Haken Explains Story Behind "Visions," Favorite Bands, And Musical Training
Progressive symphonic metal band Haken from the UK is on the verge of releasing its second bit of work, titled “Visions,” on October 25th. However, ProgPower USA XII attendees were able to pick it up a month ahead of time at the festival this last weekend. In one of the early set spots on day two of the festival, Haken was the perfect cure for the ProgPower hangover. The crowd largely greeted them with a good response.
The band was out and about with the attendees when not on or in the backstage, and made it a point to drink down at the local gastropub. In the pit area the night before their performance, bassist Thom MacLean and I had a good talk about his other band, To-Mera, which is also a critically acclaimed prog act. After their performance the next day, guitarist/keyboardist Richard Henshall, vocalist Ross Jennings, Drummer Raymond Hearne, and Thom met me in the vendor room for a more formal interview. We discussed the recording of “Visions,” the stories behind their two albums, the band’s musical training and formation, and the merits of the other ProgPower bands.
Frank Serafine (Progressivity_In_All): The debut album, “Aquarius,” came out in 2010. “Visions” is already out to ProgPower attendees, but the rest of the world next month. What influenced the decision to release it a month early for ProgPower?
Richard Henshall: Well, it was mainly the label’s choice to release it. They thought it’d be a good idea for people attending the festival to have a little treat – To hear the album before people buying it later on.
FS: How was the studio process this time around for “Visions”?
Richard: Very stressful. Obviously, because we have to get it done by a certain time to get it ready for ProgPower. It was a very intense two months when we were recording our parts.
Thom MacLean: But ultimately, it was the same process as with “Aquarius.” We recorded everything at home, in our own little mini studios. We’d send each other the parts. In that respect, it was quite well controlled. The stress wasn’t apparent in the end result.
Richard: Yes, the only thing that was really recorded in a studio are the drums. So he kinds of bears the brunt of the stress for all of us. Like Thom said, we take all the parts home, record our parts individually in the comfort of our own home. So, not so stressful.
FS: I noticed you (Thom) were using an Avalon compressor going into your bass amp on stage.
Thom: I was just given the Avalon. I didn’t even know what it is. I just use a little Mark bass head. That does it for me. I don’t use any effects. I like the natural straight through the head sound. The Avalon was so that it could go down and, they’re basically recording all the shows. So every channel was DI’d down into the studio in the basement. So, I guess they had to compress my signal. I don’t even know what it is?
What does a compressor do anyway?
FS: Lowers the peaks, raises the troughs of the signal. What was the songwriting process like? What instrument does it start on?
Richard: Well, yeah, I kind of initially come out with the framework. I send the framework to the guys.
Raymond Hearne: And I tell you what, it’s amazing.
Richard: We take it to the rehearsal room and then we kind of flesh out the ideas. Everyone adds their own spice to it. But for “Visions,” the majority of it was written on the guitar, which has given it a bit more of an edge, whereas “Aquarius” was largely written on the piano.
Raymond: Having said that, “Visions” is very symphonic. You can say it’s quite guitar-based, but if you weren’t told that… It’s still huge symphonic music. Not necessarily more guitar-based…
Thom: There’s maybe a few more riffs.
Thom: But there’s still the big symphonic element. It’s still the same band.
Richard: But I’d say it’s a bit more raw than “Aquarius.”
FS: Are these all patches you’re working with or real symphonic instruments?
Raymond: Well, actually me and Diego [Tejeida, keyboardist] sort of arranged… Since I go to a music college in London, I’ve got quite a few good contacts in the classical music industry.
FS: Oh, so there are real strings on the record?
Raymond: Some of it is real. Some of the more exposed bits are real. We’ve got a string quartet, and if you’ll notice, there’s a few sections on the song “Visions,” the opener on the song, which we played tonight, is real strings. There are a few other moments where, for example, the end of “Insomnia,” which is the third track, where it’s the same quartet, but it sounds like massive strings because we’ve layered it.
Then, one of my house mates is a great French horn player, so we got him to lay loads of stuff down as well. There’ also big brassy bits. So it’s kind of a mix between some great samples that Diego and Hen (Richard Henshall) use and some live strings and horns.
FS: “Visions,” the song, clocks in at 22 minutes long.
Raymond: (laughs) Something like that, yeah.
FS: Can you tell use the inspiration behind that song?
Ross Jennings: Visions? Sorry, just catching the end of the conversation. I just joined you, by the way! “Visions” is based on a premonition of my own death. It’s the first song that I wrote, lyrically. So the rest of the album is based around that song, but it’s probably not the best starting point on the album.
