INTERVIEW: Ross Jennings & Richard Henshall (HAKEN)
There's prog bands and then there's bands like the almighty Haken; capricious, innovative and in a whole other realm of their own genre-defying design. Beginning as a group of teens jamming in bedrooms, the eruptive impact this eventual sextet from London would have on the progressive scene is one laced with daring mutation and striking individuality - plus a healthy dose of down to earth demeanour.
Following over a decade in existence, plus five studio albums under their proggy belts (including their most recent creation 'Vector'), Haken have kicked off 2019 with a bang, including a huge run of shows internationally - and now they're set to bring their 'Vector Studies' tour to our very own shores in June. But before the Haken gents touch down for some epic Aussie gigs, we scored a two-for-one with two of the nicest gents in the biz, grabbing frontman Ross Jennings and resident keys and axe-man Richard Henshall to chat winter, early days and their ultimate prescription for navigating the music industry. Interview below.
TIANA SPETER: Hi Ross and Richard! Hello from the other side of the world!
ROSS JENNINGS: Awesome! Nice to speak to you!
TIANA: Thank you for chatting today, there's been a lot of excitement recently for Haken, and obviously on the horizon there's a lot for us Aussies as well with you guys coming out here for the 'Vector Studies' Tour in June...and it's not your first time Down Under, but what are you guys actually most excited to do when you head out here?
ROSS: We don't get a lot of time off, actually! We're scheduled to do five shows in a row (laughs) so we'll be seeing a lot of airports! Yeah, it's a shame because we have friends out in Sydney, and we'd obviously love to hang out and see some sights. But I just don't think it's gonna be that possible! But it's always nice to meet the fans and do our thing out there. I mean, the shows themselves are what we love doing, so it's just gonna be great fun to see everyone again!
TIANA: 2017 marked the first time you guys headed out here...what was the overall perception of us Aussie fans, as opposed to fans in other parts of the world?
RICHARD HENSHALL: Well, firstly - it was our first time over there, and we had no clue about the following over there. So it was just amazing for us to see anyone at the shows! And Sydney and Melbourne especially were really cool! I remember Brisbane being stupidly hot, we could barely breathe backstage. And on that tour we actually flew there off the back of a US tour, and we'd been in the US for six weeks. Flew straight to Australia and did like five back-to-back shows. So we were completely shattered. But the fans are amazing there, and they were very warm to us, so we can't wait to come back and play some more shows!
TIANA: Well, you're coming in our winter this time so hopefully Brisbane will be a lot less brutal for you. You've done well this time.
RICHARD: It was really bad!
ROSS: But I think winter for you guys is still like blistering summer for us (laughs).
TIANA: I'm from Queensland originally, I will die if I ever go to the UK in winter.
ROSS: (laughs) We'll be the odd ones out with our tops off and barbecues out, and you guys are in your coats.
RICHARD: It's not a pretty sight.
TIANA: I'm excited, this is going to be a bold look for you guys. And obviously Haken are coming armed with not just a huge show for us, but also with your latest release 'Vector' as well, which I personally think is just truly an epic prog masterpiece, and one I'm sure will melt more than a few faces in the audience...do you guys have a favourite from the album you've loved busting out at some of your other shows lately?
RICHARD: Thank you so much! It's been great fun, we've been playing this tour since November. And, yeah, the new songs have come across really well live! One of my favourites...it's gonna be either 'Puzzle Box' or 'Nil by Mouth'. Cos they're both really heavy. I think 'Puzzle Box', all the rhythms lock in really effectively in a live context. What about you, Ross?
ROSS: Well for me, 'Nil by Mouth' is great cos I just get to go backstage and have a cup of tea (laughs). But like Rich said, all these tracks are coming across really well live, and I think the Australian audience are gonna lap it up for sure!
TIANA: With regards to 'Vector', I'm obviously not the only one who likes it, the acclaim has been pretty unanimous since its release...and you guys as a band are undoubtedly renowned for never playing it safe or simple. I personally felt like 'Vector' upped the ante a bit, you've got the pumped up riffs and there's a touch of the theatrical to it...but was the process a well-oiled machine this time round, considering it was your fifth studio release?
ROSS: Yeah, we've recently been working more collaboratively, as opposed to how we used to work when we started writing albums - it would be mostly coming from Rich. And then we'd develop his ideas. But everything's been a bit more collaborative in that sense. I think all in all, from the beginning of writing 'Vector' through to the release, I think it was a five month period, wasn't it?
