03 August 2010

(Way more than) 10 Questions with...Doug Harrison of Fen

As I mentioned briefly in my review of Trails out of Gloom a week or so back, Fen founder Doug Harrison had contacted me back in 2009 inquiring about coverage for his band. I was game, but so many things occurred in such a short period of time…well, I’ll keep personal stuff out of it, but it was a classic John Lennon ‘lost weekend’ in a number of different ways. I had his music in hand (actually on hard drive), and I listened to it, and at the time, while it was perhaps just the right kind of music for me considering the mindset I was in, it perhaps hit far too close to home, and between that and my then terminal inability to do so much as complete a basic sentence, it sat there waiting for me to get my head on straight and deal with it properly.

My second contact with Fen would be via their new record label Ripple Music, asking if I’d like to review the new Fen release as I’d worked with them before. Chastened, and remembering how badly I came up short with their previous music, I said yes. And I was glad I did, as you can tell if you read my review of Trails out of Gloom. It’s a great album, one I am still spinning, still digging deep into, still relishing.

One of the things I was most looking forward to, after hearing Trails, was talking to Doug Harrison to get a bit of an inside look at how the album came together. I ended up with more questions than I could have possibly considered; it looks like there’s a lot being asked here, but I could have asked far more had I not tried to narrow my questions down. Thankfully, Doug was very generous with his time, and I think he offers some interesting insight into the musical entity that is Fen. My thanks to him for taking the time to sit down and deal with the myriad questions I sent him…now, read on!

1. Could you tell me a little bit about how you got started in music?

DH: When I was very young, my parents forced me to take a year of piano lessons, and once that commitment was fulfilled, I quit. Next came the clarinet, only because I was forced to play it for several months en route to the alto sax (which for some reason was not to be attempted directly). When I finally got my hands on it, I was horrible anyway, and the music we were playing at school I found ridiculous. When I was fifteen I noodled on my girlfriend's guitar, then got one for myself and kept going with it. Out of high school I started drums as well. But that landed me with tendinitis, which also affected my guitar playing. I abandoned both instruments and focused on voice. In the last few years I’ve added guitar back into the mix.

2. What were your biggest influences musically growing up?

DH: As a child I really liked the Beach Boys. Then at twelve, I got into gangsta rap. Then it was AC/DC and Metallica. G 'n' R and grunge followed. Pink Floyd and Zeppelin were always there too, but they grew on me slowly.

3 Tastes change over a lifetime of listening…what are you listening to these days that really connects with you?

DH: I’m head over heels for Katatonia right now, especially the new album. The depth of layering floats me to another land. I’m also really liking this African songwriter named Habibi Koite. Again, he’s got some great layering, but of acoustic instruments, and the drums are so sparse. Sometimes the snare drum only hits once in four bars, and it’s the greatest feeling.

4 How did you and Sam Levin hook up, and how did Fen get started?

DH: We hooked up in Nelson, BC, this quaint little hippie town where we were both studying guitar. He poked his head into a practice room and saw me droning a riff in 5/4. Then he invited himself to sit down, plugged in his own guitar, learned the riff and came up with variations. Every day after that he would bug me to skip classes so we could jam at his Dad’s place. Most days I complied. Fen was born.

5 Can you tell us a little bit about the creative process in Fen? Not so much ‘where do you get your ideas?’ but rather ‘once you have your ideas, how do you shape them into Fen music?’

DH: Once we've honed a stray riff to our liking, we make a leap of faith to find the B-section. Arriving at this second riff is as mysterious a process as arriving at the first, but it has to be done, and it's usually pretty exciting. Next, we examine the riffs individually and look at possible variations, whether on the whole thing, or just the ending. I've found that usually the first thing we come up with is the most complex variation, so with this in mind, I look for dumbed down variations of the riff, be it power chords, or just the bass movement if it's a picking pattern. Normally, vocals could come in at any of the above-mentioned stages, but with Trails, all the guitars were written first and assembled into working song shells. I jammed over these shells to come up with the melodies. The sections were then lopped or expanded and shifted around accordingly, with the aim of making the thing flow like an actual song. This structuring stage can be a grueling part of the process, with many a descent into complete despondency. Lyrics come dead last, though at any stage anything can be changed, right up to the day before the song is mastered.

