Haken (Richard Henshall)

The London-based prog-metal sixsome Haken are a relatively new addition to the genre, but have shown the Progressive world that they are a force to reckon with. Haken’s music is rich, extravagant, ostentatious, quirky, complex and charming in its nature. To some Prog fans, and especially those of Prog-metal, Haken signify a sort of ‘second coming’ for the genre.

Forming in 2007, the band supported such well known acts as Riverside and Bigelf before eventually releasing their debut album in 2010 to unprecedented success. Aquarius brought them swathes of fans and prompted their appearance at the Night of the Prog festival in 2011, where they would appear alongside such giant names as IQ, Eloy and Dream Theater. More recently, the bands’ 2011 second album Visions appeared on shelves, and was yet again a triumph for the band.

I was lucky enough to be able to interview the bands’ keyboardist/guitarist Richard Henshall (also of To-Mera) via the medium of emails, and received some interesting and insightful answers.

Interview for DPRP by Basil Francis – Loreley photographs by Dave Baird

Looking back, how was 2011 for Haken?

It was certainly a bit of a hectic year for us. We had the opportunity to play at the Night of the Prog festival along with likes of Dream Theater and Anathema, and we were also lucky enough to perform at Prog Power USA, along with many other great acts. They were huge gigs for us and were a step up from anything we had done in the past.

On top of all the gigging, we were been working hard on our second album, Visions, which was released at the end of October. Individually and as a band we have tried to push our boundaries with this album by expanding upon the ideas laid down in our debut album, Aquarius.

Here’s a question I’m sure many DPRP readers want to know the answer to: What’s the significance of the name ‘Haken’? Were there any other ideas for band names before you settled on Haken?

We’ve always been called Haken, we’ve never felt the need to change it. Haken is actually the name of a fictional character which a few friends and I created back in the weed-induced days of our teens! We later found out that in German it means hook and apparently in some ancient Scandinavian language it means ‘of the chosen’. I believe it also has something to do with knitting in Dutch, which is a wonderful coincidence as we’re all knitting connoisseurs!

A more important and interesting question: What are Haken’s influences, progressive or otherwise?

As a band we have an eclectic range of influences, and I think our sound reflects this. We all have a huge love and respect for the progressive bands of the past like Pink Floyd, Gentle Giant, Yes and Jethro Tull; without them pioneering the progressive movement bands like us wouldn’t even be here today.

We also have a love for some of the bands on the current prog metal scene: Dream Theater are a huge influence on us, they have achieved so much without sacrificing their musical integrity; another amazing band is Pain of Salvation, these guys have written some of the best music out there at the moment; Opeth are another superb outfit, they have such a distinct sound and the perfect balance of light and dark within their music.

Jazz and classical music has also played a big part in influencing us: Bill Evans, Esbjörn Svensson, Pat Metheny, Debussy, Bach, and Beethoven are a selection names that stick out in my mind.

There is a strong cinematic vibe to our sound, which acts like a harmonic thread that binds our music together andcompliments the conceptual lyrics. I have always loved the idea of blending dramatic film score-esque themes with contemporary heavy styles of music, so I would consider composers like Alexandre Desplat, Danny Elfman and John Williams as huge influences. I have also grown up listening to and producing a range of dance music, so I’m sure these influences have crept into our sound somewhere.

Do you see yourselves as a predominantly progressive band or metal band?

We certainly have elements of metal within our music but I think to label us solely as a metal band wouldn’t fully justify the vastness of our sound. Therefore, in my opinion, calling us a progressive band would be more accurate. We’ve released two concept albums and have a healthy selection of lengthy songs, so I guess this is further evidence of why we should be labelled as a prog band.

Playing progressive music is great as it allows us to be adventurous with our songwriting and enables us to explore many different styles of music. I have always thought of Haken as a celebration of music, and feel that our sound is too broad to be pigeonholed into one specific genre. Our music travels through various soundscapes and different emotions, taking the listener on a journey. We have songs that have Zappa-like quirkiness next to extreme metal riffage, as well as Dixieland jazz sections with sweeping solo classical piano.

I’ve always been fascinated by the composition stage of songwriting, as bands rarely ever explain the magical process that brings so many wonderful songs to fruition. Take a song such as The Point Of No Return from your first album Aquarius. It’s epic, fun, quirky and so many other things at once and yet never feels contrived! How on earth does one go about writing a song like that?

Generally, I’ll usually get an idea for a melody, riff or chord progression whilst practising, which I’ll then play around with for while to allow it to grow naturally. When I feel it’s ready to be developed further, I’ll program it into Logic and begin constructing a song around it. This is the part that takes the most time!

