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Interview with Harry Hess
28 August 2012
Interview by Carl Buxton
It’s very unusual to have a twenty plus year career in the music business and remain largely unknown to the wider general public but that’s what Harry Hess and his former band Harem Scarem seem to have done. However, in his native Canada he’s somewhat in demand, whether it be as a studio producer or songwriter or getting involved in TV and studio Projects. Harry took time out from his busy schedule to call me from Toronto as his scorching new solo album was due for release and I wanted to get the story on this and all the other projects he’s been involved in since retiring the Harem Scarem name back in 2010. As it happened he’d just got off the phone with a fellow writer he’d been collaborating with inbetween all the other interviews he had set up for today...
“Yeah, it’s been quite busy actually, surprisingly, so early, but it’s doing a lot of things because we’re trying to catch I guess getting out the interviews in time for the release, and things like that”
That can only be a good thing though, surely? If nobody was calling you...if nobody was interested...
“Yeah, true, sure. Not a great sign”
That’s great. So obviously you’re aware of Fireworks magazine because you’ve played at Firefest and the Gods prior to that?
Cool. Excellent. Yeah, I’ve managed to listen to the new album and I actually really like it. It’s certainly not as heavy as, say, any Harem Scarem albums from the past but what I think is really good about it is the songwriting is so strong. I’m particularly impressed with the hard-edged semi-ballads like ‘Reach For You’ and ‘It’s Over’ for example and I like the fact that you’ve got some heavy rockers on there like ‘Nothing lasts Forever’ and some interesting stuff as well like ‘I Don’t Wanna Want You’ and ‘Where To Run’
“Right, yeah, thanks. I didn’t really have anything in mind. All of those songs were just kind of compiled on an individual basis so, you know, I would get together with other songwriters, or even bands and just be writing for different purposes and never anything in mind like for, you know, putting together a solo record for me so really it was kind of reverse engineering and later, after the fact, trying to see which songs I thought would work in some sort of a Rock format and I picked what I thought were the best and most interesting songs and, you know, nobody’s really sitting down and writing flat out Rock songs these days, right? So if I’m ever in the situation where I’m showing up to do a writer’s session where we’ll be like let’s write something like, I don’t know, Whitesnake or Bon Jovi (laughs) Nobody thinks that way anymore so you know I was always in a situation where I was trying to write pop songs, or songs that would work on the radio and then later on, I mean I can turn them into something that works in a Rock genre because first and foremost the way I sing, I’m a Rock singer for sure and then the songs lend themselves to it. They’re not songs that are based on riffs or any kind of heavy vibe or anything like that, they’re just pure songs from beginning to end, which is something I love to do, and I put those elements into Harem Scarem a lot but like I said It’s minus a lot of the riffs”
Yeah, it’s a familiar theme. If a song can be stripped down and played acoustically and still sound so great it’s a mark of a good song.
”You know our first record was built on that, it really was, but there weren’t any songs on our first record that were really based on big heavy guitar riffs or heavy vibe without the melody being the first and foremost so, you know, these songs feel to me if you want to equate them to any Harem Scarem related, like our first record, some of the more poppy stuff that we did, but again it’s all based on melodies and lyrics for me and that’s kinda what I do. You know, I don’t really play an instrument good enough to be proficient in writing killer guitar riffs or stuff, always my music has been based on melody and chord structures. In hindsight it’s kinda what you would expect from me if I were left to my own devices, kind of just doing my own thing. It shouldn’t shock anybody that this is kind of my vision of what a pop-rock song is”
So what was the catalyst for releasing this now Harry? It’s your second solo album after the first one ‘Just Another Day’ in 2003? Just that you had a lot of songs hanging around?
”Exactly. I don’t like ever having songs that I feel are wasted which to me I guess means they’re not on a record or having been released in some way shape or form so I can honestly say that everything I’ve done, ever, has been documented on a record or whatever in some way shape or form and I feel again it’s what I do, right? I mean I write, I record, I make records...so why not? It would just feel natural to me if I had ten songs or eleven songs I might as well make a record if I can get it, it’s what I do so this was no different. Again, it was borne from songwriting sessions that I was doing nothing in particular with except just working with people and coming to some sort of end with writing a song or doing a production thing and when I felt I had the song to work then that’s kind of when I started to formulate that I could and would make a record and that’s kind of what I did”
I was just wondering actually, because First Signal came out two years ago when you were working with Darren (Smith, Harem Scarem drummer), if it was a natural progression or follow-up, or in some ways intended as a follow-up, but I guess not based on what you’ve just said.
”No. The First Signal thing kind of came to me from the label that was an idea already in the works. Serafino (label president) thought of me as the singer, the voice to put on top of it, so that was a thing more from my songwriting perspective in doing what I’m doing so I felt this is truly a solo record from me and First Signal was more of a project that I was involved with”
Ok, so it’s not like you had some songs kicking about and you thought ‘You know what, I’ll put these together and give Serafino a call and see if he wants to put it out as a First Signal release’. That was never the intention.
”No. No, at least in my mind I did keep them separate. And not being in Harem Scarem I feel that I have many outlets for what I do. Stylistically I’ve been on many sides of the fence if you will. I’ve done rock stuff, I’ve done pop stuff, I mean all kinds of different styles so I am and was at the time, open to many suggestions with regard to what I could do in the future”
Just as an aside. When I was playing back the album for the first time my girlfriend was out cooking in the kitchen and she popped out every now and again, heard sounds from the album and the first thing she remarked to me was sounds like Richard Marx which I can’t detect anything like that but that was her impression because of the nature of the songs, semi-ballads...
