Interviews are promotional tools that not all musicians are that keen on, so I often find it a challenge to engage the interviewee and extract some decent answers to those all-important questions we all have.
Well, on the early evening of the 22nd of January I could easily have gone for a coffee and left my recorder running – that’s exactly how engaged and passionate guitar virtuoso Adrian Vandenberg was in describing the process through which his latest studio album “Vandenberg’s Moonkings” came to life and what the next few months holds for the young and pretty fired-up band. Want to learn more about one of the best Rock albums of this year/decade? Keep on reading!
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis.
- Well, Adrian, I really have to start this interview by stating what an amazing album “Vandenberg’s Monnkings” really is. Everything that I love about Rock music is incorporated here: groove, soul, slide guitars, clever background orchestral arrangements, sexy lyrics, energy, that Led Zeppelin swagger we all know and love…it’s just an unbelievable album!
Adrian: Thank you so very much!
- Every time I listen to the album the fact that you chose to stay away from music for a whole sixteen years feels more and more impossible to believe.
Adrian: I know what you mean. That’s probably one of the reasons why the album turned out the way it did. There were a couple of reasons.
First of all, some people know that I used to be a painter, an artist, before I formed my first band Vandenberg and that I used to make my living with that. Music was my hobby back then because I never had the illusion that, with the kind of Blues Rock stuff that I make, in Holland I could make a living, you know?
So, I went to Art University at the time and started to make a living with my paintings, as well as doing some teaching. I was doing fine recording demos for my band Vandenberg at the time, which was quite surprising, as I remember thinking to myself “well, this whole thing will probably be over in a couple of years”. Well, as you know, it didn’t and then I got involved with Whitesnake which took things even further.
Usually every single week, as I remember doing the last twenty five or thirty years, every week I would at least think a few times to myself “well, it will be over sooner or later but at least I had a great time”. So, I never worried about things like that; I just tried to be realistic about things.
During that sixteen year period I mainly wanted to catch up with my painting but I was initially planning for this to last two or three years. Then in 1999, right after the end of the then Whitesnake tour, David (note: Coverdale) decided to stop Whitesnake and I had a daughter with my now ex-girlfriend.
I decided then that I would stay home for three or four years to take care of things and that I would pick up things from there, but, when my daughter turned three years old her mother and I had to split up as our relationship was not really working anymore. We weren’t married but it was still a difficult thing to have to go through as we had a kid together.
I thought “I don’t want to be a dad who’s always away”; I would hate it if I were to miss seeing my daughter grow up. I thought that I should make my hiatus from music a bit longer as this was a very important thing for me in life.
So, I kept painting and, at the same time, I realised that I was gradually clearing the ‘hard disc’ from the back of my mind in relation to the music business as everything were operating on a formula that I really didn’t like. In the 70s, when I was a kid, there were no formulae: bands like Led Zeppelin, Humble Pie, Small Faces…Free, one of my all-time favourite bands – they all played honest music without any ridiculous productions and no unnecessary formulae.
On the radio you could hear “Whole Lotta Love” and after that you would get music from The Monkeys or something, you know? There were no boundaries there, no formulae. I wanted to get rid of this whole thing because it really bothered me and I knew that whenever I was to go back to writing and recording, I would only really like to do that with the heart and mind of a schoolboy. I don’t care about the consequences; I don’t care whether the record is going to do well or not…I would like it to do well but if it doesn’t it’s fine.
I only want to make a record that I, at least, will enjoy and make it the kind of record that I would like myself to buy and which I cannot find in the market at the moment. I like bands like Black Crowes; they are already twenty years old or something and amongst the few honest bands out there but they have recently become too relaxed for my taste (laughs).
Their first album was great and then they started ‘blowing’ too much, I suppose, because they lost the plot a bit, you know (laughs)? Still a great singer (note: Chris Robinson) but…I thought if I was to make an album again I would have to make it for myself, an album that I would love to be able to buy, so if it doesn’t do anything or nobody buys it at least I will like it and I can be proud of it.
- So, how did this new band come together?
Adrian: Two years ago, my local soccer team FC Twente asked me to write an anthem for them and I though “well…let’s do it – fu*k it”. They had become champions in Holland so I had to write a song for them but, first, I needed to find a singer for that. I wanted to go for a British or an American singer who would sing well in English and who would not sound too Dutch.
