Harry Hess / Harem Scarem, First Signal and always learning

Melodic hard rockers First Signal released their fifth studio album, Face Your Fears, last month, a compelling slab of vinyl from start to finish. The band is fronted by Harry Hess, one of the busiest men in Heavy Metal. Hess, a record producer, singer and guitarist, is best known as the frontman for Haren Scarem.

Hess first emerged into the music scene in the mid-’80s with a band called Blind Vengeance when he was 16. “It’s all been a great learning experience,” Harry told MetalTalk’s Taylor Cameron. “I jumped in super early. I turned sixteen while making the first Blind Vengeance record. When you think about it in theory, some of those songs that are on that record were written when I was fourteen/fifteen. It sounds laughable to me today to think that I thought I knew anything and when I listen to it, which I don’t [laughs], it’s pretty amateurish and terrible but every time you do something you get a little bit better at it.

“Recording and writing and doing what we do led me to where I am today. I never have any regrets about where I started and what I did. It’s all a process and learning experience. I’m not gonna say I’m proud of the work, but at the time, it was the best I could do with the tools that I had.”

First Signal / Face Your Fears is a compelling slice of pure melodic rock
First Signal / Face Your Fears is a compelling slice of pure melodic rock

The album covers on all the First Signal records give off a sense of fantasy. Does Harry have any input on the album covers, and are there specific reasons behind the mystical subject matter within the photos? “We didn’t discuss it too much, to be honest,” he says. “We went with song titles which is typically what people do. Create some imagery based around one of the song titles or a theme about the record.

“We just thought after coming out of the whole covid thing, everyone was scared, and the world is pretty screwed up these days on many levels. Keeping your head up and moving forward was the theme of the last year, and I think that’s true for anybody doing anything. You just gotta get up every day and keep going no matter what it’s looking like out there. In my mind, that was the theme for this album.”

Face You Fears is a great First Signal album, top-notch from start to finish. “This one is a little heavier than anything we’ve done with First Signal, which I personally like a little bit better,” Harry says. “I’m a fan of the more hard-edged stuff as far as melodic rock goes, and that was the goal with this one. To kinda get out of the lane we were in with the last few albums and do something a little bit different. It was a conscious effort to pick songs and work on things that had a bit more edge and weight to them.”

The fifth album in what so far is a thirteen-year project, Harry explained the working differences between First Signals and Harem Scarem. “There have been different producers along the way,” he said. “This fifth album has a third producer on it. I’ve been kinda the lone consistent element to this [laughs]. With Harem Scarem, it’s me and Pete Lesperance, and we do ninety per cent of what you hear.

“With First Signal, it’s purposefully different in the sense that I don’t produce. I try not to be even involved in the songwriting, but this time I was on, I think three or four songs.

“It’s a different approach. I take a back seat and can look at it from the perspective of just being the singer. I’m just a piece of the puzzle as opposed to Harem Scarem, where I’m really heavily involved in everything that happens from top to bottom. This is a welcome change for me because I can just sit back and do my job as a singer and let everyone else take care of what they’re supposed to do.

“Everyone knows what they’re doing, and it’s not a sense of me wanting everything to be a certain way. I get to do that when making a Harem Scarem or solo record. This is just a collaboration between a bunch of different people, and we put together songs we’re all on board with.”

Harry Hess and Harem Scarem, "booking some dates for the end of the year."
Harem Scarem, “booking some dates for the end of the year.”

Harry formed Harem Scarem in 1987 with guitarist Pete Lesperance. The band would release their self-titled debut album in August 1991, with their sixteenth album, Change The World, hitting the shelves in 2020. Hess and Lesperance have been involved in the production of Harem Scarem since the debut, and Hess feels that this made them more critical of themselves as musicians being so involved with the material from start to finish.

“I think if I would’ve just come in and done my parts and left, I wouldn’t have had the same learning experience as I did with really getting in there and going over every little part and word,” Harry says. “Whether we were writing or recording, mixing and all the way to mastering, we always wanted to be involved and know what was going on so we could be aware of what we were doing and hopefully fix it.

“The whole process of making a record can be negative because you’re always trying to figure out what’s wrong with it so you can fix it. That mindset can get weird, constantly picking apart what you’re doing and constantly saying, ‘that’s not good enough’ and ‘we should fix this.’ But going over and fixing the things we don’t like normally ends up turning into something we do like. That’s our process, and it’s a little bit bizarre, but I’m sure a lot of people approach it that way.”

Harem Scarem fans will be pleased to know that, while new music may be a way off, there are live shows to look forward to. “We’re booking some dates for the end of the year,” Harry says. “We’ve been super slow in regards to getting in a room together and writing only because we’ve been busy doing other projects.

“A cool thing that we’re working on right now is that it’s the thirty-year anniversary of our Mood Swings record, and we’re going to be doing a limited edition vinyl run. We’re going to launch it in a few weeks and make that available, so people can check out our socials for that. We’ll be getting the message out there and how to buy it.

“It’s a really cool package. It’s remastered, and it’s the first time it’s being released on vinyl. There will be five acoustic bonus tracks on it and some other cool stuff. We’re going to be playing a festival in Belgium, and we’re looking at some other dates in Spain and Portugal around that time period as well. Things will ramp up this year, and we’re actually going to get out there and do something.”

I tell Harry that my favourite tracks from Mood Swings are Stranger Than Love and Sentimental BLVD, but does he now think that there were other tracks that should have been released as singles? “I do think No Justice was a good choice for the first single,” he says, “but I think Sentimental BLVD should have been released as a single as well. Darren [Smith] sang lead vocals and did a great job. We actually did an acoustic version of that track which will be on the reissued vinyl.”

With his own studio, Harry has produced many albums for other artists, and this is a part of the industry he loves working in. “I get to be part of another band for that time period and step into their world,” he says. “I’ve always loved doing that and have been doing it alongside Harem Scarem since the beginning. I get to hang out with other musicians and writers and work with them.

“You learn all the time from working with anybody. Even if they’re young and new and don’t know anything. Because they may have a completely different approach or viewpoint on writing songs or production and what they think is right. It’s all an informed learning experience, and I’ve been lucky enough to work with so many bands that I get to take it all in and am able to use some of those things later down the road if I want.

“Especially when working with other producers as an engineer. Everyone has their own way of making records and their own techniques. All of those things coming together have taught me how to get from A to B, and it’s always helpful working with more people than less.”

Harry Hess is very good at staying true to his signature melodic sound while also keeping things new and interesting. What is his process when writing music and having fresh ideas? “When I open up my mouth and sing, I’m a rock singer,” he says, “there’s no doubt about it. I’ve always written more melodically than maybe I even realize.

“When I first started playing in bands, my favourite bands were Judas Priest and Iron Maiden. I was into Metal when I was fourteen/fifteen years old. When I open my mouth and sing, it’s rock, but it’s not that. Although I had my idols from my favourite bands, I also loved Queen and bands with big harmonies like Def Leppard. Def Leppard, for me, would be on the super poppy side of rock.

“All of those things kinda came together. You can’t help but be influenced by what you like and what you listen to. That was the start of my journey with writing songs and being in bands, and still, to this day, my process is still the same. It’s just coming up with ideas that, first of all, I like and think are good. The whole process is putting together songs that you like and that other people will like.”

Harry Hess – Top five desert island albums?

“I’d probably go with Queen – A Night at The Opera and the first Boston album. I’m just going out on a limb here. Iron Maiden – Number of The Beast. I’ll take Judas Priest – Screaming for Vengeance and the first Van Halen record.”

Sleeve Notes

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