The Sounds of Perseverance: An Interview with Taken’s Ray Harkins

Orange County’s Taken are purveyors of the sort of music that doesn’t usually get a lot of play around or go over very well around these parts. Originally existing in the late ‘90s and early ‘00s – the heyday of melodic and metallic hardcore/metalcore/noisecore, a time when breakdowns were novel and Hellfest and the New England Metal and Hardcore Fest were the talk of the town – Taken’s discography consisted of the And They Slept full-length, EP’s Finding Solace in Dissension and Between Two Unseens and the Here We Are 7” on which they seemingly toured non-stop  back in those days. Their road dogging was so much so that I would run into the band three or four times a year in various locales, seeing and hanging out with them often more than I would my so-called friends at home.

I’ve known vocalist (and Decibel #162 Reader of the Month) Ray Harkins for nigh on twenty years and it was a very pleasant surprise when his name recently appeared in my inbox with the announcement of a new Taken EP on the horizon. The mood took a slightly darker turn when it was revealed that With Regard To “is about my wife’s battle with cancer and how much that obviously impacted us as a family and me as an individual.” I figured now would be as good a time as any to catch up with an old friend and parlay parts of the conversation into some promotion for the forthcoming record and a positive and inspirational example how resilient human beings are.

I’ve been out of the loop. Did Taken reform in the last couple of years with the intent of doing this EP after your wife’s battle with cancer? What’s the time line and where does the story start?
The simple answer is no, it didn’t start in the past two or three years. It kind of started when [Ray’s previous band] Mikodo had the opportunity to go to Japan. When I went over there, people were like, ‘Yeah Mikodo is cool, but what about Taken?’ It was like, ‘Whoa. OK, that’s cool.’ Chris Logan from [Taken’s original label] Goodfellow Records always told me we sold some records in Japan, but I always thought he meant four or five records, not more than that. Taken went over there in 2008 and we did a fest over there in 2010.

Did you get back together to just play Japan, or had you reformed?
At that time, bands were existing in what I like to call ‘part time/full time’ where you don’t have to tour 250 days a year; you just play shows whenever it makes sense and once we started to play again, that idea started to percolate. But, I didn’t want to be a band that existed to just play shows here and there; I actually wanted to record new material. So, we had a song floating around in 2010 and we tried to do the whole ‘write over the internet’ thing and that didn’t work. Finally, in 2016, I said, “Guys, everyone needs to come back to Southern California” – because not everyone lives here anymore – “and we need to lock ourselves in a rehearsal studio.” We had skeletons of three or four songs, but it wasn’t going to come together until we were all face-to-face. That’s when the idea came together and all the music was crafted for the five-song EP and that’s when we started to ramp up the idea of getting this out.

Where is everyone living these days?
[Bassist] Nick [Beard] plays in Circa Survive full time, so he lives in Philly and basically records and plays shows with us unless it conflicts with his schedule with them. He’s given us the blessing to use friends as fill ins or whatever when he can’t make it. [Guitarist] Chad [Taffola] lives up in San Francisco and works for Facebook, more specifically on Oculus Rift doing the whole VR thing, our other guitarist [Erik Bensberg] lives in southern California and [drummer] Troy [Born] lives up in LA.

The way things were, circa 2000
The way things are (well, three years ago when this show originally happened. Do you know how hard it is to find a Taken photo that isn’t Ray holding the mic and screaming at a bunch of kids??)

So, you’d been back for a while. When the having the EP’s theme be about your wife’s battle start to take shape?
She was diagnosed in November of 2016. By that point, the songs were written and we had already started tracking guitars and drums and I had a whole other set of lyrics that were all dialed in for what was going to be the EP. As my wife was diagnosed and going through chemotherapy is when the music was still being recorded and, as you know on most recordings, the vocals are usually done last. So, as it started to come closer to time to record vocals, I looked at my old lyrics and thought “I can’t sing about this; this is meaningless to me now.” So, I changed everything and started to formulate the idea of making it a – and I hate this word – concept record. But I had to singularly write about this experience because there was no way I could focus on anything else at that point. And everybody in the band understood and was supportive of the idea.

I don’t know how much you want to get into the specifics of her cancer…
Oh, yeah. Totally. No problem [laughs]. She was diagnosed with this really rare cancer called Rhabdomyosarcoma which, in layman’s terms, is basically cancer of the muscle.

