Harry Hess of Harem Scarem: In the Mood for a Melody!

By Jeb Wright

Harry Hess is an intelligent rock musician.  And no, ‘intelligent rock musician’ is not an oxymoron.  The trouble with Harry, however, is that he gained a lot of his smarts by going about things the wrong way.  Yep, that can happen when you’re young and have little guidance…and you’re in a rock band. 

Harem Scarem found early success and then decided to change their sound.  Then they did it again.  They were guilty of following trends and trying to be whatever they were at the moment, even though it appeared they were never sure of what they were at all. At one point they even changed the name of the band to Rubber.  That didn’t work out so well.

The band finally threw in the towel only to be rediscovered five years later when they were asked to come to England and play their best hard rock album they had ever recorded, Mood Swings, start to finish in concert.  Seems twenty years had passed since the album was released and Harry was not even aware of it. 

The band regrouped and hit the road and played the gig.  Then they got offers.  And a record deal.  And a tour.  So, they did what any band in their shoes would do and re-recorded the Mood Swings album.  It seems to be working as this band, who have made every mistake in the book, seem to have a solid fan base that can’t wait to see what they will do next, and celebrate what they have done before.  It appears this time they are comfortable in their own skin as Hess tells the story of the album, the comeback and even hints at the future in the interview that follows. 

Jeb: I love great Canadian rock and roll bands like Max Webster, Triumph, Rush and all the others.  I remember Harem Scarem when you came out.  The first album was more pop, but Mood Swings was a great rock album.  You guys broke up and now you are back together and everything is centered around Mood Swings.  You got a reunion gig, then you played the album live, you got the record deal with Frontiers and now you’ve re-record the album for the 20th anniversary. 

Harry: We were probably going through the motions at the end—we had not been a band for about five years.  We started this band when we were 19 years old.  In 1991, we put out the first record and it basically went on from there for twenty years.  We took the five year break and we got approached by a promoter in the UK to do this gig called Firefest, which is an annual thing and it caters to an audience that is into this sort of music.  They asked us to come and to the Mood Swings album in its entirety.  We asked him why he would even ask us to do that because we were not even a band at that point and he told me because it was the twentieth anniversary of the album.  It had not even dawned on me and that shows how much I had moved on, mentally, from the whole thing.  When we got to talking about doing it I called the guys and everybody was kind of into it.  That was the launching board for everything that happened afterward. 

We made the record and we approached Frontiers about putting it out.  We’ve had a relationship with Frontiers since we left Warner and that is now going on 14 years or so.  Everyone was excited about putting this together and the bonus was the crazy tour that came after all of it.  We are playing like ten countries, which is the most extensive European tour we have ever done.  It is funny that we are doing things, after all of this time that we’ve never done before, which is really cool.

Jeb: Was this a case of synchronicity where things just fell into place?

Harry: It did seem to be in the cards and it just lined up.  It always takes a little bit of organizing and rejigging to make it work for everybody involved.  At the end of the day, it came together quite easily and it was probably meant to be in some way, shape, or form. 

Jeb: Why remake the classic album?  Why not just make a new album?

Harry: We talked about doing something to celebrate the anniversary of the release and it just made sense to us to have some sort of ownership and say what we did with the music.  Warner owns the record, even though we wrote the songs.  For us to re-release it…we can’t do that, they have to do it.  If they are going to do it then what is the point of us being involved?  It’s not like we are signed to the label anymore.  The only way for us to have any control over the release, or to even be involved at all, is to re-record the record and to own the physical masters. 

We were not out to make it better, even though I like this version better as it sounds more modern.  I like the original versions, as the songs stand up, but it was really just a combination of wanting to own it, have some sort of control over it and then celebrate the release by re-releasing it.  We added bonus tracks, and we added a DVD where people could interact with it.  We tied it in with the whole tour at that point. 

The tour is just as in important as the re-release.  We are playing those songs for people that we never played for in Europe.  We just came back from Japan and we were there on the weekend and played a couple of shows in Tokyo.  We never toured Mood Swings in Japan.  Mood Swings got overlooked from a touring perspective, so it was a big part of it to implement that portion of the plan.  We want to go out and play and then have the CD available for the fans to purchase. 

Jeb: It’s cool when a label this day and age gives a band full support.

