It is fair to say that the UK has been resting on its laurels and relying on past glories for too long. This Fair Isle may be lauded by many as the birthplace of prog or at the very least one of the galloping frontrunners thanks to bands like Pink Floyd, Yes and Genesis but, in recent years, the output has diminished significantly. And when it comes to progressive metal, the situation is even worse with Threshold arguably the only established progressive metal band in the purest sense of the term. There is however, a new beacon of light for the UK in the form of London-based sextet Haken. And, based on the evidence of their 2010 debut album “Aquarius”, this beacon has the potential to illuminate long and hard across the progressive metal scene both in the UK and further afield. What better time then to chat with the band to find out more than after an impressive head-turning performance at ProgPower Europe?
The attractive and lucrative trappings of a career in prog metal bombard my senses as I am ushered onboard the Haken fun bus, a hired Ford Transit of dubious pedigree with a fair amount of detritus sprinkled around the foot wells for added authenticity. Finding myself sandwiched rather intimately between vocalist Ross Jennings and drummer Raymond Hearne in the front of the cab with the rest of the band, rounded out by guitarist/keyboardist Richard Henshall, guitarist Charles Griffiths, bassist Thomas MacLean and keyboardist Diego Tejeida, wedged in the back seats or leaning against the open doors, I waste no time pondering upon my slightly bizarre surroundings and instead focus on finding out how Haken came into being.
“We started off with Hen (Richard Henshall), myself and Matt, who’s no longer with us”, Ross begins.” We formed this alliance to get back together after university and work on the kind of music that we love. We developed this and got some other members externally, using the Internet as our source of finding people and making friends.”
“We met the ex-keyboard player, Pete Jones on the Internet”, explains Richard, taking up the baton from Ross as I twist uncomfortably in my seat in an effort to shove the Dictaphone in a vaguely useful direction. “He was close friends with Ray, the current drummer.” Cue a raised eyebrow from Ray and guffaws of laughter as Richard continues with mischievous humour: “I want to emphasise current! We heard about Tom through hearing the band To-Mera and funnily enough met him for a guitar lesson. We were like ‘wow, your band is crazy’. We expressed that we were looking for a bassist, so Tom joined us. We kept that line up for a couple of years but Matt and Pete had to leave to continue their studies. So we found Charlie and Diego via the Web and this is our current line-up! I’m joking really because this is the ultimate line-up that I believe will take us into the future to dominate the universe.”
It’s a serious answer but one that is liberally doused in friendly banter and sets the tone for the vast majority of the interview. It is clear that these six guys get on well together and, importantly for a band in the prog metal world, are a group that don’t seem to take life too seriously. In a business from which it gets harder every year to eke a living, I am interested in understanding why Haken chose to make life even more difficult by consciously going down the prog route.
“It was either R&B or prog. It was quite a close call”, Richard giggles to a cacophony of raucous mirth, “but we went for prog, man. We all grew up with it, and it’s what we love.”
“I don’t think anyone would choose to do prog for commercial success”, interjects Tom with some much needed sanity and eloquence. “It’s like a lifestyle choice and you choose to pursue that path with integrity and hope that something might come out of it.”
“As a musician”, Charles adds in agreement, “it’s a good style of music to develop into different styles. There are no limits. If you just play metal, you will get good at metal, but as musicians, we want more than that.”
‘No limits’ is correct as the music on “Aquarius” encompasses many different ideas and styles, bordering on the downright eclectic at times. With his first real input into the conversation, keyboardist Diego explains why this is the case and why this outcome developed naturally for Haken.
“Everyone of us is into different scenes. The common ground within Haken is progressive rock, but Tom likes jazz, others of us like funk or whatever. We are all free to express whatever ideas we have so if one of us comes up with a jazz section, that’s ok.”
Despite this clear freedom for all of the members to contribute ideas (including Ray, the current drummer), the overall basis for the music is initially created by Richard as Charles happily explains.
