With a ‘new’ solo album, Virgin Grounds, due for release, TPA’s Alex Driessen welcomed the opportunity to speak to the maestro himself, Ton Scherpenzeel. The keyboardist and composer is leader and kingpin of the legendary Dutch progressive rock band Kayak, an icon of the genre – although he himself sees it differently, which will become apparent later…
Okay, the primary reason for our interview is of course the release – or should I say re-release – of Virgin Grounds. If I understand correctly, it is a piece you released in 1991 as the soundtrack to a TV documentary. You dusted it off and added a couple of songs and re-released it. Any particular reason to do so at this specific point in time?
Well, in the sense that I came across that record again last year and then I thought it’s a shame that it actually went completely unnoticed, also because my own name was not on it. This was a side project for me, but I started diving deeper. And then it turned out that the original company didn’t actually have the rights, so nothing stood in my way of eventually re-releasing this thing under my own name. So, very briefly, that’s the reason.
What was the specific reason why you recorded under the moniker Orion at the time instead of under your own name?
Well, for me it was a side project. I was given an assignment to make music for a TV program. That was two or three episodes of a series. They were like sports competitions above the Arctic Circle, you mainly saw snow and landscapes and mountain climbing. Let me put it this way, you got tired just watching it! But for me, what really mattered was the environment and those landscapes, those mountains and that infinite emptiness. They were inspiring for me to create something suitable, but I had no idea at all to make a record of it until the studio and the record company said yes, because it will be on television anyway, that is a good reason for us to release it. But it doesn’t have to be under my own name and so I came up with Orion. It was really a side-step for me. Also not typical of what I normally did, completely instrumental. It wasn’t very well thought out, but in any case I thought it was mainly a side project, that’s what it was.
Clearly, from your story, I understand that you did have access to the footage of the documentary maker. You made music to accompany those images.
Yeah, I got the rough cut, so to speak, with on screen timecodes and stuff like that. And yes, I just got started and there are one or two slightly heavier songs on it. Of course it was meant for TV. Some action had to be suggested, right? Otherwise it could be more of a yoga course. All this calm and quiet music, so that’s why a song like Conquer the Arctic is on it, because that’s what the series was called at the time.
Yes, that is indeed one of the pieces that I like most. Anyway, you’re talking about yoga. Nothing wrong with yoga, but it is indeed rather relaxing. Peace is a key word in much of the music you produced here.
Yes, unlike the rest of my work, very little happens. So that’s why I thought at the time, ‘it’s really not something of mine specifically that I want to release under my own name’. But yes, I did make it, so in recent years I thought: ‘why not?’
The style, we just talked about that: soothing, atmospheric. In terms of the style, I’m not a specialist in this area, but it sounds a bit like Vangelis, like Jean-Michel Jarre. At that time, things like Conquest of Paradise and Chariots of Fire were quite popular, not coincidentally also soundtracks. Did that influence your style at that time?
No, not specifically. Actually the new songs that are on it now, especially the first piece, are more Vangelis than what was originally on it. Of course I knew them, but it wasn’t the case that if you play the synthesiser you were inspired by Vangelis. Yes, it always plays in the background of course, because you have the same basic ideas, but this is developed completely differently. And on top of that, at least a third of the music is improvised, based on what I saw and edited a bit here and there. But it is largely inspired or improvised, and apart from that, songs like Conquer the Arctic and Snowscape are head and tail.
You could even have put that on a Kayak record in a different instrumentation, so to speak. I don’t know if Vangelis has much improvised work on his recordings. Not very much, no, I don’t think so, so that’s it. The yoga, the meditative aspect of the project and yes, it is a bit of two minds, I agree with you.
At the time, a number of specific synthesiser sounds were very characteristic, defining even. There was the Yamaha DX7 and the Roland D50. Are those among the devices you made use of during recordings at that time?
Yes, undoubtedly, I don’t really remember my setup at the time, but I’m sure I used the D50 and a D70, Yamaha DX7 and maybe even that Prophet 5, I’m not sure anymore. I once sold the latter to Ayreon, I don’t remember when I did that. But there is clearly a DX7 and perhaps also a JUNO 60, that could very well be the case.
