By Kahmel Farahani
Adrian Vandenberg is the legendary Dutch guitarist who began with his eponymous solo band before becoming world famous with Whitesnake in the 1980s. Today, he tours and records with his band Vandenberg’s Moonkings. They have recently released their 2nd album MK II and are currently on tour in Europe and the UK.
Down The Front: Thank you very much for talking to us at Down the Front: you’re back on the road with a new album and a new tour - how are you feeling?
Adrian Vandenberg: Great, you know. Every time when I do a new album with this band, it feels like I’m just getting started. Because this band is so energetic and fresh, it’s so great to make the music that comes to me naturally - from the heart, you know, and it’s this kind of stuff. I’ve grown up on the British stuff like Cream and Hendrix and Free and early Clapton and it’s just really nice to be able, no matter how hard it is these days, to make the music that you grew up on, the kind of music that still… I pick up the guitar and this is the kind of stuff that comes out. So I feel very much like a lucky bastard. Because to be able to still do it is great.
DTF: I was listening back to the album today and I was really impressed- a song like Tightrope sounds like you’re writing a modern version of your classics. Has your approach to writing music changed over 30 years?
AV: Well, I like to keep up with what’s going on, because whether it’s music or visual art or whatever, it’s always good and important to keep your finger on the pulse of whatever time you’re in. And there’s a bunch of rock bands these days I enjoy in some way or another. I like bands like Kings of Leon, or some stuff from Queens of the Stone Age, or obviously some bands like Rival Sons because it’s very related, you know. But I do like grooves from now, like Tightrope is definitely a groove that’s from these days. At the same time, I really enjoy marrying rock from now with the roots in the 70s.With some songs, I really try to build a bridge between those two.
DTF: Amazing. Actually, you mentioned some of the British bands of the 60s and 70s - I’ve heard that the Scandinavian scene at the moment is like the British scene used to be. So many strong bands from Denmark and Sweden and Finland - what do you think about that?
AV: It could very well be, I’m not that up to date with Scandinavian bands but I know there’s a lot of great music being made. Over the years, I’ve heard quite a few good singers from there too. Like a lot of people know, for this kind of music you have to be a very good singer and there have basically only been a handful over the last 30 years. Guys like Coverdale and Dio and Plant and Rogers, of course. When you think about it, there are very few. I just got really fortunate finding the singer of Moonkings, Jan, because he is like a mix of all of them - like between Chris Cornell and Paul Rogers and anything in between.
DTF: You were saying you felt lucky and happy to still be making music. Do you think that compared to the position rock music was in, in the 80s when MTV would just play your videos all the time, now rock music has taken a bit of a back seat to pop. Do you think that is good or bad?
AV: Well it’s not great, because I know a lot of people who find it difficult to find stations to listen to music they like. Because like you said, it basically became underground music if you think about it. But there are so many people who want to hear it and who want to see those bands; and it’s a different time. At the same time, it’s a challenge. There are a couple of elements that I like about it. Live, you really have to be able to do what you recorded. In the 80s, there were bands like a lot of L.A. bands, who just pouffed up their hair and thought they were a great band. I know what they had to do in the studio to make a decent record. Bands like Poison, for instance. Nobody can tell me they are great musicians, to put it diplomatically. Those kinds of bands became popular in those days too. Now, it’s more like separating the men from the boys, which I think is good because if you do well live, people take you seriously.
DTF: So you think it has forced bands to be better and more creative to get heard?
AV: Yeah, plus hopefully it showed the fans what the difference is between a great band and a so-so band. There are a couple of great bands, like Inglorious - that’s a great band. Actually, Nathan’s going to do a guest spot next weekend. I’m looking forward to meeting him, he’s a great singer. Seems like a great guy, too.
DTF: You have the Underworld show with Nathan coming up?
AV: Yes, I’m really looking forward to that. I heard it’s like a tiny place you have to go underground! There’s a small stage, we don’t even bring a light guy! So for me, it’s so much fun. A lot of people aren’t going to understand that, because I’ve been fortunate enough to play sold-out arenas all over the world, and stadiums and stuff, but this is what I love to do. Because it’s all the way back to basics. You have to show the people what you can do without all the bullshit around it. We can’t even put our full backline there, which is fun; because we have to kick some ass with limited means and just play as a band!
DTF: So it’s like old-school club days?
AV: Yeah, and I love it. I really missed it in the Whitesnake days. When I try to explain it to fellow musicians, they go ‘yeah, I know, but I want to play stadiums. How can you like playing in clubs?’ But I really missed it in the Whitesnake days. So the last two tours I tried to convince David to do a club in between all the bigger shows, which we did a couple of times. We did one in Holland, one in Scandinavia and one in South America. I love it because you have a much closer rapport with the crowd.
DTF: Speaking of the live show, I wanted to ask: the band is a four piece with you in the lead…
AV: Yeah, my favourite!
DTF: (laugh) In the past you’ve duelled with some fellow great guitar players. Like Vai comes to mind. Does your playing change in that kind of situation when you have to contend with another guitar?
AV: It does, yeah. I enjoy it too. I enjoyed playing with Vivian (Campbell) and Warren DeMartini and Steve. You’re right, especially in the 80s when everyone was doing a lot of whiddley-whiddley (mimes string tapping). I found that after a while I got caught up in that. I know how to do that, but I choose not to do it as much when I’m in a four piece, because I like the other guys to shine. We have an amazing bass player and drummer in this band and, as you can tell on the record, I tell them ‘just do whatever you feel like doing’. Nobody does that on records, because rock became quite formulaic over the years. So, for example, in the outro of ‘The Fire’, I told them “Guys, just jam while I play rhythm guitar - go berserk.” And they did! So the freedom of the four piece is just great. I love the moments of nothing because the silence can hit you as hard as a big power chord. Instead of filling up everything with layers of guitars and keyboards and shit.