”Yeah, yeah. Again, what you hear is incredibly honest with regards to what I do. I mean I think this record more so than my other solo record or any Harem Scarem stuff obviously. I mean this is really what I do, definitely, what you’re hearing right now. It’s kind of Rock based but does lend more to the softer ballady side. Probably has a lot to do with the fact that I’m fourty-four years old now as well and I don’t feel...I don’t know, it’s really hard to describe. When you sit down and write a song it comes out a certain way. I mean I do believe that I have the sense to serve the song properly and not try to turn it into something that it isn’t and a lot of times I’ll know instantly that this will never be a Rock song or this will never be a pop song or whatever, it’s just...it doesn’t work, or it doesn’t work for me personally. Again, getting back to what this record is and what it means to me and how it came about it’s just my natural outlet for what I do. So I can stand behind it quite honestly and say I don’t get offended by any Richard Marx comparisons. If anything I think the AOR/Melodic Rock community has really embraced him over the last few years because going back you would kind of look at Richard Marx as kind of a pure pop artist back in the day right? And now he kind of crosses over into a pop/Melodic Rock thing that a lot of the people into Melodic Rock really, really like because they see it’s a songwriting style that I guess is very palatable to people that like or did like that style of music in the past. So I think that artists can move forward and do this style of music and have it performed by other artists. When you think of an artist or a band like Mr Big, then again I can see someone like Eric Martin making a record like I made. But then there are some Rock singers who you could never picture even remotely crossing over. It would sound like a pop song or something you would hear on the radio in 2012. Again, I would want to be one of those people whom you could hear one of my songs on the radio in 2012. If I was just doing something that sounded like it would only fit into one slot in time in music and that’s it, that would be a little bit depressing for me personally, although I understand that the records from a production sense DO sound that way, you know, I’m hearing a lot of stuff that sounds like this on mainstream radio and there’s obviously pockets of fans around the world that like what I do and what I’ve done in the past and that’s cool. They’re not Katy Perry fans though” (laughs)
It’s interesting you say that. Obviously you know about Roy Z, well his latest album, (Driver) because he’s into production, sounds exactly like it could’ve come out of 1985, because of the production values etc. He’s probably gone back to using tape and none of the modern techniques they use today. You’re right, the production can sometimes pinpoint an album to a particular era can’t it?
”Oh absolutely. I used to always have many conversations, almost arguments with people when they’d say ‘Oh, your record is so different from the last one’. I’d say ‘well, no, the production is different, the songwriting’s not different’ and they’d say ’No, no, no, Mood Swings sounds completely different to your last record’ and I’d say ’No it doesn’t actually. I can place any of the songs side by side on a piano or an acoustic guitar and you wouldn’t think anything of it’. It’s the production and the way it’s presented that sounds completely different.You the listener’s impression of what it is, even stylistically, so, and again, doing production for a living and always been interested in it, like I would disect songs from the floor which is the melody, the lyrics, the message and the vibe that’s getting across. The way you present it now is like dressing someone up you know, you can have someone dressed up in torn-up clothing and make them look like a hobo or dress them up very nicely and make them look like they’re rich. So you know, that is music and songs to me, because I think that it’s all in the way it’s dressed up and obviously the way that people perceive it is the way they see and hear it so there is no difference sometimes to me when I hear a Shania Twain song or a Def Leppard song or a Bryan Adams song that Mutt Lange produced because I’m disecting it from a production perspective listening to the song and going ‘Yeah, it’s the same track he used in 1983 in ‘Photograph’ that he used on Shania Twain’s ‘Come On Over’ record or whatever, you know what I’m saying? There’s a certain style to the production that makes you think it’s something different than it is but it’s not at all. I mean those songs were brilliantly crafted songs but that’s what they are you know and now he says after working with Def Leppard he makes it sound and feel a certain way therefore he’s being true to the band’s vision of what the band is and what they want to convey and when he’s doing it with Shania Twain, he knows what that’s all about and dresses it up so it works and so you can see that the same person can make something work very, very well on many different levels in completely different genres but it’s based on the production and presentation. Like Mutt Lange doesn’t just flick a switch and all of a sudden know how to write Rock songs and Country songs. They are the same songs. They really are, you know. There’s people that are better at it than others and he’s just great at it so I use him as an example and get back to what I do and I think well, If I want to be in the music business I want to be able to do that kind of thing. I think I can produce a Country record. I’ve mixed tonnes of them and worked on them but I also think I can make a Heavy Metal record, I know exactly what to do with them, so, just being in the music business a long time and working on some songs, creating an aesthetic for a particular backdrop that you’re trying to achieve, that’s kind of what it’s all about for me.”
It’s interesting that you mention Def Leppard there because the opening bars/lyrical content to ‘What If’ is very much sung in a Joe Elliot vibe. I don’t know if you’d agree with me on that one?
”Oh yeah! 100%! Def Leppard were a major influence on me, especially with ‘Stranger Than Love’ and songs like that off of ‘Mood Swings’ and that’s straight out of that book you know. I was into ‘Hysteria’ at the time and listening to a lot of Def Leppard (As we all were (laughs)) Yeah, I love the backing vocals and that whole thing and I also love Queen for the weird quirky aspects, and I love Freddie’s voice and also their production and what they did with vocals so I always looked at it as to what I was trying to do to make it as interesting as the Queen stuff was but, you know, slick production stuff that Mutt Lange was doing and the poppy end of that and again if I’m honest and what would come naturally when I write it probably sounds a lot more like that stuff does, you know like ‘Stranger Than Love’, ‘What If’ off the solo record. ‘What If’ I wrote with a Country songwriter so you know he’s written for Jamie Gordon, he’s written number one songs for Rascal Flatts, for Tim McGraw...so I get in a room with someone like that and he starts telling me “I grew up on Journey and Toto, I’m a total Rock guy”, and he’s the same age as me and we hit it off great and we’re talking about music and he goes, well, he’s in the Country world, and unbelievably successful as a writer in that world, but his roots are in Rock, kind of like I am. I originally got into Metal with Judas Priest, Iron Maiden because it was actually cool to be into that and it really became prevalent around '85 to ’88, and when the American Glam Rock movement came into it I liked aspects of it but it was never my favourite thing. We had our own version of it going back with Queen and things like that but then I discovered all those things and really embraced that but then in the nineties here in America and North America, and Canada radio was dictated by whatever happened in US radio. So that was all over by ‘90/’91 by the time Nirvana came out so we never heard any Rock stuff on the radio after that so for me it was really like mid eighties to early nineties. You can only say it was for like four or five years really prevalent on radio. So when you think about Bon Jovi having commercial success or Whitesnake being on the radio like really dominating mainstream radio, it was such a short period of time in music that it went underground again like where Judas Priest originally was for me. Like, I wasn’t hearing Judas Priest on mainstream radio when I was into it. I only heard ‘Living After Midnight’ a few times then I had to creep into church but you know it was only in 1985 to let’s say 1989 that you would hear Iron Maiden on the Rock station. At least in Canada that was the case. There were specialised stations that would play specific things but when the mainstream audience was listening to what we call the music we grew up on so for me later on I kind of got into pop music as well and what I heard on the radio but I could never escape what I did naturally, so all I can say about a song like ‘What If’ or really anything on that record it’s kind of based on a history of Metal, pop and Rock and then it’ll all come together wherever I am to what I’m in and how I present it. I definitely want to make a Rock record because I think it sounds right to my ears because of the way I sing so I’m trying to be true to what I am as a singer and build the production around it that seems to make sense.”