6 How did Fen meet up with Ripple Music, and decide to release Trails out of Gloom with them?

DH: I had contacted The Ripple Effect blog to review our last CD, Congenital Fixation, and when they finally did, it blew our minds. They requested a follow-up interview, then sent a gently probing email to find out a little more about Fen. Apparently satisfied by our responses, they invited us to join the roster. With previous albums, we'd proven ourselves rather slothful in terms of self-promotion, so we had everything to gain from Ripple's enthusiasm. By that time, Trails was about 90% complete. The timing was perfect.

7 Trails out of Gloom is Fen’s fourth release; how has the band changed or evolved over that time? How would you say the music has changed?

DH: Fen's discography follows a trajectory from chaos to clarity. In the beginning we had so many ideas that we didn't know what to do with them, so we'd stick them next to each other and hope for the best. We pulled off some hairy changes that way, for better or for worse. Whereas now, we banish ideas that don't fit, and that approach has created a lot more space within the music. The riffs and melodies can breathe freely, instead of breathing down each other's necks.

8. When I listen to Fen’s music, I notice two things. The first is the dark, almost solemn tone of the music. Is this something that is a conscious choice for you musically?

DH: Creating solemn music is pure happiness for me. Creating happy music is torture. I don't know why.

9. Secondly, as mentioned in my review of Trails, there are times the arrangements and playing seem to almost border on the spartan and minimalist. Again, is this something you work toward?

DH: This album was written primarily on a classical guitar. The hope was for a stripped down, almost unplugged approach to the recording, with voice and guitar remaining unaccompanied wherever possible. But early on in the demo phase it became apparent that the songs weren't folk songs, and they carried with them certain expectations that needed to be met. When adding these elements--electric guitar, piano, drums and bass, we did so on an as-needed basis. The producer, Mike Southworth, played the drums, and we brought in bassist Mike Young as a hired gun, so there were no egos to be crushed. The ultimate authority on how much of each instrument was needed, was the song itself. We just had to listen carefully.

10. How would you describe the band’s music? Would you call it prog?

DH: We've never been able to come up with an adequate description. We tread between rock, metal, grunge, psychedelia, prog, doom, singer/songwriter... Neither of us considered Trails to be proggy. But sure enough, almost everyone we worked with during production commented on the progginess of the music, and now in the past few weeks, almost every reviewer of the album has used the word prog, often multiple times. So what do we know...we just write the stuff.

11. What do you think the future of progressive music is?

DH: The progger's role, as far as I can tell, is to toy with the over-achieving Rock listener's expectations, and to inspire other Rock musicians to push harder against cliche. The future is more of the same, until we blow ourselves to oblivion.

12. Is there something that you’d like to do musically that you haven’t yet?

DH: Well, since Trails failed at it, I'd still like to do an unplugged album. And I'd like to do a live recording. And for a while now I've been wanting to write a duet with a female vocalist. Working with an industrial remix artist would be cool too. Four albums in, this is just the beginning.

13. How would you say response has been to the new album, now that we’re a week or so out from release?

DH: I thought we'd have to wait till we were dead to get any credit, but thanks to the blogging community, that's not the case. We've been dumbstruck by the response. One reviewer even started with "WOW". That tells us the songs are connecting with people, and in our humble centers, that's all we can really hope for.

14. What is the scene like in British Columbia for bands like Fen? Do you feel like you are part of a scene?

DH: Until recently, Fen has existed in almost complete isolation. We know very few bands, and most of them are in totally different genres. We keep saying to ourselves, we should probably get out more. And really, we probably should.

15. Do you find many opportunities to play out live?

DH: The last time we performed, about 200 people showed up and it was a trip. Some people had been waiting four years to see us play songs from Congenital. But now that Trails is out, and with Ripple Music behind us, we're going to hit the stage as much as we can. Ideally, we want to get on tour, opening for someone colossally good, who we can learn from.

16. What’s next for the band now that the new album is finally out?

DH: We've been working with Mind of a Snail Puppet Co. on a Fen music video, which should be ready this fall. Sam and I have also been indulging our pleasure, and writing new material. One of our goals is to not leave people waiting so long for the next album. Another one is to be able to test the material live before hitting the studio.

17. In parting, do you have any final words for us?

DH: Thanks for reading, thanks for listening. If you want to stay in touch, sign up to our email list at www.fenmusic.ca and then find us on Facebook at www.facebook.com/fenmusic.

Find out more about Fen at:

(Photo: Doug Harrison (left) and Sam Levin (right) of Fen. Used by permission of Doug Harrison/Fen.)

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