RICHARD: Yeah, I reckon it was the most efficient we've ever been!
ROSS: If you know writing and recording records, that's a pretty quick turnaround!
TIANA: That's insane! I'm legitimately impressed!
ROSS: Yeah, we all just knuckled down and we were all on the same page with the direction of the music and the kind of thematic ideas. So, yeah! It just really pulled everything together in a quick way!
TIANA: On the thematic side of things, there seem to be a fair few underlying concepts that could be read into certain ways, and a fair amount of psychotherapy influences...was that something that you guys really honed into going into it, or did it evolve as you went along?
RICHARD: I think the initial idea stemmed from something that Charlie (Charles Griffiths - Guitars/Backing Vocals) came up with, and then we just took it further, and each developed certain aspects of it ourselves with each individual song. But there's this underlying theme of psychoanalysis that runs through it. But there's also a more specific theme, or narrative, about a guy who's undergoing some shock therapy. And he unearths a lot of these kind of dark thoughts and memories from the past, and it's all about him trying to deal with this and how he tries to overcome these issues. So yeah, there's this underlying theme about psychoanalysis that's kind of running through there. But I guess, like with most of our albums - they can be interpreted in different ways. And they'll probably mean different things to different people.
TIANA: Absolutely, it's always open to interpretation. Now, Haken as a band - you guys are very well versed in madcap prog, you've literally left no sonic stone unturned throughout your enduring career - but you still manage to evolve and maintain your signature style along the way. For both of you, casting your eyes really back to those early days as teens, was the musical direction pretty clear early on when you decided to flip this from being a "hobby" to a legitimate band?
ROSS: Yeah, when I think back to, I guess it was 2005, 2006 maybe?
RICHARD: Or even before, when we were 16 we used to jam together in our bedrooms!
ROSS: Yeah, this was a project and we always kind of knew that we'd set out with this work ethic that's incorporated lots of different styles. I seem to remember talking about wanting to put in hip hop and kind of make music into this metal context. And just crossing genres was always a thing we enjoyed, just mixing things up. So that was always, like you said - musical stones, we wanted to un-turn them all (laughs).
TIANA: And unturn them you did! And extremely well!
RICHARD: Thank you! I think part of the challenge for us is to try and fit all of our influences and inspirations into each track, trying to make it work and sound cohesive - not like it's been forced in there with a shoehorn. But it's a fun process! We don't really know what our sound is, because it's always evolving, and we're just constantly throwing everything we've got into it. And as long as we enjoy it - that's the main thing, really.
TIANA: It's never dull for any of us that way! And you touched on influences just before, Richard...for both of you, you undeniably have some pretty significant influences. Ross, I've read you speak multiple times about Dream Theater a lot and your love of stadium rock, and Richard...your list of influences on record could fill an entire book's worth from everything I've read. But for both of you, was there a particular artist or song that triggered your love of prog way back in the day? Was there a significant moment you fell in love with this world?
ROSS: Yes! I can pinpoint it to probably two albums. One of them being 'Awake' by Dream Theater. And the other being 'Terria' by Devin Townsend. I would say those albums shifted our perception of what was possible in metal. And opened up a lot of doors for us as musicians as well.
RICHARD: Yeah, definitely those two albums for me as well, cos Ross and I grew up together. 'Awake' was our first real introduction into the "heavier" side of progressive music. We'd never heard anything like it, we'd never heard a band so proficient and in tune with each other, and they made it sound so perfect. But earlier than that, for me - Pink Floyd were a big influence, cos my dad was a huge Pink Floyd fan. So it just subconsciously was always there in my house. I was just absorbing it.
ROSS: It's almost in your blood!
RICHARD: (laughs) Yes, it is a definite influence for me! But, yeah, 'Terria'...speaking of Devin Townsend, actually, we're going on the road with Devin Townsend at the end of this year in Europe.
TIANA: Oh my god. Dream lineup!
RICHARD: Yes! And 'Terria' for us...it's just such an amazing album, it's so multi-layered, and just incredible musically. So to go on tour with someone like that is just going to be such a big deal for us.
TIANA: Well on that whole live note, you guys have played such huge shows already, and these Devin ones will no doubt mark such a huge milestone as well. But if you went back to those super early gigs when Haken was first starting out...what was the reaction like to this, did people really respond quickly to this sound, considering it is a tad off the beaten track for some people?
