Interview with Guus Willemse
Menno von Brucken Fock
One of Holland’s best ‘progressive’ bands from the seventies and certainly one of the first was a band called Solution. Based in Groningen, built on the ashes of several local bands, Willem Ennes, Tom Barlage and Hans Waterman played soul music as Soulution. Covers from among other Blood, Sweat & Tears were core business. They had a genuine singer and horns and they played really funky stuff. However once the singer and the horn-section were out of the band, Tom, Willem, Guus Willemse’s predecessor Peter van der Sande started to play a mixture of rock, pop, soul and jazz. The name was changed into Solution once it became clear it wasn’t a “soul cover band” anymore at all. Last year the famous ‘vintage rock’ record label Esoteric put out a remastered version of the band’s first album called Solution and their second called Divergence. Barlage is residing in France, Willem Ennes passed away in 2012, Waterman still plays drums but started writing in the nineties and the one remaining prominent member, vocalist and bass player Guus Willemse is still active as a musician. I got the opportunity to go and see him in his hometown Utrecht in the heart of The Netherlands.
Menno: Hello Guus, let me firstly ask you something about your musical background?
Guus: I come from a musical family. My dad played violin, my mom guitar, ukulele and mandolin, we had an organ at home, at first a harmonium and at a later date a RIHA. Of course there was a piano too. There was always music around either someone was playing or was listening to music on the radio or from the record player. The first artists I can remember listening to were Mary Ford and Les Paul (we’re talking about around 1946) and I never stopped listening to their kind of music. Huge accomplishment from these guys to record the music all by themselves! Only a few years later came the first four track recording machines and Les Paul and George Barnes were involved at the early stages of the development of multi track recording without knowing from one and other they were trying to achieve the same goals! Yeah, I still own loads of 78 rpm records with their recordings on them!! I got my first guitar lessons when I was five years old. My teacher was Bob Schuilenburg, a colleague of my dad’s. When I was twelve I got a better guitar and in no time there was a band consisting of boys living in our street, nice site you know five guitars in a row (laughter). At home there was also singing, my mom, my sister and me were always singing harmonies. Then came the bands during college days and after that I was a member of the next band so practically I’ve always been ‘into music’.
Menno: So how did you get involved with Solution because they were based in Groningen and you were living in Utrecht for ages weren’t you?
Guus: Yeah I’m a genuine ‘Utrechter’! Well, after secondary school I started playing in a local band, then worked at a bank, where I met my wife. In this period I met several times with John Schuursma (former guitar player with Rob Hoeke), who knew Willem Ennes (keyboard player with Solution) very well. When Solution were looking for another bass player, John suggested to Willem to give me a call. Willem did and I went to Groningen (never been so far away from home before within the Netherlands!). Now the strangest thing happened to me a few days before I got that phone call. I was watching TV and caught just a few bars of a band I didn’t know of and I thought I recognized Jan (John) Vennik, a very talented conservatory graduate, playing with Rob Hoeke at the time. With Hoeke he played saxophone but he could play organ and piano extremely well too. I thought I recognized him and assumed it was a band formed around Jan Vennik. So when I arrived in Groningen and met with Hans, Willem and Tom for the best time, we started playing together and within literally a few seconds the deal was done: it was love at first sight and from both sides! We started talking and there was a mentioning of a TV performance they just did and I told them what I’d seen and that I assumed it was John Vennik’s new band: in fact I’d seen Solution and the saxophone player turned out to be Tom Barlage … the guys had quite a laugh! Being a member of a Groningen based band, meant a lot of travelling for me. I did it reluctantly, but I never regretted that decision for a second! They were in the stage of mixing the first album so I didn’t play on that one but we started rehearsing immediately because there were a couple of shows coming up to promote the album. The first album was recorded on an eight track recorder. BOVEMA didn’t own a 16 track recording facility at the time so the second album, Divergence took longer to complete because BOVEMA promised to buy such a machine, but that took half a year before we actually could start recording. Those original tracks, all 16 and digitalized as well, came into my possession just recently. Even one of the songs from the first album were in that package too (smiles). If I can find the time I will try to do something with those recordings because they are absolutely unique and I could make them into a newly mixed and mastered album if I wanted to. There are recordings available now that haven’t been used for the album as it came out in 1972. I already ‘cleaned’ the tracks, that means getting rid of all crackles and noises. To cut a long story short: I could come up with quite a differently sounding album Divergence than the remaster that was put out last year by Esoteric!
