Charlie Griffiths (Haken) Teaches Us How To Say “Tiktaalika” (Interview)
Tiktaalika is the nascent solo album of Haken guitarist Charlie Griffiths. It is a sensational prog metal romp through time inspired by prehistoric creatures, paleontology, and classic heavy metal. If you have any interest at all in things that are interesting then you will probably love this concept piece. The album is available on streaming services and also for purchase here. You should "Crawl, Walk, Run" to grab your copy ASAP!
We had the pleasure of speaking with Charlie Griffiths about the new album, musical influences, and other miscellany. Read a new interview with Griffiths below.
I've listened to the album several times, it's fantastic! Very clearly you’re a Metallica fan.
Can you tell me a little bit about what made you want to go this route?
I didn’t really think about it too much to be honest with you. I had a bunch of time over the last couple of years for some reason ;)
I just turned on my laptop, loaded up Logic and I got back into playing six string guitar rather than in Haken where I play mostly 8 string. That’s what I’ve been mostly focused on for the last ten years; creating music on an 8 string. Just for a change I thought I’ll just get the six string out. Get back to the roots, if you like. To see ‘can I still write riffs on a six string or am I relying on the eight string?’ So I had to kind of prove to myself that I could still come up with some stuff on a six string. You know, like the guys in the 80’s and 90’s did, all this amazing music. I just wanted to get back into that kind of headspace.
Every evening I had time to just jam into my computer. Programming drums, writing riffs. Over a couple of months all this stuff naturally fell out and I just had all this material. It was like a lucky streak. Every night I got something that was cool that I could then get my teeth into and use. It was a bit of fun.
.And then it became this wonderful record
Yeah It kind of grew and grew. It started off ‘You know maybe I should put an EP out. Like a 20 minute piece of music.’ I did that and I just wanted to work on it more because I was having so much fun. So that 20 minute original piece I broke it up into separate sections. Then each section grew into its own song. The idea developed over time, really.
I want to circle back. Let’s just assume that our readership and myself have a high level of technical proficiency in playing guitar and understand what you’re going to say.
Everybody does these days man!
So let’s assume that. I want to touch on the differences between relying on the eight string, which is an interesting phrase, and having to work harder on the six string. ‘Relying on the eight string’, what do you mean by that?
I guess what I meant by that is that is…I don’t know. I suppose I was questioning myself. Is it just that it sounds cool because it’s a low riff? Everything sounds cool low. You can play one note low over and over again and it sounds awesome. So is it that, am I relying on that too much, or could I do something with the tools that Dave Mustaine or James Hetfield, or Kerry King had? They wrote all this super heavy music with what we think of as an old school tuning.
Things just sound cool to me if it’s down tuned.
I agree, you have to work a little harder in standard to make things sound crushing.
Although, I did use Drop D on this. I like the standard tuning thing, but also one of my favorite bands in the '90s was Death. Something about the D tuning resonates really nicely as well. I kind of bridged the two.
Remember in the 90’s when everybody thought Drop D was cheating?
Yeah yeah. *shrug*
What were you running for amps? Were you doing software, were you doing…
For the whole creation of it I was using the Neural DSP plugins. Then when it came to mixing, all the rhythm guitar tracks were reamped through an old Peavey 5150. Simple. A green pedal into the 5150.
What cab were you using?
The cabs were all IRs. At the time, Nolly Getgood and I mixed it together. I would go to his place up in the west country as we call it in England. He was working on this, they’ve now released it on GGD (Get Good Drums), this Cali plugin. Basically a bunch of Mesa Boogie 4x12s with Vintage 30’s in it. He’s really into different time periods of Vintage 30’s. So that software is like 10 different speakers. All the same make, but every one sounds different. During the mixing he had these IRs and I don’t even know which one it was. But you can get them on that Cali plugin.
Can you please, just for the world at large, pronounce the name of this record?