Well, ‘I Don’t Wanna Want You’ stands out as very different in mood and flavour to the other songs on the record. I mean it’s quite bouncy and I think it’s got a seventies vibe feel to it vis-a-vis the keys and effects and drum patterns.
”Yeah, I wrote that with Tommy Denander and when I got to Sweden with a bunch of people Tommy was the first one I sat down with and I actually got in touch with him. The only reason I got to call him was because I knew our backgrounds were similar but when we sat down to write that song I was literally told I’d signed for Universal and they said to me Adam Lambert is still looking for a song so keep that in mind. And so I went to him and said let’s write something that I can send to Universal and pitch to Adam Lambert and we wrote that song. And if you listen to it you kind of go yeah, maybe he could do that and make it work, so that was one of the most different songs that ended up on the record and you know, maybe I would think, “yeah”, if I was to leave something off coz it didn’t fit maybe it would be that one, but I did like it so I thought I do want to put it on the record coz I happen to like the song, but I'd be the first one to admit that it is different from the rest."
Did Universal reject it or did Adam Lambert reject it?
“By the time we finished it and got it out they were done. They were done the record and I didn’t even finish it in time, just for the record (laughs) So if anything does happen with it then we will have to wait ‘til he’s looking again, but you know, in the songwriting world, I mean, it’s so hit and miss, it’s so beyond your control. All you can do is write good songs. If they (Universal) find a good home for them or they wanna do something with them or they wanna put them in a movie or TV show, I really don’t concern myself with it to be honest. It’s so rare I never even sit down and try to write something for someone or pinpoint a specific artist. I prefer to be in the room with the artist if that’s the case, obviously a lot of the bigger artists you’re not going to have that luxury but at the same time I mean it’s like winning the lottery or getting hit by lightning, your odds you know. You don’t know what they’re thinking, you don’t know what they’re looking for, you can say one wrong word and the whole thing is just not going to work anymore for them and you’ll never know whilst you\’re doing it, so everybody else that I know who’s back doing this they just try and write great songs and later on you try and figure out where they could belong”
I guess you got lucky with the first Harem Scarem record then where eight songs got featured in Junior De Grassi High didn’t they?
”Yeah, and again that was more of a connection thing. Our lawyer at the time in our record deal with Warner Brothers, he was heavily involved with De Grassi and later ended up literally it’s his show now, so we just had a clear line straight to it. He brought it up like, you know, he was listening to our record and said ‘I’m gonna take your record and I’m gonna bring it into a meeting at De Grassi because we’re always looking for songs and I really like some of these and I think we’ll maybe use some of them’ and that was kind of the catalyst for that whole thing and later on he came back to us and said ‘You know what? We’re gonna use all eleven of them and we’re actually making a movie and all the songs are gonna be featured in the movie and one of your songs, (I think it was ‘Love Reaction’), is gonna be the main theme for the show’ and it aired in like fifty-something countries so literally like by mistake we just happened to know someone we lucked into something that was probably one of the bigger tv things that we ever got and later on, some things in Japan that I never even saw, I just heard about them coz a lot of times the publisher and people would sometimes get involved and we’d just sign off on them (laughs) and I’d just say ‘Yeah, whatever, that’s fine’. I mean I don’t care. I do the record and write the songs for my own personal enjoyment and then if they can make it work on many different levels after the fact well, to me it just gets our music out to a wider audience and I’m happy to do so, so, I always agree to those things”
Can you remember if you got paid for it?
“Ah, yeah, we got paid very well. It comes in bits and pieces because of different territories don’t come back at different times. If you’re signed up to a Canadian performing rights organisation, what they’ll do is collect on your behalf. Let’s say it was 1995 at the time, they might only be collecting in Belgium for Royalties from 1992, you know what I mean? It’s that bizarre they will have specific periods where they will look for Royalties from a specific time frame, you know literally it will be all over the map. It was one of the best financial rewards that we’ve had. It’s one of those things you can never plan on happening. You can make more money from having songs placed in movies or television and things of that nature than you can from selling the record that you made, I think Moby was a great example of that. I think his record came out and he got tv commercials for all of the songs from his record and, ok, 300,000 dollars for each one of those so literally he probably made a couple of million dollars from the Royalties from having his songs played in tv and movies and maybe his record tanked? You never know, so again you can never plan those things...it just doesn’t work. You have to do it for the right reasons. Write a great song and then you’ll see what happens with it later. I’ve never been able to plan anything like that, at least not for me personally, it never works out when you think it’s gonna and the little things that you thought you were doing for fun or whatever turn out to be sometimes the most successful things that you’ve ever worked on so at least for me I’m a bad planner at those things so I just try and do good work”
Yeah the trick is not to chase it but to write from the heart and see what happens...so can I ask you who are the other musicians besides yourself that are featured on the album then?
