Harry Hess | interview

AOR-fans all over the world fell in love with this bands debut back in 1991. Two years later they followed up with another batch of superb melodic rock on "Mood Swings". It was a bit tougher, but nonetheless utterly brilliant. On "Voice Of Reason" in 1995 they showed a new side. That album had a slower tempo and it was kind of mix of grunge and AOR. "Karma Cleansing"/"Believe" two years later marked again a new sound for them. It's best described as a mix between "Mood Swings" and "Voice Of Reason". Their new record, "Big Bang Theory", is again different from previous releases. It is still melodic rock, but in a modern package. I had a long talk with vocalist Harry Hess, who said that this might be the last album from Harem Scaremù

Maybe we could do this properly and start from the beginning?
"Basically the band started in 1989. Darren Smith (drummer) and myself were actually in a band before that, so we've been playing together for probably 15 years or something like that. In 1989 when we put Harem Scarem that's when Pete Lesperance (guitarist) and Mike Gionet (original bassist, now replaced by Barry Donaghy) joined. We got our record deal in 1990 and we recorded our first record in 1991."

As I understand you did some kind of a demo-CD prior the first release?
"We did a demo-CD to get our record deal. Basically when we first got together in '89 our goal was to do recordings and get a record deal. We pressed the demos that we did, we did 200 CD's, and we sent them out to record company people, publishers, agents and stuff like that. It was never really meant to be sold or even for the general public to hear, it was just more of a tool to get a record deal. Eventually people started getting a hold of it and making copies and talking about it, but it was just a demo."

I remember 7-8 years ago two Canadian TV shows they were broadcasting here in Sweden, one named "Degrassi High" and the other was "Northwood". I recall they played stuff off of your debut.
"Yeah that's right. They did a movie version of the TV series "Degrassi Junior High". In the movie they used all the songs off of our first record as a soundtrack. In "Northwood" I guess it was that they would play songs like "Slowly Slipping Away" and "Honestly" during the TV show."

Did it help much in promoting the band?
" Well, I think it did. I mean still people to this day remember it and that movie played in 52 countries. It was a pretty big TV show. The fact that they played our music and gave us credit for it on the TV screen didn't hurt that's for sure."

The first album was a fine album, but still a bit safe. The second record "Mood Swings" was a bit tougher. A natural progression or perhaps something that came out of playing much live?
"It's both, definitely from touring so much on the first album. We were definitely a hardrock band at that point. On our first record it was more about songwriting and just making a little bit more of a pristine record. The songs were a little bit lighter on the first album too compared to the songs we wrote for the second record. When we did like "Change Comes Around" and "No Justice" we'd been together for a few years then and the band started to develop more of a sound. Only because on the first record I don't think we really had a sound at that point. We hadn't been together long enough to really develop anything but by the second album, and definitely by the third, we were starting to even figure out ourselves what our sound was."

You collaborated with some great musicians/songwriters from the North American music scene like Dean McTaggart, Christopher Ward and Marc Ribler on your debut. Didn't you also write with guys like Stan Meissner for "Mood Swings"?
"It was for the first record, around that time. When we were working on writing songs for the first record is when we did the most writing with other people. It wasn't specifically for Harem Scarem, but more just to get out and start working with other people, start meeting songwriters and more of networking as suppose to writing songs specifically for Harem Scarem. We were always songwriters ourselves, but we also knew that we were very young. Some of the songs that we wrote for our first album we wrote when we were like 17-18 years old. We knew that we had to get out and work with more experienced songwriters. In that way I think we developed the songwriting a lot faster than we would have normally on our own. By the time the second record came out we felt that we were very comfortable with the songs we were writing at the time. We liked them very much and that's why we wrote everything on "Mood Swings" ourselves."

On "Mood Swings" you started trying some new, different ideas. Like the a cappella "Just Like I Planned".
"One of my favourite rock bands ever was Queen. When I was really into those records and listened to them I always loved how diverse they were and how it wasn't just the same song over and over again. Their songs had a lot of different character to them. That was basically our thinking when we did "Mood Swings", having different singers on different songs and stuff like that. It was just about making it more interesting."

On "Voice Of Reason" you took quite a turn. It was sort of darker record with a slower tempo. It wasn't really until you came with "Karma Cleansing" that I could get into "Voice Of Reason".
"Exactly what you say is what everybody says about "Voice Of Reason". Nobody liked it when they first heard it. For some people it's taken years for it to grow on them, but it was so different and I think rather unique. When they heard it they didn't like it because they weren't familiar with the sound at all. After a lot of listening, when people started getting used to it, it has become most people's favourite record for Harem Scarem fans. Because the other ones you can only listen to so much, but I think "Voice Of Reason" you could probably listen to forever and not really get bored. There's a lot going on, yeah it's very dark, but I think it's still pretty melodic, the guitarplaying is great on it, the big backing vocals and everything that people liked about Harem Scarem is still in that sound. It's just approached a little differently."

