Interview with Ton Scherpenzeel (KAYAK), Hilversum (NL) (December 2011)
DPRP’s Menno Von Brucken Fock
One of the Dutch flagships in the genre of progressive rock music is certainly Kayak, founded by Pim Koopman (RIP) and Ton Scherpenzeel in the early seventies. Although the band took a hiatus from the scene from the mid-eighties until the late ninenties, Kayak is still alive & kicking for over 10 years now. When co-founder and drummer/composer/producer Pim Koopman suddenly passed away on a stormy night in November 2009, it looked like Kayak had come to an end. After the reunion with Max Werner as lead vocalist, the band couldn’t continue this cooperation and former Vandenberg lead singer Bert Heerink stepped in. The band recruited another vocalist however to fulfill the dream of becoming a band with more theatrical characteristics: Cindy Oudshoorn, a gorgeous, good looking and cheerful lady. From a modest role as second vocalist and backing vocalist she developed into a truly radiant stage performer. In the current line-up, most of the time it’s Cindy interacting with the audience and sharing lead vocals with the second former lead singer of Kayak: Edward Reekers. The man with the beautiful voice, nicknamed “Bel Canto” by the late Pim Koopman for a good reason, returned to the fold some years ago, making many fans very happy. It was Cindy Oudshoorn who came up with the idea to organize a tribute concert for Pim Koopman, the man who made his mark on Dutch pop & rock music. This concert to honor Pim as band member of Kayak, but also as composer and producer of many Dutch acts, in November 2010 in a sold out Paradiso (Amsterdam, NL) was the first time the members of Kayak came together since Pim’passing away. The spark ignited the fire once again and Scherpenzeel began to write songs for Kayak. With one contribution of Reekers, the new album Anywhere But Here proves Kayak is able to continue making good pop/rock music with a progressive/symphonic touch and everybody feels that’s exactly what Pim Koopman would have wanted! Ton Scherpenzeel was kind enough to invite me to come to his home and with a tasteful cup of coffee we discussed the latest album and ended up -inevitably- talking about the past as well.
Menno: Well Ton, in 2008 there was a celebration of 35 years of Kayak but in November 2009 it seemed the curtain would fall. What were the reasons to go on with Kayak?
Ton: Well, at the time I knew Pim Koopman for 43 years! we played together in numerous bands, we revived Kayak and everything went smoothly. Then something like the terrible event in November 2009 happened and I knew right away that there was only one decision to be made: not to decide anything at all. To continue with Kayak could be a possibility at a later stage but I really felt the passing away of Pim as a great loss, both musically and personally. I didn’t think about Kayak for almost a year because I was touring with Youp van ‘t Hek (famous Dutch comedian – MvBF). Then Cindy contacted me and told me she wanted to organize a tribute to Pim. As much as I agreed the man most definitely would deserve such a tribute, emotionally I wasn’t ready for this kind of event. Of course I’m not the only one in the band so I decided to participate on the condition I didn’t have to be involved in the organization whatsoever. When the date of November 22, 2010 was coming closer, everyone felt like “oh my, it’s going to be magnificent, but actually it’s truly dreadful”.
Ton: The nearer the date of the concert came, the higher the mountain we seemed to have to climb and the first rehearsal was only one week before the show. We rehearsed two days for our own set and two more for all the guest appearances. Actually I was quite reluctant to be on stage that night and there were a lot of mixed feeling on my part. I still can’t understand how Cindy and Edward could sing like they did: amazing! You know, both Cindy and Edward were also very close to Pim and Cindy was definitely closer to Pim musically than to me, she even worked with him in his studio. For my perception the audience responded differently than to an ordinary Kayak show: no sheer joy, more than the usual tension and the hand clapping seemed to be ‘low profile’ instead of enthusiastic: yes it felt kind of weird indeed. But anyway, once we overcame this mountain and got safely on the other side all the pieces of the puzzle fell into place and I could handle the situation much better. That’s when I felt like writing for Kayak again.
Menno: Now I know you always are a modest musician on stage, hardly ever in the spotlights, no solo spot and you seemed utterly concentrated that night … was it that difficult for you?
