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In Extremis

Older, Wiser & Heavier: An Interview With Will Haven
Toby Cook , November 9th, 2011 08:25

Toby Cook speaks to Will Haven's Grady Avenell, who recently rejoined the band after an extended absence, about returning to the fold and new album Voir Dire

Fucking vocalists. In any band, in any genre, they're the ones we love to hate and hate to love. Poncing around on stage, uninhibited by such frivolities as instruments, they're free to talk as much shit as they like and thrust their crotch into the faces of as many young women as they can find. And when it's all over all they've got to pack up is their microphone. Dicks.

Yet despite all this, in traditional band hierarchy the vocalist/lead guitarist pairing is often where the power lies. Fuck the bassist, he might have some talent and have snuck a few riffs on to the new album, but we only care about him because he's not the drummer. And so it is that even with his many obvious failings, a band's vocalist will always be intrinsically linked to how his band is perceived: would Pantera have been Pantera without Phil Anselmo, even when he was doing more skag than the entire character roster of Trainspotting? Whilst anyone would be hard pushed to suggest that Dio-era Sabbath weren't a more formidable machine than they'd been for several years previously, were they really ever the same without Ozzy? And try telling anyone that the MOR goatfuck that is the current Alice In Chains incarnation isn't just embarrassing. The list goes on and on, and whether or not we want to admit it there are certain bands that just aren't the same without their front man: No Chino, no Deftones. No Cory, no Slipknot. No Dave Lee Roth, no Van Halen, man.

And no Grady Avenell, no Will Haven. This is what we discovered back in late 2002 as the vocalist of the Sacramento based alt-hardcore troupe quietly left the fold and the group disbanded. As 2007 rolled around they reconvened with long time friend Jeff Jaworski filling the vocal duties, but it just wasn't the same. He might have had the same visceral bark as Grady, but even forgiving them that year's particularly atrocious album The Hierophant, it really wasn't the same. To say that the band were nothing without their talisman does them an extreme disservice – especially to guitarist and songwriter Jeff Irwin – but Avenell's mere presence had brought the band an ineffable, intangible quality that was now missing, and seemed lost forever. Now though, Will Haven are back, older, wiser and even heavier. In new record Voir Dire they've recorded what is arguably the album of their career. But, more importantly, Grady is back, and despite any assumptions made about his character it's a quiet and contemplative individual that picks up the phone to the Quietus.

So, Grady, you're back in Will Haven after a pretty lengthy absence – can you clear up the reasons for your initial departure?

Grady Avenell: Well, I had a kid, my first – my daughter was born shortly before I quit – and just going on tour and being away from my family was something I wasn't really into doing anymore. I just wanted to take some time away, spend some time with my family and get that going. I went to school as well. That's basically it.

There were some rumours flying around at the time that suggested one of the reasons that you left was due to the increasing amount of 'kids' attending your shows; that you felt that the group had become merely a band for angry teenagers. Is there any shred of truth to that?

GA: No, not at all. The thing is, and maybe this was another reason, was that I was just getting sick and tired and very frustrated at not making any money – which might have counted towards some of my attitude – and I needed to start earning a living for my family. It definitely had nothing to do hating the fans, or fan reactions, at all.

To what extent have your studies and experiences whilst away from music been brought in to what you're now doing with Will Haven?

GA: I guess there's an effect; I'm a little older and a little wiser so, y'know, whatever it is that Will Haven want to do, there's got to be something more in it for us now. Instead of just going off and playing shows or whatever, we're a little bit more business minded.

And what was it that finally brought you back?

GA: We played some benefit shows for Chi Cheng [Deftones bassist], and I just got the buzz back and told Jeff [Irwin, guitarist], 'Hey, let's do another album!' and he's was down for it. It really was as straight forward as that!

And presumably there's no animosity between you and Jeff Jaworski, who took over from you on vocals?

GA: No, not at all. He was happy to stand down and let me take back over. He was actually originally going to just move over and play bass anyway, put that didn't pan out in the end.

He's got some writing credits on the new LP though, right?

GA: Yeah, I mean, I don't know how much input he had before I came back in, but they had a few songs written so he might have had a little input there, but I don't really know how much.

Speaking of the bassist situation, Chris Fenn from Slipknot is playing bass for you guys now – how did his involvement come about?

GA: We toured with Slipknot in 2000, or sometime around then. Jeff plays golf and Chris plays golf so they had something in common and always kept in touch. Chris was actually asking Jeff if he wanted to play in a side project and Jeff said 'Well we need a bass player for Will Haven, do you want to do that?', Chris accepted and it just kind of steamrollered from there.

Alice Cooper excluded, golf doesn't sound like a very 'metal' pastime!

GA: Ha ha, no. Actually, I think he does it at least once or twice a month.

Moving onto the new LP – firstly, how do you pronounce the title?

GA: 'Voir de-air'.

And what does that mean? What does it refer to?

GA: Literally it means 'speak the truth'. I came up with that, first off because no one can ever pronounce it – so we thought it would be kind of fucked up to throw a kind of funky title in there – and then, if you take the literal meaning, to me, writing lyrics, it's about getting stuff off my chest, honestly. Over in the States it's also commonly used as a term for jury selection in trials, so there's a bit of subtext there too.