There was a time at that point when I wasn't that big fan of Harem Scarem.
"You were scared by "Voice Of Reason"! (Laughs) Most people were, don't worry you're not the only one."

I thought there were some pretty strange songs on that record.
"What sometimes strikes you as very odd in the beginning, once you get used to it it's not strange anymore. We worked on those songs so slowly that we never had a chance for the impact of the strangeness to ever hit us. It was always comfortable to us and it was always familiar to us so it never seemed odd. Even this day I can't listen to that and sit there and think that any of it sounds any stranger than any of the other songs we've ever written. But I know that it is from what people have told me. We call it the onion. "Voice Of reason" was like pealing an onion; many, many layers."

You have quite a different sound for each release; "Big Bang Theory" is certainly no exception. Any thoughts how you wanted it to sound?
"It was our intention to make that kind of a record when we did this new one. We just wanted to write up-tempo, melodic poppy songs with a little bit of a harder edge to it. That's why everything is up-tempo on it and we like the aggression of it. We recorded it a little bit differently in the way that we did everything as a band live off the floor, and we did it rather quickly."

Have you changed your process of making records a lot since the debut?
"This record we did it a lot quicker than we normally would. Albums like "Mood Swings" and "Voice Of Reason" we spent probably like 400-500 hours on. On this one probably under 200 hours in total of bed tracks, overdubs, mixing and the whole process. Probably because we're getting quicker and better at it, because it's what we do all the time. But also the songs weren't as technical as the albums before it. It just lent itself well to going in and capturing the energy as suppose to worrying about specific performances or anything. We still tried to make a great record, but it was more about the songs and getting something emotionally across than anything else."

Lyrically it seems as you have grown a lot too since the debut. It seems as more social themes/observations than lost love and broken hearts. Any specific reasons, events or life situations that has progressed that?
"I mean now I'm 30 years old. Like I said when I wrote lyrics that were on the first record, some of them were written when I was 17-18 years old. I don't think the lyrics are very good on the first record only because they are about the same things that everybody writes about all the time. You hear that these are the clich? about rock and the bad clich? about rock is that everybody's writing the same lyrics; "The fire, desire, higher" and all that crap that you hear on everybody's songs. It was my goal to write lyrics that were lyrics from me, not from using every word in every line that everybody's sung before me a million times. And you're right there, they're observations about the world, social issues and that's what I like writing about today. Some are from life experiences or experiences from people around me, but they're observations. I can't say specifically that anything in those songs is about me, but they're about my life or people and things around me."

Are you trying to write the lyrics so many can relate to them?
"I do try write it so people can relate to it, but I tend to disguise things in the lyrics. When other people read them they mean different things to them than they do to me. It's not on purpose but it just seems to turn out that way."

As you and Pete do all the material I wonder how you work together when you develop the material?
"Well, on "Mood Swings", "Voice Of Reason" and "Karma Cleansing" we pretty much wrote our ideas separately and then we'd come in together and start arranging songs and putting our ideas together. But on "Big Bang Theory" we just sat in a room together and put the ideas together, banged our ideas from just nothing. Just started writing ideas and putting down melody ideas and thing like that. That's another aspect of this record that was more spontaneous."

Any specific areas you or Pete concentrates on?
"In the last few years it's sort of turned into I've done the lyrics and less music and he's done more music. We've kind of split that up just because we enjoy working on those different parts like that. Musically my involvement has been just more melodically. Pete is more concerned about basic musical structures, bridges, solo progressions and stuff like that."

Something that has been some kind of irritating is this thing with all these different tracklistings for the Japanese version versus the Canadian version of your two latest records. What's the reason?
"Basically when we go to write a record we do usually around 12-13 songs at the most. We end up handing them in to the record company and what's happen in the two last records is that there's a few people at Warner Music in Japan that feel very strongly about some songs working in their market and other songs not working in their market. So they've taken it upon themselves to decide that a few songs shouldn't go on a specific release, but they're still songs that we like very much. When we have control to put them out in Canada we put the record together that we think is the strongest. It's safe to say that on the Canadian version is our idea of what the strongest songs are, to us it's the better record. Anyway, that's why there are two separate releases. People have to understand that when we write the 13 songs we're very proud of all 13 songs and we like them very much. And we don't mind that they're on the record to begin with. But when you're dealing with record companies and they're thinking about things like this song won't work on the Japanese market. It's basically record companies that are figuring out what 10 songs out of 13 they think work best for their market. I don't know why they've done so much of that with us, but I guess because of our success in Japan has been very strong. They feel that the Harem Scarem releases are very important to them and they take a lot of interest in what goes on the record."