Then, as soon as I started writing, I also realised that I was really enjoying the whole process again, you know? That’s when I ran into Jan (note: Hoving), the singer, and that was by pure coincidence. I thought that if I were to work either with an English or an American singer I would have to fly to and from where he lived all the time or bring that guy over to Holland.
He would not know anybody here, which meant that he would have to live with me and that’s when I started thinking that working with a musician from abroad might not be quite a good idea after all. I decided to look for a singer here in Holland and see what happens, which was a strange decision, as I really don’t like most of the music that comes out of my country. It may be one great singer coming out of the country in the last fifteen years or something.
That’s when I remembered of a review I read for one of the Whitesnake shows I took part in by performing a couple of songs with David. Three years ago there was a show here in Holland and while the support act was on stage I was in the dressing room talking to David instead of listening to the band in question.
When I later read the review for that show I remember the journalist mentioning something in the vein of: “The support band was Ok but their singer was amazing and could easily sing for Whitesnake”.
I remember thinking “Wow, this guy must be really good for the journalist to have written such a thing” as the magazine for which this guy was writing was very good in terms of quality. I decided to check this guy out as he might well just be a good singer and I only really needed a singer for the FC Twente song at the time – nothing else. I had no band plans whatsoever at that stage.
I managed to track him down eventually, which was quite difficult indeed, as he initially thought that asking him to play with me was a joke of sorts – that somebody sent him a joke e-mail. He probably thought “My friends know that I am a massive Whitesnake fan and they sent this e-mail to make fun of me”, you know?
So, he did not react to my request immediately and, two or three weeks later, he thought “Well, what if it is true and I am being stupid” (laughs)? “What if I were to read in a year’s time that Adrian Vandenberg recorded a new album with a new singer and that singer could have been me”? So, he replied to my e-mail invitation with two simple lines, being ever so careful with his text just in case it was a joke he would not have made a total fool of himself saying: “Yeah, maybe I could be interested”.
I then arranged a meeting with him, a meeting to which I ended up arriving two hours late as I had to negotiate terrible weather. I remember listening to the radio and the weather journalist saying “If you really don’t have to be on the road then avoid doing so”. So, I was two hours late for that meeting, looking for his farm – something that would normally take me an hour, but there were literally trees falling on the road and cars turned upside down…it was terrible weather.
So, I sent him a text message saying “I am going to be really late” but the message kept coming back to me and never really reached him due to bad reception. All I could do was literally keep driving (laughs) in the middle of nowhere, pitch black, no lights no nothing. At some point my route planner said “You have reached your destination” but I could not see anything, you know (laughs)?
Finally, I managed to find his place and when he opened the door he screamed at the top of his voice “It IS you” (laughs). His girlfriend and he had finished a whole bottle of port because he felt pretty down thinking it was all a joke and it would not be long before his friends would call him to have a laugh at him and then I show up. He invited me in and I realised straight away that he was a great guy; no attitude, no primadonna stuff…we got on great immediately and it really felt like we’ve known each other for twenty years. I asked him if he could come over next week and sing the song I had prepared and he agreed.
When he came over, I explained the song to him and the moment he started singing I thought “Wow, he’s fantastic”. I asked him whether he had any music plans for the foreseeable future to which he replied “no” to which I said that I was going to continue writing songs and asked him if he would like to be involved. He screamed “yes” to that straight away.
So, I kept writing and every time I would have a new song finished I would call him up and say “Jan, let’s go”. So, we ended up, recording all those demos, quite extensively as I wanted to have a clear picture of where we were going with this and right after I had finished writing the first Rock song for this album.
I knew that it was going to sound great. I also realised that Jan did not realise how good he really was – he did not even realise his own potential. I heard this potential, as his vocal range is amazing, and so I decided to spend time coaching him and pushing him further than he would do himself and that’s why I took a couple of months extra with this album.
- What about the rest of the band? How did the rest of the guys become part of the picture?
Adrian: Well, the drummer (note: Mart ‘Martman’ Nijen-Es) and the bass player (note: Sem ‘The Sham’ Christoffel) pretty much fell into my lap as well! When they were thirteen years old they both became winners of talent contests in my home town.
