Interview with ROSS JENNINGS of HAKEN
Ross Jennings is a founding member and the lead vocalist of UK based progressive band Haken. He was kind enough to have a chat with me in the lead up to their highly anticipated Australian tour.
” After being in a band for 10 years it’s pretty crazy to think we now have the opportunity to visit Australia and all of these new territories. I guess we had no idea just how far we were reaching – to even grasp the concept that we’ve got fans in Australia is pretty crazy. We just cant wait to do this and we hope people show up and have a great time! ”
We started our conversation with a little bit of small talk which involved a lot of me trying not to be too gushing in my praise for The Mountain (2013) and Affinity (2016) in particular!
For us we feel like the Mountain was the turning point. We started to get musicians that we looked up to and respected noticing us and spreading the word for us – it also marked the time when we switched labels and went over to Inside Out; a label which had also signed a lot of the bands which I grew up listening to. The momentum has snowballed since then, and Affinity kind of pushed us up another level.
Haken have been very busy since the release of Affinity, with two intensive European tours (Affintour 1.0, plus their 10 Year Anniversary) and the impending tours of the USA and Australia. It is clear that Haken’s rapid rise, from relative obscurity to arguably holding the crown as the pre-eminent progressive band of recent times, has helped open plenty of doors for them to tour on a much larger scale.
Europe has always been a good market for us but we even struggled in our home country at the beginning. The mentality around going to shows in the UK tends to be steered towards the bigger artists – going out casually on a Wednesday evening to see just any old music being played in a bar just isn’t a thing – you struggle to get 50+ people into a small venue on a regular weekday, so Europe has always been our main market, we’ve never really had a problem there.
Jennings revealed a lot about their mind-set behind the branding behind the upcoming Australian Tour; Affinitour 3.0
Talking about hitting new regions, we’re celebrating 10 years as a band but we felt that we had to market this tour in Australia as version 3.0 of the Affinity tour – we couldn’t celebrate 10 years of being a band in a region we hadn’t played before, at least that’s kind of how it feels for us. Setlist wise we play a pretty eclectic mix from across all of the albums, covering everything because I think people are really going to want to see that, so in some respects it does tie in quite nicely to what we’re doing as part of the 10 year anniversary set too.
The rise of social media, Spotify and other music streaming platforms has had a major impact on the music industry. Ross was pragmatic when discussing the role of social media and streaming in the industry and hinted at his eagerness to delve deeper into the Australian progressive music scene when on tour this September.
Back in the day you’d have to rely on the label to sign you, but then you’d sell millions! These days you don’t necessarily need to rely on a label to be heard or seen. But the downside is that you might not sell as many records because the market is so saturated and so many bands can be heard. Its such a massive debate – I don’t think we (Haken) would be where we are without the internet and social media. We started off putting everything on MySpace – at the time that was the big platform.
Personally I’m not that familiar with the bands who we’re playing with In Australia so it’s going to be a bit of an education for me. We’ve had Caligula’s Horse playing in my home town recently, and I met the guys who are really nice. We’re fans of some Australian artists but it’s going to be really nice to meet these guys and hear some new music.
Getting back to the topic of their latest album, Affinity, it was insightful to hear his personal views on his favourite tracks and his clear understanding of what suits the band best in the live setting.
My Favourites have obviously changed since we recorded It thanks to playing them live and seeing how they come across. A personal favourite in terms of my performance was Bound By Gravity – but its not one that we play live, and being that it is a slow ballad we’re not even sure that it would come across well played live either. 1985 and The Architect were definitely personal and band favourites and I think we enjoy playing those ones the most too.
Haken have always written very complex and involved music but on Affinity I noted that there seems to be a bit more of a traditional ‘song first’ approach. Ross confirmed that this was a deliberate shift in the way that the band approached the album.
I guess it was kind of conscious. We wanted to have these focussed songs rather than all of the meandering! Although that (meandering, progressive interludes) obviously appeals to the band too! So we kept some of that in there but we wanted a solid record which could be more accessible without selling out too much so to speak! (laughs) It was all surrounded by this 1980’s ethos – we listened to a lot of records from that era – we kind of structured our songs around those sorts of things.
