publicity & interviews 2018
Interview Ton Scherpenzeel / Louder Than War
Formed in the Nethrlands back in 1972 by keyboard player Ton Scherpenzeel, progressive rock band Kayak have run a course of highs an dlows over a career that spans 45 years. After a three year break they’re back with an almost complete line up and their 17th album – Seventeen. We had the chance to chat with founder the and one constant of the band, Ton Scherpenzeel.
LOUDER THAN WAR: First question from me is that having been active band for 45 years, I’m ashamed to say that the new album is the first of yours I’ve heard. How come you’ve managed to steer under my radar for so long?
TON SCHERPENZEEL: No idea. I’d like to say: check the other 16. Maybe there’s an answer?
But seriously, about the early period, I couldn’t say. But since 2000 we haven’t had a real record company to support us. A Dutch label, yes, but even that did not last until 2008. After that, we lost all channels for good international promotion. So we are very happy with InsideOutMusic, as it means a big change in regards to that.
LTW: It’s been quite a journey with all manner of ups and downs, but can we focus on a couple of stops on the journey. Signing with a major label like EMI in the early days must have been a massive boost?
TS: You know, when you’re twenty and a beginner in this business, it is all just as exciting as it is ‘normal’ to get a major record company like that interested. You have no idea what you’re up against, what it takes, the sacrifices that have to be made and the chance of really becoming a success with something you started because it was your passion. That’s great when you’re twenty and naive as hell, and you sort of expect the world to like you.
LTW: What was behind the reunion in 2000 after the split in 1992? Or was it a ‘split’ or just a break…
TS: We always made the joke about ‘we have waited till the kids grew up and moved out’ but really we did not think about doing anything with Kayak for over fifteen years since 1981. Until Pim and I found each other again in a creative way, Max joined us in recording demos, and our former manager died. We wouldn’t have used the name while he was still alive- not that he had any rights but he was just crazy enough not to accept Kayak going on without him. All that combined made it possible, of not logical, to get Kayak going again. Still it took a couple of years before it actually happened as no major record company was really interested to begin with.
LTW: And looking back over 45 years, you must have seen a few changes in the music industry – which do you see as the biggest changes and what are the challenges in making music in 2018?
TS: In all sorts of ways I would say the transition from analog to digital made the biggest difference. Sales have gone down, but on the other hand it is much cheaper to make an album. It is difficult to make some money in the business, while on the other hand the number of acts, bands and artist that all want a piece of the cake has grown immensely. And the internet changed that all, too. In the past you would hear or read the odd review, the odd letter from a fan from abroad. Nowadays, reviews from all over the world are pouring in. It is easier to be in touch with fans. One fart in Holland and they smell it in Australia, so to speak.
The big challenge I would say is to stand out amidst that all. The only way to do that is to be yourself.
LTW: You’ve recorded a real variety of music from rock operas to female vocalists, in hindsight, which area do you think you work best?
TS: That’s difficult. I like doing both and all of that, made my living writing for theatre, and think I have the ability to write both shorter songs as well as longer epics, or music that belongs in a certain framework and story like rock operas, the theatre-like stuff as well as intimate ballads or out-of-the-box music. The problem with rock operas is usually about the money if you want to do it properly. That’s where it always ended for us.
LTW: You seem to have been dogged with all sorts of struggles, deaths and departures but resolutely carried on – how do you feel these issues have affected the band?
TS: Sure how could it not affect you or a band. It affects you musically, financially and personally. Ultimately it lead to a band that has me as the sole survivor. Not on purpose. It’s just the way it went. Life is all about changes and Kayak is no exception. Maybe even an example.
LTW: So, after a three year break you’re back with a new line up – can you tell us a bit about how the new members came together?
TS: We came together after I started looking for a new line up to record and perform as Kayak. That happened when I decided I would not quit yet, but wanted to continue the band as a vehicle for my music. That is the only reasons why Kayak still exists. It is my drive, my motivation. So I started looking, first of all for a singer. The vocals determine the sound of the band for like 50%, not counting the compositions of course. If I had no singer, it would not happen, so the rest came later. I looked around the usual way: internet, YouTube and asked around. I auditioned a lot of guys, but ended up with the one that I began with: Bart Schwertmann was the first one I auditioned. I could not believe I would be so lucky to have the first person I asked, so I looked further. After three months, I listened again to his auditioning which I recorded and thought: what the hell am I looking for? This is him!
LTW: And although you have these guys in the band, Kayak seems very much your band, so what sort of input do they have when it comes to recording?