Besides strong melodies and emotive progressions, one of the most important things to me, whilst writing, is the overall flow of the piece. I feel it’s crucial to have a healthy balance of light and shade within each song and also the album as a whole. Therefore I dedicate a lot of time in creating smooth transitions between the contrasting sections.

Once the framework for a song is complete, I send it to the rest of the guys who provide feedback. We then take the songs to the rehearsal room and begin adding flesh to the structures. This is when everyone adds their personality to the tracks and brings them to life. It’s also worth noting that there were two songs on Visions that were more of a collaborative effort; Diego and I wrote Premonition and based it on many of the reoccurring themes throughout the album, and Insomnia was pretty much written as a band.

The Point of No Return was actually the first song I wrote for Aquarius, and took the longest to complete. I had an idea of how I wanted it to sound before I began writing; I was aiming for a song with lots of quirky moments and contrasting moods, very much in the same vein as some of Danny Elfman’s work. Having this idea in my head actually hindered the whole writing process a little because when a section fell short of how I envisioned it I would scrap it and start over, which became very time consuming! This is often the case with a lot of the other songs, as they will often take months to complete. However, not all songs are such a chore to write, some grow a lot more organically.

The instrumentals in your music are undeniably influenced by Dream Theater. Everything sounds very precise and pre-meditated. How do you know when an instrumental has run its course?

We have all grown up listening to Dream Theater so naturally they are big influence on us. I have always found theirinstrumental sections particularly inspiring, and am often awe-struck when I see them play live.

Like Dream Theater, we sometimes like to go a little crazy during our instrumental sections and often make them as daring as possible to enhance the overall feeling of excitement. During these sections, a lot of the rhythms and melodies weave in and out of each other in an intricate manner, therefore each of us has to play our individual part as precisely as possible to maintain the overall effect of the section. However, it’s not always about about being extremely tight and precise; for example, the instrumental section during the second half Deathless is played far more freely, and builds a lot more naturally.

I’m going to ask a few questions about Aquarius. Who came up with the mermaid concept? It’s definitely Prog when it’s got mermaids.

You’re right, it’s definitely Prog! Ross came up with the concept, he clearly has a thing for mermaids.

When I first heard the opening notes of Streams, I knew I was hooked. I’m quite fond of the outlandish use of the word ‘swimmingly’ in the lyrics, as well as the light-hearted backing vocals in the third verse. That 7/8 piano riff sounds familiar though. Any chance I could have heard it somewhere else?

Streams is one of my favourites from Aquarius, it’s always great fun to play live! We came up with the backing vocal ideaduring the recording session. We felt the third verse needed something different to separate it from the other two. So,in keeping with the light-hearted spirit of the first half of the song, we decided to go for some barber shop inspired backing vocals; it made such perfect sense back then.

I guess the 7/8 piano riff is pretty catchy, and most catchy stuff has already been done, so I wouldn’t be surprised if you’d heard something similar in the past. Nothing in particular comes to my mind, perhaps I subconsciously picked it up from a classical piece back in the days of my youth.

It’s not often I get to ask an artist this, but I’m a little confused about the story arc of the first album. I understand that our protagonist is brought to the circus, and there is some sort of flood, but I don’t get how this leads to her sacrificing her life to save mankind in the last song. Could you help me fill in the gaps?

Our story begins with the birth of a mutant, our protagonist, the mermaid who is abandoned and raised among aqueous creatures. She is discovered by a local fisherman who exploits his discovery for fame and money yet falls deeply in love with her in the process. As the inevitable flood threatens human existence it is revealed that the blood of the mermaid is the only remedy for survival and the fisherman, ridden with regret must sacrifice his discovery for the greater good. The story ends with a submerged planet inhabited by human-fish. It must be mentioned at the stage of evaporation, the mermaid´s spirit is reincarnated and the fisher-mer-man dedicates the rest of his life to finding her.

The album also deals with other issues which aren’t so explicitly illustrated in the lyrics. The Aquarius concept was spawned from the idea of tracking the journey of a water particle from its conception on a mountain spring through stream, river, lake and ocean etc. This was a starting point of a story that became more about global warming and the effects of pollution. When the planet is in the shadow of an inevitable flood, a mermaid child is born. The significance of her existence is essential to the survival of the human race but not without sacrifice. The curse of Aquarius is based on the idea of uncontrollable forces of nature provoked by the way human beings mistreat the planet.

It’s clear that Aquarius really launched Haken into the hearts and minds of prog fans everywhere. The album has had overwhelming success, and has really paved the way for you as musicians. How do you feel about the album? Do you have a favourite/least favourite song or moment?

