Haken: "If you enjoy what you're doing, that's gonna come across in your art"
A conversation with Peter Jones about his return to Haken and the band's amazing new studio album, "Fauna"
Let's start by addressing the elephant in the room: "Fauna" is clearly a contestant for Album Of The Year. And by saying that, I'm pretty sure the elephant will remember this statement when the end of year gets closer. But, as it's maybe a bit too early to talk about that, I was simply excited to have the chance to talk about it with Peter Jones, Haken's new keyboard player. Peter is actually a really old member of the band, but most of all his is a great musician and also a great guy as I found out during this interview, where we talked all things about Haken, the new album and his contribution to it, the state of touring industry and the importance of having bandmates that are silly as you are. He even had to pick a spiritual animal for each of his bandmates, which I hope he won't regret when they get to read this interview. I bet they'll forgive him, because of his great input to "Fauna". And for being a great guy. Maybe…
Hello Peter. How are you?
I'm very good. We are in Warsaw. We were a little bit late with the soundcheck, but just got finished. So now we have a few hours off until dinner. And I'm doing well here.
And here I am, wasting the precious time you have to rest, calling from a little country in the eastern of Europe to ask you about Haken… (laughs)
No, that's OK! I mean, it is actually my first time in Poland, but I had a little explore earlier, and I couldn't see too much around the venue, cause it's not that nice today. It's raining and grey, so I'm happy to sit here and do this…
All right! Now the tour with Between The Buried And Me has just started. I think you've done one show so far…
It's been amazing playing with Between The Buried And Me. Τhey are unbelievable musicians every night, so it's also great to watch them
Oh, three shows. I've got left behind… So, how are things rolling so far?
It's been amazing. We've played three shows in Germany, we've done Hamburg, Leipzig and Berlin. So, it's been a great start to the tour. Great, great crowds, great energy. Haken are very happy to be back in Europe. And it's been amazing playing with Between The Buried And Me. Τhey are unbelievable musicians every night, so it's also great to watch them. So, I think we're really happy with how the tour started. It really is just the start, there's a long way to go for the rest of this tour. Another 30-35 shows or something, so it's just started, but we are feeling warmed up and excited for it.
I really can't express how much I'd like to see both bands. Because first of all I love both bands for many, many years. And secondly, I think you're both on top of your game. So, I think you can understand me… and it's really a shame that neither of the bands has ever come to Greece and it's a shame…
Oh, that is a shame! I didn't know that Haken haven't ever played in Greece either. And Greece is close to me. Actually, I'm half Greek. So the Greek culture was a very big part of my family upbringing. So, I'd certainly like to get Haken over there sometime.
Well, we have to keep in touch and find a way to bring you here! You can be our link and I can be yours… (laughs)
I hope so… (laughs)
Thankfully we seem to be coming out of the worst of the COVID situation, but the cost of living has gone up and that makes it difficult
You also toured with Symphony X last year and this is your first proper European tour after almost three years. Would you say that factors like, COVID then Brexit changed things significantly for you?
Obviously the industry was hugely affected by COVID as touring stopped. Us getting to go out last year was amazing. Me being back in the band, the band coming back out of COVID, playing with Symphony X who were sort of like legendary heroes to a lot of us when we were growing up… that was amazing I think… that feeling of being out there. And now coming back to Europe. But I think you can still see the aftereffects of both these in some way. I mean, life is expensive. I think that's the case for everybody right now in or outside of the music industry. COVID seems to be playing less of a role now in many parts of the world. Some places are still taking it quite seriously, but overall the live industry has opened up, people are going out to see shows, bands are going on tour. In fact, many-many bands are going out on tour again. It's hard for people to choose sometimes who to go and see. So, thankfully we seem to be coming out of the worst of the COVID situation, but the cost of living has gone up and that makes it difficult. Brexit creates more difficulties, especially for British bands trying to tour Europe. Things that were simple before have now become more bureaucracy or expensive. So there are challenges that somewhat fall to the wayside. Our priority in the band - and I'm sure it's the same for every other band - It's just to get out there to play, to play new music, to hit these markets again and to meet the fans. So more than anything, that's what we're focusing on and just trying to enjoy that night after night.
