HEX A.D. – Interview and new single
Saturday, 7th of December, we were invited for a listening sessions at Kniven bar in Oslo where we got the chance to sit down and listen to the upcoming release by the Norwegian riff monster act HEX A.D., named "Astro Tongue in the Electric Garden" and out at the beginning of 2020.
Today, December 13th, is also the day when the band releases the first single from the album, "Astro Tongue". Hopefully this first insight into the upcoming release will transpose you in the same kind of landscape that we were taken to for the whole duration of the listening session: a very pleasant and joyful, yet heavy and intense journey back to the good old days of hammond organ and upbeat riff bonanza, while still anchoring you in the present times of a more daring attempt at combining elements and rhythms.
Of course, the one time listening through the album is not enough to fully label it into one of my two categories: music I like, vs music I don’t like. So all I know is that it was really intense and pleasant and I’m looking forward to get my hands on it and digest it thoroughly. It felt like a nicely balanced overall composition, less doomy that te expectations built based on the previous material heard from the band. And luckily, after the audition, we (Jorge from http://risemetal.com and me) had the chance to sit down with vocalist and main composer Rik Hagen and get a lot of cool info about the album itself, the guests and the band’s history. A transcription of the chat is available underneath the video of the new single
HEX A.D. Lineup:
Rick Hagan: Vocals, guitars
Mags Johansen: Organ, mellotron, synts, piano
Arry Gogstad: Bass guitar
Matt Hagan: Drums
Interview with Rick Hagan of HEX A.D.
Me: Thank you for having this event organized for us
H.K.: It was our manager’s idea. We thought it would be really nice to have an occasion to play the album and show it to people we thought might be interested in it.
Me: Are you proud about the album. How do you feel about it?
H.K.: The album is a huge departure for us because this band started as a solo project. I was playing in a band back then and we got a deal with Chris Tsangarides in England (Judas Priest, Gary Moore, Thin Lizzy) and he said ‘I want you guys to come England and make an album with me’. It sounded excellent. It turns out the two guys I was playing with at the time didn’t want to join me, saying we don’t have any songs. I said we’d write the songs, so I ended up going to England alone, recording an album in ten days, on my own, all the instruments. That is the first Hex A.D. album, Chris Tsangarides mixing and producing and I’m playing everything. It turned out cool, maybe a bit naive and a bit raw, no keys, no nothing, just guitar, bass, drums. I really liked it, it got great reviews when it was released in 2014. Around that time I went to the audition for Joe Lynn Turner, as I am a session drummer, and that’s where I met Magnus who now plays the keyboards and organ with us. Neither of us got the gig, but we met and we bonded. When I decided to make the second Hex A.D. album I invited Magnus to join me, and so we went to England. He played the organ, a big old Hammond organ that hadn’t been used in fifteen years, we had to start it five times and only parts of the keys were working. Good times.
Anyway, Hex A.D. turned into Magnus and me in the studio and then we used my brother as a session drummer and a bass player with whom I’ve been playing for twenty years, and now we actually had a band. We got in touch with Sverre, our manager, who also runs the record label and we talked about making a new album. So last year we released "Netherworld Triumphant", but that’s just me and Magnus and in a way it felt like we needed to start involving the other guys more. So on this new album, everyone contributes.
My brother is now the permanent drummer in the band, but our styles are very different. I think I am more progressive, he is more raw. We have chosen which songs each of us played. And as Chris passed away, he didn’t produce this album, I did it instead. And I was kinda calling the shots, deciding which songs is more typical of each of us and split the drum jobs. Are plays all the bass parts, I didn’t play any. So this is a band efoort to which everyone has contributed. I’ve still written all the songs, as from the start it was my idea, my vision on what Hex A.D. it’s gonna be. But the great thing about working with such fantastic musicians is that you can write something and they will take it to another level. That’s so exciting. So I am very proud of this album and the way it turned out with everyone contributing. So this is really the long answer.
But I also have to say that this is definitely less doomy than the other three releases.
