Interview with Richard Henshall of Haken

Haken Press photos, Wansdworth

In the run up to the release of Haken’s sixth studio album, ‘Virus’, I got the chance to have a chat with guitarist Richard Henshall about the album’s creation and gestation, the band’s career to date and about how he is coping with the lockdown:

Progradar: It’s nice to put a voice to someone who I have followed on social media for quite a while, before we get onto the interview proper, how are you coping with the lockdown:

Richard: It’s a bit of a surreal situation to be in to be honest, we were on tour with Devin Townsend. It was right in the middle of the tour and we woke up to a message that the tour’s over, cancelled.

Donald Trump had done a speech the night before saying that all flights into the U.S. had been cancelled and there was a chance that all flights out would be too. We realised that we were going to have to do something about this, suddenly the tour is cancelled and we’re going to have to go home the next day. I’ve been at home ever since really…

Progradar: I have noticed that you have been doing guitar lessons online via Skype…?

Richard: Yes, as we’re not going to be touring for a long time by the looks of it, I’ve been doing a bunch of Skype lessons, I did one this morning actually and the signal was terrible which made it really awkward. Generally, though, they have been going really well.

I’ve just been trying to engage with the fans as much as possible, talking through Haken songs, playing through some compositional ideas and just discussing music, which has been fun.

We’ve also been doing some Twitch Q&A’s sessions which we’ve never done before. We saw that a lot of other bands had been doing this so we thought we ought to jump on the wagon and see what it’s all about. It’s a streaming platform, basically, that allows us just to chat to people.

We’ve been talking through the song Prosthetic and we actually had the guy who did the video, Vicente (Cordero) on there with us talking through how he made the video which was good fun.

Progradar: I’ve just had the promotional email come through about the new video for Canary Yellow.

Richard: Yes, we’ve been chipping away at the video for a while actually. it was done by Crystal Spotlight, they’re a Uk based company and they really went to town on the video. It’s an animation, which we have done before, and I think they spent countless hours on this and it really came across well.

Progradar: In the video that Ross (Jennings) has done in the run up to the release of ‘Virus’ he says that it is loosely connected to your previous album ‘Vector’, having listened to the album 3 or 4 times already, I feel the artwork is connected and there is more of a similarity between the two. You say ‘Virus’ is more eclectic, do you feel there are similarities between the two and they follow on?

Richard: Well they were always supposed to be a double album. In fact, when we were writing ‘Vector’, we knew we were going to be writing another album which was going to be connected. We had the name ‘Virus’, which is looking back in hindsight, a bit unfortunate.

The timing couldn’t have been worse, the only time we’ve ever had a pandemic in my lifetime is the same time as we are releasing an album called ‘Virus’. It’s bad timing but we had the title in mind and in place for the last two years.

I’d say the music on the album is more eclectic. There’s influences from the likes of Radiohead and Elbow on there but there’s also the heavier stuff we do on there which is Fear Factory-esque and there’s Dream Theater, a big influence over the years. So that’s all still in there but I feel like we’ve got a broader range on this album, maybe more so than ever before.

I think with ‘Vector’, the album was generally geared towards the heavier side of our sound and it kind of stuck with that for the most part. On every song there’s at least one or two heavy moments or some songs are just heavy throughout whereas on this album, ‘Virus’, there are some songs that are completely straying away from that.

Progradar: This isn’t a question I’d written down but I’d like to ask you if you thought ‘Vector’ had split your audience a bit? There’s a few people I know who were fans of albums like ‘Aquarius’ and ‘The Mountain’ who have said it was a bit heavy for them.

Richard: I reckon so, it’s always a bit of a risk when you try something new in a band , or anything that you do. There’s bound to be people who aren’t really engaging with the music or are into what you’re doing. Especially if they’re into the previous stuff which is sounding different to the stuff we’re working on now.

I guess it’s important for people to keep an open mind as much as possible, you can always listen back to our old stuff and, with the new stuff, you can hear how we’ve evolved and the similarities between the two different sounds.

Hopefully people can see that but, for me, when I’m writing stuff I actually prefer it if you get a love or hate reaction from it. I feel that that’s a good sign of something that’s got depth or value. If some people are going to hate it then, fair enough.

Progradar: I feel that Haken has progressed (in the proper sense of the word) quite a lot from ‘Aquarius’ right through to ‘Virus’, would you agree?

Richard: Yes, a lot of people always say to us, how do you categorise the music, what are you? Are you a metal band, are you a prog band? I always say that we are a progressive band. If you are progressive then your sound should evolve, you should be exploring new sounds and fully celebrating all all of your influences as much as possible.