TS: Not when it comes to writing, arranging and producing and so on – but they have their input as personalities. The singer of course, as his sound is very much his own. He sings my melodies and words, has to connect to that, but only like he can. Marcel Singor on guitar, of course he plays the themes and chords as I have conceived them, but it his tone, his interpretation. Most of his solos are completely free and he his great with that, does the unexpected.
Kristoffer Gildenlöw is a magnificent bass player, but only plays one track (Cracks) as I am a bass player too and did it all while composing the tracks. I really enjoy playing the bass, even more than keyboards. So I did that but kept an important track for him open, knowing he is fantastic on fretless. Anyway, he is ten times as good a bass player than I am. Collin Leijenaar does not play on the album. I asked him first, but due to all sorts of circumstances he couldn’t do it, so I found Lean Robbemont, who is a very versatile drummer, playing in a tight but also vey loose way, little things and variations that I would never have thought off. But Collin and Kris make a great rhythm section, they’ve proven themselves together in the Neal Morse Band.
LTW: I believe the new songs that make up Seventeen came pouring out really quickly. Why do you think this happened?
TS: Because I allowed myself to be creative again, after I decided that I would not let Kayak end the way it did. If Kayak stops, it will be on my own conditions. That gave me a sense of purpose, and opened the door to creativity that had more or less closed after the disappointment of Cleopatra as a project. Not as far as the album is concerned, I am still happy with that.
LTW: About Andy Latimer’s contribution to Ripples On The Water. Did you have him in mind to actually play on that track?
TS: Yes, from the beginning I knew he would have to play it. And I am very fortunate that he wanted to do it. He is such an emotional player, recognizable like only the real great players are. He plays one note and you instantly know it is him. We have kept in touch throughout the years, also outside of Camel, always planning to do something together. For some mysterious reason it never happened. Yet.
LTW: How did the association with Inside Out come about. I know Thomas Waber has his finger on the prog pulse….?
TS: We already offered Cleopatra to InsideOut, Arjen Lucassen gave me the tip to contact Thomas. But they weren’t really into this sort of thing, maybe it was too much musical-like for their taste. When our manager Rob Palmen sent them the demos for Seventeen, Thomas said yes straight away. I can see why, it is much more of a rock band now compared to the rock opera idea of Cleopatra.
LTW: As it’s the newest, I guess you’re always enthused about new material but how do you think the new album sits with in the Kayak catalogue?
TS: Ask me that question next year, it is too fresh still and I could not say where it fits in. People say it’s the band going back to the seventies. Maybe. For me it is a logical step, yet different.
LTW: And finally – Record World in the USA made you ‘Most Promising Band of the Year’ in 1977…forty years on, have you fulfilled the promise?
TS: No. Well, depending on what the promise was, of course. If the promise was that we’d conquer the world (or the US at least) and sell many albums, it is not fulfilled. If the promise was to stay true to ourselves, and do the music we’d like to do, it was fulfilled. The combination, that was a bit hard to achieve. Often things went wrong at the wrong moment. If your singer decides he does not want to sing while a US tour is in the making, forget it. If two of your singers decide to leave while you’ve got a rock opera written with them in mind, with over two years of work in it, that does not help either. If your friend, drummer, co-producer and co-writer dies in the middle of a tour, it changes the game completely. But it’s okay. I have always been able to make a living out of my music outside Kayak. That’s something to appreciate, looking back. And it’s not over yet…
Progwereld / Wouter Bessels
Profil / Quebec, Canada
The Underdogs of Prog Rock: UG Exclusive Interview With Kayak Mastermind Ton Scherpenzeel
Why did you take all that time off [between 1982 and 1999]?
We were in a very dark period as a band. We had a huge success with [1978's] 'Phantom of the Night' in Holland. We had a top five single but afterwards it went downhill from that. We had financial problems, personal problems and we didn't know really what to do. Max Werner who was singing in the band before decided not to sing anymore and then went on a singing solo career to Germany, which was very strange I think. The band was in disarray and we didn't split up but we just didn't continue as Kayak.
You mentioned the 'Phantom of the Night' album, which was produced by Dennis MacKay [Jeff Beck, Tommy Bolin]. What was that like?
It was a great cooperation but it's just that he had a very hard time in the studio because we were under contract with Universal/Phonogram, which is Phillips. Phillips had just opened the studio and it took us about half-a-year to get the record done and everybody was really sick of it at the end because of the technical problems the studio had. In a way he couldn't prove himself and we were just getting over all the difficulties. But it was the most successful album so yeah, there you go.
