My love affair with UK progressive metal band Haken is well documented both on manofmuchmetal.com but previously in the pages of Powerplay Magazine where I was writing when this young band burst onto the scene in 2010. Their debut, ‘Aquarius’ was a glorious discovery, one of those records that is equal parts raw talent, genius, daring and absurd brilliance. Needless to say I have closely followed their career since, watching them release album after album of high quality material along the way, deservedly garnering new fans at every turn. It feels a long time ago that I sat in their beat-up tour van at ProgPower Europe in 2010 interviewing the promising newcomers.
“I remember that interview like it was yesterday”, responds vocalist Ross Jennings with genuine warmth over a surprisingly clear Skype connection. I’ve always been treated very nicely by the whole band, honouring me with a thanks in the liner notes for both ‘Visions’ and ‘The Mountain’. And it’s like I’m chatting with a long-time friend rather than an interviewee from one of my favourite bands.
“It’s gone pretty fast if you think of it like that”, he continues, “although we’ve crammed in quite a bit. Very happy with the progress we’ve made as a band and where we’re at six albums down the line. The prospects are promising still. In a sense, we still feel like we are trying to make it, but it’s good and we’re having a good time.”
If I’m completely honest, the growing success of Haken is a double-edged sword from a personal perspective. On the one hand, I’m delighted that a special band is getting the recognition that they deserve. But, on the other, I can’t help thinking back wistfully to the days when I could be in a small ‘crowd’, able to easily enjoy the music from right in front of the stage. These days, I’m lucky if I can get within 100 feet of the band, damnit.
“We found that was very much the case across the tour with Devin [Townsend – 2019]”, Ross agrees, with a surprised tone to his voice. “We went into that not expecting anyone to know who we were. All things considered, we did turn a few heads and make a new few fans. We were chuffed with how many Haken shirts were there already; it was good, a success for sure.”
“When this all started to unravel in a big way, we were still touring in the US”, Ross answers when posed with the inevitable question regarding the current Covid-19 pandemic. I mean, I had to raise it, given how it has shaken the very foundations of everything we hold dear, including the music world.
“We had to cut that tour short and took a bit of a financial hit to be honest with you. But it’s one of those things and we’ve had great support from the fan base, to the point where some made donations to tide things over and help to soften the financial blow a little. That was really, really appreciated and just goes to show the power of music, the effect it can have, and the support we have out there.”
So incredibly serious is the current situation in which we find ourselves, that everything else seems to have fallen off the radar, including the dreaded Brexit issue. But before the pandemic, that was the biggest threat to the music industry and I put all this to Ross, who responds in his usual, unflappable and relaxed manner with a hint of understated humour.
“Bit of a double jeopardy there isn’t there?”, he chuckles. “Brexit hasn’t really been on our minds though through this. We are lucky that we do have this album that was ready just in time, so there’s activity on that front. I do feel sorry for bands who don’t have anything to put out or had things postponed. They have to make ends meet elsewhere. We have the online platforms that we can utilise; we have embraced the Twitch generation. It is early days but we’ve been hosting some question and answer sessions, playthrough videos and other fun stuff. I’ve seen across the board lots of concerts from home and solo performances which are really cool. It is something that there wasn’t a lot of before. In terms of getting out there, doing our job, making money on the road, it really is just up in the air at the moment.”
“Charlie and myself put this concept together of ‘Vector’ and ‘Virus’ back right at the beginning of 2018”, Ross replies when I broach the somewhat prophetic title of the new album. “I traced an email from February or March of that year when we were plotting the course of the next two records. Like I’ve been telling everyone and it’s the honest truth, the concept was born then, the titles were in place, the overarching narrative was plotted back then as well as a lot of the music. But yeah, the irony is not lost on us, in terms of what we’re all going through. There’s just a bizarre synchronicity to it all; it’s crazy that we found ourselves announcing this album with this title at the very point that this virus was breaking out.”
Those that know me often accuse me of thinking too deeply about things, and I’m apprehensive that this may be one of those times. Nevertheless, having had it on my mind, I have to ask Ross whether he’s worried in the slightest about the fact that some might accuse Haken of callously cashing in on the current pandemic. Ross’ reply is incredibly honest and sincere.
“Of course, you can imagine the conversations we were having on the tour bus. We were wrapping up the mixes as things started to unravel in a big way. We were aware of it on the horizon with what was happening in China but we had no idea that it would unfold this way. We had thought about the implications of keeping the title, and what people might say. It was no surprise that on the day of the announcement people said, and maybe still do think, that it’s a bad idea and we’re being unsympathetic. My hope is that people will be able to separate the art from life. It reminds me of the situation with Dream Theater and ‘Scenes From New York’. They were releasing the live album with the Twin Towers in flames. It was due for release on the day that it happened or the day after. And they pulled the production. Some people said to me that they wish they hadn’t done that because it was like a memory of the time. In a way, thinking about it like that, I’m happy that we stuck to our guns with the title. The label did contact us to say that we could delay the record or pull the production. They told us there was no right or wrong but the option was there. We didn’t want to throw away two or three years of work and artistic expression. Hopefully it will act as some kind of sadistic souvenir to remember this time. The music prevails in the end, I feel.”
