INTERVIEW: Thijs Van Leer comes into focus

By Dr. Alan Carlos Hernandez on November 12, 2012

Edited by Susan Aceves
HOLLYWOOD (Herald de Paris) — Thijs Van Leer is a Dutch musician, singer and composer is best known for heading the Dutch progressive rock band, Focus as primary vocalist, Hammond organ player, and flautist. He also yodels and whistles. In his later years, Van Leer went on to release many solo albums which were also classical music and jazz-based. He is the top selling solo artist in the history of The Netherlands.

In 1969 he joined Martijn Dresden (bass) and Hans Cleuver (drums) to form a trio that covered songs by Traffic and backed other Dutch musicians, as well as playing their own material. Later in the year guitarist Jan Akkerman joined, completing the initial lineup of Focus. They released several albums in the 1970s, earning two gold records (“Moving Waves” and “Focus 3”) which spawned the international hit singles “Hocus Pocus” and “Sylvia.” Van Leer headed Focus through several lineup changes and by early 1976 he was the only remaining original member. The group disbanded in 1978. To date over five million copies of Focus albums have sold worldwide.

Focus is a Dutch rock band which was founded by classically trained organist/flautist Thijs van Leer in 1969 and is most famous for the instrumental pieces “Hocus Pocus” and “Sylvia.” The band has found renewed fame due to the use of “Hocus Pocus” by guitarist Gary Hoey on his 1993 album Animal Instinct and as the theme for the Nike 2010 World Cup commercial, Write The Future, directed by the Mexican filmmaker Alejandro González Iñárritu.

With their unique progressive rock, Focus manifested themselves at the start of the seventies as the most successful and the most appreciated of all the Dutch pop/rock exports.

The band was fronted by the much admired duo of Thijs van Leer on the Hammond organ/flute and Jan Akkerman on the guitar. Their hit potential came in the form of a couple of instrumentals “Hocus Pocus,” “House of the King,” and “Sylvia.” But we shouldn’t forget their timeless albums “Moving Waves,” “Focus 3” and “Hamburger Concerto.” But like all good things, it couldn’t last and internal wrangling ended this legendary group.

A new Focus era has arrived. There is a rejuvenated passion in the new compositions that adorn the new album “Focus 9 / New Skin,” which has been released on the famous Red Bullet label of Willem van Kooten. This album – and the following gigs – will surprise the loyal fans. They will hear once again all the classic Focus tunes and they will be surprised at the strength and depth of the new material. “Our music is evolution, not revolution,” Thijs van Leer once said about the music of Focus. Well, now the evolution is at full pace.

As of 2011, Menno Gootjes has rejoined the band, replacing Niels van der Steenhoven. Also in 2011, American rapper J. Cole sampled “Hocus Pocus” in his song “Blow Up,” which is featured in the game MLB 11: The Show. The band released a studio album, “Focus X/Crossroads” with cover art by Roger Dean in October, 2012.

Herald de Paris Deputy Managing Editor Dr. Al Carlos was honored to have this world exclusive interview with Thijs Van Leer, thanks to B. of Glass Onion Public Relations. Prior to the interview, I spoke with Herald de Paris friend Benny Reitveld of Santana who is of Dutch decent. This is what he had to say, “Being that my cousin and I in Hawaii were both of Dutch descent, we identified with Focus very strongly so we played a lot of their tunes and, of course, idolized Jan Akkerman. I know the first three albums pretty much, maybe four. And we loved those!”

Here is what Van Leer told me about his music and his legend:

Tell us about your upbringing and musical influences. Did you listen to rock and roll and, if so, who did you like?

TV: Grew up in a family with lots of music and culture my dad Ed was a flute player in an extremely beautiful way and my mother was a singer and heavily involved in the Sufi-Movement. Most of music played in out house was by Johan Sebastian Bach. At the age of three I began to play the piano. Different and quite famous teachers tried to teach me how to read music, but I developed a way of my own how to improvise, so I could stay out of that first site reading and created my own style, not yet realizing that someday I would become a composer. At the age of twelve I began to play the classical flute coached by my father; at the same time I started to play Be Bop Jazz on the piano and became the youngest member of a Be Bop quintet. We had a tenor sax, trumpet, bass and drums to play covers from John Coltrane and Miles Davis. I never listened to rock considering it a minor form of music only for parties or to dance to. At the Age of sixteen I composed “Moving Waves” based on the text of Harriet Khan the great Surfi master that would become the title tract of the Focus 2 Album “Moving Waves.” The bands I liked were Frank Zappa and The Mothers of Invention, the Beach Boys and later I got into Traffic.

Does it help or hinder your involvement with rock and roll by having a

classical background?

TV: Classical training helped a lot!

When did you decide to become an artist? What would you have done if you had not become a musician?

TV: I was 19 when I joined my first band The Ramses Shatty group, had that not worked out I would have probably become an actor.

