Interview PBII

“We spent every single minute of our spare time in this project; it was quite a ride to get to this point”

(March 2013, text by Henri Strik, edited by Peter Willemsen, pictures by Arthur Haggenburg)

The musicians of PBII delivered a true masterpiece with their latest album 1000Wishes (see review). It must have been a lot of work to get this rock opera recorded and performed in front of an audience. The whole idea of 1000Wishes was to raise money and awareness for KiKa, which is an abbreviation of Kinderen Kankervrij (Children Free Of Cancer). How this all came together and how it had been worked out is explained by bassist Alex van Elswijk, guitarist Ronald Brautigam and lead singer Ruud Slakhorst.

Ronald Brautigam

Would you please tell me who came with the idea to do something for KiKa?

Ronald Brautigam: “Chris Muller, our producer, first mentioned to record an album for KiKa during a rehearsal of the Hague Youth Orchestra.”

Have you done any research on this topic of children's cancer before you started the musical concept and how important was the role of a sponsor?

Alex van Elswijk: “Author Ronald van der Pol had spoken with an oncologist and visited a children's hospital to get all the facts right. For us it was very important to be accurate on telling a story about Eric, a young boy with cancer. To those children you owe that respect. It's also important to be able to look through the eyes of a sick child and what he's going through on a daily basis. I think that the formula for our success, so to speak, is the fact that we're capable of telling a real story. Even if Eric would have been invented, then people still can relate to this boy as if it was a relative.”

Who came with the idea for 1000Wishes and who asked Ronald van der Pol to write a fantasy thriller?

Alex van Elswijk: “The story of 1000Wishes actually crossed my mind when I brought my two daughters to school. I only joined the band in May 2011, and we were brainstorming about how to put KiKa
Alex van Elswijk
and progressive rock music together. When I walked home it suddenly hit me. So I literally ran home to write down the story on paper in just 45 minutes. When I showed it to the other guys in the band they were excited and that's how the story of Eric began. A few days later we met in the rehearsal room. Ronald Brautigam told us that he had contacted author Ronald van der Pol. He had read a review in the Dutch prog rock magazine iO Pages about a book written by Van der Pol called Het Groene Huis (The Green House). When he contacted Ronald he was immediately interested in contributing for 1000Wishes. Being a prog fan and liking the idea of supporting KiKa, Ronald quickly began to write the novel. We were very glad and privileged to have Ronald van der Pol on board. His book makes the 1000Wishes package something special.”

Is Eric And The Land Of 1,000 Wishes a book for adults or for children, and why didn't you include any pictures in the book?

Alex van Elswijk: “When Ronald wrote the book he had just one thing in mind: to reach as many people as possible. The novel is written in such a way that it appeals to both the young and the older. The reason why we didn't place some pictures in the book is due to the fact that it's more fun to create the characters in your own mind.”

When did you actually start with the musical concept of 1000Wishes and did you intend it to be a rock opera right from the start?

Ronald Brautigam: “When we talked with the conductor of The Hague Youth Orchestra, somewhere around spring 2012, we realized that it would be a huge event. So we had to look for bigger stages like theatres. At the same time we realized that a rock band playing together with a symphonic orchestra was already done before. We wanted it to be different and slowly we came to the conclusion that the story of Eric had to be told on stage. At the time we thought
The Hague Youth Orchestra
about dance and video not about real actors yet. We went looking for a director and floor managers. We found the BlondeBizon led by Marianne Kuiper and Elma ten Boeke, two experienced ladies in creating theatre. They wrote the script and directed the play and we asked Ronald van der Pol to write the story of 1000Wishes, which was Alex' idea.”

Who came with the idea to use an orchestra and why did you choose The Hague Youth Orchestra?

Ronald Brautigam: “Michel van Wassem, our keyboard player, came with the basic idea of performing with a full symphonic orchestra and we remembered the words of our former singer Karel Messemaker in 2008. At the time he already had the idea of working with the Hofstad Jeugdorkest. So we did some research and contacted Marcel Geraeds, the conductor of the orchestra.”

In 2011 PBII released the DVD (see review). It contained a demo version of Never Old, a track that also appeared on the 1000Wishes album. Did you record more demos of the other album tracks?

