Wouter Bessels

An Interview with Wouter Bessels

In the UK, Wouter Bessels may not be a name you are familiar with, but if you are an owner of the recent box sets by Tangerine Dream, Focus 50 Years and Jan Akkerman then you will have seen his name in the credits and realise the important part he played in these excellent releases.

I caught up with Wouter in October 2020 to interview him for Now Spinning, and I am delighted to publish his answers below:

Phil – Some of our readers may only know you from the Focus and Jan Akkerman Box Sets in the UK, but you have also been involved in a Project for Steven Wilson with Voyage 31, The Tangerine Dream Box Sets and your book on Pink Floyd. What are the projects you are most proud of in your career?

Wouter – Definitely, the Jan Akkerman box set and the two Tangerine Dream box sets (released in 2019 and 2020 by Universal) I have contributed sleeve notes, archival research and compilation assistance for – also together with Steven Wilson. While writing the Voyage 31 book on Wilson’s career from a Dutch perspective (The Netherlands was in 1994 the first country he played in outside of the UK and I closely followed his work since that year), we both worked on the first Tangerine Dream box. For me, being a professional journalist and archivist, that was a very memorable thing to do.

It is obvious from your involvement in the Focus & Jan Akkerman box sets that you admire all the musicians involved. When did you first become aware of Focus and Jan Akkerman and what album or tracks made you want to know more?

Being 43 years old now, it’s more than 35 years ago since I first heard a Focus track called ‘House of the King’. From then on I collected most Focus and Akkerman material. Regarding Jan’s albums, it was definitely his self-titled ‘guitar in bed’ album from 1977. Heard that one in the late 80s for the first time. Since the mid-90s I became close friends with Jan and started the ‘AkkerArchives’ – which basically catalogues and collects all known recordings he’s done so far.

Beyond the music, one of the outstanding features in both of these box sets are the extensive booklets that are included. It is becoming more common for Box Sets to be issued without booklets. Was the booklet an important part of the project for you?

Regarding the Focus and Jan Akkerman box sets, but also the Tangerine Dream boxes: yes, for me as a ‘vaultmeister’ I see the physical documentation as part of the important heritage of a band’s and/or artist output. In all cases, I was able to do extensive research, correct a few things here and there and get all the facts as authentic as possible. I think that’s part of the deal that when you buy a box set, you should get the complete picture. Over the years I’ve become somewhat inspired by other box sets. Miles Davis, King Crimson, Zappa, but also The Beatles, The Beach Boys and Prince have some excellent books and documentation that comes with various box sets.

The new Focus 50 Years Box Set concentrates on the first seven albums. Has the success that this is having made you consider doing a Vol 2 to include the albums that came next?

No, there’s zero interest in doing that. For a while, I considered to include the 1977 Focus Con Proby album to the 50 Years Box Set, but I opted that out very shortly after. That album will always remain the odd one out, while the album that Jan and Thijs recorded in 1984 and released one year later under the title of ‘Focus’ has nothing to do with the band Focus. Both albums are included in the 2017 released (and now deleted) Hocus Pocus box set, just like the later Focus albums without Jan Akkerman. Personally, I see Focus’ output after Akkerman’s departure of very minor importance.

When you were doing your research were you surprised by how many alternative covers and album titles there were for each territory?

I’ve been aware of that since the pre-internet days! I have a very large collection of Focus related records – that contains around 200/250 to this day – so I wasn’t surprised that there were many variations. From my point of view, the 50 Years box collects all original albums in their form how they were first released in The Netherlands – especially in the case of the first two albums. That’s the way they should be. But adding the foreign artwork really added something visual to the sleeves and the booklet.

Was there a specific unreleased track or performance that you discovered that stands out from the others?

To be honest, that’s not up to me, but up to the listener to decide. Because I’ve already seen and heard everything that’s in the box – and some of that stuff was not ‘in the fanzone’ and did not circulate. So it’s up to the fans about what stands out and/or surprises most. I do am proud of a few things: that I obtained a complete stereo recording of the BBC 1973 performance and the footage from the RTE from 1973 – that nobody has seen since the day it was broadcasted.

House of The King – This was released as a single in the UK by Jan Akkerman and I remember it being quite confusing to know what album this belonged to. We had it on the ‘In and Out of Focus’ album where it is listed on the vinyl label but not the cover (the blue one with purple spots) and it was on the Focus 3 album but not on the first CD release. Did you feel like you were helping to make the Focus timeline make sense for the first time?

See above. Regarding the timeline, the artwork and the content of the albums, the original Dutch releases were leading. I didn’t want to go back to earlier releases and see how I could improve those. All work on this box set – including the remastering from the original tapes – was done from scratch. Which is the way I like to work, because I hate comparisons with earlier attempts. For instance, when Mike Vernon did the first run of CDs in 1988, that was the best result he was able to come up with in the early days of cd-mastering. With the technical abilities and improvements since then, who am I to technically compare my work in 2020 with what he did in 1988? That makes no sense to me at all.

Both of these box sets are essential for any fans of Focus or Jan Akkerman. However, if you were talking to someone who was new to their music what albums would you suggest they listen to first as an introduction?

