If you missed it, Part 1 can be read right here.
If you’ve already checked out the first part of my interview with Ross Jennings, vocalist with UK progressive rock/metal band Haken, then thanks for returning. You must be gluttons for punishment! So, before you change your mind, let’s get on with Part 2 of my recent interview with Ross…
In the press release from the label, it is remarked that ‘Virus’ might be the band’s most eclectic release to date. Bearing in mind the nature of albums such as ‘Aquarius’, ‘Visions’ and, well, most of their albums, that’s an incredibly bold statement to make. I offer the chance for Ross to respond with his take on this soundbite.
“I don’t know who coined that phrase about this record”, he chuckles once again, underlining the relaxed nature of our conversation. “People who know ‘Aquarius’ and ‘Visions’ shouldn’t expect that kind of eclectic in terms of passages of music that meander into circus music and that kind of stuff. That’s been done as far as I’m concerned in the Haken world and who knows if it will ever come back. But it’s certainly eclectic in terms of how we approached various songs. There’s a song like ‘Prosthetic’ that’s massively influenced by bands like Fear Factory, Meshuggah and Gojira. And on the flip-side, there’s ‘Canary Yellow’ which is pretty much inspired by Elbow, Radiohead and the softer side of Porcupine Tree; that kind of indie music. So there’s definitely songs across the board on this record. Even within one particular song, ‘Carousel’, which takes you on a bit of a rollercoaster ride through the heavy and the smooth, so I think that’s where people are coming from when they talk of it being eclectic. It’s all in the rock context, but there are the two extremes and they’re both on display here. I think people will appreciate that the whole spectrum is on offer.”
I’m feeling smug at this point, because my first reaction to hearing ‘Prosthetic’ was ‘is this Fear Factory?’. Maybe my reviewers ear hasn’t yet deserted me. But despite the overt heaviness of the opener, I remark to Ross that ‘Virus’ feels less heavy than it’s predecessor. Interestingly, as Ross reveals, others have a different impression.
“The jury is out”, he counters to sounds of my incredulity, “because I’ve heard some people say that this is our heaviest. I don’t know that I agree though because I think it is broader; the heavy parts are heavier and the softer parts are softer and I think that’s what should be taken away from this record. ‘Vector’ was more consistently heavy but this has a few more ups and downs I would say.”
“That’s the intention when we approach our songwriting”, Ross responds when I suggest that heavy or not, there’s a lot to digest on every Haken record, with ‘Virus’ being no different. “We want to create those layers and hide those details. After the sixth, seventh, eighth listen, you’re hearing something new and that has always been our mandate if you like. We’re not in this to write three minute pop songs that get forgotten in six weeks, y’know”, he laughs warmly. “So I’m glad that’s the case.”
Bearing in mind the detail contained within the music on ‘Virus’, it must be a headache to ensure that the production does justice to the compositions?
“Absolutely, and we were very thorough with the demo process that we went through, to ensure that all those details were locked in before we even started tracking the final version. It was definitely a challenge for Adam but he’s a legend. He’s a master actually, in terms of what he brings to the sonic palette. We did create some challenges for him but I feel like he came through for us. The last two records have had his stamp on them, production-wise.”
“It is certainly a craft, to pave my way through all that chaos, and to come out with something that is strong, clear and memorable.”
This is Ross’ opening response to my musings about being a singer in a prog band, especially a prog band known for extended passages of instrumental shredding, noodling and the like. “It’s part of the art, I guess. It’s always an adventure. Sometimes I have to deal with five other people who have strong opinions about what the vocalist should be doing, so that’s another part of it. But we spoke earlier about being in the same room and I think that played a big part in my performance in the end. When we were demoing, even the vocal lines were going back and forth amongst others. Connor, Roay or Rich might say ‘try this’ or ‘try that’ and we just shaped it together as a band. The alternative would be me, individually, trying to figure it out on my own and it would then be accepted or declined. So this was a much better way of being able to express myself but also keeping everyone else happy.”
Without wishing to sound like I’m fawning to my interviewee, I remark that Ross’ vocals have got stronger with every album, to the point where I now feel like his voice is both quite unique and entirely synonymous with the Haken sound. In typical British fashion, I can almost feel Ross’ discomfort from the other end of the laptop, but he doesn’t completely recoil from the compliment.
“I appreciate it, of course. But I never considered that I had a particularly unique voice to be honest with you. My style is very much inspired by Guy Garvey (Elbow), Thom Yorke (Radiohead), maybe a bit of Matt Bellamy (Muse), maybe a bit of”, he pauses, before clearly thinking better of continuing with that train of thought. “…no, maybe not. Anyway, I never considered myself to be a metal vocalist at all. I always thought I’d be writing indie songs. So the journey has been a bit of a challenge actually in some ways. I’ve learned a lot, I’ve trained myself over the years and I’m quite happy with how my voice sits in the metal context now. Probably, that’s what is sounding original to a lot of ears, which is really cool.”