How did the band Focus originate? What was the original vision of the band and who were the bands influences?

TV: The band started as a Trio with Martin Dresden on bass and Hans Cleuver on drums while I played the Hammond organ. We first called ourselves Thijs Van Leer and the Rebaptized and then chose the name “Focus.” After a lot of interesting concerts we decided to ask Jan Akkerman to come in and play guitar and then became a quartet. Our influences were Jimmy Webb’s Mac Arthur park, Traffic and Bob Dylan. Then we started doing out own compositions.

The bands vision at first was to do songs with English lyrics, but from “Moving Waves” (our second album) our band became more or less instrumental with my voice as the fifth instrument.

What was your first gig as Focus like? Did you play clubs? How did you support yourselves during those years?

TV: Our first gig was at the Birds Club on the Rembrandt plain in Amsterdam. We played a lot of clubs to survive because it took eight and a half months for our first album to be released. No record company believed in us, LOL.

I understand the tune Hocus Pocus was developed in an artist colony where you rented rehearsal space in a castle.

TV: We didn’t have to rent the space – it was a deal “In natura” with our promise to play a concert for them for free.

I’m told the tune Hocus Pocus was written with a sense of humor during some of the fills. You are considered one of history’s most famous yodeler’s so how did yodeling make its way into a hit rock and roll song?

TV: The song occurred as part of a jam session, the yodeling just came spontaneously.

In an interview you said that yodeling is African in origin?

TV:  Indian as well

On a blog there was a discussion about how strong your band mates were by not breaking out laughing while you were doing you thing.

TV: There was no time to laugh because it is such an intense song with no space to relax.

How did that tune and then the tune “Sylvia” change your life? Money? Drugs? Women? Ego?

TV: First it was the tune “House of The King” which became a hit in the Netherlands, Belgium and France. Then came “Hocus Pocus” and then Sylvia. It made Focus the biggest export product out of Holland and of course it made money for the composers, not to forget Seymour Stein and many others in between. Drugs? Nearly none. Women? Yes – a lot. Ego? Maybe a little.

What was the best gig Focus every played? How did it feel to be on top of the world?

TV: The best Focus gig ever was in England at Buxton in The Opera House. It felt like a bird to be so free so happy.

Did worldwide commercial success ruin the band? Why were there many

personnel changes during the 70’s?

TV: Success never ruined the group during the 70’s. There were a lot of changes in the rhythm section but Akkerman and I stayed together for seven years.

Did the band ever totally break up?

TV: Long terms of pause, but never a break up!

Tell us about the Nike Ad for the Olympics featuring Hocus Pocus. How did that come about? I heard you beat out the Black Eyed Peas.

TV: Yes the Black Eyed Peas had to get out of our way! (LOL) An American working for Weiden & Kennedy in Amsterdam was the initiator of the idea to link the Nike ad with Hocus Pocus – his favorite rock song of all time.

I heard the tune charted again, to # 17 once the commercial came out in 2010.

TV: This is true

How did you feel about not being invited to the Olympics to perform the


TV: Sh**

Benny Reitveld of Santana tells me you sat in with Santana a few years ago.

TV: Yes, in Amsterdam during his tune “She’s Not There.” I jumped on stage and the gorilla roadies wanted to throw me backstage. Carlos invited me to play a long solo on flute. We played once before back in the 70’s in Madison Wisconsin.

What was that like playing with Carlos and Benny? Which of the American bands are some of your favorites?

TV: It was very nice to play with Carlos, Benny and his band. My American band favorites are Weather Report, Herbie Hancock, Frank Zappa, ZZ Top and The Beach Boys.

Tell us about, the new era for Focus: Focus X? What can folks expect? Why should they buy it?

TV: Folks can expect between six and eight new songs from Focus 10 played live! They will be compelled to buy the new beauty immediately.

Do you plan to tour in the states as well?

TV: Of Course

You are considered the greatest Dutch pop band in history. Is there a

certain national pride that the band enjoys?

TV: No . . .

Looking back, what do you think Focus’ overall music legacy will be?

TV: Music with no fashion problems, endless . . .

What are some of the things you still hope to accomplish as an artist?

TV:  I would like to write a Requiem as a follow up to my Mass sung in Old Latin, Dona Nobis Pacem, which received the blessing of Pope John in 1982.I would like my solo album, “Introspection” as a follow up to five of my albums that were the best selling albums ever in the Netherlands. Over 1.2 million units sold.

Viva La Musica!

Comments April 25, 2013

I have been browsing online more than 3 hours today, yet I never found any interesting article like yours.
It is pretty worth enough for me. In my view, if all web owners and bloggers made good content as you did, the net
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Guy Pelletier June 18, 2014

I still have great pleasure to listen the Introspection album.
Back in the 70s, it opened my horizons to other kinds of music and other autors.

Nostalgy now.. I miss those years.

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