Focus: Focus II/Moving Waves and At The Rainbow. Jan Akkerman: Profile, Jan Akkerman (guitar in bed album, 1977), Pleasure Point, Puccini’s Café, 10.000 Clowns on a Rainy Day

Jan Akkerman reached out to you to help with putting his box set together, what was that like? Is he one of your favourite guitar players?

I’m Jan’s archivist and personal biographer for over 20 years now, so to put this box together was really a labour of love. I’m not a fan, I just admire him as a person, his authentic way of playing and his work. My job is to catalogue and collect his output as good as possible. As Joe Travers is Frank Zappa’s ‘vaultmeister’, I’m Jan’s and Focus’, so to speak.

Focus was part of the first wave of what we call Progressive music. In the UK this form of music got pushed underground in the late 70s and all but vanished in the 80s and early 90s. Do you think with the emergence of Porcupine Tree, Steven Wilson, Riverside, Opeth etc that there has been a reemergence in interest in bands like Focus and PROG in general?

I don’t listen that much to today’s ‘PROG’, so I don’t have a definite opinion about that. My interest in music is far more wider than progrock and related music styles. Besides that, I never liked and never wanted to catagorise music. For me, people like Todd Rundgren, Frank Zappa and even bands like Talk Talk are more ‘progressive’ than most catagorised ‘progrock’-acts I can think of. But people call it ‘progrock’, although the music is far from progressive in most cases.

Regarding Focus, their progressive heydays (1971-1974) were short and sweet and really impressed a lot of musicians worldwide. Their two worldwide hit singles ‘Hocus Pocus’ and ‘Sylvia’ also helped their status. In recent years I noticed that musicians from all corners of the world mentioned Focus when talking about Dutch bands. Mike Portnoy, Mikael Åkerfeldt, Andy Latimer, Steven Wilson, Mike Keneally, the members of Marillion, even someone like Bill Bruford. They all have Focus records in their collection or even have seen them perform in the band’s heydays in the 70s. Even Zappa had Focus albums, his son Dweezil told me last year.

Your book on Pink Floyd looks like a total labour of love, is this also available in English?

No it’s not and won’t be. Same goes from the Voyage 31 Steven Wilson/Porcupine Tree book. But both books do contain a lot of unique photographs and memorabilia not seen elsewhere, so I definitely recommend them to non-Dutch readers.

Apart from Focus and Pink Floyd, what other artists do you love to collect?

As mentioned earlier, I have a very wide interest in music. From ABBA to ZZ Top, from jazz to modern electronics and from classical/minimal music to hiphop/funk.

The media is always trying to find evidence that the interest in physical music (especially CDs) is in steep decline. What are your thoughts on this? Were there any concerns from Red Bullet about releasing the Focus or Jan Akkerman sets on CD?

Not at all. Red Bullet is fully independent and releases anything they consider relevant. The company was founded by Willem van Kooten in 1969 and besides Focus also holds publishing rights to music by Shocking Blue and Golden Earring, alongside numerous other acts.

The mastering on the Tangerine Dream Box Sets is absolutely exemplary how many of the albums were from the original multi-tracks or safety copies?

All remasters use the original 2-track master tapes and are done by Ben Wiseman. All remixes use the original multi track master tapes and are done by Steven Wilson.

One of the revelations for me was finding out how much of the live material was actually pre-recorded. Was this a surprise for you as well?

Not at all. TD used pre-recorded tapes since their Autumn 1980 European Tour. Hence the very little differences between each gig on each tour since that 1980 tour. The whole pre-recorded thing was something I discovered many years ago when I started listening to some audience recordings. But there were important reasons for the band for doing that: they did not want to cope with technical difficulties as they experienced during the 70s (when each gig was fully improvised) and they wanted to link the music to the lighting design. That is all part of going down the route from chaos to perfection, as is explained in both books of the TD box sets.

On the first TD box, there’s a plethora of fantastic live material. How did you go about sourcing those?

These were found in the Virgin/Universal archives by Mark Powell, the project consultant of both TD box sets.

What was it like working with Steven Wilson on this project?

Very memorable. He contributed some additions to my sleeve notes featured in the Hades box book, while I provided feedback about his remixes. Around the same time, I was writing a book on his own life and work – from a Dutch perspective. So that was very exciting to do. Two very different projects: one working on with SW and one focussed on his work.

Was there a technical reason why Steven Wilson was not involved with the 2nd box set for any 5.1 mixes?

There were no multi-track tapes found for the 1980-1983 albums. But I wanted to involve SW anyway, so he did the proofreading of my sleeve notes featured in the Pilots box sets and I really appreciated that.

What projects are you currently working on for future release?

I’m working on some new things, but it’s too early to say anything about it.

Where is the best place for people to reach and contact you?

Drop me a line through the ‘Now Spinning’-website and I’m sure that Phil will forward me all feedback and questions!

Thank you very much for your time and if you have not got them already the box sets by Tangerine Dream, Focus and Jan Akkerman are highly recommended.

Phil Aston | Now Spinning

Photos courtesy of Red Bullet (taken in July 2018)

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