Ton: Oh yes! I really felt terrible. Pim should have been with us on that stage and performing without Pim felt really odd in spite of the sound being so good. Playing songs from Pim or songs Pim had produced felt also strange because they were never meant to be performed in that setting. I was glad I was hitting the right notes! After the show it was like a burden fell off my shoulders and I have to say the meeting with Hans Eijkenaar (guest-drummer that show) proved to be really important. I knew that Edward, Cindy, Joost, Jan and Rob would want to go on with Kayak and with Hans I saw a new future for the band. As I said, I would have wanted Pim to be part of the band but I also know he never would have wanted us to stop playing because we love to play with each other and I love to write music. After that November 22, 2010 the inspiration to write music for Kayak came back very quickly as if a sort of blockade had been taken away. Then the ball started rolling very quickly again. At first I was planning to release the album in the year 2012 but then Edward told me he had obligations to fulfill for a show called “The Best Of Britain” early in 2012 so the whole process of writing and recording had to be accelerated all of a sudden.
Menno: When did you actually start working on Anywhere But Here?
Ton: As late as January 2011. We live in Greece for several months from April until July so I knew the whole recording process had to be finished by then. I really hadn’t thought we would pull it off in time, but we did! Now you shouldn’t think the whole album consists of brand new songs: every composer has some unfinished pieces of songs in some drawer. Sometimes there ‘s music and no lyrics, sometimes it’s just half a song or a chorus. So together with all these raw pieces it was possible to come up with enough material to fill an entire album. To my surprise we got the job done, also because Hans Eijkenaar took care of an important part of the mastering process.
Ton: Yes we did, but it seemed odd to allow songs to be put on this album we decided not to use for the previous albums. We also considered to record songs we’d written together in the past, but in the end we decided not to, because we want to move on with the band instead of looking back all the time: we did a lot of that already, but you know, maybe in the future? We will never forget Pim and we will always keep on playing his music.
Menno: I presume you watched the DVD of that tribute concert, once it had been finished?
Ton: Yes I did and it was a pleasant surprise I can tell you! During the show I had to concentrate really hard on my own ‘job’ so I missed a lot of the magic that was happening on stage. Nonetheless, for the same reasons I mentioned earlier I don’t have to see that DVD ever again.
Menno: Almost all compositions for Anywhere But Here were from you and I must admit it surprised me that the beautiful instrumental by Joost Vergoossen that he played on the tribute and dedicated to Pim wasn’t on the album…
Ton: No, that’s correct. I don’t know if he will put it on his forthcoming solo album he’s about to finish one of these days. That might well be. It’s a rather heavy album as far as I know. I’ve been asked to play on one track , which I thought sounded quite okay, like Pink Floyd but “ADHD”, if you know what I mean (grinning). The only none-Scherpenzeel track is Demon In Her Eyes by Edward.
Menno: It struck me that there are a lot of differences between the compositions. What’s the cause? Have they been written in different decades?
Ton: Well I suppose I’m writing my music in different styles anyway and for my work for the theatre maybe even more than for Kayak. Of course there are boundaries for my writing for Kayak I’d rather not cross. I wouldn’t want people to have the opinion that some of the Kayak-songs should have been used for a musical. I know with Merlin and Nostradamus there was a thin line between pop, rock and theatre and I certainly don’t want to cross that line. Usually when I write I already have the vocalist in the back of my mind, but I like to experiment and go off the map a bit, you know. Afterwards I try to make such an extravagant song fit in the ‘genre’ Kayak is supposed to belong too and it might well be that’s the reason my songs are so diverse. A track like Bang sounds a bit like Queen but on Royal Bed Bouncer is a track called You’re So Bizarre which is that same vein. I try to imagine what people will still accept as ‘Yes, this is typically Kayak’. Inspiration for a music can be from unexpected corners of the earth like for instance from the Balkan countries. Obviously I would use that sort of song for a musical rather than for Kayak, but it gives me lots of opportunities to extend my musical horizon.
Menno: Did the band play an important role in the arranging of all the songs or are you the musical director from a to z?