Menno: You only own the recordings for Divergence, not from albums like Cordon Bleu or Fully Interlocking?
Guus: No, we should try and get ourselves the original masters from those albums but at this point the answer is no, unfortunately because even after all these years one third of the profits from each album that has been sold goes to the publisher unless the contract stated something different. We got a slightly better deal back then, but still I think they were overpaid, although they did what the record companies weren’t able to do all of the time: promotional activities, looking for opportunities outside of The Netherlands and what they were supposed to do in the first place, release all the songs in a booklet with all the notes and lyrics for people to buy to play and sing them by themselves. The role of the publisher changed as years went by though. Once the record companies saw the potential they brought the publishing offices within their own companies and that’s how they got rich in the seventies! Because before they made that move they only got part of the royalties per sold copy of a single or an album.
Menno: It must be hard for you to remember all this because it’s a long time ago when these things were happening…
Guus: Yes that’s true. In 2013 it will be thirty years ago the band broke up! You know, one of the nicest thing about the farewell tour were the last concerts in Paradiso (Amsterdam) and the Oosterpoort (Groningen). There the band that used to be called Soulution (so with the vocalist and horn section) played the first set and Solution the second. That was really cool!
Menno: As I recall you weren’t in the band all of the time, even when you were enlisted in 1970?
Guus: That’s correct. There were slight disagreements between the four of us and it was a hectic time for the band, also because Willem and Tom were drafted. I left the band in good understanding in the period between Divergence and Cordon Blue. I became involved in a band based in The Hague with among others Michiel Pos. The band fell apart and I continued with Chiel as a duo. In the mean time, travelling across the country I met some of the guys in Solution. They told me it wasn’t working without me. They even asked Kaz Lux to fill in and their shows ended up being half of Kaz’s songs with Solution as accompanying band and the other half Solution’s songs only instrumentally: you can guess it wasn’t successful at all. So in the end Chiel and I were asked to support Solution, which we did, but after three shows they asked me to come back and I agreed on the condition Chiel was to join the band too! They accepted -still don’t know if they did so because they desperately wanted me back, or that they saw potential in Chiel- so we started playing as a five piece and Chiel’s guitar and vocal proved to be a really good addition to the band. We made contact with Gus Dudgeon (producer of a.o. Elton John and co-owner of the Rocket record label, died in a car crash in 2002 – MvBF) and we went to Wales to record Cordon Bleu. We started playing the bigger venues, festivals etcetera and it turned out Chiel couldn’t handle that at all and for a long time I was the only one who didn’t notice that. Every time he was so nervous and at a point he even got blisters on his lips! So when we were doing the last recordings for Cordon Blue, Hans, Tom and Willem told me it wasn’t going to work with Chiel and when they confronted me with that opinion I finally saw it too. Chiel and I stayed in Wales for a few more days and I asked him how he felt about it all. Luckily for me he said he wasn’t happy at all so we agreed to part ways. So when we got back to Holland and started mixing the Cordon Blue album, Chiel was out of the band! We found a highly qualified replacement: Jan Akkerman. We knew about Focus of course and of the violent arguments between Thijs van Leer and Jan so Jan was asked to join Solution and we played really big sold out venues: those were the heydays!! Although Jan was asked to join Solution permanently, he only played a fair amount of shows with the band and he did some work on It’s Only Just Begun. By far the best guitarist I ever worked with, but troubled by all kinds of frustrations and phobias: a very complicated mind!
Menno: In the mean time there was a change in style between Cordon Bleu and the albums Fully Interlocking and most certainly It’s Only Just Begun….