Yeah, there are many obstacles, but nevertheless, as I told you before, I I'd really like to have the chance to see you. And there's an extra reason for that… because your new album, "Fauna", could be the best Haken album so far. It's freaking awesome man... Congrats for it.
Thank you! We're very proud of it!
I think what we would expect from something like "Fauna", which is dense and eclectic and quite long, is to take quite a number of listens to sink in for some people
I mean, seriously, I have the album about a couple of months in my hands and I can't top listening to it. It's impressive! What's the feedback you get so far? I'm really enthusiastic about the album.
Mostly the feedback we're seeing has been positive. Obviously, arts are always subjective, so you see a whole spectrum of response. But we are seeing a lot of excitement, akin to the kind of thing that you're saying and some people are saying, that "this might be my favorite Haken album" or "this is something totally new". And that's really exciting for us to see. That's exactly the kind of thing that we were aiming for. Naturally, we see some people who are unsure of it yet. I think what we would expect from this album and what we'd hope - as with all progressive music, but especially something like "Fauna", which is dense and eclectic and quite long - is that it probably will take quite a number of listens to sink in for some people. I think that should be expected. I think it would be the same for us if we were listening to that album and it had been made by somebody else. It's not something that you can fully process on the first listen. There's so many ideas there, so many different styles. It doesn't really let off at any point. It's musically quite intense and sort of dense.
So, generally the feedback we're getting is making our hearts very warm. People are loving it. We're seeing loads of reviews coming in. We obviously create it for our own sake, we're trying to express something. But when you see reviews, when you hear feedback and people seem to be understanding what it is that you're trying to put out there, that's obviously a very rewarding feeling. And I think people are seeing that and that's great for us. That makes us really excited. Obviously, we put a few singles out, but next week, well a week today is when the album officially comes out. And I think we're excited for that. So, I think we've saved a lot of the most sort of juicy, meaty songs for the album itself, rather than the single releases. So generally we're just really proud and we're really enjoying seeing the responses coming from people who had the chance to hear the album so far.
Even the man himself, the one and only Mike Portnoy approved yesterday. It's like a quality stamp, isn't it?
Yeah, I think that's always nice. I mean, Mike has always been such a supporter of the band for so long. And, you know, that means a lot in in this industry. So. seeing his seal of approval on the new album, is always a great accolade to have, as you said.
When it came to the point where there was an opening in the band and they asked me back, it went without question... It just felt like I was going to work with my friends again
Now, this is your first studio album with the band but listening to the album and then watching the track by track videos you've published so far, if I didn't know the story of the band, I'd be sure that you were always a member of Haken. Did it feel so natural for you, as it seems to the outside?
Yes, I mean like… Yes, it's a simple answer… You know, we're a very genuine bunch of guys and there's no kind of acting or pretending. I think that that naturalness comes partly from my relationship with the others. Obviously, you know, I was in Haken 15-16 years ago, I have known Ray Hearn, the drummer, our whole lives. We've been friends for about 30 years. And when I left Haken - which was simply to pursue academic studies - there wasn't any kind of bad relationship. I stayed so close with the guys and I'd go to their shows and Ray especially, he's like my best friend. So, I stayed so close with the band.
I always went to see their shows and support them, and I started to work with them a little bit over on "Vector" and "Virus", having these small little appearances. And of course I also worked with Rich on the Nova Collective record, with Dan Briggs as well. So, as well as a personal friend relationship, over the 5-6 years before I rejoined Haken I was also starting to build up a more professional relationship with them again, actually working with them musically. So when it came to the point where there was an opening in the band and they wanted a keyboardist and they asked me back, it sort of went without question… I was like, "yeah, sure"! It did feel extremely natural. It just felt like I was going to work with my friends again.
And the whole process has been so seamless and I was very involved as we all were. All six of us. But I was very involved in the writing process of "Fauna" in the early drafts and also in the writing week we had. It's been so collaborative, we've worked as a team. And I think that is coming across in these track by track interviews. And it's nice for me on a personal level to see those comments where people are like "you wouldn't even know that he left". It kind of just seems very natural. That obviously is very nice for me to see. So, that's how I feel with the guys. And it's nice that that also comes across externally.
