In Conversation With...
Michel van Dijk
by Jerry van Kooten
In the early 1970s, a group of students started a band called Threshold Fear, which a little while later was renamed to Alquin, after the band's rehearsal space called Alcuin. The music was a fresh mix of progressive rock, blues, and jazz. Michel van Dijk joined as their singer after the second album, in October 1974. Although Michel did much and much more, music-wise, it is Alquin that his name will be related to for progressive rock fans.
On a pleasantly cold Amsterdam Autumn morning, I had an appointment with Michel van Dijk. Never having understood why interviewers would ask for musicians' favourite colour, right after our greeting he pointed out that he noticed my request for a conversation rather than an interview. I know from experience that it's hard to have a conversation with someone who expects questions and answers, so I knew this was going to be an easy conversation, and a perfect example of how I like them: talking about the personal side of the music.
Already on the way to the coffee house we would spend the next two hours, Michel started talking about music in general, and Michel's music in particular. Having explained DPRP stands for more than just progressive rock and tries to cover everything that might be interesting for our readers, it was clear Michel is not used to get a label stuck on him saying "progressive rock band". And even before we had our first coffee, he started talking about the early 1950s, when his parents moved the family to the USA, where he got in contact with film and, more importantly, music.
The Early Years
Yeah, I was in a few bands before it got serious. The Mads and later The Minds. I remember I played guitar then. But it was not very serious: I had a guitar with two strings, and then one string broke!
With Ekseption, it was kind of funny. When I first heard them, I thought "wow, if I could sing for a band like that, that would be amazing". And less than two months later, they were having auditions for a singer!
Ekseption was a wonderful experience. When I joined, the album The Fifth was becoming more and more popular, starting in France. We played in France and Germany a lot, and Holland was coming on strong too. We played in Ibiza for weeks. We also played in Cannes, at the film festival. Try and imagine - I'm singing here, with Kirk Douglas sitting at my feet! :-)
But the band got some pressure to do shorter songs. Ekseption always were a largely instrumental band, but with shorter songs, I got less and less to sing, and with that it was getting less interesting for me as a singer.
When I left Ekseption, I had lost interest in the music business. While it was successful, musically, we didn't make any money. Even when I got a letter from Alquin asking me to come and do an audition, I wasn't very enthusiastic. I was working to earn some money to make a trip to the USA with a friend of mine. I had enough of music for a while.
I let the letter be, for a while, couldn't be bothered. For a month, actually. I knew who they were, though. I knew them via Brainbox's bass player. His sister was seeing their drummer, Paul. I had seen them play live once or twice as well. At first, the music Threshold Fear, which they were called back then, played didn't do a lot for me.
Anyway, I decided that since they had taken the effort to send me a letter, the least I could do was go and see them. So I did, I went to see them, in the Houtrusthallen. Still not a lot of enthusiasm, though. But I was very impressed by their PA and their sound. I had never had a sound like that! I heard something like that when I attended a Yes concert at the Concertgebouw a while before.
So I was watching them for a while, thinking how good things would sound... So I joined in at a rehearsal afterwards. And that very moment, I felt something of the magic coming back. It was a unit, it was right. And we started rehearsing and writing for the then forthcoming album, Nobody Can Wait Forever, shortly after that. Most songs had already been written, but not all, like Darling Superstar, Stranger... The last verse of Revolution's Eve is mine, while Job had written the first part. You can hear the difference in writing.
How was that for Job? A full-time singer joining, a co-composer, Paul still drumming...
Job went to play saxophone, a collection of percussion instruments, second lead vocals, making announcements... He could sing, but there had been some criticism on his voice. I never understood why they took the criticism so seriously. They had been on tour with The Who, and wanted to write shorter songs, more rock and roll oriented. They thought Job's voice was a little too sweat. But I always found his voice perfect for the band. The reason why Alquin became popular was because they were a great band. They could have been writing a lot of great albums with Job.
