After releasing their amazing debut Aquarius in 2010, England's Haken are back with their new album, Visions. It is certainly a more mature effort that sees the band refining their songwriting style with more focused melodies and a heavier approach. Sea of Tranquility staff writer Murat Batmaz caught up with guitarist Charlie Griffiths to discuss his departure from Linear Sphere and the new Haken album in detail. Read on for the full interview.
SoT: When did you leave Linear Sphere? Is the band still musically active?
Charlie: It would have been about four to five years ago I think - maybe more. I just wasn't connecting with the lyrical theme of the album, which meant it was hard for me to stY 100% emotionally invested in the music. I would constantly be rewriting sections, which was frustrating for everyone. Eventually I realised that it simply wasn't going to work. I see Martin all the time and he played me the instrumental tracks of the 2nd album. The playing is of course brilliant and 3 of them are tracks we wrote together years ago, so I'm glad they'll finally see the light of day. They're mixing the album now, so you might not have to wait too long to hear it.
SoT: Are you a founding member of Haken or did you join the band after the core lineup was established?
Charlie: I came in later. It actually came at a time when I was finding myself considering other careers away from music. I was probably a year away from throwing in the towel as I felt I would never find a group of like minded musicians and the prospect of building a band from scratch is incredibly daunting. I already knew Tom and I went to see his band To-Mera as they were playing locally and this band Haken were opening. As soon as the started, I had fireworks going off in my head. This was exactly the music I wanted to create - they totally stunned me. Then a few months later I bumped into Tom at Waterloo station and he told me that Matt had left the band to pursue his law career and would I be interested in auditioning. Of course I leapt at the chance.
SoT: Were you a part of the writing on your debut album?
Charlie: As soon as I joined writing for Aquarius began. Richard is the architect of the songs. He builds the structure, main themes and riffs. Being that he's a master of both guitar and keys, he has a unique perspective and can combine those two elements like no one I've heard before. Next we all get together in our rehearsal space and play the song and tweak the arrangement, add a section here, change a note there, over a period of weeks until everybody is happy. Each and every member puts his stamp and personality into every song, but we always look to Richard as the band leader. The other great thing is that Ross is there with us, penning lyrics and singing melodies which really keeps the whole process as organic as possible.
SoT: Looking back, how do you and the other members evaluate Aquarius musically, lyrically and from a production point of view?
Charlie: Aquarius was the first thing the 6 of us did together, so it was a big learning experience. The material continues to push my playing as certain sections need constant practice to be able to be totally confident live. I love Ross' lyrics as he never over writes in order to be clever. He also has a knack for writing a hook. I remember when he first sang the Celestial Elixir chorus, I was punching the air. I wouldn't change a note of Aquarius, but naturally, you want the next one to be superior in every way.
SoT: In what ways do you think you may have succeeded in 'surpassing' Aquarius?
Charlie: We are all much closer friends now than we were during Aquarius and can speak our minds more freely without fear of upsetting the other guys. Because of this the quality control of an idea is much more rigorous. We have discussed every section and song with each other very openly and thoroughly, so everybody is happy with every aspect of the each song. I think that's the biggest success of the album.
SoT: I think Ross Jennings' ability to come up with strong melodies has increased on the new disc. Do you know any of his favourite vocalists?
Charlie: Yes I agree. He seems to have a very clear idea of what the song needs very early on in the process, which really helps when arranging the form of the song. He's also not precious about his ideas in any way. There were a couple of times when he'd spent a week writing lyrics to a section and then we'd meet up for a jam through the song and we would remove the entire thing and write something completely different. He just casually crosses out his week's work and starts again. It's all part of the journey of writing a song and he understands that completely. As far as favourite vocalists I've heard him talk about Jon Anderson, Freddie Mercury, Bjork, Steven Tyler and some country singers, too.
SoT: Has Jennings sung in any other bands except Haken before?
Charlie: He and Richard were at school together, so I believe they've been making music together in some form since their school days.
SoT: What should fans of Aquarius expect? More of the same or are there any stylistic changes this time around?