The drummer was thirteen years old but he was playing like a fifty year old black guy; grooving and everything. I had never seen a thirteen year old drummer groove before. Usually there’s more of a case of them trying to play technical stuff but his groove was like John Bonham’s who was more of a rhythm and blues player, you know?
I remembered him right away and the same was with the bass player: he was thirteen and participating in a different talent contest playing this Jaco Pastorius type of complex theme but with a Rock attitude.
He was hitting his strings really hard and everything. They both had short spiky hair, as they were only thirteen at the time, and I forgot all about them. When the whole FC Twente thing came up, a friend of mine who runs the local Rock club that has a stage and rehearsal rooms said to me “Man, you got to hear this drummer. He can’t be older than twenty one but he’s amazing”. He insisted and, as I needed musicians to help me with the FC Twente song, I asked him if he could bring him into his office so I can meet him.
That’s when Mart came in and told me “Do you remember me” and the thirteen year old kid I had met had now long hair and tattoos everywhere. I told him: “If you’re half as good now as you were ten years ago then you’re in” and the same was with the bass player. It’s really weird how this whole thing came together.
- What I am sure most people will find pleasantly surprising about “Vandenberg’s Moonkings” is how fresh it sounds. Now, your last involvement in the music industry, as we all know, was with Whitesnake and you have definitely contributed towards creating that band’s late 80s/early 90s sound.
What you have achieved here, is to avoid sounding predictable while still retaining elements and influences from that period in your career. It is quite rare for one to come in contact with a collection of Rock songs which feature classic 70s material next to modern US rock anthems. It is actually quite refreshing to have an artist of you stature and importance embracing Rock music in all its guises and manifestations without fear of how this will be interpreted by fans of a more classic musical orientation.
Adrian: It is so great that you noticed that because that was exactly what I wanted to achieve with this album. I really like some retro Rock bands out there but we are living in the now and so I really wanted to try to build a bridge between my roots from the 70s and the dynamics and freshness which characterises bands like the Foo Fighters and the Queens Of A Stone Age.
I wanted people to feel like they’re only sitting a few feet away from a great band rehearsal – to think that they can see, hear and feel a bunch of guys playing music together. There’s been a lot of great music released over the last thirty years and so to just focus on the 70s…well, it is true that the best music was recorded in the 70s but there was a lot of good stuff coming out after that time.
When I started to write and record my demos, I just kept all the doors and the windows in my mind open thinking that whatever is going to come in it will all be good – everything will be welcomed. I did not want to consider any musical formulae or people saying: “Hey, you should do this” – I simply didn’t care for that stuff.
I wanted everything I liked about Rock to be featured in the album simply because I love a good song – I love writing good music. I really enjoy great melodic lines in songs because whenever I go into a concert, when I go for instance to see a band like AC/DC, I want to be able to scream something like “I’m on a highway to hell”, you know? I want to go to see Kings Of Leon and scream “Your sex is on fire” (laughs). I am a fan of these guys too, you know?
So, I like clear melodic vocal lines but with a Rock attitude and there’s a lot of Blues Rock bands who make great music and come up with quality riffs but the songs never seem to be able to go anywhere sometimes, you know what I mean? You may get them provide a great guitar solo but the song eventually fizzes out.
I am a big fan of groovy songs so when I write I do so thinking that if you were to strip it down to its basics, leaving only an acoustic guitar and a singer on stage, it should still be able to stand up as a good song. I tried to do the same thing with the production; just get everything recorded live without using any annoying click tracks and let music sound as it’s supposed to.
Everybody loves good quality live shows and live albums and as soon as the band goes into the studio they star using click tracks and make the whole thing sound as if it is played by a machine. Fu*k that, I didn’t want to do that! I wanted a fresh, dynamic, in your face sound and I believe that we achieved that.
The guy who did the mixing for the album, a guy called Ronald Prent, is an amazing mixer who’s been around for thirty, forty years and has worked with bands as diverse as Rammstein, The Police, Tina Turner, Queen, Mick Jagger…he’s worked with everybody but is still a pretty down to earth Dutch guy. I was explaining to him what I wanted to achieve with this album to which he said: “That’s exactly what I think that you should be doing”.
I played him my demos and he was so excited. He literally said “I cannot remember being that excited mixing an album and I’ve got to confess that this is one of the best two or three albums that I did in the last forty years and I’ve worked with everybody”! To that I replied: “Well, now you have a problem. You will be stuck with me for a while as I plan on doing all my other albums with you from now on” (laughs).