“On the record there’s Creighton ( Doane, drums, Harem Scarem) and Pete (Lesperance, guitars, Harem Scarem), I got Darren Smith (drums, Harem Scarem) to do some backing vocals again. You know I go back to before, the guys that I hired to do almost anything these days so if I’m producing a record and I have to call a drummer I call Creighton, for a guitar player I call Pete because I think they’re great players and I love the end result and then Tommy obviously played guitar on ‘I Don’t Wanna Want You’, I got Howie Simon (Jeff Scott Soto) to do a couple of solos because I love what he does, he has incredible talent. Marcie Free, because I was a Mark Free fan, I thought probably one of the best singers ever, just loved, loved his voice, and I heard she was back doing her thing with Frontiers as well and so I got in touch with her and so I reached out to a few people and the people that said ‘yes’, so I was very flattered that they would even work on my record (laughs). Magnus Karlsson was another one, he played a solo on ‘Living In Yesterday’ he did a great job. Marcie did backing vocals on ‘Living In Yesterday’, ‘Reach For You’ and ‘It’s Over’. Yeah, the first three”
Funnily enough I made a note by ‘It’s Over’ remarking about lovely echo effect backing vocals so that’s Marcie doing that. Great! I’m also interested in your singing style on the last song ‘Where To Run’. You stretch the vocal lines different to what I’ve heard from you in the past, would that be right?
“I know what you mean. Those long holding melody lines. I’ve done a few things...no, it’s not common, it’s just kind of has to be the right circumstance to pull it off, to make it worth listening to, I guess it has the potential to be boring if you’re not careful (laughs) but in that case it just seemed to create some drama. You know what I mean? A little bit dark and a little bit of drama by doing it that way and again I was just fiddling around with the piano thing, happened to sing that over the top of it and made it work later on and when the chorus comes in it gets a little bit more wordy so I usually try and flip things around. If I have a wordy verse I like a long holding note in the chorus and vice versa because I find rhythmically if things are too much the same then it’s boring and it doesn’t build properly so I’m usually quite conscious of how I’m building things from a melodic standpoint and also from a rhythmic standpoint and doing certain things at a certain time that really work with the song”
I can see exactly where you’re coming from with that because it certainly makes it more interesting. As you’re saying I suppose it had the potential to be quite boring or quite generic I suppose but you made it sound different so therefore it’s something I picked up on and thought it’s a song I’m going to remember because of that.
“Yeah exactly. And it keeps the verses down and it feels like the chorus explodes a little more because everything kicks in and the melody picks up and then the rhythm of it picks up as well, so again it’s really about setting up a mood and then setting up the tension and then releasing it, because of the emotion behind the production in that sense”
Are any of the songs autobiographical Harry?
“You know what? I can honestly say that when I’m writing the lyrics I’m kind of starting with something that fits with a certain mould then I think it’s settled. Then I go back and I make sense of it and then I’ll grab onto a line here or there that I think I can build a story round and then I’ll build the story around it. I think a part of me creeps into every lyric no doubt, I’m very much into observation, just about life and myself in general and I’ll write about that or when I’m thinking about something or whatever. The love songs are, again, they’re more generic and I try and make them a little bit more interesting by putting in a little twist here and there or just using certain words that come off a certain way, but I always try and put as much as myself into the lyric as possible because again I think it translates better that way”
Because quite a few of the songs are about relationships and break-ups and things like that, which as you say, you had a lot of songs kicking about and they all came together and you decided to release them. I was just wondering if it was from a specific period in your life?
“Yeah I don’t know why but I like darker lyrics you know. The Harem Scarem stuff. I really don’t know where that comes from because for the most part I’m a pretty goofy, happy person but there’s also a completely different side to me as well and I don’t know if artistically that side comes out a little bit more or it comes off as dark and serious but in my everyday life it couldn’t be further from that so I can’t even claim to understand it to tell you the truth, because it makes no sense, like I can’t really put it into words because I don’t really understand it so... (laughs) you know when I’m writing songs like on the darker Harem Scarem records and stuff like that people say ‘Oh he’s nasty and they go like... are there any real troubles in your life?’ They’re almost worried for me you know? (laughs) So yeah, I don’t really know where that comes from so if you hear that I’m a serial killer one day then it will all make sense, right?” (laughs)
Are there any plans to tour the record, perhaps in the UK? I suppose Japan would be an obvious choice?
“Yeah, you know I say the same thing every time I’m asked. I’m always open to every thing with regards getting out there and playing and doing things like that and nothing has changed in the way that it’s always very difficult to do those things because me being in Canada and coming over to the UK or Japan and Europe...I mean back in the day it was never a problem. We were with a major label selling a lot of records, the economy was healthy, we were selling records and there was just a financial structure in place to make it all happen, and when you’re dealing with Indie labels and you’re doing stuff on your own and you’re dealing with promoters that can’t spend a lot of money, physically it’s not doable and so I always say it’s not a matter of not wanting to do it, it’s just not really doable a lot of the time so you take something like Firefest for instance where there’s a definite will for the people on one side to have specific acts come over and do it and I’m sure you’re aware that sometimes it’s not possible because they need to be paid X amount of dollars to get a band together, to rehearse then to fly them over and then you need to put then up somewhere so the same reality exists now as existed from the last ten or twelve years with regards to touring and for someone coming overseas and putting the band together, there’s just so many costs associated with it that it’s extremely difficult to do so whenever it’s possible I say ‘Yes’ and I want to make it work and we just kind of go and play it by ear and see what happens, but ‘Yeah’, I get a lot of calls quite often from promoters, fans, saying if you want to come over you can use our band, put together a little tour. You know, when it’s doable I’m always happy to be a part of it”
So you’d be quite open to do a small solo tour with hired hands as it were, people like Tommy Denander for example?
”Yeah, I was really close to doing it actually in Brazil believe it not where they’ve done it successfully with a bunch of artists, I think Eric Martin did it when he was on hiatus from Mr Big. Joe Lynn Turner did it as well. The same promoter contacted me, they talked about a specific number of dates, they needed to meet a certain criteria before they’d commit to it so...from their end it’s very difficult for them to forecast how it’s gonna work and if it’s can work and same kind of thing. They asked me to gauge my interest, I’d say I’m interested, we’d work out something and then they try and make it happen. Sometimes they can make it happen, sometimes they can’t, and they’d leave the door open to approaching it again somewhere down the road. That’s kind of the way I leave it, I say ‘Look. If you have something that makes sense definitely come to me and we’ll discuss it and see if we can make it work, so that’s kind of what I say to everybody with regards to that”
That sounds pretty cool. Is your new album being released on your own label Vespa Music Records? Are you going to release and distribute it yourself?
