Guitarist Jan Van der Poorten about the story of Belgian band Explorer
Although several metal bands appeared from Belgium during the 80’s and released some albums, they didn’t manage to have commercial success, they remained on an obscure level. There were a lot of outfits as well, that – despite being talented or skilled – never had the opportinity to introduce themselves to the fans on albums. One of them were Explorer and former guitarist Jan Van der Poorten told us his views and thoughts about the band’s entire history.
Jan, do you still remember how and when did you discover hard rock/heavy metal? what did you find so exciting in this music?
When I was about 10 years old, I played my brother’s records (Deep Purple, Led Zeppelin etc.) and that is how I got interested in hard rock. Especially the guitars and vocals got my attention.
At which point did you decide to play an instrument and to become musician? Did your choice fall right away on guitars?
My brother was a lighting technician in a local band and he had a guitar in his room that I played regularly to no avail. It was not until I was 17 that I started learning to play electric guitar because Ivan also played guitar and so the passion for the guitar was born.
What were the musicians, artists, records etc. that exerted the biggest influence on you?
In the beginning it was mainly songs from the 60’s/70’s that I played on acoustic guitar. Only after 1,5 years, I switched to electric guitar and the N.W.O.B.H.M. from the late 70’s and early 80’s were a big influence. Bands like Judas Priest, Saxon, Deep Purple, Rainbow and especially Ozzy Osbourne: Randy Rhoads had a big influence on me.
It seems, explorer came into being, when singer Armand „Armando Don Beast” Thiébaut and guitarist Ivan „Yves Lancelot” De Strooper (both of them Revival) joined forces with you, Jan „Jay D. Vamp” Van der Poorten on guitars and with brothers Marc „Speedy” Haentjes on the drums and Hubert „Bertus Bomber” Haentjes on bass (previously Highest Stage). How did it happen? What type of music did these bands play?
Ivan and Armando and I had known each other for a few years from school and sat together a lot at bars where we mostly talked about hard rock/punk and heavy metal. Mainly Armando was into punk while Ivan and I were pure hard rockers. We started jamming together on Sunday afternoons in my room and writing songs. After a few months, we contacted Marc and Hubert to start a band. They agreed quickly and so we started rehearsing in the attic at Marc and Hubert’s house in 1982/1983.
From what I know, it wasn’t easy to persuade Hubert at first, as he had to switch from guitar to bass in order to join, was it?
Indeed, Hubert played guitar and it was not easy to convince him, but Ivan and I had been playing together for months and had already laid the foundation for some songs that convinced Hubert to play bass anyway. Ivan then bought the Marshall amplifier from Hubert, I bought his Gibson Les Paul Custom, and off we went.
Were you immediately on the same wavelength both humanly and musically, by the way?
Ivan, Armando and I have always been the driving trio behind Explorer since the beginning.
Neither Revival nor Highest Stage ever released any demos, nor played live. What were the reasons of it? For how long did these outfits exist at all?
These were previously projects of some friends, novice musicians who also never got beyond the rehearsal room.
Is it correct that for the first couple of months you didn’t have a name, you just rehearsed for the fun of it and around mid 1984 you decided to call your band Explorer, simply because all guitarists played on an Explorer guitar?
Yes, that is right. There was a bit of discussion about a name and there were some suggestions but never was everyone satisfied with one name, and then the idea of Explorer came up because everyone played on an Explorer.
At the late 70’s/early 80’s in Great Britain emerged the N.W.O.B.H.M., did it somewhat influence your musical taste around those times? Did you start to entrench yourself in the underground scene?
Of course, this was a very big influence on us. Suddenly heavy metal bands were popping up like mushrooms and it sounded very nice, too.
Would you say that in Germany happened also a great metal explosion at the same time?
Germany had its Scorpions as a great pioneer. Later many others joined them: Accept, Destruction, Grave Digger…
How about the Belgian scene as a whole? Which bands were pioneered the Belgian scene?
The scene in Belgium, early eighties, consisted mainly of Killer, Crossfire, Ostrogoth and Acid. All other bands came after that and with a few exceptions never reached the same level.
The Heavy Sound was a metal festival that took place in the early 1980’s three times: in 1983 in Bruges, in 1984 and 1985 in Poperinge. Did these events help a lot to put Belgium on the map of heavy metal and so the country latched on to the international heavy metal bloodstream?
These festivals helped spread the music in Belgium with some legendary bands on the bill and always with a Belgian opener, which was very successful at the time. But the gigs in Forest National, the rock temple at the time, remain for me since 1980 the norm in hard rock Belgium. Almost every month you had one or more metal gigs there, you usually ran into the same people who you then also ran into at the festivals, and so you knew everyone in the metal world. You also had some very famous/infamous bars where everybody went.