Ton: Whenever I come up with a new piece, I usually let Irene (Linders, Ton’s wife – MvBF) listen to it first. In general it’s about 4 out of 5 times that I’m the one who decides how a song should be arranged. Of course the band plays a role: for instance if no one digs what I came up with it all stops there. I need to have some response, some positive feedback to be able to have people sing and play my music with a certain degree of satisfaction and self-recognition. No vibe, no joy! Because there are such different personalities in the band it’s only natural the songs sound diverse. That also means everyone has his or her own favorites. There’s not much influence of the band on the selection of the repertoire. However I must admit I talked with Hans (Eijkenaar) extensively about how to arrange all the songs but the bottom line is, most of the times my songs are structured to a degree where there is next to no room for major changes although occasionally it does happen nonetheless. Because my demo’s can be in a different key than the appointed vocalist would be able to control, or feels comfortable with, there can be an adjustment in key for example. Sometimes there’s a change of vocalist and most of the times that requires a different key. A track like In Between Tides could have been sung by Edward just as well, but because he had a similar song on the previous album , it was Cindy’s turn for this one. For instance Most Underrated Band could be sung by one person only and that was Rob. He ‘s got the irony in his voice as well to do it right. The sound of the guitar, whether Jan would use an ordinary bass or a fretless bass are choices the members of the band decide themselves. I would say that especially because we have such strong and different personalities in the band it’s really a group effort.
Ton: It differs from day to day but usually I make my way to the studio (points at a separate building behind the house Irene and Ton live in) and I stop working in the evening. At the moment I’m busy with the last details for the music for the tour with Youp van’t Hek. He ‘s been invited to do the special show on TV on New Year’s eve. Before the last dates with Kayak we start rehearsals with Youp for this tour. I’m busy with several other smaller projects as well. In between I’m planning what to do with Kayak next year (2012).
Menno: What about Bert Heerink (former lead vocalist); did you stay in touch with him after his demise?
Ton (looks a bit puzzled) : Well, looking back I think five years were enough. Let’s make it very clear: Bert did a lot of good things for Kayak, especially when things weren’t working out with Max (Werner) in 2000. You might say he was our savior at the time. With Nostradamus he surpassed himself and what happened afterwards I would rather not talk about at all.
Menno: Let’s go back to the new album: only when I started paying attention to the lyrics, I realized November Morning must have been written for Pim. Are there any other songs on the album you’d like to comment on?
Ton: Of course! In general I’m beginning to realize that the lyrics are becoming more important as the years go by, especially these last ten years. The common theme throughout the album is ‘transitoriness’ in all its forms. I think that the members of the band , me as a songwriter included, find ourselves on the crossroads of the life we have lived so far and what kind of future -hopefully a beautiful one!- lies ahead of us. We’ve come to a point in life that you can look both ways . A good example is Passing Cloud: “the changing shapes of a passing cloud”…. how transitory do you want to have it? You know, you don’t write these kind of lyrics when you’re twenty, but these are feelings one gets when friends or family begin to pass away, when you lose your parents, you see what old age can do to a human being. Edward sings it brilliantly and when he performs this track on tour, it seems everyone in the audience is holding his breath and no one even whispers. A song like Credible Lie began with the title, then I found a suitable chorus and subsequently I usually feel in what kind of direction the music should be going . The remaining parts of the lyrics seem to write themselves. It’s about a relationship that has ended a long time ago. The man seeks comfort in booze and the woman starts another relationship and tries to justify this to her husband. For the outside world their relationship is a ‘credible lie’…. Cindy knows exactly how to express herself with that anger in her voice.
Menno: Oh yes I agree, looks to me this is an outstanding song to play live!
Ton: In fact we do perform this one live! Funny thing is that songs tend to come to live only when we start performing them live up to the recording process it’s often a combination of individual activities. When you start rehearsing them they begin to become a ‘group activity’. Actually it would work a lot better when we could perform the songs live before recording them, but unfortunately that’s not the way it works in the business, because you need a new album to go on tour…. It’s the same with theatre productions especially when young artists are involved. You can see they really have full control over a song when they’re doing show number 30 or so. November Morning of course is about Pim. It’s also about the relativity of things happening around you. I was lending a hand with cupboards being moved from the studio. From the corner of my eye I saw Irene pick up the phone and I realized something awful had happened. Someone was asking me whether a table could be dismantled or not while I urged Irene to tell me what the phone call was about and ultimately she cried out: Pim’s dead!! So it’s about doing things that are totally irrelevant while at the same time things happen that turn your whole life upside down. How alienating this is and of course it’s about how we have had to deal with Pim’s passing away. Because I didn’t want to make it some kind of play, the music is not too gloomy. This way it all sounds pure and upright.
