“Each album is its own fresh start, and you shouldn't compare it to what we've done before” – Charlie Griffiths of Haken talks about their new album, “Vector”
There are very few prog metal bands who can claim to be as innovative, creative and restively dynamic as Haken. Since their formation in 2007, they have shown over four previous studio albums, one EP and a live release that they never stand still, merely satisfied to rely on past triumphs. Rather, Haken always look for ways to challenge themselves as musicians and artists, and also to keep the listeners on their collective toes.
Their fifth studio record sees the band going in a heavier direction with the music. But if this album, titled 'Vector', is musically heavy, then there's an underlying theme running through the seven songs which is certainly esoteric and fascinating: it explores the relationship between a sadistic doctor and a confused patient. Producer Adam 'Nolly' Getgood did a fantastic job, and extracted perhaps the best drum sound on any Haken album. And the Shattered Fortress tour, where members of Haken helped Mike Portnoy relive the songs from his time in Dream Theater, has left an indelible mark on the band, which can be experienced on “Vector”.
Gearing up for the upcoming North American tour with Leprous and Bent Knee, Haken’s guitar player Charlie Griffith took some time to chat with Lotsofmuzik’s collaborator Rodrigo Altaf and discuss the writing process of “Vector”, the decision making process of the band, and several aspects of the new album.
Lotsofmuzik - Tell us about the writing and recording process of the new album Vector – it seems like yesterday that I saw you guys here in Toronto last year, and you’re back with a brand new album!
Charlie Griffiths - Yes! We’ve been pretty busy. We kind of haven't stopped since we did Affinity and did the tour supporting that album. Then we were also doing the Mike Portnoy Shattered Fortress tour at the same time last year. That was a pretty busy time and we had a lot of music in our heads. I remember at one point we had five hours’ worth of music memorized between the two different bands! [laughs] And during the Australian part of the Shattered Fortress tour in November we had some days off - we would do a show and then we'd have a day off and then we’d fly to the next city, and we actually started during those days off to sort of reconvene in a hotel room and start writing. And that was when we had the very first seeds of a couple of songs: “A Cell Divides”, which is the last song on the album, “Puzzle Box” and “The Good Doctor”. And we kind of had the demos with programmed parts. We just keep working on them more or less until Christmas, and it was really pretty quick after that, once we had an idea of what the album was going to be, we went through it in a somewhat logical way. Really, this was probably the most organized we've ever been about the final outcome of an album. We’re usually a bit more loose with the writing process and write loads of stuff, and put it together like a jigsaw at the end of it. But this time we had quite a good idea of what we wanted since the start, and we stuck to it. It took about six months from the initial ideas to actually getting the final master, so it was was a pretty good process.
Lotsofmuzik – The first thing that caught my attention when listening to the new album is how great the drums are sounding in this release. I understand that Raymond [Hearne, drums] worked with producer Adam 'Nolly' Getgood to achieve that drum sound, right?
CG - Yeah, exactly. He’s kind of renowned for his drum sounds, and he’s worked with a lot of bands we like: Sikth, his own band Periphery, Devin Townsend and we were impressed with the sounds of the albums he’s worked on. I've known him for years as a guitar player - on the scene in the UK, especially in the progressive genre, everyone knows everyone in a roundabout way kind of thing. So we met ten years ago or something like that and just kind of loosely stayed in touch and I'd always wanted to work with him. And once we started writing the songs, it became apparent that he would really be the man to produce this album. We were interested in hearing his vision applied to these songs, to put it that way. So he came down, he lives up in Bristol, which is a couple of hours out of London, not really that far. He came down to London where we recorded the drums and set up drums with Ray the way he likes to do it and brought some of his own drums and tuned them specifically how he does it. And that's really the reason why they sound like they do.
Lotsofmuzik – Another thing I noticed is the Muse influence on a few songs – the keyboard arpeggios on a few songs, and certain vocal melodies here and there – I never took you guys for Muse fans!
