Marcel Fisser: ‘Always the guitarist: but I am much more than that’

‘I’m going to quit.” He had spoken the words after the performance, during a dinner with the band. Even before the meal, as he had planned. Add a glass of wine, it was hard enough.

There was a silence. And then the questions. “And we?” “What now?” “We are one together, aren’t we?”

They’ve known each other for so long. Gathered as the musical setting of Ruth Jacott twenty-five years ago, then fused. Permanent backing band of Nick & Simon, Jan Smit, the TV program Dear Singers. Played with all major artists in the Netherlands and Flanders, at least five days a week on the road together. Three, four tours at once. Pop, rock, jazz, classical, country, latin, life song, metal: everything flawless. Rehearsing? Not necessary. When one starts, the other knows what to do. The bass player, steady. The drummer, very tight. The backing vocals, color makers. The keyboardist, gluer. The blazers, confident.

And so he, Marcel Fisser, the modest guitarist who oversees it all, also leader of the Marcel Fisserband, the most famous backing band in the country.

Fisser tried to explain it to his fellow band members that evening. That he has discovered that he is more than his instrument. That he only now knows who he is and what he finds important, as a person, and that a role even more in the background suits him better.

Now, three quarters of a year later, he hasn’t stopped yet. And it won’t, for now. Fisser is going to play less, and the band will continue to exist. But his intention is certain: a new way.

But you know how it can go into retirement: suddenly you’re dead

“Ah, here I have it.” Marcel Fisser rummages through the stuff in his son’s drum room and pulls one out. An Otwin Harmony from the fifties. “Look, his name is on it: NF Diets. That was my grandfather Nappie.”

He turns the tuners for a moment and strikes some chords, sitting on an office chair in his home studio, which can be reached via the utility room. “This guitar was the first I ever heard.”

When Fisser came to visit with his parents as a little boy at the flat in Amersfoort, Grandpa Nappie was always playing on the couch. A little bit of humming. Jazzy, country-like. And it wasn’t even his notes that touched Fisser, but the way in which. The feeling his grandfather put into it.

In hindsight, he thinks, in that tone was his grandfather’s life history. Indonesia. The Japanese camp. The Netherlands. New start. To adjust. Not stand out. Never talk about it. “In his songs there was sadness, hope, melancholy. Maybe that’s what I heard or felt then.”

Is music about hearing or feeling?

“When I am really touched, I feel it. Goosebumps. Tears in my eyes.”

Do you ever have that?

“Yes very often.”

When?

“Usually live, when something intense happens on stage. That’s the magic isn’t it. That’s what we try to achieve as a band. We have a good energy together so sometimes it happens. But you never know when. And sometimes it doesn’t happen, even though you’re playing the exact same thing. Then it just doesn’t lock. Or one band member says ‘fantastic!’ and the other ‘terrible!’”

While you both hear the same thing, right?

“Yes, but you don’t feel the same. That is the difference.”

And what exactly is that magic?

“Well, I do not know. I don’t really want to know either. Because then…”

A longing, that was also in the guitar tone of his grandfather Nappie. Once in the Netherlands, like many Indo-Dutch people, he had opted for security. A government job until his retirement, then back to Indonesia. That was his dream. “But you know how it can go into retirement: suddenly you are dead.”

It was a moment in Marcel Fisser’s life when he realized: don’t wait for later, life is now. Another such moment: the early death of his father, aged 42. Fisser, nine years old, hardly remembers anything about that time, but according to his mother he was only behind the guitar after that. All days in his room, playing the Eagles LP, country music cassettes, playing along.

Play, play, play, that was all Fisser wanted in his life. He had nothing to do with school, took eight years on the mavo, then another attempt at havo – his mother’s wish – and then the conservatory. And play wherever he could. Initially at weddings and parties and later, through Willeke Alberti, into ‘the circuit’. Always say yes to everything because everything was always fun. Getting as much out of life as possible, that was also behind it. Because he thought he was going to die early, just like his father – “you get something like that in your head, don’t you?”

When was your playing style formed?

“At the conservatory I was trained as a guitarist-guitarist. There I learned to play very technically and I was guitar-player at my best. But only then do you develop your own style and become a musician.”

An instrument, is that an extension of the person?

“Yes.”

And you are…

“No screamer. You have people who like to be in the foreground in everyday life. They do that on their guitar too. Long solos, lots of notes. But I’m not into it. I don’t necessarily have to play a solo either, not at all. I’m actually not much of a talker, not even on the guitar.”

And when you talk…

“Then it must be hit. Over the years I’ve started to leave out more and more. Only play the notes that matter. They try to get to the core.”

