Interview by Marianne Jacobsen
Being a teenager in Southern Ontario in the 80s was an interesting time. Many nights I would attend with friends a regular Battle of the Bands or performance of some kind by local metal acts to the area such as Maelstrom, Wrath and a band called Blind Vengeance. These bands were a triad of school rivalries for domination of the Durham Region metal scene.
Blind Vengeance was a band out of Ajax Ontario (same place as Sum 41 originates from) and the lead singer was a force to be reckoned with (and still is), his name is Harry Hess.
Over the years I have followed Harry’s career and am an admitted big fan of Harem Scarem. Harry took some time out to talk to me recently and I honestly this time got to be that 14 year old fankid all over again.
MGM: Hey Harry – How’s it going? Thanks for talking to me today!
HH: No problem.
MGM: You have been able to keep yourself relevant in an ever fluctuating music community – What do you believe is your secret?
HH: Ah..well I don’t know if I am but. You know, I just keep working. I realized a few years ago that you really can’t control anything and any of the stuff that happens and when you do this for a long time and you actually have some life experiences within the music industry that you kind of learn that the things that do well are never the things that you thought were for the most part. Like you just can’t plan this. I have been involved with lots of other records and other projects and artists bands and what have you where, you know, it looked like a sure thing, its gonna sell millions of records – and those things didn’t do anything. And then the things that I was involved with that you just didn’t have a clue and you were doing it because you either liked it or you just happen to be working on at that time – some of those things have gone on to do very well. So after many years of kind of realizing that all of this is about as random as everything else is in life – then I came up with the philosophy that I am just going to do good work, work on projects where I enjoy the people that I’m working with – and if it does well, great and if it doesn’t – well that’s also fine. I didn’t start doing this to have commercial success. We all want it and it’s a big part of continuing to get to do what you want to do but its not the sole reason for doing it. At the end of the day I’m just trying to do good work all the time.
MGM: Do you find that maybe part of that perfectionism is the fact that you went to Fanshawe College and took their Music Engineering and Production course. (note: Total fangurl EXTREME INFORMATION)
HH: Yeah well as much as I love songwriting and singing and being in a band. I was equally as interested in just making records, if not more so. My real passion is the working on the records part and the rest of it just kind of came along with it and I don’t want to say that it was something that I knew I just had to do to get to be involved with making records. Its always been a complicated thing for me. I don’t love sitting in a van for 6 hours to get to a gig but its part of what you do to be in a band to have all the great things that come along with that happening to you. So it’s a little bit of a love hate thing – being in a band that’s for sure.
MGM: Yeah at our age you really don’t want to be sitting in a bus for hours on end.
HH: Honestly, when I was 19 or 20 years old and we were heading East once I remember almost losing my mind by the time we hit Kingston just because I had been in a van for 4 hours and there was like another 10 to 14 hours left to go to hit Halifax or New Brunswick where we were starting. I just could not deal with stuff like that back then so, fortunately everything kinda worked out great for us and because we were primarily focused on writing songs and recording – we spent a lot of time doing that. And then when we would go out and play we did well enough in pockets of Europe and Asia so we kinda flew to everything that we did and we didn’t spend a whole lot of time in a van except for the first few years when we were touring in Canada. Then after the Mood Swings album came out were were on to our third record and that’s when we started to do well internationally and started focusing on spending time in countries where we were doing well. That included Asia, Japan specifically.
MGM: Yeah I know they love you there! I can remember going into Tower Records and I went to look at what they had under Harem Scarem and everything was an expensive Japanese Import. That’s cool man!
HH: (chuckles) Yeah I’ve heard that from a few people. Yeah before the whole internet thing. Before people were comfortable going on line and finding something and putting down your credit card it was a lot more difficult. We used to hear that complaint from people a lot of times they were really overpaying for B side collections or best of records. Things that just weren’t available here in North America. Of course you can get anything nowadays.
MGM: Yeah the romance of record shopping is really gone now.
HH: There really is no mystique in any of it anymore.
MGM: One of the things I’ve always enjoyed about your sound is that the backup vocals are always so rich and amazing. Is there a formula that you follow when you are song writing to cause this effect?
HH: Yeah, you know you really have to write the songs – that has to be built into the song writing and arrangement. You can’t just do that to any song so they have to be structured harmonically to work that way, where you can have a big chorus and add in those backing vocals. We’ve done a lot of recording where that wasn’t the main focus and we weren’t really too interested in doing that – probably because we had already done it and spent a lot of time chasing that. Some of my favourite bands growing up – I always loved Queen, I loved Def Leppard – I love bands with big backing vocals and big singy choruses.
MGM: Anthem bands that’s what I call them! Love them!
HH: So I kind of developed my recording style based on those influences back in the day and still to this day it’s kind of a bit of a signature sound or part of what we do is that when the chorus comes there’s some big backing vocals.
MGM: Yeah man it makes everyone want to sing along and unifies us.
HH: Yeah those are the songs that translate well live like No Justice (mj –YES!). All the songs with big choruses and stuff like that and like I said we’ve always set out to write those types of songs. Whether we hit the mark or not is dependent on how well we did on that job. From my perspective there really is no point in trying to write something that is just out of reach of the general listening audience with regards to just not hitting the mark. I mean, there’s a reason why people like to sing along to songs and typically it’s like, you know, a great melody and some lyrics that kind of fit the mood and the vibe of what you are trying to do. So these days when we are writing songs we are conscious of our history and what people expect from Harem Scarem from a song writing perspective and a production aesthetic but the song writing process has not changed. We are still trying to write big choruses and songs that people can relate to and sing along with.
