Apocalyptica (part 2) : „We have to do the things that feel right“

After our first talk in Philadelphia (see part 1), Apocalyptica´s Perttu Kivilaakso and I managed to squeeze in a second “session” shortly before Perttu had to rush off to prepare for the last show of the tour with Sixx.A.M. in Silver Spring, as we had forgotten to keep an eye on the clock.

You mentioned yesterday that you knew you were going to have this amazing American sound… why is that kind of a sound so positive? Before you had this “Finnish” sound with that maybe darker touch…
Oh yeah, I understand… I, or we, I feel we don´t think so much about Finnish sound or Swedish or whatsoever. For us – like I told you yesterday – it´s about the feeling of making music, then when we have the songs ready, then we make them again, like in the way how it sounds. And for us, I don´t think we really think or consider these things like “is this sounding somehow Finnish” or anything, it is rather that we try to do as good sounding music as ever possible. And I´m very very sensitive for example for my acoustic pure sound, because it has to be the world´s best of course. (grins) So, in that sense, yeah, it is a very delicate thing, but also for the distortions – at many times, this comes with the producer you work, because their vision and how they approach the music, how they suggest what kind of amps to use – of course it goes like that. And it is a common fact that in the US there probably is a certain kind of aesthetics for all the distortion and stuff like this, but we didn´t really think “let´s make an album in America to sound American” – that was not the purpose. The purpose was to go and work with Nick Raskulinecz, about who we knew that he had made like many of the best metal albums and amazing stuff during the past ten years. So I think that was rather the feeling – okay, let´s do this now in the States.

The Finnish sound…we are not actually very talented there, even like… I would say that it sounds like shit. In many ways. All the albums that we have done in Finland, those sound like crap and now that we put a little bigger money in it, and made a massive production with it, it sounds better. And my reaction – actually my second reaction, when I heard the final Greg Fidelman mixes at home… my first reaction was that I didn´t believe that it really was us – because it sounded so good. It was like fucking listening to Metallica. Like, I can´t believe that our group, we are small boys from far away, from a tiny little country, but no expectations. And one day we get such a product that feels like a Jerry Bruckheimer production in movies – like the biggest on earth. The quality, and I´m not only talking about the – whether you want to call it – bombastic sound, or distortion, American sound, that´s not the thing for us. The quality – the way how it is tracked and recorded and then mixed is unbelievable. And all the notes you can hear perfectly, for which actually unfortunately never had the chance earlier. In our records – if we are self-critics, they are quite muddy even sometimes, and especially when recording cello and putting distortion in it, we´ve always had the trouble to get all the parts to be heard.

So in that sense, this album is by far the most top quality record, because you hear everyone: you hear bass, you hear the riffs, you hear the lead all the time, with then the vocals and drum mayhem going on. That´s something that, for example, we don´t have in Finland. And that was the first reaction: I cannot believe that this is our band and then I started to think that it is kind of a familiar song, that actually…wow. That sounds like my playing and I started to cry because it felt like…I´m all the time crying…(laughs) But yeah, it feels amazing, that the first album sounds like that and nowadays we are like this and we´ve gone through all this and hard work, searching for the perfect sound, that was one of the mottos for our recordings. We were searching for the perfect sound. And we are not ourselves worrying about the matters that many times our listeners do – I know that they worry that cellos sound like guitars. But I cannot hear it. I think they sound pretty fucking far from guitars. It´s just a question of… they sound like extremely distorted cellos..

But maybe not everyone is aware of how a cello sounds with that much distortion…
Absolutely. (nods) But the only answer, the only relevant answer, is the same as when composing: when we produce, when we are in the studio, when we search and think of the sound, we cannot follow anything else than our own feel. We can´t really think of “how did we sound 20 years ago? Was there more crispy weird fucking horrible Finnish cello sound?” – that´s not the way to work, you know. It is exactly the same thing as with composing. We have to do what feels the best at the moment and the next step always brings it further. This time, we definitely had a very clear vision already before we even decided on the producers and mixers. We had the feeling of the energy level of the album, that it has to be dry, and very present and close to your face. Whenever you start listening to it, it has to be right there. So actually we were referring the music to System of a Down, or like Red Hot Chili Peppers, this kind of a very dry music, and we knew that this is the way how we want it. We didn´t want to go in that sense to this kind of typical American rock sound which would be this massive wall like everything is floating with millions of delays, you know. Actually we tried to avoid the typical American rock sound.