He did such an amazing job and really translated the energy that we have when we play in the mix. The recording process is one thing: you put your microphones in the right spot and stuff, but to translate the live band feel into the mix is a whole different ball game.
There are many mixers who have various influences and are capable of doing all kinds of interesting stuff but his approach was to keep everything pure. I walked in an out during the recordings and the little few changes we had to make had less to do with guitar playing but rather with a vocal line that needed a small adjustment or a drum feel that needed correcting. That’s how we worked on the sound of the album.
- I am not sure what you’re going to make of the next question but the idea has been brewing into my head for the last few days now. I am of the opinion that “Vandenberg’s Moonkings” would not have sounded at all as fresh and exciting had you been an active musician these last sixteen years rather than taking the long hiatus that you did. What’s your take on that?
Adrian: I agree. I thought about it a lot too which was one of the reasons why I did stay away that long from the music business. You see, everything I do with my art, whether its painting or music, I try to achieve while staying close to my heart.
There’s always a voice in the back of my head that speaks to me, gives me a sign of whether what I do is right or wrong. That voice was not loud enough for a long time but I knew what was happening; I knew that my ‘hard disc’ was being cleaned and I wanted to start things again afresh.
The good thing about being with Mascot Records, my current label, is that it also happened by pure coincidence. A friend of mine who works as a promoter in France, a guy that I had worked with a lot in the past and who’s a music fanatic like you and me, got me in touch. When I realised that I finally wanted to do a new album I had many labels that I could approach based on past experiences and numerous connections with people from the music industry.
Many label reps told me “when you decide to do an album please talk to us as we would love to do something with you”. I had four or five record companies from around the world being constantly in touch so when I decided that I wanted to do a new album I though “Man, I really don’t want to have to fly to places like Italy and France, America and Japan just to talk to all these people”. I thought “You know what, I will call Olivier”, which is my French friend I talked to you about.
So, I got in contact with him and asked him what he made of certain labels I mentioned as they had all made offers to me by that stage. He wrote back to me straight away, as contact was established via e-mail, and said “I don’t like any of them as I have worked with all of the past and none of them ever do what they promise”.
Apparently what these labels did was that they initially offered artists a lot of money and then, once things start rolling, they move their foot off the acceleration pedal. They are all looking for that one ‘hit single’ and the moment that doesn’t happen, their interest in you is gone. He said “I know one good company that I worked with these last ten or so years that I trust and that is Mascot” to which I replied “Who”? I didn’t know who Mascot Records was, you know? He said “Yeah, they’re very good and they’re also Dutch”. I thought I knew everyone in Holland but obviously I didn’t.
Mascot has in its roster artists such as Black Country Communion, Steve Lukather and other non Dutch artists so it was not surprising to Olivier that I did not know of this label. He said “It would be good to talk to Ed van Zijl, the company boss, just to see what he has to offer. Olivier sent me a link with Ed’s e-mail address which he did.
In the meantime, I moved away from my computer screen to go and make myself a coffee and, in the meantime, I got an e-mail from Ed saying “I just heard from Olivier that you’re looking for a label to release your music. Please come talk to me first before you talk to anybody else, I will tell you who I am and what I am trying to achieve with this company and then we see where we go from there”.
I was impressed by how quickly he contacted me and we’re talking about the company boss here, not a PR guy. I remember thinking to myself “Wow, this guy’s pretty motivated” plus he’s located in Holland and that makes things easy. I had to be in Rotterdam to meet him three days later…have you ever met Ed? Have you ever had the chance to talk to him?
- No, I’m afraid not.
Adrian: Well, he’s a very soft spoken guy that talks constantly, like a diesel engine (laughs). So, I met Ed and he started talking to me nonstop. He kept going on saying how he has closely followed my career from day one as he’s also Dutch, how he used to work with Roadrunner Records and pretty much told me “You’ve never made a bad record so I would really like to work with you”. “Do whatever record you want to do and it’s all fine with me” which I thought was great.
He also told me “I’m not going to talk bad about any of the other record companies; just look at our roster and think that in seven years that these people have been with me nobody has ever walked away. Then, look at all the other record companies and see how long their artists stay with them”.