MGM: What is different about First Signal on this second album?
HH: Well that project is very unique for me because I’m not usually involved in projects where I am not involved in the song writing or production. So when I wasn’t doing Harem Scarem there for a few years, you know we’d taken a break and Frontier Records in Italy called me and asked me if I wanted to be a part of a rock project and I said yes and I did the first record like six or seven years ago and now here we are with record number 2. What it is, is basically a compilation of songs that are for AOR fans and it’s a style of song and singing and production that’s very specific to a certain kind of fan. Maybe its closest to what we were doing maybe on our first record but for me, stylistically being a “rock singer” I like doing this type of project because I am not writing anything like this anymore. Harem Scarem stuff has a very unique sound – at least it does to me these days after so many years of doing it and realizing what it is – and this is a little more straight ahead. A little more AOR rock and features me as a singer as opposed to songwriter and a producer as well. And I like it that way because if I was involved in all the other aspects of it – it would probably end up sounding like the other things that I’ve done. So this is just really a kind of refreshing approach for me just to be a singer on a project.
MGM: Myglobalmind is very lucky to have on staff the biggest Harry Hess fan of ever. His name is Chris Martin! He recently reviewed the new First Signal album and gave it 10/10 https://myglobalmind.com/2016/05/27/first-signal-one-step-line-review/
Chris has provided me with a question to ask and here it is.
CHRIS MARTIN QUESTION: What is the difference between writing and recording with Harem Scarem vs First Signal vs Solo?
HH: Wow! Good question! Good question actually. Well I touched on it a bit in the last answer but, First Signal is very easy for me because I’m literally just learning some songs and singing them and putting my stamp as a singer on those songs.
The solo records are what I do naturally as a songwriter. Obviously I’m singing them so that’s gonna be some of the most natural song writing that you’ll hear from me because it’s just me doing it for the most part. Or co-writes that I have done with people while pursuing songs that are exactly in that vein.
Then the Harem Scarem thing is Pete Lesperance and myself together in a room or sometimes not in a room doing what we do together. Harem Scarem has got a lot more guitar influences. We try and build songs musically first that have a vibe to it that is more guitar driven. And if you have heard the stuff – you’ll notice that Harem Scarem’s music always has riffs. Its got a lot more guitar playing because having Pete in the band can definitely feature a great guitar player and then its my job to add lyrics and melody on top of it.
MGM: It’s kind of like Pete is your Nuno. Except I like you guys better than Extreme.
MGM: So are you going to tour this album? And if so will the travelling band expand in members since two members play two instruments on the recorded album?
HH: The last few times that we have gone out and played, Darren Smith (he went to my High School – wooo hooo Henry Hawks suck cocks!) has come out with us and he has been playing the drums live.
MGM: Yeah I’m so proud of the fact that you guys have been able to make a career out of this!
HH: Well you know, maybe for lack of any other skills – there weren’t really any other options for any of us. I mean, I can’t picture Darren at a Dairy Queen. I don’t know about you but… I could see him eating at one but not working at one.
HH: Same goes for me though. I mean I had zero skills at doing anything else. Like I can’t do anything else so I always recognize that in myself and made sure that I worked really hard at making this (the music) work for me.
MGM: Your family was an important part for you too yes?
HH: Yeah, they let me do this. That right there is bad parenting! They really did help a lot though. They used to let us practice in the basement!
MGM: Ok, so couple more – How do you keep your voice so pristine after all these years of singing.
HH: Actually I’ve just been really lucky that I haven’t really had any major major throat issues really any time in my life. I mean touring, you know, you get sick and then you’ve gotta keep singing and you just abuse it to death. Back in the day when I didn’t really know what was going on as far as from a singing perspective, you know, I would get sick and it was all over. However over the last 15 years or so I have not had any major issues singing and definitely not in the studio. You know when you are overdoing it and if you can feel that and stop that’s good. When you are in the right zone and you’ve figured it out you can sing all day. I’ve done studio sessions where I’m singing for 8 hours.
MGM: You have always been an ambitious person since Blind Vengeance – what advice can you give to young musicians who are thinking about making a career of it? The most popular answer is “don’t”. What’s yours?
HH: Yeah that’s for sure. I’m usually discouraging people because really if I can discourage you by telling you not to do it and you actually would stop, well then there’s proof right there that you should stop. If that makes any sense.
MGM: Yeah man totally!
HH: Anybody that’s you know, 17, 18, 19 years old and trying to figure out what to do for the rest of their lives and if you are insane enough to think that you can do this and pull it off. You have to have that in you. You have to have that “There’s no Plan B” kind of thing and for me that was 100% the case. However, I was always mindful of my situation and never took it for granted.
You know the truth is that when you are in a small town (Harry is from Ajax, Ontario) and you have some sort of talent when you are younger it seems to stick out and people notice it. But, honestly, once you hit like 19/20 and you are compared to even other people in Toronto, let alone Canada, let alone the world – there’s nothing special about being able to sing. It seems pretty special when you are living with your parents in Ajax at 15 and you can sing – but the reality of that is that once you get into that 19/20ish range – there’s a lot of really great talented musicians out there and then I think the difference between making it and not making it is really who you are as a person and the decisions that you make and how hard you work at it. So you need the talent but you also need to work really hard and get lucky as well. Hopefully we worked hard enough to be there when the timing was right to have a bit of luck.