Okay good, I’m just going to type it out because this interview will be in text. It’ll be a tomato tomato situation and no one will be the wiser!
Like they do in museums where they spell it out phonetically!
Excellent segue, because Paleontology… wha…so… yeah I mean obviously that tickles my fancy. As soon as I heard that I was like ‘this is my kinda guy.’ I see tracks with titles like ‘In Alluvium’. So I’m thinking when I fly over the Nevada desert I’m always observing alluvial sediments and always wondering and observing. Really big into hard rock mining and stuff, all kinds of geology…
Yeah, wondering what’s in there
Yeah, who’s down there? You can see that throughout the album ‘Arctic Cemetery’ I’m assuming we are talking about things frozen in permafrost…
The whole thing is about one particular creature. It’s about a lot of things that branch off from it. There was a fossil discovered in the 2000s called a Tiktaalik. It was discovered in arctic Canada. Found in these 375 million year old rocks. There’s only three places on earth where there are rocks of that age at the surface. This guy from the University of Chicago, Neil Shubin, he thought ‘well, if I go to this place, that time period was when fish grew fins that enabled them to push themselves off of the ground. There should be something there that’s half fish half tetrapod.’ After a few years of going there and searching, they actually found it. That whole story blew my mind. This guy figured out where this thing should be based on the rest of the fossil record. You might have seen a show called Your Inner Fish, there was a book as well. I took a lot of inspiration from the book for the lyrics.
In the 90’s I studied Geology at college so I always had that interest and point of view. Once you’ve learned about the geological time scale it puts humanity into perspective. The idea of exploring and looking at ourselves with a different point of view. Having that longer historical viewpoint. It’s something that you can actually trace; the bone structure of the Tiktaalik’s fins is a direct lineage. One bone, two bones, and then lots of bones. Something that has been a lineage for 375 million years. It results in us being able to play riffs.
Yeah, and Tiktaalik scales.
[mutual groan from terrible dad joke]
So Tiktaalika would be like… as Metallica is to Metallic so Tiktaalika is to Tiktaalik? (Tik-tall-ick-uh)
Yes, I wanted to make it my own word. So it’s more metal if you put an A on the end of it.
My little gag is Metallica, Seupltura, Slayer. [Writer’s note, Charlie is from England, so Slayer sounds like Slayuhhhh. Thus it rhymes.]
The title track itself, man I felt like I was on an adventure through time and space on that one. I could sense volcanoes exploding, and chaos, and things re-coalescing, blue-green algae transforming. Can you tell me a bit about the plot of that tune?
I guess what I was trying to do was come up with something that wasn’t entertaining from a technical guitar playing perspective. Which so much of instrumental music is these days. You enjoy it because it’s technically impressive which is how they do it now. ‘What time signature is this?’ It’s crazy. Insane. I was trying to go back to the old Metallica instrumentals, like Orion and Call of Ktulu. They’re kind of simple to play but they sound cool and they tell a story. Melodies you can sing. That was the idea of it. Come up with something that was a piece of music that made you feel something. Not necessarily try to blow you away.
I don’t know, I was pretty blown away by exactly what you’re saying. So, target: destroyed!
Alright, I think it’s pretty excellent to hear, in paleontology terms, where this record and Haken share a common ancestor. Which is you. It’s fascinating to hear you on your own doing your thing. That helped me understand more about why the band sounds the way it sounds. I was wondering if you could speak a bit about what was in your mind about differentiating the two. How does the writing change?
Yeah I don’t know. I don’t really have a good answer for that. I was focused on doing this and knew in my mind it was going to be my own thing. There probably are some similarities. You could have used some of this in Haken and made it a Haken thing. I guess it was just the practicality of when it was done and how it was done.
