A Conversation with Thijs Van Leer of Focus

American audiences know Focus – if they know the Dutch progressive group at all – for their left-field 1971 hit single “Hocus Pocus.” Yeah, the one with the yodeling, whistling, accordion and hard-rocking guitar. But the group’s career started before that (in the late 60s, actually) and continues to this day, albeit with some lineup changes. But founder/vocalist/flautist Thijs Van Leer still helms the group, and their latest – only their tenth album, actually – will sound pleasantly familiar to fans of the group’s work some forty(!) years ago. I spoke last week with Van Leer about Focus X. Here’s our conversation. – bk

Bill Kopp: Do you feel a responsibility – or a pull of any sort – to create music that is consistent with the sort of thing most casual fans think of when they think of Focus, specifically the kind of thing you did back on Moving Waves?

Thijs van Leer: Yes. Focus X does relate a lot to Moving Waves [1971] and to Focus III [1972]. There are some things that have evolved, and also some things that stayed like they were. So you could talk about [it as] a small evolution. But we are very faithful to the roots of the instrumental quartet, let’s say.

BK: In what ways do you think your approach to composition and to playing has changed in the last several decades?

TVL: I would say the compositions are a little deeper…maybe a little funnier, also.

BK: You mean in terms of conveying humor in the music itself?

TVL: Yes.

BK: In the 1970s, progressive rock was a wide-open field; musicians could take chances and still be rewarded with commercial success. These days it’s very much a niche genre. Why do you think that is so, and how – if at all – does that reality affect your approach to your music?

TVL: In the 70s, we didn’t know what we would do. There were so many bands who were creative and self-supporting as far as compositions. There were also many more instrumental bands then than now. The fact that we survived – that we are still there – is of course some big luck, but also due to some talent, I could say. [chuckles] And originality. But nowadays, prog rock is still a small thing, and it used to be also like that. We were one of the few instrumental bands that brought hits anyhow. There aren’t too many examples of that. Most prog rock groups are not aiming to make singles at all. We had both things in one band, which was kind of unique.

BK: On Focus X, you use vocals sparingly. More, I would say, as a textural element than as a lyrical device.

TVL: We always did, actually. I consider the voice as a fifth instrument, and not more than that.

BK: Some modern European bands – Sweden’s Dungen for example – have made a decision to sing only in their native language. Focus has mostly had English-language vocals. Was there ever a time at which you considered recording in Dutch instead?

TVL: We have many other languages on Focus X. We have (on the Japanese version) a Spanish song, and we have a song in Latin. And there are some Dutch lyrics here and there. So it’s not only English.

BK: As with much of Focus’ music over the years, there are clear classical and jazz influences and textures to the music. What sorts of music do you think exerted the most influence over you in terms of your compositional style?

TVL: I would say Johann Sebastian Bach, Béla Bartók, Miles Davis, John Coltrane, Herbie Hancock, and Weather Report.

BK: I think [laughs] you have been asked that question before, haven’t you?

TVL: It sounds a bit routine, but it’s true.

BK: As the lineup of the band has changed over the years, you’ve been the constant anchor. How do you think the personnel changes have affected the band’s sound? Or, are the other players, to some degree, extensions of your vision for the band?

TVL: No, they are all individuals, and they are all creative virtuosos. I can say that this band – what you hear on Focus X – is my ideal band: the right drummer, the right guitarist, and the right bassist. So I’m very happy with this quartet. All the time, you know, I’ve played with very, very gifted musicians. And I’m very thankful for that, of course.

BK: Drummer Pierre van der Linden has been in the band on and off since 1970. Do you think his presence adds to the “classical” feel of the material on Focus X?

TVL: No, he gave a very free thing which comes from jazz and also r&b, rather than classical. But he can also play in a very symphonic way. But his r&b influence is very important.

BK: Yes. It pulls the music away a bit, I think, from the European style, giving the music more of a soulful feel.

TVL: Call it American.

BK: I’ve interviewed Jethro Tull‘s Ian Anderson a couple of times in the last several years, and I’ve seen him in concert. While his vocal range has diminished in recent years, I’d argue that his flute playing has actually improved. Do you feel that your skills continue to increase as well?

TVL: Yes, because I’ve been rehearsing a lot lately. I had a paralysis of my face – Bell’s Palsy, it’s called – and I thought I could not play any more. It was getting better, and now I’ve been rehearsing for the first time in my life. And now I play better flute than ever.

BK: I see you have a string of live UK dates in the coming weeks. Are there any plans – or hopes of plans — for any dates in North America?

TVL: Yes, we will try to come as soon as possible. We are having some difficulties in getting permits, but as soon as that’s solved, we will come.

(Focus X will be released February 5 on Four Worlds USA.)

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