The whole album is based around the story of a young boy who sees his own death in his dreams and believes it’s going to happen and spends the rest of his life trying to avoid it. There’s a bit of a mystery around that. I’ll let the listener discover the mystery there. “Visions” is the ending point of the story, but in a way, it comes full circle to the beginning. I don’t want to reveal too much!
FS: Can you tell us the inspiration behind a couple of other songs, like on Aquarius?
Ross: Sure. “Aquarius” is a completely fantasy tale. (laughs) It’s a fantasy tale about a mermaid who is discovered by a fisherman. Each song progresses and has its own meaning itself, but the story itself starts with the mermaid being discovered. There’s a circus in town, and this mermaid is sold off to the circus. There’s a global warming issue thing going on there. Actually, a flood occurs!
But we’ve got to have some issues in there and make it meaningful. There’s a global flood coming, and it turns out that the mermaid’s blood is the only kind of “medicine” to cure the human race from extinction. She has to die to…
Richard: The ultimate sacrifice.
Thom: It parallels what’s going on in the world right now. It’s a good message.
FS: So who has to die for the real world to be saved?
FS: Too deep, huh? We’ll just leave that!
Richard: Yeah, man, that’s going too far.
FS: So how long has each one of you been playing music, and are you self-taught or have you had training?
Richard: Well, I started playing piano when I was 7. I was classically trained. I started playing guitar when I was 12 or 11, and I taught myself guitar. I was taught drums as well, for a while, and clarinet. I went for a few grades on the clarinet, but then I sort of turned my back on it and failed. I wouldn’t really say I’m a clarinetist at all.
Raymond: Similar to Hen, actually, I started on the piano around 7-ish, classically trained for awhile. I took up the euphonium when I was about 9-ish in primary school. Then, when I was about twelve in secondary school, I then converted on to the tuba. Around the same time, I started playing drums. I’ve sort of kept everything going since then. Now I’m studying at a music college in London called Guildhall, playing a tuba most of the time and playing the drums as well.
Ross: Myself, I’m just a natural musical genius. (laughs)
Thom: BORN ready!
Ross: I actually grew up learning the guitar, but I’m not as good as the guitarists in the current lineup of the band.
Ross: I just discovered that I could sing quite good quite well and went from there.
FS: The crowd seemed to agree.
Ross: It all comes from the heart, really, I suppose.
Thom: I studied classical guitar when I was 10. Then, I switched to electric when I was 14. I started playing bass when I was 25.
Richard: When we asked him to!
Thom: Because there was no space for any other guitarists in this band. (laughs)
Richard: I heard To-Mera on their Myspace and thought, “Wow this is really mindblowing stuff.” We ended up contacting Thom and we met up for a drink and went from there, really.
Raymond: “You’re so good, you need to learn the bass and join our band.”
FS: That’s a rather unorthodox invitation.
Thom: I never regretted it. Playing bass really puts a different perspective on the way that the band’s music needs to be put together and the elements that are important in creating a good group sound. As a result, I’ve been forced to swallow my ego and it’s probably been for the better (laughs) to be honest! So I love it.
Now, I’m starting to kind of actually understand the instrument and really get into it and I love it. It’s cool.
FS: We’re at ProgPower, so obviously you guys are interested. What bands are you interested in seeing?
Thom: (to Richard) Don’t lie. Be honest.
Richard: Well, Vanden Plas. I quite like Vanden Plas. We actually saw them and played with them in Germany. Really nice guys. We caught a bit of their set the first day. Evergrey, I’ve got a couple of their albums from back in the day. Saw a bit of those guys. They are really cool. While Heaven Wept, we’ve heard some great things from those guys. They’ve just done a set. They sounded really cool.
Richard: These guys got a deeper knowledge of music and bands within this genre.
Thom: I’ve seen quite a few of these bands at European festivals before. For me, it’s Labyrinth, because they’re just a freak show. Sweep arpeggios the whole time. Ridiculously high singing. Typical Italian music! (laughs)
Ross: Myself, I was at the American embassy in London, applying for my Visa, and she was asking me about these bands we’re playing with and this festival. I really don’t know, I haven’t heard any of them before. My tastes are a bit more mainstream, so this is a bit of an education for me. I’m getting into new bands this weekend.
FS: That’s always cool to hear, that a band is getting into new bands.
Thom: And the interesting thing about this band is that, prog and metal are all concepts and elements that unite us in our interests, but intelligence is stuff that we usually play and usually listen to. It’s completely worlds apart, but it’s how we’ve met together and decided this is the common ground. Most of us do stuff that is nonrelated to metal.
Ross: I listen to Aerosmith. I’m a country western fan, too.
