Harry Hess | interview

HAREM SCAREM - Bouncing Back!!

Harem Scarem have been one of the most contentious bands in recent melodic rock history. Constantly changing their sound from album to album, alienating many fans in the process, they finally changed their name to Rubber to further distance themselves from their melodic hard rock roots and concentrate on modern power pop. But now, having completed their album deal with Warners, the boys have resumed their career as Harem Scarem with the promise of a new, classic sounding album next year. Was this part of the long term game plan, or just cynical retreating in the face of the commercial failure of Rubber? Kieran Dargan chatted to a surprisingly can did Harry Hess to get the details...

So how did you enjoy playing Nemelrock in Spain?
"Oh awesome, I had a great time. I really liked it. I spent a lot of time in the studio recording with Rafa Martin but it was a nice change. The show was fun and went off okay, all things considered. Those festival things can be a problem. We didn't have our own sound man you know. It went as well as can be expected I'd say.

I was reading some comments that people made on various internet messageboards about your performance, stuff like the guys were teasing us with the first three or four chords of certain songs and then they'd go 'Oh, we can't remember that," and launch into something new from 'Ultra Feel' or 'Rubber' which didn't really go down too well amongst some, others took it as a rather larger dose oftongue in cheek.
"HAHAHAHAHA!!! Well that's what it was. You know what? We seriously don't know those songs. Pete and I could maybe make our way through them but Barry and Creighton weren't even in the band when we played that stuff live. Because it was never part of our set list after they joined, they didn't know them. To tell you the truth they may not have heard some of them ..hahaha."

The next time you take a trip to Europe you are going to have to have them learn them off or you might get lynched... hahaha.
"We'll get working on them right away."

We'll have Harem Scarem karaoke. You stand up on stage and the audience can call the songs, you guys just play 'em
"We'll need a karaoke bassist and drummer though."

You were saying the new record was going back to basics. I realise that basics may not be the best description there as with Harem Scarem's track record you have always tended to do different things and not be repetitive, but the sound on the new record may lean towards that of the first two albums?
"Everybody we've been talking to seems really excited about us making that kind of a record and you know, it piqued our couriosity too. It has been so long since we'd done a record like that that it would be cool to go back and make that kind of a record again, not only to prove it to our fans that we can still do it, but to ourselves too. I know for a fact we can, it's not a mystery how we did them, it's just a matter of putting our heads back into that mindspace while making the record. On recent records everything was less technical and production was a bit rawer, and to make a record like this is far more technical which means we are going to have to work harder this time, hahahahaha."

Most people you talk to always say 'Mood Swings' was a benchmark release and practically every label at one point or other has stated that so and so's new record sounds like 'Mood Swings' Harem Scarem. Is that something of a mill-stone around your neck or are you happy just to acknowledge the fact that six or seven years down the line the album still stands up?
"That's the way we have always looked at it. People are very confused about us, especially people that don't know us personally or never get the chance to talk to us. It usually surprises us how people think about us in our mindset about what we think about past records. Maybe it's our own fault because of some of the things we have said in the past because we are the type of band that has never made the same record twice, or we've tried not to. I mean when we made our first record people went 'Okay, this is what Harem Scarem sound like'. When we did 'Mood Swings' they went 'What the fuck are you doing? What is this? It sounds like a different band'. We have already had that with 'Mood Swings' and then when a lot of people discovered the band because of 'Mood Swings' that's what they thought we were about. Then when wemade 'Voice of Reason' they went 'What the fuck are you doing?' again. That's happened to us with every record. What people have to understand is we've never made a record that's popular at any given time, we've always made the next record as the record people didn't want us to make, at least it's always felt that way to us."

So do you wear your unpredictability as a badge of honour then?
"I guess so, it's just something that happens after the fact. It's not something you consciously set out to do just for the sake of doing it. I want to make a record to do something different as in try not to repeat myself, but getting back to the original question we haven't made that kind of a record in a long time. We've done straight ahead melodic rock, we've done some pretty technical melodic rock, we've done darker stuff and some power pop so now we're going to go back again. It's not going to be a rip off of 'Mood Swings', we wouldn't want to do that I guess to give the best example is, us putting more technical guitar playing into the song writing and focusing on more backing vocals and stuff like that. My biggest influences have always been Queen, Boston, Def Leppard etc. When it comes to the backing vocals and the melodies it will be the same, just more of it probably."

So have you actually started work on the new record yet?
"Pete and I have a few ideas which we have been kicking around but we have a few other projects which we have to finish first before we can start work in earnest. I would hope to get started in the next few weeks."

So after ten years at Warner Brothers you are suddenly free agents? Are you happier that you can now do things that you want to without record company guys sticking their oar in every now and then ('scuse the pun)?
"Yes, absolutely. We had a lot of friends at Warner and we had a good deal of success with them in Japan and in other territories around the world... at the same time we were trapped, as regards doing any other deals around the world where Warner wanted nothing to do with us. I mean the UK and America are two of the biggest music markets in the world and they didn't like the band and never released us. That was always a major bone of contention between us and the label, they could never get anything going in those countries. I think now with our direction very focused musically and with two labels involved that know the type of music, we all understand each other, we know what type of record we are making, what type of record we are trying to sell and to whom we are trying to sell it. With Warner, if it didn't fit in a certain category and wasn't popular at a certain time they didn't care about it, even if you gave them a great rock record. They are trying to sell with the least resistance, throw out what's trendy and sell to the masses. We never, never, never, never tried to do that . With the Rubber record it was possibly the closest thing we ever came to being hip with what was happening musically."

