Haken/To-Mera interview with Richard Henshall and Tom MacLean

Haken’s set at this year’s Night of the Prog Festival in Germany was extremely well received despite the early 12:15 pm slot. I had a chance to talk to two members of the band just a couple of hours later: Keyboardist/guitarist/main composer Richard “Hen” Henshall and bassist Tom MacLean. The idea was to conduct interviews with two bands in one go, as the two also play together in To-Mera, though in quite different roles with Tom as the guitarist/main composer and Hen just on keys. We decided to begin with the Haken part of the interview.

Michael Schetter with Tom MacLean (center) and Richard Henshall (right). Photo by Dave Mola

Michael Schetter:
How are you enjoying Night of the Prog so far?

Tom MacLean:
Probably the highlight of our career, I think.

Richard „Hen“ Henshall:
Yeah, we never played to this many people before. And it’s our first time in Germany, so it’s a really big deal for us.

"We never played to this many people before" - Haken at Night of the Prog 2011. Photo by Dave Mola

Just so you don’t have to correct me at some point during this interview – how do I pronounce the band name correctly?

Hen:
Haken as in bacon. That’s how we think of it.

What does it mean?

Hen:
There’s no meaning, really. It came from kind of alcohol-fueled gatherings between me and my friend and we thought it’d be a nice name purely from the sound of it. There’s no deep meaning behind it.

You didn’t really think that it might mean something in German when you chose it…

Hen:
(laughs) Yeah, we found out it means “hook” in Germany?

Yeah…

Hen:
Yeah. And it’s a Norwegian king. So it kinda worked out alright!

Tom:
And “knitting” in Dutch or something.

Hen:
We do love knitting, so it kinda worked alright out in the end.

You’re just working on your second album. How is that coming along?

The new Haken album Visions, coming October 2011.

Hen:
It’s very intense. For the last month it’s been non-stop, really. I would be working, coming home, recording the parts. And literally the day before we left to come here, we were recording right until the last minute. So it’s been very intense, but we’re almost there now. We got two more days or so left and it’s sounding pretty good, I think.

Tom:
There’s only the guitar solos left, I think, which we can record at a later time anyway. That’ll be fine.

After the CD is in stores, right? (Tom laughs) I think it was Allan Holdsworth who supposedly once heard one of his recordings and wanted to re-do one of his solos, but all the producer could tell him was “It’s already in stores, Allan!” Anyway, do you have a tentative release date yet?

Hen:
Hopefully mid-October. We’re playing ProgPower USA in September, so we’re gonna sell some copies there ahead of the release and we’re planning to release it right around the 15th of October.

Tom:
Also, we’ll bring some copies to Generation Prog in Nürnberg the week after. Well, I hope we’ll have some spare copies. We tend to only bring about 10 CDs to every show, so…

Hen:
Yeah, I think we brought about 200 less than we should’ve to this show ’cause we sold out within five minutes, I think…

You had a full album’s worth of demos before your first officially released CD. With Aquarius being a concept disc, obviously it all had to hang together. But did you get to revisit any of the demo stuff for the new disc or …?

Hen:
No, it’s all completely fresh, actually. We decided to write in one bulk so the songs linked together.

So it’s a concept disc again?

Tom:
(nods) Another big, overblown concept disc. Even more epic than the last one!

Hen:
We are still unsure about the concept, you’d have to speak to Ross. I still don’t even understand the Aquarius concept. (laughs)

Tom:
Yeah, we haven’t been briefed on that!

Hen:
I’m pretty sure it’s loosely based around dreams. You’ll have to wait and see. Read the lyrics and you’ll understand, hopefully.

Tom:
Good answer!

Night of the Prog 2011: Vocalist and concept man Ross Jennings (left) with Tom (center) and Hen. Photo by Dave Mola

The new songs you played today were quite similar in style to the debut, but I don’t think there was any growling in them. Did you do away with that or is it still something that …?

Hen:
I don’t think it’s a conscious effort to get rid of the growling. More that that the sections in the new songs didn’t need growling. We haven’t actually got any growling on the album, but that’s not because we made that conscious effort. We didn’t feel the need for it, whereas with Aquarius some of the themes were a little bit darker in certain areas of the album, so…

You have several members who are or were quite active in other bands, sometimes even as leaders. How does the writing process in Haken work with so many composers in the band?

Tom:
It generally starts with Hen’s basic frameworks for songs. But this time around, although Hen is still very much the principal composer, there’s been a lot more… group editing, shall we say…

Hen:
Yeah, there’s a couple of songs where it’s been more a collaborative effort. One being Insomnia, being the main one where we had an idea for a song, but now, if you listen to it, it truly transformed into something new.

Much worse, obviously…

Hen:
(laughs) Obviously!

Everyone is happy with the song except for the guy who wrote it originally…

Tom:
(pats Hen on the back) He’s gotta compromise on one song!

Hen:
Yeah! So there’s a couple of songs which are collaborative, but obviously it’s the same idea where we bring the basic framework to the jams and everyone adds their own spice to it.