ROSS: I remember...we used to play this venue near our hometown in a place called Kingston. This place was legendary for up-and-coming progressive acts, local acts. And I remember doing a show there - one of our first shows actually! And there just seemed to be this shockwave of "what is this?! I've never heard this before!!" kind of thing. I mean, that does stem back to early in our career, actually, I think people saw potential back in the early days. Rich?
RICHARD: I remember also around that time, we were lucky enough to land a show with Riverside. We played with them at a place called the Camden Underworld. And that was before we'd even released 'Aquarius', our first album. So that was a massive deal for us. And I think people received it fairly warmly - but it took time, to be honest. We've just been kind of plugging it for years now, and over the last few years it's really built some momentum. So yeah, who knows! I guess it's a love or hate thing, we've got a lot of people who don't like it. And a few people who love it, so that's good!
HAKEN LIVE PERFORMING 'CELESTIAL ELIXIR', PPUSA XII
TIANA: Haken started up at a pretty interesting turning point in the music industry...but rather than ask you the obvious of what's changed the most over the years you guys have been playing together, I'm interested to know from you guys what you feel has changed the least in the music industry from your perspective over this time?
ROSS: Ah! That's a good question. I think there's a lot more attention to prog music which is cool, I really feel like the genre itself has grown in popularity somewhat. I don't know if that's due to the internet, technology...but there's a lot more bands doing this kind of music now and getting heard, which is really cool.
RICHARD: But in terms of stuff that has changed the least...I guess, maybe the quality of music? There's been great music, even if you go back 100 years, there's some amazing classical music, then there's amazing jazz music, and even the progressive music back in the day, stuff like Gentle Giant and King Crimson - the quality was there. And it's always been there, but maybe nowadays you have to dig a bit deeper to find it. It's a tricky question, is my answer. But a good question!
TIANA: It's very true, and perhaps, as you touched on, the whole prog thing is seeming to sneak out of the underground, even though it still has that underground persona. But it's been interesting to see people warm to it more and more, and perhaps largely because it is more readily available now. Now. To slowly wrap things up. One of the lead singles from 'Vector' is obviously 'The Good Doctor'. What is Ross and Richard's ultimate prescription for surviving the music industry?
RICHARD: That's a good one! I think I'll go first.
ROSS: Richard first.
RICHARD: I think, if possible, try to enjoy it. I know that's not always possible if you want to make money in this industry. But if you can get to a point where you're making music and you're having fun with it, and you're writing the music that you want to write - I think that's probably the best way to stay mentally healthy. Because you're on the road a lot of the time, if you're a touring band. You've gotta kind of cherish these moments, and not get too down when you're away from home. Just try to enjoy the moment.
ROSS: I'll say: if you're in a band, be open to a lot of compromise. It's not always your vision that counts, but working collectively can be rewarding if you invite other people's ideas, things like that. That's been really important for us as Haken. And I think it's one of the reasons why we've been able to survive, because we work well as a team!
TIANA: Both absolutely beautiful answers, thank you! And last question so that you can get on with your day...you've already dropped earlier in this interview that you'll be jumping on the road with Devin Townsend later in the year and you've obviously got an extremely busy couple of months ahead. But casting your gaze slightly beyond that - is there anything else you can reveal about what may be next for Haken?
ROSS: Yes! We fully intend...well we're starting to bubble some ideas together for album six! That's gonna be on the horizon for 2020.
RICHARD: After these tours, we've got Australia and a festival run then a couple of months between that and Devin. A few months free, so we'll probably just use that time to see what we can do and make the most of it, and like Ross said hopefully next year we'll have something to release!
TIANA: Awesome! Maybe we can lure you back over here yet again after that!
RICHARD: We love it!
TIANA: Well, thank you so much for your time guys, we're all so insanely excited over here to have you back here in June!
ROSS: Awesome! Thanks for having us!
RICHARD: Thank you so much! Cheers!
HAKEN ARE HITTING THE ROAD FOR THEIR 'VECTOR STUDIES' TOUR THIS JUNE. FOR TICKET INFO, HEAD TO DAVIDROYWILLIAMS.COM. FOR ALL OTHER HAKEN INFO, HEAD HERE.
BY TIANA SPETER