Menno: What about the track like Life Is good and the title track?
Ton (smiling): Actually the lyrics are quite ironic. It’s about all the misery a man can get and then there’s a chorus with “life is good”: in fact it’s not! Only when there is that someone special, someone who really cares and loves you, then life can be good. The title track Anywhere But Here is not directly connected to Pim. It’s about how you can protect yourself from all the hideous things that can happen to you, unanswered love, the kind of things you don’t want to get mixed up in. Most Underrated Band is a title I got from YouTube, because this kind of phrase you can read when you open most band-pages: they are all underrated! Of course it’s meant to be cynical and it will sound cynical when the music is more of a solid rock tune: at the moment it’s our encore for the live shows. Bang is about the creation of earth and that its presence has been a mere accident when God and the devil had an argument. Lyrically it fits in the template of ‘oh well, we ‘re toning down anyway’. Messinian Skies pictures an evening, night and dawn from the place in Greece where Irene and I reside a couple of months each year. About 2000 years ago the Romans were here and believe it or not, they had practically the same view we have today. This beautiful Archaic coastline, even in April some mountaintops covered with snow compared to a urban environment that changes completely every 5 years or so. Of course this is a source of inspiration too: delightful weather, no interruptions, a sea of tranquility….
In Between Tides is about the primal feeling that things tend to come back, like water in the tides, an eternal movement so it seems. Mankind is the result of an evolution from organisms that eventually succeeded to live out of the water. Furthermore you could say that underneath the ever moving surface of waters there are creatures you don’t see until they surface. The same way there are lots of ideas but people don’t seem to notice until they come out in the open. It might be political ideas, inventions but also more trivial things like songs that suddenly pop up after having been hidden deep within for maybe some years. It might sound surprising but sometimes these tunes are ‘almost finished’ songs and that’s because they have been stowed away in that hidden chamber for such a long time. Many songs of Kayak are about water, about the sea or the ocean, because I simply love the ocean and the perpetual element of the tides.
(Ton now welcomes Margje, Pim’s widow who remained with the band to help with the merchandise and the web-shop. She and Irene discuss the last details for the gig in Lelystad later the same day).
Menno: So with Kayak you still do everything yourselves?
Ton: Pretty much yeah, although it’s not always easy. Fortunately we have a lot of contacts! Sometimes you’re not noticed when you aren’t represented by certain publishers. That means you’re last in line and that can be a real pain in the butt. But you know, there’s no point in making a fuzz about it, because you’d lose anyway. We do have a distribution channel in the Netherlands, a company called “Heartselling“. In Japan our latest album has been released through “Marquee” and in the USA via “Renaissance Records”. We would like to tour outside of the Netherlands but point is, we are a six piece so that means a lot of expenses. All members have their own agendas and obligations outside of Kayak so it’s rather difficult to get everyone available at the same time for, let’s say, a few weeks. If we could live from Kayak alone, we’d surely do that but unfortunately that is not the reality. And I’m not even talking about my reluctance to travel by plane…. last time was when Kayak recorded Periscope Life! When I was with Earth & Fire, the band was asked to play overseas frequently and then I would have had to say: “I’d rather not”, but somehow it didn’t happen anyway. Once we were asked to come to Ghana because there was an opening of new Tulip Hotel. The plan was that Flairck, Earth & Fire and another band would come there, stay in the new hotel for three days -for free- and in exchange would be performing one night each. There were two little podia and only one Yamaha DX 7. I didn’t think this was a real offer so I accepted, but when the date came closer I began to worry! I would have to take loads of pills so I got a little scared. We would be leaving on a Tuesday, but what happened was the Sunday before that Tuesday – perhaps you remember- that plane crashed on that flat in “de Bijlmer, Amsterdam”! Next thing is this message from Ghana: “because of the many Ghanese people presumed dead after the crash, any kind of festivities are not allowed at the time. So the whole plan fell apart in the end (“Yes” says Irene who just strolled by “and it cost me a very nice trip to Africa. We already got all our vaccinations and I was really disappointed we didn’t go. We would have flown 1st class so I was kind of curious how that would be and I was really looking forward to this journey! -not Jerney, Menno thinks- ).
