I wanted to write a song that was more poppy, with a flamenco riff. The result, 'A Mirage', became a huge hit.
The Essence may be a well-kept secret among wave fans in Belgium, but in Spain, France and the rest of Southern Europe, they caused a sensation in the eighties with hits as ‘A Mirage’ and ‘Only For You’. Connoisseurs know that the gentlemen from Rotterdam released a number of excellent albums in the eighties and nineties. They continue to perform to this day, and even hope to release new work in 2024. We recently saw them perform at the Liège New Wave festival, and subsequently had a conversation with singer-guitarist Hans Diener.
Hello Hans. Thank you for this opportunity to interview you. I recently saw The Essence perform in Liège, and I was surprised that this was your first performance ever in Belgium. The Essence may be an important new wave group in other countries in Europe, but in Belgium I would rather describe you as ‘cult’. Do you agree, and how do you explain this?
I agree with you, Xavier. Both the Netherlands and Belgium have never been a priority for our English record company at the time, in terms of marketing and promotion. It eventually grew that way. However, we are changing this, as you can see.
The story of The Essence begins in the early 1980s. If I remember correctly, the first mention of a band was in 1983, although it was still called ‘Movement’ at the time, which I suspect is a nod to New Order. Can you tell us how the group came about? How did the desire to make your own music arise, and how did you meet the other band members?
The band started because I was looking for some bootlegs of The Cure, which is how I met with Jerry, the first bass player. This resulted in me playing with Jerry and Ol, the first drummer. We played some covers for a few weeks and did a few gigs, until I wasn't interested in playing covers anymore. I then wrote and recorded several songs myself. These demos were sent to various labels in the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, after which serious interest arose from the UK label Midnight Music.
You actually found a label that was willing to support you and release your records, but under the name The Essence. In 1985 the debut album ‘Purity’ was released. How did that happen?
After we got a contract, I changed the name Movement to The Essence, because the first name was too close to the New Order record title. We went to London and recorded our first album ‘Purity’ there. ‘Endless Lakes’ was the first single from there, and later we released ‘The Cat’ as the second single.
The follow-up album 'A Monument Of Trust' from 1987 was your real breakthrough. ‘A Mirage’ even became a world hit. How was that possible?
After ‘Purity’ was released, I continued writing, also using synths. I wanted to write a song that sounded a bit more pop and with a kind of flamenco riff. ‘A Mirage’ became the single from the second album and was a huge hit, especially in Southern European countries. It became a big hit in Spain, among others.
I can imagine that such a big hit also brings challenges for a band. You were a small group from the Netherlands, and then suddenly you are stars. People are also asked to perform internationally, which is not always easy. How did you approach that?
When ‘A Mirage’ became a hit, it was inevitable that we had to go on tour. Meanwhile, Jerry and Ol had left the band, and I temporarily used another bassist, Akki, and drummer, Jack. Our light engineer Menno then temporarily took care of the synths.
Your third album ‘Ecstasy’ contained another big hit: ‘Only For You’. This time, France in particular was crazy about the song, where ‘A Mirage’ was succesful in Spain in the first place. The Essence was very popular in the south of Europe at that time: Spain, France, Italy, Switzerland... Is this pure luck, or was there a strategy behind it?
There was absolutely no strategy behind it. All I wanted as a songwriter was to write a diversity of songs and not stick to one format. On our albums, you could hear everything from dreamy ballads to pop songs and even quite rock-like songs. That probably made us interesting for different cultures.
Both ‘A Monument Of Trust’ and ‘Ecstacy’ are quite reminiscent of The Cure, who were of course very popular in the eighties. I don't want to minimise the authenticity of the songs, and I also know that you share a spirit of the times and a certain feeling with The Cure, but I also wonder if there was ever pressure, for example from the record label, to write songs that sounded like The Cure?
There has never been pressure from our label. At that time, I listened to a lot of bands like The Cure and Joy Division. But perhaps I listened to U2 and David Bowie the most, and I also loved Kraftwerk. I also didn't hesitate to like some of the music from the charts. I have always had an open mind for music.
Despite the great success of ‘A Monument Of Trust’ and ‘Ecstacy’, your fourth album has become a dark and more difficult to access concept album: ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’. Can you tell us more about the concept of the record and how you wrote it?
Actually, I wrote ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’ as a form of exorcism after the relationship with my then girlfriend broke down. It worked well for me, especially because it is still one of my favorite albums.
Until the early nineties, you, Hans, were the only songwriter in the group. That changed with the arrival of Mark Tan during the recording of ‘Nothing Lasts Forever’. The next album ‘Glow’ from 1995 – of which you released the early recordings after the bankruptcy of the record label as ‘Afterglow’ in 2015 – was an exercise in writing as a band, with creative input from all musicians. Were you satisfied with the result?
When Mark joined the band as a keyboard player, I got more of an urge to write together. This usually happened during rehearsals, where we took a riff and some vocals from me as a guideline to transform it into a song. I was very happy with this fact. It also brings more solidarity to the band.
Although the band has had many line-up changes, the brothers Mark and George Tan have been accompanying you on bass and drums respectively since the early 1990s. I can testify that you make a wonderful live band together. How do you explain that this line-up has lasted so long?
Actually, I see The Essence as Hans, Mark and George. The initial members and some temporary musicians did not leave as much of a mark on the band as Mark and George did. To this day, I still feel this way.
If I remember correctly, you haven't published any new work since 1996. During the performance at the Liège New Wave Festival you presented ‘Pearl Song’ as a new song, but the song has actually been around for years now. Do you have plans to release any new albums, and if so, what can we know about them yet? Do you have any other plans for the future?
In fact, we have almost finished the next EP, as far as you can still speak of such a thing in this streaming era. Due to Covid, we had to stand still for two years, but now we are slowly continuing with recording and especially mixing the EP. I expect this to see the light in 2024. As you have noticed, we have also expressed our intention to tour again, because we still think that is a great thing to do. Our performance in Liége was our first concert in Belgium, but certainly not the last.