Interview with Ken Hensley by Vera late May 2009 One of the most memorable interviews I ever did in my long-term yet humble career as rock journalist is the phoner interview with Ken Hensley when ‘Blood On The Highway’ – his musical biography – came out. As a little kid I got Uriah Heep’s ‘Live January 1973’ from my father and it became the first live registration I ever heard. No need to say I was impressed and it turned me into a huge Uriah Heep fan for life. Next thing to do was collecting their back catalogue and study ‘Sweet Freedom’ when it came out. A mastodon was born and it changed my life, at least my musical vision. Lyric-wise also, since they used to have great lyrics one may cherish as “what-is-going-on-in-my-life one-liners”. Composer of many of these tunes was keyboard-wizard Ken Hensley, out of his brain came classics as ‘Sunrise’, ‘Easy Livin’’, Tears In My Eyes’, ‘Circle Of Hands’, ‘Look At Yourself’, Stealin’’ and we can go on for a while. The man with his long hair waving over his Hammond organ became a standard for some, yet underrated by many of the world. As negative as the press reviews were in those early days, the better the records sold. I want to change this critical press attitude by publishing this interview – not a phoner but a face-to-face one - with one of the musicians who got me into heavier music.
Pics thanks to Igor Sakharov
Doing the interview when ‘Blood On The Highway’ came out was a fine one. Ken was open-hearted, he seemed to like travelling as I do; we would meet on the road some day. Well, just like it always goes in life, it took a while. Finally I got the opportunity when Hensley did three gigs in the Netherlands late May. I decided to be part of the whole happening. We drove to Goes for the “meet and greet” happening, combining it with a serious talk with the protagonist, a copious dinner and last but not least the live performance at midnight. What else can you wish for? Thanks to Louis Rentrop, I was properly introduced, while Ken showed his amiable personality by signing all the vinyl he could notice in the neighbourhood. Well, his fans are quite aged, as he is, but nevertheless, it worked out well. After dinner and a radio interview of some press colleagues, Ken preferred to search some quieter areas to record our conversation. This is the downfall of another fine conversation with the world citizen he is.
Okay, cut the cackle and come to the horses! First read the in-depth taster
and keep updated with this one!As I understand it is only a three days tour in the Netherlands. Will there be other gigs as well?
We started yesterday. We do three shows in the Netherlands, but later on there will be shows in Czech Republic, Hungary, Germany and other countries as well. It will cover June, July and August. Some dates in September as well. Are there some festival appearances amongst them?
There’s a few. The one I am looking forward to the most – and the band as well - is the Harley Davidson Fest in Hamburg. 27th of June, it is a three days event and we headline the last day. Loads of people will come up to attend this event. It is a great town and a great event, so we are really looking forward to it.You went there for a special gig some years ago…
Indeed, the DVD was recorded in Hamburg with all the guest appearances one could hear on ‘Blood On The Highway’. I really love this place.I found out that you are working on a new record. As it says on the website six tracks were in the finishing stadium…
Actually ten tracks are finished by now. In July we will finish the record. In August everything will be done, the record company announced it for August 24th. Then it will be released the end of September, beginning of October I guess. With the same record company?
Yes indeed.Former record was recorded with loads of native musicians, but your live band is Norwegian. Will they come over to record in Spain for the new record?
Oh yeah. They like to come over and we like to have them there. No problem at all. They just fly down from Oslo and stay with us. We go to the studio every day from my house and it is great! Do you have a view on how long it will take to record? Do you have a strict schedule or come what may?
No, it depends. The last record ‘Blood On The Highway’ took me seven months, but that was because I was writing while being in the studio. Normally I go into the studio with all the songs finished. That time I did not and this time I did not either, but this time it is unfortunately due to a tragic thing that happened to my friend, partner and co-producer Dani. He lost his son and his wife in a fire. Obviously we have not worked for quite a while. But he is doing better and will get back to work in July. It will never be the same, but he is at least doing a lot better every day. It is a tragedy…
Yes, it goes beyond reason. Well, I hope I can finish the album as planned. Next month there will be a meeting in Hamburg with the record company to plan what we can do. Is it the Norwegian live band with you or will there be guest appearances on the new album?
I have done a similar thing as on ‘Blood On The Highway’, giving each song a chance to what it wants. I used some Spanish musicians on the record and Live Fire obviously. I have a wonderful Cuban string quartet. Glenn Hughes is singing on one song, doing a duet with a Bulgarian girl I found. Her name is Alexsantra Salkova. And I don’t know if you know the Italian rock star Zuchero…Yes…
Well, his daughter is singing on my record. Sarah Rope from Valencia is doing two songs, including the Spanish version of ‘No Matter’. There is also an English version of that song on the album, done by Irene Forniciano (the infamous Zuchero daughter). She’s singing with her boyfriend Roberto Tiranti. Sarah’s partner, Paul Chafer is doing all the real piano stuff. So it is a worldwide cooperation of musicians again. I got a lot of different characters and personalities, which are designed to give a special kind of life to each song. The song tells me what it needs.Is that what we should understand by your message on the website “It is going to be totally different”?
