Thijs Van Leer interview - If You Look Like This...

If you look like this…when you really feel like this…then your name is Thijs Van Leer and you're trying hard to make the Focus tour a success when you've just lost your star guitarist and best friend. Can you do it? Asks Phil Sutcliffe.

First published in SOUNDS magazine March 6, 1976.

From left to right = Bert Ruiter, David Kemper, Thijs van Leer and Philip CatherineFocus rooms at the Post House Hotel, Edinburgh, were booked in the name of Akkerman. The least of their problems for sure, and hopefully Fates last jestful gesture in a sequence of "accidents" that nearly destroyed the band and threw the start of their six-week British tour into nightmarish confusion. Because, as you will have read, the said Akkerman J. is one guitar hero emphatically not playing with the band, which information was not made public until the tour had started and a lot of tickets had been sold. Not a particularly aromatic affair, it seemed.

However to Thijs Van Leer, Focus keyboards, flautist, yodeller and founding father, it was all an accident and his account of what has befallen the band recently shows that there was no dark plot to rook the punters - just musical and emotional chaos.
He said; "I agree it's wrong that our audience was not informed but the split didn't occur until two and a half days before we arrived in England. "Anyway we are offering refunds to anyone who wants one because of Jans absence. At Southampton there were 300 out of an audience of 1,500."

Of course the lynchpin partnership of Focus had been in splinters for some time, as anyone who bought last years moribund collection of muzak, "Mother Focus", will appreciate. The giggle-while-you-stomp exhilaration of Thijs' bug-eyed insane high notes and Akkermans muscly guitar was lost entirely and the more beautiful aspects displayed in parts of "Moving Waves" and tracks like "La Cathedrale De Strasbourg" had decayed to passionless inoffensiveness.

Jan Akkerman soundsAnd yet the album was on release last autumn and a British tour was planned to promote it. They could have let the machine grind on and wreck a reputation which current receipts prove is still high. But Akkerman bravely refused to go along with it, the tour was cancelled, and he and Thijs agreed to compose a complete new set.

The bitter side of that collaboration was that Thijs knew that Jan thought he was giving too much time and good material to his solo projects - and that Thijs had to admit it was true. "We still thought we could make it fertile for Focus, bind it together," said Thijs. "We wrote some new and beautiful songs at his house and then went to the castle at Baarn where we always rehearse.

"The first problem was that Jan wanted Pierre Van Der Linden back as drummer instead of the American David Kemper who had worked on "Mother Focus" and I thought was the only good thing we had got out of it.
"We tried him for several weeks and it didn't happen. Then we decided to put out one of Jans solo tracks as a single. Pierre insisted he should put his own drum tracks on it and when we refused that was enough for him to say 'OK I'm gone'."

And Kemper had come. Except that it was zero minus seven days to the current tour and no sooner had he flown in from Los Angeles than his mother fell ill. He flew back, she recovered quickly, he rejoined Focus - and Akkerman got the flu. From whence it would appear that strained relationships rather than bacteria governed the course of events.
"We rehearsed for two days without Jan. When I called and said couldn't he wrap himself in three or four blankets and come over - I would even pay his cab fare. "He said no but then he did turn up. I asked him to listen to some of the things we had prepared and we were playing a number called 'For Jan' and feeling happy with it when he yelled out 'Stop!' and told Bert Ruiter that the notes he was about to play on the bass were going to be wrong. I suddenly woke up. I couldn't handle this.

Thijs van Leer smile"I realised that together we had hurt other people before. I couldn't bear any more to see what he did to Bert and David."
That night by happier accident he met and jammed with Philip Catherine, an Anglo-Belgian session ace who had played with big names from John McLaughlin to Toots Thielemans.

"The next day I rang Jan and told him I couldn't work with him any more. He was amazed and said he never wanted to see Bert or me again. Well, that was his first reaction. "I'm very sad about what happened and still consider Jan to be my best friend. He formed me as a musician. We were together for six years. That night Philip said he could make the tour and we decided to go ahead."

They rehearsed for 50 hours without sleep, got on the plane and Thijs was busted for possession of cannabis when they reached Heathrow (accidents will happen!) In effect with a new guitarist, drummer and material Focus are a new band. You would hardly recognise them apart from the popular-demand encores. But can they survive without the axeman who has sometimes looked like a likely inheritor of the Clapton crown? "How can I say? It's so early. I love Jans musical being. He's made of music. Wildness, mildness, he's the one with the strong rhythm and the strong melody. He sings on his instrument, he warms people up. He evokes, he's heraldic (mime of ceremonial trumpeters), he's announcing the future. "I met Philip in a very sunny way and he's an amazing guitarist but we just don't know yet…" A rotten album, a split, a courageous decision to tour with all-new material: is it an end or a new beginning? I asked Thijs for his assessment of whence and where they are going.

Thijs van Leer down"When Focus began I wanted to create a timeless feeling by adding Gregorian and Medieval atmospheres to electric rock, leaving un-arranged space for Jan to really blow. "We would never be the same on two nights running, always change or we were dead. The hits were secondary, gimmicky singles."I think our best record was 'Moving Waves'. That was honest about our longing for mysticism. It was our most courageous, and our most European. I also like 'Live At The Rainbow' a resume of what we had done up to that point.

"Then we began to be influenced by our American tours and that led to 'Hamburger Concerto'. Jan wanted to make a happier music, move out of our European minor chords. "'Mother Focus' was an attempt to be strong in short pieces, give the information in three minutes instead of 30. But it became mediocre because lack of interest from all of us. "Bert gave us four songs which were the first that he had ever written and so he got a lot of the blame but he was only trying to save the group when we were so interested in our solo projects.

"In the new songs I am influenced by Jans sense of space and by Paul Buckmaster who produced my last solo album. You could call it a seriousness about funk, danceable and cooking yet combining the forces used by Stockhausen, Berio and cats like that. "Jan and I always agreed that our ideal composers were Bach and Bartok. Bach always has that radiance, knowing it was the music of the truth of Jesus Christ. Bartoks head is in heaven and his feet in the mud. "Rock could still be the language of our day in that way." And Focus could still have some new words for the dictionary because their bad luck seems to be scaling itself down daily. Why, by the end of last week it had got almost funny as Philip Catherine sampled the hazards of being in the band. At their Sheffield Hotel he was woken up at eleven despite the Do Not Disturb sign on his door by a maid who asked "Did you order breakfast?" Phil said "No, but it's a good idea." And she said "Sorry, no breakfasts after ten," and left.

All the files in this page was kindly sent by Tom Watson

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