Sometimes I see my role less in trying to play keyboards in terms trying to play simple leads and stuff - which I was more interested in when I was young and I'm a little bit less interested in that now
Another reason for it is because you did an amazing job! And I'm not saying that because we're talking now! You really did an amazing job! What difference did you try to bring in the table in comparison to the previous albums with your approach and your presence on the album?
It's a good question! It's kind of been three of them…
One is just that this album has been extremely collaborative, so on the one hand I've done a lot of writing. I've written a lot with… mostly I write with Ray or Rich or other three. I've kind of written some of the music, which I guess has just been a contribution in bringing my own. Especially, on things like "Nightingale" and "Beneath The White Rainbow", I had a very heavy compositional input to. But, by the time a song is finished, everybody's had their input and it becomes a band unit. So, there's the writing side of it.
In terms of what I've tried to bring as the sort of keyboardist, I think I tried to bring a kind of a different approach. I guess on the one hand, a bit more piano. I love the sound of a Rhodes piano, and I also love the sound of an acoustic piano. I love sort of low pounding, thumping piano notes. I'm a big fan - as I know lots of the guys of the band are - of Tigran Hamasyan, the Armenian jazz pianist. And he kind of has that sort of heavy low piano sound. Lots of syncopation. So, I guess that's a sound that appears on a few tracks of the album. It appears on "Eyes Of Ebony", "Nightingale", "Beneath The White Rainbow"... So, actually having some slightly different sonics there by having piano… not just piano being played as a soft part, but actually having piano being kind of heavy sections.
And on the other side of it, I guess trying to bring some of my own approach to the sound design, which often gets put on the keyboard. It's kind of their job to do that overall sound design. Like "What's the sonic landscape of the music?". So obviously, although you're not the mixed engineer, you're very involved in the overall product. And I've been doing my own kind of electronical production for about five or six years and I have a very big interest in certain aspects of that, like processing and granular synthesis. So, I'm trying to inject these bits of ambience and sort of like weird sounds into the mix. So, sometimes I see my role less in trying to play keyboards in terms trying to play simple leads and stuff - which I was more interested in when I was young and I'm a little bit less interested in that now. I'm more interested in how can the keyboard just enhance the overall sonic feeling of the music and complement the rest of the band rather than stand out too much as its own instrument. That's how I've approached music in my own work over the past few years.
And I think that's why the guys in Haken were interested to bring me in, because they liked what I was doing separately and they were like "you know, this could be a new era of Haken. And Pete's is working with us already"… So I guess that's naturally what I've tried to bring to the album. As well as everything else about it, I think we are as a band making some new sounds on this album for Haken and otherwise experimenting with some new territories sonically.
If you enjoy what you're doing, that's gonna come across in your art
All right. Makes sense, as I'm trying to see your contribution to the songs you mentioned. Another thing I mentioned from these videos that I we talked about is that you showcase a very collective spirit as a band, as everyone seems to have contributed ideas on almost every song and also there is a feeling of camaraderie between the members of the band. You seem to enjoy it. Is it so? I think it's a really important aspect that somehow shows on the album…
Yeah, I think we got this too… because, we shared the album with one of our old band mates, Matt Marshall, who was the original guitarist back when I was in the band. We shared the album with him a few months ago and he was like "this is great." He also said "It sounds like you guys had fun making this." And I think that was partly the point.
I think there were many purposes or attitudes going into writing this out. Obviously, we wanted to make a new album. We wanted to kind of get out of the pandemic and come back with a new statement and a new band member… But, we wanted to have fun with it and we wanted to feel unconstrained and unrestricted. So, with the album, I think that's true.
And, also, with touring… I'm not used to touring because it's only my second tour, they've been doing it for years. I think touring is great. I had the best time last year. I'm enjoying it so far. But, touring is also hard and tiring and grueling and gets in the way of other aspects. And you have to have fun and who you're with makes such a big difference to that.
