Haken Interview (Charlie Griffiths)

"Prog celebrates actually trying to be good at what you do"

30/08/2013 @ 18:42
Honestly, I am bored of musicians that give you the impression that they haven’t listened to any music for decades. That’s one of the reasons why I enjoyed the conversation with Charlie Griffiths, guitarist of British progmetallersHaken, so much. Their impressive new album "The Mountain" - the first for InsideOut gave me the opportunity to find out how passionate these guys are with their music. And that’s something I’ll always admire in a musician.

Congratulations for your new album. It’s an amazing work that stands out in a really good year for prog music. How do you feel about it, as the release date comes closer?
Thankyou very much! Yes there are so many great bands releasing albums at the moment. It's an amazing time to be a Prog fan. I'm really excited about the release, because we really put everything we had into “The Mountain” and I'm hoping the listeners will hear that, feel a connection with the music and hopefully have a good experience.

HakenIn my opinion, this is your best album to date and it’s quite an achievement since “Visions” was also a great album. How challenging was it for you to try and top your previous album? Was it a stressful procedure?
Thanks again! I definitely think this is our most cohesive and heartfelt piece of work. With every song we write we learn something new about the craft of songwriting and how to create that magical blend of sound and words that magically connects with our emotions. That pure emotional connection was what we were striving to achieve on this one; much more that the previous two albums. It was stressful at times, but we took it one step at a time until we were sure this was the best work we've ever done.

Now, you are part of Inside Out family. Sensory is a great label, but Inside Out is the real deal for a prog band. It’s like playing in the Premier League of prog, isn’t it? Tell us how you ended up in Inside Out.
We're extremely grateful to Sensory for helping us release “Aquarius” and “Visions”, but signing with InsideOut was always a goal for us since the beginning. I think Thomas Waber had his eye on us for a while, but he checked us out at Night of the Prog in 2012 and I guess we played a good show, because that's when we started talking about making music together. I have to say that it feels surreal sharing a label with so many bands and musicians who are heroes to me.

U.K. has always been pioneering and quite strong on progressive rock, but not that much on progressive metal. The only band that comes to mind with a continuous discography on a higher level is Threshold. Now, you are making quite a name in the scene, while great bands like Headspace also emerge? Is a N.W.O.B.P.M. coming, hehe?
Ha! I like that acronym. Yes I hope so. To me Prog is like an English national tradition in and is entwined in our musical heritage stretching back to folk music, so I feel like I belong to that culture. The old Queen and Gentle Giant records make me feel warm and at home; it's the same feeling I get from sipping a cup of tea. I also grew up loving Metallica, Megadeth and Anthrax, so those techniques and guitar sounds are part of who I am. It's natural for me to combine those two worlds. I couldn't play any other style of music with the level of emotional investment that I have for Prog Metal.

HakenBack to “The Mountain” now, is it a concept album? I don’t have the lyrics yet, but I couldn’t find a lyrical connection between the songs? What does the title stand for and what are the lyrics about?
We set out to deliberately NOT write a concept album this time, to take ourselves out of our comfort zone and disrupt any formulaic habit that might creep in. We wrote the songs as separate pieces, but inevitably some musical and lyrical themes bleed from one song to another, so there are a few connections across the album, which is something we like to do so the songs belong to each other. Although there's no narrative story line, we realized the songs kind of had a thematic progression, “The Path” definitely felt like the beginning of a journey and “Somebody” has a real finality to it. The songs in the middle deal with life, death, money, human instincts and the will to survive. There are a few reasons “The Mountain” seemed like the right title. Mountains take millennia to form so to me they're a symbol of slow, consistent  determination; I'm sure many musicians can relate to that. I think the theme of the album is summed up by the “Atlas Stone” lyric “Rise to the challenge I set myself”. In the same way that a mountaineer sees Mount Everest and thinks “I want to climb that, for no other reason than that it’s there”, I look at music and think “I want to explore this intangible world of sound”. Just doing it is its own reward.

One track that really stands out from the first time you listen to the album is “Cockroach King”. Firstly, who is the “Cockroach King”? Then the multi vocal section reminded me of my beloved Spock’s Beard. Could there be truth that they are an influence to you or is it just me?
I am a fan of Spock's Beard of course and Ross really loves them - so yes we know all about the 'Thoughts' songs and they're awesome. I'm willing to speculate that if you asked SB where they got that style - they'd point you in the direction of Gentle Giant, who were the absolute masters at a capella vocals, so GG were really our main vocal influence on that track. Lyrically it's a bit of a tip of the hat to Queen's Bicycle Race or Killer Queen which in first listen seem strange and bizarre, but there is a message hidden within.

Then, “In Memoriam” is overall my favorite track on the album. I think mostly because it doesn’t remind me of anything and sets kind of a character for you. How was this song formed?
That's very kind thanks! As with most of our songs Richard provided us with the initial template and we got together, jammed, experimented and twisted it into the finished product. As I remember the first version was a lot longer, so we strived to streamline the track and edit out anything that wasn't absolutely essential. I think we were a lot more brutal with cutting out sections generally on this album. We were going for a King Crimson sort of thing with the glitchy drums and I used my 8-string tuned down to low E for that dirty grimy tone.