So Tom, for someone who’s a guitarist you play bass quite well! (laughs)

Tom:
Well, sometimes… Today I could hardly remember where I should put my fingers…

So which one was your first instrument, really?

Tom:
Certainly guitar. Bass I took on as a matter of principle after becoming tired with the lack of good bassists in our town. I figured, if someone’s gotta do it, it might as well be me. And my ego wouldn’t have been able to handle it had they found someone else to play bass. I had to step up to the mark. But I’ve been working on it since Aquarius… Whereas, I gotta confess, I was a little fresh to the bass, but I’ve been working a lot harder on my bass chops this time around.

So it’s not an oversimplification to say that you started playing bass for Haken?

Tom:
Yeah.

Charlie Griffiths (left) adds 8-string guitar riffing to the dense Haken sound. Photo by Dave Mola

Haken’s music is very layered and very complex, so when you play live – and even in the studio – you have two guys playing keys, two guys playing guitar. Doesn’t the bassist get a bit lonely sometimes?

Tom:
Lonely? I’m still suffering a bit from bassist inferiority complex, but I’m coming to terms with it. I mean, that’s partly why for Aquarius I decided to get a fretless ’cause I thought if I just got a standard bass, no one’s going to notice it. (laughs) So yeah: Ego, I’m afraid. But this time there’s a lot more six-string bass, fretted bass on the new album. A bit of slap, a bit more tapping. A bit more bass bass. Bass for bassists.

Hen:
There’s definitely a lot more space in certain sections of the album for Tom to lay down some cool grooves.

Hen, you also play two instruments, in your case keys and guitar. Since you’re also a keyboardist in To-Mera, is this your main instrument or did the guitar come first?

Hen:
I was about 7 when I started playing piano and I picked up the guitar when I was 12, so I’ll say I’m pretty more comfortable on the piano and the keyboards. So yeah, it’s my first instrument.

How does your approach to keyboard playing differ between the two bands?

Hen:
I think a lot of time in Haken I take a step back and Diego takes the lead keyboard role, but in To-Mera I’m the sole keyboardist, so I take more of a lead role. And it’s a different style of music, really – it’s more jazz-influenced. So I guess, naturally my playing style is going to be different.

Tom:
He gets to shred more on the keyboards instead of the guitar.

This makes for a perfect segue into the next section of our interview: I am here with Richard Henshall and Tom MacLean – not of Haken, but of To-Mera, for once!

Hen:
It’s been a long time!

Let’s start with a really creative, original question – what does the band name actually mean?

Tom:
Apparently, this is what I’ve been briefed to say, it’s based on the original name that the ancient Egyptians gave to their kingdom which was founded on the belief that science and magic should coexist in founding a civilization. Or something like that, apparently.

You have all of that memorized, right?

Hen:
I’ve never heard that one before! (laughs)

Tom:
That was the original one. It’s changed down the years.

What I think is quite apparent is that compared to most female-fronted metal bands, To-Mera have a very uncommercial style. Was this a deliberate decision or did it just come naturally for you guys?

Tom:
Well, if by “uncommercial” you mean failure to sell CDs, then yes, you’re probably right. (laughs)

I mean, the music is a lot less accessible than bands like Nightwish or Epica.

Tom:
When the band started originally, it was kinda supposed to be quite an avant-garde kind of thing. It was actually founded by Lee Barrett, who’s no longer involved, but he was the label manager for Elitist Records and they signed a lot of very extreme technical, out-there avant-garde bands. I met him and Julie through a random coincidence, but I happened to know both of them through their individual backgrounds. Julie had just left her previous band and wanted to form a new band, Lee wanted to form a technical metal band, we all just get together and wrote riffs on a laptop and produced some songs. I don’t know if there was any deliberate intention to be inaccessible.

It doesn’t have to be a negative thing, it can make you stand out from the pack in a way…

Tom:
It has pros and cons, because we did want to try to be an original and technical female-fronted metal band. But it does create problems when the bulk of the audience and the media are kind of looking for the next Nightwish and Within Temptation. So the bands we tend to play with quite vary. Something we just play with goth bands and it’s a bit odd, because we take whatever comes, really.

You parted ways with Candlelight Records after two albums and released your next EP independently. How did that work out for you?

Earthbound was the first To-Mera CD to feature Hen on keys.

Tom:
It was a steep learning curve, really, because in some ways we got signed so quickly, we didn’t even know where we were or what we were doing. We were kinda mothered by this label, who at the same time were very distant and hands-off, and we weren’t really sure what we were supposed to be doing. And we reached a point where we realized they weren’t really that interested in the direction we were taking. They basically expressed disappointment that we wouldn’t pursue a more commercial vein. We thought “This is not gonna happen”. So we did the EP in the space of about a week a couple of years ago, put it out there on our own, and it was obviously a lot different from when you’ve got a label pushing things. Suddenly we were there without any muscle, but it’s kinda seeped through gradually.

Are you going to try to hook up with a different label for the next album?