Do you actually still have those things, those large machines, or have you put them in the trash bin a long time ago?
Well, I was never one for throwing things away, I still have that D70 and the D50. I actually still have the JUNO 60 and, what I just mentioned, I sold that Prophet5 to Arjen Lucassen (Ayreon) at the time. Yes, I don’t have that DX7 anymore, but I still manage to hold on to some keyboards from time to time.
OK, somewhere, like most great musicians, you still have a shed full of old equipment that you will never play again in your life.
Well, that’s not too bad – oh yes, I also have a MiniMoog. That’s more for sentimental reasons. I still have that, but I don’t touch it anymore, because I really have to have it restored. And those sounds are easier to get from anywhere else.
So many plugins are available these days and of course those things weren’t very reliable back then, I think.
I could have it restored and put MIDI on it, but yes, you’re right, those sounds are so easy to copy, you have to have very good ears if you want to hear the difference.
Yes, I agree with you. At that time you worked with Bert Ruiter (Focus) as producer, the bassist who unfortunately died much too early. The two of you were in Earth & Fire together for a while. Was that why you worked with him as a producer?
Well, he was a co-producer, but he also did the engineering. He sat behind the desk as a recording engineer, the two of us just did that, those songs from back then. I had already worked with Bert Ruiter in many areas. He also produced my second solo LP, Heart of the Universe, he really produced that one. Virgin Grounds, yes, improvising, there is not much to produce of course. But he came up with ideas and he recorded it. I also worked with him with Youp van ‘t Hek, for which he produced the Echtscheidingselpee (Divorce album), that’s how I came across Youp. After that I played keys on more productions that he did, so yes, we did things together regularly.
Yes, well, depending on how sales go, you know how things go in the CD world, it becomes a bit of a hobby. You have to be really lucky and be able to market it worldwide. Let’s hope so, but we’re not counting on it. So we make it interesting for those who still buy CDs to have them numbered up to a certain number and signed.
And the rest is streaming. Unless the demand is greater than what we plan to press. Yes, then I won’t have a problem with that, of course, but I’m not counting on that.
After talking extensively about the new album, there was still plenty of time left to discuss other topics. For example, AI (Artificial Intelligence), his broad background and preference in music, his role with Youp van ‘t Hek (Dutch singer, cabaret artist and stand-up comedian), a new solo album, health issues, Kayak of course and many other matters were discussed. An anthology…
AI: Ton sees the parallel with the development of, among other things, the synthesiser, in his view the beginning of artificial intelligence within music: “People used to think that synthesisers and Mellotrons would replace orchestras. Well, that hasn’t been the case. So I have hope that this will not be too bad. The same goes for drum machines. Now we don’t need drummers anymore, yes that is also complete nonsense. Anyway, I do see: this goes a step further. Changing voices and using something from 50 years ago. You can have something made in that style, yes, that gets a bit scary. Hopefully human feeling will continue to guide and ethics will play an important role.”
Musical preference: Scherpenzeel is very broad when it comes to his musical preferences, from rock to children’s songs, classical to theatre, even musicals. He often feels at home in what he is doing at that moment. Whether that is an album with songs or an instrumental project. But above all he likes to write songs. Song structures with head and tail. He can enjoy dressing up a song, working out the lyrics and arrangement, that’s when he feels like a fish in water.
Youp van ‘t Hek: In addition to Virgin Grounds, an album with the best of Youp van ‘t Hek’s songs would also be released. Not the vocal pieces but the so-called ‘underscores’ with the working title Behind the Scene. This time it is not the songs but rather the things that are not very often on the record. Over the past few weeks he has been busy taking inventory and seeing what is there. That’s a lot of music, but that is also ‘walk-in’ music, for example as people enter the hall or leave. In his own words, there are some pretty nice things there. It would be a shame not to do anything with it at all. Especially since it is now the last few years that he has been performing with Youp, a great opportunity to combine things.
