Akkernet hooked up via the Internet recently and chatted with Alex van Voorst who made an album with Jan in 1996. The following conversation provides us with an interesting insight to Jan’s exacting professional standards…and how Alex responded.
The next morning, when I arrived in the studio I was furious. I did not say “good morning” to anybody, I grabbed my guitar and said “start the fucking tape!” In my mind I had the idea that if Jan still would not like it I would stop with the CD.
Having a lot of fun together!
<Akkernet> When did you first start playing the guitar – has it always been your main instrument??
<Alex> Yes, I started to play guitar when I was 7 years old. I really got obsessed with it when I was 15. I started to play finger picking.
<Akkernet> Is acoustic guitar your main style??
<Alex > Yes, my other two CD’s were based on electric guitar, but my strength is in acoustic (fingerpicking).
<Akkernet> Are you self-taught??
<Alex > Yes
<Akkernet> Who are your main musical influences??
<Alex > For electric guitar: Jan Akkerman, Larry Carlton. For acoustic: Leo Kottke, Ry Cooder.
<Akkernet> When did you first become aware of Jan Akkerman’s guitar-playing??
<Alex > In 1979. I admired his own style. I think it is very important if you can play an instrument in a particular way, so people can recognise you.
<Akkernet> Would I be right in saying that you prefer Jan’s acoustic playing?
<Alex > No, absolutely not. I admire his way of electric playing and composing. Some of his melodies (Prima Donna) touch me deeply.
<Akkernet> Have you a favourite album of his??
<Alex > I have got all his albums, but my favourite is ‘Noise of Art’.
Alex and Jan during the rehearsal
<Akkernet> How did your album with Jan come about??
<Alex > I met Jan five years ago in person, after a concert. I asked him if he could listen to my first CD New Forest, and asked him his opinion. Then we made an appointment on a Friday, and that was the Friday of his car accident. When he came out of the hospital, he invited me to come over to his house. We talked for hours about music. During that period I had finished already my second CD (Baronsdown; for The League Against Cruel Sports in England) and asked him again what he thought about it.
<Akkernet> Is conservation etc. a theme behind the pieces on “The Gentle Fox”??
<Alex > Yes, some of my music is inspired by my experiences in nature (especially the CD New Forest).
<Akkernet> It is all becoming clear now – you know, your honeymoon recently in the New Forest, I think it must be a good time of year to visit (autumn etc)??
<Alex> Yes, the rut, you know!!
<Akkernet> I get the impression from the notes to the CD – “The Gentle Fox” was quite a tough album to make under Jan’s direction??
<Alex > Yes, yes. It was very difficult for me to ask Jan if he would like to produce my CD. The reason of course is that I asked it to one of the best guitar players of the world. I know he is very precise and to sit and play in front of him makes you very nervous. Ton Dijkman and Manuel Hugas didn’t understand why I asked Jan, because I set myself enormous tasks under pressure.
For example: as soon as the musicians Ton and Mano finished the tracks , (and Wiboud finished the piano parts), it was my time to play the solo and melodies. At the first track, Pat’s Lament, I started to play the song and I was very pleased with the way I played it. So I went into the producer room where Jan was listening, and asked him what his opinion was. Jan looked at me and said: “This is horrible, how can you think that I should be satisfied with it? We have to change this to a higher level. If you can’t get to the level what I expect, I will stop producing this CD. I have to think of my name!”
He said to the sound mixer, to start the tape with the piano part again (of Pat’s Lament). Then he started to play (acoustic) a tremendous piece that I never would be able to play. His comment was after he played that tomorrow we would go further and I should play it as he did as close as possible. I went home, with a cassette tape of his piece in the car. I knew I was not able to reach this level. I didn’t sleep that night and started to become angry with Jan. He knew my level, how could he expect me to copy this!
The next morning, when I arrived in the studio I was furious. I did not say “good morning” to anybody, grabbed my guitar and said “start the fucking tape!” In my mind I had the idea that if Jan still would not like it I would stop with the CD. After the track, played in an angry mood, I ran into the producer room and said: and….?
Jan was smiling at me and said: “Perfect, this is exactly what I wanted to hear. Now you are playing with emotions. Let’s continue quickly, because now I am proud to be your producer.” At this time I thought I was in heaven: Jan gave me a compliment and every thing went well afterwards. He told me that evening that he took a big risk to insult me as he did the evening before. He said if I didn’t pick it up right I was not good enough to get myself to a higher level.