Charlie: It's more of the same in one sense because it's the same 6 people, but it probably leans more towards the guitars rather than keyboards. Diego is incredibly busy throughout the album, but my sense is that the guitars are more prominent this time. We made a conscious effort that each song should have it's own role on the album, which I think helped us focus our attentions on crafting them with a clearer vision of where they needed to go. Premonition is the Lloyd-Webber style overture, "Nocturnal Conspiracy" has the over blown Bohemian Rhapsody style Queen approach, "Portals" is the insane instrumental and of course the epic title track is our chance to stretch our legs and finish the album with a huge firework display.
SoT: "Nocturnal Conspiracy" seems like your most realized, most complete song. Can you talk a little about how you put it together?
Charlie: I remember being round Richard's house and he was playing me various ideas of sections for songs. On of them was this chorus - something about it reminded me of old school Queen, like "Ogre Battle" or something, which I am a complete sucker for, so I really encouraged him to do something with that chorus. Maybe a week or two later the whole framework for the song turned up in my email in midi form. This was also one of the first songs we tried out live, so we were able to get immediate audience feedback and a feel for how it would work live. It's definitely one of my favourite songs on the album and is great fun to play as there are so many dynamic shifts.
SoT: The use of death metal vocals provided texture and contrast on Aquarius. Does the new album feature any growls?
Charlie: We didn't use any growls this time. The subject never came up, which probably means none of the songs required it. We put a lot more emphasis on vocal harmonies this time.
SoT: Can you talk a little about the individual songs on the new disc?
Charlie: As I was saying before, each song has it's own focus, which really helps when crafting as a group. The interesting thing about Haken is that we all seem to naturally head in the same direction, which makes for a relatively quick writing process. Don't get me wrong, we worked our arses off and poured ourselves into it 100% but we're a lot quicker than some bands. The exception to the rule was "Insomnia." That song went through 3 or 4 incarnations and we almost left it off the album. I'm sure we all had sleepless nights trying to figure out how to piece all the ideas together so it's an apt title. Rich and I were on the way home from a writing session one evening on the Northern Line on the London Underground and we actually got our guitars out and jammed some ideas which led to the finished song. You never know when inspiration will strike!
SoT: How about "Shapeshifter"? That is a very different song.
Charlie: I love the mood that song has. To me it conjures up a bizarre freakish masquerade ball, like if Tim Burton had directed Eyes Wide Shut. Musically it has quite a Danny Elfman type tonality which is something we did quite a bit on Aquarius.
SoT: Also, "The Mind's Eye" sounds like, if you wanted to, you could pen catchy tracks? Was that what you had on mind while composing it?
Charlie: I had a Marillion type sound in my head for this track, although it doesn't really sound like them, but they write these perfect proggy pop songs that are very succinct. I think we just instinctively knew the song was complete and didn't need to have a big instrumental journey in the middle of it. Portals comes immediately afterwards anyway, so the balance is restored.
SoT: Which fans do you think should give Haken a listen?
Of course would say everyone!
SoT: Some fans consider Haken too prog rock while others find them a bit too heavy. In this respect, the band seems to be somewhat "in between." Do you think the musical style of the band will shift towards a more easily discernible sound in the future?
Charlie: We are what we are and haven't tried to fit into one category or another. We'll continue to write the music that we ourselves want to hear, an it's impossible to predict what future Haken will sound like - that's the whole point really, to release whatever that valve is in the human brain and let others hear what we hear in our heads. The only thing you can be sure of is that we'll continue to experiment and have the attitude that there's some musical secret yet to be discovered that no one else has thought of yet.
SoT: Some early reviews of Visions have drawn comparisons to Dream Theater's Awake because of its heavy riffing and darkness. Would you say the album was inspired by Awake?
Charlie: We're all fans of Awake for sure and we occasionally get the Dream Theater worship label. I can honestly say that we have never tried to copy DT or any other band for that matter. I think it's simply a case of instrumentation. When you combine heavy riffing with keyboards, it will sound a certain way. The first band that comes to mind is DT, but that's only because they are so prominent in the genre. I was listening to bands like Magellan and Fates Warning in the early 90s, so I was well aware of the prog metal sound before I heard DT. To answer your question, Awake wasn't particularly prominent in our minds when we wrote Visions, but we're flattered by the comparison - it goes without saying, it's an amazing album.
SoT: I have compared your shift from Aquarius to Visions to Dream Theater's shift from Images & Words to Awake.
