By Carl Begai
Based in Toronto and known the world over, rockers Harem Scarem released a re-recorded version of their breakthrough Mood Swings in 2013, ending a six year hiatus that was meant to a permanent full stop. They followed it up a year later with their thirteenth official studio album, suggesting Harem Scarem may in fact be back in the game for another long stretch. Vocalist Harry Hess and guitarist Pete Lesperance – the latter being Canada’s rock answer to Steve Vai – had shut the band down with every intention of exploring other musical avenues, but it was only a matter of time until they were faced with a good enough reason to take Harem Scarem out for one more go-round. The end result in their latest record, aptly titled Thirteen.
Diehard Harem Scarem will fans will recognize the title of this piece, but it has to be said that the band’s six years off the grid didn’t seem all that long.
“We were really done with Harem Scarem at that time and didn’t see a future for it,” Lesperance reveals. “I think we were just spent musically. Speaking for myself, when it comes to playing guitar in the rock world I felt that I’d said everything I had to say with those first 150 songs or whatever it is (laughs). Me and Harry work together on all kinds of stuff, so maybe that’s why the break didn’t seem that long; we never stopped working together, we just stopped working on Harem Scarem. When the Mood Swings II thing happened it kind of changed everything and opened our eyes a bit, so we decided to try it again.”
It’s hard for someone on the outside to understand how a creative team like Lesperance and Hess can continue working together and not produce music that sounds like Harem Scarem. Going from one style of music to another in their case almost seems as if it happens at the flip of a switch.
“Our band is a weird animal. It’s my and Harry’s project more than anything these days. Obviously we have people that are heavily involved like Darren (Smith) and Creighton (Doane), but it was never really hard to shut down because, like I said, I just felt that we were done. It seemed like the right thing to do. The wrong thing to do would have been to just keep taking label’s money and keep going.”
As for what pushed Lesperance and Hess back into Harem Scarem mode…
“We got a call from a friend who used to run the Firefest and he asked us what we were doing for the 20th Anniversary of Mood Swings. We were like ‘… It’s the 20th Anniversary of Mood Swings..?’ (laughs). That phone call turned into a gig in England, which turned into some other things, me and Harry started talking about what we were going to do, and we re-recorded the whole record and took a crack at writing some new songs as bonus tracks.”
Harem Scarem has been around long enough and the band members remained visible through other projects during their hiatus to at least keep their fans mildly curious about a possible future. Even so, Lesperance and Hess resorted to a crowd funding campaign to assist in financing Thirteen and, more importantly, to see if there actually was a market for their music.
“That’s exactly what it was. We didn’t want to fly out there completely on our own. We’ve had really good relationships with the labels we’ve worked with in the past in Europe and Japan, so we wanted to include them. They were interested so that worked out well. But yeah, it was like you said; we were checking out the market and seeing who was out there and what we had for an immediate fanbase. And it was a way for us to give those fans some cool stuff like the video updates and behind-the-scenes clips, pictures and t-shirts; stuff that we normally just don’t offer because we’ve been such an on-again off-again project. We don’t get out and play a ton so we don’t make merch, so the Kikckstarter thing was a bonus. It was successful and it stimulated the fanbase, so it was a good experience.”
The rule is “if it ain’t broke don’t fix it,” and for the vast majority of Harem Scarem fans Mood Swings is a flawless album. The re-recording does indeed sound bigger and fatter in some places but otherwise stays true to the original Mood Swings, with the exception of ‘Just Like I Planned’ getting a musical overhaul that didn’t sit well with everyone.
“Yeah, once you get used to something it’s hard to hear them done differently,” Lesperance concedes. “There are a few songs on the record that I feel we just didn’t do properly the first time, so I was able to get that out of my system on Mood Swings II.”
Trying to out-perform Mood Swings with the 2.0 version was never the plan, but rather to set the stage for Thirteen. The three bonus tracks on Mood Swings II – ‘World Gone To Pieces’, ‘Anarchy’ and ‘A Brighter Day’ – were nowhere near being throwaway tracks, instead living up to the Mood Swings legacy.
“And that was our thought at that time, too,” says Lesperance. “When we did those three songs, they were the first Scarem songs we’d written in six years. I had the song ideas kicking around because they started out as tracks I was going to use for an instrumental record I’m working on. We turned them into Harem Scarem tunes. They were never meant to be throwaways, and we try not to work that way. We don’t write more songs than we need for a record because we’re pretty hard on ourselves creatively. When we finished those three songs we knew it would be tough trying to make a complete record because we’d have to go through that process ten times (laughs). Luckily, it wasn’t as hard as we’d expected.”
“The song ideas came because the tour we did energized us,” he adds. “It was great to reconnect with the fans, and it was great to see that people still give a shit about our music. That was kind of enough. It was a lot of fun playing those old songs and it put us in the right headspace to write a record that our fans were really going to dig.”
And although the duo have been working together for well over 20 years, writing for Thirteen wasn’t exactly business as usual.
“I think it was a little bit different because of the break and the tour,” says Lesperance. “We were hyped, and I started writing guitar parts for the record while we were on tour. I’d wake up in the morning at the hotel and be sitting there with my guitar just thinking about the gig from the night before. We were connecting with people again face-to-face, and that’s a part of the music buisness that gets lost for is a lot of the time. I have to say the material for the new record came quite easily. It was a bit daunting at the beginning, but the ideas started flowing and I was hearing Harry’s stuff, I was loving what he came up with, he liked what I was writing, so we were able to build the songs without any major hassles. It was pretty damn good.”
“We were trying to figure out what it is that people like about Harem Scarem,” he continues. “We’ve been trying to figure that shit out for years (laughs). It’s a weird thing when your second album is your swansong (laughs). We’d released 12 albums and it was always like ‘Do you like this one?’ The answer would be ‘Not as much as Mood Swings.’ It’s like, ‘Aw, fuck…’ (laughs). We’ve always done crazy shit, whether it was changing our name or our musical direction. We’ve always done what we wanted, but the new album seems to have connected with people, and when they say it reminds them of the Mood Swings era I think it’s because we really actually meant for it to sound like that. We attacked the making of this record the way we used to do it before.”
“If I’m being honest with myself, the whole process of making Harem Scarem albums became a bit cookie cutter for us. It’s inevitable when you make records constantly. I don’t think we went more than a year-and-a-half in out entire career without making a record. The way Thirteen came out, it was just easier and it has an attitude and an effortlessness that some of the other albums don’t have.”
That goes for the listener as well as the creators. Line up ten Harem Scarem fans and ask them to name their five favourite albums, you’re bound to get surprising feedback. Some Scarem records hit all the right buttons as they play out while others leave you adrift thinking “I don’t get it,” but it all depends on personal taste. The Mood Swings benchmark doesn’t always come into play.
“Music is like that, though; it’s mood-centric,” Lesperance agrees. “The mood you’re in can affect how you feel about the music, and the music can affect the mood you’re in. I like John Mayer’s stuff, for example, and I loved his second last album, but the last album he released I listened to twice and never did again. But I know I’m going to buy his next one because I’m a huge fan (laughs). I think that’s the way it is with our fans.”