Is that a particular muscle, or muscles in general?
It’s muscles in general, but her specific cancer was in her uterus. For two months in row, she had really heavy menstruation cycles and stuff to the point where she shouldn’t have been living like that. So, she went into her doctor. There was a growth they had detected many years ago but it was so tiny that there was no concern about it. When she went into visit her OB/GYN, they said the growth was a little bit larger and big enough to consider taking it out and cleaning the pipes, so to speak. Of course, everything they remove from your body, they biopsy. The whole time her doctors were saying that even though the growth was larger, that for a person her age, the odds, statistically speaking, were against this being something to be concerned about for a person her age. On a side note, something that happened that I found to be the craziest thing and directly related to music: Rachel Rosen, who played guitar is Indecision and Most Precious Blood and a bunch of other hardcore bands, works in pathology. Shortly after my wife’s diagnosis, I spread the news on social media and stuff and Tom from Indecision hit me up saying he was sorry to hear about my wife and that Rachel lives in California and works at the hospital my wife’s biopsy was done at. So I got in touch with her and she writes back she was the one who did the biopsy on my wife’s tumour! She shared a bunch of information – nothing that the doctors didn’t share or anything in confidence – but she was basically saying, yes, there was cancer in the tumour, but a lot of healthy cells around it. She was basically giving me more contextual information and after I hung up the phone I was thinking about the connection between playing in a dumb hardcore band and information relating to my wife’s health. It blew my mind and that sort of stuff gives me chills about how our involvement in this subculture and all the people doing these wide varieties of things circle back. It’s like, “Oh yeah, this whole weird thing is a community.” So, that all happened and my wife went through chemotherapy for three or so months which brought us to February 2017. She finished her round of chemo, took a couple months off work and, as of now, she’s been clear for a year or so and goes in for tests and monitoring every three months. She’s been doing spectacularly well.

How long did it take to write second set of lyrics and finish the EP?
That came in relative quick succession. Once I had the idea that I want to do something that was directly related to this experience, I worked with the guy who produced it to match up the new lyrics to the songs. It took about a month to hammer things out and feel confident to go in and record.

And it’s coming out on a label called Other People Records. Never heard of it.
It’s the vocalist from that hardcore band Stick to Your Guns and the guitarist from Stray from the Path. We’ve been friends forever and it’s cool because they’re a couple years younger than me, Taken was an influence for both of them and we wanted to work with them and vice versa. They don’t deal with a lot of heavy music; a lot of stuff they do is indie rock and emo, but they released our discography in 2014. Once Goodfellow went away, a lot of the pieces of our discography were spread all over the place so I took it upon myself to work with a label to release our discography and the plan was to follow it up with an EP a few months after that came out, but that didn’t happen [laughs].

Now that you’re playing out more and have new material, what has the response been like?
It’s weird because I never wanted to be a band that existed to play in front of the six people who and care and that’s it. But when we started to play locally 2012 and 2013 with bands that were our friends and in front of an audience that had no idea who were, to me that was a real telling tale of whether or not this was going to be fun and exciting or whether we’d just be going through the motions, which I wasn’t interested in doing. But we’d play in front of kids who would be like, “This is my first time seeing you, I’ve never heard of you, do you have a CD out?” and I don’t even know where to begin with that [laughs]. But, if a kid is 17, of course they weren’t alive or aware of music when we were originally playing shows and stuff. Because we got that sort of reaction, it spawned the idea in my head that we could be relevant. Not in the sense of trying to play the music industry game, but be relevant for people who like bands with sonic similarities to us like Touché Amore and Counterparts and find some value in what we’re doing.


What does the future hold?
The whole premise now is to basically play in front of people who care, get to new places and break even. We’re not looking to be like, “Pay us $7000 to fly somewhere and an additional $10,000.” All the promoters we’re worked with we’ve just asked for help with our expenses. We want to play places where people care about us, relatively, and definitely want to go back to Japan. We’re open to any ideas that come our way. We have friends helping us out booking shows and festivals and as long as the idea is cool and we can execute it, then we’ll do it. We’re trying to do some stuff in the Midwest in the summer and in the early fall we’re going to try for Japan, some east coast stuff and maybe some more Canadian dates. We’re open if people want to ask us to play and if friends’ bands want us to play with them, then that’s cool.