CG - Oh yeah man, we're big Muse fans! What I like about Muse that they’re kind of pop, with catchy choruses, but at the same time they have classical influences which are played through these analog synths. And that was actually one of Diego's mission statements for this album - he wanted to avoid any kind of orchestral sounds, string samples or brass and stuff like that, which we've done a lot of in the past to be given a kind of epic sound. But this time he kind of wanted to challenge himself and see if he could do an album by going outside of your comfort zone and only use analog synth sounds. So when you say you hear Muse influences, that’s probably because of that choice of arrangements for keyboards.
Lotsofmuzik – You toured with Mike Portnoy on the Shattered Fortress tour when he revisited his time with Dream Theater – has this affected the way that Vector turned out?
CG - I think so. I mean, I can only speak personally, but I certainly think so on the song “Veil” - just the kind of intensity and energy of that song. I think that we wanted to try and capture the feeling of playing those Dream Theater songs like “The Glass Prison” and “This Dying Soul”. Both of them have this intense thing of staying twenty minutes on a stage just nonstop laying heavy riffs, like intense music and that was always my favorite part of the show. I really enjoyed the intensity of it, and wanted to try and capture that feeling, so that when we get to play “Veil” live, it will be like reliving that moment and that emotion a little bit. So from that point of view, doing the Shattered Fortress Tour influenced “Vector”, definitely, and “Veil” is probably my favorite song on the album.
Lotsofmuzik – Whose idea was it to use the trumpet at the beginning of “Host”? I couldn't help but notice a “film noir” vibe at the beginning of that song.
CG - That's actually a flugelhorn, which sounds quite similar to a trumpet. That was actually Ray’s idea. On the demo, Diego had an analog sound which was kind of similar to a brass instrument and Ray was quite adamant that he could hear a flugelhorn at that point. Not many people know this, but he’s an orchestral player, and he has a lot of friends who are brass players, trumpet players etc. He had a friend that he had in mind that would be perfect for that and he actually came down for a day during the drum recordings and recorded ten different solos over that. It definitely has a kind of film noir feel to it. Actually, one of the working titles of “A Cell Divides” was “Tech Noir”, so we definitely had some sort of mix of film noirs with technology – Blade Runner, Terminator etc., that kind of vibe.
Lotsofmuzik – The first song to be revealed, “The Good Doctor”, is by far the catchiest song in the entire album, and was a no-brainer choice for first single, right?
CG – Actually we had a debate about it, and some of us wanted to put out “Puzzle Box” first, because it's a heavier song and it's a bit more representative of the sound of the album. But we had discussions with the label, and when they heard ‘The Good Doctor” they said, “yeah, that's definitely a lead single”. And at the end of the day I'm glad we put it out first, because people responded to it.
Lotsofmuzik: I found it very clever how this song talks about mental disease in the lyrics but it has a kind of happy feel to it, especially in the chorus.
CG - The idea of the song is that it describes an ECT [Electroconvulsive therapy]. It was inspired by the famous scene from “One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest”, where in the 50’s this technique was used to lobotomize people. Today it’s used with a different aim, and with a more humane technique, but, you know, back in the fifties it was, it was a bit more brutal. I think what I would like people to do is to actually get a physical copy of the album because we'll be putting a lot of stuff in the booklet, the CD booklet. We’re going to tell the story visually, and the booklet has doctor's notes and prescriptions, with a psychological wording. And it tells you when the story's taking place as well, which will help get a lot more context. But going back to “The Good Doctor”, much like “Nurse Ratchet” in “One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest”, he kind of enjoys tormenting the patients and the song plays with the idea that in this case, this doctor enjoys punishing this person, this subject on the album. So that's why it's got a happy feeling, because the doctor is happy about it, enjoying what he’s doing! [laughs]
Lotsofmuzik – On “Puzzle Box” you go back to the electronic sounds that were used prominently on Affinity, and the middle section is insanely heavy too. Is it true that Haken’s original keyboard player Peter Jones did some work on that track as well?