Menno: you write a lot of music for Kayak, also for Youp van ‘t Hek and you used to write for Opus One (musicals)…. any others?
Ton: Youth theatre “Hofplein” and several other less time consuming activities.
Menno: In the past you have been involved with Camel. There are rumors something is about to happen: do you have any information on Andy Latimer’s condition?
Ton: Every once in a while we “skype” and I know that he is writing and planning, but I don’t think it’ll happen soon because he’s not in a hurry anymore. It might be related to his health issues but in my opinion it could be about being motivated enough as well. When you have been ill for such a long time I think it’s difficult to push yourself really hard. I know he plays here and there as a guest and I believe he’s recording demo’s now & then, but it doesn’t seem like he’s planning a new album just yet. Andy knows he can call on my if he wants to record or play live. I know for sure he doesn’t like the organizing side of touring: he felt it was a terrible burden the last time I toured with him. Constantly coughing, not in control over his voice and a lot of stress. It would surprise me if Andy undertakes anything, as far as performing live is concerned, that would last more than just a few days in a row. Anyway: I’m not aware of any specific plans of Andy’s.
Menno: In your impressive career I counted ‘only’ three solo-albums of which Virgin Grounds by Orion in my opinion is the only ‘real’ solo-album because only on that record you did everything yourself. Are you considering making another solo-album?
Ton (grinning): Actually, looking back I think Virgin Grounds was not my best work, I like the other albums better although you’re right: Heart Of The Universe had a lot of Chris Rainbow on it and large parts of the Carnaval des Animaux were written by Saint Saens but I still consider them to be solo-albums nonetheless. I’m contemplating to do a solo-album, but if I do, it’ll be classically orientated. You know, my roots lay in the Renaissance : late middle ages, 16th and 17th century. I do like the harmonies and the ‘feel’ of the music from that era. There are some links to this kind of music in Merlin and Nostradamus by Kayak and I would like to make an album filled with this genre of music someday.
Menno: You already mentioned Earth & Fire. On your website we can find the album Phoenix by Earth & Fire with you as a band member. Personally I thought it was unusual to be calling the band Earth & Fire without the Koerts brothers….
Ton: Well, I can understand that. Fact is I was asked to join the reunion band because both Chris and Gerard Koerts were not interested. One thing led to another and the next thing was we were to record an album. Now it would have been strange if I hadn’t written for that album wouldn’t it? One thing I’m sure of is that the combination Jerney Kaagman and the Koerts brothers worked better than the combination Kaagman-Scherpenzeel. Sometimes it happens that a vocalist has a magical relationship with a writer and then it just doesn’t work that well if he or she has to sing songs from another writer…
Menno: How do you look back to those late eighties? Did you feel comfortable in that band? Did you feel the material you wrote was okay?
Ton: Oh it was quite okay! I had fun writing songs for that album and I still think some of the songs are quite good and we could perform them with Kayak very well. On the other hand of course my role within Earth & Fire was not the same as my role in Kayak. For instance the songs that I wrote were subjects to debate: quite different from Kayak! A bit the same situation applies to Camel: of course I’m not Camel, Andy is. He is the main man, he determines what will be the musical direction of the band. As a writer I hardly contributed but it has been an honor to play in that band. I understand perfectly what it feels like when you’re ‘just a follower’, but I can tell you the members of Kayak were never happier! Maybe it’s because of what happened, but they feel quite comfortable with me being in charge, organizing, writing and so on. We’re all happy we’re able to play again. Everyone plays her or his role in the band and feels content about this. There’s a lot of energy on stage and we’re very enthusiastic about the developments so far. The fans who still come out to see us, it’s amazing in spite of all the changes in the line ups. I’m the only one left now from the early days, Edward joined some eight years after that but the others never knew the band at all! They heard most of the songs we play live for the first time during a rehearsal. It was the same for me when I joined Camel: I had to learn practically all the stuff because I only knew about three songs! It feels like a gift from heaven that we’re still able to do what we like most: performing live and have fun, all those weekends feel like short holidays…
Menno: What about the financial side of all this and now I’m referring to the current lie up of Kayak?