I feel that, across the band, we have a whole bunch of inspirations and influences between us, now that we are all writing together the music is, as a result, very eclectic. There’s a bit of all all of us in there, all of our influences, I love stuff like Tigran Hamasyan and then also Elbow.

There’s a UK band called Everything, Everything, they’re like an indie-rock band but they also have these progressive influences but they like a pop/indie kind of sound. I like stuff like that as well as all the heavier stuff. Across the band, though, there is so much variety to what we listen to, it really does amount to the diverse sound that we’ve got.

Progradar: To my ears, you’re a very technical prog metal sounding band now whereas ‘Aquarius’ was very similar to early Dream Theater, it sounded a lot like ‘Images & Words’ did to me when it first came out. As you’ve carried on, your sound has got a lot more precise and technical, would you agree with that and is that down to influences or just a natural progression?

Richard: We weren’t really expecting the reaction we got to ‘Aquarius’, we sent out our demo (‘Enter the 5th Dimension’) and got a bunch of responses but no one was really up for signing us apart from Sensory Records. A guy called Ken Golden runs it and he was the first guy who showed any real interest in our sound and he offered us an advance to make an album.

At that point I decided to just go for it and dedicate all my time to writing an album so I locked myself away and didn’t leave the house for about eight months or so and we were all really happy with the result we got.

I don’t why people latched onto it, I guess there were a lot of contrasting influences on the album, a lot of quirky, almost circus-like, passages among some heavy riffage and there’s a lot of juxtaposition.

Maybe that’s what made it stand out to people but we’ve really developed, I feel, as writers over the years and I feel our sound is a lot more concise now than what it was back then. The writing process would’ve been more reckless and there’s arguably less logical thought into it maybe? It was just like throw the ideas in and see where this song ends up.There’s more logic to it now and it’s definitely more concise, I feel.

Progradar: I got the same buzz from ‘Aquarius’ that i got the first time I listened to ‘Images & Words’ and ‘Awake’ from Dream Theater, I had to listen to the album again straight away to register what I’d just heard, I thought it was amazing.

Richard: I had the same sort of reaction the first time i listened to ‘Awake’, Metallica were my favourite band at the time and Kirk Hammett was the best guitarist in the world but a friend asked me if I’d heard Dream Theater or John Petrucci, which I hadn’t (and I thought he couldn’t be better than Kirk Hammett!).

So the next day I went out and bought ‘Awake’, I was sitting down (I think I was actually with Ross at the time) and was like 15 or something and I put on the album and listened through it and I got to Erotomania, the guitar playing just melted my brain and opened me up to a whole new way of thinking when it came to playing guitar and writing music. They were a massive influence on us as a band, definitely.

Progradar: Has the continued success of the band surprised you or, when you first picked up a guitar and got together with Ross and the rest of the band, is this where you expected to be?

Richard: It’s always extremely humbling and surprising to get any recognition from anything. The more you do it, the more you take it for granted but I still do appreciate every kind word that we receive from people when they hear an album or a song, especially on this album that we’re about to release.

We’ve released two songs already and the feedback has been crazy, we’ve never had such a positive response from singles we’ve released. I think it’s important to never be complacent and take things for granted but I think the band started to gain a lot of momentum around the time we released ‘The Mountain’, our first album with InsideOut Records.

They just pushed us into a whole bunch of new markets and I reckon that’s the album that most people heard first from us and it was like a special album for us and for a lot of our fans as well.

Progradar: I bought ‘Vector’ on vinyl and I’ve ordered ‘Virus’ and I even managed to find ‘Aquarius’ on Amazon the other day, I think most fans would say that it’s been an amazing journey following your from ‘Aquarius’ to where you are now.

Richard: Yes, it’s really exciting, I just love writing music and since ‘Affinity’ we’ve been writing together and we’re really honing that skill of writing as a band. I really enjoy it and it’s almost like an adventure, every album we write you discover more about yourself and your bandmates and there’s new colours and moods to get out there. The whole process is massively enjoyable for me so I’m looking forward to taking it further.

Progradar: Obviously, you can’t play live at the moment but, in an ideal world do you prefer creating music or getting out there, giving it life and playing it live?

Richard: I feel that my natural habitat is sat in front of a computer or with an instrument and writing music, that’s where I feel most relaxed and the most at home. I was quite young when I first started playing music, I was six or so when I was playing the piano but then I started guitar at the age of ten.

When I was first heavily into practising I was all focused around being proficient at my instrument but as I grew older I got more passionate about the compositional side of things. For me that’s the biggest passion in music and it’s stuck with me.