What input do you have on this?
"We don't really care. Like I said; we write 13 songs and we like those 13 songs. Whatever they do with them it's not really a big concern to us. I know that fans say; "Wow, we don't want to buy two record", and I agree I don't think anybody should buy two records. What we've tried to do is songs that aren't available on a specific they are available as singles. In Japan we've actually put a "B-side collection", a whole record of all those song that don't appear on other releases. We don't expect our fans to run out and buy both records just because there's 2 or 3 different songs on one. People really should understand that it's more of a marketing thing than anything else."

There have been quite a few live albums too, with a bonus track here and there also.
"Again, Japanù I mean they demand these bonustracks because of the price of a CD in Japan. When the yen was stronger it's impossible for them to stop imports coming in to Japan and without the bonustracks they would be buying cheaper imports than they would domestic releases. It's a big problem for the Japanese record companies and if that continues we have a problem with them supporting our records. All I can say to the fans is that we have actually asked them in the last 3 weeks that we are not going to put out a live record again. We could have put out another live record, but in all honestly we make sure that if we are going to do a live record we try and offer songs that they've never heard before live. We want to be a little more conscience of what is being released and make sure the value is still there for the fans to buy these records. So we've actually declined putting out a live record this year just for that reason, 'cause there's too much stuff coming out."

On the Japanese version of the new record and on the special edition of "Believe"(the Japanese version of "Karma Cleansing") you had Kevin Elson to mix some tracks.
"We were going to do this re-mix release of some of the songs as a special limited edition that's how we met Kevin. Then we decided that he would come in and mix a few songs on the "Big Bang Theory"-record as well, but they were more geared towards the Japanese release once again."

It seems as the Harem Scarem fans can be divided into two camps, the ones who really enjoy your new style and the ones who can't accept it. Anything you've felt?
"The fans that liked "Mood Swings" they always talk about "Mood Swings" and they want us to do that same record again. That will never happen, we really will never go backwards, because as far as songwriters, producers and engineers we have no plans on doing anything but moving forward. If people think we're not supportive of our older material, we really are. We love those records for when we did them, but for us to go backward 10 years it just makes no sense to us at all. We're people that first and foremost like to be challenged by ourselves. We're always happy with the records that we make. We wouldn't be happy with ourselves if we turned around and just made something that was easy to make and that we could have done any day of the week. Making records like the first record, for me, I can do in my sleep. It's not challenging for me to do that, it's not challenging for me to write lyrics that would take 20 minutes to scribble down. All I have to do is use the same clich? that everybody else uses in rock songs and use the same chord changes over and over again. All I can say is the people should give the new material a chance and listen to it because I think it's as strong, if not stronger, than the older material we did. We're better at it now. It might not be specifically what they want to hear, as far as direction goes, but that old sound is old to for us."

Without sounding like a suck up I would say Harem Scarem is the melodic rock band of the '90's. There haven't really been many bands that have released more than one or two record, but you have at least 5 releases.
"Thank you. We're one of the few rock bands left that first of all have a major record label deal and that are still making rock records. It may not be exactly what it was 10 years ago, but if anybody is still interested in that kind of music then I think they will still like our new records as well. Even though they are a little more modern sounding they're still rock records for sure."

Elements like big backing vocals, the guitarplaying and that it's always melodic is intact from record to record. A goal to keep those things intact?
"It's exactly what our goals are, to keeps those elements in there. Make sure it's always melodic and make sure the songs are always as strong as they can be and keep up some sort of a level of quality as far as the playing and the recording goes."

How does it works for you on the Canadian scene?
"Well, on the new record because it's a little more modern sounding very well. People have really liked the new record. If anything what we used to do hurts us here because people really aren't into that kind of music at all anymore. What they've heard on the new record was very refreshing."

What's in the future for Harem Scarem?
"Well we just finished touring. We're going to start writing new songs probably in around January, we're just ready to go back in and start something new again. Right now it's kind of hard to say exactly what it is going to be or what direction."

Something different probably?
"I don't know. We don't really plan on doing anything different, but you never know when we get in there it's hard to say what's going to happen (Laughs). That's the beauty of the Harem Scarem records, even we don't know what's going to happen."

Perhaps a good sign that you don't know the sound already?
"Before I start I always say 12 months from now we're going to have another record out and I don't have a clue what it's going to be like. So it's interesting that way, keeps it interesting."

