By The Dark Queen

Best known as the frontman of Northern Ireland power metallers Stormzone, John ‘Harv’ Harbinson later this month releases his debut solo album, under the moniker of Twisted Mind.

Following on from Monk’s incisive review, I took the opportunity to sit down with someone whom I regard as an old friend, to talk about the album… what I didn’t realize is how deeply honest, incisive and personal our chat would become as he talked with brutal frankness about the inspiration behind the songs, the turbulence and upheavals in his life during the time of its creation, the support of his fellow bandmates during his darkest days and his plans for the future.

Of course, every story begins at the beginning, so I started by asking why, after four decades of playing in various bands, he had decided to release his debut solo album now?

John 'Harv' Harbinson

‘Into The Asylum’ may actually appear to have been my first venture into the world of solo albums, but in truth I had already recorded a solo album in 2006 called ‘Caught In The Act’, which most people know more as the first Stormzone album!

In the years just prior to that release I had been singing in Snakebite, a Whitesnake tribute band, and local promoter Davy Warren asked me if we would support Danger Danger in the Belfast Empire. This was in 2005 and the show was to take place a few weeks after he had asked me about the support. I was obviously excited about sharing a stage with this legendary band, but I wasn’t happy about doing so as a tribute band, so I asked the guys in Snakebite if they would prefer to learn some original songs. They agreed that this was a better idea, and obviously we didn’t have time to write a set of the nine or ten songs necessary for a support slot, so I suggested that we choose a selection of the more melodic songs that I had written when singing with some of my previous bands, mainly Emerald and Ashanti. We concentrated on those and played them supporting Danger Danger; and we were immediately then asked to do the same again with Danny Vaughn some weeks later and it was easy to say yes to that because the Danger Danger show had been such a success. We had just performed under the name ‘Harv’.

Artwork for Caught In The Act by StormzoneGradually the tribute shows became less important to me, because I was having more fun playing what audiences deemed to be new original melodic rock songs. Unfortunately, most of the other guys (understandably) wanted to return to the tribute scene because, as cool as it was to have an original material band, there was no money in it other than expenses. I thought that it was a real shame that the work put into getting the original material knocked into shape looked like going to waste, so rather than shelving ‘Harv’ I decided to use what savings I had to record the songs professionally; seeing as the tribute guys were, by now, occupied with their own bands and day jobs, I decided to bring in some fantastic local musicians who I would give some money to for their services to record the album in one of the best studios around, Homestead Studios, with the late great Mudd Wallace behind the desk.

A couple of months later I had 12 songs brilliantly recorded and at that time I had no intention of releasing the collection, I was just happy that the work which had been done over the last year or so supporting Danger Danger and other great bands was now captured on a CD and could be accessed at any time. That was, to all intents and purposes, my first solo album! But the disc managed to find its way to Khalil Turk, the head of Escape Music (an excellent UK AOR/Rock label) and he rang me to say that he wanted to release the album! I was ecstatic, but also very surprised, but then Khalil asked me if I would be willing to release the album as a “new band” release rather than as a solo album. I didn’t really need much convincing… I said yes! But, of course there was no “band”… just me! But, Khalil had a window for a release date which didn’t allow me the luxury of putting something together in time before he unleashed the album, and he just basically said to me “listen, let’s just call the band Stormzone, name the album after the Rodney Matthews painting which adorned the cover (‘Caught In The Act), we’ll release it in Japan first and you can put a band together before it gets it’s European release”! So, I’m not sure, maybe Monk can confirm this, but this was probably the first release ever by a band which never existed, ha ha ha! (EDITORIAL NOTE: Check out half the releases from a certain Italian record company – Monk)

This was when Stormzone was born – and, yes, by the time the European release was secured, one month after the Japanese release, I had put the original Stormzone line up together. This was the Stormzone which was then asked to perform at the legendary Firefest festival in Nottingham in 2007. and went on to play as George Lynch’s backing band a few months later. The rest, as they say, is history, lol: but, that is the story of the solo album which wasn’t!

As a lifelong sufferer of depression and anxiety, I picked up that the album starts really despairing and lonely but gradually, as it progresses, the content becomes more hopeful. Do use your song writing as a form of therapy?

John 'Harv' HarbinsonWell, now we are into the real reason as to why I decided to record a solo album for real.