But also, to throw a spanner in the works, people will have ideas of where things come from in Haken. ‘Charlie must be bringing the heavy riffs’ but that’s actually not true. Everything comes from everywhere. Everybody in the band writes. So a lot of the more insane heavy riffs, for example in Messiah Complex which is on Virus, a lot of that is the heaviest most insane riffing we have done. Most of that was written by the drummer, Ray, programming it. People would probably think that it’s Rich and Charlie came up with that because it’s heavy riffs. No, it was actually Ray. Then we had to figure out how to play this stuff that doesn’t fall on the fretboard very easily.
I was actually going to joke and say it was the drummer…but then… then it was… ha!
He’s also a tuba player. He plays in orchestras and this and that. So he’s a musical powerhouse.
Talking of musical powerhouses, it’s evident that your musical proficiency is not in question. I can tell that anywhere you want to go musically is within your bailiwick.
Now, guest artists. I’m curious. Was it just who was around that you liked to work with or did you have specific sounds in mind?
A bit of both really. People I’ve met along the way and become friends with. We did a couple of tours a few years back with Between the Buried and Me. Everyone got on with each other and we remained friends. We played some shows with Textures. Daniel used to be in that band, they’ve sadly disbanded. Same thing, Vladimir Lalić, I want to say opera singer. He’s a mixture of opera, Freddie Mercury, and Mike Patton to my ears. So we did some shows with people like that. We met them and became friends. A bit of "who do I know that I can ask," and also who is going to suit the song.
I had in mind, coming up with Arctic Cemetery, someone with a cool melodic voice but also could do the death metal stuff really well. So of course you’re going to ask Tommy Rogers right?! He just made everything sound so cool. For every song I would demo myself singing it so they would know where all the lyrics are supposed to be placed and the melody etc. When they sent back their takes and I dropped them in my project, I was like *mind blown gesture* how can you do that? I’m trying to sing this line and it’s just my voice right? It just sounds so much cooler when Tommy does it.
I don’t know about that, I mean this is your solo vocal debut too right? I think you sounded fantastic.
For that one song it was within my range and capability. That was a case of wanting to have one song with my own voice on it. It was multi-layered with rhythmic crossing over of voices in the style of Gentle Giant.
I was hoping you’d say that.
They’re my favorite prog rock band.
It was more about the layering of harmonies and voices crossing over. I could get away with my own voice on it rather than my voice being just a lead vocal.
Gentle Giant and the first wave of prog, is that a big thing you draw from a lot?
Definitely. For the track ‘Luminous Beings’ it was heavily Gentle Giant, King Crimson, and Cynic influenced. Actually, there’s that melody 'Can you hear the call? Climb from the river' I could just hear that being sung by Derek Shulman of Gentle Giant. I’m sure Daniel would understand. No disrespect to him, he did it amazingly! If I could hear that section sung by Derek Shulman that would be all my dreams come true.
Of that era, Gentle Giant had the balls, the feel, and the soul of prog.
I agree, they had the groove too.
Yeah man. John Weathers. He was famous for wearing the Oakland A’s baseball uniform onstage. So Ray actually sometimes wears the hat as a tribute.
I was surprised when you guys broke into Owner of a Lonely Heart mid song, or rather mid bar. I think everybody in the audience was incredibly pleased when you did that.
We didn’t know if it was going to work for this crowd. It seems to be going over well. That was something that, beginning this tour we were on Cruise to The Edge, which is Yes’ cruise. But this year, I guess due to Covid, Yes weren’t performing on the cruise. Sadly, Alan White also passed away a few weeks later.
Being that we are Yes fans playing on the Yes cruise to a bunch of Yes fans, we played some Yes covers. So everyone could hear at least some live Yes. We just kept that little section of Owner of a Lonely Heart. We did it for the cruise but we kept it in for the rest of the tour because it was too fun
It was inspiring, I’ll tell you that!
I want to open it up for you and see if there’s anything you want to communicate or express about the record that we haven’t already touched on?.