We're also quite silly people, and I think I've not helped with that… I think I've made that probably worse coming back into the band
So, I think we are really enjoying the dynamic in the band and how we stick as friends and just trying to make the most of all of that. Because, you just have to have fun and enjoy it both on the road and in the studio. And if you do that, if you enjoy what you're doing, that's gonna come across in your art, and then the fans are going to hear that too. Because if you have art being made by people who are struggling with the band or they don't really want to be doing this or that, that will come across. That's not going to be such a pure expression of what you're trying to do as an artist. So, you're absolutely right. I think we are having fun!
We're also quite silly people, and I think I've not helped with that… (laughs) I think I've made that probably worse coming back into the band, because I'm very silly. And as I say, like me and Ray have been friends for almost 30 years, so we just have a lot of silly jokes. I think we're trying to just let that side of things be very openly free to the world to see. Just to see what we're doing. But, yeah, we're having a lot of fun…
There were those differences of opinion and compromise as to be expected when you have six brains trying to create something together
Now, with all these members contributing ideas and stuff, how did you balance it when you were sketching out ideas in the studio and stuff? Were there conflicts of or was it an organic thing to make something out of it?
I think there's always some compromise. The way that songs started varied. What we basically never do is have six people in a room writing a song from scratch. It always starts with one person or two people or three people have over a couple of weeks or months, bash the song together and then the final stages are collaborative of how it's arranged and the vocal melodies stuff like that. Things always start in different areas, but when it gets to that final stage - we had that week about a year ago now, where all six of us were together for seven days, having 15 hour days just finalizing the album. And that's the first time Haken have ever done that as well, by the way, having all six people there for that intense period - naturally you come across some differences in opinion. And there's some compromise there.
And we did it in some songs. Both "Taurus" and "Lovebite" actually, which obviously have been released as singles, were massively changed. They had almost finished drafts and then somebody was sort of like "I'm not feeling this". And the songs got butchered and totally changed. Also, there was another song which we wrote and just before we went to the recording somebody was like "I don't think the song is ready". And we dropped it from the album and we reshuffled the album order. So, there's always compromise, there's always differences. And it's almost like there's like no time period too late for you to be like "Are we sure about this or do we want to change this to make sure that the album is actually as good as it can be as a as a package, which is what matters?". So, there were those differences of opinion and compromise as to be expected when you have six brains trying to create something together. But we worked our way through them and I think we're all just really proud of the final result and really excited for it to finally be out there to the world in a week's time.
I don't think anything about the last few years has been normal for the world
You decided to release the first track and first taste of the album almost a year before the album actually comes out. Did this work well for you, or maybe you'd do it differently in retrospect?
Yeah… That was not something which we would normally do. I think that was because we knew that for one there was a new band member; I just rejoined the band and we were about to go on tour for the first time. It was the first time we toured since before the pandemic. And I think there was just a desire for us to be like "let's get something out into the world". Partly to get me acclimatized with the band and so that we have a new song that we can play on tour, but also just to sort of show the world we're back. "We know that it's been a grueling two years, but we're back, we're working on a new album, here's a single!" And at the time, we didn't know whether or not that would be on the album. We had the album written, but we didn't fully know whether or not "Nightingale" would be on it. But we put it out there and we knew because of tour and other things in the summer that the album wouldn't be able to come out for a while. So, we just wanted to get a single out there. I think in a normal album release cycle you probably wouldn't have such a long gap. But I don't think anything about the last few years has been normal for the world, so I think we've cut ourselves some slack with it. It was a bit strange, but so has everything been since 2020… (laughs)
With each single release we've been trying to hint at the eclecticism of this album
I get it. Now I can't really tell if I have a favorite song off the album because it really changes every time I listen to "Fauna". But "The Alphabet Of Me" really stood out from the first time I've got to listen to it. It's something different for Haken, yet not out of scope. Does this showcase the eclectic character of the album?