Why do you think Kayak fans loved the 'Phantom of the Night' album so much?
It's always in hindsight when you think about it. When we were recording it, I had no idea. For me, it was just the sixth or seventh album. The only thing was there was a big change in the lineup because as I told you the singer Max Werner decided not to sing anymore and he wanted to drum in the band and he was capable of doing it. So we kept him in the band and had to find a new singer [Edward Reekers] and a new bass player [Peter Scherpenzeel] so it was a completely new lineup. It alienated some of the fans but we got twice as much for them in return so in the end it was a winning situation. The fans were like, 'Aw, now you're getting commercial,' but for us it was just the next album with accidentally a hit single.
You worked on the previous album 'Starlight Dancer' with Jack Lancaster from Blodwyn Pig. How did that work out?
He's a great guy and a great musician but I just don't think he was the right person to get us. We were quite cocky and quirky and we thought we knew it all by ourselves. He had influence as a musician but not as a producer. He was really nice to work with and we did a couple sessions in Trident Studios [famous English studio where everybody from the Beatles to David Bowie recorded] in London, which was amazing for us knowing who had already recorded there. I remember the time with Jack as a great time.
Mick Abrahams from Jethro Tull was also in Blodwyn Pig with Jack Lancaster. Were you a fan of Tull?
Uh, not really. I liked the medieval stuff and songs like 'Witch's Promise' and that kind of music. 'Locomotive Breath,' yeah, it was OK. I wasn't really a big fan but incidentally I liked their songs.
Talking about songs, how do you not repeat yourself after making 17 albums?
That's difficult. It's very difficult not to repeat yourself in style. I do repeat myself because I've found my style and it's the way I play piano and that's the way the songs are built. The songs are built 90% on piano... Yeah, you have to be critical and really listen if you don't repeat yourself literally.
What was it like working with Andy Latimer from Camel on 'Ripples On the Water' from the new album?
I wrote the melody of that track but he does something over it and I love that. Andy does the first part of what is the main melody and then he improvises and I give him total freedom there. If he plays one note, you know it's him. There's something very emotional in his playing. He touches your heart.
You have been making records for 45 years and during that time a lot of amazing guitar players have been around. Who were some other guitar players you listened to?
When I was young, I was really drawn to Jimi Hendrix. I thought he was fantastic. I played bass in a band before Kayak and we played all the Jimi Hendrix stuff. I really know his material and I've always thought he was one of the best guitar players ever because he was a guy who could play chords and melody and still sing and fill the whole spectrum and I think that's amazing. In later periods, I really liked Steve Lukather.
Who were some of the bass players you listened to?
Again, I come back to Jimi Hendrix and Noel Redding and his famous run in 'Hey Joe.' I always thought McCartney was phenomenal in his writing and approach on the bass, which was very melodic.
Has your songwriting changed with the advent of all the new synthesizers and plug-ins available?
It hasn't really changed my songwriting but it's easier to get your ideas across sooner. Before I played the song on piano for the band and there were a lot of things you still have to explain. Now you record your demos and they're almost as good as the final result. You've got strings and whatever you like. I look for the same sort of sounds only better. I look for an orchestra really.
What keyboards did you use on the 'Seventeen' record?
It's really simple. Basically I'm using sounds from old keyboards like a [Roland] D70 and a [Korg] Triton. My main keyboard live is a Roland Fantom G8, which has great sounds but it's heavy and that's the only downside to it. I use a lot of EastWest plug-ins for piano and strings. Back in the day we used a Mellotron.
Were you a fan of Mellotron bands?
Moody Blues. We had a Dutch band called Earth and Fire and they introduced the Mellotron in Holland. Of course 'Strawberry Fields' and all the things The Beatles did with it. When we got our own Mellotron in '73 we were really thought that was fantastic. The old one that the Moody Blues used was in the Phonogram Studios in Hilversum [Amsterdam] and we used that on the first demos.
Do you listen to some of the more modern prog bands like Dream Theater?
To be honest, no. I'm amazed by the technical abilities of a band like Dream Theater but they don't touch my heart. I think that's the main thing in music if it doesn't touch your heart, there's no use listening to it. Other people may be touched by it but I'm not.
Lastly, some questions from readers. What is an instrument you cannot play would like to learn?