Were these festivals as famous, legendary as e.g. the Reading festival?
Reading was still of a different caliber. It is unfortunate that Heavy Sound could not continue after irresponsible events. It had certainly grown into a festival of the caliber Reading after a few years. Unfortunately, history has decided otherwise.
You came from Zele, near Lokeren, where also Trial (previously Metal Breaker) came from. How susceptible were other towns in the country for metal? I mean, did heavy metal/hard rock have a strong background, support, fanbase, follower in bigger towns of Belgium?
Yes, in Zele there were two bands, Trial and Explorer and even though we were good friends, there was always a bit of competition. Do not forget that the guitarist of Trial was Ivan’s brother.
How often did you rehearse? Did you take the band seriously?
We rehearsed three times a week: on Wednesday, Friday and Saturday afternoon. When we had a performance on the weekend then also on Monday.
Did you start writing originals right away or did you focus mainly on playing covers?
The first cover we played was. Strangers on the Shore by Bitches Sin. However, we immediately made our own songs and played this song at only one gig. We had managed to get a demo from Metallica before Kill ’Em All was on the market and from that we then covered Seek and Destroy. It was strange we played it live in the beginning of ’84 while it was only released in ’83. Live we had a lot of success with this cover.
Three demos (Demo I, Burn the Witches, Demo III) were released in 1985. Would you exposit your thoughts regarding those materials, in terms of recording, songs, performance, sound?
The first year we just made songs and the quality evolved as we rehearsed more and more. However, in terms of style and form, we were immediately in harmony.
Was the demo III way more representative of what the band was like in those days?
As a starting group, it is always searching for our own style, our own sound. Of course, we were also influenced by what was happening around us. Both domestically and internationally. However, we have never been a copycat of any particular band. We always went our own way and made the music we liked to play at the time. There is a difference between the early Explorer and the Explorer of a few years later, but that is peculiar to any group.
Were they spread around in the tapetrading/fanzine network? Were you aware of the importance of that new metal movement?
Yes, of course. Right after our first gig we had a conversation with a man who wanted to do the management for us. Without this person (Roger De Buyzer) Explorer would never have had the opportunities that we now have. Roger really did everything for us. He arranged all the gigs and contacts at home and abroad. All we had to do was make the music and Roger did the rest.
What did that period mean for you?
Like all members of the band, we thought a life as a musician was a possibility.
How do you recall of the band’s performance at the first Hard and Heavy Festival at the Gildenhuis venue in Zele on March 23rd, when you shared the stage Exocet, Trial and Iron Grey with?
That was our first big gig in our hometown. Back then, there were still regular gigs on big stages in nice halls. It was also a confrontation with metal Belgium and how they sounded but I think we put down a nice performance there. What set us apart from many other Belgian bands was our stage presence. We always filled a stage no matter how big it was. Especially Armando, our frontman, was of an exceptional caliber.
Would you say that you gigged quite a lot at this point? Can you tell us more about your live appearances (Whiplash (magazine) Festival, Giants of Metal Festival etc.)?
We played once or twice a month, which was quite a lot in those days. As I said earlier, there were regular gigs with several groups and we were still there regularly.
What were your views on the Belgian scene at this time, when newer outfits started popping up such as Black Shepherd, Cyclone, Evil Sinner, Death Squad, Warhead, Lightning Fire, Brain Shake etc.?
The problem when several good groups emerge is that the competition gets bigger and bigger and the concert organizers have more and more choice to fill their bill. Everyone also ran into everyone somewhere and everyone knew everyone in the scene.
In 1986 you appeared on the Metal Race compilation along with your compatriots Iron Grey, Cyclone and Lightning Fire. Do you recall, how the offer to have a spot on this sampler happened?
This competition started with 96 Belgian groups, the best 10 groups got to play the semi-finals. The headliner of our semi-final was the French band Warning. The four finalists were assured of a place on the compilation CD. The headliner was Mama’s Boys. We were one of the four finalists together with Exocet, Iron Grey and Cyclone.
Did it help to expand your fanbase, to make a name for the band?
Our performances spoke for themselves and the music (speed metal) was a little different from what others brought. Many were still playing hard rock in the early 80’s and therefore we were a little different. This changed in the mid 80’s under the influence of Metallica/Slayer and the death metal scene. Then some ventured into trash metal but few were successful.
As a direct result of being second in the Metal Race event, Explorer would be able to sign a deal with Roadrunner Records, like Cyclone did, right? Were there maybe other labels’ interests in the band?
As a result of the Metal Race and the talks with Roadrunner, we actually stopped contacting other labels. Roadrunner was at that time a very big label in the metal world and we could not do better than that. After many talks, there was no deal for us after all. That was a bit disappointing at the time.
