Interview Ronald Brautigam (PBII):

"Our aim is to support mankind and thus the earth and everything living on it"

(July 2017, text by Henri Strik, pictures by Arthur Haggenburg, edited by Peter Willemsen)

The members of the Dutch progressive rock band PBII have their hearts in the right place. Since 2010 their music has been connected with socially involved subjects. In 2010 they released an album about the pollution of the oceans called Plastic Soup (see review). Three years later they dedicated their follow-up album to childhood cancer (KiKa), and they released the prestigious musical 1000Wishes (see review). And now, in 2017, the band returns with the rock opera ROCKET - The Dreams Of Wubbo Ockels, an album that deals with our planet Earth. Of course Background Magazine wanted to know more about this new project, so we asked guitarist Ronald Brautigam to get deeper into space!

Ronald Brautigam
When did you start thinking about a successor for the very successful 1000Wishes album?
Ronald Brautigam: “We started thinking about a new project, I think somewhere in 2014, when we realized that 1000Wishes was too complex to continue. We tried to downsize the production with agency Tim Koldenhof Productions, but eventually we came to the conclusion that it didn't work out. It's very sad that this 'masterpiece' came too soon to and end but as a band we never sit back so we decided immediately to think of a new socially involved project.”

Who came up with the idea of making an album about the dreams of the Dutch scientist and astronaut Wubbo Ockels and did you consider other options?
“We talked with several organizations like UNICEF, Clini Clowns, Linda Foundation and Wereld Natuur Fonds, which is the Dutch division of World Wide Fund For Nature. However, we never experienced that same emotional feeling that we had with 1000Wishes. Then out of the blue the video of the final speech by Wubbo Ockels came along on social media. I was deeply impressed by his speech, and at the same time I felt sad and proud of this Dutch all time hero. We all had the same feeling: this was the subject we wanted to work on!”

Can you explain to our readers what Ockels dreamed of and something about the rest of the project?
“The history of the world is shaped by great thinkers and by doers, such as astronaut and scientist Wubbo Ockels. He died on May 18th 2014 from an aggressive form of kidney cancer. On his last day − and with his last breath − he reminded us of our responsibilities. The time he spent in space made a lasting impression on him, especially earth in all its vulnerability. These images made him change. Unfortunately his ambitious and important second career ended by his untimely death. We were moved by this and got into action. Humanity has to stop destroying the earth and someone has to make the first move. Why not us with our band? Our aim is to support mankind and thus the earth and everything living on it. That's what we are doing now in his name, but in our own way: with this new CD and live on stage! At the end of his life Wubbo gave a 'final speech' from his deathbed in which he urged people to fight as hard for the earth as his wife did for him during his year-long illness. Moved and motivated by his words, we wrote twelve songs in which we look at the earth from a distance, just as Wubbo once did. We see the problems and dream about solutions. The twelve songs are the basis of a performance that goes even further.”

Did you have the idea that you would compose the new album in the same musical direction as its predecessor right from the start? I mean using a classical orchestra or a string section?
“Yes, of course! Michel van Wassum, our keyboard player, and I wrote the basic material and we still love symphonic music. But with the experience and limitations of working with a big orchestra we decided to work this time with a small string section. We chose for a combination of big sampled orchestral sounds and a live string section consisting of first violin, second violin, alt violin and cello. For the orchestral sounds we work with a marvellous sample software plugin called Symphobia, which is used in lots of Hollywood movies. This combination worked out very well and live we can play almost everywhere. Of course the string arrangements were done again by Marco C. de Bruin.”

Alex van Elswijk and Ronals Brautigam (r)
Was it difficult for the band to write just as strong material as can be found on 1000Wishes?
“When you create and write new material you never think of being better or improving yourself. You just play along and use the chords and themes you create at the moment of playing. Of course there are some themes and licks you remember from the past and give it the feel and touch of today.”

Why did you use an old Plackband song for the title track?
“Well, we remembered a piece we once played during the last period of Plackband with lead singer Karel Messemaker. It's an orchestral piece called Homeland. It was never recorded, but out of the blue, former Background Magazine and current DPRP-journalist Jerry van Kooten sent us a tape from a live gig at the CRS in Rotherham (UK). We were very excited about this piece and decided to record it at our home studio as a demo. This evolved as the basic tune of ROCKET part1, 2 and 3.”