Ruud Slakhorst: “Our creative process consists in fact of numerous demos which we send to each other. To start with, Michel and Ronald sent me instrumental, rough versions of a new track. With these versions I started to compose the song melodies and the lyrics. After that process I sent the tracks with the added voice(s) back to them. Sometimes they changed the order of the song, cut it shorter or added a piece; then the tracks were sent to Alex and drummer Tom Vermeulen to add the bass and drum parts. And so on. Everyone added his work to the original instrumental ideas and this way we got the songs together. The beautiful thing about this process was that we all in turn tried to surprise the others with something that would really excite them. So, while only Never Old has been worked out as a studio demo, the other 'home' recordings had approximately the same level when the creative process was finished.”

On the new album Ruud en Alex were introduced. How did you both become band members?

Ruud Slakhorst: “I think more than twenty years ago I worked in a studio in Pijnacker where we sometimes produced a record. One day we needed a catchy synthesizer theme for a song and my studio partner knew someone who could do that. That someone was Michel van Wassem! I was impressed by the way he played and I found out that he was a band member of Plackband. When I listened
Ruud Slakhorst
to some music of this band I immediately had the impression that we could fit together well. A few years ago I wondered what had happened with Plackband over the years, and I encountered PBII on the internet. They were busy making the album Plastic Soup (2010, see review) and I learned that they didn't have a dedicated singer anymore. I emailed them and they asked me to drop by in their rehearsal studio. Although Michel had a totally different way of singing, I tried out several of the songs on Plastic Soup which I rehearsed at home. In fact everyone was enthusiastic, but PBII was already in an advanced stage in the process of finishing the album that we couldn't find a way to work together. I kept following the band on the internet a bit and I saw that they were trying out a female singer who didn't fit the band. When the bass player quit the band I thought: well, let's give it another try. I was sure that PBII could make me a better singer as well as I could make PBII a better band. I got some rough tracks for which they had no melody lines and lyrics yet. The first one was Parental Thoughts, but at the time it didn't have a title. The band reacted enthusiastically after I had sent them my demo and that was the start of an intense and emotional creative process.”

Alex van Elswijk: “The way I joined the band was somewhat fortunate due to musical differences in the band. For that reason bassist Harry den Hartog had left the band. I knew Michel since he played along during a student's day of a local music school. I participated that day by playing bass guitar and we played some tunes together as well. After that we went our separate ways. A few years later we met again when he was invited by a mutual friend to attend the rehearsal of a prog metal band I played in. It must have impressed him, because when Harry left he called me and he asked me if I knew a bass player to replace Harry... Well, the rest is history!”

Who wrote the music for 1000Wishes?

Alex van Elswijk: “Michel and Ronald came up with the basis of the songs. Since we all have a home studio the tracks were sent around. We all contribute to the songs. It's fun because we all are an inspiration to the next one who's going to work on a song. I think we have an ideal match in PBII. Somehow everyone is contributing and willing to listen to the ideas of one another. What makes it special is the mutual respect. That's what gets things done!”

Did you always had in mind that these songs would later on be performed with an orchestra?

Ronald Brautigam: “No, it all came piece by piece like a giant jigsaw puzzle of which all pieces felt together in time. We constantly teased each other by thinking out of the box. By doing so you're not restricted to limits and come to the most amazing things. Everything is possible until it has been proven that it can't be done. That's one of my favourite topics, ha, ha.”
Chris Muller, Nathalie Mees, Alex van Elswijk and Tom van der Meulen

Soprano Nathalie Mees does a guest appearance on 1000Wishes. Because of her voice the music sometimes tends to an opera kind of style. Who came with the idea to ask a soprano singer?

Alex van Elswijk: “As far as I can recall Michel came across with this idea. As the project developed the idea to use a female soprano grew stronger. That would be great for the audience! We got several singers on audition. We chose Nathalie not only for here fantastic voice, but also for the fact that she behaved like 'one of the guys', so to speak. It felt good from the very first time we met and a big extra was the fact that her voice blends very well with the voices of Ruud and Michel. So besides playing the role as soprano she was also a great backing vocalist!”

Another guest musician is Steve Hackett, the former guitarist of Genesis. Why did you ask him to play on Evil Weed and how did he record his part?