Raymond: I come from a similar sort of standpoint from Ross, actually. Evergrey, when I saw the setlist, the only band I knew was Evergrey. I’ve got loads of their stuff and I really enjoy it. Call me a fool, but when we saw them, we must have been jetlagged.
Ross: We were a bit jetlagged. (laughs)
Raymond: We were pretty drunk, but… It’s completely not their fault!
Thom: “It’s not their fault!” (laughs, mimicking Raymond) What? What are you talking about?
Raymond: No, no, no… the sound, it’s just…
Thom: Well, it was a bit dead.
Raymond: I couldn’t… I had a few beers.
Thom: We discovered that this morning! (laughs)
Raymond: But, if anything, I just didn’t really connect. It was the sound, I don’t think it was that great. The other kind of thing is… This festival’s called “ProgPower USA,” but I get the impression that it’s much more power metal-based. But then again, the whole progressive genre is kind of vague a lot of the times.
Thom: Yeah. Sometimes it’s more of a misnomer. It’s more regressive.
Raymond: I get the impression it’s much more of a power metal festival.
Ross: I think we’ve got a nice band that’s prog and power.
Thom: And CIRCUS music.
Raymond: I don’t know Labyrinth before Thom said…
Thom: They’re pure power. In the purest… It’s like if you were to choose a single malt whiskey, they would be the ultimate.
Raymond: Above Helloween or Sonata Arctica?
Thom: Yes. If you imagine Sonata Arctica on speed, that’s what Labyrinth sounds like.
Raymond: In which case, I’m very happy for the prospect of Labyrinth playing a couple of hours.
Thom: (sings some Labyrinth lyrics in a falsetto voice)
FS: So what are some of your favorite albums, in general?
Ross: Well, prog-wise, “Dark Side of the Moon,” obviously. I’m a big Aerosmith fan, so I’d probably go for “Toys in the Attic.” What about you guys?
Richard: Well, growing up, me and Ross used to love a band called Gomez.
Richard: No, seriously. We grew up with this shit, man. “Bring It On” and “Liquid Skin” were two massive albums when I grew up. I’d say “Remedy Lane” by Pain of Salvation.
Richard: Obviously, beautiful album.
Ross: Yeah, we used to listen to Tupac! (laughs) I think I didn’t have much hair in those days. I was a bit of a skinhead.
Richard: There’s a variety of stuff.
Raymond: I think I’m one of the few proper [Iron] Maiden fans in the band. I know Ross is a big Maiden fan as well. Muse, as well, actually. Earlier rock-based bands. Then Pain of Salvation, and we’ve all got that common ground with Dream Theater.
Ross: Spock’s Beard, “Snow,” is one of my favorites.
Raymond: Virtually everything Pink Floyd has done.
Ross: So many influences out there.
Thom: I think if I had to sell my entire record collection and just keep one band’s worth of discography, it would be Guns N Roses. I say any Guns N Roses, but I mean any Guns N Roses before 1993. That time, for me, that was the first band that I got into and I still think of them as a supergroup.
Most people use that term, “supergroup,” for a bunch of musicians from different bands that come together, but every musician was doing the best that they could possibly do in their role. As a result, the band was greater than the sum of its parts. Since “Use Your Illusion II,” I can think of few bands that…
Okay, I’m a Textures nut as well. I’m obsessive. But before Textures came along, G’N’R. Guns N Roses.
Raymond: Textures is unbelievable. They’re from Holland. They’re fucking unbelievable.
Thom: They’re kind of a modern prog movement. As far as progressive goes, they’re the vanguard, the absolute pinnacle.
Ross: I think it’d be wrong if we didn’t mention something like “Metropolis” by Dream Theater.
Thom: That’s a given!
Raymond: We actually love Opeth as well.
Richard: Yeah, “Still Life” was one of my favorite albums. But yeah, Dream Theater, “Scenes from a Memory.”
FS: It seems every progressive band can trace its roots back to Dream Theater.
Ross: I mean, definitely. We got into them big time just after “Metropolis” and “Six Degrees of Inner Turbulence.”
Thom: I still think “Awake” is the best album.”
Thom: “Images and Words” is the most well-known.
Richard: I heard “Erotomania” and I was like “WHAT am I DOING? I really need to learn how to play guitar.” (band laughs)
(5-minute side discussion of Dream Theater here)
FS: Do you guys have any tour plans for the US?
Ross: No, but we want to.
Richard: Ideally. We all work, but ideally, if we could get on a support slot for a bigger band, that’d be really cool.
Ross: We’ve just really enjoyed our time in America in the short time it has been. We’d love to come back and see more, and what the country has to offer. The fans are great! There’s a market for our music here and we need to get on that.
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