I remember thinking “Wow, that’s an interesting way to judge the success of a record company” and I also appreciated the fact that he did not try to throw mud to the competition. It was then that I decided that I was not even going to talk to anybody else and finally went with Mascot. I did the record that I wanted to make and they allowed me to do that, you know? That’s fantastic.
- Well, the album is going to come out end of February, something I am personally really looking forward to.
Adrian: So do I (laughs).
- And believe me – so would many other people if they knew how great it really sounds. As things have changed massively in the way music is promoted and sold since you last released an album, what do you realistically expect to achieve with “Vandenberg’s Moonkings” in terms of sales? More importantly, how do you see yourself continuing this new musical journey that you just started with this album?
Adrian: Well, you know, I believe that eventually everything has to change in life. You see little grocery stores go bankrupt because big supermarkets open right next to them and that same thing applies to most things, including record labels.
The record business has changed too. There are a few disadvantages to that, of course, as it is more difficult for a record company now to be able to allow artists to record albums and stuff.
At the same time, what I believe is a positive thing, is that now, more than ever, live shows are more important than records for the artists. That really separates the men from the boys, you know?
Back in the 80s, there was a lot of crap around, bands that were very successful especially in America which left studio musicians record their albums for them and when you finally got to see the real band live the end result was pretty shocking. Those days are now over and everybody has to work hard to make a living, something I am absolutely fine with.
That’s one other reason for me to challenge myself by putting together a band with guys that are fairly unknown to the masses. I was really fortunate to have guys of such a calibre thrown into my lap – guys that are not burned out like all those you normally find in super groups who stay together for one album and then split up as they are committed to various different projects.
The members of this band are not seasoned musicians and I simply don’t care at all about money. What I am looking forward doing with this band is playing clubs, not to become rich and famous, but to make great music for people to enjoy. This may sound like a cliché to most people but that’s the only reason why I make this music.
There’s nothing compared to the feeling and the enthusiasm that one gets from playing this kind of music and that’s why I make it. I want, first and foremost, to make myself happy and then make more people become happy by being in one of our shows. You see, I remember all the great shows that I ever did and I even remember certain people in the crowd that will do something strange, like some people do, when I play. I usually remember where I was when such things happen.
I remember my first ever Vandenberg show in London, at the Hammersmith Odeon supporting Michael Schenker. I was overly enthusiastic to be finally playing in Hammersmith as all my favourite bands had played there. There was this weird thing where you had six meters from the end of the stage to the back of it and I wanted to be close to the people while playing.
So, I walked all the way to the front and, at some point, I started walking back while still playing ending up tripping over the monitor. I continued, however, to play so people thought that this was part of the show and started clapping their hands. I remember many such incidents, especially those times when crowds were really into what we were doing. I am very curious to see how English people will react to my music as all my influences come from England, you know? I remember all that stuff, all those shows and that is part of the reason why I still want to make this kind of music.
The record business has indeed changed but fu*k it, you know? As long as good music is still around then you get the chance to play for people. The good thing is also that, maybe if I would have started this thing right after Whitesnake, then maybe I would be performing in big theatres in England instead of clubs but I prefer playing clubs.
I haven’t played in clubs since forever, you know, and I like to have contact with people – to be able to look them in the eye, enjoy a better sound…it’s exciting because you have to climb instead of trying to stay in the saddle. That is so much more challenging and really gets the best out of you as an artist. It’s more of an adventure rather than having to sit in a comfortable seat.
- Adrian, I really want to wish you good luck with everything but luck is something an album of the quality of “Vandenberg’s Moonkings” doesn’t really need. I am sure that all will go well and that people will truly embrace your new album.
Adrian: You know Yiannis, there are no guarantees in the music business. All you can do is do your best and see what happens. For me it has really been worth it because the reception the album has received by journalists so far has been great and, like I said before, England is really important for me as all my favourite bands come from here. I would not be playing the way I do, I would not be making this kind of music if Free and Led Zeppelin and Jimi Hendrix, an ‘imported’ Brit…if he had not have come to England to play, nobody would have ever heard of him, you know?
Yes, so far the reception I received was really worth all the effort, so let’s see what happens. Hopefully my music will make a lot of people happy.
- Ok, see you again in April then for what is promised to be a killer show in London.
Adrian: Thank you for the interview Yiannis – looking forward to April’s show.
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