HEX A.D. live at Vaterland, Oslo, 2019
Photo by Andrea Chirulescu
Me: We were actually wondering ‘where is the doom?’
H.K.: I am a huge doom fan, I’ve been playing doom since I was twelve. Doom is where my heart is, but at the same time my favorite band is Deep Purple. And Rainbow, and Yes, and Genesis and Jethro Tull.
Me: We could surely tell that
H.K.: I’ve been playing drums for both Paul Di’Anno and Blaze Bayley (ex Iron Maiden) for ten years and this affects you, it leaves some sort of mark. Playing that Maiden kind of drumming has affected me and of course I love Iron Maiden as well. But you have to go where the music takes you and dare to go out of the comfort zone and that’s why this album is a lot less doomy. I don’t refrain from writing something that sounds less doomy, I just let the composition take me wherever it needs.
Me: Was it easy to let it go and let the others do their stuff or you struggled with that?
H.K.: It’s a blank canvas and they did what they liked.
Me: So you didn’t give them something finished and they fine tuned it
H.K.: No. I recorded the drums with my brother
Me: Oh, so it started with the drum parts
H.K.: Yes, drums and then we put down the guitars. I make a sketch. In the studio, when you work like that, it’s very easy to put down a guitar sketch and work with a click track. Some of the songs are written like that, some are not. This pilot guitar will show you where to go, maybe include piano or organ parts. And it gives you a sort of a feeling when you play the drums, but it’s quite exciting because you don’t exactly know how it’d end up sounding like. After this guitar sketch and drums are done, I put down the real guitars and then I sent it to the other guys and told them to do what they liked. Sometimes I had suggestions, other times I was happy with the result. We ended up crediting all band members as arrangers, as everyone helped arranging the songs.
Me: What about the guests? How did you end up with such guests?
H.K.: Let’s start with the easy one, Rowan Robertson from Dio is a very dear friend of mine. We have been playing together since like 2010. We had a band together, called "The Southern Cross" where we had Patrik Johansson from Astral Doors singing, we also had Geoff Nichols from Black Sabbath playing the keyboards. So Rowan and I have a very close bond, I stay at his mum’s place when I visit in England, he stays at my house when he comes to Norway. he even has his own room at my house. We bonded very well the first time we met when I picked him up at the airport. When I was growing up listening to Dio he was my favorite guitarist. I told him and that embarrassed him. But he inspired me a lot. He also played the guitar solo on the song "Warchild" on our previous album, and to me that is one of his best performances ever. But if you listen to that ending solo, it’s a TOTALLY fantastic performance. I remember vividly being in the studio, mixing, and he sent me the files, I started playing it, put up the faders and it was instant ‘WOW’. We still play shows together whenever he visits Europe – he lives in Las Vegas now. He is like an extra member of the band, rather than a special guest. If I’d be have to pick another guitarist to join us, it would be him. We have the same background and he’s a classic rock guitarist and this album in particular is more classic rock.
HEX A.D. live at Vaterland, Oslo, 2019
Photo by Andrea Chirulescu
Thomas, from Audrey Horne – he used to play guitar for Paul Di’Anno as well, but before I joined the band. So we talk a lot about Paul, we both love him. He’s maybe one of the most misunderstood musicians in the world of hard rock. But we shared plenty of great memories. I remember a tour in 2009, when someone wrote on the dust that settled on the bus ‘please come back again Iron Maiden’. I signed albums on that tour what were released before I was born. And I tried to tell fans, but they were like ‘You play, you play, you sign now’. But Thomas is also a friend of Sverre and we talked about how cool it would be if he’d play on the album and so he ended up on the track ‘Hawks & Doves’. What he did was not like a fast random guitar solo, which I am not a fan of. I like guitar solos to be a part of the song, to follow the melody line. Don’t get me wrong, I love when great musicians improvise, but I enjoy when musicians make it into a melody line, a part of the songs that you can recognise. Adrian Smith of Iron Maiden is a great example of a guitarist who writes a melody and keeps it approximately the same for years, as part of the song. The great thing that Thomas did was exactly that.
