The former Whitesnake guitarist talks to us about the return of Vanderburg and their new album 2020
PG: How are you dealing with this strange world we find ourselves in?
AV: My life is not that much different because I'm usually at home working on my music, painting or doing shows.
PG: Being creative can be quite a lonely pursuit anyway.
AV: Exactly, I enjoy that, but it's different with everybody. I know a lot of people who if they are left alone for a day go nuts.
PG: You've got a new album coming out under the Vandenburg name. It's been 35 years since Vandenberg released anything, why did you decide to recharge the band and not just form a totally new one?
AV: Well, the line up is totally new. For the last few years, I was working with a new band, Vandenburg's Moonkings. We did a few gigs in Holland and in the UK and Scandinavia and a few other countries, but I had to put the band on ice. We were mainly playing in Holland because the singer in the band Jan Hoving has a big farm company and he couldn't be outside of the country for more than a few days. I love international touring: to be a gypsy and make music all over the world. With the Moonkings it was put together as a blues rock-based band. This band is a lot louder and heavier and I felt I wanted to expand into what it is now. So it made sense to use another name, but my manager convinced me to use the name Vandenburg again. Initially, it felt too nostalgic for me and I don't really like nostalgic bands or bands that come together for those reasons. I thought about it for a few days and then when I found Ronnie Romero suddenly it felt better for me. People might be expecting a nostalgic sound and this is something different.
People might be expecting a nostalgic sound and this is something different.
PG: There's definitely a bloodline from Rainbow and of course Whitesnake that runs through the new album, was it intentional to develop that sound when you decided to pick up the band?
AV: It was definitely intentional because I've always been fans of those bands, even before I joined Whitesnake. I've always written this type of music. With early Vandenburg, it didn't sound as heavy as I can make it sound now because I didn't have the experience. Also in those days, that's what a heavy rock band sounded like. Listening to those recordings now it sounds relatively light, but in my head I wanted it to sound like it does now. The original singer of Vandenburg sounds very different from what Ronnie does. Ronnie is more expressive and he really thinks about what the lyrics mean before he even opens his mouth and really digs deep, it's what makes him really great.
PG: Your style is much more forceful on this album. We've not really heard this aggressive style guitar from you before, where did that come from?
AV: I started realizing during the Moonkings shows how different my guitar sound was live to what it was on the albums. Looking back at it, I got a little closer on the second Moonkings album. Subconsciously I guess I was making a bit of a transition already. I was aware that people would expect the name Vandenberg to have a similar sound to what Vandenberg sounded like in those days so I would really like to shock them.
PG: Ronnie does a great version of Burning Heart on the new album, why did you pick that song to rework and not something like Different Worlds for example?
AV: When my record company wanted to put out a press release announcing this new band with a new lineup, my manager said it will send a stronger signal if we could put out some music with the release - but we hadn’t recorded anything yet. Then I remembered we had recorded some bits for Burning Heart that was supposed to be for the Japanese release of the second Moonkings albums as a bonus track. I thought we could give them that and get Ronnie to sing on it and I'd finish the guitar parts. I flew to Madrid and took the recordings with me and Ronnie sang the parts and it sounded amazing. When the album was done my record company asked to put the recording of Burning Heart on it. I had the same feeling I did about using the band name and that it sounded a little bit too easy for me. They convinced me that it was a good bridge between Vandenberg and Vandenberg 2020”. When I listened to it back in between the other new songs it didn’t sound dated at all, so we put it on the album.
PG: You write with the vocalist in mind, how easy was it to write for Ronnie?
AV: Yeah it was actually very easy and very inspiring. I really like to write my songs with a specific vocalist in mind because then you get the best out of the vocalist and out of the song. I discovered Ronnie through YouTube when he was doing shows with Rainbow and I was completely blown away by his vocals. He seems to be pretty limitless. I didn’t feel any restrictions and I could just write what comes naturally when I pick up a guitar. It’s a huge blessing. You can’t ask for anything more as a songwriter.
PG: Tour plans are obviously on hold because of Coronavirus – but what can we expect when you hit the road?
AV: Originally we were going to start touring at the end of May when the album comes out but right now it’s looking like November, hopefully. I was talking to Ronnie about the shows and we realise how much freedom we have. With both our connections to Whitesnake and Rainbow we definitely want to do a couple of their songs and a couple of harder Vandenberg songs. And like you mentioned instead of Burning Heart maybe do Different World for a change. In a lot of countries that was a bigger hit. I feel really blessed that Burning Heart seems to have such long legs, so to speak. When I wrote it at the time I thought it would be cool to have a power ballad in between all those up-tempo songs and suddenly it becomes a lifelong thing which is really great. I expect we’ll play all of the songs from this new album, or most of them. The album is really tailored for taking to the stage, it’s got almost a live feel to it. If we combine it with some Whitesnake and Rainbow stuff we can do a pretty happening set, I’m looking forward to it. I’ve never played Rainbow songs live with Ronnie so it’s going to be a blast.
I’ve never played Rainbow songs live with Ronnie so it’s going to be a blast.
PG: Can we count on you to come to the UK?
AV: Yeah we will definitely play the UK because 99.9% of my favourite bands since I started with music have always been British. I started out with Stevie Winwood and the Animals, The Beatles and The Stones, Led Zeppelin, Cream, Free, Bad Company all that stuff. For me when Vandenberg was playing in the UK it was something really really special because it was the island where all my favourite stuff comes from. What gives me a kind of rootsy feeling is that I do have family in the UK. One of my mum's sisters fell in love with a British pilot in the Second World War so she moved to England. I did spend time in England with my nephews. I remember they took me to see Hawkwind when Lemmy was in it. I was kind of shocked to see people smoking these funny cigarettes and me being a spotty Dutch boy in the middle of all the interesting stuff. There's definitely a British injection in what I wanted to do. One of my nephews actually had a couple of drum lessons from Simon Kirke. That was something really interesting for me because Free has always been my all-time favourite band. One of the highlights in my career was to play a solo on a re-recording of Fire and Water that Paul Rogers. He's my all-time favourite vocalist, so when I got the invitation I thought 'oh man It’s not going to get any better than this.'
