Becoming a musician is full of highs and lows. There are times when you’re nailing it, and there are other, frustrating times when you feel like giving up altogether. To give you a bit of inspiration, Chordify has gone to the pros for tips on how to persevere, conquer – and rock!
Thijs Kuijken and Geert van der Velde interview – Black Oak
Geert van der Velde and Thijs Kuijken, photo by Anneke Hymmen
We’ve got a very cool exclusive for all you guys and gals! Black Oak will officially release their album Equinox on May 13, but you can play along with all of their songs right here, right now! We also sat down with the guys to talk about the music that inspired them.
Black Oak is a collaboration between Thijs Kuijken and Geert van der Velde who are members of the bands I am Oak and The Black Atlantic respectively. The name “Black Oak” is a combination of both their bands’ names and was originally given to a split EP devised by the duo, consisting of covers of each other’s songs, one new song each and two joint works. That split EP eventually lead to the formation of the new band and the creation of Equinox.
Equinox is a modern day acoustic pop album grafted onto a folk base. It’s classic in the sense that it harkens back to the sound of Neil Young’s Harvest or Crosby, Stills, Nash and Young’s Déjà Vu as much as it fits in with modern day folk acts such as Fleet Foxes and Mount Eerie. It’s music that’s rooted in both English and American folk traditions without relishing in the pastoral or relinquishing itself to stylistic parameters.
IDK Sessions recorded this very special session with Black Oak in which they play a couple of the songs of their new album Equinox.
There are no grandiose statements here. This is earthly music, suited as much for a late night stroll under a starlit sky as a daytime hike up the mountain. The songs are intuitive and deceptively simple. The more you pay attention to the details, the more you want to follow them with your ears and disappear into a fog of finesse.
Which song inspired you to pick up an instrument?
Geert: I took classical guitar lessons from the time I was 6 until I was 10. My finger picking skills are still okay because I have that background. But I forgot all the theory and how to read notes. I do remember my teacher told me Andres Segovia was the greatest guitar player in the world.
I watched a documentary on him a few years ago and was really impressed. I have a few recordings of him that I listen to from time to time. I still want to learn how to play his transcription of “Pavane”.
But what really inspired me to pick up a guitar when I was a kid was Europe’s “Final Countdown” and especially the guitar solo. That song still kicks so much ass! At my school’s annual lip-syncing contest we “performed” that song with fake electric guitars that my mom had cut out of wood and painted white and silver. Mine was in the shape of a star.
Another guitarist that I thought was badass then was the guitar player in Michael Jackson’s “Dirty Diana” video.
Thijs: As a kid I thought Guns ‘n Roses’ version of “Knocking on Heaven’s Door” was so awesome. I was really into Slash as a guitar player. I was 8 years old and so into that song that I entered a lip-syncing contest as well. I “performed” the song with my dad on a fake guitar that my dad had cut out of wood and painted black and red.
What was the first song that made your fingers bleed?
Geert & Thijs: It has to be a Metallica song but neither of us can remember specifically which one!
What was your biggest failure?
Thijs: Trying to master a super fast Dream Theater solo and not even getting close.
Geert: I honestly can’t remember. I generally don’t dwell on all the stuff I’ve failed at. I learn from my mistakes and move on.
At which point did you almost give up and what made you keep on going?
Geert: I did give up on playing guitar when I was 10. I was really fed up with learning all of this music that I felt no connection too. As a kid I just didn’t really care for all the classical stuff. I liked rock and metal. That’s what I wanted to play. When we moved to a new town my parents gave me an electric guitar and put me in touch with a guitar teacher who helped me play the songs that I really wanted to learn. He was a total Pink Floyd fan and a folk guitar player but I learned everything from Metallica and Pantera to In Flames and Rage Against the Machine because he helped me figure out the songs. That’s when I really started getting passionate about playing music.
So I guess my biggest obstacle was learning to play an instrument (the classical Spanish guitar) that I felt no connection to at the time. I actually still don’t own one and have never written a song on that instrument. Maybe because I subconsciously associate it with that time. It’s funny though because Thijs almost exclusively writes songs on a classical Spanish guitar.
Thijs: For me it’s the same story as Geert’s. I had classical lessons for three years and then I stopped because I didn’t really enjoy the music. I quit for about a year but then I was given an electric guitar. That really got me back into music because I could finally play the stuff I wanted to learn.
What’s your favorite chord?
Geert: I have no idea because I can’t read music and I don’t know what chords I play anymore. I forgot all that stuff and I’ve just never cared enough to relearn it. I just move my fingers around until I think it sounds good. Sometimes I literally tune my guitar “funny” (i.e. not in E) and then I just move my fingers around. Usually, after a little bit of noodling, I start coming up with patterns and melodies and that’s when the songs happen. I always start with the melody.
Thijs: It has to be F, G or A minor because pretty much all of my songs are made up of those chords although I never intentionally try to use them. But my favorite sounding chord is a D minor 7th.