We were completely blown away by all the positive feedback we received for ‘Aquarius’. It was beyond our wildest dreams to get such great critical acclaim for something we love to do, we couldn’t have hoped for a better start to our career. I am happy with how the album turned out.

It’s hard for me to pick one favourite moment as I have more than one solo on the album! Only joking, my favourite moment is probably the electric piano break in Drowning in the Flood, I like the way it keeps building, this section is always a crowd favourite. As for a favourite song, it’s close call between Sun and Celestial Elixir, they are completely different in feel and energy but between them they contain some of the best moments on the album in my opinion. I can’t really pick a least favourite track as I like each of them in different ways, ask me again in ten years and I’m sure I’ll hate them all!

We now come to your latest album Visions. Conceptually, this is a much darker album, about a boy who receives a premonition of his own death. I can’t tell if it’s just me, but it seemed that the story was generally looser than that on Aquarius, in that, rather than the songs telling a cohesive narrative, most of the tracks seemed to merely describe aspects of the boy’s life after receiving the premonition. Indeed, it’s only on the title track that the bulk of the story happens. Would you agree with this?

Anyone who’s read the novels of Phillip K. Dick or enjoyed films such as Inception will no doubt see where we were coming from with this one. Dreams by their very nature are enigmatic, fragmented, incoherent and non-chronological; so it was ourintention to communicate a sense of this in the storytelling. You are correct to mention that the story does digress when we come to the tracks The Mind’s Eye and Shapeshifter.These are more representative of dreams in a general sense, and indeed we observe the boy exploring deeper into the mind to find his killer but it’s deliberately subtle and pretentious. It is Visions where a lot of the story is told and a lot of the questions are answered but if you revisit the track Nocturnal Conspiracy you should begin to realise that there is more to the overall plot than what you probably bargained for.

Do you feel that the band has changed in its approach to music since Aquarius?

I guess our outlook on life is constantly evolving as is our approach to music. We try not to hold back when it comes to our compositions, we simply want to write what comes naturally to us. Our approach is based on making exciting and emotive music that challenges us and our fans. I would like to think that this will always form the basis of our music.

Visions seems to be mainly dominated by ‘straight’ progressive metal. I don’t know whether you read my review of Visions last year, but I mentioned being disappointed that you’ve done away with the most of the quirkiness we heard on your debut. Where did all the quirks go? Can we expect to hear them again soon?

It was hugely important for us to keep moving and progressing, so we worked extra hard to ensure that Visions had its own identity. We decided to take a heavier approach by making the guitars a little more prominent and creating denser orchestral arrangements. We also wanted to have darker melancholic undertones flowing through the album to separate it from Aquarius. We also decided to employ the services of a string quartet to provide the album with an earthy feel; they have done a brilliant job of enhancing the pathos within our music. Don’t worry though, I’m sure there will most certainly be a lot of quirky moments on future Haken albums.

I also wrote that the track Nocturnal Conspiracy plays out quite strangely, as it appears to be two separate songs lumped into one track. They’re good tracks though, and they follow on perfectly from the blistering opening track. Am I right in guessing that there were originally two tracks?

Nocturnal Conspiracy was actually always intended to be one song. The piano break, that marks the change in mood, is a variation of the theme at the beginning of the instrumental section. I guess the change in time signature may make it feel like the start of a new song, but I feel that the familiarity of the melody strongly ties it to the first half of the song. Also, the section the closes the song is another variation of the same theme, so to me it ties in with each-other. However, I came up with the softer verses, that are sandwiched between the aforementioned sections, whilst twiddling on the guitar on holiday. They seem to work well with the rest of the piece, and offer a bit of much need respite.

It’s pretty clear that the star of the show is the final track Visions. At over twenty minutes, this appears to be your follow up from 2010’s Celestial Elixir, and a damn fine follow up it is too. Did you set out to write a track over twenty minutes long or did it just end up that way? Were there any particular influences when writing this gargantuan track?

As you have probably guessed by now, we love long tracks! However, we don’t intentionally set out for our songs to turn out to be lengthy, they naturally grow that way. I guess long songs like Visions enable us to really develop a theme to its core until it reaches its natural conclusion, which is sometimes not possible on shorter tracks. I guess we also draw influences from some of the great symphonic works of the past such as those of Beethoven, Mozart and Mahler; who evidently loved longs songs too. We’re also heavily influenced by some of the great progressive bands like Pink Floyd, Yes and Dream Theater. They’ve clearly displayed the art of epic song writing in its finest form and we aspire to do the same.