“As a musician”, Ross continues, happy to deflect the attention elsewhere, “if you’re not willing to learn and improve, and just appreciate that there’s somewhere to go, then there’s no point doing it. We’re always hoping that our next record will be the best one. That’s always been our mentality. ‘Ok so this is good, but album number seven will be the one!’ You learn from every record you make, that’s what I’m saying. There is so much merit to take from ‘Aquarius’ and ‘Visions’ but I think all of us feel like our songwriting and individual craft has come along so much since then.”
With the band celebrating their tenth anniversary since the release of their debut full-length ‘Aquarius’, I’m interested to find out whether the music they are writing now was what they had in mind a decade ago, or whether Haken have morphed into something completely unforeseen. Ross takes his time before answering.
“Around 2007-2009 when we were putting the band together and creating the demos”, he begins slowly, “Dream Theater were massive and we wanted to be them. And there were other things, like seeing Metallica live in concert with a symphony orchestra. We always had dreams to do stuff like that in the future. But it’s difficult to answer because you never know what’s going to happen in the future, you just put your best into what you do. We knew with the kind of music we were making that it would be a slow road. I guess we all thought that we just wanted to make a living doing what we love. We’re not quite there yet, we’re just about paying the bills but it’s worthwhile in the end.”
It doesn’t need me to tell you that releasing no less than six studio albums in ten years on top of extensive touring represents an incredible work ethic, and I put it to Ross that this must have played a significant part in the rapid rise of Haken in such a short time. It’s almost as if Ross shrugs off the observation as if what they’ve done is nothing out of the ordinary.
“It’s in all our personalities that we can’t sit still really, we just want to keep creating. Why rest on your laurels when there’s stuff to say, stuff to learn and music to write? The work ethic is there and it will hopefully continue to be there. We just enjoy what we do. This is our passion, our love and our life.”
“You never know what’s going to come”, Ross responds when I take him back to an earlier comment about certain writing styles and ideas being ‘done’, possibly never to return. Does that mean that the more ‘out there songs like ‘Cockroach King’ or ‘1985’ won’t ever be repeated?
It was probably naïve to say that it is done”, Ross chuckles whilst backtracking ever so slightly. “But we’ve certainly moved away from that style of writing and become more song focussed, I would say. But even with the ‘Messiah Complex’ suite, there are tangents and it is quite a linear song structure. It is probably the most linear song structure that we’ve ever approached. Even though it’s in a heavier form, it is quite crazy and out there. So maybe it’s not completely done, but we are creative people and I’m sure we’ll experiment with different styles going forward. What I’m trying to say I suppose is that it just feels very removed from what we did in the early days that’s for sure.”
There’s hearty laughter from Ross when I remark that, shock horror, ‘Virus’ is yet another concept album. With every album seemingly being some kind of concept, it comes as a little bit of a surprise to learn that this is anything but deliberate and premeditated.
“In the early stages, we always say that we should make an album with just eight, nine, ten different songs”, he chuckles yet again. “But they always end up being kind of a concept. I don’t know what it is but it just feels right and make each album stand on it’s own a be part of something bigger. I don’t know if I can explain it but it’s just something we get a kick out of doing, having these songs within an umbrella of something bigger. Musical passages that repeat themselves and re-work themselves within the album are fun to us and it just becomes a concept.”
“It is something that we would love to do”, Ross confirms when pushed about a live show featuring back-to-back renditions of ‘Vector’ and ‘Virus’. “I obviously can’t confirm whether or not it’ll go ahead but I do foresee this being a live release at some point as a double album. Or at least we’d do it as a special show. These are just ideas and the cogs are turning in all our heads. But it does deserve to be presented as a full piece at some point, I think.”
With time passing swiftly, I start to wrap up the interview. Having admitted that they were cheeky earlier in the conversation, I decide to be a little cheeky myself and ask Ross about the more long-term future. What with Covid-19, Brexit and without a crystal ball, what exactly was I hoping that Ross would say? I’m not sure, but at least he understands where I’m coming from and offers something in return, even if it sounds more like a wish list than concrete plans.
“At the moment, everything is just murmurs. For now, the focus will be on the promotion for ‘Virus’ and finding the time, whenever that’ll be, to tour and promote the album. I can assure you that all of us will be writing, just for the hell of it, their own things. I have. I’ve been sitting here all day with a guitar in my hand, coming up with ideas. I always do. They might never come to anything, but there might be sections or lyrics that I like which I might use in a Haken song later on. We all keep busy all the time, but sorry to disappoint, there’s no specific plan for the future right now.”
With time to quickly shoot the breeze about our shared nerd-like obsession with CD collecting and cataloguing, and a word about Novena, Ross’ ‘other’ band (well worth checking out if you haven’t already) I thank Ross for taking the time to talk to manofmuchmetal.com and for being such a warm and convivial interviewee.
‘Virus’ is out on 5th June on InsideOut Music.