Modesty, is that a requirement in a backing band?

“In a band you need different characters, which is good. Our drummer is a crowd pleaser, our horn players are too. They stand. Never doubt in their tone. But the most important thing is: we can all play in the service of the artist we accompany. We can completely efface ourselves, empathize with someone else’s music.”

Empathic ability.

“Yes, musically. And we can do that immediately, the first time we play with an artist. How does he want to sound, what does he want to hear, how do we get rid of everything superfluous to get to the core?”

What is the lack of redundancy?

“Well, you miss the message. That as a listener you can hear the singer singing, but get distracted by the pianist, the guitarist, the drummer. That there is way too much going on in music.”

It’s about the core.

“Yes, it’s about the core.”

And does that also work in your daily life?

Smile: “Getting better.”

The Netherlands doesn’t have that many backing bands at such a high level, so who is good is often asked. Marcel Fisser has been receiving daily requests in his mailbox for years – Toertje? Performance? master class? Play in? – and he always said ‘yes’ to just about everything. Morning, afternoon, evening: always music. And when he became a father—two kids—he may have stepped it up a notch. Because which musician has a livelihood? He invariably picked up the children from school at lunchtime, but otherwise the agreement was: he left his career, his wife – with whom he has been together for 38 years – at home.

It has provided him with a bungalow in Leusden that is large enough to organize garden concerts. Alain Clark, Ruth Jacott, Tim Akkerman; in the corona summers they all came by. And in his studio, the walls are covered with gold records. Songs he has contributed to, all kinds of national hits, from Gerard Joling – 10,000 sold singles – to Davina Michelle – 60,000,000 streams.

I loved it, in the evening on the couch with my family. Netflix!

Making music has never felt like work, still not. And Fisser has also passed this on to his children: if you think something is too crazy, go for it. How often does he see people around him who have obtained a diploma and who do not yet know what to do? Grumpy to work every day. His son Micky, “who also thought school was terrible”, is now a drummer in Dré Hazes’ band. His daughter Jennifer runs a nail salon. “They went for it.”

Photo Andreas Terlaak

But in the corona time, when Fisser stopped in one go – switched back from “playing five, six nights a week” to zero – he also got to know other sides of himself. “I loved it, in the evening on the couch with my family. Netflix! I had never genetflixed, ever. I didn’t know what happened to me… At home, with my wife, and with Jennifer, because her nail studio was closed too. We played sports together in front of the TV. Cooking every day. I had always been just the guitarist, the musician. But then I found out: I am much more than that. I am also a father, I am husband, neighbor, friend of some people. I became very aware of that then. And I don’t want to lose those sides of myself.”

When everything opened up again last year between two lockdowns, the band members were happy to be able to play again, except for Marcel Fisser. “The performers continued where they left off – same jokes, same repertoire – as if nothing had happened. But I had changed. I didn’t like it. The sound was bad, the musicians out of shape – myself included. And I couldn’t imagine that… I just didn’t like it.”

When did you first say no to an assignment?

“That already happened with small requests. But a big assignment with someone I really don’t like? I used to take it, but I don’t do it anymore.”

What can make an artist unpleasant?

“We band members are behind it, on stage, that’s a different perspective. We also see the transience. Artists come and go. A lot of money is earned very quickly, but that also affects people.”

You see artists…

“Slide away, sometimes. Walk next to their shoes. Suddenly four managers are standing around to give them a drink. Then I think: act normal. And social media doesn’t help. They disappear into it, get distracted by it because they think they need it for their career. Likes, likes, likes.”

And what happens to characters?

“Then we lose our core. Because everything around it gets too big, literally.”

The core, that’s what it’s all about. And yes, he still loves the band, the goosebumps when they play together have not disappeared, and there must also be bread on the table. But a little less bread, he realizes, is fine too.

Marcel Fisser has chosen something that makes him happy now. His family, the production of major music shows behind the scenes, such as Dear Singers. And… Nashville, cradle of country, the music of his grandfather Nappie. “I’ve never been there, but all the music I love comes from there.”

He’s going there next month, for two weeks. His publishing house has arranged everything. Meetings with artists, with whom he can write songs, and a big car. He also liked Klein, but status is important to them in the US. “I was introduced there as the man with the gold records in the Netherlands.”

Which guitar are you taking?

“This…” Fisser pulls one from the rack, an acoustic one. “This is a Santa Cruz, handmade in California. My favorite guitar. Small, compact. Because I am only a little man.” He puts his arm around it and starts to moan. Smile: “It just looks good on me.”

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