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Ken Hensley Interview: Reflect… But Never Turn Back!

Interview with Ken Hensley by Vera on the 20th of June 2007 - Text: Vera & Pics: Kai Schwarz

Ken Hensley stood on the cradle of heavy rock in the seventies as composer, keyboardist and guitarist of Uriah Heep. He wrote many of the band’s classic songs like ‘Gypsy’, ‘Easy Lin’’, ‘July Morning’, ‘Sunrise’ and so on. In the early eighties he left the band and concentrated on solo albums with a more reflective nature. He made two albums with the American southern rock band Blackfoot. Then it became silent around the musician, but from time to time we could enjoy new work. 2007 sees the release of ‘Blood On The Highway’, a kind of biographical work put on music, executed by excellent musicians and well-known vocalists as Jorn Lande, John Lawton and Glenn Hughes. It was an honour to talk to an eminence in rock and he is a friendly, debonair man. This is my conversation with Ken Hensley!

The interview was one day delayed, because Ken had an unexpected meeting in Hamburg about DVD recordings he did there earlier. They recorded a gig with all the guest singers which will be released on a DVD later this year. A few other gigs are announced on the website and something struck me:

You just came back from some gigs in Norway and in August you will return there for a kind of Summer Party. Are you suddenly in love with that country?

(laughs) It is a beautiful country and I like being there and all of my band is from there. I have all Norwegian musicians in my live band except for the lead singer. He lives in Norway but he is originally from Iceland. I have a lot of friends there. We have been having a summer party since years, this is the fourth year. It just became an annual event. Nature is spectacular and very hard to describe. And I love it when we go from some towns to other towns, taking a ferryboat, that’s very cool. Then you really see the country and the fields and nature…

That must be more interesting than just travelling in a bus from venue to venue…

Every place has its points of interest. I mean, for me, travelling is one of the great bonuses or benefits of being a professional musician. For me, one of the greatest things about being successful in the business in those years was when I got to go to places like New Zealand and Japan and so many countries. And of course now we are free to go to Eastern Europe and Russia, South Africa… For me all this is a tremendous bonus or benefit, because I love to travel and there are very few opportunities for people in normal life to even think about going to those places. I like it.

Then you are lucky, because some musicians hate the travelling and just look for that moment on stage every day…

Well, if you want to be absolutely basic about it, I was lucky from the time I was twenty years old to be able to making a living, even a small living, from something I loved to do. Not that many people got the chance to do that in any part of their lives, so I have been really lucky my whole life and honestly to be able to go to places like Norway is wonderful. But to go there and to be able to play and sometimes get paid for it is even better (smiles).

That’s true. Now you have a new record ‘Blood On The Tracks’, a rock opera. When did you start thinking about the whole concept and the story?

Well, actually the idea came from the boss of my record company. He read the first edition of my autobiography and he said “Why don’t we think about telling this story in music?” And we started to discuss the idea a little bit and expanded it. I sat down and I went to my songbook and started writing some new songs, just to see if I could do that. To take like for example, the ten and a half years I spent with Uriah Heep, into illustrations all of these incredible dynamics. Lyrically and musically. So I had a very clear focus from that point and we got together, we listened to some songs and we said “let’s do it”. That is really how the idea was born. And then it developed from there over the next seven months when I was writing and recording the songs. It took a long time, because I did not have all the songs when we started, I only had three or four songs and it took about seven months from the beginning till the end.

How did the idea of the guest singers come into being?

That came at the same time as the basic idea. The bosses from my record company came to my studio in Spain and they listened to the first few songs I had written. Then we realized that we had an interesting idea and we began to brainstorm about it. One of the ideas that came up in that conversation was to use different voices to illustrate the different characters. As I was writing the songs, at the same time I was trying to think of all the different voices that I liked to use. Partly also because it was not a solo album, we did not want to give that impression at all, because it really was never intended to be that. And secondly because my voice is limited to the point… I cannot sing the hardrock songs. That was always David Byron’s or John Lawton’s job, so for me I just had to look for the voices that match the songs and I was lucky enough to find the right people.

Was it fine to work together with Jorn Lande?

I knew him from when we played there. Well, the music community in Norway is very small, so all musicians know everybody else. The country only has a population of three and a half million people, so the musical population is even really small. One or two times, Jorn came to shows and he came up to talk with us a couple of times, so we knew each other and I really knew that I wanted to use his voice because he has the energy and the passion and the qualities of a lot of the singers of the seventies. It was actually really easy to work with him in the studio.

Yeah, he loves the music of the seventies and the eighties and he likes to talk about it too…

Yeah, I know, he calls it “mother’s milk” (laughs) and he studied a lot. I mean, he understood our concept of telling a story. There was no attempt to make it into a Jorn Lande album, any more than I was trying to make it into a Ken Hensley album. He really got the feeling of the idea and his performances were appropriate to it.