I think so, yes. It is different, because ‘Blood On The Highway’ was a concept album. It was about a very specific subject and stylist to suit the concept. This has a theme running through it, which is the theme of human conditions and life experiences. But it is made up of individual songs. It is different in every respect. Different in the production, different in the way we instrumentalized it and also different in the way that we allowed the songs to produce themselves.Did you have new ideas right after ‘Blood On The Highway’?
After I finished ‘Blood On The Highway’ I already had new songs, or at least parts of new songs on which I had been working on before. I write all the time, you know. I just go through my book and pull things out. But I am writing constantly. So you have a kind of musical diary with future musical ideas?
No, it is not like a diary in the strict sense of words. I do keep track of my thoughts, so I make sure that I keep everything saved. A little line here and there will find its way into another song. On the other hand, completely new songs suddenly come up and I have to be ready for that.I heard from your musicians that you share the vocals on stage with a singer?
Yes, Eric does most of the vocals. He has a great rock voice, which I do not have. I have a voice for ballads and things like that, but Eric has a great rock voice. Some songs we sing together, other ones he does, next ones I do. It is a mixture, but Eric sings most of the songs.So he takes the place of all the guest vocalists of ‘Blood On The Highway’ like Jorn Lande?
Indeed, you could see it that way. But he also interprets the Uriah Heep songs very well.Aha, we can expect some Heep stuff tonight?
You better you bet. I have to! But it is also due to this band, playing the Heep songs in a wonderful manner. They may be younger but know them by heart for a long time. We play an hour and fifty minutes, a mixture of old songs, a few new things and there is no weak moment in the show for me. Every moment is really exciting! I hope it is the same for the audience. I heard you do solo shows from now on as well…
Yes, I started to do it this year. It is just me, my guitar, my piano and my book of songs. It is interactive and I am able to present the songs the way they are written. I spend time talking with the audience and answering their questions. And in the end we all get together taking pictures of the whole event. It is a nice happening. It is acoustic in the way that there is no band, no amps, but the piano is electronic, so it is not really acoustic (laughs).In this respect, can you tell something about the shows in Belarus in December 2008?
I played two solo shows there. For me it is always exciting to play in a country for the first time. I played a show in Minsk and one in Gomel. Going there was really excellent and it was a different audience, because in the Soviet days it was illegal for them to listen to the music. Now they are really catching up on everything. They were anxious to hear stories and it was a great experience. Next Monday I go to Bulgaria to play two shows at a big festival with Bulgarian musicians who are friends of mine. And then I do a solo concert in Sofia on Wednesday. I like Bulgaria for different reasons. They have a great spirit. It is very difficult for them, because they want to be in the EU, they try to adjust in the whole new way of thinking and living in Europe, but they have the most beautiful women in the world.
You have moved to Spain for quite a while now, we talked about it in our former conversation. Can you summarize the whole connection with Spain and Norway for you as an English gentleman?
Living in Spain is really easy for me in terms of: I like the climate, I love the food, the wine; my wife’s family is all over there. There are so many things I like about Spain, though it is not a perfect country, by no means. What’s more important for me is where we live in terms of the location of a house. It is very isolated. We have a lot of peace there. Of course we are very focused on animals. It inspires me to be far away from the noises of the world. I believe that is one of the reasons I am so creative at the moment, because I have peace of mind. Norway is a beautiful country, but completely different. Two years ago I took a helicopter ride up to the mountains to do a festival. I saw the country from 2 à 3000 metres. It was spectacular, so beautiful! It is a challenging place to be, but I don’t speak the language, so I am completely lost there. The guys of the band can say anything about me, I wouldn’t be aware of the meaning (laughs). I did not speak Spanish in the beginning, but now I do, that makes the difference. The thing is: I work with Spanish musicians and they can play rock ‘n roll, but they play it in a different way. They don’t play with the same attitude. There is something missing in Spain. A huge percent of rock ‘n roll is attitude. I had to go further up north to find musicians with the power and energy. This band really kicks ass! Well, no country is perfect and I embrace that. I enjoy that! I love the differences. Too many English people went to Spain and tried to make it like England without the rain. That’s stupid! We have a colonial attitude and we need to get rid of that. Spain is Spain and it will always be. It will never change!How does it feel to go back to England from time to time?
I don’t go to England that much. My family is over there, I like to go visit them, but most of the time they come over to visit me. I don’t have the time to be honest.It is great to find out that you have found peace and a second career…
I don’t know what it is. After being out of it for a long time, to rediscover myself and get rid of my drug habit and everything else, it took me a long time to find my way back and find a new way to do things, because the industry had changed so much. I obviously won’t be a part of the mainstream music industry and frankly I don’t want to be. So now I created my own little music industry and that’s fun. It is still a lot of work, but I enjoy it now as much as I did and that’s amazing.These proud words on a dusty shelf may be a nice occlusion of my second encounter with the composer of so many Heep classics. A few hours later – starting from midnight – Ken gave a magnificent concert with his Norwegian guys. You can read the gig review on this site pretty soon.