Harry: They are one of the few labels out there big enough to support something like that.  There are a ton of Indi labels that work with this type of music.  It is not a secret that this style of rock is underground.  It’s not what you hear when you turn on the radio, so you really have to partner up with people who are committed and have the finances, the resources and the infrastructure to do something like this.  Coming from a major label, where we had those resources, made Frontiers the obvious choice for us.  They have worldwide reach and they kind of know how to do this style of music.  It works. 

Jeb: Were the three new songs specifically written for this album, were they lying around for years?

Harry: We literally had nothing left over.  We packed it in and there was nothing left. Because the Asian market was a big one for us, they were always asking us for bonus tracks.  We were constantly re-recording acoustic versions, or live songs for bonus tracks. Everything we wrote, or recorded, was put out.  We left nothing on the table.  When we committed to the album and the bonus tracks we did not have one note written. 

It was a challenge to come up with those songs out of the blue.  They are very involved and very detailed and we put a lot of time into them.  When you do an entire record and you have to focus on eleven, or twelve songs, then that is difficult. But with three, we were able to put our best foot forward and our focus on just those songs.  I think these are three of the stronger songs we’ve done in the last ten years. 

Jeb:  You had to make these songs fit on Mood Swings.  Did that make it hard to put your creativity into a box? 

Harry: You kind of get into a mindset with regard to what you’re doing and what the goal is.  We are typically aware of our writing style and what is expected of us when we are doing Harem Scarem.  We make records for a living and we work on other people’s records, so we have more insight than a lot of musicians.  We are very conscious of what we are doing and what it is going to sound like. 

The goal of the bonus tracks was to write songs that were riff based and trenched into the style of rock we did.  We wanted to straddle the line of melodic rock songs that are intricate and based on riff rock, which is what we made our name with  songs like “No Justice” or “Saviors Never Cry.”  Those were songs that were the driving force behind what Mood Swings was.  You pick up from there and move forward.  You work on that and you find ideas that you like and you run with them. We were not trying to write mid-tempo or ballads on that record.  We were trying to write a specific type of song that would be good for a bonus track. We wanted songs that are indicative to the Mood Swings album. 

Jeb: You have changed and matured from being the kid you were when you made Mood Swings.  The music seems to be cool no matter what age you are, but lyrics tend to get better with age.

Harry: There is always that.  I probably wouldn’t be singing, as a 45 year old, what I was singing when I was 24, that’s for sure.  You just forget about it.  In this case, I wasn’t really trying to pick apart the songs, or re-write them.  I was just trying to re-record them, so I just ignored that portion of it.  I put on the blinders as that was not my job.  I was not Producer Dude or Songwriter Dude at that point. 

I am always picking apart stuff almost instantly after its done.  It is kind of your job as a producer.  You have to constantly look at what is wrong with the music.  It makes it tough to enjoy your own work.  You take the best that you have at the time and you hope it is really good.  It is very rare for me to love my work.  There is something wrong with it to me because it is my basis in my existence in music to find what’s wrong with it in order to make it better. 

Jeb:  Tell me about the bonus DVD where the listener can create a different listening experience. 

Harry: Specifically, giving the files out is weird.  It is a very personal thing.  It is like handing someone my underwear.  You’re really exposing yourself when you give someone your vocal track.  You know what; at this point we’re comfortable enough to do that.  It works as a whole.  As far as the musicianship in the band goes, we all know what we were are doing and there is nothing to be embarrassed about.  We wanted to give some sort of aspect of this release that was different and new and something for people to interact with.  I have heard of a couple of other bands putting together some packages where they may leave out the guitar tracks so guitar players could play along.  I think that is really cool.  In this case, people can really play along with any part, or they can sing the songs.  I really have not got a ton of feedback yet from people who have played with it, but it is there for people if they want it.

Jeb:  The Internet is a rough place for music.  It gives you a lot of press but then fans can steal your music. 

Harry: You don’t have any control over it.  When we put out our records, literally, in a day, they are available on illegal sights.  I have had emails from people where they go, “I really like your record.  I found it on this site and I downloaded it.  I wanted to tell you how much I like it.”  I don’t think they even realize what they are saying to me.  They just stole from me, but they really enjoy what they stole.  I guess you just have to come to terms with it.  There is a good and bad with everything.  We made a living getting paid from people buying our records.  That has been cut down by 80 to 90% and that is a tough one to swallow and it is difficult.  You just have to morph it into something else.  Right now I am recording drums for a record for a Dutch band that is making a record in Holland and we are on Skype with the producer and we are thousands of miles apart.  That is only possible due to the same technology.  If I am being honest, I will say that it has crushed it a lot, but it has also opened up the doors to do many things that we would have never been able to do.  You have to be mindful of the new opportunities that are out there. 