I think that, for example, the “Apocalyptica” album, our fifth album, has that pretty American rock sound in that sense, because we recorded all the riffs like 16 times, there was 16 Eiccas playing at the same time in the worst parts. So, sometimes we reached over a hundred cellos for a track. In “Farewell” I played maybe only 60 parts – maybe adding four bass lines and 8 to 16 riff lines. And when you start to look at it in the mix, it makes everything distant because there is so much happening – like with a symphony orchestra. It´s massive, but it´s not kicking into your face straight away. I rather actually think that this is kind of the American sound, so actually I started to point out to people that this now sounds much more Finnish to me than our previous albums, because we had a different approach. We had this approach at times that we didn´t want to do overdubs, we wanted to have a very dry and clear sound, and of course there were a couple of tracks where naturally they needed much more tracks and parts but we have never done an album with only three cellos, like three tracks.

So it was only three cellos for all of the new songs or were there exceptions?
Yeah… There are moments that are definitely more quiet, there are times when we wanted to give it a huge blast, but I´m even unfamiliar with the thought – I´ve never thought about “From which country is this sound coming”. It is rather that Apocalyptica is trying to find its inner own sound and of course it is natural that there aesthetics around the world might be different for all kind of entertainment and stuff like this, but I´m so amazed that we got to work with this high level of American quality people, and sometimes I think that it´s even the first album that I´m really satisfied with.

So… before you were not – or only when looking back?
When looking back, of course. We have to be always satisfied with the level that we aimed at, and of course all the albums feel like babies. Even with “Shadowmaker”, after a month or something we realized “oh okay, maybe we could have done this and this thing differently” but that´s how things go. You work for something, and then there is this moment where you have to capture it and then it stays like it. And therefore we are proud even about the first albums, which is funny because it is obvious that we´ve come so far from that crispy, pretty horrid… but there was that attitude, and that´s also an important thing in music. It´s not only a question about how it sounds, but yeah, the soul of the music is important – and that´s what we seek.

Having a clear vision of how the album should sound – is that something positive or can it make things much more difficult than necessary?
I think this time it helped us, we knew where to aim. When we started to compose those tracks, when we got the couple of first tracks, “Till Death Do Us Part” and “Shadowmaker” were the first, basically “Riot Lights” also came at a very early state already – so when we started to jump into those songs for the first time, we were discussing a lot about the identity of the following album. We always need to somehow find the personality of the album before we start to create it. And it was very clear what we wanted, and for example one of the main inspirations sound-wise was Metallica´s “Death Magnetic” – that was mixed by the same dude, Fidelman, and actually Greg Fidelman was our highest wish that we were wishing even without knowing – we just hoped that maybe someone, some guy who is equally good as Fidelman is, could do this album for us. And it´s crazy that actually in the end we even finally got him. But we knew that we wanted to aim at the same kind of energy, same kind of a feel of playing live, because we realized that Apocalyptica´s best value is this live performance. And we have searched for the same thing, this live energy, for all the albums that I just remember, we have always tried, and I have said the same thing with every album, that we tried to capture the live performance, but this time we really concentrated on that.

So for example I got just one shot for many many solos, I had to fucking know the tracks so well – of course I did it again if I totally failed at it – but basically the feeling was that you do your fast track in there and perform it to all those people, for millions of people, that´s it. And it´s all about it. I was nervous. I prepared for all those moments when I went into the studio just like I would do before a big concert and stuff. So I even put on my performance clothes on, just for the guys. I wanted to feel that I am there in the studio, performing to the microphones, performing to the guys behind the glass and kind of thinking “This is my most important performance ever”, because they kind of fucking track it and it ends on the album. I cannot undo it or I don´t have a second chance tomorrow evening in some other tone. So it was pretty exciting and in that sense I also feel that at least in my parts there is a lot of this kind of fragility that comes from this feeling that Nick, the producer, definitely wanted to encourage us to just perform to him. Same thing goes with Franky. It was an insane session for him, because Nick wanted him to perform him a full song, and then do again, and again, and again. So he really just needed to fucking sing his ass off and he didn´t want to go tweaking and tuning anything, so you had to capture that one perfect take because that´s the magic. And I hope that you can hear such elements in this album. So yeah, it´s an amazing American Finnish German combination, sound wise. (grins)

You stated that an album needs a personality – is that going into the direction of having a clear concept or having a concept album?
For us, this is a pretty clear concept album, because I think even probably for the first time in our career we started to think about the album artworks, cover pictures, titles, song names, already during the composing period. Like, already a year ago. We basically knew how the album should look and that´s because we wanted to flirt with this feeling..:”Shadowmaker”, when we had this track, we basically knew that this is the identity, this is the personality. We want to tell a story about those people behind us, or corporations, or big elements. Those kind of things that makes the life of an individual actually not individual. I think, that I rule my things and that I have a lovely job and I can decide what to do and when, but it´s an illusion. Everything is a fucking illusion and there is always some shadows somewhere and it goes into a very personal level, but into a global level as well. We wanted to strongly flirt with this idea – all about the artwork is about this: the dominating and fragile girl, struggling there and all those song titles and many of the lyrics, they flirt with this fact.