Did you experience any difficulties while recording the entire album? Was the final result in accordance with your ideas?
“Writing and recording a concept album is something like building your own dream house. You start with an idea and you begin to draw a picture. In the beginning there are only some lines but bit by bit you can fill in all the details. Than you have to build it, brick by brick. Sometimes you have to break down a wall because you don't like it after all. Slowly you see the house of your dreams arise and you only have to paint it in the colours you like! Building a house is the same as building a concept album, you create several pieces and in the end it all fits.”

The way you put progressive rock intros and passages next to more radio-friendly sounding passages struck me the most. I found that very appealing and cleverly done. Was there any special reason for doing so?
“That was something we realized when we performed 1000Wishes in the big theatres. Suddenly you saw all kinds of people coming to our concerts; not only progressive rock fans! In order to be successful in these theatres we had to change the structure of the songs a bit so that everybody could understand it. That was a huge challenge, but in the end not that difficult as it seemed to be at first, because in most progressive songs there are hooks and melodious parts. When you listen to Yes, Genesis or It Bites you find out that some songs could easily chart. So with that in mind we confined ourselves to writing songs which last no longer than four or five minutes each. And to be honest: a lot of long epic prog songs are just parts and pieces of several songs put together in one!”

Nad Sylvan
On Trapped you have Nad Sylvan as a very special guest. Who came with the idea of asking him to contribute?
“Well, again, it was me thinking of who could be a good guest musician on our new album, knowing that Steve Hackett appeared on one track of 1000Wishes and John Mitchell and John Jowitt appeared on Plastic Soup. So when I talked with Steve Hackett I came up with Nad Sylvan being a guest singer on one track. Nad didn't change anything of the original idea from our lead singer Ruud Slakhorst, but with his unique voice he made an excellent contribution! We are very happy having him on our album.”

Was it difficult to find a percussionist, a violinist and a cellist to guest on the album?
“No, in fact it was very easy! I knew percussionist Ignas Tewiel from the time we played in November, so when I asked him he immediately said yes! For the violin and the cello I simply used Facebook. Eventually I came in contact with violinist Diana Byazarti and asked her if she would be interested to play on the album. Internet and social media are so important now-a-days. It's so easy to get in contact with everyone you like. These are the benefits of the modern age!”

The lead vocals of soprano and backing vocalist Nathalie Mees on Happy Energy turned out very well. Who came with this idea and do you ask her for doing lead vocals on future releases?
“As you know she sang a few solo parts on 1000Wishes already and she did that very well. So it felt natural to give her a solo part in one song on the new album. It was not an idea of one particular band member; it just felt normal for us to give her a solo spot on one song. She wrote the lyrics and thus it was the perfect match for Happy Energy.”

On the cover of the album you can see planet earth and in front of it the word ROCKET. A spaceship in the shape of an electric guitar divides the album's name in two sections: rock and extraterrestial life. Was this done on purpose? By doing so the connection between music and extra-terrestrial life gets mentioned in a very special way!
The "Rocket" guitar
It's sometimes funny how things come together, but no, it wasn't meant to be this way. But yes, in the end it's really great to see how some parts of the puzzle fit in the right way. The logo with the guitar and earth was created by a young man from Jora Vision in Noordwijk. We spoke with the board of this company in 2016 to help him with the stage design. One of the first things they did was creating a logo for the show. And that became this really cool picture of the ROCKET guitar and earth. With the name ROCKET written this way, it was boom, right in the face! The extraterrestial on the end was pure a coincidence, but still a funny one!”

Why did you release Mother as your first single from the album and do you expect to get much airplay?
“We think that Mother is a nice and smooth commercial song with a typical groove and hook. For prog diehards it's probably too poppy, but for us it's like honey in a cup of tea. We work with a music promotor and he's plugging the song on radio 1, 2 and 5. So yes, we think we'll get some airplay! With this single we also want to team up with one of our stakeholders called Plastic Soup Foundation with their video Mother's Day. The second single will be Gravity and will be released by the end of the year.”

Why did you release the album independently? Were the well-known prog labels not interested?
“We were in contact with several labels, for example with Inside Out Music. Thomas Waber was really impressed by the high quality of the music on ROCKET. However, we had a dispute about the style of progressive music. For him the album wasn't progressive enough. Well, that's fair enough, because that's the direction we had chosen. Other companies didn't give us the right vibes so we decided to release the album ourselves. Another important reason is that in the future we will sell most of the CDs during the theatre concerts, so it's very profitable to do this on our own account.”

