Goldmine spoke with Thijs Van Leer of Focus about their ‘70s hit “Hocus Pocus,” other classic songs from that decade, their new recording, classical, jazz and rock influences, and February’s Cruise to the Edge.
Win a sealed double CD from Focus – see below for details.
By Warren Kurtz
FOCUS gained recognition in the U.S. with their 1973 single “Hocus Pocus,” from their second album “Moving Waves,” heard on the radio and seen on late night television music shows, with wild sections of the song featuring its co-writer Thijs Van Leer playing keyboards and flute, whistling, scatting, and even yodeling. The Dutch band received a bit of airplay with the next single, the guitar and organ driven instrumental “Sylvia,” from their album “Focus 3.” Two more albums charted in the U.S. until guitarist Jan Akkerman went solo. Thijs Van Leer also released solo albums. A half dozen albums have been released by Focus since the ‘70s, including their new double CD, “The Focus Family Album,” with 20 tracks by the band or solo selections, including outtakes from recent album sessions.
GOLDMINE: The new album opens with the gentle “Nature is Our Friend,” as a solo flute song from you, before we hear a poem and the full band on “Song for Eva.”
THIJS VAN LEER: “Nature is Our Friend” is me, being recorded while walking in nature, improvising on my Muramatsu flute. I was taught flute by my father, who emphasized getting a beautiful tone first and technique later. “Song for Eva” is for my daughter, who is 36 now. The song brings harmony and lament. Menno Gootjes is a wonderful guitarist who can bring so many facets to a song like this. You can hear harmony and lament. The poem is a section from “They Say that Hope is Happiness” by Lord Byron.
GM: “Fine Without You” is bluesy, reminding me of one of my wife Donna’s favorites, “Bell Bottom Blues” by Derek and the Dominos, with a bit of organ from early Allman Brothers Band songs our daughter Brianna loves like “Whipping Post.” Your organ playing on “Mosh Blues” reminds me a bit of Booker T. and I love the rock flute on that song also.
TVL: Ah, Duane Allman, with both Derek and the Dominos and the Allman Brothers Band. With “Fine Without You,” we brought in Jo de Roeck as the vocalist, who sang “Just Like Eddy” on our “Focus 9” album. “Mosh Blues” was recorded at MOSH studios in Sao Paulo, Brazil while we were on tour there. The owner is a great fan and friend of Focus and gave us full access to his studio to record there.
GM: Another Brazilian friend of focus, Ivan Lins, joined you on “Santa Teresa.”
TVL: Yes, sung in Spanish by a Brazilian. I wrote the music to his Spanish lyrics about the first holy person in Chile, in love with Jesus, then banned and later made as a saint. Ivan is also a sculptor and gave us a sculpture of Santa Teresa.
GM: “Victoria” sounds majestic, with a melodic guitar, piano and organ, reminding me of a slower version of “Sylvia.”
TVL: This is a medieval love story of a clown at the fair and the daughter of the butcher, but the father doesn’t approve. There is a beautiful vocal version in the Netherlands with Dutch female vocalist Liesbeth List, and I play flute on that recording. On this album, it is a shorter vocal remix, with me on a vocoder, than what we did on our tenth album, “Focus X,” one my favorite Focus albums along with “Moving Waves” and “Focus 3.”
GM: “Hocus Pocus” from “Moving Waves” certainly did well in America. It is the 45th anniversary of that 45. At Chicago’s AM radio station WCFL, it went to number one in May of 1973, replacing Edgar Winter’s “Frankenstein,” as the two big rock instrumentals of that year.
TVL: Instrumental? I guess you can say that, but there were vocals. I yodeled! That was actually my first time to yodel. Jan Akkerman and I wrote this one quickly. After he played two bars I then yodeled to fill in the space. This song took the whole world and we were not even aware.
GM: As much as “Hocus Pocus” is a rock song, most of the “Moving Waves” album is very melodic, including your composition “Focus II.”
TVL: Jan’s guitar is great on it and Pierre’s drumming is key in delivering the song.
GM: The album “Focus 3” brought another single to the American Top 100 with the guitar and organ driven A side “Sylvia” which had the beautiful flute led instrumental, “Love Remembered” as its flip side.
TVL: In England, “Sylvia” is our biggest hit. Crowds go wild there for this one. They also enjoy “House of the King” from our first album, which reminds them of early Jethro Tull. “Love Remembered” is definitely Akkerman’s love theme.
GM: With Focus and Golden Earring in the mid-‘70s, the U.S. experienced a second Dutch Invasion. The first wave came at the early part of the decade courtesy of producer Jerry Ross, who passed away last year. The biggest act he brought us from Holland was the Shocking Blue. “Venus” went to number one here in February of 1970.
TVL: Unfortunately, Mariska Verez from the Shocking Blue, has also passed in recent years. I did some recording with her and then she died from cancer in 2006.
GM: Around that time, I was in the Amsterdam airport and I heard someone whistling “Rondo II” from your album “Introspection 2,” with arranger and conductor Rogier Van Otterloo. Was this song famous in the Netherlands? At the record store where I worked in the late ‘70s, I would play side one of the album often over our speakers as my favorite classical album of the late ‘70s. That side had “Rondo II” and ended with your classical version of “Focus III.”
TVL: “Rondo II” is very nice, but “Rondo I” from the first “Introspection” album was used in documentaries. Rogier, sadly, has also passed, years ago, at the age of 46 in the late ‘80s. He was a great composer and arranger, who I met very early in my career, pre-Focus.
GM: Pre-Focus, you seem to have musical influences from classical, jazz and rock.
TVL: This is true. For classical music, Bach’s “St. Matthew’s Passion” was a great inspiration on how to put emotion and deep drama into a beautiful work. Bela Bartok’s “Concerto for Orchestra,” recorded by the Boston Symphony with Eric Leinsdorff conducting, is among the greatest music of the 20th century. This Hungarian composer fled Europe, due to the Third Reich, for America. He wrote this concerto in 1944, just a year before he died from leukemia. For jazz, I liked how Miles Davis met impressionism on the “Kind of Blue” album, also the Mahavishnu Orchestra and Herbie Hancock’s “Head Hunters” album. With Weather Report, I enjoyed Wayne Shorter’s sax and Joe Zawinul on keyboards was certainly one of my masters. For rock, pop and soul, there is a range from the Beach Boys to Prince, and then there is the album “We’re Only in It For the Money” by the Mothers of Invention with Frank Zappa, my progressive rock favorite.
GM: Progressive rock is the featured genre on the Cruise to the Edge show sailing out of Florida.
TVL: The early 2017 tour was fun with Yes, Kansas, Curved Air and we made friends with Mike Portnoy. For 2018 the acts include Yes, Mike Portnoy’s Sons of Apollo, Carl Palmer’s ELP Experience, Martin Barre, Steve Hackett, Tony Kaye and many more. We will be back, with Menno on guitar, Udo on bass and Pierre on drums. We still enjoy playing music so much. The band is really good and we are happy to be part of it. Come to the cruise!
Focus will be performing in the U.S. February 3-8 as part of: Cruise to the Edge 2018
For more on Focus and to hear Thijs Van Leer’s invitation to this progressive rock event go to: Focus The Band
To win both the Focus Family Album double CD set, all you have to do is put your email address in the box below by January 31, 11:59 p.m. You will immediately be entered in the Giveaway and as a bonus you will receive Goldmine’s informative weekly eNewsletter (collecting news/tips and exclusive articles and interviews with your favorite classic artists). We will randomly draw winners from the entrants. We have three copies of these double CDs to give away, so your chances are tripled.