Then we have Eirikur Hauksson known from working with Ken Hensley and Artch. He sings on the same song, "Hawks & Doves". I first met him when singing with Ken Hensley and we did a couple of gigs together with a Dio band that we had. We had a good connection, but he also knows Sverre and Sverre has a great sense of what would suit the band. So he came with the idea that it would be great to have Eirikur on a song. He showed up in a small home studio in the town where I live, and he just sang so beautifully, with a bluesy passion.
So these are the stories behind these guests. I enjoy having great musicians contributing with their strengths to improve our baby.
Me: How are you going to do his vocal parts live?
H.K.: I’m the live singer, so I’ve written them so I could perform that part live as well. It’s not easy for me to reach the notes as high as him. I had already played this live and he had an idea of what I want the melody to be like.
Me: What I liked after hearing the album once, was this joyful spirit, unlike the doom ‘seriousness’. The keyboards, the guitars, have this happy feeling. How easy was it for you to go away from doom and make something more ‘alive’ if I can use this word to describe the mood.
H.K.: It was a very natural process. If you see the artwork, it’s also very colorful. It has a light blue taste. It’s less dark and gloomy. The last album was black and gold, as it was my vision back then and it was more majestic in a way, that ended with a big epic, almost like an empty hallway in a huge cathedral. But this new album had a different taste altogether. When we decided this was going to be the artwork, we knew the music had to fit the artwork. The artwork was painted by David Patchett, famous for doing all the Cathedral and Electric Wizard artwork and all of our covers except for one. So his painting is his version of my idea. The whole story is that for a child, everything can be scary in the dark. Even toys that they love playing with during the day. When it’s dark, even the innocent things can be scary to a child. He painted it the way that I explained to him, and this is his vision. That’s why you have such elements like owls teaching kids how to read, but all those creepy elements. This artwork was finished in 2015.
Me: What about the name of the album?
H.K.: "Astro Tongue in the Electric Garden". It was actually called "Astro Tongue in the Heartless Kingdom", but we changed it when we fell that the music had a sort of a sixties vibe. Some would say that it doesn’t, but this album is loaded with a lot of sixties references
Me: I did feel it to be like a time travel, and I didn’t even live the sixties.
H.K.: The name is pure psychedelia, inspired by Pink Floyd and their fantastic early albums. Inspired by that, Magnus and I thought to find a really cool psychedlic name. I also happen to watch a lot of Animal Planet. Somewhere I picked up Astro, it fit with the idea of spacey and psychedelic. Astro Tongue, no one has any idea what that is. Is it a language? It is a person? Then I also happened to watch a documentary on the Hawkwind and the early psychedelic times in London. Then I realized that Electric Garden was one of the clubs that Deep Purple, Hawkwind, Pink Floyd, Cream, Jimmy Hendrix, they all played there. So that’s how we got this title for an album with a lot of references to the sixties music. There is also a long pre-story, before we started making this album. Because it has a brother. The next album, is already half written. And while this one is blue, jolly, happy, the brother is much more temperamental, fiery
Me: Smoking different stuff?
H.K.: Nono, we’re not doing any drugs. The thing is that we consider that the pendulum has to swing. So naturally, after doing this, I have to do something else as a writer. I will always keep my main tonality. I can always hear that a song is me, even if the songs are quite different. But the next time it will be a lot more aggression and this is the brother. And it is called ‘Funeral Tangle for Gods and Men"
Me: It already has a name. Oh wow
H.K.: These two albums have been planned together. So the idea for one, didn’t come without the other.
Me: Have you written songs at the same time and decided which one belongs where?
H.K.: A couple of riffs. If I know that a riff is good enough, I’ll save it and I’ll immediately know if it fits one album or the other. This is one of the reasons for which the bonus track, "Grace and Pain", didn’t really fit with the other songs.