Where was the album recorded?

In my studio here in Spain. My partner and I have a studio here in Alicante. We wanted to do it that way, because we could have gone to the singers, but we wanted to keep everything under ours because we have total control over all the technical stuff. So we did it all in our studio and flew the singers in. We used a Spanish rhythm section and our main guitar player was Spanish. We had another guitar player Rafa Raposo who is Brazilian, but he happened to be in Spain for a few days and he did a solo for me. Spanish musicians have tremendous rhythm. They are also quite creative. They are not the greatest rock players in the world, because they don’t have the attitude that Northern Europeans have and Scandinavians too. But they have tremendous rhythm. Juan Carlos and Antonio (rhythm section) are people I know and who have worked together for many, many years. They had a progressive rockband called El Okimo De La Fila (can be spelled wrongly – Vera) which was very well-known in the progressive rock circuit all over the world. They were an immense value to me in the arrangements. Because I took the songs into the studio and I said: “This is the song, now let’s collaborate on the arrangements”, and then their creative energy came into it. So I was really, really happy with what they did with just about every song I think.

So in fact, the band you recorded the album with is totally different from the band you go on tour with…

Oh yeah. Because the character of this record was never intended to be A HARDROCK album. A METAL album. Or anything like that. It was always intended to be whatever it came out to be. I did not want to go in and said: okay, this has to be rock, this has to be metal, this has to be this… I wanted to go in and said: guys, this is the song, let it live on its own, rather than trying to give it a life that maybe isn’t there. I have always found – even in the time with Uriah Heep – that is the best way to give ownership of the music to the musicians and then they contribute a lot more creatively, not just technically.

And in a live situation, the songs will come out a bit heavier anyway… probably…

That’s true, we have already noticed that. The essence of the whole thing has to be the song, which is why I tried to get everybody to focus on the story, and so, if there is a slightly different approach or if they is a slightly different rendition of the thing or the interpretation is a little different, it does not seem to me at the moment to make much difference, because the song still comes through. And that is the important thing.

So you already played some new songs live?

Yep. We did them live for the first time last Thursday actually.

And… what was the feeling?

The reaction of the audience was really good. It is always risky when you play brand new songs, because the audience that comes to my shows expects to hear specific, certain songs – which of course they do hear – but the first performance was on May, the 22nd in Hamburg when we did the showcase where we had all the original singers to perform the album from the beginning till the end. That was really the first live performance of the new material. But the first performance with my band live was last week in Oslo. And the reaction was great. And our performance wasn’t very accurate (chuckles); we still need to practise the songs more and become more familiar with them, but that takes time. Eventually we’ll be doing at least five songs from the record in our live performance.

Are there plans for a real tour, in autumn or so?

Yes. We are talking about that now. We have a lot of offers to go out and play and we have offers to take the whole ensemble out to do shows, like Ukraine and Brazil and places like that. But basically we are looking at starting a tour in the middle of September. Every day we get more offers coming in, so what we are trying to do is pierce things together in the most sensible way, but I am not really involved with that. I just know that I am available from the middle of September for as long as we can go out and promote the CD.

I hope you come to Belgium and the Netherlands…

I hope so too, because they are really important markets and the record has been released there. It is really essential and my record company is very good with things like that. I mean, they want to tie the whole thing together, so that the band and the record company and the local distributors, everybody is working together to make it as effective as possible.

How was it to work with the Alicante Symphony Orchestra?

Very interesting. It is a volunteer orchestra. Very young people and it is not professional. Some of them are semi-professional and some of them are complete amateurs. Most of them are quite young. We used twenty-four pieces strings and we had in each section the first violins second violins the violas the cellos and the basses. We had at least one senior person in that section. And that made it a little easier, because that person understood what we were doing. And they were able to communicate that to the other players. It took two days to do those two songs (the two last ones of the album: ‘I Did It All’ and ‘The Last Dance’) because these musicians are very used to play Mozart and so, but this is something completely different. So it was a challenge, but I think we got the results that we wanted. So now we even got plans when we go out, not to take these musicians, but to use players and local musicians from various towns we play, from local orchestras. And try to create the same atmosphere. We’ll see if this can be realised, it is a little ambitious at the moment. We are still working on the details, but it is quite exciting.

It seems difficult, but maybe it will work out, because most of those people just read the music from a paper and play it…

(laughs) Well, we are asking for a little more than that and that is where the challenge is, because obviously we’re asking for people to play first of all a style of music which is unusual for them. The arrangements were all written by an American friend of mine who lives here in Spain. We are not only asking them to play music they have never heard before and in a style they are not used to, but also to play with a little more fire, a little more passion than normal and these dynamics are extremely important for the music. So it is all a matter of coaching and patience and working together with them. I have a lot of experience of working with classical trained musicians who play very mechanically. And that does not inspire me at all. I prefer musicians that play with passion, even if they make mistakes.