Yeah! And I think that was part of our decision to release "The Alphabet Of Me" after "Nightingale". That was that was part of our decision to use that as the first sort of official single that came out of "Fauna", cause obviously that single release was the same day that we announced "Fauna" as an album. "The Alphabet Of Me" is just a bit different to anything Haken have done before. And I think we expected it would showcase the eclecticism. We hoped that! And I imagine people wouldn't hear "The Alphabet Of Me" and then be like "Oh, I see, it's going to be a whole album like that", which would make no sense. Cause Haken have never done that before. It was more like "OK, that's different". That's also very different to "Nightingale" and both these songs together are very different from the "Vector"/"Virus" aesthetic that was quite a step in a different direction from "Affinity". So, I think with each single release we've been trying to hint at the eclecticism of this album. And it was really hard to pick singles for that reason. Because no one song represents the album in its entirety at all. So, picking singles was hard… (laughs). But for us it felt like a new sound, it felt quite fresh, it felt different. We really like it. We've enjoyed playing it live so far, so for sure that was intentional to pick that as the first official single.
It's a superficially simple and catchy chorus that you wanna sing along to, but if you actually listen to the drums, you're just like "oh, my head's exploding
Another stand out track is "Sempiternal Beings". How did this one come around and what is it about?
That's a great question. "Sempiternal Beings" is one of my favorite songs on the album. I think it's one of the first ones we started writing, with Rich, Ray and myself. It kind of sprawled into quite a big in some ways probably more than any other song on the album, somewhat naturally following the "Virus" aesthetic in terms of the sound. But with some interesting twists in there and aesthetics. I think we really like the chorus, which is both catchy, but also if you if you try to understand the rhythms, you just get confused. I always get confused... (laughs). It's a superficially simple and catchy chorus that you wanna sing along to, but if you actually listen to the drums, you're just like "oh, my head's exploding". So it's just a really fun song for that reason and it kind of goes up and down as the difference sections…
And the what the song is about? Actually, as per every song on the album, it's loosely a metaphor to some kind of animal. I have not really been very involved with the lyrics at all to this record. I'm not used to writing lyrics, and I was focusing more on the musical contributions for now. But actually the spirit animal for this one was one that I came up with. And it's kind of inspired by these self-replicating jellyfish, which effectively are immortal and can never die. Which is where the name comes from. And then Ross took that idea and used that as a metaphor and was writing about ideas of eternity and sempiternal and things being both sort of healers and the bringer of pain at the same time. So there's all sorts of interesting references in there, but that's originally where that song idea came from. And I think the music quite nicely reflects that somewhat aquatic and isolated and dark and quite detailed, visionary picture that we're trying to create. But yeah, that's also one of my favorites on the album!
Since you mentioned it, I think the lyrics are great advantage of this album. They're very well written and they're open to interpretation as they should be...
We like to cite everything as being fully collaborative in Haken
Did you all contribute ideas or is it mainly Ross' job to form the lyrics?
It was a big collaboration actually. It was when we were on tour last year that we were spit balling ideas on the bus about spirit animals really. Because like we've come up with this idea of "Fauna" and then we were sort of trying to work out, like what sorts of things we wanted to write about and how that could be kind of encapsulated in some sort of animal or aspects of the animal kingdom and nature. Those discussions were very collaborative.
Again, it was the same with "Taurus"… Lyrically, as I said, I didn't contribute anything, I just contributed a couple of seeding ideas for concepts. I think it was the same with the migration idea for the world of peace for "Taurus" and then this immortal jellyfish for "Sempiternal Beings". But everybody was throwing in ideas. And then somebody else - usually Ross, but there are some songs written by Charlie and even one by Connor - would write the lyrics. So, we like to cite everything as being fully collaborative in Haken. The words and music are all by Haken. Because it doesn't really make sense to say this song was written by Hen and Charlie wrote the lyrics. By the time the product's finished, it's a collaborative piece of work. And we and we sliced up for everything, even the lyrics. So, I think a lot of the lyrics are written by Ross. Some of the songs have been fully written by somebody else though, but everything has always been passed rounds and been checked by somebody else and it's a very collaborative process, even for the lyrics.
If you had to pick a spirit animal for each of your band mates, which one would you pick for one of them?
(laughs) Do I have to choose a spirit animal in general or one from "Fauna"? Or just like any spirit animal?
Whatever you want...