“Well I just wanted to make a record this time. It’s on Frontiers. I’ve had a great relationship with Frontiers all these years as well but sometimes if I’m not working on projects they’ll call under the criteria of what their mandate is, what they want to release, so a lot of times I’ll approach them with other bands I’m involved with and they’ll say ‘No, it’s not a Rock thing. It doesn’t fall into the category of what we like to release’ so in this case I just went ahead and made the record, finished it and then I sent it to Serafino, the president of Frontiers and he really liked it and wanted to be involved so we worked out a deal and it’s coming out through Frontiers all around the world. In Canada I’ll be putting it out through Vespa Music Records. I believe it’s August 28th, out everywhere”
What about any particular favourites on the record or do you like all of them or does it take time for them to sink in?
“Well, I mean I really like ‘What If’ and ‘It’s Over’, well only for reasons I hired Mike stream actually when I was in the UK and he did them for me and he did an amazing job and that was a plus for me so I can’t do if I was to listen to those songs I’d probably jump to those two songs to listen to only because for me I’ve been doing it for so long it feels like it’s something new to me and something exciting for me. I also like ‘Living In Yesterday’ and ‘Reach For You’, I think it’s a pretty song so yeah there’s a few on the record that I really like but you know what, once I finish it it’s hard for me to enjoy it to be quite honest but it’s always been like that. I’m one of the most biggest critics of what I do and if anybody hears anything I do and says ’Oh we hate this record, I think it’s shit’ or whatever I tend to go ‘Yeah’ and tend to agree with them (laughs) I’ll be the first one to jump on it and agree with them, so you know to try to be good at what you do you always have to play devil’s advocate, poke holes in it and try and find the faults in order to fix them and make them better but in doing so you really create a mindset that is negative about the songs or the music so when you’re working on it and you’re always trying to make it better, you’re constantly being negative with it or trying to find the faults with it and then I end up just kind of giving up after a while. It’s not like I create something and I go ‘Wow, that’s the most wonderful creation’ it’s quite the opposite, I’m always trying to dissect it and make it better and being extremely hard on it and then when I can’t fix it anymore or given up I just go ‘Look I don’t know what to do with it, this is about the best I can make it. It almost feels like I’m settling for something as opposed to, you know, these are the greatest songs ever. You’ll hear a band always saying that , I don’t know if it’s for promotional reasons or they really feel it’s their best music I never really have a strong feeling about it either way other than I can go back many years later and listen to it and kind of go ‘Oh yeah, that was pretty cool. I like that. I’ll never listen to the records because I’m working on something new and I wouldn’t spend time listening to something that I’ve already finished so...”
Yeah, I can understand that completely...
”Yeah, I don’t know if that’s a unique perspective”
No, no. I can relate to that entirely. I’m very hard on myself when I do reviews for example. I always think that the review could be better and so I’ll probably scrap it and try again and eventually it comes to a point where you’re approaching deadline day and you’re thinking it’s got to be finished so you go back to some of the older ones and out of all of them collate them together and make the best review you can from what you’ve already written but I’m always hard on myself. Once I’ve sent it I always think perhaps it could have been a little bit better or whatever.
”Yeah, I mean I don’t know a whole lot of people who I think are really good at this who don’t act that way. Most of the writers or producers and musicians I’ve worked with, they’re driven to be better and you can’t be driven to be better if you just think that everything you do is just wonderful. So I’m always worried when I’m working with artists who think they’re fantastic and they’ve never sold a record in their entire life, and they’ve never written a good song but for some strange reason they think they’re fantastic so I see it in other people but I’ve never been that way personally, I’ve only surrounded myself with people that I feel are like-minded, so even with Harem Scarem, we used to think we were losers (laughs) I mean it was almost to our own detriment that we never tried to succeed the way maybe that we could’ve or should’ve because we didn’t think to, I mean it was just not on our radar or something that was important and we sometimes looked the part but we never acted that way. We just worked like that as people but none of us thought that way, so...”
You’re so right Harry because most of the people in the Melodic Rock sphere, including myself, we all say the same thing whenever we meet up like ‘How come Harem Scarem were never bigger than they were?’ You know, your name kind of crops up quite often.