I’m not a lifelong sufferer of anxiety. I began to take small panic attacks during the last ten years, most often in the middle of the night. But I could normally deal with them by getting dressed (thankfully, lol) and going outside for long walks until I calmed myself down. I wasn’t sure exactly what was happening to me, but, because the attacks were fairly infrequent, I didn’t go to the doctor about them. But then, in December 2017, I woke up at 4am with a feeling that I can’t to this day describe: it was an inability to feel in control of myself, a desire to get out of my house but not knowing the real reason why I needed to do so. I just knew that I couldn’t lie down again and I had what I can only describe as butterflies in my tummy, like an adrenaline overdose, the kind of nervousness and panic that you would feel before doing something way out of your comfort zone. I had never felt anything like it before. The adrenaline in my stomach was then coupled with a real sense of despair – not depression: I had nothing to be depressed about; it was anxiousness and then the panic that I wasn’t going to be able to come out of this the same way as I had dealt with the previous minor attacks. I got dressed and left the house, and that was the beginning of almost four days of walking the streets of my neighbourhood! Every time I went to put my key into the front door I just had to turn around and start walking again. There was nothing inside the house to be afraid of: my wife and son were in there; she was worried sick about me and it was a desperate situation, her unable to help her husband and me unable to tell her, or anyone, what was wrong with me!

On Old Year’s Night I walked to the hospital, sat for six hours in A&E. where they eventually told me that yes, I was suffering from a huge anxiety attack and they told me the medication I needed to get me sorted out… but they couldn’t give it to me because they didn’t have it in stock. Next day was New Year’s Day, no doctor open, another 24 hours of this desperation made worse by knowing that any remedy was out of reach for a whole further day! That night was the worst I had felt and my wife suddenly remembered that she had been prescribed a certain tablet for sinus pain which the doctor had told her was also used for the relief of anxiety in some people. She gave me two of the tablets and within 30 minutes I began to feel a change coming over me. I was obviously exhausted after almost four days without sleep and I felt a calming feeling beginning to take effect, as well as a desire to eat something, which apparently is a sign that the medication was working. I ate something and an hour later I was sleeping, right through that night, awoke next morning and got a doctor’s appointment, was seen right away, explained the circumstances, described the medication and he told me that what I had taken was exactly what he would have described…. that’s when I felt better, and after a few days more like my old positive self again.

John 'Harv' HarbinsonIt was a frightening experience, especially the inability to comprehend what was actually happening to me, and at one point I did honestly visualize myself as having to be admitted into some sort of institution and scared as hell that I would be feeling that way for the rest of my life. Thankfully, I can look back on it now as being a massively bad experience which hasn’t been repeated to the same extent. I have had several much, much smaller episodes, but that frightful time has now been restricted to a heavily guarded place in my memory banks.

I had intended to keep them stored away there, but since the ‘incident’ I have been attending men’s meetings to discuss issues with mental health and, during the course of those discussions, someone told me that I should write everything down. I just felt that as a musician I could go one better than that and actually create something in which my emotions, memories and attitude since the attack could be captured and, if necessary, analyzed. That’s when, in January of 2019, I decided to record this album and for it to store the things which I had locked up in my head, releasing them from my mind and onto a CD where they are better served as assistance to other people who may have the same issues – and going one step further in allowing me to unlock the part of my head in which everything was being stored up and freeing me of a lot of pressure.

That is more of an introduction to your question, and fairly long and drawn out… So, to get to the point rather quickly… yes, very well done in picking up on that because recording the album helped me immensely. I was definitely in a dark place before beginning to record it and it’s more positive and, as you say, hopeful feel as the album progresses is representative of how therapeutic writing and recording it actually was!!

The album’s intro is quite tribal with a strong Celtic feel before blasting into the title track, which is quite dark and desperate. Was that a deliberate decision to lull the listener into a false sense of security?

Absolutely. The intro is an important passageway into the intensity which follows and reflects the album cover. There is an indesiciveness about the image of me walking up the steps towards the ‘Asylum’ on the cover artwork.

