to day?
Thijs No, it was a stable success, a more evolutionary growth than revolutionary.
Martin And are there more changes in the line-up?
Thijs Yes, Pierre left and Colin Allen entered.
Martin To do my favorite album, Thijs?
Thijs Oh yes, Hamburger? Not for me.
Martin Yes, it is a remarkable album in my life, and the main title is a greatest quality prog-rock song.
Thijs (Thijs begins to sing the theme and to whistle)
Martin This was a gift that pleased me, Thijs, but we have many others works to comment.
Thijs ( On the background, Thea, his wife, asked him to comment the work that pleases him the most. ) My wife is refering to the other rock band that I had, a more conceptual rock with a work based on a mass in Latin, 'Pedal Point - Dona Nobis Pacem' which I composed and recorded with two Chilean friends and one Japanese. It was a double album issued in 1981 and that I consider as one of the most important compositions of mine. In the project it was included the 'hands blessing' and lyrics from the Pope himself (laughters).
Martin With the high spheres blessing, isn't it Thijs?
Thijs Yes, I am not Catholic, but it was a surprise because my Chilean friends lived in Colony (Germany) and they were Catholic. So they could sing in Latin, which is a dead language, because they native language is Spanish.
Martin Looking from a distance, which is the highest point of your career?
Thijs Artistically, ' Pedal Point - Dona Nobis Pacem' and, let's say, popularly, FOCUS and Introspection.
Martin Have you been planning more works as soloist, besides new FOCUS?
Thijs Yes, I have my personal project with FOCUS at the same time. I have the project of recording part of the Johann Sebastian Bach's "passions", with new arrangements and a complete orchestra.
Martin It should be a nightmare in financial terms. I heard Rick Wakeman speaking several times of the great productions with an orchestra and the costs. It doesn't worry you?
Thijs Yes, I lose something of my sleep at night (laughters). I Know these productions, not the whole, but I am familiarized with this.
Martin I would like to speak more on FOCUS, but what do you think about the rock industry in Holland nowadays? Is it very different from when FOCUS was in prominence in the seventies ?
Thijs Yes, the most important that Holland produces nowadays, commercially speaking, is the "dance" and the "house music". I believe that Holland is one of the most important exporters of this kind of music and besides there is no interest on new bands. Musically we would say that the most bands are copies from what was made in the seventies.
Martin Do you see yourself as a type of referee to the new progressive Dutch bands like Edgon Heath, that will play in England in september (97) in a two days festival?
Thijs No, really, I am flattered, but I don't feel referee of them.
Martin If you could modify something in your musical career, what would change, or would you not change anything?
Thijs No, what I would like is to having conditions of doing larger productions with orchestras and other expression forms as the dance, movie and, I would say, a totally theatrical thing, what is difficult in the moment, but it is one of my dreams.
Martin How many times you're playing live? Are you musically very busy?
Thijs Three times a week. I am very busy, I was making some concerts with success as main flutist and as organist accompanied by a jazz orchestra. We made tours in the South Africa, festivals in Lebanon and in Beirut and sometimes in the Arab Emirates.
Martin I should mention " Silvia " before finishing, or people will want to know the reason I didn't ask you.
Thijs Oh yes, it was the largest success in England. I wrote the music before and I didn't get to do the lyrics, then we decided that it would be played as an instrumental theme, and was then that suddenly appeared the third single. "Hank Marvin and the Shadows" made a cover of it.
Martin Do you keep in contact with some of the FOCUS' members?
Thijs Unhappily not a lot.
Martin What we can wait from the new FOCUS? Will have a similar style?
Thijs I can say that will be a great surprise, with a conceptual style. I cannot say much more, but I will keep you informed. However we don't still have contract for recording (1997).

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