“Yeah. You know what, it was obvious, not to me at the time, but later on, probably a few years into it where probably I self realised mainly about the time it was over. When I was thirty, by the time we did ‘Weight Of The World’ I would say I pretty much figured out, you know, I’m not that guy and it’s true because when I was about nineteen/twenty I was looking for a record deal and I ran into an A&R guy named David Bender who’s gone on to do some really big records. I remember him saying to me ‘This isn’t you’. Like, I had the long hair and I had the look, you know I looked the part but I kind of thought ‘Alright, well maybe I’m a Bon Jovi or it’s a Whitesnake thing or something like that’ and he kept looking at me and going ‘No, coz you’re not. You’re Michael Bolton you know, or Richard Marx’ or something like that and I remember thinking ‘What the fuck is this guy talking about?’ Not at all. And later on in retrospect I go ‘Absolutely’. When you get up on stage and you do your thing and I always wanted to be a singer and songwriter because I loved writing songs and making records. It wasn’t because I wanted to be a Rock Star. I never wanted to be a Rock Star, I didn’t care about it or for it and you know subconsciously you probably do things to end up where you should be and I feel 100% satisfied with where I ended up and I’m actually quite proud of even what we achieved as a band. We sold over a million records and we had a really long career and, almost begrudgingly, were almost dreading every step of the way through it but dragged by me oddly enough because I was always the catalyst to keep it going and make things happen, but I never thought of myself as Axl Rose. When I got up on stage I mean people saw it, I knew it, I never got up on stage and acted like I was a Rock Star, I never acted like\I was Steven Tyler, I never was that guy and so again, not pretending to be something that I’m not, I just acted the way I act and just being an ordinary person doesn’t ‘wow’ people, doesn’t make record companies go ‘wow, let’s put all our time and effort into the guy that doesn’t look or think he’s a Rock Star’, you know what I mean? In retrospect you can figure it all out quite easily but Warner, I remember people from the U.S. coming down to see us in Canada, when we were doing well in Canada, and they just kind of left and said ‘Yeah, yeah, very good’ and they left you know? Obviously the whole musical climate changed and Nirvana took over and it was all over for anybody that had long hair really, so, it was never gonna work anyway so it was more we were a victim of the time period and what we...it was just bad timing for us basically. If ‘Mood Swings’ and the first record came out earlier it would have been a very different ball game for us because we even had U.S. labels while we were making our record telling us and saying ‘Yeah, we’re gonna put this out, it’s gonna be great’ so we had people at the label saying it’s gonna sell a couple of million records in America alone based on the fact we’ll get on Rock radio and it’ll be like a Def Leppard kind of thing or whatever. However they were going to sell it. But the minute that whole corporate structure changed with regards to Rock, I mean we were playing with Foreigner when Foreigner got dropped by Atlantic and so not knowing much at the time but I knew enough to know that that was not a good thing (laughs) The writing was on the wall and talking to Bud Prager, who managed Foreigner at the time, because we were talking to him about managing us and he was like ‘No. It’s over’ Like hearing it from him going it’s over for Foreigner who’ve sold a hundred million records doing this kind of music like it’s not going to happen for you doing this kind of music with no firm footing in the industry, nobody knows who you are and you’re going to be banging your head against the wall and just fortunately for us there were pockets in Europe and also Japan and Asia that didn’t jump onto the grunge bandwagon as quick as America did and in America it’s ‘What have you done for me lately?’ and if you’re not doing exactly what is hip and cool and it’s on the chart you’re done. So the label didn’t support us at all. The only reason we stayed on a major label was because we happened to sell records around the world that made enough sense for them to give us the money to make another record. So we never felt like we had any kind of real momentum and we never felt like we broke through like Def Leppard or Whitesnake or whatever, Bon Jovi, coz we never did, and we just kind of did our own thing. It happened to work to an underground fan base”
Almost a record by record deal.
”Oh absolutely it was! In retrospect it was great. We never blew our money and we did well. I’ve never had a day job, I’ve made music my whole life and it’s because of Harem Scarem and everything that came along with it, because it kept going and we kept selling records and making money but I was never comfortable enough to do anything stupid because I thought this could end tomorrow, and I really did. I never thought that after we finished ‘Mood Swings’ that we would get to make a third record. There was no indicator that would lead us to believe that that would be the case and knowing the climate in America with music at the time we were looking at Nirvana and Grunge bands and stuff saying ‘If we think we’re gonna do well we’ve got another thing coming’ So we did what we thought would work and what we liked and put it out there so we were always on the sidelines looking in and wondering how this was going to continue. Well it did (laughs) It’s a very strange thing you know? Like I can’t think of many careers that went on as long without being as succesful, but I always call us the most successful unsuccessful band I know. (That’s a great quote!) Yeah it’s surmised our career” (laughs)
I think you’ve stated Harry as never say never with regards to playing as Harem Scarem again one day. What do you think it would take for you guys to do this again and would it be with Mike and Darren or Barry and Creighton?
”For us we’ve brought in Darren when we’re making records. Look, from a personal perspective we’re all good friends and there’s no problems within the band or anything. We just felt that musically we had gone down that road so many times. We just weren’t interested in making the same record over and over again and if there is a time where Pete happens to work on something that we think is exciting to us then something that the fans would appreciate and really like, we’d be the first ones to do it. I mean enough time has gone by now that we really don’t have any feelings about it either way there just needs to be a good reason and for everyone to get behind the music and go ‘Yeah, let’s do something’ and also I said that from day one if people ask me. There’s no problem. Pete and I work daily on other people's records it’s just that why would we sit down and write what we’ve written a million times before and it’s really hard not to because we’ve done a lot of music and we’ve done a lot of work and I think our fans would be the first ones to admit we’ve covered a lot of ground as well. It’s not like we made one record over and over again, so we’ve done heavy records, we’ve done light records we’ve done all kinds of different things and to do something that excites us again and we could honestly say would be different to hand to the fans and say ‘Ok, well here’s something you can actually listen to, enjoy and feel like you’re getting your money’s worth’ for lack of a better example. That would be a tall order to fill at this point in time with regards to getting in there and really working hard at doing something like that and so that kind of just speaks for itself when you say there’s no reason not to do it, but there’s no good reason to do it, right now. If the time comes and we have the music, we sit down to do it, well then we may well do that”
Well maybe not so much a record Harry but perhaps if someone offered you enough money to do a greatest hits gig at a festival show for example you’d agree to do it?
“Well yeah we’ve had those offers. We’ve even had offers from labels to make records with specific monetary figures like on paper and we said ‘No’ because for me personally it’s not about the money any more, I don’t need the money. I make a living in the music business and I can make anybody’s record without sounding too cocky but it’s just not about take X amount of dollars and churn something out, it would really have to be because we wanted to do it and we like this and that would really be it and then we would figure out a way to make it work and release it whatever. Pete and I have even talked about we don’t need to make a record we could even do a single, like if that’s what you need. You know, in this day and age what we call a record is going away, right? So the market’s single driven there’s no reason why we couldn’t put out a song and release it to our fans or I-tunes, whoever was interested could go and download it and have it and enjoy it and that would be something that would also make sense. We don’t actually talk about it that much, only when I’m doing interviews. First Signal people would bring it up and obviously now again people are bringing it up but it’s funny coz Pete and I and Creighton will work and see each other almost daily and it doesn’t really come up and it’s kind of odd. With the history that we’ve had we don’t really talk about the past as much as what we’re doing right now or in the future because working on records or writing songs for whoever, whatever you’re doing it requires a lot of focus and energy and we’re always usually very much focussed on what we’re doing at the time to give it hopefully the best result possible so, yeah, we don’t spend an whole lot of time thinking and talking about the past I guess. One day we will I’m sure” (laughs)
So what are your fondest memories of your twenty plus years in Harem Scarem?
