Ton Scherpenzeel (Kayak): ‘The song is the boss’

Photo (c) Jan Vranken

After the release of the album “Seventeen” in 2018, Kayak now releases the follow-up “Out of this World”. After a successful tour in the new line-up, ruined by Covid and a heart attack by Kayak founder and composer Ton Scherpenzeel, it is quite remarkable that the band is now releasing this very strong album. “Out of this World” gets a lot of media attention and reviews are without exception very positive. It seems that with this eighteenth studio album Kayak has definitively returned to the international top of progressive rock music.

Enough reasons for Maxazine to visit the nestor of Dutch prog rock and exchange ideas about corona, children’s parties and especially the new album while enjoying the warm spring sun, and a few cups of coffee. Asked about the realization of the new album and whether the time of the corona lockdown influenced recording, Ton answers:

‘Are you kidding, the whole album didn’t turn out to be a ‘corona’ album, all 7pieces were basically ready before corona came. All we had to do was record the album. What thwarted the process is the heart attack I had in October 2019, which left me completely out of the equations for four months and only then came corona. We were supposed to tour Europe with the Flower Kings, but all of that was cancelled. Because of all this, we could only start recording in May. Originally we wanted to release in September, but that has been postponed until now. Unfortunately, we can’t look into the future because it’s a shame we’re not allowed to play now to promote the album, but we couldn’t foresee that in September.’

The new album opens with the title track, which has flabbergasted all critics since it was released as a precursor to the album. “Out of this World” has become an unprecedented epic and beautifully arranged rock symphony where critics worldwide fail to find the superlatives to describe its beauty. Kayak singer Bart Schwertmann previously called it a real ‘joker’ to Maxazine and when Ton Scherpenzeel is asked about it, he starts laughing and says that it has indeed become a ‘big coughing fit’. To seriously answer the question of how such a composition is created, Ton immediately finds it the most difficult question he can be asked.

‘I just start blankly playing ideas on the piano and very slowly it grows from nothing to something. The process is very difficult to describe. It is not that I intend to write a big epic piece. The piano-arranged theme calls for a large and symphonically arranged piece, and then I just get going. I really didn’t have any structure in mind for this track. At a certain point, I thought that the quotes from ‘Chance for a Lifetime’ would fit in nicely, because those songs do have the same subject. Both are sort of ‘escape’ songs. Looking for a more beautiful, better world.’

“Out of This World” is actually the first album to be recorded in the current line-up. The previous album ‘Seventeen’ was already recorded with Bart Schwertmann on vocals and Marcel Singor on guitar, but the current line-up with Hans Eijkenaar on drums and Kristoffer Gildenlöw on bass only took shape during the ‘Seventeen’-tour. How is it possible that ‘Out of this World’ is instantly recognizable as a Kayak album. Perhaps it is more the Ton Scherpenzeel sound than the ‘Kayak’ sound? ‘The Ton Scherpenzeel sound is really different,’ says Ton. ‘You can hear that when my new solo album called “Velvet Armor” is released in October. That sounds more like “The Lions Dream”. (ed: “The Lions Dream” is Scherpenzeel’s solo album from 2013). This album is ready, and we are now mixing it.’

“That new yet recognizable Kayak sound stems more from what we can do together as a band. These guys are such a talented company, it is a privilege to be able to work with them. I really do not want to downplay the previous line-ups of Kayak, but Kayak in 2021 is a much smaller group, and it works very well. There is a tremendous amount of energy and synergy in this band. Maybe a band like Kayak needs that. In addition to the individual capacities of the men in the band, we have also grown closer to each other during the tour, we needed that time to get to know each other’s strengths better.’

While Ton takes a sip of his coffee, I immediately grasp the opportunity by asking how that is reflected, the synergy and the use of each other’s strengths. Ton does not need long to think about this. “The song is the boss, the song determines how we fill it in. For example, I chose not to let Bart sing all of the lyrics. He is and will remain the lead singer, no doubt about that, but if you have more than 70 minutes of music then you have the luxury of choosing a different voice with these people if a song asks for it. The great thing about this band is that everyone can and wants to shine.’

‘There are songs on the album that definitely do not fall under the heading of ‘prog rock’, but they still bear the album together. Songs like “Waiting”, Mystery ” and “Cary” are more poppy than progrock and yes: I like ‘poppy’, maybe even more than ‘proggy’. I’m not tied to prog rock. I like to experiment within the scope of what ‘Kayak’ music is, and yes we have always made pop music too, of course.’

“Out of this World”, like all Kayak albums since 2000, has actually become a home recording session that got out of hand. Ton composes the pieces and shares them with the band via the internet. Bit by bit, the songs are created in this way. Where necessary, drums or strings, for example, are still recorded live in a studio, but that is the exception rather than the rule. Ton Scherpenzeel has been involved in music for fifty years and so the question is justified whether he would like to go back to the time when you, as a band, started recording a record together in a studio. Ton does not have to think long about this either. ‘If we did that, it would become a much simpler record. It’s a completely different approach compared to how we work nowadays. If you start working like this old school, you will also have to rehearse with the band before you can go into the studio.’

‘I make the demos all by myself,’ he continues, ‘and send them to the rest of the band. I give some ideas, tips and advice and the others get to work on that. I really don’t have to be present when Marcel tries thirty different guitar riffs on a new song. The other way around, I wouldn’t want someone joining me when I’m trying out new things. If you were to record a record now like in the seventies, you would be forced to keep it simpler and a track like “Out of this World” would not be possible.’

Ton continues his story: ‘Having said that, there is of course also a pitfall there. Often the charm is to keep a song simple, a piano and a guitar is often enough. That was the strength of “Royal Bed Bouncer” (ed: Kayak’s third studio album from 1975). If you compare that with today’s productions, it was much simpler. We recorded that record together in the studio as a band, with everyone present. That was also a necessity at the time because we were put back from the 24 tracks to the 16 track studio because we did not sell enough albums, but in the end that was actually a blessing in disguise. This also immediately shows the major disadvantage of the current method of recording. A track that is never finished.’

Now the album is finished and the vaccination campaigns around the world are slowly starting to gain momentum, perhaps there is hope far away on the horizon to be able to play and attend live concerts again. Maybe it’s an obvious question for Ton Scherpenzeel, but I asked him anyway: Do you prefer to be on stage or do you prefer working in the studio? It takes Ton exactly two seconds to think about his answer. ‘I prefer to be in the studio. Although I like being able to play the songs live, it also comes with a lot of inconveniences. You have to go there, your instruments have to be shipped around, we have to rehearse, and then travel back deep into the night, I don’t like that at all, it’s hard work. If it was just playing, that would be okay. The energy the audience gives is fantastic and I wouldn’t want to miss that for the world. In addition, my intrinsic motivation is to create music that wasn’t there before. That’s what I live for. You can only do that to a limited extent on a stage, we sometimes adjust arrangements or change solos, but that is not the same.’

Asked whether there are any concrete plans to go on tour with Kayak, the answer is clear. ‘That will be 2022. At Glassville they are planning and organizing. Perhaps we can still join a band like Flower Kings for a double bill, but there are no concrete plans for that yet. In order to get such a show on the road, the halls must also be large enough, it must be possible to make a change. That is quite an organization, but I don’t see it happening before 2022.’

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