New solo album: There may be new work coming from the maestro: “I have a whole album ready. Not ready in the sense of recorded and sung and played, ready and mixed, but just the material, the raw material in clean demo form, and that’s actually about finished, I just have to finish it. That’s an entire album, but I don’t really know what I want with it yet. It’s a bit between Heart of the Universe and Velvet Armor, so there’s some older music and some folk influences, as is always the case with me. A bit more towards synthesiser than the latter. But song-based, always head and tail and melody, with also some instrumental pieces.”
Health: Although not the most pleasant of topics, a question about his health (Scherpenzeel suffered a heart attack in 2019) is in order: “Yes, well, I feel about as good as I did 5 minutes before the heart attack, that sounds scary, but what I mean to say is that I had absolutely no idea this was coming. It’s nice that you can feel good, but it still causes constant uncertainty: what is my body doing that I don’t know? I find that scary. But I have no complaints.”
Andy Latimer: I am trying to elicit a statement from him about the health of his good friend and musical partner Andy Latimer of Camel, the reporting is extremely brief. Ton cannot/doesn’t want to say too much about it, other than that he (Latimer) is busy with his recovery. But he also notes that no one should expect a tour anytime soon. I ask him to wish his friend well on behalf of everyone in the music world.
Kayak: There are currently no concrete plans for new studio work with Kayak: “I’ll never say never, but there are no plans at the moment. With the songs I have I could easily record a Kayak album, but for me the chapter is closed”. He also goes into more detail about saying goodbye to the stage and the band: “Yes, I am also sorry that it has ended, but it is the best decision for me personally. I actually couldn’t find the motivation to keep the band going anymore and I wanted to prevent it from becoming a kind of stalemate and a bit sad. Stopping at your peak may be 40 years too late [laughs] but I don’t want to become an increasingly sad version of myself and/or the band.
A possible live DVD/Blu-Ray from the final tour: “Marcel Singor (Kayak guitarist) is busy mixing. I haven’t heard or seen the final result yet and it depends on what we do with it. I never enjoy live albums myself, I never hear back what I heard on stage. That energy and total feeling of being absorbed in the music is something I will never hear again when I put on a record. That’s how I’ve always looked at live albums, so we’ll see what happens. If we don’t release it as an album, I’m sure it will end up on YouTube or something, it would be a shame not to do that.”
The ‘Last of the Mohicans’ within prog rock: the aforementioned Andrew Latimer (Camel), Steve Howe (Yes), Ian Anderson (Jethro Tull), Thijs van Leer (Focus) do not have eternal life. Does Scherpenzeel still see sufficient prospects for progressive rock music, also in the coming decades? Ton surprised by answering: “I have no idea, I hardly listen to progressive rock. I’ve been in a number of progressive rock bands and the majority of the members never listened to progressive music, I can tell you. With a few exceptions.”
Starstruck by Peter Gabriel: Ton comes up with a funny anecdote about a temporary employee of Camel (Jason Hart) who was completely bowled over by a meeting with his idol Peter Gabriel in his studio in Bath. In passing, he remembers how difficult it was to master the Camel repertoire in a very short time to act as stand-in for the ill-stricken Guy Le Blanc (Canadian keyboardist with Camel who died in 2015).
Future: I also ask him what the future will look like for a 71-year-old: “I am currently working on the Youp tour. We still have 126 performances to go, so we still have something ahead of us. That’s until the end of May 2024. I think it’s the last tour for me too. And then I will divide my time between France and the Netherlands.
France: After living in Greece for years, the composer recently moved to France. It became too far away for him, as a recognised non-Flying Dutchman: “After my heart attack I actually thought about that too. And when I had that (heart attack), the children, I have two daughters, couldn’t actually be with me at short notice and then we started thinking. We went to visit my brother in France, near the Dordogne. This especially appealed to me, as did Irene (Linders, Scherpenzeel’s wife), but I was the main inspiration. We looked and found and it’s a lot closer, it can be reached in a day. For the rest, I hope to continue writing and then occasionally release albums and participate in albums that I’m asked to do. I’ve never had a clear-cut career plan and that’s still the case.”
I’ve run out of questions, so we’ll leave it at that. Thank you very much for your time, good luck with your musical career, wishing you lots of good health in sunny France and perhaps we’ll meet again.
You can read Alex Driessen’s review of Ton Scherpenzeel’s new album Virgin Grounds HERE.