Talking about the AOR/melodic rock scene of today, there are a lot of really poor sounding demo releases due to the lack high quality productions. What's your opinion?
"For me personally I've heard enough of that. Not so much the kind of music, but I've heard enough of bad stuff like that. If it were still really good and people were making good melodic rock records that's fine. But I mean just the shit that's come out the last 3-4 years. That's probably the biggest reason that I've been influenced by other music so much in the last few years. I've listen to other music because I just don't like hearing the old rehashed rock stuff; it's been done so badly the last few years. I can't think of many rock records that I've heard in the last few years that were good. The older bands, I don't know how their records are because I haven't heard them, but when I hear that Nightranger is putting out another record or so, like all the older bands; from what I've heard from other people is that they're just crap."

I agree with you, haven't heard the new Nightranger though.
"I haven't heard it I was just using them as an example of a band that went away and then all of a sudden came back and started putting out rock records."

With the risk of stepping on a few toes here I must say that it was really sad hearing Loverboy's comeback album "Six" last year. Nothing of what once made them great was there.
"I haven't heard that. People have to realise that what was good 10 years ago doesn't mean that it's going to be good now. They captured something and they were into a certain headspace that you just can't re-create. And even when people ask us why we can't write songs like we did on our first and second album, I guess we could. But it just wouldn't be the same because we're not the same people anymore. People are just trying to hold on to something that they love, it's nostalgic for them I guess. It is just a few people that are still stuck in the eighties rock thing, they're becoming less and less all the time. Either people start putting out good rock records or people will start listening to other things. For me personally as a music lover I'm not going to listen to a record just because it's a kind of music I like. I want to listen to a good record regardless of what kind of music it is. I'm not going to listen to a Journey record just because it's Journey."

Being on a major label you're still waiting for that big breakthrough?
"Well, that would be good. It's just a matter of luck and timing as far as things like that go. We make records that we think are good and if that's not what is popular right now then our chances of having a successful record aren't very good. That's the sacrifice that you make to do records that you want to make as suppose to records that will sell. We've never had good luck or good timing as far as the kind of music that we're doing versus the kind of music that's popular. We don't know any different, our whole career has been like this. We put out a record, we do world wide around a 100,000 pieces, and it's not great but it's not bad, and we make another one. We've made a living doing this and we're very happy doing it like this and if we continue like this to the end I have no regrets."

Let's say they day comes when you decide to draw back from the limelight, will you continue to work as a songwriter/producer/engineer?
"I'll always be involved in production and engineering, it would be my goal to do more of that. I make a Harem Scarem record on average now once a year, I'm doing around 4 albums a year in total, so I would just replace that Harem Scarem Record with another one. But I still enjoy doing it because it's creatively what I like to do and it's fun."

Talking about changing style of music you've also changed your image a bit since the debut as you have cut off that old hardrock hair-do. Did it start to feel out of place or was it because you're child mistook you for being the mom?
"Not at all, I don't mind looking like a freak. I looked like that for 10 years and I was in Belgium for a whole summer working on a record, a band called Mystery. We were just there and Pete and I both decided that we were going to cut our hair off, we were just tired of that look. That was popular in the eighties and that went away pretty quick too for us. We looked like that because we thought it was cool at the time, but it was never our intention to be the "pretty boy" kind of band. We welcomed the change too."

What kind of bands/artists was your favourites when growing up?
"Queen was my biggest influence. Freddie Mercury, I still think he is probably the best rock singer ever. I listened to Kiss a lot of course, Van Halen, Boston and Def Leppard was a big influence with the backing vocals. I always liked the big productions and the big sounds and stuff like that."

Do you have a schedule set when the next record is aimed to be out?
"No. Basically it's they just let us do it when we want to do it. Like I said we're going to start writing January, so I would say September/October around that time, at the latest November next year for a release."

Do you have contract with Warner for more records?
"We actually have this record to do and then one more. So we did a 7-album deal with Warner and this is album number 6. I just hope that we don't scare too many people if we do something a little too strange. But hey, that's the risk we're going to have to take."

A last question; where does the name Harem Scarem come from?
"It was a name of a "Bugs Bunny" cartoon it was one of the first Bugs Bunny cartoons ever made, it was called "Harem Scarem". We might change the name one day soon, we're thinking of doing that."

You're honestly thinking about doing that, why?
"Because our music is beginning to change so much from what people thought it was on the first and second record. If we go in a direction that's even far beyond what we've done this time, we might decide to do it because it's so different from what people expect. From what people thought Harem Scarem was or is or should be. I can't say for sure this, but it's something that we're talking about, yes. This very well could have been the last Harem Scarem record. You're the first person ever know that. You have an exclusive!"

Interview by Stefan Edström
Originally posted at aor.nu