In the early 1970s, Friars
put on three headlining Dutch bands. Alquin, Golden Earring (at
Dunstable) and Focus. Focus, with its roots in Amsterdam and largely
based on the songwriting of Thijs van Leer and Jan Akkerman broke out of
Holland in the very early 1970s and became the most successful band from
Holland internationally. For forty years Thijs van Leer has continued to
make music, mostly with Focus and is still touring Focus in 2009. Thijs
was awarded a Dutch knighthood in 2008 for his services to music.
The Friars Aylesbury website had a long chat with Thijs in April 2009 in
a car whilst collecting Bobby Jacobs, Focus's bass player from Luton
Airport. How Rock and Roll is that?
Arise Sir Thijs, your
audience awaits you.
Your career goes back a long way before Focus...
Thijs van Leer: Actually I just got
knighted in Holland for 40 years in the business.
From the Dutch
No, from the Queen (Beatrix of the
That was all down to Annelise, my love,
who had worked on this for a year. I really didn't know anything. It was
like a bolt from the blue.
So you have been
honoured by the Dutch nation....that's wonderful. With Focus, you first
started with Jan Akkerman in about 1970?
Focus already existed before Jan joined.
It was a trio consisting of Martin Dresden on bass and vocals, Hans
Cleuver on drums and me on Hammond organ, flute and vocals and we were
originally called Trio Thijs van Leer. I then re-baptised it as Focus.
It is a beautiful name, it is Latin and English and means 'concentration
point' or the fireplace in the house, nice warm cosiness of the family.
And I wanted to focus on the human mind. There is so much music focused
on people forgetting their problems and having a drink and getting a bad
hangover. I felt there is a form of music that could help people solve
their own shit, their own problems and provide a distraction so people
could forget their problems. I thought Focus was a good name.
It's a good name, easy
to remember and travels Europe quite well...so when you first started
getting successful, presumably you were more noticed in your native
Holland? Then you broke out (of Holland)
Yes, we got discovered by a guy who used
to be in charge of 18 publishing companies for Radio Luxembourg. He was
Dutch but worked in Luxembourg and Brussels. He gave us the opportunity
to record an album in London which was the Mecca of rock. We were
probably the first continental band to do so. That became In and Out of
Focus. There were lots of English type songs. No company in Holland
would release it. We survived by playing lots of gigs, clubs, youth
centres etc. But we had no record out.
Then we did a contest in Majorca where we
were disqualified for playing too long! We were playing Concerto de Aranjuez
by Rodrigo and we did a 16 minutes version but we were only allowed 15
minutes. After the first round, we were told to cut it else we would be
disqualified. We got through to the final, but we knew that Los Bravos
and Black and Black would win, as the local 'mafia' saw to that. So we
thought we would get silver (prize) but they turned off the electricity
after 15 minutes and I was like rat catcher Hamlyn running round the
tables carrying on playing! The rest of the group trashed the dressing
room as they were so angry. Then we got taken to jail in Majorca and we
got bailed out by the manager of a rival. Next morning, El Pais (daily
Spanish national) said after an eighty year war (between Holland and
Spain 1568-1648), the Dutch were back! On the front page.
Then we composed House of Kings which Jan
Akkerman had done the verse and chords for and I was doing some of top
melody and suddenly we had a song that pleased the disc jockeys in
Holland and we had our first hit. With me leading on the flute.
That meant with could have a 20 foot stage
and one extra light!. People who had ignored us before suddenly became
interested in us although it was the same repertoire. That was what
having a hit did.
Then the management said we should go to
England and tour there. We were shy about it as England had so many good
groups and they would think their own bands were the best which was
true. Then the management said that as there were power/energy strikes
and traffic lights etc weren't working we should take two vans - the
second one had a generator! It was like a little circus. Many British
bands couldn't play because of no electricity but we were able to play.
So you were now
starting to get noticed in England...
Yes, they called us pioneers and brave. We
were getting lots of play on Radio Luxembourg - Kid Jensen particularly.
How would you describe
your style of music (then)? More jazzy or leanings to prog-rock?
Prog rock did not exist then as such.
Nowadays when we play festivals, younger bands see us as the godfathers
of prog rock! We were very influenced by classical music such as Bach
and Bartok and jazz. Also Frank Zappa - an important influence as was
Herbie Hancock. Not pure jazz anymore. We have played and combined
To make a hybrid?
Yes, I think Focus is still an example of
I remember when Focus broke through, I've
got the DVDs of the Old Grey Whistle Test performances and they are
amazing. With Hocus Pocus there was everything in there....flute,
accordion, organ and yodeling. Why the yodeling?