John 'Harv' Harbinson

There could be three scenarios: I may be walking up the steps realizing that my desperation can only be helped by whatever lies within the building; I could be leaving the institution cured; or I could be caught halfway, free to leave and rejoin the sane world again but wondering if I would be better off returning to my place within the asylum where things maybe seemed to make more sense. Once those things have been thrown into the mix you can imagine that the intro, with its pounding Celtic beat and swirling keyboards could represent the whirlwind going on in my head. As you’ve heard the album now, just before launching into the first song ‘Into The Asylum’ the intro briefly stops, just one second, and the BLAM!! straight into a double kicking maelstrom of powerful riffage courtesy of the excellent Shaun Nelson – and we’re then off on our journey!

The album is being released on 25 October, and that is the day that the first video from the album is also going to be officially unveiled as spearheading the record company promotional campaign. But, it’s no secret that the song featured on the video is the album’s title track, ‘Into The Asylum’. When people see it, they will hopefully agree with your assessment of the song being “dark and desperate”. The video is full of darkness and desperation: but, as with the overall theme of the album, still maintaining that feeling of hope during the latter half of it.

The album is described in the PR blurb as songs “which did not fit into the band context”, but I can hear old Den Of Thieves and Emerald riffs. How long have some of these songs been kicking about?

I’m not sure where that description originated. I certainly wouldn’t have used that as pertinent to the reasons for creating the album, or what is in actual fact on it.

There are 14 songs on the album and three of them are rightfully classed as originally Stormzone songs, but they suit this album much better than they would have if they’d been included on any Stormzone release. They are in context here with the 11 songs which were written specifically for this solo release; none were released on Stormzone albums except for the final track, ‘Beware In Time’, and it has been included as an ‘acoustic’ version, making it different from the ‘Three King’s release it was originally on.

‘Beating of a Heart’ is indeed a song which was originally written when I was in Emerald and its inclusion was important to me because the version on ‘Into The Asylum’ was remastered with additional vocals by producer Mudd Wallace shortly before he sadly passed away; it was one of the last things he did in Homestead Studios and there was no way I wasn’t going to have it on my solo album as a tribute to his greatness.

All the other songs were written by myself and Irontown Dieheards guitarist Andrew Baxter, except for the title track which was written with Shaun Nelson. I actually wrote around 16 songs with Andrew; they were very rough demos which I gave to Shaun in January to flesh out because Andrew was then busy recording a new Diehards album. Shaun had free reign to add his own majestic touch to them, and he then went on to produce those particular songs.

So no, the album is definitely not a series of Stormzone “left-overs”: there are plenty of tracks on there which are completely new and in keeping with the spirit of why the album came into being in the first place, and the Stormzone tracks which do feature are hopefully not out of context amongst the newer material.

‘Coming Home’ is one of those Stormzone songs, and was released as a standalone YouTube track: what made you decide to include it on your solo album?

‘Coming Home’ is an exceptionally important song to me in many ways and definitely deserves to have been released, and I’m grateful for having the opportunity to do so on my solo album.

First and foremost, it’s an amazing song – and although it never saw the light of day on a Stormzone album it is a constant feature of our live set! But it also sits very nicely within the arc of ‘Into The Asylum’s storyline.

I wrote the lyrics out of a desperation to return to Spain after I came home from having lived there in Madrid. They were wonderful years and my relationship with the Spanish way of life became huge. My wife was Spanish also. Returning to Belfast having spent some years there wasn’t an easy decision to make. The words in ‘Coming Home’ could lead you to believe that it’s about coming back to Northern Ireland, but in actual fact it’s about a desire to return to Spain – not that I hate it here in any way, just that I loved Spain and everything about it. So, returning to life here was desperate – and, although it didn’t lead to any anxiety attacks or anything similar to the episodes which prompted the writing of ‘Into The Asylum’, there is still a place for it within the theme because there is desperation within it’s lyrics. Poignant also because it was was one of the last songs which I sang with Stormzone in Spain last year on tour before the break-up of my marriage: my wife was in Madrid that night and I dedicated ‘Coming Home’ to her because we were there in the place which meant so much to us. It was only a month or so later when we parted ways and, of course, this was an additional incentive to record ‘Into The Asylum’, because those original early days of separation were exceptionally emotional and very dark.

