If you have been keeping a close enough eye on the modern scene in prog rock, you have no doubt heard of Haken, a virtuosic group of musicians who took prog by storm in 2010 with their opus ‘Aquarius.’ Now only a year later, these talented artists are back with another excellent record. Richard Henshall and Ross Jennings from the band were kind enough to take some time out of their schedules and give us some insight into the band, their music, and their ‘Visions.’
Conor: How are all of you doing?
Richard Henshall: All is good in the Haken camp. It has been an exciting and eventful year for us, so our spirits are high. We’ve had the opportunity to play at Night of the Prog festival along with likes of DT and Anathema, and we were also lucky enough to perform at Prog Power USA, along with many other great acts. They were huge gigs for us and were a step up from anything we had done in the past.
On top of all the gigging, we’ve been working hard on our second album, ‘Visions’, which has just been released. Individually and as a band we have tried to push our boundaries with this album by expanding upon the ideas laid down on our debut album, ‘Aquarius’. We’ve poured our hearts and souls into this album!
Conor: How would you describe your music to someone who has not heard it before?
Richard : I have always thought of Haken as a celebration of music, and feel that our sound is too broad to be pigeon holed into one specific genre. We have songs that juxtapose zappa-like quirkiness with extreme metal riffage, as well as Dixie land jazz sections with sweeping solo classical piano. Our music travels through various soundscapes and different emotions, taking the listener on a journey. There is also a strong cinematic vibe to our sound, which acts like a harmonic thread that binds our music together and compliments the conceptual lyrics.
Conor: How did you get started with music? How were you led to join/form the band?
Richard: My Mum’s a piano teacher and my Dad’s a music enthusiast so I was introduced to music from a young age. Being in this environment sparked my ambition and led me to start playing the piano at the age of 7. I also experimented with playing the drums and clarinet for a while until I discovered the guitar when I was about 11 and haven’t stopped playing since.
About ten years ago, Matthew Marshall (ex guitarist), Ross and I used to meet on a regular basis to have casual jams in our bedrooms; this is when the idea of Haken was born. Over time we began to take our chosen instruments more seriously and formed a pact that we would each go and complete our studies before persuing the band any further. So three year later, we returned from our universities and have gradually built the band into what it is today.
Conor: What is the creative process of Haken? How do you first get ideas for a song, and how are they then fleshed out into larger compositions?
Richard: I’ll usually get an idea for a melody, riff or chord progression whilst practising, which I’ll then play around with for while to allow it to grow naturally. When I feel it’s ready to be developed further, I’ll program it into Logic and begin constructing a song around it. This is the part that takes the most time; for example, the title track on ‘Visions’ took me about a year to write!
Besides strong melodies and emotive progressions, one of the most important things to me, whilst writing, is the overall flow of the piece. I feel it’s crucial to have a healthy balance of light and shade within each song and also the album as a whole. Therefore I dedicate a lot of time in creating smooth transition between the contrasting sections.
Once the framework for a song is complete, I send it to the rest of the guys who provide feedback. We then take the songs to the rehearsal room and begin adding flesh to the structures. This is when everyone adds their personality to the tracks which brings them to life. I feel blessed to be working with such a talented group of musicians.
There were also a couple tracks on ‘Visions’ that were more of a collaborative effort. For instance, Diego and I wrote ‘Premonition’ together. We met regularly over the space of a few months, bouncing ideas of each other until the piece was complete. A lot of the ideas from this track were built around the main themes that appear throughout the album. ‘Insomnia’ was pretty much a song we wrote in the rehearsal room as a band. It’s a great representation of all our eclectic tastes.
Conor: Highly conceptual lyrics are a trademark of Haken. What is Ross’ inspiration and process for putting these stories together? Do lyrics come first, or the music?
Ross Jennings: Conceptually, the process for both Aquarius and Visions were similar. Richard would have some musical ideas and share them with the band. At the same time I would be mapping out some themes and narrative ideas and discuss them with Richard so that the music and lyrics would be coherent. As the arrangements come together, the lyrics will be written with more attention to detail and edited to lock in with the music. On occasion, the vocal melody ideas that I come up with will influence the direction various sections take, that’s all part of the team-work that shapes the final piece.
On Visions, the verses and choruses on the first half of the title track were among the first lyrics written for the album and the story evolved from there as the music was written, whereas Aquarius was pretty much mapped out before any music was written.
Aquarius is purely fantasy. That was the sole intention, to be all-out prog cliche, but at the same time, you can find deeper meanings and themes within the songs such as love, death, and sacrifice.
Conor: Last year, you released your debut album ‘Aquarius’, which met some wide acclaim and excitement from the prog community. What are your reflections, looking back on the album? Is there anything you may have wanted to do differently?
Richard: We we’re completely blown away by all the positive feedback we received for ‘Aquarius’, it was beyond our wildest dreams to get such great critical acclaim for essentially something we love to do, we couldn’t have hoped for a better start to our career. When looking back at any work you’ve done in the past, I guess it’s natural to find points which you’d like to improve, as tastes change with time. However, I feel ‘Aquarius’ has a certain charm that represents where we were at that time, and successfully built the foundations for where we are now.
Conor: Haken’s follow-up album ‘Visions’ is now upon us in 2011. What is different for Haken this time around?
