Pierre van der Linden
by Ken Micallef
Focus’s 1971 worldwide hit, “Hocus Pocus,” was an exhilarating composition comprising not only the above-mentioned rock oddities but also brain-searing guitar by the masterful Jan Akkerman and over-the-cliff drum breaks by Pierre van der Linden. Burning at gale-force tempo, van der Linden seemed to channel Buddy Rich, Milford Graves, and a very angry thunderstorm.
Thirty years on and the drummer has rejoined Focus leader (and yodeler) Thijs van Leer for the band’s fourteenth album, X. Surprisingly, Focus sounds like it never left. Van der Linden’s drumming, particularly his open jazz tuning, remains the same, as does van Leer’s organ-fueled compositions and the group’s trademark acetylene guitar, now handled by Menno Gootjes. From opener “Father Bacchus,” which recalls “Hocus Pocus,” to the carnival-esque Latin groove of “Amok in Kindergarten” to the weird funeral dirge “Hoeratio,” Focus proves that it remains one of the most original, entertaining, and enduring bands from the ’70s. And van der Linden is easily keeping pace—and then some.
MD: You’ve been in and out of Focus since its inception, but your drumming sounds as open, energetic, and dynamic as ever. It’s fresh and vibrant.
Pierre: I still play every day, at least one hour on a practice pad for my technique. And I listen every day to concerts and drum solos and other drummers and all music—good drummers, good music. I keep in condition!
MD: What’s your practice routine?
Pierre: I play and improvise with my technique—all the possibilities as fast and as slow as possible. With silence, and with noise. Everything in time and out of time.
MD: What do you mean “with silence, and with noise”?
Pierre: As I’ve gotten older, it’s become more important—the silence. The very little tactile things, it’s very important. And the opposite too: the very fast things, everything regarding the notion of time.
MD: Why are those extremes important, from the silence to the noise?
Pierre: For the control of the sticks.
MD: You trade fours on “Father Bacchus” and other tracks, in the same free-ish style one might associate with “Hocus Pocus.” You’ve played in many different groups since the ’70s, but those breaks were like a wave of sound. You surged around the kit, really blazing.
Pierre: I am always surging, keeping it fresh. Never routine.
MD: What were your inspirations for that approach?
Pierre: I listened to a lot of Elvin Jones and Tony Williams, and the free drummers such as Milford Graves and Sunny Murray. I heard drummers that play in time and out of time. They created a stream. And I listened to a lot of free-jazz musicians, like Cecil Taylor. That really inspired me as well. In free music, every moment is present. It’s never routine but surging in its stream.
MD: You also play in a free-jazz group called Advanced Warning, which doesn’t perform anymore but still records occasionally.
Pierre: Yes, we’ve made four records together, Cut the Crap, Regroovable, Hot House, and HiFi Apartment. I also made a trio record with Hammond organ player Herbert Noord and tenor player Rinus Groeneveld. That is my evolution as a drummer. A lot is happening on the drums there. But there’s not so large an audience for the music; it was too difficult.
MD: As with free jazz, there are some great European progressive rock and jazz records from the ’70s, ’80s, and ’90s.
Pierre: I was very proud of another record I made with the Rinus Groeneveld trio in 1990, called Dare to Be Different. There are very heavy, very good pieces on there.
MD: Was the new Focus album recorded to a click?
Pierre: No, we recorded live, no click.
MD: Are all the band members of a similar age?
Pierre: The newer players are younger. The guitar player is thirty-four. We are very happy with him. The live concerts are really great with him. He plays great guitar solos, it’s very together, and the feel between us is right. And we are improvising more in concert.
MD: Focus is not a fusion group, but it’s looser than most progressive rock bands. There are marches, dirges—it’s all very orchestral. Is the approach based in any way on being from the Netherlands?
Pierre: It’s all from Thijs van Leer. He’s a classical player originally. He was always multidimensional, playing both folk and jazz. And Focus was multidimensional in this style. We know about many styles—folk, classical, jazz. In the past I played different styles of music as well. I played with many artists in Holland, and I learned my instrument.
MD: Your tuning is very open, closer to that of a jazz player than a rock drummer.
Pierre: Yes, I like that. I don’t like modern tuning. I want to avoid it. I want drums to have a musical tone.
MD: In general, how did you find your parts for the music on X?
Pierre: In the studio I heard some of the pieces for the first time. We played it two or three times, then recorded it. Of course it was very spontaneous. If we had played it ten times it would sound very different.
MD: On “Crossroads” you’re playing a samba with a cowbell pattern, correct?
Pierre: Yes, it’s based on an altered 16th-note paradiddle. On the first song, “Father Bacchus,” I quite like my drumming. I like the free-flow fills there—that’s what I call them. But the rest of the album I don’t feel what I am playing is so special. I like what I do live much better. It’s full of imagination.
MD: Why do you like free jazz?
Pierre: Because it feeds my soul. It’s open chords and melodies, and it’s abstraction. John Coltrane in his last period, like on Ascension, or Pharoah Sanders—I like that music very much.
MD: You play traditional grip.
Pierre: Yes, only in solos, though most of my concept is from using traditional. But I use matched grip in the rest of the song. And I practice with matched grip. It gives more power.
MD: So why do you play solos with traditional grip?
Pierre: For the touch. I change the grip within the solo. I can play rhythms between one hand and my bass drum, which gives me time to change grips.
MD: What hobbies do you pursue in your free time?
Pierre: I like painting, and I write poetry. I like to think about life. And the music of Boulez—painting in tones.
Tools Of The Trade
Van der Linden plays a set of white Premier APK drums from 1990 that
includes 12″ and 13″ rack toms and two 16″ floor toms, along with a 10×14 Premier 2074 marching snare drum. His cymbals include a K Zildjian crash, an A Zildjian ride and crash, and a set of Sabian hi-hats. He uses Pearl hi-hat and bass drum pedals.