Charlie: Now you say that I can see what you mean. In terms of the overall mood of Awake was more emotionally tormented and the guitars were more prominent than on Images. I can live with that comparison.
SoT: What bands were you listening to prior to writing and recording Visions?
Charlie: I was in a massive Kansas and Gentle Giant phase. It's amazing that they could write and record stuff like Interview and Free Hand that in a pre digital recording age. We've got it too easy these days when everything can be fixed in post production. I have to say though, we did as little editing as possible and there's absolutely zero auto tune or melodyne on either of our albums. I really don't like that 'perfect' sound that most modern records have, it sounds unnatural. Rich and I also went to see Roger Waters doing the Wall, which was spectacular and was definitely an inspiration on the more theatrical moments in Visions.
SoT: The production on Haken albums is phenomenal. Do you guys specifically avoid the loudness war as your songs have great dynamic range?
Charlie: Alan Douches mastered the album. I knew his name from the recent Death, 'Human' reissue, which sounds amazing by the way. He sent us 4 mastered versions to pick from mix 1 was the most compressed and mix 4 was the most dynamic. I can see why people get drawn into the loudness trap as mix 1 was really exciting and powerful. The problem is that you compromise on the clarity, especially as there is sometimes a lot going on in our music. In the end maturity won out and we opted for mix 4, which had the most dynamic range.
SoT: That is very interesting. Is this common practice or did you ask for 4 different versions?
Charlie: We didn't suggest it, maybe it's just the way Alan works. It was certainly interesting to hear how mastering can affect the music.
SoT: What do you think causes some bands to go for the loudest, most compressed album rather than the dynamic sounding ones?
Charlie: I think people get sucked into that because it immediately smacks you in the face and it's exciting to hear yourself like that. It massages the musician's ego - as in 'listen to how big and powerful I sound'. It's all false of course as no one can listen to a whole album that's been super clipped without their ears fatiguing.
SoT: Who mixed the new album? Are you pleased with it sonically?
Charlie: Christian Moschus mixed the album. He also did Aquarius and we felt we were in safe hands with him. Aquarius was mixed in 10 days and this time with a slightly bigger budget, we could stretch to just over 2 weeks and the extra time really made a difference to the finished product and Christian's health! What we asked of him was really impossible in the time frame, but he somehow did it. Can you imagine mixing a 22 minute track with close to 200 audio tracks?
SoT: The mix is stellar indeed. I've been a big fan of Moss since he produced the Wolverine albums. When you get him to mix, do you let him work on his own or does he consult you as to what you guys have in mind sonically?
Charlie: He mixed in his studio in Germany and uploaded the files to his ftp for us to check out. He did "Insomnia" first and we each wrote out a list of points like less reverb here, more guitar there, can you pan that vocal to the left side etc. once he got where we were coming from with that track, he then applied the same rules to the other songs. It was about 2 weeks of back and forth communication until we reached the conclusion you have heard. It was a very collaborative process all thanks to the Internet.
SoT: What are the plans of the band for the near future?
We've just had the honour of playing Prog Power USA, which was a real land Mark for us and it surpassed our expectations. We want to continue taking our music to new audiences in different countries, so we're trying to get to some European countries we haven't been to yet. The problem we have is that we're self managed and to set up a tour like that is a really big task, so we're considering getting professional management to help with that side of things.
SoT: Are you on contract with Sensory for another album?
Charlie: We signed up for two albums, which we are extremely grateful for. It's increasingly rare for labels to take any financial risk on relatively obscure bands like ours and without Sensory being so supportive of our art and helping us find an audience, the road would have been ten times harder. Hopefully we can continue to record much more music in the future. We'll have to wait and see how Visions goes.
SoT: Could you list some of your favourite progressive releases of the past couple years so that our readers can check them out?
Charlie: We just played a festival in Germany with Subsignal, who are essentially the new version of Sieges Even and Exivious, who are like an instrumental Cynic with Holdsworth on guitar. On the heavier side, I enjoyed Periphery's debut and I really like the new Textures album 'Duality', those guys know how to write awesome songs! Just this week I've been listening to Peter Gabriel's 'New Blood', which is orchestral arrangements of his old tunes. It sounds beautiful and his voice has never been better.
(Click here to read our reviews of Visions)