Yeah, it must have been different at the time of ‘Salisbury’…

Yeah, it was very different. Literally straight of the paper. I was not really involved, I was a spectator. We left that to our producer and to the conductor, but I know a little bit more about it now, so I would do it a little bit different if I had the chance now. It is just one of those things where you are looking for something very specific in terms of performance. You know you have to keep working till you get it.

But… it will be a busy year, because there is also a DVD planned, isn’t it?

Yes, I have to go back to Hamburg in about ten days to mix the DVD. I saw some of the film on Monday for the first time and it is really quite exciting actually. We filmed the concert in Hamburg on May 22nd, I saw some of it on Monday and I have to go through all of the audio now here while I am in Spain and then go back to Hamburg and mix it all in 5.1 surround sound. It will take four or five days I imagine and of course the book is going to be released at the end of July, the second edition of my autobiography and I have to see what happens with that. Then after the DVD we have the boxset which is going to be really exciting because it will have a lot of things in it that have not been released before, which were only available in limited edition. Indeed a lot of plans. Then start touring in September. And at the end of the day we will be able to look at the project and say what’s next and that’s the most exciting thing we are talking about now: Turn it into a stage musical. We are in the early stages at discussing on this. It is something we are very enthusiastic about, which some people see as a real possibility. This would be a completely different challenge, so it may end up being a very busy two years (laughs). I am happy about it, believe me.

And the story is one with an open ending, so you can keep on writing about your experiences…

Yes, it really is. Because this story involves hundreds of people, I was not the only one out there during the seventies, breaking new ground and re-writing all the rules and being part of an early kind of hardrock scene. I could only tell the story, seen through my own eyes and I thought about doing three or four CD’s and tell the whole story. But I don’t know if I will go to volume II or III or IV, but it is always possible. It would not be a problem to write the songs for that but I think first of all, if we are going to expand it, I think the first place to expand it is by taking it to the musical stage. That will be a two and a half hour production, so it requires a lot more music. That would be the perfect place to begin to expand the story and going into more details of many of the other dynamics. We would incorporate – if we take it to the theatre stage – old songs as well as new songs as well as instrumental segments and so on. It is a whole different world which I know very little about that I would certainly be happy to write the music for while the other people do the other complicated stuff.

But on the DVD should also be gigs of Scandinavia?

Yeah, on the DVD is a show I did one year and a half ago in Norway. That will be the DVD with two DVDs in the limited edition. The other one is a film we shot when we were making the album in the studio and that is obviously much more interested from a personal standpoint. But the Hamburg concert of May 22nd will be a stand-alone DVD which will be released in the first week of September I think. That comes first. The one from Norway will be part of the box-set.

What about the artwork of ‘Blood On The Highway’? Who did it?

That was entirely done by the graphic department of the record company. When I delivered the master from the recordings I said: “Here is the master and now you have to come up with a cover as good as the music”. And I think they did. It is so incredibly intricate and detailed, they did a great job. Another fine thing is that they cannot bootleg it (laughs), it is completely impossible to copy it. When you see the final artwork, you will see what I mean hehe.

Great, you have to be smart these days to face all these modern technologies. If we compare it with the time I bought my first Uriah Heep record…

Yeah… that is one of the reasons why I tell to people: the time, the period that is covered by this record, the story, is a period of time that can never be repeated. We are talking about vinyl. There were no CDs, no e-mail, no laptops, no internet, no mobile phones, no fax machines, nothing… It was a completely different time and of course we did not have any of that technology. We were forced to be extremely creative in order to achieve anything. That is why I think so much great music came from that period. And here we are now, so many years later, talking to each other, communicating, still into music and I am extremely happy with that.

Me too, I cannot live without music. But you moved a lot in your life, isn’t it? You lived in America, in England, in Spain…

I am a gypsy, I have always been. I never had any problem with making myself at home anywhere. Beside it I want to write and record and I wanted to be nearer to my family. After nineteen years in America, I decided to move to England, but I could not stand to live in England, so I moved here to Spain where I am really, really happy. Well, who knows what tomorrow will bring? Puerto Rico or so (laughs), no, I am a European. I feel very comfortable in Europe, I have had my time on the other side of the ocean and I was happy to be back in Europe. It is a totally different mindset and lifestyle. I was happy there for fifteen years, but the last four years I started to feel uncomfortable and that’s why I decided to return to Europe again.

Someone was waving at Ken that it was time to round off our conversation. I am eagerly looking forward to some gigs in Autumn and Ken told me: “In the meantime you can be sure that Carl (from the label) will keep you informed about all developments. Once the tour starts to take shape, you’ll be among the first people to hear about it. When we do come to play, then we’ll have a chance to talk some more.”

Geplaatst door Jany op dinsdag 10 juli 2007 - 16:00:19
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