“You know I would say that Firefest actually it would have been the Gods one we did in 2002, the first one we came over in. We’d never been in the UK before. We’d never played there so that was definitely a highlight and our first tour of Japan which was a sold out tour for us you know. Total culture shock, people that couldn’t speak the language singing along to every song. Those were great highlights. Obviously songs charting in different countries, radio playing...whenever you hear your song on the radio, I don’t know...I remember landing in Spain and turning on the radio and hearing your song on the radio...in Spain! That’s just crazy for me, you know, to even think about something like that and we had a lot of great experiences like in many, many years. Like I said before it never felt like we’d ever made it or anything like that so it was a very true and honest ride from beginning to end with regards to being an artist and making records and putting out music and hopefully being able to make it work for yourself and for the other guys in the band. Yeah, it was a great career in retrospect. I think fondly of it and maybe I distort the reality of it but I’m sure the’ll be many moments where I’d be whining and complaining and hating it a bit like every band and fighting and whatever but, you know, we seemed to get along very well and were involved in the same boat and did enjoy it a lot so I at least personally think very fondly of the whole thing”
What about these days? Do you prefer engineering and mixing or will nothing ever replace the buzz of playing live?
”No, again for me I am happiest in the studio and most comfortable doing that. I even love doing it for other bands as much as I did for myself. Circumstances being right of course. I have to be working on a record that I really love and feel strong about the songs and everything, so, whatever the challenge is I’m kind of up for it and kind of get behind whatever I’m doing. I was thinking Higuera Records in Europe for years as well as for Sony in the Netherlands, working in Germany, working for the X Factor artists and stuff and the motivation is completely different at that point. I’m trying to make a great record, I’m trying to have commercial success with an artist and just be involved in something that’s working which is a great feeling. It doesn’t matter to me sometimes if I go ‘This isn’t what I would write or even listen to personally but I really enjoy the camaraderie and the success with regards to the particular team. I just worked with a producer yesterday from the UK, a guy who has become a friend, Greg Fitzgerald, he’s worked on Madonna, Kylie Minogue and Jessica Simpson and we’ve hit it off, we’ve worked on records together in Europe for a Belgian artist that won X Factor and she’s one of the biggest Belgian artists of all time. We happened to make a Gold record for her, you know and again it’s about hooking up with great people who are very successful in their own right, they’re really good at what they do and stylistically what they like and what they come from...I mean the guy that writes and produces dance music, I hate dance music but I love the guy, it’s really got nothing to do with anything other than working with like-minded people and coming to an end result that’s pleasing to someone. Like I can put on my hat as a producer, or working for a label or doing whatever and really immerse myself in that job and be happy doing it and then later on they’ll say ‘Oh, you know what’, we’re sometimes working on their record for six months, and they’ll be like ‘You were a singer in a band weren’t you?’ because someone will tell them. I don’t tell them, and I’ll go ‘Yeah’ and they’ll go on Youtube and they’ll have a good laugh about the hairdo pictures and they’ll have no idea that I even do that or did it and I’m happy with that as well. So I don’t really have any burning desire to be the guy in the forefront or the guy on stage. I just love music and I love making records and I want to achieve an end result that makes me happy and is constantly evolving and is pushing the boundaries of what I’m capable of doing so that’s my sole motivation and it will always be that way and if that ever goes away I don’t think I’ll do it any more because there’s no other reason to. What we said before, you can’t plan any of this. I don’t know what’s going to work and what isn’t going to work. All I know is when I’m done I want to like it and then I move on and try and do that again, so basically my goal and philosophy is that”
That would have been one of my questions about what your plans are after this solo record but I’m also curious to know, when you’re writing for other artists do you ever get really attached to the songs and feel like you don’t want to give them away or are you quite open about that?
”Nah, when they’re good. Honestly at this point in my life I’m really the last person that should be doing any song if I want it to be successful (laughs) No, if Katy Perry wanted to do one of my songs or Justin Bieber I mean I think my chances would be a lot better with them than it would be for me. Actually just before I was talking to you I was on the phone for a project that I’m working on now where we’re starting to get ads on U.S. radio for a co-write that I have with an artist and he was saying to me ‘Well, if we get charted on billboard or U.S. radio that’s all good’ and I said ‘Well, you know, I’m signed to Universal and they have a say in what we do with the song to a certain extent and we’re the writers, but they’re the publishers and he said ‘What if they give the song to somebody else and they want to use it for recording?’ And I said ‘Well that’s only a good thing for us’. We’re the writers so tomorrow they send the song to, I don’t know...One Direction and they want to do it, how is that a bad thing for me? They can do whatever they want with it. I wrote a song that I think is good, if they dress it up again a certain way and do it a certain way I might have Rock fans who say ‘Oh my God, it’s an horrendous rendition or version, Harry how could you?’, or whatever and I’d be like ‘That’s not why I wrote this song’. I mean anybody can do their version of it and hopefully they do a good job. It would really be horrible if it was a bad version but you know what, the bad versions never get heard because they’ll never see the light of day, so it’s gotta be good and if it’s good and done in a different way I’m sure I could embrace that as well, so worse things could happen” (laughs)
Exactly. And if enough of your songs could chart for other artists then certainly in the future you could do your own version or the version that you had in your head when you wrote the song.