People approach a situation like that in different ways, maybe drinking more or distracting their minds by other methods, and I couldn’t condemn them for doing so in any way, because such an emotional circumstance definitely prevents many people from thinking straight… but I had to because, due to the circumstances of my marriage break up, I had to take care of my young son 24/7 and there was no way that I could take my eye off the ball for a moment: life was difficult… but life goes on and his welfare was of paramount importance to me. So, this was another trauma during a fairly stormy 12 months and definitely combined with my experience earlier in 2018 to encourage me to seek something which I could use to pick up the pieces and begin to re-build what was, from then on for sure, a new life! ‘Coming Home’ encapsulates everything in its lyrics without, again, emphasizing the darkness which led to its creation: it’s a ray of light and as such sits well within the Asylum!

As we’ve mentioned, you close the album with an acoustic version of ‘Beware In Time’, a very personal song to yourself. Again, it’s another previously released track. Was that decision made because it is quite personal to yourself?

Yes absolutely. Much the same as ‘Coming Home’ made sense within the context of the ‘Into The Asylum’ storyline, ‘Beware In Time’ truly needed to be in there because of what the words mean to me personally – and, because this is a solo album, I was able to freely choose what to have on it song-wise. It could have been an 11 or 12 song album and still made sense without ‘Coming Home’ or ‘Beware In Time’ on there, but their inclusion, especially the variation of the playing on B.I.T. made it relevant and acceptable to include on what was fast becoming a very dear and important vehicle for my ability to exorcise many a demon!

All of the other songs on ‘Into The Asylum’ are about living breathing realities which can haunt the best of us, or those of us who think we’re healthy and strong in body and mind! With all those tracks I deal with the loss of sanity or the loss of a relationship, and both things can be re-gained with enough determination, help and, of course with regards to relationships, luck. But ‘Beware In Time’ deals with a loss which can never be regained.

John 'Harv' HarbinsonThere are things we can put aside for a while and maybe not think about for a day or two or longer if distracted in the right way, but losing someone, especially a family member, never affords you the chance to get them out of your mind. When you’re out enjoying yourself you think that they would have loved to have been there; when you’re going through a bad time you think that that time would be easier if he or she was there to support you; and even mid-way, when you’re just thinking of nothing, you realize that if you were in that position of indecisiveness at any time there was always a message or knock on the door at the right time jolting you into leaving your lethargy behind and spending time with someone who knows you inside and out, probably even sensing that you needed a lift. Yes ‘Beware In Time’ is definitely very personal to me and I hope that the words of it make it personal for others because they’re intended to allow you to use them if the song actually feels personal to you too.

I have known you personally for many years and I know that you do your solo performances here in Northern Ireland, but do you have any plans to put a band together to perform your album live, and if so when?

Well, as I alluded to in a previous answer, the first Stormzone album was recorded without there being an actual “band” involved, and although ‘Into The Asylum’ features musicians who I know exceptionally well and have played live with most of them in the past, it wasn’t originally intended to be imagined as something that would require me to do live shows. But, then again look what happened with the first Stormzone album – a band was formed right after its release in 2006 and here we are 13 years later still going strong and having released six albums! So, I honestly can’t say that the same thing won’t happen with the John Harv’s Twisted Mind… you just never know what the future holds!

What I can say is that I approached the melodies and lyrics in the songs to be very audience friendly, just in case! I know that the subject matter, now that I’ve given explanations above, is quite mad, but the madness running through the material is actually the underlying theme. I wanted people to enjoy listening to ‘Into The Asylum’ without being bogged down into trying to figure out what the message is, if there is any at all. On face value the songs should be seen as 14 individual opportunities to rock and relate to the songs in whatever way you choose. So, yes, absolutely, I see situations whereby arms and fists can be thrown into the air during a chorus and lyrics chanted at shows, and I wrote the melodies making sure that I could sing them live. I definitely didn’t want it to be a difficult listen or difficult then to perform. I guess it all depends on reaction to the songs and album as a whole, whether or not there is then demand out there to justify what would have to be done to get the show on the road.

It’s different with Stormzone: we just add new material to an already existing set. But with Twisted Mind everything has to be learned from scratch and as a new live band there would be a lot of work required to create a whole new set the correct length for even a support position.

You know me well… I’d love to get out there and blast these songs out live, I may well do it, we’ll see!!

As you mentioned, the first single from the album is the title track and there’s going to be an accompanying video (which I’ve already seen). Can you tell us a bit more about it to whet our appetites?