<Akkernet> I expect, though, Jan had a very positive effect on your guitar-playing…do you think you improved as a result of your experiences with him??
<Alex > Yes, definitely, Jan knows exactly how to get everything out of a person. I am very proud of the CD.
<Akkernet> It must make any other recording session, a lot easier, now that you have worked with “a master” ??!!
<Alex > You are right again!
<Akkernet> Was it always going to be a collaboration album – that is Jan playing with you as well as producing…
<Alex > No. He spontaneously picked up the guitar. He really liked my way of composing and got more and more enthusiastic about the whole project.
Together we wrote some tracks as well.
<Akkernet>The pieces written with Jan – how did they come about (in the studio, or did you have a basic idea which you developed??)…
<Alex > Yes, I already had most of the melody lines, but I wrote this in midi. In the studio Jan came with very good ideas: sometimes to change a chord, and sometimes to arrange it for acoustic piano / guitar. Of course his solo’s he ‘invented’ them during the recordings.
<Akkernet>Some tracks with the flute sound a little bit like Focus!!
Alex and Ellen Helmus playing ” Tidur”.
<Alex > That’s due to the particular sound of the flute. All the musicians ‘dreamed away’ on my compositions.
<Akkernet> Apart from Ton, Mano and Jan, of course, who I know about – where did you get the other musicians (have they played on your other CDs??)
<Alex > Wieboud played in my band on the stage. The violin player was recommended by concert master of the Dutch Orchestra, who I contacted for a classical part I wrote. The flautist was a session player.
Alex and Charlotte Bon
<Akkernet> Tell me about “The Gentle Fox – reprise” – the extended “jam” at the close of the CD. I am sure it went on much longer??!!
<Alex > Yes, that is and will be the high light of my musical life! It is difficult to describe with words.
Jan recorded “The Gentle Fox “all day. It took us (Ton, Mano, Wieb) at least four hours to record the basic tracks. Later that evening when everbody left except Jan Mano and Thymen (mix engineer), Jan said to me, “Shall we play The Gentle Fox again?” I said sure, let me look for the sheet music because this is a number with a lot of changes, especially on the end, all 6 minor chords. I wanted to give him the information. He had never played this song before, he only heard it all day. He said, “Don’t worry, you play the melody, and I will play the chords.”
As you probably figured out, he didn’t miss one!!!!! Even at the end of the track, he played all the 6 minor chords. His eyes were constantly pointed at me. This jam session was for me heaven. …. We did not know it was recorded. After the session Thymen said, you have to listen to this….
<Akkernet> Was there anything left over from those sessions, i.e. that did not make it onto the album??
<Alex > No, everything we could use, we used.
<Akkernet>Would you say that “The Gentle Fox” is a concept album, and in that respect is a “one-off” – in other words it’s not in your usual style…
<Alex > Well, it is definitely not a one-off. My music will always have a strong melody line, it doesn’t make any difference if it is with band, midi, or acoustic, fingerpicking. That was one of the main reasons why Jan wanted to make the CD with me, He loved the compositions of Baronsdown.
<Akkernet> When you compose music, do you have any preferences (in other words, do you compose on guitar or on midi…)
<Alex > I start with my guitar, then I play with a midi converter on my guitar straight into my computer, and then I arrange it further. The funny thing about this is that sometimes when I have finished the song, I don’t recognise it anymore compared with what I began with..
<Akkernet> Do you have any major influences – what composers/musicians do you think have directly influenced your own songwriting??..
<Alex >The music I am influenced by is for instance Mark Knopfler, and Jan, and Mike Oldfield, classical music (Vivaldi, Bach), Larry Carlton and even (sounds strange perhaps) I do like the way that John Fogerty wrote. ..
<Akkernet> When you are at home relaxing(!) what sort of albums/CDs might you be listening to (the artists you have just mentioned??)..
<Alex > None, on these moments I am busy with my wife……….!
To be honest, I do listen to Enya and Mark Knopfler (movie themes)..
<Akkernet> Yes, I purchased some time ago a CD by Mark Knopfler which is just a collection of his film/TV music. I thought for a moment (several years ago) that this is a path Jan might have taken…the pieces on “Heartware” would be quite appropriate on a “soundtrack” … but then he had his accident…
<Alex> That’s right.
<Akkernet> Thank you, Alex.
<Alex> Thank you, and take care
<Akkernet> Greetings from the UK…
<Alex> Greetings from New York..near Ohio or something….