Ronald Brautigam: “When we recorded Plastic Soup we had the idea of introducing guest musicians, so we wrote too many progressive rock heroes like Peter Gabriel, Jon Anderson and Steve Hackett, but also younger musicians like John Jowitt and John Mitchell. However, Steve responded directly to our request, but unfortunately he was involved in some legal conflicts with the record company and had to cancel his guest role. So, when we recorded 1000Wishes I wrote him again and explained the good cause of the project. He was enthusiastic from the beginning! The recording of the guitar solo took place in his own studio in the UK by his producer and keyboard player Roger King. Thanks to the internet we transferred the music files from one studio to the other!”

Marcel Geraeds and Marco C. de Bruin transcribed the music so that it could be performed by The Hague Youth Orchestra? How important were they?

Ronald Brautigam: “Marco and Marcel were two essential pieces in the jigsaw puzzle of 1000Wishes. Without them we couldn't have made it. Marco was the orchestrator, who transcribed Michel's and my chords into orchestral parts. But that's not enough; he also created new parts for the different orchestral sections, like woodwind, brass, strings, percussion, harp and so on. When he had done this he sent the compositions back to us and after listening we were really astonished and speechless! It's just so incredible to listen to your own compositions transcribed into orchestral parts! I think this was one of the most magical moments of the 1000Wishes project.”

All instruments and vocals sound crisp and clear throughout the album. Producer Chris Muller must have had a major role to get everything recorded the right way. How did he manage to do this and what was the most difficult part to record?

Ruud Slakhorst: “PBII already had good experiences with Chris during the recordings of Plastic Soup. However, I had the idea that an album containing a band and a symphonic orchestra needed a real top producer to get it right. And we were right since Chris appeared to be that top producer. It's incredible how he made this CD sound, but we must not forget the mastering. This was done by a company with an impressive track record.”

In my review I compared 1000Wishes to some other albums like the musical West Side Story, Time And A Word by Yes, Journey To The Centre Of The Earth and King Arthur by Rick Wakeman. Do you agree that 1000Wishes can be compared with these albums?

Ruud Slakhorst: “Jon Anderson and Peter Gabriel are the singers I enjoy the most, but I also love Coldplay and Steven Wilson. It's nice to be compared to singers you like, but I don't find it very important. To be honest: in my former bands I hardly ever sang covers. I'm always busy singing my or our own work. So hopefully I have a style of my own as well, ha, ha! By the way, I never heard these Rick Wakeman albums you mention, but good musicals can touch me emotionally. Therefore it was a great delight to see and hear that 1000Wishes touches people's emotions. That's what music's all about. West Side Story is a fantastic musical, but my personal favourite is Sunset Boulevard. As soon as I play this musical the tears appear right away... I love drama; it inspires me. The theme for 1000Wishes has been well chosen; it gave me so much to work with.”

Why did you choose to perform the story of the live version in Dutch whilst the album was done in English?

Alex van Elswijk: “When you want to tell this important story of Eric and you want to reach out and touch as much people as possible in their hearts, you have to use the language which everybody understands. And that's obviously in Dutch since we performed the rock opera in the Netherlands. Besides that, I think it's more genuine when you have the privilege to work with the acting skills of Dutch top actor Frits Lambrechts and not to forget our young acting friends David and Pieter. We recorded the album in English for one simple reason: we want to share our music with the world! A native speaker translated the Dutch text in English and we also hired two English speaking voice actors: James Potter who plays the role of Eric and the awesome voice of narrator Roger Watson.”

Who took care that everything worked smoothly and who made it possible that the music of a studio album could be performed live on stage?

Ronald Brautigam: “This is the typical PBII factor; no really I'm not kidding! I think no other bands have a better think tank than PBII, with lots of brilliant and bad ideas at the same time. So, during many hours of talking, laughing, dreaming, discussing, writing, drawing, painting and drinking, ha, ha, we worked out all the technical requirements, the ideas of the stage, the way to work with the conductor and so on. This really is the power of PBII and formerly of Plackband: the combination of the band and the crew.”

How did you find the two young actors Pieter van Dijk en David van Alten?

Ronald Brautigam: “They have been casted by Marianne Kuiper and Elma ten Boeke, the directors. They both study on the youth theatre school in Amsterdam.”
'Cowboy' Frits Lambrechts

Why was Frits Lambrechts dressed in a kind of cowboy outfit?

Alex van Elswijk: “Frits Lambrechts plays the role of someone who lives in the outback of Australia. In the play he's the writer of the stories of Knight Lorian. As you probably know Australia is a rather hot continent, so we thought that he should dress accordingly...”

Is it true that initially Peter Faber was asked to play the part of Eric's grandfather?