We’ve changed out approach slightly as well, as the first couple of records were largely Richard (Richard Henshall, Guitars), who would write basically a whole album, structure all the songs and have most of the melodies ready to go. We’d then edit it as a band to suit our needs. But that changed somewhat on The Mountain and further on Affinity were we’d all chip in with original ideas. I think that shows as well – Affinity is quite eclectic; no 2 songs are the same and you can hear everyone’s style and what they’re into.
Mike Portnoy has been an advocate for Haken for some time now. When discussing Haken’s involvement in The Shattered Fortress, Ross was very clear about the bands position and confirmed that the decision to get involved to be a ‘no brainer’.
I mentioned earlier about The Mountain drawing attention of musicians that we respected – Mike was obviously one of those guys– he went crazy for the Cockroach King, he shared it one his pages, invited us to his cruise ship festival at sea (Progressive Nation At Sea, 2014). The relationship has developed significantly over the last 3 years too. He’s was planning to do the Dream Theater material but needed a band, so it was like ‘do you guys want to do it?’ It was definitely a no brainer for me. Obviously we were aware of criticism that we might get, as there can be 2 sides – camp Dream Theater, camp Portnoy; which I think is ridiculous – and there’s always going to be comparisons, but we went into this open to that and ultimately we’re fans playing music we love, and playing it with that passion. I think Mike couldn’t be happier and you’ll see us down under in November, so the Silver lining is that we’ll get two trips to your great land!
When asked about singing the Dream Theater material it was clear that James LaBrie has had a major influence and played a role in shaping him as a vocalist.
Big time – LaBrie was a massive influence. I listened to a lot of Dream Theater in my late teens so I think his style definitely shaped the way I sing today. I also listened to a lot of indie music, Radiohead, Elbow, and these sorts of guys who influenced the softer approach to my voice. I’ve always loved stadium rock, AOR I think you call it, you know Journey, Aerosmith, that stuff. All these elements factor in, but yeah in doing The Shattered Fortress shows I wanted to really try an honour the Dream Theater material and sing the parts as close as I could. Obviously I’m not James LaBrie, so Ill never get it exactly, but hopefully I do it justice.
Although Haken will visit Australia twice in 2017 Ross wasn’t too confident on getting time off to see the sights, although he did hint at a potential reunion with a past band mate.
On our first trip (Haken’s Affinitour 3.0) there wont be enough time to do anything else. It’ll be just ‘get on a place, do a show, get on a plane, do a show’, but I think in November we’ll have some more time so I’m really looking forward to being a bit of a tourist. We’ve actually got a friend who lives in Sydney, he’s more than a friend actually, he’s an original member of Haken. His name is Matt Marshall, he left after recording the demo, and yeah he moved to Sydney and got married and became a lawyer. I haven’t seen him in 8 or 9 years so I’m really looking forward to meeting up, who knows, maybe we’ll try and persuade him to jam with us or something!
In closing Ross was a good sport an humoured me with a bit of a game where I’d throw out 2 words and he had to confirm which he preferred!
1985 or The Architect?
Cockroach King or Crystallised?
Gotta say Crystallised
Pink Floyd or King Crimson?
Now it’s getting serious….(pause)
James LaBrie or Russell Allen?
Can we make it a tie!
Carling or London Pride?
Definitely going with the Ale! Sorry!
‘Ray Hearne’s Justice for Ray’ or ‘Mike Portnoy’s Shattered Fortress’
Oooo how much do I love Ray?! Let me think about this…(pause)
I’m going to have to be selfish man!
Shattered Fortress all the way!
Don’t miss the opportunity to see Haken on their first tour of Australia. They are a band at the top of their game, writing some of the most vital progressive music that has been released in recent years. September is fast approaching, get your tickets while you still can.
Australia September 2017
Thursday 28th – Brisbane, The Zoo
Friday 29th – Melbourne, 170 Russell
Saturday 30th – Sydney, Factory Theatre
Sunday 1st – Perth, Capitol
Tickets available from HERE