When did you start to write your own songs?
Geert: Thinking back on it now, when I was 13 or 14 I started to come up with my own riffs and parts. But they weren’t songs. And I didn’t recognize them as valid creations of my own until much later. I joined my first real band when I was 18 and that’s when I started to write with the intent of them being complete songs.
Thijs: The first songs of my own were written with the music school band I was in. I would write the guitar parts with one of my best friends who was also in the band and then we’d finish the songs with the rest of the band in the rehearsal space. But it took years before I started writing my own complete songs.
Geert van der Velde and Thijs Kuijken, photo by Melanie Marsman
What was your first time playing with others like?
Geert: Terrible. They were all much better musicians and I could barely play guitar!
It’s funny though because I became really comfortable playing with other musicians who are better than me.
In all of my bands after that first one, I’ve always been the least skilled musician. I prefer to play with musicians who are better than I am because I become a better musician by playing with them.
Thijs: My first time was a band put together by kids at my music school. Playing together was really fun but we had to play songs that I didn’t like. I learned a lot about playing as a group though and to pay attention to the others.
What did you take away from playing other people’s songs?
Geert: One of the most influential bands for me to this day is Shai Hulud. They’re a melodic hardcore band with thrash metal elements. I was a huge fan of them when I was a teenager into my early twenties. Through a combination of circumstances I actually ended up as the singer (i.e. screaming vocalist) of that band when I was 19 until I was 23.
So I got to play in my favorite band and write music with my favorite songwriter Matt Fox. I really incorporated a lot of his ideas and compositional traits into my own songwriting. Also, I felt such kinship to the music and the lyrics then that I was able to relate to it on such a deep level and the style became mine as well. I remember hearing the music for the first time and just being absolutely blown away by it but also feeling instantly that I could have written those songs. I’m still a fan of Shai Hulud but I’ve moved on to other music. Although I feel that I could still at any time write a song that could be a Shai Hulud song. That will never go away, I think.
It’s the same for me now with Fleet Foxes. I love that band so much that I feel like their music is my own. That I could write a Fleet Foxes song. Of course when I try to do so I end up with something different because I’m me. I’m not Matt Fox or Robin Pecknold (Fleet Foxes) but you can definitely still hear their influence on my songwriting in many ways. Especially, for me, in the use of melody and how comfortable I am with playing in different time signatures.
Thijs: I can’t think of specific techniques I learned from specific artists. But when I think back to the time when I was learning to play other people’s songs on guitar, I started with Metallica and Nirvana. You may not recognize their immediate influence on my songwriting but on a meta level you could say that I got my ear for melody from Nirvana through Kurt Cobain’s simple chords with a great vocal melody and I got my taste for harmony from Metallica.
Geert: That’s so recognizable for me too because I first started learning how to play other people’s songs by practicing Metallica and Nirvana songs as well.
Do you still play songs written by other artists?
Geert: Rarely. Most of the time we’ll do that because it’s a request from others (radio stations, video sessions etc). It’s not because we don’t like playing other artists’ songs but because we like playing our own music more. It’s closer to who we are.
However, I fantasize about doing my own version of Kanye West’s “Blood on the Leaves”. But I haven’t dared to work out how I’d do that yet and I’m not sure I would sing all the same lyrics :)
Thijs: I’m really not up to date on all that is happening in today’s music. I just have a big circle of friends around me who, like Geert, really keep up still. But in the last few years I’ve found less stuff that I really like so I tend to listen to what I know or new releases by artists who I am already into.
Have you ever tried to tackle a song and failed miserably?
Geert: Sure. I tried to learn how to play all kinds of metal songs when I was a teenager, like stuff by Metallica, Pantera and In Flames although I never really mastered any of them. However, it’s how I learned new things and techniques. It made me a more precise guitar player, I think.
Not that I would consider myself a precise guitar player. Maybe I should practice those songs again and get my skill level up!
Thijs: It’s not about mastering those songs anyway. It’s more about what you take away from that learning process that you can apply to your own songwriting.
Any advice for aspiring rock stars to inspire them to keep on playing?
Geert: Don’t believe the success stories. Those are the exception to how it really goes. Those are the stories people like to tell. For every “discovered artist” there are thousands of self-made, hardworking full-time musicians.
Aspiring to play music for a living takes a lot of guts, a lot of ambition and an awful lot of perseverance. For every ‘yes’ there are twenty ‘nos’. But, don’t mistake other people’s opinions for your own. Do what you do and never ever give up. Your music matters because you made it. It’s worth something to you already. So don’t let anyone tell you it doesn’t matter and especially don’t tell yourself that.
Commercial success is not the same as being a good musician. Being a good musician means liking the music you create and play. You do no one a favor by making concessions that make you unhappy.
Thijs: I couldn’t agree more. So just write songs that matter to you.
Thank you Thijs and Geert! We can’t wait to start jamming! So, grab your guitar, piano or ukulele and play along with 11 exclusive songs from the Black Oak – Equinox album.