HakenWell, I couldn’t help asking about the bouzouki in “Pareidolia” that’s also on the video of the song. It fits great, but I have to say that over here in Greece we’re overfed with the sound of it and the countless cheesy songs, haha. How come you used such an instrument? Are there any other similar instruments you’d like to experiment with in the future?
That's one for our Greek friends for sure!. For that section we started off thinking it should sound like Al Di Meola's“Casino” meets Pantera's“Vulgar Display of Power”. The Bouzouki was a last minute decision. I was over at Richard's recording acoustic guitars and he had a Bouzouki lying around the house that he'd brought back from a holiday in Greece, so we simply experimented with it and it suited the song to a tee. I love the fact that we're playing a melody using the Hindustani scale on a traditional Greek instrument; it's a real culture clash moment. As for the future? Richard is currently travelling around South America, so we'll have to wait and see what instruments he brings back, hehe.

Overall, the songwriting seems more cohesive. Which elements do you think make the difference in comparison with your previous works?
As I said before I think the editing of sections was a lot more decisive this time, which hopefully keeps the songs interesting and always moving and evolving. The other big difference was that the lyrics were written by each member, which made for a broader palette of ideas and a more collective, inclusive feeling within the band. Everyone cares deeply about their lyrics as they are mostly reflections of our most personal struggles and inner demons.

Then, you’ve always been kind of compared to Dream Theater and now with your new albums being released close to each other the comparisons are even more! If you take a look to the comments on youtube about “Pareidolia” most people compare it to “The Enemy Inside”. Is it flattering? Is it disturbing? Is it both?
I'll put my cards on the table from the outset and say that Dream Theater are Gods to me and I've loved them since 1991 when my friend Tim Spear gave me a tape (that's right kids,a cassette tape!) of “When Dream and Day Unite”, so it’s extremely bizarre to me that people even mention us in the same sentence. I don't take those comparisons seriously at all however, since the simple fact is they defined an entire genre, in the same way that Metallica defined thrash or Bob Marley is the sound of reggae. They are and will always be the greatest Prog Metal band in history. That's not to say that we try to emulate that style - far from it, but they are definitely one of many bands who influence us, so we are bound to fall into that bracket.

Allow me to ask some tricky prog questions. Firstly, Dream Theater and Fates Warning are releasing new albums. If you had both on the same day, which one would you listen to first and why?
I've actually already heard the new Dream Theater and it's awesome. I'm really looking forward to hearing the new Fates; “Parallels” was one of my favorites back in the day, so it's going to be awesome sharing the stage with them at Prog Power Europe in October! But to answer your hypothetical question, there would only one way to decide that dilemma - a coin toss!

Then, should one day Mike Portnoyreturn to Dream Theater and Geoff Tate reunite with the other members ofQueensryche? I, personally don’t see it...
Since they're all super nice, reasonable guys I can totally see Mike playing with DT again. Probably as a guest appearance for a milestone gig or a special occasion - I'd love to see the '12 Steps' played live with Mike behind the kit, since he's so emotionally connected to that suite. I haven't followed the Queensryche thing that closely, but from what I've read, both parties were unhappy for years, so I think the current situation is best for everyone.

HakenProg music seems to be quite public these days, especially in the U.K. with prog magazines, prog awards, prog festivals etc. What do you think made prog music commercial after so many years of being quite underground and obscure?
It's awesome! It feels like a totally current and vibrant genre. Mainstream musicians pretend it’s cool to be ignorant about music theory and unashamedly play badly, so it sounds more 'real and from the heart' maybe people are seeing through that. Prog celebrates actually trying to be good at what you do, so the more people who get rewarded for that, the better it is for all humanity in my humble opinion.

Now, we’ve been making a list for the Absolute Guide To Progressive Metal and “Visions”is among the albums that we’ll present [editor: coming soon]. Which are your favorite prog metal albums of all time?
Wow, thanks for putting us on the list! Maybe some of these aren't strictly Prog metal, but here are some of my favourite albums (in no particular order) : Magellan –“Impending Ascension”, Pain of Salvation –“Remedy Lane”, Death –“Human”, Opeth–“Blackwater Park”, Fates Warning –“Parallels”, Sieges Even –“Paramount”, King Diamond –“Them”, Devin Townsend –“Ziltoid The Omniscient”, On The Virg–“Serious Young Insects”, Headspace –“I Am Anonymous”, Meshuggah–“Nothing”, Dream Theater –“Scenes from a Memory”, Cynic –“Focus”, Queensryche–“Operation Mindcrime”.

That’s it from me. Thank you for your time and hopefully we’ll have the chance to see you playing live over here. Add whatever you want.
Thanks for the great interview and the support Chris. We'd love to come and play in Greece and we will do as soon as we can!

Chris Karadimitris