Putting the issue of the title to bed, it’s time to focus on the actual music on ‘Virus’ I’m in the middle of reviewing the album, so I don’t want to give too much away at this point. Suffice to say that it is the Haken album that I have most immediately taken to in a positive way for some time. I begin by inquiring about the writing process, which somewhat accidentally hit upon a positive new experience for the sextet as I find out. Ross explains:
“Obviously, we’d mapped out a lot of stuff but not all the music was in place. The touring that we underwent in support of ‘Vector’ took a lot of time out of what we had planned to spend on finishing the writing for ‘Virus’. Chunks of the ideas were in place but we didn’t have fully fleshed-out songs that we were necessarily happy with. It wasn’t there y’know? The touring set us back in a way, but we found this opportunity to utilise the time had together on the tour. It was a blessing in disguise that we had procrastinated in that way because the best stuff came together with us all in the same space on the tour bus. We made this makeshift studio in the lounge area of the bus and we were able to go back and forth with ideas. The creative energy that was there, really turned out to benefit the album tenfold. Coming to fully formed ideas can take a long time if you’re sharing files online. When you’re in the room bouncing ideas off each other, it feels like a real band and it was a really rewarding time.”
“I hope we do go back to that”, Ross offers, clearly enthused by this topic of conversation, “because it really proved to be beneficial and we all enjoyed the experience. I had been trying to persuade the guys to do that for ‘Vector’, to hire a place and stick together for a few weeks. For whatever reason, it didn’t come together and we just continued in our old ways. In light of this, I hope we do this again. We’re not like Nirvana, bouncing around three chords”, Ross jokes good-naturedly, “it’s complicated stuff, so naturally you have to come to the room with some pre-prepared idea of what you’re going to write. So it’ll probably start off individually but then I think if we did get together like that in the future, we’ll be producing good records.”
Before I get the opportunity to interject with another question or observation, Ross seems keen to further explore the writing process. Finding this topic fascinating, I’m more than happy to take a back seat and listen intently.
“It’s all a massive puzzle to put it all together”, he states with classic understatement. I wouldn’t even know where to begin and neither would a good 99 per cent of the population. “And it was even more of a challenge as it was stretched over the two albums. We already had a definite idea that we’d finish the two records with a long piece, like a grand opus to sum up everything. That was preordained and we had a 13 minute demoed version of that already in place when we were writing ‘Vector’. But there were also bits and pieces that didn’t fit on ‘Vector’, so we had to pull out and re-work the ideas into completely new songs. Once we had an idea of what was happening on ‘Vector’, we had a better idea of what to keep to the side to develop for later on. That’s pretty much it; bits and pieces, a couple of formed songs…but we even scrapped a couple of the songs that we had, completely scrapped them and started afresh when we got together. I believe that ‘Canary Yellow’ was one of those that was started from scratch.”
If I had one observation, not even a criticism, of ‘Vector’, it would be that it felt a little short in length and I missed a classic Haken ‘epic’. The reasons for this become clear once Ross addresses this comment.
“It was cheeky of us in a way because we knew this was going to happen and we were fully aware of the, not disappointment”, he muses, “but the comments about ‘Vector’ missing that big piece that the fans are used to us doing. All the while we had this up our sleeves and we hoped the penny would drop once people heard ‘Virus’ and the relationship between the two albums. We really wanted ‘Vector’ to be a really solid, shorter record anyway; that was always the intention anyway.”
“We were totally aware that this might be the reaction to ‘Vector’”, Ross further offers in direct reference to my observation. “But we were happy with the decision. As I said, it was a bit cheeky of us, I suppose.”
I have to say that I’m unsurprised to hear Haken acting in a cheeky fashion like this, because one of the most endearing qualities of the band has been their ability to inject a little fun and humour into their music.
“I totally agree”, Ross agrees when I suggest that this humour, occasionally self-deprecating, is one of the keys to their continued popularity. “We try to draw a balance between taking ourselves seriously and not taking ourselves seriously, which is often evident on stage and on our Facebook posts for example. But also the music as well. All the musical jokes are in there too; writing a double album about a Cockroach King is one of them, even though it can be, and should be, taken seriously as well.”
I was lucky enough to catch Haken as support for the afore-mentioned Devin Townsend in late 2019. I even wrote a review about it. Being a musical legend with such a varied back catalogue, I wonder aloud whether any inspiration was consciously (or subconsciously) taken that influenced the music on ‘Virus’. Ross pauses for a few moments, clearly thinking hard, before offering his answer.
“I can’t say that there’s anything that’s directly influenced. With anything in life, things can seep into the subconscious but off the top of my head, I can’t honestly say that we were, well, stealing from the master if you know what I mean”, he laughs. “We had a lot of this in place before the tour, but it was a great experience watching Devin. That tour we were doing with him was quite a left-field turn for him anyway. What was inspiring about him though, was his conduct backstage and the way he approaches his shows before he goes on. He’s always looking for a state of calm and zen, which was quite inspiring for me as a performer – not running on stage all tense was a real help to our performance. It’s no secret that I was a massive fan of him growing up. His work on ‘Terria’ was one of my favourite albums in high school and just to be able to meet the guy and share a tour with him was out of this world.”
And on that note, because it’s never a good time to pause an interview, we’ll leave it there. But join me in Part 2 when, amongst other things, we continue discussing the writing process, Ross’ vocals, concept albums, and the future for Haken.
End of Part 1…
‘Virus’ is out on 5th June on InsideOut Music.