Do you think towards the end they tried to push the band into the trendy end of things,desperate for a crossover hit in comparison to what I understand in the early days they were content to give you a pretty much free reign?
"I think they'd written us off as a band they were excited about. We were there for ten or eleven years while most record company people last six maybe twelve months. We were there longer than any employee so it just got old. I think our relationship should have ended after the third record."

Why do you think you lasted so long?
"We made money for them. We sold records and that's why. They wouldn't let us go. We had a contract to make seven records for them, seven new material records - not compilations. All the other spin off's were the result of the Japanese label wanting to release more product. We are always writing songs and we own our own studios so it's not a problem but I think they took advantage of the fact we were capable of doing that and saturated the market and for the most part hosed the hard core fans into buying all this extra shit. We said it to them on many occasions, we turned down many opportunities to put out extra records and rehash the same songs again and again with a bonus track here and there. In their defense they said we're putting it out, if they don't want it they won't buy it... people kept buying it though."

We actually accused you guys of suffering from Mr. Bigitis
"Well that's where it comes from. We had the same A&R guy, the same mentality... get it out there, sell sell sell!"

Looking at Harem Scarem from your own perspective, through all the various twists and turns you have taken over the years, where do you see Harem Scarem going in the future? What's the plan?
"We weren't even 100% sure we were going to continue, and that was only about six months ago. I always said to Pete, when this deal is over I don't know if I want to keep doing this. That was always our cut off, when we were done with Warner we'd step back and look at things. I think in the last year we realised we wanted to finished something that we started but had been unable to. Maybe subconsciously when the deal was over and I could walk away, I didn't want to. You know going to Spain or Japan this time was great. I went of my own free will this time as against the feeling of I had to go. I feel the same about making records now. I'm making them because I can and I want to, not because a contract says I have to. The reality of it is we have a lot of really, really loyal fans all over the world and right now we want to make records that will please them."

Japan has always been your biggest market, while you did well in Canada in the early years - maybe not that great in latter years. Does it surprise you the level of support you have outside these markets?
"It does. I don't have a clue how many records we sold throughout Europe, we can only guess. A little over 100,000 units maybe, over seven records because a lot of records would have been Japanese or Canadian imports. We haven't spent a lot of time touring there or doing press but that will change I guarantee. But when we do talk to people they talk about the first two and 'Voice of Reason' to a lesser extent as being popular rock records."

"You have done the ground work in Europe, maybe unknown to yourselves with the first two records. What's the situation in Japan? Is Japan still as important to you, and more over how will it affect you now that you don't have to pander to the demands of a record company who wants to sellat least 50,000 units?
"Absolutley. We are going to make the type of record we want to make. What it comes down to is the quality of songwriting and that's up to us to make it a good record. I don't care what type of records we make as long as they are good, be it rock or whatever. In Japan we could have sold double what we did if we had done what the record company asked of us, it would have been very easy, but there is something more important than sales and selling records - that is being in the studio knowing you are making the best record you can, as opposed to knowing we could sell X amount if we had done as we were asked."

Of course it's always nice to know you can sell X amount.
"It is, and if you don't have the support of the record company you won't be making them or selling them. You always have to keep that in mind and walk a line between commerce and creativity."

What about bootlegs? There are lots and lots of Harem Scarem bootlegs floating around. I know there are at least 6 discs of demos, unreleased and live material being heavily traded. Should we all send you a dollar per disc?
"Hahahahahaha... man that's crazy. I don't even have that stuff. Fuck, I turfed that stuff... I'd love to have some of that stuff now. I've written over 150 songs of which about 70/80 may have been recorded and the rest... wow, I can't believe fans would go to those lengths. I love seeing bootlegs of my favourite bands. It's the hardcore fans who collect these. I mean if I was to go get a bootleg I more than likely own their studio records anyway, you know."

On the live front you got to play in Spain and then you went to Japan. So what's it like to be the Beatles for a week?
"Hahahaha...It was tough actually. When we came back we went from Tokyo to Germany, then to London then Toronto, a lot of travel in 30 hours. We did three gigs: Osaka, Nagoya and Quattro. Our last tour was ten dates, this time they were a little apprehensive because we had changed the name to Rubber but it went great. We sold out and it was a lot of fun."

You have a new deal in Europe with Now and Then. Want to tell us about it?
"Well we actually came close with another label also, but I like Mark Ashton and I got a vibe from him that he understood what we were doing so I was very happy to sign with them."

So will you actually get out and play in Europe this time?
"Hahahaha... see you at the Gods!!"

I just thought of something. Patricia the lead singer of Nexx... you had just walked in to the club when she was singing 'Distant Memory'. Had you ever heard somebody doing your stuff before?
"Yeah in a club in Canada they did 'No Justice' years ago, but Patricia was really cool."

So you invited her up on stage to sing lead vocals. How did she do?
"She was great, she was fantastic. It was really weird but great fun."

So I guess I'll see you in November then.
"Alright. I'm looking forward to it already!"

Interview by Kieran Daragan
Originally posted at Fireworks magazine