There is a reason concert tickets are so expensive and that is because they have to make their money that way because they are not going to sell records.  It hurts new bands coming up because they will never get that initial sales boost that they need to continue. 

It is hard for a label to invest in a band.  I used to even invest in younger bands and I would put in time and do demos for free and I would help them get a record deal.  I won’t do that anymore because I know there will not be a record deal.  Why invest my time and effort into something that someone is going to take for free.  I can’t spend my life doing work for free. 

Downloading illegally hurts the music industry at the ground level.  The ones who say it is all fine are people who have already made money in the industry and it is not the deciding factor if they continue or not.  We made enough money early on and we did well enough early enough that we can kind of continue on our own.  We just re-recorded Mood Swings and it took six months of our lives and during that time we had no other income.  We knew we could invest that because we have an outlet for it.  We have a fan base and we have our deal with Frontiers.  We knew our time and effort would be well spent at that point.  If you don’t have anything to go on and you are just making music then that is a tall order.  It really depends on where you are in the ark of your career.  U2 does not have to worry about people buying their record because they can make twenty millions dollars on a tour.  It is not about that for them.  It depends on who you ask and where they are in their career.  I know for a fact that it hurts young bands starting out. 

Jeb: Harem Scarem came out in the Grunge era and that make things hard for you in the USA.  On the first three or four albums, however, you guys changed too much, album to album.  I understand why, but with hindsight would staying with the style of music on Mood Swings have been better? 

Harry: Everything was two or three years too late when you think of it from a timing perspective.  If the first record would have come out in the mid-80s then that would have been better.  Mood Swings was too late and Voice of Reason should have hit when Grunge hit. 

We were always late to the party and never smart enough to know what was coming…most people aren’t.  That wave knocked out bands like Foreigner.  We were playing with them and we found out they got dropped from their record company.  We thought, “What does that mean for us?”  We were a long haired rock band that looked like we belonged on a Bon Jovi tour.  We were playing pop stuff in the beginning and then we found more interesting stuff with Mood Swings.  We loved the darker stuff, we really did.  When Alice in Chains came out we loved it.  It motivated us and tugged us into that direction. 

They were honest mistakes based on us not knowing anything.  Our manager at the time was our age and just a friend.  Our A&R guy was on his first job.  We never had anyone in our camp sit us down and say, “This is what you’re doing and this is why it could be a problem.”  Nobody ever told us anything like that.  We learned it the hard way.  I should write a book on how to sabotage your career.  We changed the name of the band, we did pop records, we did metal records…we did it all.  It was a great education and I don’t really regret any of it.  If you are asking why it didn’t work I have to tell you that I am surprised that it worked as well as it did.  It was self-sabotage almost every step of the way from a career choice. 

Would I have been any happier making the same record over and over again to where you are pigeonholed?  I felt like that before we packed it in a few years ago.  People expect something from you once you get popular doing something.  There were a lot of good things that came from us being that way.  We got to experiment and we were always happy trying new things.  I know a lot of musicians who have done really well who hate what they are doing because what they do is mandated.  They have to do what the record company says.  They have become a little bit of a performing monkey.  It is a good problem to have, being popular, but it is still a problem. 

We were never on the cutting edge; we were always outside looking in.  Since that was the case, we always just thought that we could just make the records that we wanted to make and be happy and like the music that we are doing.  That is what we did, but I can look back at it and see that many strange things went on and we made many mistakes that were defeatist to us having a career.  We changed our name to Rubber at one point and that was totally a very bizarre thing. 

Jeb: Last one: Tell me what is next…is there another Harem Scarem record coming?

Harry: We are playing until the end of this year and we are talking about writing some new stuff next year.  It has not been 100% solidified yet.  We are the kind of band that just will go ahead and make a record and then we will go look for a deal.  We have not come up with any kind of a game plan to sign on the dotted line.  We will just go ahead and make a record if we want to make one and that is kind of where it is at right now.

I know that is not really a great answer, but it is the truth, at this point.  Hopefully, you and I will be talking next year about the new record, as that is what I would like to do.