Early/mid 1986 you performed at several festivals, such as Battle of Death, Metallysee, Spettel Metal, but you played in Holland as well. How did those gigs go?
Sometime in the second half of the 80’s we went to Holland for several gigs. There in addition, we played some festivals but mainly our manager laid the foundation for what would later become the base for Dead Serious.
Did you manage to do headliner shows, too?
We have never been headliner at big festivals.
The band planned to release a split EP with Cyclone in March of 1986, but in the end this never happened since Cyclone released their debut LP instead. Plans to enter the studio again to record your first full-length, to be entitled Belgian Warriors, had to be cancelled as well, since the deal with Roadrunner never turned into reality. What happened?
We had a lot of contact with Roadrunner and were dazzled by their offer therefore we did not look for a record deal anywhere else. The deal never went through. Roadrunner already had a deal with Cyclone for a debut album.
Did you have a complete material for an upcoming album written?
Yes, we had enough material to fill an album with.
Your last effort was the served as a meal demo in September 1986. How would you qualify the music of this material compared to the previous ones?
The music we made the last two years was Explorer at its best I think. More mature alternating with fast riff’s and yet still melodic. Songs like Hell Death, Kiss to Kill, Served as a Meal, Hanging on a Rope already sound a lot more international than the first songs we wrote and yet you can still hear Explorer and that was the most recognizable thing about what we did.
Were all of you satisfied with it or do you think that you could have come up with stronger stuff for a debut album?
You do what you can according to the possibilities you have as an individual musician. We were never virtuosos individually but together as a band, we sounded the way we should and that was the most important thing for us.
In the spring of 1987 Explorer was negotiating a possible tour of Denmark and Germany with Destruction, but due to personal issues, the band had to decline the offer in the end…
This marked the end of Explorer.
In July 1987 Explorer was part of the Madison Metal Festival at the Cultureel Centrum in Lokeren, which became your last show, since later on that same month brothers Marc and Hubert Haentjes left and the band ceased to exist. What were the reasons behind their decision?
The possibility of touring with Destruction was not an option for the brothers Marc and Hubert. Therefore, we did not do the planned show in Denmark and this was the end of Explorer. However, our last show was in Ledegem somewhere in the late summer of ’87.
How do you view that the band never managed to display their skills live outside of Belgium and Holland?
Roger, our manager, did everything he could to get us on stage in France, but it did not work out. The deal to tour with Destruction in Denmark, Sweden and Germany would have been a perfect international springboard, but it did not happen.
Can you sum up all of your musical involvements after Explorer?
After Explorer and the split with the Haentjes brothers, Ivan, Armando and I, with the rhythm section of Trial, Gunny and Marc, formed Dead Serious in 1987. After a year of rehearsing with the same intensity, we started performing with a completely new repertoire. Dead Serious was a thrash metal band that also scored well in Belgium and the Netherlands. In 1991 the CD It’s a Nice Day was released. With Dead Serious we played on numerous gigs. However, the rise of the punk/crossovers was not so good for the metal groups in Belgium. We then spent two years playing almost exclusively in the Netherlands, then some more shows in Belgium. When our drummer Marc had a fatal motorcycle accident in 1993 we also stopped and formed Die Sinner Die with a new drummer (Jeannot Schram).
This was a more industrial oriented metal. Also with this, we performed between ’94 and ’96. After that, for private reasons, we stopped for good. In 2016, Die Sinner Die started rehearsing again after seven years of negotiations. Meanwhile, we are called Cult of Scarecrow and we have an EP (2018) on the market. This spring we will release our first full CD. Still playing Ivan, Gunny and I in this line-up. Armando had to drop out due to health reasons but still follows us and we are still very good friends.
Do you follow on a regularly basis, what’s going on in the metal scene?
Much less than before but of course I follow the Belgian metal scene because we perform regularly. The possibilities today are much bigger than thirty years ago. The internet and social media have made sure that you can enter everyone’s living room with your music immediately so the reachability has become so much greater. There is so much quality and variety today compared to before which is only positive.
Jan, thank you for your answers! What are your closing words for our readers?
Always follow your dream and never give up! The metal scene has changed so much in this period (1982-2021) but if it is in your blood then age does not matter. Enjoy your favorite music and support the local bands because it is very hard to get your music out there.
You can find a lot on YouTube about Explorer – Dead Serious – Die Sinner Die. Check us out on YouTube/Facebook/Bandcamp/Spotify and find out the Legacy of Explorer… Cult of Scarecrow.
Thank you for your interest in a band that also shaped the Belgian metal scene more than 35 years ago. Currently preparations are underway to finally release Explorer on CD/vinyl in its former glory.
Jan, Ivan, Armando