Harm van Sleen is a Dutch multi-instrumentalist (mostly bass and pedal steel), singer, songwriter, arranger, and teacher. Currently with Men in Blues (on steel, guitar, mandolin and vocals), the Freelance Band (on keyboards, steel, mandolin and vocals), Anke Angel (on bass), Leo Koster (on bass and pedal steel) and Wouter Kiers (on bass). Musical director for United by Music. Teacher at Het Klooster, Woerden, the Netherlands.
One cold morning in 1965 Harm was born in Utrecht, in the Netherlands. His childhood was spent in countries as diverse as Syria, India, Algeria, Zambia, and the USA. By the time he was fourteen, the traveling had become a thing of the past, and he's lived in the Netherlands ever since.
Education and influences
In 1984, Harm enrolled at the conservatory in Hilversum in, majoring in electric bass, and graduating in 1989. The conservatory was a jazz oriented school. From 1989 onwards, his activities as a working musician commenced, both as a steady member of various bands and as a freelance allrounder. The lifestyle of change and variety became a much-loved habit: doing concerts in barns, living rooms, theaters, concert halls, outdoor festivals, bars, radio and tv shows; at home and abroad (including performances in Belgium, France, Spain, Germany, Switzerland, Lithuania, Norway, Denmark, Sweden, Romania, Croatia, Slovakia, Ireland, England and the USA); backing up famous artists and emerging talented unknowns; getting the VIP treatment one day and suffer abuse the next - no two gigs are alike!
A few bands need special mention. Harm's first professional band was with Jaap Dekker's Jazz & Boogie Set, from 1989 through 1993. This was a very important experience, and an education on many levels: the band used no charts and never rehearsed so good ears and a good sense of anticipation were mandatory. Weird stuff would happen too, involving clashing personalities and some funny situations that live on in tall tales regularly repeated by those who were there.
Moving from blues to a jazzier environment, in 1993 Harm joined a band in the Hot Club de France style, Capelino. Another great experience, and a chance to develop acoustic bass skills. But the blues was still a big part of the picture when Harm joined Mr. Boogie Woogie's Firesweep Bluesband in 1994. A real high energy band, with lots of vocal harmonies that helped develop Harm's vocal skills. They also performed a couple of Harm's songs, even achieving minor success with Holy Boogie, Harm's attempt at fusing gospel with boogie woogie.
Other bands that had a profound influence on Harm's musical development include the Dicky Greenwood Band and the Wouter Kiers Trio, two very different groups (one a soulful blues quartet, the other a jazz and jive trio) that involved a lot of spontaneity, no rehearsals, and an eclectic repertoire. Harm learns that he's happiest in bands where every band member plays an important and active part in every aspect of the music - where there's not a strict division between bandleader, frontman, sidemen or backing musicians, and where you never know what's going to happen next!
In between gigs with steady outfits there would be many performances with just about anybody who would call - after all, variety is the spice of life. Particularly inspiring where collaborations with Tom Salisbury, Pinetop Perkins, Lisa Otey, Candye Kane, Steve Grams and Danny Krieger - highly talented musicians and impressive personalities that profoundly influenced Harm's approach to music.
Harm's contribution to the blues community was recognized when the Dutch Blues Foundation presented him with an award as Best Dutch Blues Bassist of 2011.
These days his regular bands are Men In Blues and the Freelance Band. Men In Blues is very spontaneous; led by the amazing Chris Koenen, this band has the ability to put across many different styles convincingly, old style acoustic blues, country music, rock & roll, but also incongruous stuff by including a song by, say, Steely Dan, or jazzrock stuff. You never know. Freelance Band on the other hand sticks closer to the original arrangements and performs only original songs, mostly written by bandleader Philip Kroonenberg.
Meeting musical heroes: Garth Hudson
Another important experience was a 2004 trip to Woodstock NY to meet a few musical heroes, including Garth and Maud Hudson, John Simon, Levon Helm and Jim Weider. John and Garth especially were generous with their time, sharing fantastic stories about many of the musical milestones that had such an important influence on Harm's musical development. Shortly after arriving in Woodstock, Garth showed up late at night at the hotel, jumping down the hallway to deliver a couple of bags filled with candy - it was Easter weekend!
John Simon sharing memories of many fantastic recording sessions with The Band and other artists, perorming new and old songs at a private concert in his living room, offering some very tasty homemade soup, and then asking for help with moving a couple of rocks in his garden. Then there was the Midnight Ramble at Levon Helm's barn, and a visit to Rick Danko's grave, and Big Pink, and the Bearsville Studios. An experience that taught Harm many important lessons:
1. Musical heroes are human, not mythical, and can actually be wonderful people
2. Normal people are capable of producing music of great importance
3. Musical heroes stay true to their musical vision
Only one logical conclusion could be drawn from these life lessons: it was time to work on some original music.
My own music
Bassman's Holiday (2005) is Harm's first album. A highly personal album that features contributions of many close musical friends and guest appearances of family members, lyrics of a very personal nature, and an eclectic collection of songs that betrays influences as diverse as Elvis Presley, Steely Dan, bluegrass and jazz. Perhaps too diverse for mass consumption, but reviews were positive, and one song, Brown Paper Bag, received an honorable mention in Billboard's Song Contest 2005.
In Harm's Way (2007) was the result of an attempt to front a band that could perform the material of Bassman's Holiday and more, a collective known as The Sleen Gang. One of their concerts was recorded and produced the bulk of the material on this cd. Still, despite terrific contributions by guitarist Erik Rutjes and keyboard wizard Frans Heemskerk the release of this cd was not the huge commercial success Harm had hoped it would be.
The Secret To Success (2016), while boasting a title that sounds very smug and self congratulatory, is an account of the more difficult stages in life, when marriage falls apart, parents die, good things disappear and illusions are smashed. Recorded with Men In Blues augmented by some of the best sidemen available, musically it's still diverse, incorporating old time swing, Hawaiian and cajun influences, and includes a duet with blues diva Candye Kane.
Besides performing Harm also spends a few days each week as a teacher, working at various music schools - currently at a very wonderful music school in Woerden (the Netherlands) known as Het Klooster. The challenge is always, how do you discover the origins of any problem the student might have - if a rhythm isn't performed correctly, is it for lack of a beat, or is it lack of dexterity, or a misunderstanding of how the notes are divided in relation to the beat, or is it something else? This almost feels like detective work. Then when the real problem is identified, some very basic exercises will usually do the trick and the student will suddenly take a huge step forward. This is rewarding work, and usually benefits both the student and the teacher.
In addition to all this, occasionally there's the odd composition or arrangement to do for various projects. And last but not least, Harm works as a musical director and bassist for the United By Music organization, where talented musicians with intellectual disabilities get a chance to develop their talents. What a long, strange and lovely trip this has been! Working with people with intellectual (and sometimes physical) disabilities requires a different approach - telling each person what to play doesn't work, most don't read music, and it's hard for some to remember anything at all. Thankfully they all have great ears and our vocalists are dedicated and are good at remembering melodies and most of the words to their songs. At first it took some time, but these days playing a song just once is often enough to get a good result. The repertoire includes over a 100 songs by now, and runs the gamut from songs made popular by early pop and jazz singers such as Doris Day, Frank Sinatra, Ella Fitzgerald, to fifties rock & roll, Elvis Presley, Fats Domino, Jerry Lee Lewis, to sixties pop songs by the Beatles and the Rolling Stones, and more. The project is very successful and has impressed audiences all over the world.
Interview for Simone's Songlines