It's a pretty incredible album, but despite the deluge of typically Will Haven riffs, there's a much darker tone, especially with all of the ambient electronic parts lurking behind the tracks. What was the thinking behind this evolution? Is there a conceptual element to it?

GA: Well, we never sit down and say 'Right, this is what we're going to do' and come up with an outline for the album. I think it's down to our experience over the years, what we're listening to now, or have been listening to recently. And then having time to record it. We took almost a year off and on to record it, so we had the time to really sit down and listen to it and say 'Hey, it'd be neat to have [this]' or 'It'd be cool to do this kind of electronic stuff over this part to make it more moody'. So, yeah, the changing influences, having time to record it, listen to it and add stuff to it; that played a big part in the way it sounds. Having Adrian [Contreras] come in and start playing keyboards too had an effect as he's obviously got stuff that he wanted to add to it as well.

In a certain sense, with the electronic passages that link a lot of the songs, the album reminds me a little bit of WHVN – which had the continual radio static – in the sense that there's a recurring theme. Or am I reading too much into it?

GA: I know what you mean, but there's no specific concept – really we just wanted to build on top of what we've done already, with a little added influence from our past records. I mean, we've still got to be Will Haven, but more than ever we're wanting to evolve and move forward.

There's an interesting sample at the end of 'Lives Left To Wither' of an English gentleman talking about self-definition. Where did that come from?

GA: Unfortunately I have no idea! That was Jeff. After we finished the recording he gave me a finished CD and that was on there. I mean, I remember thinking 'Oh yeah, that really works, it sounds really good and kind of adds to the mood of the record', so it worked out well. But I had nothing to do with it.

In the run up to the release of the record you made a video for the opening track, 'Held To Answer', which again had a very creepy feel to it, with someone dragging a corpse to a cliff. How much input did the band have with that?

GA: Brad Oates shot the video and he came up with the treatment after hearing the song; he shot the idea around and we decided to go forward with it. And it's worked out well, it's almost like a little trailer of what to expect from this album. I know that some people were upset that it wasn't a full on 'normal' song.

I find that quite surprising to be honest.

GA: Yeah, it was mostly fans from the Facebook page and the Will Haven site. People we just like, 'Hey, you've kind of kept us hanging', but that was the whole point!

I guess everyone wants Carpe Diem Part II or something.

GA: [laughs] Yeah, exactly!

You've got this show coming up in London later this month – how are you feeling about getting back on the road with Will Haven again? Is there a certain sense of trepidation?

GA: Definitely. It's been a while since we've toured, and this show is really going to knock off some of the cobwebs, so, hopefully it'll get the ball rolling for some more shows and a proper tour. I'm especially looking forward to this London show, I haven't been to England in like six years, so it'll be great to get back there and see the people. The UK's always been good to Will Haven.

I hear that you've got a pretty epic performance planned for the London show?

GA: Yeah, I guess – I don't know about epic, but we'll be playing a lot more songs than we usually play, so it'll be a longer set. Whatever we do I can guarantee that it'll be classic Will Haven!

So you'll be dipping into the entire Will Haven catalogue? Or perhaps Voir Dire start to finish?

GA: We'll definitely be playing a lot of new stuff and, y'know, taking bits and pieces from the previous albums – I mean, we've got five of them now, so it'll be a big range. I know Jeff put out on the Will Haven Facebook page that he was asking for suggestions from fans, and he got a lot of good suggestions for some really old stuff.

Opening with 'Choke' then, yeah?

GA: [Laughs] Yeah! People would be pleased with that.

It must feel like a lifetime ago that you released that first EP.

GA: Yeah, it does! When he [Jeff Irwin] showed me the set list I was like 'Whoa, I don't even remember that song!'. So it's been nice to pull them out and practice them again, it kind of brings you back to different periods, and emotions in your life. It's going to be fun.

Although I doubt that it's meant as a criticism of Jeff Jaworski, there is this sense with many fans that Will Haven aren't Will Haven without Grady Avenell. How does that reverence sit with you.

GA: I honestly don't really think about it. Of course it makes me happy that people think that, because it's nice to know that in some way you've had an influence on someone. It makes me feel good. But I think Jeff Jaworski did a great job with what he did for Will Haven, and although I'm really happy to have stepped back in and picked up where we left off I'm grateful to have had the opportunity too.

The album's out now, the London show is imminent, what's next?

GA: Well hopefully the plan is to book some tours, but, y'know, we all work at home and it's getting tougher to get the time off to go on tour. But we're thinking about how we're best going to be able do it; we're thinking about touring, but at the same time we're thinking about making time to start writing for the next album too. I think Jeff has at least two new songs that he's been working on.

Ah, yes, I'd heard that there are already plans underway for album number six.

GA: Yeah, Jeff's literally always playing so you never know. It might be sooner than we think!

Will Haven's sixth album Voir Dire is out now via Bieler Bros, and they play a one-off UK show at the Islington Academy, London, this Friday November 11th