Tom:
We got a few ideas and I think the main thing is to actually have a product that we’re all gonna be happy with and agree on and kind of take it from there. Rather than try to find a label first, which in this day and age without a product in the first place is not very likely, we’re just gonna try to put something together and see if it’s worth marketing.

Are you already working on new material these days?

Tom:
For the last couple of months everything’s kinda been on standby ’cause we’ve been finishing off the Haken record, but there’s plenty of stuff to work on when we get back to it. So yeah, there will be plenty of new stuff.

I thought the EP was quite different stylistically from the previous albums. What kind of further development can we expect?

Hen:
Well, Tom has written a lot of the ideas already. We’ve had a couple of rehearsals about four months ago or so and I’d say the songs are flowing very nicely and if anything, it’s taken a softer approach to the music. But you still have the hardcore riffs and the jazz harmony, so it’s still in the same vein.

Tom:
It’s gonna be recognizably the same band, but I think there might be a few more hat tips to the earlier style as well, the darker stuff, eventually. But we still got time to flesh that out.

Hen, as the new guy in the band, which of the old To-Mera tracks is your favorite to play?

Hen:
Well, I love Delusions. I’ll say Hourglass for me, it seems to have a great energy, it’s a really good crowd pleaser. But the whole album is really fun (Tom pats Hen on the back).

Did you incorporate another guitarist into the To-Mera live sound now that you’re in the band? Do you play both instruments on stage?

Hen:
We’ve tried it once, didn’t we? We did a cover of…

Tom:
Queensryche… (laughs)

Hen:
Yeah! I kinda messed that one up a bit. “Is this my spot?” And I missed my solo, so that didn’t really work out too well. But who knows, in the future…

Tom:
I think there’s scope for it, we just have to work out how to bring it in. We still got the same musicians that we had for the Earthbound EP, we’ve gotta consider how to make our sound continuous between the all the different albums whilst trying to bring in new things at the same time. Hopefully, Hen will be doing some guitar work, but not making me look like an amateur. (laughs)

Hen:
That’s never going to happen!

Tom:
We’ll just cut out some of his notes. (laughs)

Hen:
And then we’ll put them on your solo! (laughs)

To-Mera has been around for six years and in other countries you’ve already opened for bands like Dream Theater, Emperor and Pain of Salvation, but you’ve never played in Germany. How did that happen?

Tom:
It was funny, really. When Transcendental came out, the German press completely trashed it, to be frank. Basically, I remember the first Metal Hammer Germany review we got and I think it was a one-line review and it went something along the lines of “Where are the choruses? 1 out of 10” or so. We didn’t get off to a good start with the German crowd, unfortunately. I think over time our music might have become more pleasing to the German ear, but unfortunately everyone was looking elsewhere…

To-Mera today: Only two of the original members remain.

Now to my favorite question: You’ve put out three CDs and you’ve had three member changes. Who’s next?

Hen:
(laughs)

Tom:
Probably me…

Hen:
Me, man. I’m out!

Tom:
It’s a good question. (laughs) No, seriously, I’m not gonna give you the answer you expect that I’m gonna give. We’ve kind of been thinking slyly that we’re gonna incorporate a lot more guest musicians on this next thing. Because so far the basic sketches we’ve got down are quite diverse and in some ways would benefit from having a mixture of different people whilst retaining the same core band, getting a mixture of auxiliary musicians to kind of add to it.

What kind of instruments are you thinking of?

Tom:
Well, I mean anything from something as conventional as a piano to things like ethnic instruments and percussion.

Some jazz instruments like saxophone…?

Tom:
Possibly. We’ve done the saxophone thing once before. We had a few guest musicians on Delusions, it made it quite quirky in places. I think that’s something we’d like to try. I’m not saying we’ll turn into some Ayreon project or something, just flesh out this… This comes from having been so heavily involved in Haken for so long where everything is so multi-multi-multi-layered. I mean, the average track has about a hundred different instruments on it or something. You realize there’s a lot more scope for additional parts and such. So we’re probably going to use some extra singers. Julie has some talented female singer friends who may well feature… I mean, we haven’t thought as far ahead as actually doing it live yet, but in terms of recording we are thinking about adding some extra singers and whatnot. I can’t say who they are yet, but some of them are quite well-known.

OK, to finish this off, name one somewhat recent CD that everyone should hear!

Tom:
I’m just gonna have to say Jasmine by Keith Jarrett and Charlie Haden, ’cause it’s a very beautiful album of jazz ballads. Just piano and bass, acoustic bass.

Hen:
I recently discovered a new band, they’re called Shaolin Death Squad. I really like them. It’s kind of like a mix between Mr. Bungle and Pain of Salvation. And what I like is the album Five Deadly Venoms, so check that one out, it’s a really good album!

About the author: Michael Schetter plays bass in the instrumental prog fusion project Relocator whose debut CD featured former Dream Theater keyboardist Derek Sherinian as a special guest. Michael is also the organizer of the Generation Prog Festival and concert series.

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