With all the bands in the world there is bound to be one or two with the same name. This FEN are from Canada. Interview responses by vocalist/guitarist Doug Harrison. Anders Ekdahl ©2013
I can understand why a British band chooses FEN as a band name but how did a Canadian end up with a name like that?
-My parents are birders. When I was young they would take me to a place called Serpentine Fen and they would look at great blue herons and wood ducks and whatever else through their binoculars. The marshy atmosphere must have soaked into my psyche, so years later, when guitarist Sam Levin and I were looking for a band name, Fen came up. It seemed to make sense at the time, but that was 1998. Now the name Fen doesn’t hold much significance for us. It’s just the word we call our music project.
You are being described as progressive. But what really is progressive and how can it be used to describe music?
-To me, progressive means going from A to B, as opposed to going from A to more A. We like our songs to reach somewhere new by the end. Maybe there’s a new riff at the end, or maybe the end reveals the penultimately heavy or elaborate version of a riff you’ve been hearing since the beginning of the tune. We aim to make each verse subtly different from the one before it, and likewise the chorus and any other repeated sections. If we can do all that and keep a natural flow to the song, then we’re satisfied.
I gotta say that I know very little about you guys. Do you have to have a special interest to know about you? How good have you been at promoting the band on a wider scale?
It sounds like we’re on the same page in terms of mutual awareness–glad to have discovered Battle Helm, though!
I wouldn’t say Fen is special interest, mainly because we’re not part of a niche genre; if anything, we’re floating in a shit mix of styles within the all-encompassing genre of rock music. But with regards to the question about our obscurity: yes we have put in hundreds of hours into promoting ourselves. But our efforts in that department have waxed and waned. And we’re talking hundreds of hours spread out over fifteen years. We were very fortunate to sign with California based label Ripple Music back in 2010 (http://www.ripple-music.com/). They’ve handled the marketing and distribution of our last two albums: Trails Out Of Gloom and Of Losing Interest. It’s been a load off, except now we have all these interviews to do!
What is the scene like for you kind of music locally as well as nationally? How much has a national treasure like Rush helped your music?
-I don’t know what’s up with Rush. They never return our calls. And they still haven’t liked our facebook page. Despite that, our bassist Jeff Caron and drummer Nando Polesel worship them. When we toured BC/Alberta last fall Nando brought the entire Rush discography on CD. Probably cost us a few extra bucks in gas just to lug it around. In some circles Rush is treasured more than the environment.
In Vancouver, we’ve been welcomed by a handful of proggy bands. We’ve gigged a number of times with Marching Mind, who play an expansive form of prog with loads of keyboard/piano and song lengths frequently reaching beyond 10 minutes. Playing after a band like that, we end up sounding like top 40. It’s fun.
I can understand if your debut album is filled with great songs because you’ve had time to come up with them but how do you avoid repeating yourself when it comes to the second and third albums?
-Very few people have heard our debut album, Surgical Transfusion of Molting Sensory Reflections. And for those how have, the word “great” has never been used in the same sentence as the title. In fact, the word “song” has probably never been used in the same sentence as the title. We would never want to repeat the likes of our first album, or our second. So this problem you speak of, of starting with a great album and then having difficulty not repeating it, is foreign to us.
This habit of shunning our past work has resulted in an ever changing sound for Fen, and has caused a bit of surprise among dedicated listeners.
What would you say is your greatest strength as song writers?
-We infuse the songs with melody. I steal melody from Sam’s guitar parts, he steals melody from the vocals, and Jeff steals bass line ideas from Sam’s guitar parts and vice versa. It’s the age old idea of creating unity within a composition.
How important are the lyrics? Do they have to tell a story, be part of a concept to fit the music?
-Lyrics are important because if they’re terrible, no amount of fancy riffage or production can change that, and the song will come off as phony. That said, I think melody is more important than lyrics. Our songs usually start with a riff, then a vocal melody, then a structure. Once there’s a structure, the thing sounds like an actual song, even though I’m singing gibberish. When I’m ready, I write out the gibberish on a page and try to find words to replace it. I try to absorb the vibe of the music and fish around inside for some personal experience that might connect with it. This can take days to figure out. Sometimes I write several pages of notes or possible lines and then I analyze them to figure out where they might be coming from emotionally. Once I know what I’m talking about, the bigger mystery is gone and I focus on the craft of writing, which is solving the little puzzle of each line.
Do you have a graphic theme that you follow when it comes to art work? How do you choose covers for your records? What themes are best suited for the kind of music that you play?
-For three albums we went with the amazing oil paintings of our friend Jason Froese, whose work has an eerie beauty about it (http://jasonfroese.com/). But for our latest album, Of Losing Interest, we had a lot of trouble coming up with something we could all agree on, and it caused a bit of tension among us. Jeff was at his wits end after a luke warm reception to a cover idea he’d spent considerable time crafting with a friend who knew Photoshop. A few days later he emailed us a shoddy picture he’d taken with his telephone, of some kind of oatmeal sloughing agent his shiatsu practitioner had suggested he use in the bathtub. The stuff looked fleshy as it oozed into his drain. For whatever silly reason, we all gave it the okay.
How pleased are you with your latest recorded work? How do you know when it is time to start anew and leave the old behind?
-It’s not long after we put the finishing touches on an album that regrets start to creep into our thoughts. Of Losing Interest was no exception. There are many things that could have been better, and as usual I think we can do better next time. As we continue to play the songs live, the discrepancies in terms of song quality become more and more apparent, and there are certain tracks that we’ll ditch as soon as we have new ones to replace them.
On the other hand, I’ve had recent urges to record different versions of some songs, trying them out acoustically or something else. Lately we’ve been performing Snake Path swung, an idea that started off as pure ridiculousness during rehearsal. It sounds great though, so now I’d love to go back to the studio and record a swung version of the song. I think if a song is good it can work in many different ways. Those are the keepers, because they stop us from getting bored of them.
What kind of future do you see?
-We have new material in progress, but no timeline. We’re thinking of abandoning the album idea altogether and only releasing singles as we get money and time to record them. That way fans won’t have to wait as long for new material. We’ll be posting updates at www.fenmusic.ca. Also, feel free to stream our last two albums on bandcamp:
Thanks for giving Fen a shift at the Battle Helm!