Richard: I came up with a lot of the initial ideas for ‘Visions’ on the guitar, whereas the majority of ‘Aquarius’ was written on the piano, so naturally each album has its own vibe. Generally, ‘Visions’ feels heavier than our previous work and leans towards the metal side of the prog spectrum. However, there are still plenty of nutty keyboard breaks to keep the listener entertained. There are two instrumental tracks on this album, which gave us the opportunity to build some of our wackier and experimental ideas into whole pieces. There are also a few shorter and more digestible tracks which help the overall flow of the album, they’ll hopefully give the listener a bit of respite between the lengthier songs. I’d say our Piece de Resistance is the closing title track, which has many of the themes that occur throughout the album. It’s a lengthy beast that combines many of the elements that make up our sound; there’s plenty of riffage, Zappa-like-quirkiness and even a west end inspired theatrical section. If someone asked me to describe our sound to them, I’d save my words and point them in the direction of this track.
Another important thing to mention is that we have a live string quartet in various parts of the album, which was an effective way for us to reintroduce certain themes in a different context. The quartet did an amazing job of enhancing the pathos within our music; there are a few moments that really tug at the heartstrings. In the spirit of including live orchestral instruments, we decided to ask a friend of Ray’s, Joey ‘Dah Lipz’ Ryan, to double all of the brass parts with his French Horn, which turned out to be very effective and made our grand sections even grander!
Conor: Briefly describe the concept of ‘Visions’. It appears to be a little more complex than ‘Aquarius’…
Ross Jennings: The concept of ‘Visions’ spawned from a dream I had where I saw my own demise that felt insanely real! The idea of confronting one’s own death fascinated me, so that was the initial inspiration. Throughout the writing process it developed into a more complicated story exploring themes such as the nature of consciousness, the transience of life and a couple of the tracks on the album explore the concept of dreams within a dream. Our narrative is told through the eyes of an innocent boy, who has a nightmare in which he is murdered – it seems so real that he convinces himself that it was a premonition and spends the rest of his waking life trying to track down his killer, whilst mentally preparing to meet his death, perhaps leading to his psychological undoing. All is revealed in the closing 22 minute title track, but ultimately it’s up to the listener to decide how much was real and how much was imagined.
Conor: How did Haken record their material for ‘Visions’?
Richard: We recorded ‘Visions’ in the same way as ‘Aquarius’. Ray recorded down his drum parts first, which were engineered by John Papas at Hardbeat Studios in Wembley. Each of us then took the drum tracks home to our personal studios and recorded our instruments over the space of a month or so. We then hired a microphone and recorded the vocals, over a two week period, within a makeshift vocal booth in my loft.
We decided to ask Chrsitian ‘Moos’ Moschus to mix ‘Visions’ as we were extremely impressed with his work on ‘Aquarius’. In my opinion, he has surpassed himself with his work on this album. We sent him dry signals for all the guitar and bass tracks, which he later re-amped through an Engl Powerball amp.
Our recording schedule was incredibly tight as we wanted to make the disc available, ahead of release, to everyone attending Prog Power USA, so you can probably imagine that it was pretty agonising at times. To add to the intensity, we had to prepare for our performance at Night of The Prog festival, conveniently placed right in the middle of the whole process. Thankfully the gig was a success!
Conor: What prog rock or metal bands have you been listening to lately?
Richard: I recently came across a great band called ‘Shaolin Death Squad’. Their latest album, ‘The Five Deadly Venoms’, is a superb album that was released last year. To me this band sounds like an interesting cross between Mr Bungle and Pain of Salvation. The album also shares its name with a classic Shaw Brothers kung fu film, which is what initially grabbed my attention.
I’ve also been listening to a lot of Gentle Giant recently. To me, they are the epitome of prog, they represent everything that is right about this vast and colourful genre. I just wish I could travel back in time to see the whole line-up in action, I’m sure it was a joy to behold!
Conor: What advice would you give to someone first starting music and trying to ‘make it’ in the prog world?
Richard: Back in the day, when Haken was in its embrionic stage, I used to practise for many hours, preparing myself for when the band would actually become a reality. I used to tell myself that practice, patience and perseverance would equal success. Practice is crucial for building your technique andmusicality, without it you’re not going to progress at all. Patience is alsoan essential tool; no one will be able to play like Malmsteen in a week! And lastly, you must persevere at everything you do; it’s about having the resilience to keep pushing yourself to the next level.
I guess everyone’s musical journey will be different as each individual has their own dreams and aspirations. One thing I’m certain of is that to achieve anything worthwhile you need to retain a certain level of self discipline; I guess the level of your discipline should depend on the size of your dream. There’s nothing more satisfying than fulfilling your ambitions.
You can apply the same philosophy to running a band. It is important that the group rehearses regularly to build chemistry and comradery. Bands need to be patient, not only when writing songs, but also when waiting for their break; it will eventually happen if you persevere. I think it’s important for bands to have aims, so they have a clear idea of where they’re heading. Back in the early days of Haken we set small realistic targets which over time turned into big dreams; to this day, we’re still working towards achieving them.
Conor: Any final comments?
Richard: Thanks to everyone who has already purchased the album, and to those who haven’t… what are you waiting for?