But still they asked me, and I joined. Although at first he though he was, Job was never a lesser band member. His total input was so important for the whole band. No one else in the band could have filled in for him, his musicality, his knowledge, his ideas. Like the clicks you hear in Sunrise, small ideas, tiny things you hear - all Job's ideas. You need a good sense of music and arrangements for that, because it's easy to overdo a thing like that. Also other artistic ideas. Look at the website as it is now, with the atmospheric photos - all Job's ideas. Job is also a storyteller. The way he announced the new song Murder In The Park was very funny!
|LP "Nobody Can Wait
The second line-up of Alquin.
Michel van Dijk at the top left.
LP "Best Kept
Ferdinand [Bakker, guitar] and Job [Tarenskeen, drums] had been arranging some charity performances titled Let's Stick Together, with a large choir for several years in a row, in Delft. They were arranging all the stuff - organizing rehearsals, selecting the songs, Job wrote down the chords and lyrics for people and who had to do what, copy all information on large sheets, etc. That's a lot of work when you're doing this for 25 people!
And five years ago, they asked me if I'd like to join in once, just for fun. Well, fun it was, and we sort of made an appointment to get back together in a rehearsal room, just for old time's sake. I didn't have to do much, but I was there on time for rehearsals, showing commitment. So trust was beginning to grow again.
It took a while, though. We were always the first to arrive at these sessions and the last to leave. And every time we thought - yes, let's play again soon! But that didn't happen for a few years.
We tried it in 1995, but that didn't feel good yet. But last time around, it did. We started the rehearsal... first song, Sunrise... and already after three notes, I felt it. I really didn't expect it at all, but there it was again, that magical moment.
We really had planned to do one single show in 2003, and that was going to be it. But that show was sold out within one hour. Hm, let's do one more then, we though. It was never the plan, but it simply evolved from there. Then someone got the idea of recording a DVD. But while we were thinking about it, I said we'd better do some shows before recording the DVD, to get warmed up, get in shape and stuff. So we did five or six shows before actually recording the DVD. And it was truly amazing, the feedback we got from the audience was amazing!
Michel van Dijk, 2003.
Photo by Fred Hendriks, taken from www.alquin.org
Yes, the magic was there, and it felt real good.
Ha, but not everything went well from the start! I remember a time rehearsing, and everybody was really into it. We started a song, the atmosphere was getting better and better. Then Dick [Franssen, keyboards] joined in, very enthusiastically. A bit too much, actually, because I saw his Hammond organ moving, coming forward, and suddenly topping over, flat on its back! :-)
But that's part of the deal, you know, and it's a part that I like.
For example, when we recorded the DVD, we were playing a song, and again I was really into it. During a short instrumental section, I was moving around on stage, enjoying the music. And when my next line was coming up, I turned around to start singing and... the mic had gone! I turned around, but there was no microphone stand. It appeared to have fallen when I turned around. But that's all part of it, and although some thought it best to cut that bit out, I really wanted that to be left in!
What's different with the 1970s?
Definitely not the magic. The biggest difference is the way I experience it all. For example, the audience. I was too young and wild and arrogant maybe, to accept applause, to realize what it meant to the listeners. I mean, you're young and playing in a rock and roll band - it's just how you behave. But now, I really feel the feedback, I really feel the energy from the audience, and that's true magic.
I used to think that music could change the world. But even now, entire populations are wiped off the earth. The world is such a big place that people lose their sense of individuality. There's this general feeling of uselessness. I used to have those feelings too. Go walk through the city, and you're absolutely nobody and nowhere. That thing alone is not too bad, it's the way it is. Music was something that would give hope and direction, a window to better times. But that was an illusion. Now I know you can't change the world. It doesn't give a fuck what you do, nothing will really change.
What remains after the illusion is that you can still make music, and that you can let people get positive feelings and let them give positive feedback. And that's enough, more is not necessary. That's not how I felt it, so many years ago. But I know that now. So I'll just keep doing it, absolutely.
Also in different fields. For example, with some other people I am going to do two nights of Lou Reed songs. And the Forever Young shows [Neil Young and Crazy Horse songs]. Both were with Henk Koorn [lead singer and guitarist of Dutch band Hello Venray], what a great artist he is... I learned such a great deal from him! He started playing, and after only 30 seconds, his guitar pick falls from his fingers, behind the scratch pad on the guitar! If you'd try it, you woulnd't succeed, but now it fell right behind it... So after only 30 seconds into the gig, he starts shaking his guitar, trying to get the pick out! Something happening like that on stage would irritate me severely, but not him! He dealt with his fulnerablity and things that can go wrong so wonderfully, that the whole audience was laughing and having a good time! Or in another song, his bass drum was sliding away... Or halfway through one song, he just sang "oh... this song is going nowhere..." :-). He just remained himself completely. I learnt a lot that day... And now we've formed a band and are doing some shows!