CG - Yeah, that's right. He programmed all the electronic drums that you hear, particularly on the most chilled middle section of “Puzzle Box”. Those kind of glitchy drums that go on in that middle section, you know? And it was cool to have an original member back as a guest, we felt great about it.
Lotsofmuzik – The album is quite short compared to your other efforts – we’re used to having more than an hour of music from you guys – was that intentional, or a consequence of the busy schedule of the band?
CG – It kinda was intentional. We wanted to make more of a metal album than a prog album, and I looked at all of my favorite metal albums and they were all around forty minutes. Take Megadeth’s “Rust In Peace” for example. To me this is like the perfect metal album, and it lasts around forty minutes. It’s just perfect as it is, and I’ve never heard anyone complain that it’s too short! [laughs]. So that was the idea actually. We were aiming to make a forty minute album, and kind of expanded just a bit above that. But we definitely wanted to keep it short and concise and to the point.
Lotsofmuzik: The example I always use is Van Halen II, which clocks in at thirty six minutes, and it's just amazing from start to finish - not a note is wasted on that one!
CG – Yeah, we basically had our ideas laid out and it filled just around forty minutes, and just didn’t want to fill up time just for the sake of it, because that's what people are used to. Each album is its own fresh start, and you shouldn't compare it to what we've done before - it's simply its own thing. Nobody asked Stephen Spielberg when he made “The Color Purple” “why are there no sharks in it?” just because he had made “Jaws” [laughs]. For sure you don't go into it expecting there to be full of sharks or aliens. You should go in with a fresh blank mind and willing to accept it for what it is. And that’s how we’d like our fans to listen to our new album – with a fresh pair of ears and not expecting us to do the same as before.
Lotsofmuzik – Do you often reflect on how much you all have evolved as musicians? Because the change is palpable when you compare your first album to Vector, don’t you think?
CG - I guess we do. To me it's gone pretty quick. It really just seems like yesterday that we did Aquarius and Visions, and we haven't really stopped since then. We're not extremely focused on playing better or faster, we're just trying to stay inspired and make sure that what we're writing is true to what we're actually feeling at the time. And even planning some of the “Affinity” material now, it takes us back to a different mindset that we were in when we recorded it, you know, it brings back memories. I think we've really improved as songwriters and lyricists, but what do I know - some people still prefer Aquarius over anything else we’ve done. So on certain aspects, that’s really hard to say [laughs].
Lotsofmuzik – Tell us what the plans are for the upcoming Haken and Leprous tour.
CG - We've only just figured out the set list we're going to play, and we’re trying to keep it balanced between the “Vector” songs, which we’re of course excited about playing, and some familiar stuff in there as well because it's going to be quite close to the release of the album - the tour starts a few days after it's released, and we want people to know what they're listening to. So yeah, we were going to be playing some old stuff and some new stuff, and it’s going to be about half and half. As for Leprous, I've got no idea what they’ll play! [laughs]
Lotsofmuzik: I was thinking you would bring Einar Solberg, the Leprous singer, to sing the part he did in the studio for “The Architect” with you, but that part is only like ten seconds long, so I guess it won’t be practical, right?
CG - Actually, I can tell you now that “The Architect” won’t be in the setlist. We actually just played in Transylvania a few weeks ago at a festival, Leprous was going to play the following day, but they happened to be there earlier, so he sang that song with us. We've done it a few times with him, and it’s always great. It’s kinda funny, because off stage he’s reserved, quiet this tiny person, but he seems a lot bigger when he gets to the stage [laughs].
Lotsofmuzik - On the last tour you had the Haken coffee and the 80’s-themed sunglasses on the merch stand. What kind of things are you bringing this time?
CG – We might be bringing coffee again, but a different blend, some cool t-shirt designs…we work with this company called Blacklake Design, which has been working for us since “The Mountain”, and they always come up with the coolest t-shirts. Maybe hats and a few other things.
Lotsofmuzik – No “The Good Doctor” stethoscopes then?