There is indeed Carolyn. [As you said] it’s already in the bag and ready to hit the screens on album release day, 25 October. I am exceptionally excited about it because we’re kind of into the realms of the unknown with this production.

Video still from Into The Asylum by John Harv's Twisted Mind

It has been recorded and directed once again by long-time Stormzone video producer Jim Crone, who we all know has been heavily associated with ‘Game Of Thrones’. With Jim you always get that ‘Game Of Thrones’ connection! Along with Jim this time we had the wonderful make up artistry of Katrina Doran who, apart from working on set with ‘Game Of Thrones’, has also been crowd supervisor and make-up artist for ‘The Frankenstein Chronicles’ and ‘Krypton’! It was a very interesting video to record because we returned to a superb location called The Old Mill in Ballyclare, Northern Ireland. It’s a massive series of buildings. Its function was to manufacture linen and clothing material from flax, but the emergence of modern materials, synthetics and lycra, etc., made it go out of business and it closed its doors as a working environment in the early 80’s. It remained untouched and basically allowed to deteriorate and at one point the owners were ready to sell the mill, demolish the buildings and have houses built on the land; but then the rise of the film industry here in Northern Ireland meant that various companies were seeking great locations for shooting movies and series, and the Old Mill had not only vast warehouses but also exceptionally interesting interiors because the factory part of the operation was basically stood still in time, all the massive machines could be utilised for a variety of filming purposes. It’s actually quite an eerie place – I wouldn’t like to spend the night there alone – and the caretaker revels in tales of people being hanged there through the years! I had recorded a few videos there already with Stormzone… you could record 20 videos in this place and each location would be completely different and unique.

It was strange approaching this new video for my solo album because I didn’t have the Stormzone guys or another band to act as distractions during the recording – no flashing from me to musicians to use up the time – so the storyboard had to be a unique one which would keep the viewer interested, because it was basically going to be mostly focused on the one person! But when you use Jim Crone you get a very clever head, so I was in no doubt that what he would create would be awesome… and it is. I’m really proud of the video, it’s very much in keeping with the theme of the solo album as a whole and I can’t wait for it to be seen by everyone on album release day!

One final question and I can’t avoid it as everyone knows you as the singer from Stormzone: what are Stormzone’s plans for 2020?

Well, even though it has been a very busy year for me personally it is also true that we actually had (and have) plans for Stormzone throughout 2019 leading into what will hopefully be a very exciting 2020 for the band.

John 'Harv' HarbinsonBecause of the things I was going through last year and at the beginning of this one, the guys in Stormzone gave me enough rope to deal with things, knowing that when the time was right they could sense it and reel me back into the group again to do everything as a band. Not only did they give me the space I required to get my head together and then to record the solo album, as you now know they actually contributed to several of the songs. So although [I was] alone, in some ways I was never really on my own: someone was always keeping a watchful eye over me… I think they did it in shifts, lol!

I was in full flow with the solo album when the first of the Stormzone commitments took place this year, so I was already in a much better place than I had been for a while. We went over to Switzerland and performed at the IceRock Festival there. That really maintained our camaraderie. A couple of months later, we ventured over to our second homeland Germany and headlined the FullMetal Festival there. By doing these two massive shows, we’ve been given offers of shows in 2020. By the time we had performed at FullMetal Festival, I had completed all the recording of my solo album then Stormzone was able to re-open our own song factory and to begin writing tracks for our seventh album.

This is why 2020 is going to be a massive year for us because not only are we playing some excellent festivals in the UK and mainland Europe, we are also going to release a new album with a brand new record company looking after us and promising tour support once the new album has been released early next year.

The main thing is that, with everything going on with their singer, the Stormzone guys have remained patient and, very importantly, productive, knowing that once everything surrounding my solo album release has died down then Stormzone will be the main focus once again.

Thank you Carolyn for allowing me to keep everyone at Über Rock informed of what’s been happening, what’s happening and what’s going to happen and hopefully everyone can get an idea of what lies behind John Harv’s Twisted Mind and either performing the solo album or doing shows with Stormzone… I hope to see you all very soon.

  • ‘Into The Asylum’ is released on 25 October. You can get your copy HERE.

  • PHOTO CREDIT: Live photos © The Dark Queen/Über Rock.
  • All content © Über Rock. Not to be reproduced in part or in whole without the express written permission of Über Rock.