In the personality of an album, it very much came from the feeling we had about how it sounds, about the music what we started listening to in the rehearsal room. Many times you try to find this album´s identity and personality before you start to heavily aim there, because that helps in creating the rest of the material and for us, this was interesting. It was interesting because we had a story to tell, kind of, a musical story to tell, and I think it even more felt symphonic or at least it feels that it is very well binding together, the product. And like I told in the first part of the interview, we were able to rehearse with Franky, he was present there all the time, it was also easy to really balance those vocal tracks where vocals are in there but probably not even the most important part. And in some parts, some songs, we treated vocals as an instrumental track, you know, or as a part of the entire group. For example in “Shadowmaker”, of course the verse/chorus is very clearly vocal driven, but then all those middle sections with the shouting and System of a Down type of singing, it´s one instrument amongst us. That´s how it feels.

I often got to hear “oh, lyrics are limiting my own creativity” in regards or how to interpret a song…
Oh yeah. I understand. But I´ve been luckily dumb enough not to care about the lyrics. I don´t have a fucking idea what “Slow Burn” tells about. (laughs) For me, I actually never was into the lyrics so much. It´s funny but it´s just my personal taste, and that already divides us a lot inside the band, but I never listen to Slayer really like… lyrics wise and digging deep in there. I love Black Metal music, but sometimes the lyrics are such that I would never even read those things, but it´s easier when it is sung in Norwegian where you have no idea anyhow (laughs) without a translator. (laughs) But I understand it. The strength of instrumental music is the kind of unlimited capability of creating images in the listener´s head and I agree in many ways that I desire similar kind of things. And I would never give up making instrumental music, because of this fact but one of the cool examples is “Come back down”, I think it has fucking deep lyrics from Franky´s past. He is really deep in moods in this one, and that was for example a song that Franky made. We fooled around with the track, I didn´t find any real feeling or cello leads for it, so we decided “okay, we have now a guy that has fucking composed a song to the previous Avengers movie, or Sons of Anarchy, so composed cool music – let him try”. And he made the lyrics and the vocal lines for “Come back down” and the story was really capturing, I´m in love with the middle section when he´s speaking with a low voice. It is deep.

So yeah, it restricts, but still, should we skip doing vocal songs because of being scared of maybe restricting people´s minds. Maybe, no. Still I have to strongly believe that we cannot do anything else except stuff that we find exciting. But when recording this album, we realized many things, and those things were that we of course knew that we have more vocals than what we done earlier, instead of formerly 4, there is now 7 – I don´t know. That´s obvious, but we then wanted – in comparison – bring those instrumental moments to way more epic heights than they had been. And therefore, I feel that the instrumental part of the album is very meaningful and for ourselves, when we listen to the album now, we have heard it of course for a thousand times, when we listen to it still in its entity, I think it´s pretty brilliant in that sense that suddenly you realize that the vocals have been gone for an eternity and then they appear back, but you still feel a connection. In that sense I still feel that this is totally a cello driven album, totally…

So with this one – how did you determine the order of the tracks, how they appear on the album now?
The order is also once again just like making setlists. I love making setlists and I´m usually the one to suggest what do we play every evening, but it has to have a connection. It has to be that sometimes you get a couple of surprise elements – for example the start of “Reign of Fear”, such a brutal thing. It is just like in a riot place, after introducing Franky properly to the audience with “Cold Blood” and “Shadowmaker”, which is kind of one of the coolest tracks on the album. Then I think comes “Slow Burn”, which is also something very logical to continue with that world of “Not strong enough”, where we had been already from “Faraway Vol. 2” I think, “Bittersweet” is kind of the same, “SOS” is definitely one – a strong rock ballad with vocals. So “Slow Burn” is a take of that kind of a song and it just felt like we needed to have a big ballad there as third and then you fucking kill them all with “Reign of Fear”, you know. And then moving to “Hole in my Soul”, it´s beautiful, we will totally play it now that the album is released, we can start to play everything. But yeah, so deciding the track order is really just like trying to build up the most perfect journey from the elements you have, it´s a musical culinary feel. We give you some emotions for a certain time and then, time to time, try to surprise you somehow, but also not to jump too much. I´d say with the previous albums, there´ve been a couple of times this kind of trouble that actually the mood is even jumping too much sometimes. And in that sense it is now much easier to make the music with just one voice, you don´t need to feel like “let´s introduce new elements and someone totally new” all the time. That was very important to us, to make a solid and compact record with all the mentioned things that it captions.