I would like to play the cello. I like that part in the musical spectrum like a low horn. I like that middle range of an orchestra because it's often neglected in arrangements and there are so many possibilities you can do in harmonies in the middle frequencies. I really love adding extra lines in that region for cello or horn or a synth that's playing those parts.
What is the first record you ever bought?
I think that was 'Twist and Shout' by The Beatles.
What is the most recent record you bought?
I did buy movie music from a French movie by a composer called Lully who was from the 16th century. I bought the soundtrack to the film, Le Roi Danse [The King Is Dancing].
What is a song you wish you'd written?
There are so many. I wish I'd written most of them. There's a very obvious one and it's 'God Only Knows.'
If you could join on band for the night and play show, which band would you join?
That's a really hard one. I think I would like one night with The Beatles. [Laughs]
Like Billy Preston?
Yeah, maybe. Maybe I would ask Paul to take the guitar and let me play bass for a song.
If you could take one keyboard lesson from anybody, who would it be?
I really don't know.
What is Kayak doing now?
We've just done a small promotional tour in Holland for 'Seventeen'. Holland is a small country and everybody has to do other things besides the band and have other bands and teaching as well because it's hard to make a living out of a band in Holland. We are preparing for a bigger tour in the fall this year and hopefully that will get us abroad.
Thank you and take care of that cough.
Thank you very much.
Ton Scherpenzeel (Kayak) - Big Bang March 2018
1. Seventeen was marked by the constitution of a brand new line up of Kayak : why this desire for radical change ?
Our two lead vocalists decided to leave the band just before our last CD Cleopatra- The Crown of Isis was released. I will not go into detail but let’s say that a band within a band had emerged, and I could not work or be creative in that situation. So when I considered to continue with Kayak it was clear to me I needed to do that with different people, have a fresh start.
2. How did you choose the new musicians ? What was the extent of their involvement in the realization of Seventeen ?
I searched under the radar, as I did not want to make it known I was considering a restart before I knew I had the right musicians, especially the lead singer. So I asked around, looked at Youtube etcetera. Bart Schwertmann, the lead vocalist and guitarist/2nd vocalist Marcel Singor were involved in Seventeen in so far that they bring in their skill and personality to create a new Kayak sound- but as I write and produce it all, it is still recognizable as Kayak.
Kristoffer Gildenlöw plays bass on one song (Cracks) because I already played most of the bass parts myself but asked him as he is a fantastic fretless bass player, and I thought his approach would fit well in that song. Collin Leijenaar is now our drummer but he did not play on this album. They’re all brilliant musicians and it feels like a band much sooner than I had expected.
You must remember the previous line up played together for 8 years, except for the death of Pim Koopman in 2009 of course. But it had become an oiled machine, as long as it ran. But even the best oiled machines can get stuck and need repair.
3. This new album mixes long and ambitious compositions, and shorter and more direct titles : one has the impression of a synthesis of the history of Kayak. How was the writing process ? Some compositions were old ?
You have analyzed that correctly. Kayak has always been a band where songs are the main focus, whether they last 2 or 10 minutes. There’s no showing-off, everyone and everything serves the song. The writing process went very quickly, once I decided I would continue with Kayak and felt like proving that I still had something to say.
Most of the songs were written within a year. Only a few things were a bit older, but there wasn’t much left over from Cleopatra which was a double album. Every composer has little drawers where they keep unused material. But as I said, 80-90% was new.
4. Originally, why did you give the name kayak to the group ?
In 1972 it was on a list of 10 possible names but we couldn’t decide. Then it was written provisionally on a demo-tape by our producer because we had to have a name. After a while we got used to it and just stuck to it, also because it sounded right and offered visual possibilities like spelling the name backwards as a palindrome, one of the earliest real band-logo’s in rock history I think, and we still use it.
5. In hindsight, we get the impression that the first period of Kayak's history was marked by two first research albums, before a balance found with Royal Bed Bouncer, and several more calibrated albums, then a return to a more clearly progressive mind in Merlin. What do you think ? Which titles or records do you find particularly successful during this first period ?
That’s right. I find Royal Bed Bouncer the best album from that period, artistically. It sounds consistent and mature, and had a lot of energy. Starlight Dancer I think had the potential but was recorded in many different studios in different periods so it lacks unity. But commercially it had to be Phantom of the Night, which was a platinum LP in Holland and Ruthless Queen a top-5 hit. It was a huge surprise to us as well and saved the band, I think, and allowed us to continue with Phonogam/Universal and receive a reasonable budget.