DTF: So you think it got too much in the 80s?
DTF: I love that about your new record, that you can hear organically everything coming through. So that was something you wanted to do after the 80s?
AV: I always wanted to do this. That’s why I was a little surprised when David asked me to join Whitesnake, because he came out of the line-up with John Sykes and Cozy Powell and that was a four piece too. Although they had a keyboard player hidden away somewhere, but it was basically a four piece. I assumed David wanted to pursue that. But then again, Whitesnake was always like a two guitar player band, you know. I didn’t mind, but it was a bit of a surprise. Like you said, it definitely changed my playing a little bit in those days. Now I have the freedom to just play whatever I feel like.
DTF: Are there any young guitar players who impress you particularly?
AV: I know one or two, but I can’t really say they’re young….someone like Kenny Wayne Shepherd is a great player.
DTF: Do you think there will ever be another guitar player who will draw a line like Hendrix or van Halen did?
AV: That’s going to be really hard, man. You would think that everything has been done. I mean, there are so many really young guitar players who can play all the Vai and Satriani stuff, but...that’s probably why I don’t have a solid answer to your question because I’m not into that type of guitar playing. I’m much more into the guys I grew up with, whether it’s Eddie van Halen or early Clapton and Hendrix, all the guys who can tell a little story within 20 seconds. A lot of players show off what they can do. It’s really impressive, and I really respect it. Guys like Bonamassa are amazing players but at the same time I find myself preferring to listen to Jeff Beck. Actually, John Mayer is a very under-rated player. I heard him jam a little while ago. It was an old recording but he was doing serious Hendrix. Mick Taylor; Peter Green, man, that’s some tasty guitar playing! Those guys were a lot more about the right note in the right place. They played very tastefully. What I always liked when I was growing up, was they called Clapton ‘slowhand’, and I really liked that. In those days you had Alvin Lee too, he was like the fast guy on the block. When I looked at Woodstock, I thought “gee, this guy’s fast!” At the same time, I preferred listening to Hendrix and Clapton. I never believed in this guy being better than that guy, it’s just a different way of expressing. I love guys like Brian May - he’s definitely one of my heroes.
DTF: Looking to the future, do you have any specific plans? Are you going to keep going with the Moonkings?
AV: Oh, yeah, definitely. I love playing with this band. I’m slowly but surely forming ideas and beginning to write every day. I’ve got hundreds of basic ideas and I’ve got to start sorting out the good ones from the bad. ‘Cause there’s always a pile of stuff.
DTF: I saw a comment from David Coverdale, that he said one day he’d like to do an acoustic tour, just you and him. Would you be up for something like that?
AV: Of course! When it fits into both our schedules, yeah. As everyone knows, we became very close friends and we’re in touch very regularly. We both have very similar tastes in music, we both love blues and soul. I became an even bigger fan of Deep Purple when David joined, because the blues element got infused into Deep Purple. Also Tommy Bolin was a great player. Unfortunately he liked a lot of stuff that wasn’t very good for him. Of course, Blackmore, man - he made that sound. At the same time, I like to be open about bands that develop in different directions. Otherwise you paint yourself into a corner - it’s very limiting for your creativity.
DTF: Have you met Blackmore?
AV: No, unfortunately. I try not to judge people on personality when I haven’t met them. But the personality of Blackmore, I can hear it in his playing - as far as what I’ve heard about his personality! That’s why he plays so great. Same goes for Eddie van Halen. I know Eddie a little bit, and you can hear his personality in his playing.
DTF: Yeah, that’s the kind of guy he is.
AV: That’s how he plays, that’s how he is.
DTF: We’re talking about these legends like Blackmore and Clapton who are in their seventies now, and they’re all talking about retirement. What do you think of that?
AV: I don’t like the word retirement, I mean look at The Stones. For 40 years people have been telling them ‘you’re too old’ but they keep going - and the last thing they have to do it for is money. You can’t blame them. The same goes for Clapton and Blackmore - I mean, Blackmore must have made more money than Jesus, but he loves to play! Whether it’s medieval stuff in his tights, or whatever! He doesn’t care. You gotta hand it to the guy, he loves playing, because he doesn’t have to do it.
It’s interesting that you mention it, because it makes you think. The older generation is still around, those are the guys who started it all because they loved music and they loved playing. A lot of younger bands - now I’m sounding like an old fart - they come and they go. You go: ‘C’mon, man!’ It seems like they give up when they don’t make enough money or something. I mean, I didn’t make shit money in the last four years, because I spend the money that we make on being able to do the gigs. As long as I have a couple of cents, it’s fine with me. I was fortunate to save some money in the Whitesnake days, and I’ve sold a lot of paintings in the last couple of years. But that’s not why I started playing. I started playing because I loved playing, and I still do. Maybe even more than when I started out! It also brings a certain responsibility to all the people who didn’t get as far as I have had the fortune to. I see it as a responsibility to get everything out of it that you possibly can. As long as you can play, do it!
DTF: Thank you so much.
AV: My pleasure, man.
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Vandenberg’s Moonkings play The Underworld March 17th