Guus: I guess that’s true, looking back that was what we enjoyed playing and maybe it wasn’t the most smart move we made…. You know with Akkerman in the band I started writing a lot of material on the guitar and focused on the guitar like Runaway or Empty Faces. I recorded my songs at home, playing guitar, doing all the vocals and they were ready for recording as a demo could be. The solo I performed whistling would eventually turn out to be the solo played by Tom on his saxophone. Same thing happened when I was writing or rather imagining the keyboard parts: I came up with the theme but Willem, having this superb sense of harmonies, turned it into something way better. By the way there’s a nice story about Runaway. We were rehearsing and I was playing this bluesy theme. Our producer at the time of Traffic fame, Jim Capaldi, was there too and he was quite enthusiastic and enforced me to do something with it. At the end of the day Jim wrote the lyrics and sang the vocal and it was released as Evil Love. Capaldi recorded the song on his own later on and to my surprise the late Gary Moore chose this song to play on the Capaldi memorial concert!
Menno: Wow, I really didn’t know about that! Focusing on the compositions: the majority of the songs were written by you?
Guus: I guess that’s about right. Either the songs I came up with were accepted as they were and didn’t need to be arranged to a great extent, or my ideas were the basis for the songs but they were turned upside down. The other way our songs were written was during our rehearsals.
Menno: I recognized a track from the first album on Fully Interlocking: was this on purpose?
Guus: Oh yeah, sure! It’s like a theme popping up on several albums: Theme, Second Line, Third Line and Preview are all related songs around that same theme.
Menno: Maybe a silly question, but I’m curious about this: were you guys professional musicians since day one?
Guus: Well, most certainly I was! From 1967 onwards. Tom used to be a law student be he quit his study fairly early. He had wealthy parents and he lived at home. Hans was already a pro too, coming from Cuby + The Blizzards. Only Willem managed to get his diploma’s to be able to teach and if I remember well he was even one of the managing directors of a secondary school in Groningen for a few years. Anyway when Solution became a well known band in The Netherlands, all involved were professional musicians.
Menno: It seems you’re the only person of the band trying to keep the memory alive?
Guus: I think so too. I put a lot of efforts in the website that I own and I’ve made YouTube films of every song from the DVD, so yeah I’m still working on Solution related stuff. The DVD from 2006 is also my property by the way. I financed the whole thing, arranged the recordings and put it out all by myself.
Menno: I’ve read somewhere you and Hans played with FAF (Dutch progressive rock band from the nineties)?
Guus: At some occasion me and Hans Waterman were asked to play with FAF (For Absent Friends) via Peter de Jong, together with Anneke they were the managers of FAF at the time. Peter used to be one of our roadies (‘our’ meaning Solution – MvBF) and it seemed like a real cool idea to him to let us ‘veteran-heroes’ of his playing with ‘their’ band. It was a onetime event.
Menno: What happened after Solution broke up in 1983 and what’s your view on the inevitability of this split?
Guus: To be honest I personally never wanted the band to split. I agreed because of the simple fact we had shifted from our original sound into a more polished poppy sound and I was well aware of the fact that that particular sound couldn’t last to be successful. The weird thing of it all was that our farewell tour was a huge success and we even composed and played two new tracks and more importantly, we thoroughly enjoyed playing all those gigs. But, you know, once you come to such a decision, there’s no turning back. I will say it was a decision I regret to this day because all the years with Solution were the best in my career! Another weird story is that before we were able to record and release the recordings of that farewell tour, we had to find someone to finance the whole thing: we needed a record deal and no one seemed inclined to do it until we asked Johnny Hoes, who was ‘in’ right away. We recorded in three venues and the one who mixed all the recordings was Erwin Musper, I believe at the time the keyboard player with a band called Partner (their producer was the late Pim Koopmans! – MvBF). This guy went to the States not long after he did that work on our live recordings and became a successful producer there! Unfortunately Johnny Hoes never did anything with our album although it sold petty well, but once it sold out that was it. The live album was released on CD by several record companies financed by ourselves not by Johnny Hoes’ company and in due time all these got sold out as well.
Menno: So the live album is not available anymore?
Guus: Well, I think it is, but not the original CD. In the nineties an organization by the name of Fonos was established: they managed to get hold of most masters of every product made in the Netherlands no longer available in the stores. So everyone looking for a CD that was no longer available on the market could turn to them for a copy, a CD-R. Once I noticed there were two Solution album on their website as well, I contacted the managing director and gave them my first copies (first pressed CD’s) of that live album from the farewell tour. Finally our farewell tour live album is available again(Note: searching the internet for Fonos, I came across an announcement stating Fonos is no more and their website is off line – MvBF).