During the PBII 40th Anniversary Surprise Party in June this year your performed almost the entire album. Did it take a lot of rehearsals to pull it off this strong?
“We started rehearsing with the band directly after the recordings in the HollandSpoor Studios, so we could bring the same feeling and vibes with it. We had the strings and percussion on digital tracks so we were able to practise without the guest musicians. They joined just one week before we got on stage. That's the advantage of working with professionals!”

During the release party of ROCKET the band members didn't hit the stage in the blue NASA outfits in which they can be seen on the backside of the album. Why not?
“Ha, ha, ha, that was something we considered indeed, but because this gig was just a release and anniversary party, we didn't want to do that. In the near future when we play FUTURE | Wubbo Ockels in the theatres we will think about it again. But then we will have a personal clothing consultant.”

Albert de Keijzer (Plackband) and Ronald Brautigam
During the party reunions you performed with musicians who participated in Plackband and November, the predecessors of PBII. How difficult was it to get them all together on stage and how did it feel to be with them on stage again?
“We still had contact with all those guys and luckily all of the original band members are still alive, apart from Karel Messemaker, who passed away in 2014. So when we asked our former lead singer Kees Bik and bassist Albert de Keijzer they immediately were in. That also applied for lead singer Koos Sekreve who replaced Karel in 2005. That was the easy part, but now we had to rehearse again with Kees and Albert who didn't make music for almost ten years. That wasn't easy but slowly they picked up where they had ended their carrier. And after all they did a wonderful job, don't you think?”

The line-up that performed ROCKET did a great job indeed. This made me look forward to more concerts in this line-up. Are these to be expected in short notice or do we really have to wait for the theatre shows?
“The line-up of the release party will be the same for the coming years. We're thinking about a ROCKET 'music-only' tour in 2018 in small theatres like Park Theater in Alphen aan den Rijn. But then again we work with professional organizations like the agency George Visser Productions, Lions Netherlands, Cimon Marketing and producer Marc de Bruin of MBN Productions. They all have to approve our ideas because of greater belongings. I hope to have more information after our summer break.”

During the PBII 40th Anniversary Surprise Party a camera team filmed the entire concert. Do you have any plans to release this on a DVD or Blu-ray?
“That's right, we recorded the whole gig but we don't have any plans for releasing a DVD. This is perhaps something for diehard fans?”

You gave the theatre shows of ROCKET a different name. Why did it became FUTURE | Wubbo Ockels?
“For several reasons: first of all we work with professionals now who know everything about marketing and communications. When they decided to change the name so that we can sell more tickets we agreed immediately! We think that a rock concert differs from a theatre concert. That's the second reason why it's a good thing to have two different names for the shows. When people are looking for an evening of entertainment in a theatre and they read the header of our show, they should be interested by the name. That's the most important reason to change the name. We think that FUTURE | Wubbo Ockels challenge them to read more about the show.”

When will the theatre community see those shows and what do you have in store for prog fans?
“It will be a completely new mix of theatre, music and video. We will use video mapping on a special designed stage with different heights and moveable video screens. In FUTURE | Wubbo Ockels we want to imprint the need to deal with earth in a new way for the public. Also by providing hope in showing what has already been done and what people can do themselves. That ranges from new ways of dealing with plastic and energy to support projects that enable us to do more with less. We will work with director Gijs de Lange, writer Ger Apeldoorn and co-writer Harm Edens. It will be a feast for the ears and eyes plus we have an important message to tell, so you'll have to see this! The start will be on the 8th of June 2018 in the Harmony in Leeuwarden with guest singer Syb van der Ploeg (ex-De Kast) and after the summer break we will play in 25 big theatres in the Netherlands.”

Thanks for answering my questions!
“You're welcome, Henri. It was my pleasure!”

More info about the PBII projects:

       review album 'Rocket - The Dreams Of Wubbo Ockels'
       review concert 11-Jun-2017: 40th anniversary (ROCKET)

       review album '1000 Wishes'
       review DVD '1000 Wishes'
       review concert 16-Mar-2013: 1000 Wishes
       Interview '1000 Wishes'

       review album 'Plastic Soup'
       review DVD '' ('Plastic Soup')
       review concert 23-Jan-2010: Plastic Soup
       Interview 'Plastic Soup'

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