We caught up with Ross Jennings, singer of progressive rock band Haken, to talk about the band’s history, their new album Affinity and how the prog music scene differs from other genres.
With Restoration, you got a chance to go back and rework your demo, now with the full band. How was it reworking something instead of starting from scratch? Did it make you guys tighter having sort of rewritten the band’s history?
Ross: After the release of The Mountain, we originally talked about simply making the 2007/08 demos widely available again, however after discussion we came to the conclusion that not only was the audio quality below a standard that we’d be comfortable releasing, but we had no longer access to the original audio files to give it a re-mix and re-master overhaul. Since the line-up of the band no longer consisted of 3 of its original members, we decided to honour the original compositions by giving them a fresh interpretation.
I felt that on the most part it was a justified decision although there are sections of the original demos that were omitted, some of which attached to memories of that era that I still hold dear. The arrangements on Restoration represent more accurately where we were at the time in terms of our abilities and our tastes.
If we set Restoration aside for a second, you began with two concept albums and then shifted away from that with The Mountain. You’ve mentioned that the writing process was quite different on that album – more collaborative and looking to creative tracks with a distinctly individual identity, rather than parts of the whole. Moving forward, is Affinity a shift back towards concept albums or do you prefer the different approach you took on The Mountain?
Ross: If anything, the process of writing Affinity can be better described as a development of our approach on The Mountain. We all worked equally and respectfully towards each other in pursuit of a common goal. We have seen the shift go from Henshall/Jennings compositions with the details filled in by the rest of the band, to a more collaborative nature on the last two albums on original ideas, fully developed song structures and contributions to lyrics.
Ray brought in his tuba background with that big brass section at the end of The Mountain, are there any other hidden talents waiting to resurface on Affinity or future works?
Ross: Affinity largely sees us embracing the technology and the studio tools available to us. I’m a competent guitarist, so it would be nice to contribute some axe work at some point but it’s always been a case of ‘too many cooks’ when it comes to that.
Especially considering your first two albums, do you have any literary influences? With the shift away from concept albums, do they still factor into the music?
Ross: My influences have largely derived from cinema. I went to film school and didn’t really make use of my degree in the end (with the exception of filming the Cockroach King video) so all those movie narratives and visuals I’ve been subjected to over the years certainly aided the visions behind the first two records.
When writing The Mountain, literary influences were more evident. The Cockroach King was somewhat inspired by Hunter S. Thompson’s Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas and The Great Gatsby (F. Scott Fitzgerald), and the track Pareidolia was spawned from memories of reading The Alchemist by Paulo Coelho.
There are so many elements to Haken’s music, my favourite moment to see live was seeing everyone doing simultaneous a cappela vocals. What are your favourite songs or sections to perform?
Ross: The longer, epic tracks such as Visions and Crystallised are always so much fun to do. My favourite track to perform live is Streams from Aquarius. It’s among my all time favourite Haken songs in general as it contains both uplifting and darker elements. I’ve always enjoyed performing harsher vocals live which is ironic since we have refrained from recording much of this vocal style on our records. I sure am looking forward to putting my spin on Einar’s part on The Architect!
You toured last year with Between the Buried and Me, who are renowned for closing shows with Queen covers. If you were to do something similar, who would you choose?
Ross: In light of our current album theme, it would have to be an 80s classic like Jump by Van Halen or The Final Countdown by Europe. Rainbow’s Since You Been Gone would be good too but that was ’79.The modern prog scene seems somewhat protected from the frankly deplorable stuff you hear about record labels and the music industry, as well as seeming so diverse. In the last two years, you’ve toured with American, European and British bands, and your label has bands from around the world, both old and new. Do you think there are doors open to you specifically, and prog bands in general, that other genres don’t have? (I can’t help but think of Progressive Nation at Sea when asking this.)
Ross: I think it’s more difficult for bands like us to get onto mainstream festivals. It took Yes 35 years to get a slot at Glastonbury. Haken would love to be playing those kind of gigs but I don’t think the mainstream awareness and adoration for prog is quite there yet. A few years ago I heard Focus – Hocus Pocus being played on Radio 1 which got me really excited until it conspired that the radio presenters were simply mocking the yodelling!
On the other hand, progressive artists have very dedicated fan bases. They feel special because they feel like they belong to a movement, a cult, a secret unbeknown to the everyday man and although the numbers are smaller, the prog community have their own prog-specific festivals, on land and at sea, which we have been fortunate to be a part of. Progressive music still is an industry that needs a business model to sustain its artist’s longevity but it seems to stem from a more open minded mind-set, which has given us a platform to do what we love to do, a creative freedom, rather than having to be an outlet for the masses. We feel so lucky not to have the suits and their dollars dictating our creativity.
Having looked back to your beginnings with the Restoration EP, have you learnt anything along the way that you’d like to share with new bands, so they can avoid learning those same lessons the hard way.
Ross: I think every band needs to go through the motions. We all think we know it all when we set out but our unique journeys tell us otherwise. We were fully aware from the outset that playing 15-minute songs with odd time signatures and juxtaposing genre references would not be a fast-track to success, but for us it felt like the honest thing for us as musicians, and after 9 years it is starting to pay off.
Even though those early recordings weren’t perfect, it was a necessary step for us in order to develop, or for want of a pun, progress, to where we are today. You’ve got to make those mistakes, learn those lessons and live through those hardships or else you’ll never fully appreciate what you’ve got when you’ve made it.
Affinity is out April 29 on Inside Out Records. Haken start their European tour in support of Affinity May 25.