I do love playing live as well and they kind of go hand in hand really. We wouldn’t be able to continue writing music if we didn’t go out there and support the music in a live context. We do get a buzz out of playing live, seeing people come to our shows and sing along to the lyrics and do air guitar to our solos!

Progradar: What I love about your music, and you even get it on the last album and the new one, is you always get an excellent chorus that you can sing along to, there’s always something in your music that has that connection with whoever is listening to it. Whether you’re at a concert, in the car or listening to it at home, there’s always something there.

Richard: That’s always been our primary focus when it comes to writing, getting that big chorus. There needs to be a sense of balance in the song so the verses, for the most part, will generally be more stripped down and held back and the the chorus’s have this kind of explosive feeling.

The hooks and melody lines are always a strong part for us, we’re always spending the most part making sure we’ve got the best possible line for the chorus because that’s going to be the part that people sing along to and they latch on to.

When it came to ‘Virus’ we had the album pretty much mapped out in terms of the structures and the instrumentation, the rhythm and the guitar parts etc. but when it came to the Devin (Townsend) tour we went on in Europe, we had a whole month together. We were sitting in the bus for quite a long time each day because we were the support band and we had a lot of free time.

We used that time to map out all of the vocal parts and get lyrical ideas down. That was a really cool experience for us because we’re usually in different parts of the world working independently in our studios. For this whole month we were together, passing the microphone around, singing into the Logic Projects and just coming out with the some of the best lines that we wanted to at that point. I feel that it has really paid off on this album especially.

Captured at SECC on 09December, 2019 by Max Taylor Grant

Progradar: Is that something that you would like to do for the next album, get together to write like that again?

Richard: I 100% think we should because it’s a perfect time to do it. A few of us live in London so we will meet up and jam through certain sections and ideas to see where that goes but we’ve never all really been together in a structured manner like every day for a month.

We were waking up on the bus and just working on it all day, playing a show and just going back there after and working until the early hours of the morning, literally every day. It was amazing, we actually made a makeshift studio in the bus and we were able to record demo ideas.

The whole process was very fluent, it was like a team bonding experience or something.

Progradar: It’s definitely not what everyone would think was the rock and roll lifestyle on tour!

Richard: We are far removed from what people would think of as a rock band, we’ll drink a cup of tea, read a book and go to bed usually after a show!

Progradar: Talking abut creating music, for the first couple of albums was it yourself who did the majority of the writing?

Richard: I used to do the lion’s share of it back in the day and I would map it out using midi and on ‘The Mountain’ I mapped it out using midi and some sample libraries and demos from stuff. We took the midi songs and we learned the parts, for the first two albums and ‘The Mountain’, for the most part, we took them to a rehearsal space.

Luckily Ray (Hearne) was studying at The Guildhall for those three of four years so he had a free rehearsal space that we could use. We just went there during the writing process and played through the songs and gave them a sense of life. We made it sound like a real band rather than a computer playing it.

During that process the arrangements were tweaked a bit, we moved a verse here, moved a chorus there. After a few months we would be happy with the arrangements and take it to the studio and take it from there.

I feel like the whole process over the years has definitely been refined a great deal. When we recorded ‘Aquarius’ we didn’t even demo any real instruments, we were just using these midi demos. We went to the studio and we were just playing along with Ray as he was recording the drums for the final album which is something we just wouldn’t do now.

We spend so much time making these structured demos, almost like the real thing to be honest. Ray will record to these demos which are practically exactly as they’re going to be on the finished album.

Progradar: Do the ideas for the songs come from everyone in the band?

Richard: Yes, that’s the beauty of it, we’re all working together and it’s really paid off. I feel that the music’s gone off in a new direction and it definitely feels fresher than it was maybe ten years ago. We have evolved so much and that’s because we are all throwing it in there and it’s like a unified vision which has been great fun.

The way we do it is by using an online file sharing space and we all use the same programs (logic audio). One person may come up with an idea which could be just two or three minutes or it could be a more structured, fleshed out idea. They will then upload the project to the file sharing space and someone may say they have some ideas that could work with it. They’ll download it and work on it and re-upload it.

We just go back and forth, sharing a bunch of ideas in tandem until we have a bunch of finished arrangements that we’re happy with.

Progradar: It sounds a really good way to do it and the way the band and the music has developed, it’s obviously working for you guys?

Richard: I feel it’s really working out for us, the key is being able to compromise and to be open and prepared to let go of stuff. I always found it so hard when I was working on an idea for a year or so and then presented it to the band they were not really interested in it.