With Merlin we tried to extend our musical possibilities by writing a musical story like a rock opera. It was a short one (one LP side), that we finalized with ‘Merlin Bard of the Unseen’ as we felt the original wasn’t complete yet and the theatric approach could lead us to new horizons.
6. Can you explain the reasons for putting Kayak to sleep in the early 1980s ?
Financially the band was looking at a deep and dark abyss because of terrible mismanagement, personally it was not the best of times between the members and musically nobody really knew where we would had to go, each new album sold half of its predecessor and we sort of got tired of it all. I tried to continue with a partly new line up of the band, but our manager did not accept that and demanded we would clear his name against all bills and tax claims that could still be expected if we would use the name Kayak without him. It was one big mess. I refused, of course, and re-invented the band as Europe. That didn’t really work and after a year we stopped. But we never really broke up.
7. What memories do you have of your long participation in Camel ? What did this experience bring you in your career as an artist ?
I have always enjoyed playing in Camel, especially with Andy Latimer as he is such a great guitar player. There are similarities in our style, we do compliment each other I think and that’s very rewarding as a musician. In Camel it is Andy who leads the band, which gives me less pressure and responsibility- I only have to concentrate on playing well, and not on everything that comes with being in charge. I liked that position too. It gave me the experience to work with other great musicians than the ones I knew, and sort of understand what it is not to be in charge of a band and not be the focus of everyone’s attention, so I could see how a band worked from a different angle.
8. The reactivation of Kayak at the dawn of the new century has engendered a great profusion of albums, simple or even double : how can this remarkable vitality be explained ? Again, what titles or records do you think are particularly successful during this second period ?
I don’t know precisely why that is. Simply said: I like to create music and have had the opportunity to do so, and there were always great musicians around that wanted to play it. For me, my motivation in this business is: to create. Making something that wasn’t there before. Just recycling old stuff is not very interesting for me. I like to play the old songs as well, nothing wrong with that, but there always has to be the challenge of creating something new, to grow. As long as that’s the case, it gives me the energy to go on.
It’s never about the money. Financially it has never been easy with Kayak. Our main output is still in Holland, which is a small country. If you are a band in a niche market like we are, it is not difficult to imagine that it takes a lot of effort to keep it all going and not lose a fortune.
Personally, I like ‘Nostradamus- The Fate of Man’ and ‘Letters from Utopia’ best. There’s a lot of strong material on both 2CD’s, although I can understand people who say that 2 CD’s at a time is a bit much to absorb. ‘Seventeen’, however proud I am on that album, is still too close, ask me in a year and I can tell. Although the albums after 2000 sold well enough to make a new one every time, their commercial success was somewhat limited and could not be compared to for instance Phantom of the Night.
9. What do you think of the current Dutch progressive scene, which Kayak has inevitably influenced : I am thinking for example of artists like Arjen Anthony Lucassen or groups like Silhouette ?
Arjen has a lot of success, well deserved, but I think he is much more ‘metal’ than Kayak, which may also make him more successful. I don’t know in which way Kayak may have influenced him, that’s for you or him to say maybe. Silhouette comes closer to us in style, and I hope they get a break to a wider audience. There’s another good Dutch band called Knight Area, almost the same situation. It’s a small scene with only a few successful exceptions.
It’s hard to make the ‘next step’ in symphonic rock for smaller bands. Also for Kayak, though we have quite a fan base world wide that is very loyal. Considering we have had so many line up changes, that’s great, because fans are usually conservative and don’t like change. I think they got used to that with us as we’ve had over 20 band members by now.
We were lucky that InsideOutMusic signed us, they presented us internationally more than we could have done by ourselves. I was amazed at the number of positive reviews we got from outside Holland, and how many people that are into prog rock said they had only vaguely heard of us and wondered why. We didn’t really keep it a secret, all those years. It’s a strange business. There are so many bands around, the competition is staggering.
10. What are your plans, with Kayak or solo ?
As Kayak are concerned, we are still waiting and hoping for the effect of the new album ‘Seventeen’, to get us abroad (outside Holland that is) and find a bigger audience. It is vital for the band that that happens. The reactions are very positive, so let’s see. We are working on a tour later this year, hopefully also outside Holland.
As for my solo plans, I do have a new album in the making which will be in the vein of ‘The Lion’s Dream’ from 2013. I am not sure when it will be ready, though, if it will ever because I am never satisfied and there’s no time pressure. I’m also not sure who’ll sing it. Maybe me. Maybe not. It’s a tough job, finding these singers. They would have to be me, but with a better voice, if you understand what I am saying.
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