Menno: You were telling me about the way the band broke up: what did the members of Solution do in the early eighties and after?
Guus: After the split Willem (along with Harry Hartog) went to join Margiet Eshuis’ band, I think Tom did some work with cabaret ensemble Purper for a while and Hans went on to play with Jan Akkerman, and started writing in the nineties I believe. Me and him stayed in contact on a fairly regular basis, we even played with each other on more than one occasion. Both Willem, Tom and I gained a lot of experience in studio-work and Willem and Tom were very active as recording engineers/producers of among others Alides Hidding aka The Time Bandits. I did production work as well as session work, especially the vocals for the so called ‘ladies’ bands: nice bodies, less talent in singing…. And, of course, I played and sang in several bands. Most notably perhaps was my role in the remains of what used to be Toontje Lager after Erik Meessie left the band. For quite a while I played in a trio performing in all of the bars, several hotels and even a police station in Amsterdam. I got tired of all that after a few years and started to work with local bands in my home town. A strange story pops up about the ‘Rob Hoeke connection’. In the late sixties I got in touch with Hans Waterman, who was still playing drums with Cuby at the time. I thought he was absolutely fabulous and in fact he inspired me to start drumming myself. In those days I was playing in a local band called Truce, but at the same time I was working with “Muziek Staffhorst”, a renowned record store in Utrecht, but they sold all kinds of instruments and equipment too. I just quit that band Truce when a colleague of mine at Staffhorst, Ritty van Straalen, approached me. He was playing in the Continental Uptight Band at the time and he told me that he was going to Rob Hoeke next Saturday to audition for the position of drummer. I was enthusiastic and said to him: well I might go there too. He didn’t see that coming so he thought this whole plan of mine was a bit awkward and subsequently got irritated and wouldn’t give me the address. I happened to know who Rob Hoeke’s manager was so through my connections I got the address anyway. So I went to Haarlem and as far as I recall there were four guys: of course Ritty was there, some other bloke I can’t remember, the one who got the job in the end –Jaap-Jan Schermer– from Opmeer (NL) and me. I told them I played bass too so I played some bass for them as well. In the end they chose Jaap-Jan, but not after they organized another round with me and Jaap-Jan. Several months later I got a call that Hoeke’s bass player, Willem Schoone, wanted to work elsewhere: if a was still available. I said yes and so I played bass with Rob Hoeke for a while and this came to be because I auditioned as a drummer! Because Willem had long blond hair and was lead-vocalist too, everyone thought he was Rob Hoeke and assumed he left the band, but that wasn’t the case, although we did numerous shows without him being on stage, quite bizarre. The music they played wasn’t all about Boogie Woogie, they played rock and blues too. As they were used to do whenever there was a Boogie Woogie set the bass player (both Willem Schoone and me) handed over the bass and they continued to play Boogie Woogie, so both WIllem and I were members of the band without having to play one note of Boogie Woogie at all.
Menno: Did you keep in touch with Hans, Willem and Tom?
Guus: Yes, we never really parted ways. In the late nineties we started to meet at least once a year. Just the four members and our manager Willem Dubois showed up for a dinner at the house of one of us, usually Willem’s because he was a great cook and he owned a large house with a gorgeous kitchen. That lasted until 2003 or 2004. Then Tom emigrated to France. We kept having those dinner parties, at first without Tom but it stopped around 2006. Then Willem Ennes got prostate cancer and stayed in France where they had their second house for a fair amount of time to recover. The surgeries weren’t successful so I guess that’s when all the problems started for Willem. His usual home was in Amsterdam and Hans lived there too. Hans and Willem met on a regular basis, also because Willem had this subscription to a concert series at the Concertgebouw and whenever he was unable to go, he used to ask Hans to go in his place. I lost contact with Ennes after 2008 and I got this email a while ago telling me he was diagnosed with cancer and within a fortnight after that mail he wasn’t there anymore. I still find it hard to accept.
Menno: Did you have anything to do with the remasters put out by Esoteric?