It is one of the things that you guys must love of Apocalyptica – we´re on stage and you are a little bit scared of what´s gonna happen. I hope that for example I am… I´d like to imagine that my stage character is kind of an acrobat in that sense that you never know what happens next. We wish that we could create such elements also for this album, that there is little bit of a threat, but also mentally, we were pretty serious with it. We are worried of course about the state of the world and in that sense it also reflected to everything from titles to lyrics…We wanted to create and album that we hope – when you listen to it, you think of your own shadowmakers. Everybody must have them. Every fucking person, they have something behind lurking there, past or even in the future – but nobody can avoid it totally. And in that sense it´s not a philosophical record but kind of, you know.

And especially then when we go through all of the tracks, “Hole in my Soul” and what the hell is the next one? “Riot lights?” No? “House of chains” actually, yeah. “House of chains” comes there, and then there is “Riot lights”, “Come back down”, Sea song”…But “Sea song”, “Till death do us part” and “Dead Man´s Eyes” was my fixation actually, because basically with “Dead Man´s Eyes”, when I introduced the melody to the guys, we knew that it must be the ending – there is nothing you can put anymore after this. And that also came as a binding element for the album, “Seed of chaos” actually has the same lines, and in the outro of “Riot lights” it also reminds on it. We were adjusting this strong strong melody every now and then a little bit, and in a different way presented, but we felt that it´s important, it´s cool to flirt with that theme and when it finally comes, it is already familiar to you.

And once again, I can only do such music that I believe in and that I love, and then there must be other people who love it equally, because I cannot be the world´s only guy having this kind of a musical soul… so, this fixation that I felt that with “Till death do us part”, I all the time felt like they were a pair, mood wise. And then “Sea Song”, I think it was a very interesting track… if we would say that we had more like, not aggressive – the album is not aggressive – but it´s serious, and at some points it´s violent, we had more inferno going on… but “Sea Song” is one of the weirdest Apocalyptica tracks so far, because it is something totally different compared to what we have done, but in that sense it is a very good surprise and then there was even this dubstep kind of a beat… we were really thinking of those kinds of elements and it felt like a perfect go towards the ending. The only meaning of the entire ending, from when “Till death do us part” starts, I basically think the album then still continues for another 20 minutes or something like this. It is crazy. (laughs).

But anyhow, and then you have – and that comes only from my fucking fantasy love, I wanted to have this kind of the “Return of the Kings” endless ending for this – so I threatened the guys, I begged them, I cried, I was threatening them that it has to be “you guys, you need to understand my feeling that “Till death do us part” and “Dead Man´s Eyes”, they are such a perfect ending for this album…” (imitates crying) I love it… we have some fixations sometimes and then we need to struggle that we are being heard, you know. But it is exciting. “Dead Man´s Eyes”, it was definitely clear that it was the ending track, it is already clear that it is the ending track for our shows now when we get to play headliner shows, just like we did a couple of days ago (Clifton Park/Albany, USA). It is just perfect to end it with that song, and “Dead Man´s Eyes” is also a wonderful example of how working with Franky came out. “Let´s try to still add the vocals there” – and I had this feeling that I want to say I´m coming home, this kind of feel. So basically we were talking with Franky about the story and he was making lyrics out of that story and we were fine tuning them together and stuff like this, so it was very good having a native speaking person in there. When we compare instrumental or vocal tracks, I´m pretty sure there is no-one – I hope that there is no-one – who can really say that they fucking hate “Dead Man´s Eyes”, for example. I quite strongly believe that it is one of those tracks that everyone loves, so should we have done it as an instrumental? Why not. But Franky performance is insane. It´s sacred. We felt that with Franky, with all the vocal capabilities he is having, we have such a unique and amazing chance to create really cool music and “Dead Man´s Eyes” is cool music in that sense. Also, it simply felt just right that we had a lot of vocals and then we need to end it with this huge choral “I´m coming home” singing. It just felt right. We have to do things that feel right rather than the things that feel wrong.

I would personally want to give an immense “Thank you” out to Apocalyptica´s tour manager Erik, who did not only squeeze in and make this whole interview possible, but who was making every little thing possible for me during the shows in the US.
And of course a “thanks” also goes out to Perttu Kivilaakso, for wanting to do this interview.

(all photos: C. Ullmann)

Carina Ullmann - reports, reviews, photos - - - Favorite genres? - - - From classical music to metal - it all depends on the band and my mood ;) - - - Favorite bands? - - - would be a too long list to write them all down... - - - Other interests? - - - Photography, travelling, culture, reading, writing