Focus: Veteran Dutch Prog-Rockers Reflect on Their First Wave of Fame, Look Forward With New Album
Led as it has always been by organist, flutist and vocalist Thijs van Leer, Focus is back once again with a new album X, which will be released in the States on Feb. 5. Original drummer Pierre van der Linden is also back in the fold and the group sounds just as inventive as it did 40 years ago.
Noisecreep had the pleasure of speaking with Thijs about just what makes Focus stand the test of time and why the term "prog," which has come to define this band, may actually be a misnomer.
Thijs, the new Focus album is garnering really incredible reviews so far. After all of these years this has got to make you feel pretty good,
I think it really has the quality of earlier Focus records, especially I and III. We're very happy that we were able to recapture, at least as some people are hearing it, the magic that made people interested in us in the first place. When you see words like "masterpiece" it does make you feel good, but we were never really about reviews. They're nice if you get positive ones, but at the end of it all we're the ones that need to be satisfied with the music.
What do you think it is about the music of Focus the carries on so powerfully the way it does?
I must admit there really does seem to be something timeless about this music. We seem to be able to perform anywhere in the world at any time because of how people feel toward Focus. As far as what makes it special, I would have to say that it is the rare combination of European classical music and rhythm and blues. That's a very unique mix. The rhythm and blues side of our music rarely gets mentioned but we had a heavy r&b influence and really were and are a very swinging band.
What kind of music did you listen to when you were growing up?
Bach and Bartok. From the time I was 16 right up to being 64 today, that has never changed. I was completely taken with classical music. Of course I love jazz as well and soon became a Miles Davis fan, John Coltrane fan, Weather Report and so on. Also, when I was 18 I heard a song that really did change my life, Jimmy Webb's 'MacArthur Park' as sung by Richard Harris. To me, that was the utmost combining of so many styles and really made me start paying attention to the importance of good lyrics. I actually still perform that song in my solo shows. For me, it is the ultra song, so romantic and rhythmic and impossibly perfect.
What was it like when your song "Hocus Pocus" broke out big in the early '70s?
It was amazing. It was the greatest dream come true. Suddenly we were invited to the United States which is where we always wanted to go and succeed like every other band from Europe. So we got on the plane and then found ourselves playing at the Philharmonic Hall in New York City. Just incredible. And we played with everyone from Frank Zappa to the Beach Boys to Joe Cocker to Joe Walsh – it was an amazing time for us. We played big festivals and did lots of American television shows.
There is still some great clips out there for you guys performing on shows like the Midnight Special and In Concert.
Oh I know! One of the most memorable for us was when the great Gladys Knight introduced us. It was such a warm little intimate room, that studio. It was hard to imagine that what we're doing was going out all across United States of America. That part made us nervous once we thought about it! But just playing on those shows was always so marvelous.
A lot of people consider Focus to be one of the first true cutting edge prog bands. Your thoughts on that?
I've never considered us to be prog. We will play festivals today and have these young bands come up to us and tell us that we were like their prog godfathers. And I tell them know we are not prog! To me, the only true prog artist was Frank Zappa. He combined modern classical music with the heavy beat of rock 'n' roll. I consider us to be more REgressive rather than PROgressive in that we rely so heavily on old classical music. I know that we've been influential on many bands including Sepultura and some other ones that really rock and that are really good. But I don't think were a prog band. Not at all. Never. Despite what you read [laughs]!
Focus X will hit stores in the States on Feb. 5 and can be pre-ordered at this link.