“Yeah it’s funny you say that because there’s a few songs I’ve written with people in the past and I probably wouldn’t do them like a female vocalist or whatever, it just wouldn’t really work or the song is not something I would be interested in recording. So I would just skip over it and not bother with it but I was even thinking on my next record that I do, I would probably do a version of a song called ‘Every Lie’ that I wrote with ‘My Darkest Days’ which is a Canadian Rock band that Chad Kroeger produced from Nickelback, and it actually charted on U.S. Rock radio. I think it got up to number 30, or 24 maybe?, it was definitely a Top 30 track on U.S. radio and they’re a band who I guess could fall into the category of what I used to do and it’s definitely a Rock song and a Rock production so it wouldn’t be too far off from what it was, but there’s a perfect example of what you said, a co-write with a band, the band goes and puts the song out, it does very well and I could see myself definitely doing a version of it at some point and, yeah, doing my own little take on it. In that case it wouldn’t be too far off or different to what it ended up being but I’m sure for any pop artist or whatever that I’ve ever worked with or had success with, it would definitely be something that would be fine in the future. I mean I kind of look at it as more of an all encompassing thing, I don’t look at it where I split it up into genres of me trying to do a certain thing. You try and write a song, you want it to be good. It can probably be done a million ways by a million different artists and whatever interpretation of it will probably be pleasing because the song was good hopefully, so that’s my thoughts”
My Darkest Days, they’re a young band aren’t they? I’m sure they’ve been featured in Kerrang! over here. I’m sure I have heard about them.
“Yeah, they do very well over in the States and I think pockets of Europe. Up until now I think it’s been more a U.S. thing. They haven’t done anything in Canada and they’re from Canada which again is so bizarre but again you can’t plan on these things”
It’s the musical climate isn’t it?
“Yeah, well Chad obviously had a lot of weight at radio with what he’s done with Nickelback so I’m sure he knew that going out after America first and foremost would probably be the smartest thing and the best thing in their interests to go after so that’s what they did and they found some luck with it. I think the first single went Gold off the record they released but yeah, they continued, they toured with Nickelback and they toured with a bunch of different bands of that ilk so it’s all good. I’m happy to align myself with projects like that. They have the potential to do well for sure”
Def Leppard are the perfect example because the UK didn’t want to know them, they weren’t interested so they went over to America as you’re probably aware of their history in about ’83 and suddenly broke massive so obviously when ‘Hysteria’ came out they became global superstars and then all of a sudden the UK wanted to know. You’re probably very familiar with that story.
”Yeah well, I don’t think it’s unlike many artists. In Canada it seems specifically bad for it to be quite honest, you know we have a thing whereby if you’re in the Canadian music industry you’ll know, although I didn’t know it at the time, we signed a Canadian deal with Warner, we signed a worldwide deal but it was based out of Canada. If I’d known then what I know now which is I should’ve held out and looked for a deal and tried to break it out of the U.S. because for Canada unless you’re working another country first they won’t really accept you in Canada. Just to be a Canadian artist and to be accepted in Canada it’s meaningless in the world market and most Canadians know it because our population just isn’t big enough. It’s like just trying to be an artist in Belgium only. It’s very challenging and again I know artists that are that and nothing against it, but they all want to break out, they want to be bigger and have more success in other countries so really it’s not a surprise at all”
And it’s amazing when you think about how many artists have come out of Canada and been successful; Triumph, Rush, Shania Twain, Bryan Adams, Helix, Honeymoon Suite, the list goes on...
“Yeah, Alannis Morisette, Ian Murray, Neil Young. For such a small population, I mean pysically such a big country, but for such a small population and when they break, they don’t just break a little, they break really, really big, beyond. And Shania Twain, they’re right up there with the biggest selling records ever! So it’s quite interesting but I know that if those artists had just been signed in Canada alone, they never would have had the same career, so you know, it’s really again about positioning yourselves in a way that you can be successful on an international level and then obviously a small country like Canada just jumps on board because they can say ‘Look what he’s doing in America or look what they’re doing in the UK’. I mean for us in Canada you have to be doing well in the UK or you have to be doing well in America. Other than that, Canada doesn’t care you know. They’ll try and breed their own artists but they breed them to do well internationally, they don’t breed them just to do well domestically. So again, even with Harem Scarem because we had success in so many countries it added up to something that equals success even though we didn’t have the major territories which would’ve been the UK and America for us. Because those were the two that we never got released in with Warner. True, because Warner didn’t want to pursue it for whatever reason, the musical climate or whatever it was but again, what a weird, weird career to have where you don’t have the two major territories in the world supporting you, or even releasing your music. We never had a U.S. release until a few years ago when somebody just re-issued it all and put it out in America and now in a time to do that when there’s really no musical boundaries or borders because of I-tunes. I mean you can buy anything you want now and it doesn’t matter what country it’s from or where you’re from so yeah, it’s an interesting thing looking back at it”
It’s also an incredible thing as well. No U.S. release in all those years it’s just incredible.
“Yeah, we were out on Warner music records, arguably the biggest territory in the world and not supporting us or never releasing any of our music. It really was incredible that we ended up doing as well as we did and if it wasn’t for Japan it probably wouldn’t have continued. Japan was a big enough country to support what we were doing and then everything else was just gravy you know? For sure”
Ok. Harry just one final question then and I’ll let you go. Is there anybody that you’d like to work with that you haven’t worked with yet?
“Oh I mean there’s tonnes of bands. I don’t know. From the Rock genre I’d love to work with a band like Def Leppard or Whitesnake or something like that, bands that I grew up listening to. It would be great to co-write a song or mix a track or whatever. Anything like that would be really, really cool. A lot of the artists that I really love are not around anymore, you know Freddie Mercury would be at the top of the list, as my number one singer. You know...countless. I’m one of those people that would love to work with other people so the list would be a very long one but those would be some of the artists for sure”
Fabulous. Sounds fantastic. Well thanks for a great interview Harry. It’s a real pleasure to talk to you and I was at the Gods and Firefest festivals so I’ve seen you play live which was great for me, so as a fan it’s been a real pleasure really.
“Well great. Well thank you for your time and I’m sure we’ll talk again in the future”
Well if you’re ever back over in the UK I’m sure we’ll probably meet up at some point. That’s no problem if you’re doing any dates so we’ll try and sort something out for that.
“Absolutely. Very, very good”
Ok, well thanks very much for your time Harry it’s been an absolute pleasure.
“Ok. Thank you”
And I wish you all the success for the new album and hope things go really well for you for the future.
“Well thanks again Carl”
And with that we said our goodbyes as the interview was wrapped up with pretty much everything covered for the time being.