I think Charlie would be a sloth... (laughs) He just has this nice, slow, graceful presence to every move. Every move is very intentional. Connor… I'll just say the first one that comes to mind… Connor would be a cuckoo bird, but I don't know why. Hen would be probably a lion. I think Hen feels like a lion to me. Uh, Ross is a hard on… For some reason I'm thinking of a walrus… I don't know why. And Ray is the hardest. Because, Ray, I've known forever and I know so much about Ray… but what would I pick for Ray? I'm just imagining a character from Super Mario. I don't know why… something called Thwomp. It's a big square with a really angry face. That's not even a real animal, but that's just the spirit animal that I have in mind for Ray.
It's imaginative, so you can use whatever you want for that…
I remember the first time I saw Dream Theater! They were unbelievable
With so much great material, how do you manage your setlists and your live sets? Would you consider doing a series of "A Night With Haken" and play for two and a half or three hours for your fans? You know, like Dream Theater used to do a long time ago. I think it kind of helped them build their legacy...
Definitely! Those old Dream Theater shows… I remember the first time I saw them! They were unbelievable, lights and music. Back when I was 13-14 or I can't remember how old I was the first time I saw Dream Theater. I've been wanting to see them play and they came to London and did "2 back-to-back evenings with Dream Theater". The first night was three hours of Dream Theater music and then the second night, they played all of "The Dark Side Of The Moon" in its entirety. As you say those evenings are sort of like legendary. And we definitely would entertain that sort of thing.
Now choosing a set gets harder and harder. As the band puts out more albums, it's harder and harder to please everybody and to represent different stages of the band's history. Right now, we're on an interesting one because we're on tour, sort of in support of "Fauna", but "Fauna" is not out yet. And also "Virus" has never been toured in Europe. So, it's more a "Virus" centric tour with some other stuff. But then we go over to the US soon after this and that's going to be a full on "Fauna". We all we hope to come back to Europe and sort of do more of "Fauna".
But as you say, I think there's also a desire from the fans and also from ourselves to do other types of tours as well, maybe ones that have more of a throwback to the back catalogue, or maybe ones that are longer evenings. We're really willing to be open to all sorts of possibilities there. I don't have any sort of like definitive answers, but we are definitely interested in in all those sorts of things. So, that possible, yeah.
I'm sure that many fans come to your shows on this tour and leave the venue cursing that you didn't play "The Cockroach song"…
(laughs) Yes, exactly. I think these are the shots… But it's been played a lot… and I think because of other stuff that we're playing, it's almost being played in there a little bit. So, I think that was that was intentional… (laughs)
Now, if there's a young guy that starts to fall in love with progressive metal music and wants to start with Haken, which five songs would you pick and tell him to listen first, so as to be more impressed? Or maybe you'd choose an album in in its entirety?
So that I can remain completely objective I won't mention anything from "Fauna", which seems the most fair. It's a great question. I love "The Mountain" personally. I think "The Mountain" is a stunning album. However, obviously the music industry has moved on and if you're telling me that somebody's coming along and they might be 15 or 16 and you and you want to impress them, maybe "The Mountain" is not the best place to start with.
So, if I just have to name 5 songs, they would probably be… Let me think…. "Falling back to Earth" from "The Mountain" is just one of my favorite Haken songs. It would have to be probably "Messiah Complex", which encapsulates a lot of what Haken is about. Probably, "1985", which again captures so much of I think what Hike like to do. "Drowning In The Flood" from "Aquarius" would be on there. And for #5…
OK, pick a song from "Fauna" for #5…
If I have to pick a song from "Fauna", I'd probably go for "Sempiternal Beings". Especially if you're if you're like a bit younger and you're coming in and you wanna hear something that's gonna hook you onto the band. There's some other stuff on "Fauna", which is way more out there were bonkers, but I think "Sempiternal Beings" would be on that list.
Alright. I'm really glad for you that we had the chance to talk. I really liked our conversation, hjope you did too. Thank you for your time. I appreciate it…
Yes, thank you so much.
Let's keep in touch, because now that I know you're half Greek, I'm going to remind you that you have to come to Greece. You have a responsibility to your half country… (laughs)
I would love to. I'll try and work on it with the rest of the guys…