I’d be like, “What?!, I just spent a whole year on this, we’ve got to use it!”, sometimes you’ve just got to be open and willing to compromise or even throw stuff in the bin. It’s got to please everyone in the band, we’re all going to play it live. We’ve all got to meet in the middle somewhere.

Sometimes, though, it’s important not to compromise, I guess. I know it’s a contradiction but you’ve get to let that one guy just go with a vision and see where it goes and not dilute it too much. For the most part it’s all about working together and finding a unified vision that works for everyone.

Captured at SECC on 09December,2019 by Max Taylor Grant

Progradar: I’m now going to put you on the spot with this question, what is your favourite Haken album? Or is that like asking which one is your favourite child?

Richard: That’s a tricky one! I think for me, as I mentioned earlier, ‘The Mountain’ is a really special album. The message in the album resonates with a lot of people, it’s generally about the struggles that we all go through in every aspect of life.

We used it as a way of expressing the struggles of being musicians. It’s not that easy to make a success of yourselves when it’s such a saturated market, especially if you’re a prog band, generally the market is a bit niche anyway. It’s also about the general struggles in life. I guess that’s why it resonated with people, because everyone has struggles and they can relate to that whole concept.

Musically it really hits the spot with me but that album also broke us through to a new market. We were with a new label, signing to InsideOut was always one of the things that we’d aimed to do, one of those boxes that we had to tick. It was a massive deal for us so it’s always been a special album.

I know this is a very typical thing to say but the ‘Virus’ album, I really do have a great feeling about it. There’s something about the album which feels very complete and well balanced, I feel that, right now, it’s my favourite album that we’ve done. I know that’s obviously what I have to say but I genuinely do believe it.

I feel that the songs have come a really long way. Some of the ideas that we had on the album were songs that we were going to work on for ‘Vector’. We’ve been working on them for a really long time and given them enough time and attention to really grow into something special, I can’t wait to get it out there!

Progradar: Just to go on a bit of a tangent, can we talk about your solo album (‘The Cocoon’)? How did it come about? To me it has its roots in Haken but has gone off in a much more chilled and laid back direction.

Richard: That came about about at around the time we came together as a band in Haken and decided to work and write together. It was around the time of the ‘Affinity’ album and the ‘Restoration’ EP, it naturally freed up a lot of time for me.

I decided to work on some other projects, I actually formed a band with Dan Briggs called the Nova Collective and that was a lot of fun. I had wanted to work on the solo album but that went on the back burner for a bit then revisited it after Nova Collective.

I was just chiselling away at these ideas over the course of three years or so. Obviously I was busy with Haken and that was always going to be my main focus so i was doing it in my spare time between tours and albums.

Because it was over three years, the result is a real mix of sounds, a lot of jazz influences from the likes of Avishai Cohen and Tigran Hamasyan, there’s weird polyrhythmic atonal stuff in there but then there’s post-rock, ambient moments like Sigur Rós.

I threw everything in there, I didn’t want to hold back or focus it towards one particular sound. I just wanted to express all of my influences and celebrate as much of the music I love as possible. I ended up writing two albums worth of material and decided to have ‘The Cocoon’ as the first album and then I’ve got a bunch of songs that I’m going to work on and release as a follow up.

Progradar: I was going to ask if you were going to do another solo album…

Richard: I was going to follow up ‘The Cocoon’ with another album but I’ve actually been working on some ideas for a few months, especially the last couple of months while I’ve been stuck indoors with all this free time. It’s got more like an electronic influence in there so I’m hoping to get that done this year and see where that takes me .

Maybe I’ll release a single every few months and then release the album after a few singles or something? After that I’ll release the follow up to ‘The Cocoon’.

Progradar: Regarding the artwork, did Sevcan (Richard’s wife) offer to do that or is it something you asked her to do?

Richard: This album that I’m talking about right now is a joint project so Sevcan had this art exhibition that she was going to host and it was called The Wood Wide Web. It’s a really cool idea, an idea in which trees can communicate with each other through this big network of roots and funghi under the ground. They feed each other nutrients and they’re all connected and we can’t see it.

They’ve used it as a parallel to the world wide web, they’ve used that as a metaphor and I thought it would be really cool to write some music to go with what she was working on. All the songs are based around these different ideas within this overarching concept.

Progradar: Is there an intention to do any of your solo material live?

Richard: To be honest, I would love to do it some day but the whole idea of it is very daunting. I feel comfortable and happy just hiding behind my guitar and not having to front anything. The idea of having to stand at the front of the stage and chat to people, and the idea of singing live, is just the worse thing!