Me: Would you change anything now that the album is finalized? If you still had time on your hands to make any changes
H.K.: I don’t know. Haven’t thought about it
Me: That’s actually good. Means you’re at peace with yourself
H.K.: I actually had moments of second guessing, because it’s a different album
Me: It is actually a very complex one. Full of so many elements, no song follows a pattern of verse, chorus, verse, solo, chorus and done. How do you know you’re done with it?
H.K.: When I listen back to the songs and I put down the basic elements, bass, drums, guitar and keys, I get a sense of what needs to be done. It’s like when you’re fixing your house, you know that when you fix this door it will be done. You get a sense of ‘We’re getting there, we’re closer, closer and ah, now we’re done’. I’m sure I can always go back and maybe sing again a couple of verse. I’m not sure it would be better. It would be different, but not necessarily better. So I just leave it. I know musicians who can do things over and over and over again and it would be just as good. Take sixteen would be just as good as take number four. So why take the extra? That’s one of the things I learned from Chris when he produced our albums. If I didn’t fuck up, he’d just show me his thumb up and we’d move to the next part. That, combined with the fact that I’m not an extraordinary musician, but what I manage well is to do it right within few takes. I won’t spend an hour playing this. If it is all right within ten minutes and I haven’t made mistakes, I leave it like that and move on. Also some of the music that I enjoy listening to the most is perfect without being perfectionist. A good example of that is Black Sabbath’s first album. It is basically a live album, they just went it and recorded it. There are flaws all over the place.
Me: But those are what brings the groove and the natural factor
H.K.: Yes. Same thing with KISS. I am a huge KISS fan. Because his playing has a nerve, an attitude…
HEX A.D. live at Vaterland, Oslo, 2019
Photo by Andrea Chirulescu
Me: What’s HEX A.D.?
H.K.: A classic hard rock band from Norway
Me: Fair answer. Thanks! How did you come up with the name? For me it feels very historical?
H.K.: Do you want me to be honest or artsy? I got the name from the Swedish band Anekdoten. They played a show in a town quite near to where I live. This is in 2002 or 2003. There were people selling CDs at that gig and I picked up the album "HEX" by Big Elf at that Anekdoten show and I just thought that Hex is a good band name. I forgot about it, didn’t use it, but at least ten other bands are called Hex. I realised very quickly on that I had to change something. The first album was already our and released under the name ‘Hex’. So I wanted to keep the brand, the identity, with a minimal change. Being a history freak – I am actually a history teacher – I wanted to include historical aspects into the music I write and what surrounds it. So A.D., Anno Domini, was a perfect addition, in a kind of a cursed way.
Me: And now the last question, even if I’d love to talk more about the other answers. I’m wondering about the themes chosen on this album. It makes more sense now that I know you are a history teacher. The Vietname War…why did you feel like writing about it?
H.K.: When we wrote the song "Hawks & Doves" it had a bluesy feeling to it and it gave me kind of a Cream/Eric Clapton idea. Sixties…Vietnam War. And I had a conversation with Magnus where we realized that one of the strengths of the last album was that it felt like a journey from the beginning to the end. While this new album didn’t really have it, but we made it happen when we decided to tie in the side B of the LP to all have a common theme, a thread. Then I told Magnus "Vietnam, monsoon rain" – so that’s how we came up with the Monsoon Suite. Even if they are musically different, we decided to tie them together through a lyrical theme. The first song, "Hawks & Doves" deals with the propaganda stuff and all the events leading to the Vietnam War, where in USA, in the press, the Hawks were the military and the Doves were the hippies. "Old Bones", the next track, takes the view of one who is actually in the fields, fighting, and the last song, "A Stone for the Bodies not Found", has a philosophical aspect about the whole tragedy.
Me: And about other themes on the album, even if you don’t do drugs, you are able to write about psychedelics.
H.K.: The "Deadly Nightshade", maybe the main drug song on this album, the first verse is about Tommy Bolin, my favorite guitarists of all times. The first verse is about heroin addiction and the second verse is about acid trips. When you’ll hear it, you’ll know it.