Thijs van Leer exclusive interview

From left to right: Mark Deren and Thijs van Leer

From left to right: Mark Deren and Thijs van Leer / 30 August 1997


Portuguese Version

Mark Deren ( 'Mark from Holland ) is a DJ with Radio Heemskerk in Holland and conducted this interview with Thijs van Leer on 30 August 1997 at the Hockey Club, Mill, in Holland on the same night as the comeback concert.

I have edited the original interview for the web but I hope you all find it interesting. Many thanks to Mark for making this available to us and you can check out his web site on our links page.

Timothy Baugh, February 1998

Mark We’re sitting here with Thijs van Leer. Hi Thijs. How are you?
Thijs Excellent, thanks.
Mark I used to hear your music very often in American on the biggest radio stations. Did you know you were so well known over there?
Thijs Yeah, that’s tremendous.
Mark Now you’ve toured in America. Do you remember some of those tours?
Thijs We did five tours. Every tour was about 2.5 months, and nearly every night there was a performance so it was really tiring. The group did everything by aeroplane, but the tour manager and the roadies went by truck. Usually after six weeks there were so exhausted that they had to be changed.
Mark You sound like you have a Californian accent. Did you spend a lot of time there?
Thijs I didn’t realise that. We spent most of the time in the Midwest, on the East Coast, all over the states actually, and Canada.
Mark And who were the bands you played along side?
Thijs There was Joe Cocker. We did nine gigs with Chick Corea and ‘Return to Forever’. They were supporting us. Imagine; that’s amazing, ha, ha. If was their first ‘Electric Tour’, with Chick on keyboards, Stanley Clarke on bass, Bill Connors on guitar and Lenny White on drums. He chose to support us as we were with the same record company. Other bands were Frank Zappa and the Mothers of Invention, J Giles Band, the Beach Boys, Edgar Winter, Johnny Winter and many others.
Mark I was wondering Thijs. How did you get started in music? How old were you and are you in fact from a musical family?
Thijs My father was always playing the flute, mainly Johan Sebastian Bach, my mother was singing and I was playing the piano. I started playing the piano when I was three years old, and kept on having lessons from celebrities actually. I did a performance when I was 11 years old in the Concertgebouw (the Opera House). It was just a pupil’s demonstration, but it was in the Concertgebouw. When I was 13 I went to the ‘intermediate’ school and started to take lessons from my father on the flute. At the same time I began to change my piano style from classical to jazz. I became interested in John Coltrane, Miles Davis….so let’s say modern jazz.
Mark So with all this training you became actually overqualified to just play pop music. Is that how FOCUS came about? You created a style that was far more sophisticated.
Thijs Yes, well I really didn’t start liking pop music until I was 18. I liked some numbers from the Beatles and the stones, but jazz and classical were still my favourite forms of expression. I also got familiar with Traffic, Steve Winwood and Dave Mason. That was the band that turned me on to playing rock….and also some Bob Dylan songs.
Mark I play a lot of your music on my progressive rock program at Radio Heemskerk and it seems to me that some of your melodies will be known for hundreds of years to come. I find that you’re a really good composer. Beautiful melodies.
Thijs Well, thank you.
Mark What is the label for FOCUS music?
Thijs I have a label for that……’FOCUS’ …ha, ha ha. You could say that it’s a combination of different styles, but it really a style on its own. It’s not like we are copying classical themes, which is what I did do in one of my solo albums, ‘Introspection’.
Mark Huh, I played ‘FOCUS II’ from that album last week on the program.
Thijs Oh amazing! A lot of that album was my own compositions, but I also used citations of classical masters and Rogier van Otterloo, who unfortunately died, arranged that.
Mark Have you ever spent much time in North Holland?
Thijs Yeah, actually North Holland and Brabant were the first provinces that put their hands together (clapped) for FOCUS. Thus Brabant, where we are now and North Holland were the first real fans.
Mark Can you tell us about the current line-up?
Thijs The band now consists of Hans Cleuver on drums. Hans is an original member of FOCUS. He made our first single with us ‘House of the King’ on our first album, which we made in London. That was very special for a Dutch band to record in London; the Valhalla for pop music. Bert Ruiter is the bassist. He played with us since FOCUS 3 and played right through our last concert. He did all our biggest tours and television concerts with us. He’s a composer, an arranger, and an excellent bassist. He is also the partner of Jerney Kaagman, ex-singer from ‘Earth & Fire’ and also the PR manager of Radio North Sea National. Last but not least is the guitarist Menno Gootjes; the wonder child. Well, he’s not a child actually. He’s 21 years old. He comes from Schiedam and studies in the Conservatorium in Rotterdam.
Mark This will be the premiere concert tonight for the new FOCUS. How long ago did you do your last FOCUS concert?
Thijs We began in 1969 in the Birch Club in Amsterdam. In 1970 we made our first album and the big tours began in 1971 through 1975. The last tour, I believe was in England. That was with Belgian guitarist Philip Catherine. In 1986 Jan Akkerman and I made an album as a duo under the name ‘FOCUS’. In 1992 Jan and I did a concert for the national TV network Veronica in front of 5,000 people in Apeldoorn live. That was very interesting. The last time with Jan was as a guest in his band at the North Sea Jazz Festival in front of 6,000 people. Now we are sitting in Mill, province of Brabant in a large tent August 30 1997. We’re going to do it again!
Mark Have you always had freedom to create your own sound? A lot of bands don’t have that freedom. They have to play what the record companies want.
Thijs We always had the freedom to compose what we wanted. The record companies hoped that there would be a single in there, but they knew we were an ‘album group’. We never sat down and tried to consciously write ‘singles’. I don’t even think we can. Sometimes pieces were taken out of the albums for singles so it worked out well. Singles, however, were never essential to the existence of our music.
Mark And what is your set list for tonight?
Thijs FOCUS II, Sylvia, FOCUS III, Hocus Pocus, House of the King, Harem Scarem (we’ve never performed this live before), FOCUS VII (new piece), Massage Magic (new piece), FOCUS I, a piece called ‘Song for Ava’. I wrote that for a film. That’s it I think. Some of the pieces are very long, that’s why there are so few.
Mark How did this concert come about?
Thijs I’ve already been in the studio for 2.5 years with Bert Ruiter recording new concepts, sometimes with live guitar, but mostly with a sequencer. We wanted to start touring this fall, but then came my daughter Berniese. Her friend, who is a member of the hockey club here in Mill and her, asked me if I could perform for the 30th anniversary of the club and the dedication of the new grass field. I said yes, but why not with FOCUS? The band immediately agreed. We’ve practised hard and here we are, ahead of schedule.
Mark Good work. And will you be producing a new FOCUS CD and touring America?
Thijs Yes. I can’t tell you the name of the CD. That’s a secret, but it’s going to be amazing. And yes, we are working on tour plans for Europe and North America.
Mark Thank you very much Thijs and much success tonight.
Thijs Thank you Mark.


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