Ton: We break even and fortunately often just a little more than that. Only when there would be a company who wants to advertise using a song of yours or something like that, you actually make some money. And of course a worldwide hit would be nice, but in reality we know where we stand and that’s about it. It’s all pretty much confined and there are hardly any surprises. You know we attempted a combination of a rock band with theatre when we did Nostradamus and we really felt confident that everything would be working out great. Still the people who came to see a rock band were thinking “ahh, theatre, rubbish!” because they didn’t care about the story, they were there for the music. The people who were planning to watch theatre were a bit disappointed also. So, looking back, I wouldn’t say it was a failure, but it wasn’t enough to justify keeping going on in that direction.
Menno: Haven’t you considered playing a few bigger venues instead of all those smaller theaters?
Ton: Financially it might have been more interesting but you know, we love to play and personally I like performing in smaller, more intimate theaters and clubs better than in a bigger festival hall. Main thing is, what we do is self supporting and we have a lot of fun. We are who we are and the music is what drives us and maybe we’re in luck to meet someone with means to make a difference, in a position to push us to a higher level of popularity, but if we don’t happen to find this person, there’s no loss because we’re not desperately trying anyway.
Menno: Another interesting project you were involved in, was the band Europe (not to be mistaken for the Swedish rockers)?
Ton: Oh yeah, that was as I recall by far the least successful undertaking of mine, commercially speaking. And I don’t include Orion. It was a sort of a code name for Kayak. Still, there are some good songs on that album too but looking back I think we should have given it more thought than we did before we went ahead with this project. We were planning to release it as a Kayak album, but then we ran into troubles because of the financial mess that had something to do with our former manager. We had such bad times those two years before, that we were glad to be able to make music and we decided not to use the name Kayak. You know, we actually did a few shows with that line up with Philippo, Slager, Veldkamp, Wollaert and Westveen), but I realized this line up wouldn’t last long and if it not had been another band I feel there’s no reason why we wouldn’t be playing some of the songs from that album today.
Menno: What’s the story on Kajem, the project with classical organ musician Klaas Jan Mulder?
Ton: That was an invitation by Emile Elsen, the producer and engineer. We did several albums and we toured the churches in the Netherlands. I had nothing to do and the EO (Evangelische Omroep, a Dutch religious broadcasting company) paid well so that was it (laughter). It was a nice project, I never did it reluctantly, but it wasn’t my favorite thing you know.
Menno: Now you’re playing with Kayak and tomorrow you’re rehearsing with Youp van ‘t Hek; isn’t that difficult to make that switch?
Ton: No, not really. There were times I played both with Kayak and with Youp on the same day and I have yet to encounter any problems . These are all my writings so it’s not hard at all to turn that switch.
Menno: What are your future plans?
Ton: Well at first the new years eve shows with Youp and in January another project with Youp. The plan is to go out on a tour with Kayak again but it’s not a certainty at this point because we have to make sure it will be possible financially. The aim is to play in theatres all over the country, celebrating forty years of Kayak. I know the first single came out in 1973, but we started the band back in 1972. At the moment there are two concepts as far as the contents of the show are concerned and there is a plan B if this theatre tour will not be happening, but all that is to remain a secret for the time being….
The clock had been ticking and Irene had already begun grabbing stuff for the show in Lelystad and looked a bit nervous. I asked Ton where he would like to be now. Anxiously looking on his watch he replied: Anywhere But Here!
See See The Sun (1973)
Kayak II (1974)
Royal Bed Bouncer (1975)
The Last Encore (1976)
Phantom Of The Night (1979)
Periscope Life (1980)
Close To The Fire (2000)
Chance For A Livetime (2001)
Night Vision (2001)
Merlin – Bard Of The Unseen (2003)
Nostradamus – The Fate Of Man (2005)
Coming Up For Air (2008)
The Anniversary Box (2008)
Lettres From Utopia (2009)
Tribute to Pim Koopman (dvd -2010)
Anywhere But Here (2011)
Discography Ton Scherpenzeel:
Le Carnaval Des Animaux (1978)
Heart Of The Universe (1984)
Virgin Grounds (1991, as “Orion”)