One aspect that really surpassed all my expectations is the artwork. That came as a complete lucky meeting between me and Dan Goldsworthy who was the artist who did it. Everything seems to go back to the 90’s with me. When I was at college studying geology and paleontology, all that music that was around like Dream Theater’s Images and Words, those Death albums, Megadeth stuff that was out at the time, all that music was what made me who I am as a musician.
I just happened to be looking around on Facebook and there was a post by Terry Butler (Bassist, Obituary), I know him from Death’s album Spiritual Healing. He was just on a podcast and I thought ‘You know what, it’s been 25 years since I’ve checked out Terry Butler’ So I listened to the interview. It was in that interview that he mentioned Dan Goldsworthy who had done artwork for one of his bands called Inhuman Condition. He mentioned on the podcast that Dan nailed the Ed Repka style. Ed had done Spiritual healing, Rust in Peace and all that. Since those album covers are legendary I decided I needed to check out the guy who can replicate his style!
I found him on Instagram, followed him thinking ‘yeah this is cool stuff’. After liking his page, he wrote back to me and said ‘Hey man I know you from Haken. I’m a fan’ and we got talking. He asked what I was up to and I told him about Tiktaalika. He just really got into the concept. I played him the demos and he was super stoked about it. We had a bunch of conversations back and forth. He had some cool ideas about it. In the end, I asked him if he’d like to draw some stuff for the artwork. Of course he absolutely did. So It’s as if Roger Dean did a metal album. I just thought it would look cool, but when he sent it to me I was blown away by how incredible it looked.
It really ties into the music. It was a cool random meeting that ended up enhancing the whole package as a piece of art. I was really into that. There’s a cool thing on the front cover with this mountain in the center. It’s an elongated skull. We basically stole that idea from a 16th century painting called The Ambassadors by a guy called Hans Holbein the Younger. It was something I saw at the National Gallery in London in the 90’s. It was quite a typical incredible Dutch style painting of these two well dressed guys with a globe and all the sort of things you see in that era. On the floor underneath their feet is a kind of blob of something. It only becomes apparent when you turn your head and view it from the side. Everything corrects and it looks like a skull. So, If you pick up the vinyl and turn it just so, you can actually see it as a perfectly shaped skull. That ties in with the idea of looking at ourselves from a different perspective.
I’m also seeing some kind of trilobite, and I don’t know if that is some kind of ammonite or something down there, little fossils.
There’s actually another hidden skull down there on the floor. You have to angle it to see that one too. I thought that was really cool, to have this interactive element to the vinyl.
That’s one aspect I am really proud of. So, thanks Dan!
He also did all the music video stuff we did. Three videos you can find on the InsideOut YouTube channel. We made a character called Timmy Taalik and just invented this idea for a Saturday morning TV show called ‘Timmy Taalik’s Time Time’. Just the idea that this little guy is going to teach these kids about time.
So both of us together animated these cartoon sections. For the entire Tiktaalika music video you can see Timmy Jamming along with me. He’s got a little explorer and he plays it note for note on all these riffs because Dan is a guitarist as well. I sent him the tabs and he made sure every finger placement was accurate! So we joined all the stuff together frame by frame and it all came to life incredibly.
Did you happen to play an Explorer on the record at all?
No, no. I wish! I wish I had one. I don’t have one but it’s on my list of things I must have one day.
Anything else you’d like to add?
I hope people check out the entire album as it’s written as a concept piece with recurring themes throughout. The opening melody you hear on guitar you’ll hear it again on “Digging Deeper’, and again on the closing song of the album. There’s recurring lyrical themes as well. It’s meant to be taken as a whole piece. If people have time for that, I would love that!
I want to mention that Richard Henshall and Ross Jennings (Haken) also have solo albums out that everyone should check out.
As soon as we get home, we are going to finish album 7. We released one song from it called ‘Nightingale’ which we’ve been playing on this tour. We’ve got a whole bunch of other songs we are still working on. We basically sit on the bus after our show and work on our laptops finishing the album. When we get back, we will spend a couple of months recording it and then it’ll be done!