If I made this next album and instrumental album, it would be a lot easier! I love the idea of it (playing the album live) but it’s the whole logistical side of touring as well, which is a massive ball-ache (sic). It requires a lot of attention to detail, time and investment.

Progradar: Here’s a money saving idea for you then, the next time Haken go on tour as a headliner, you could just be the support act?

Richard: That would be cool, I’m totally open to that. Maybe one day because I’d love to take it to the stage, I feel that the songs would really take on another dimension and also it would be great to get Matt (Lynch, drums) to play as well.

Obviously Conner (Green, Haken bassist) is doing a lot of stuff with Haken but he plays a lot of shows but Matt doesn’t play as much as he should do. He’s one of the greatest drummers I’ve ever heard and he should be playing more live, it would great to get out there on stage with him and just play some music!

Progradar: Looking forward, ‘Virus’ is released on the 5th of June, have you been working behind the scenes and looking at, when lockdown ends, taking the album on the road and playing it live?

Richard: We had plans to do some touring this year but that’s all up in the air at the moment, unfortunately. I guess it’s the same for all bands, we just don’t know how it’s going to pan out. I feel that, even if governments allow it, I just don’t see that most people will be up for doing that, being thrown into a room with five hundred sweaty people. Maybe we could play bigger venues with fewer people in?

Progradar: I know ‘Virus’ hasn’t even been released yet but, have you already started out with any ideas for the next album?

Richard: We haven’t begun penning down anything for the next album yet. The reason that ‘Virus’ and ‘Vector’ were so closely released was because they were always supposed to be together. We want to give a bit of space for the album to breathe.

Its’ worrying because the first thing that you would always do is to go and tour an album. We’re going to release this and the realities are that we are going to be sitting on it for at least six or seven months until we actually get to play it live.

Progradar: Have you and the record company had any discussion about what you can do to promote the album without taking it live?

Richard: As I said, we’ve been doing this Q&A thing on Twitch so that’s a way of keeping in contact with the fans, engaging with people and letting them know we’re still alive, which is important. We can use that as a way of doing masterclasses or talk throughs of the songs, or even getting to the stage where we can play the songs and stream it.

We actually took the middle section of the song Architect from ‘Affinity’ and we turned it into like a free acoustic jazz song lasting three or four minutes and we’re all about doing stuff like that for the next three or four months as there’s no chance of playing live.

Although, having said that, I was speaking to the booking agent and he mentioned that there’s this new thing that’s possibly going to happen in Europe. It’s like a car cinema where there’s people roll up in their cars and then watch the show inside their car. I don’t know if it would take off but, if it did, we’re open to stuff like that.

Progradar; We briefly touched on this at the start, did you and the record company have any discussions about changing the album title in view of the current situation?

Richard: The worst timing to release an album, we had the title for the last two years and we’d been hinting at it in the lyrics of ‘Vector’ and in the booklet as well. By the time the pandemic actually hit we’d already got the artwork done and the masters were pretty much in place.

The video was done for the song, everything was already in place, it was just too late by that point to change things without causing a massive hiccup. We just went with it and we just hope that people understand that they are two entirely separate things, it’s the worst possible thing to think that people get the impression we’re trying to capitalise on things.

Progradar: I’m positive that the majority of people would realise that and would know that an album is years in the making, it’s not an overnight decision.

Progradar: And here’s a nice easy question for your final one, recommend me one album, it could just be the one you’ve listened to most recently, apart from ‘Virus’, obviously…

Richard: I’m going to try and link it into the recent tour we’ve done. We’ve just played with Devin Townsend in Europe and America, which is a massive deal for us, all being huge fans of his for years.

When I was a teenager, there was one album that really inspired me as a writer and as a guitar player as well. That was ‘Terria’, which was one of his earliest albums and the layers in that album are amazing, you can hear dogs howling in the background. The depths and the layers of his music have always hit the spot for me so I’ll go with that one!

Progradar: He’s an artists that always seems to be reinventing himself, he never stands still.

Richard: He’s amazing, when you listen to ‘Terria’ and then you listen to ‘Ziltoid’, which is very much a comical thrash metal album, they’re totally different. Then you’ve got his latest album which is just totally mind blowing, the fact that he’s still releasing stuff like that after so many years. He’s never complacent and is always exploring new ideas, which is very inspirational.

Progradar: All that is left is to thank you for your time and, hopefully, we can catch up at a live gig in the future.

Richard: Thank you and it definitely would be great to see you at one of our gigs!

‘Virus’ is released through InsideOut on 19th June 2020.

pre-order virus from the link below:

https://haken.lnk.to/Virus

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