It just came out
spontaneously at a rehearsal in a castle where we used to rehearse. Jan
played a riff and then Pierre (van der Linden) spontaneously two bars..
Almost a jam?
Yes and then after the two bars, I started
yodeling which I never did before. Then we recorded it at Olympic
Studios in London and the manager said we should make a single of it.
What should we call it? I thought of something rhyming like crocus or
locust and then I thought of Hocus Pocus. Not because it was magical, it
People weren't likely
to forget Hocus Pocus by Focus....!
It sounds almost commercial. It made our
name worldwide - we went everywhere, the USA and Australia. Everywhere
except South America. We go there now but back then there was no money
there. We have been big in Brazil since the 1970s. It's a great country
in terms of musical expression.
It was great. So this
helped get you noticed around 1971/1972 and then Sylvia...
This was a third single hit and was bigger
than Hocus Pocus. And good for us as so many have covered it, even Hank
Marvin. It's very good!
Very distinctive I
should think! The Live at the Rainbow album in 1973 showed off Focus and
how big they had become, but there were issues after that. From what I
understand, Jan lost interest and wanted out of the band (in 1976)?
Yes. We were about to do an English tour
and I invited Philip Catherine to replace Jan for that tour. It was very
successful. I did ask Jan to rejoin the group and three times he said
We did restart Focus in 2001 though.
In the meantime after
Jan had left, you did do some work with him though?
Yes, in 1985 we did an album as a duet
just called Focus. I liked it but the record company felt there was no
single on it but they killed it by not spending a penny promoting it!
So you and Jan didn't
work afterwards because of this lack of promotion?
Jan and I didn't see each other for years
and then then we did an oldie performance for Dutch TV in 1992 and then
it didn't happen any more.
Now Focus is a young band. Bobby Jacobs
(my stepson) on bass and a drummer started rehearsing in Delft (in
Holland) where Bobby lives and they phoned me up and asked me come and
bring my Hammond organ. I said I was at home after a solo tour and
wasn't in the mood to travel to Delft. They persuaded me to take a lorry
with the organ. They said I would be surprised. Then through the closed
door when I got there they were playing old Focus material which made me
cry - they took it so seriously. They wanted to start up Focus concentrating
and reproducing the hits, Eruption, Focus I, II, III. They said it was
important the music should not die. I was moved to tears. I unpacked the
organ and started rehearsing immediately and we started a covers group
called Hocus Pocus...
So that you wouldn't
have the pressure of being Focus?
Yes, so there was no burden. But the
second try out we were approached by Dave Brubeck's manager of long
standing who offered to look after us and make us Focus again. It took
all of about a minute and a half (!) to accept and become Focus again.
Yes we'll do it.
Well, the name Focus
means more to people that a covers band and you've every right to call
Then we went touring all over the world.
Then the drummer was replaced (due to fear of flying) and we did Focus
Today, the guitarist, Niels van der
Steenhoven is 29 and a child prodigy, Bobby is 43 and Pierre (original
drummer now back) is 63. I'm 61. So three different generations in one
group which with good music doesn't really matter.
It's the *music* that
matters...that's the main thing. You've had a great career. The current
Focus gives you as much pleasure and happiness as say the early Focus of
More. Even more pleasure. I am so happy
that the music is still fashionable.
It's stood the test of
time. Well, there are very few bands from the early 1970s still playing
today and it's a testament to the music, and the loyalty of the Focus
fans. Did you know House of Kings has been used as themes of British TV
shows? So people will have heard your music without realizing it
sometimes. Sylvia and Hocus Pocus are still played on radio today.
Do you still see Jan or
any of the old guys?
Sometimes, not much contact with Jan, but
I know he has a good band he still plays good. He still plays a lot of
my stuff which is an honour and I love his guitar playing.
I have to ask the
question (for the benefit of the readers/fans) - are you likely to work
No, we may meet somewhere but it will be
just one occasion but there will be no continuity. I am so happy with
the people I play with.
So nothing planned.
So if it did happen, it wouldn't be
planned, it might just happen (by chance), but no plans.
So Focus are still
popular on the Dutch circuit?
Yes, I also play as a soloist, big
concerts as a classical flute player and jazz flautist and I also
compose for other people. I'm famous under my own name as well as Focus.
Focus is still as famous as it used to be. It's a nice position. You
don't have to fight and elbow all the time.
It's also great that
you are happy musically where you are now. Is the new Focus better than
the old Focus because you are enjoying it more.
I don't know if it's better, but it's
different because of the young blood and Pierre. He's one of the best
What can I say.....Sir
Thijs van Leer, Knight of the Realm in Holland, thank you very much.
This interview and its
content are © 2009 Mike O'Connor/www.aylesburyfriars.co.uk and may not
be used in whole or in part without permission.