CG – [laughs] that’s a cool idea, but no! [laughs]. Actually, if anyone’s interested in buying the VIP packages, there’s a bunch of cool merch exclusively available for those who buy it. Particularly the t-shirt is great – it will be a VIP package for both bands, so we came up with a t-shirt that combines one of the very few things we have in common: Leprous has a song about a fly, and we have “Cockroach King”, so the t-shirt has an insect in it! [laughs]. The only crossover between the bands is insects, and we decide to call this tour “The Entomology” [laughs]. That t-shirt will only be available for those who buy the VIP package.
Lotsofmuzik – I also noticed you guys will be touring South America next year with Intervals on a few shows, right?
CG - Yeah, we came over with Mike Portnoy last year, but collectively as Haken, this will be our first time in South America. Honestly, they were the best crowd ever! From the first down beat they’re already jumping on the air and screaming – it’s insane! I can’t wait for it!
Lotsofmuzik – With more albums under your belt it gets harder and harder to put together a setlist – what’s your process?
CG - When you release a new album, it's kind of obvious which songs are going to work better live. In this case it’s going to be the heavier, more high energy songs. Those are the ones that we're looking forward to playing. As I said before, we want to keep it kind of balanced, so as to not alienate people in the audience that haven't heard the new stuff, you know, and to have enough familiar stuff. We try to keep a balanced set, but it's kind of hard because of time constraints and a lot of our songs are very long. When we did the 10th anniversary tour we did a medley of Aquarius - we took all our favorite parts of the album and made a twenty minute version of it so that we could play that every night. It worked well, we enjoyed playing it, and at least people got to hear some of that album.
Lotsofmuzik – I also noticed you don’t all live in the same place – Diego lives in Mexico and Conner is in Indiana, and everyone else is in the UK - what kind of system do you have in place to make decisions in the band, to rehearse for tours and write new music?
CG - We use Whatsapp everyday. If you don't check your phone for like a couple of hours, you come back to it and there are like fifty messages on it, just on the Haken group! [laughs]. We're constantly in touch with each other every day, talking about whatever's coming up. We've just been discussing the setlist, the merch, and we're working with the label as well on the release schedule, what single's going to be released when etc. Everyone has an opinion, and we try to come to an agreement on the issues as a committee, so it doesn't really matter that those guys are across the Atlantic. Richard and I live minutes away from each other, but still we never see each other! I see him as much as I see Diego, who lives in Mexico City. Very often, it's just easier to communicate by email or what have you, you know, and we'll figure out when we're going to rehearse and then that's where we'll figure out the logistics of that, all the flights and everything and where are we going, where we're going to rehearse etc. And then we'll have a couple of days blocked out and then everyone will arrive at the rehearsal studio, and leading up to that, we’ve all done our homework, we've, we've learned in our parts and practiced a lot. When we get in the rehearsal room, we can pretty much just play through the set in, in one go. If you’ve done your homework, then it’s fine. You don't have to be together week after week refining it – if we prepare for it, we can take two days to do it, as opposed to weeks and weeks of rehearsals.
Lotsofmuzik: I’m looking forward to your show here in Toronto – it’ll be on Halloween, and I can’t wait for it!
CG – Oh, that will be a special night, we’ll dress up in costumes, so come see us there! [laughs].
Lotsofmuzik: I surely will! Thank you for your time, and all the best with “Vector” and the new tour!
CG – Thanks!
Haken’s “Vector” is set for release on October 26th 2018 via InsideOut, cover art and the tracklist can be seen below.
2.The Good Doctor (03:58)
3.Puzzle Box (07:45)
5.Nil By Mouth (07:11)
7.A Cell Divides (05:00)
Ross Jennings – Vocals
Charlie Griffiths – Guitar
Rich Henshall – guitar & keys
Diego Tejeida – keys
Conner Green – bass
Raymond Hearne – drums
Enter the 5th Dimension (2007 Demo)
The Mountain (2013)
Restoration (EP) (2014)
[Special thanks to Nick Andreas]
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