I hope you will forgive me for criticising your album so but I am – at heart – a critic. In my review I cheekily wrote that I didn’t like the strings that conclude the album, suggesting that the band should have finished it proper. Indeed, I just feel like that sense of crashing victory is missing when the band suddenly cut out a minute before the end. I’m sure you disagree – after all it is your music – but what made you choose to have the strings there? I’d love to hear any comments you have on the ending.

It’s a shame that you don’t like the strings at the end of ‘Visions’. We feel that having the live string quartet close the album gives the listener a brief moment to reflect the music they’ve heard, almost like the closing sequence of an epic film. Having the main theme of the song stripped down in an almost naked form really enhances the raw emotion within the music. We felt the sudden contrast was a really effective way of bringing the listener back to reality, almost like a calm after a storm.

One question I always ask bands who write songs over twenty minutes is this: How do you feel your audience should enjoy your longer tracks? Alternatively, how or when do you listen to long songs yourself?

Watching us play these songs live is a great way to capture the intensity of each movement and get a real sense of the journey. Alternatively, listening with headphones on and eyes shut is a great way to be fully immersed within the music.

Is there anything you’d like to add about Visions? Favourite songs, etc.

My two favourite tracks on the album are Deathless and Visions.

Despite having a few reservations about Visions, I still believe Haken is an incredible band with brobdingnagian (Ed: don’t worry, I had to Google it too…) potential, and are almost surely to be remembered in decades to come as one of the great progressive bands. I’m sure a lot of other people feel this way too. How does it feel to be treated with such high regard? Is it a blessing or a burden?

It is extremely overwhelming to be thought of as a band that could one day considered as one of the greats. We feel like we’re at the beginning of our journey and know that we have a hell of a lot of work to do to eventually get to where we want to be. We have always dreamt of making Haken successful on many levels and are always striving towards making this dream a reality. To be able to play our music to audiences from around the world is our ultimate goal, and we’ll always work towards that.

I was sad to miss you on your last tour, but I enjoyed watching clips of you at the Night Of The Prog 2011 festival. Being a drummer, I was surprised to see that Hearne’s kit is so modest, especially when compared to that of, say, Mike Portnoy. Could I possibly enquire as to whether this is the same equipment Hearne uses in the studio? If so then I am incredibly impressed that he could make such a ‘large’ sound from such a small kit.

Our performance at Night of the Prog was such a magical experience for us, it was a step up from anything we had done previously and kind of felt like the beginning to the next chapter of our career. The stage was huge, which of course made Ray’s drum kit look comically small. We even had quite a few comments after the gig from fans who were stunned by what Ray could achieve on such a modest kit.

Ray did use this kit on the Aquarius recording with a few additional cymbals. However, for the recording of Visions we used a kit provided by John Papas at Hardbeat studios, along with a few of Ray’s toms and cymbals. It’s also worth noting that the room we recorded the drums in for Visions was a bit larger than the room we recorded Aquarius in. I’m sure this helped in creating the ‘large’ sound you talk of.

I noticed the china cymbal fall over twice in the afore-mentioned clip. Have there been other hilarious/not-so-hilarious mishaps on stage worth mentioning?

That was indeed quite a funny moment. Ray also broke the skin on his snare drum during that gig! If I remember rightly, as he was changing his snare the rest of us spontaneously jumped into a Larry Carlton-inspired fusion improvisation, which was great fun. There always seems to be at least one technical issue during every gig, which can often throw us off guard and disrupt our performance. I’m just looking forward to the day we can afford our own tour crew to help us with these situations.

From your point of view, what’s the best aspect of being in Haken?

I just feel extremely blessed to play with such a talented bunch of musicians. We’re constantly pushing each other to achieve the best we can. We also gel very well on a personal level, which is hugely important because we inevitably spend a lot of time together on the road. Plus, we’re all meat lovers!

Finally, the question I’m sure everyone is dying to hear, when can we expect a new album from the band? Any thoughts yet?

Well, I began working on new ideas for the next album a few months ago and the songs are already starting to take shape. We want to ensure that everything is as good as it can be so I’m sure we’ll be spending quite a while rehearsing the ideas. If everything goes according to plan, you can expect something next year.

Thanks for taking the time to do this interview. I truly hope Haken are as prosperous in 2012 as they have been for the last two years.

Haken Official Website: http://www.haken.fr/index.htm

Up-Coming Tour Dates

March 31, 2012 THE PEEL Kingston, South London, United Kingdom [opening for Touchstone]
April 13, 2012 ROCK ITTERVOORT C.C. De Mortel Ittervoort, Netherlands [with Arena and Sun Caged]
April 14, 2012 DAS RIND Rüsselsheim, Germany [with Flaming Row]
April 15, 2012 Z7 KONZERTFABRIK Pratteln, Switzerland