You'll keep on doing different things?
Yes, that's what I like. But Alquin remains the most important! Mostly because it's our own material. The Let's Stick Together Sessions are great, they're sold out two weeks in advance, and you can learn a great deal from doing those old songs in a different setting. But Alquin is our own thing, it's our baby. The commitment we all have towards the band is very special.
I've been in several bands, also good bands, where the bond among the musicians was not so strong. I've played in a very good blues band, where on a personal level it simply didn't work. With blues bands it's always more difficult to stand out than in a band like Alquin, I think. One blues artist that stood out for me, was Stevie Ray Vaughan. He brough something really new into blues music at the time, the way he played, his rhythm. I love the blues! That's why I am such a Dylan fan. His latest album is full of 1930s blues influences, and his voice is so much better now. The way he expresses himself makes him a good singer, I think. It's very difficult to express yourself outside a regular vocal melody line. His voice is like rusted nails, and appeals to me a lot. Not always though - in his Like A Rolling Stone era, his voice was gnawing, making it sound like he was whining and telling you how wrong you are. Now he has a full blues voice. A raw voice. I have it somewhat, but he has it a lot more. I like that. Tom Waits has it even more, though.
Michel van Dijk, 2004.
Photo by Fred Hendriks, taken from www.alquin.org
One thing with reunion tours is that I always wonder for how long they're going to last. But it sure is going to look different with Alquin. The DVD from 2003 contained a new song, you played two more new songs a while ago...
We already have twelve new songs!
Sounds very serious!
Partly because of the feedback from fans! People all the way from Nuernberg came to the show in Uden in 2003! They even brought old LPs with them for us to sign. People from Scotland stayed longer in Holland than planned, only to see us. Incredible, all those reactions. Especially the Dutch fans who are writing in the website's guestbook.
Bar a single person expressing his negative view on Job's drumming...
Ah, that was so nasty, the way he did that... First reactions from the band was to let it be and not pay attention. But I wanted to start some kind of discussion. Within the band we know how things really are. He might not be the most technical drummer, but he has a great personality, and his musical input and humour and variation in playing is wonderful. Of course something goes wrong now and then, but that's the last thing he cares about. It's what you are in total that counts.
I remember that when I joined and Job went on to be the drummer, I said to him I didn't believe it was going to work with him as a drummer. :-) But I've seen him play, with blood and blisters on his hands... I admire him enormously for his courage and power! But we're all very lucky with each other, also simply on a level of humanity - it's just a great bond of people! That's another thing I've learned through the years. I was not able to accept that in the early years. That's what really gave a new life to the band on a personal but also a musical level. That's the magic that makes it work.
When we did the double CD in 2003, we thought we really needed one new song. That became Sweet Surrender, but it was also the spark for Ferdinand to continue writing for the band. Some bits of the twelve new songs, like intros, are a bit too much like other songs, but all is subject to change. But some other new songs are just great, very promising indeed. Now we've stopped touring for a while, the focus is back on rehearsals and writing. Next Wednesday is a rehearsal, later there's an evening of me and Job working on songs in the studio. Talk about the songs, writing some lyrics, try things out, etcetera. That's the way we work, and I love it!
A good thing about the renion is that it's most of the successful line-up. Only a new bass player!
We've always had a weird thing with bass players! Hein Mars was the first, he was there for several years though. Then Jan Visser, then Dickie Scholte Noordholt, but that didn't work. Then Frans, but he stopped music altogether. And now Walter, and he's a great guy. A really amazing bass player. Frans was more plucking the strings, Walter makes his notes roll more. Walter is more bluesy, he has a great feeling for music, understands what the songs are about real quickly.
Michel van Dijk, 2004.
Photo by Jerry van Kooten.
Official Alquin website: http://www.alquin.org.