“Hen will write the skeleton of the songs and send them to us. Sometimes the songs are pretty much finished when they are sent to us. We learn it, flesh it out…”
“…and then Ray will decide that there aren’t enough Oompah sections”, Tom finishes off to more fits of laughter and ensuing tangents before we’re back on track courtesy of Richard.
“That section, the ragtime section, within “Celestial Elixir” was in the song from the beginning but Ray took it and arranged it with a load of brass players and a clarinet player. Everyone has their say but I write the basis of the songs and try to satisfy everyone’s needs. I’m sure in time to come, we’ll all get together and write together once we fully gel. However, we’re a relatively new band so it kinda has to be this way at the moment.”
Despite the complexity and off-the-wall, bonkers segments, Haken retain a melodic sensibility that keeps you wanting to return to their album and stops the music from becoming too daunting and inaccessible. Richard agrees.
“The music can be as progressive and crazy as you want, but when it comes down to it, it’s the simplest melodies and chord progressions that really hit the spot and are the ones that people talk about and remember.”
“If people walk away from a show and don’t remember a single thing”, Tom concurs, “the chances are that they are not going to bother to check us out. There has to be an earworm in there somewhere.”
“Prog in itself is in danger of being too elitist and focus on who can play the fastest or who can play in whatever complex time signatures. The most important thing is to get something catchy in there to get people to sing along and get involved”, Ray concludes on this topic.
In line with so many of their progressive forebears and peers, “Aquarius” is a concept album. However, after attempting to dissect the lyrics on a number of occasions, I remain unclear as to exactly what the full concept is getting at. Yes I know there’s a mermaid involved and I know water is significant but in an effort to get to the heart of the story, I ask to be enlightened further. It turns out that, unsurprisingly, the themes are as deep and involved as the music itself.
“I’ll start the ball rolling”, begins Ross, the lyricist as the rest of the band try to hijack his moment in the spotlight. “Before a single lyric was written, we talked about what the album concept might be. It was decided that we should take the listener on a journey through the flow of water, beginning at its birth, developing into an ocean and then, at the end, the water evaporates and you’ve got the rainbow, which is essentially “Celestial Elixir”. There is a parallel storyline about a mermaid that’s discovered by fishermen and after a global flood, it’s discovered that the mermaid’s blood is the only thing that can save the human race. It’s not an original story but it ties in with the other themes that flow through the album. But each song has its own meaning and identity anyway so you can listen to the music out of order and it should still make sense.”
Despite having such a great debut album under their belts, Haken are not content to sit back and bask in its glory. As they explain vehemently, not only is the follow-up already in the pipeline, it will be even better than “Aquarius”.
“Four or five of the songs are already written and they’re all better”, begins Richard to more laughter. “The music has a different vibe – less of the carnival, circus stuff because that won’t fit in with the theme as the new one will not be a concept album. There is quite a lot more guitar going on”, he continues to nods of agreement all around, “and it’s heavier, I think. There is something of a world music feel to the music but you can expect some more sing-along material. It’ll be different, but it will still be Haken.”
“Diego is Mexican, I’m half-Dutch, Ray is half-Irish and Hen is married to a Turkish lady”, Ross states by way of an explanation to this world music direction. “All these influences come together and the music develops naturally as a result.”
With a slot on the ProgPower USA bill in 2011 and with some very positive feedback within the progressive metal community, the future from an outsider’s point of view looks bright for Haken. However, I leave it to the band themselves to complete a really entertaining interview by talking about how they see Haken developing from here.
“World domination”, replies Richard in typically over-the-top, tongue-in-cheek fashion. “Seriously though, we’re going to release the next album and we just want to keep the ball rolling and play more and more countries.”
“We all have day jobs”, continues Ross, “so the dream is to make Haken our full-time career.”
“To be the Pink Floyd of the future”, Charles concludes emphatically.
“Aquarius” is out now on Sensory Records.