Guus: No, not at all. Maybe they did contact me how to get permission to use the master tapes and probably I advised them to contact EMI: strictly legit of course, but that’s as far as my interference went! Same applies to the three CD box by Centertaiment, an initiative by Hans van Vuuren. I contributed by letting him use some of the tapes I had from rehearsals. The only initiative by me was the DVD, because I really wanted a reunion. I tried a couple of times but unsuccessfully. The real push came when the original drummer with Solution before Hans, Frits Schmidt, turned 60 in 2005. He had invited all of us to come to his birthday party. So we did, but what Frits didn’t know was that we planned a short live performance (he had this really big house in the eastern part of the Netherlands you know). For this surprise party we rehearsed a few times and these rehearsals went down so well and everybody was so enthusiastic that we spoke of real reunion in a real venue for the first time in 20 plus years! So after that birthday party we planned a gig just for family and friends, in a weekend to give people across the country the opportunity to come and of course it had to be in Amsterdam, a matinee. We planned the gig in a venue called “Panama” but unfortunately this news couldn’t be kept a secret. Also there was some discussion between Tom and Willem on one side and me and Hans on the other side because I wanted to film the whole thing. Tom and Willem thought it would ruin the ‘family-like’ event, but me and Hans felt this was probably the last opportunity to make a decent recording. So in the end we were able to book The Panama theatre for the Monday night as well and this was a ‘regular’ gig, sold out in three days just through my mailing list! All and all it cost me a lot of time and a whole lot of blood, sweat ‘n tears, but after a whole year of mixing the DVD was done and could be released. The first lot of 1500 sold out in a few months and at the moment we’re having lot 3 or even 4.
Menno: Have you noticed any changes in for example site statistics because of the remasters recently put out by Esoteric?
Guus: I’m afraid not, no difference at all. Usually there are about 150 visitors to the Solution site each day and that didn’t change. What did make a huge difference was the passing away of Willem Ennes. Once the news got in the media, statistics were rocketing: like 3000-4000 visitors per day all of a sudden. I could notice an increase in the products I’m selling through the site too in those weeks following the passing of Willem.
Menno: So your most fond memories go to the “Solution era”. How about the most miserable experience?
Guus: Mmm, let me think. I guess that would be when I became involved with what was left of The Swinging Soul Machine: The Machine, this was before I joined Solution. There were Jan Warbie, who sang and played bass, Willem Warbie, his cousin, who played saxophone and furthermore this trumpet player from Surinam, François Content. Jan Warbie wanted to focus on singing so that’s where I came in. Besides me they hired a drummer who had nothing to do with soul music so he left soon and was replaced. Anyway, the guys I had to work with at the time were well into drugs like cocaine and after some ten shows with the Machine, I gave them my best wishes because I was paid in ‘coke’ instead of in hard cash and with a wife and two kids I was definitely not waiting for that kind of ‘payment’….
Menno: Well Guus, thank you very much for all the details provided! Last question: I understand you have been active for your fellow musicians as well, to improve the position of the average ‘pop’ musician?
Guus: Well, Bert Ruiter (a.o. Focus) and me founded the BV Pop society (currently part of the FNV, ‘the union’ – MvBF). You know pop musicians in the seventies were like a neglected group of people, badly paid, poorly protected as far as legal rights are concerned and also poorly organized. Take for example a short TV performance on TopPop, a well established TV program in The Netherlands. You were supposed to travel to the studio at your own expense, to be there in the afternoon and rehearse : only a few coins for drinks and that was all. In the evening you had to play during the broadcast and if you were lucky you got something to eat, for the rest nothing! So you were working about 8 hours earning nothing. Justification: don’t complain, it’s promotion for you as an artist isn’t it? Finally we got fed up with this situation so a.o. Bert and I decided to make a change and founded BV Pop (professional society for Pop musicians) and started getting all the musicians interested and become members of our BV. First thing we accomplished was offering all members an assurance covering all damage or loss to the instruments of the artists. Normally the more fancy equipment cost a fortune to insure: we found an insurance company with reasonable fees for all our members. At a later stage we became politically active and we had our say in BUMA/STEMRA, the organisation responsible for getting royalties to the artists concerned and we got involved in every decision making forum when it concerned pop musicians….
Menno: Thank you once again Guus, I hope to hear that ‘other’ Divergence‘ some day….
Cordon Bleu 1975
Fully Interlocking 1977
It’s Only Just Begun 1980
Solution Live 1983
Solution Live 2006 2006