Alex van Elswijk: “The name of Peter Faber crossed our minds when we were brainstorming about the actor who could be suitable for the role of Eric's grandfather. We invited him to come and to talk about 1000Wishes. However, Mr. Faber was too busy at the time. Luckily we managed to get in touch with Frits at the same time.”

Why did soprano singer Nathalie Mees play the part of nurse Hester as well?

Alex van Elswijk: “Nathalie was asked whether she wanted to play a role in the rock opera. As she's a soprano she's used to playing a role while performing. Apart from that she's a much better looking nurse than I'll ever be, ha, ha! No, seriously, she was just perfect for this role!”

One of the live shows was filmed for a DVD. How much cameras were used and how difficult was it to get everything filmed?

Ruud Slakhorst: “The shows performed at the theatre in Rijswijk have both been filmed with twelve cameras. To make the film wasn't the biggest problem, but the editing. All streams had to be synchronized in the editing program and then choosing the right camera angles. So much is going on at the same time that it's all about making the right choices. But by what we already saw it looks very professional.”

After three live performances, a studio album and a book the project ended. How do you look back at this project?

Alex van Elswijk: “The project took almost two years to complete from start to finish. We spent every single minute of our spare time in this project, so it was quite a ride to get to this point. What's so satisfying about it all is the fact that we met so many nice and inspirational people. We also learned a lot and got acquainted with the world of classical music, dance, animation, and so on. We really became a band consisting of five members who inspire each other.”
Eric (Pieter van Dijk in blue gown) and
his friend Sander (David van Alten)

Did KiKa get the attention and the money that was needed?

Alex van Elswijk: “The whole idea of 1000Wishes was indeed to raise money for Kika, but also wanted to make people aware of this organization. What makes 1000Wishes so special is the fact that it's reaching a whole different audience than Kika usually has. More people are now aware of Kika's existence and know why the money is needed so much. We were also able to donate a beautiful amount of money through our sponsor. Moreover, our album and the book are for sale and all proceeds will go to Kika, so we're still raising money while we speak. Of course, we're glad that our music is picked up so well. The first reviews are awesome, so hopefully that will give a boost to the sales.”

How did the media react to the project?

Ronald Brautigam: “We still get amazing reactions and questions of reporters and they all have one big question: why is it ending? So I guess we have to think about the correct answer really hard. We never had so many positive responses of the media before. The reviews are filled with superlatives; it's like a dream so far! We should stop now, ha, ha.”

Is there any chance that more live performances will follow with the same line-up or will you continue playing the same kind of music but in a smaller setting?

Alex van Elswijk: “Everything is possible at this point. It depends on finding a good sponsor and how all our agenda's add up. It's a huge group of people to get together, however, everyone is motivated. As far as we are concerned we would do it again without hesitation. We're also looking at the possibilities of performing with a smaller orchestra because it's easier than playing in smaller venues. Another possibility is playing as a band with the orchestra playing from a tape or a backing track. It's all possible and it's all fun to do!”

Why do PBII want to have a certain concept like you had with Plastic Soup and Greenpeace and now with KiKa and 1000Wishes to get inspired to deliver some fantastic music? What's next Médecins Sans Frontières or Amnesty International?

Ronald Brautigam: “I think making and composing music for a good cause gives you the magical spirit and the motivation of writing the right music and lyrics. The good cause absorbs you and takes you away. You want to know everything about the subject you're working on; you automatically get involved and get intrinsic motivation to write the music and lyrics. It's like magic! We don't want to think about other good causes at this moment, because this subject is the most important for us now. It's not a business we're running; it's pure passion!”

What plans do PBII have for the future? Do you continue with the same line-up as on the 1000Wishes album?

Alex van Elswijk: “We have a great band with an amazing chemistry. We have the intention to play live as much as possible. We already have a few dates for gigs and from this point we're going to plan the rest of the year. World here we come; we're ready!”

Thank you for answering my questions and I wish you a lot of success with 1000Wishes and KiKa!

Ronald, Alex and Ruud: “Thank you for being interested in PBII, 1000Wishes and KiKa!”

More info about PBII on the Internet:
       Website 1000 Wishes
       Website PBII
       myspace PBII
       facebook PBII
       Concert review 1000 Wishes (16-Mar-13)
       Review CD 1000 Wishes
       review DVD
       Review CD Plastic Soup
       More concert reviews PBII: index

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