PG: The first Vandenberg album is often viewed as an underrated release. How do you feel about it looking back?
AV: The first album seems to have eternal life and with the internet and you're approachable through Facebook and Instagram I get so much interest in that from all countries around the world. Last week there was an email from Kazakhstan. So there are people that discovered it then and there are people that only discovered it, which is really nice to know. In the end, I’m very realistic about it: I do what I love to do most and I feel very privileged that I still make my living from my passions like painting and music and I would never have expected that. I’ve never taken that for granted. Every morning when I stumbled down the stairs in my bathrobe and the sun shines I realise I’m just one lucky bastard. Today and for the last few weeks I’ve had full days of interviews and everyone is really enthusiastic about this new music. Fans ask me if it wears me out and I say no because you’re talking about one of your main passions and people are interested, so that gives you a lot of energy. I still feel like I’m just getting started.
I still feel like I’m just getting started.
PG: Kamikaze on the Alibi album is a really strong track and still holds up. Why did the band never do more instrumental tracks?
AV: Oh that’s one of my favourites from those days. I don’t know at the time I thought it would be cool to do an instrumental track and I never really thought about doing another one. But now you mention it maybe I should. I’ve been asked a lot of times in the period before Moonkings and I had a couple of requests from record companies. I’ve never really been a big fan of instrumental albums apart from Jeff Beck and some classical guitar players. I always find it gets tedious after a couple of songs. It would be a challenge. If I was ever to do it it would be a combination of electric and acoustic so at least you can have some different approaches. Just like James Bond never say never. Who knows.
PG: You're a very versatile player, a lot of Vandenburg's early material and the Moonkings has classical style playing. Did you train in classical guitar when you were younger?
AV: No I can’t read a note. There was always classical music in my house my dad played really good piano my sister is a classical concert pianist. She can’t play pop or anything but she’s a really amazing player. When you’re a teenager you try and distance yourself from whatever your parents like, but as soon as I started my studies at art college it only took a couple of months for me to start realizing that I was playing classical music on my record player. Bach, Chopin, Rachmaninoff all those guys are imprinted on my hard drive so whenever I let loose on guitar and start writing music those classical tunes pop-up and it puts a smile on my face. So I say thanks to my dad and my sister because that’s why those melodies are there. It’s interesting because in the United States when I started touring there with Whitesnake I was asked to do a guest teaching slot at some of the musical academies and I’d always told them I can’t accept it because I wouldn’t know what to tell your pupils, they will know more than I do because I just play whatever comes into my mind. They said they use some of my solos as lesson material and I was really shocked. I have a couple of books in Japan and they have transcribed all my solos and it looks really interesting to me. I sent it to my sister and asked her to play it and she doesn’t have a rock or pop feel so she just plays it the way it’s written down and it sounds very strange to me.
PG: Painting and writing can be very cathartic. Do you find it works that way for you?
AV: My mum is almost 95 now and I inherited a lot of her genes. I’ve never seen her miserable or pessimistic or radiating negativity. I was so fortunate that my parents my sister and brother and I have such a positive attitude towards life and we have inherited that. It’s such a blessing and it’s something you can’t help feel a certain responsibility to keep that honour. All you can do is be grateful you’re alive and healthy and that you have passions. They are a present that you get at birth and you can’t really help because you don’t choose it, it chooses you. When I wrote the lyrics for songs like Hell and High Water and Skyfall I try and stay away as much as I could on this new album of the love subjects. Let it Rain is about a broken relationship and there are two songs that I kind of have a little connection with the love situation but not an obvious one like “I love you baby let’s go to the bedroom". I wanted to challenge myself and write something a bit darker and I can transpose myself to those kinds of emotions even though it’s not natural for me. Fortunately, I’m a lucky bastard as far as having a vivid imagination. There's always going to be negative elements in your life, it’s just how you deal with them.
The most negative thing I’ve experienced in the last decade was probably that the old Vandenberg members started a lawsuit six years ago trying to claim my name and prohibit me from using my own name. That was a very negative period as far as feeling frustrated about it and having to hire a lawyer to defend your own name. When you get caught up in a lawsuit you have to deliver ammunition to your lawyer and I was forced to dive into my scrapbooks and on the internet to look for all the proof that I needed to defend myself. That can cause negative emotional situations. Fortunately, I can crawl out of it easily but still when you’re working for hours looking for stuff to defend your own name it wasn’t like watching the Benny Hill show or something. But it's the Monty Python thing 'always look on the bright side of life'. It’s a huge cliche but sometimes you have to hit a negative spot to even more appreciate the good stuff.
I wanted to challenge myself and write something a bit darker
PG: Have we seen the last of the Moonkings?
AV: Maybe in a couple of years we could do some shows just for the hell of it, but the problem with the singer is still going to be the same. We had really great chemistry and became really good friends and had a blast, but I want to tour the world with this band.
PG: What else can we expect from you creatively in future?
AV: Every time I start working on an album or a painting for some reason I have a similar feeling that I'm just getting started. With this album, it gives me such an energy boost that I'm able to work with these musicians. It gives me a lot of inspiration. It's crazy we can't tour right away. I wouldn't be surprised if this (Coronavirus) carries on for a long time and I'll probably start writing for the next album and maybe even record it faster than we usually would.
Interview by Cathy Clark
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