Interview - Sven,
Photos Khyrian & Ralph Strathmann
English translation - Vordaï Mercier
It's been nearly 20 years now that the UFO Apocalyptica landed on Earth. At that time after the release of their second album, still made of covers, Inquisition Symphony, we were not giving them a snow flake chance in Hell, thinking that the concept of covering cult metal songs by four cellos would lead nowhere and would be quickly forgotten. But that wasn't paying attention to this ban. Able to renew itself and finding new ideas adding from release to release new elements that could prove that the band would just carry on doing Metallica standards, even if excellent ones. Starting by including their own compositions, then drums – Hiring an incredible war hammer, Mikko Siren – and finally more or less famous vocal guests on some tracks, the whole going with a true talent for composition and interpretation. Apocalyptica provides with each new LP something that makes us want to carry on listening to them. Main composer, Eicca Toppinen, talked to us about the concretization of this 7th opus.
Interviewer: By listening to your most recent albums, including Worlds Collide, some can feel like you had a little lost sight of the essence of Apocalyptica, which was a cello quartet playing instrumental music, whether it is on the titles with vocals or not. You must evolve and try new things of course, but I think that quite a lot of people could regret the ancient time when only cellos were highlighted. I have the feeling that with 7th Symphony you tried to return to the fundamental, the instrumental pieces are more complete, symphonic and don't call a vocal line. Therefore, the contrast between the tunes with singing and the others is neatly more marked.
Eicca Toppinen: Well actually, by listening again to Worlds Collide and Apocalyptica, we had the feeling that far too many instrumentals on these two records were calling for vocals and were thus too close musically to those with singing. The structures of all these songs were far too much similar, so we wanted to make real instrumental pieces from the beginning and not to compose anymore hybrid titles for which we wouldn't have known if in the end we were going to place a voice or not. This time we knew clearly which compositions should contain some singing and which wouldn't have. For these last ones, we had for objective to make sure that nobody tells us about a lack of singing. It already arrived that people listen to some of our titles and tells us, "I like this piece, but when does the singing start?" I am rather satisfied that we succeeded in working this way because as a result, 7th Symphony reminds me of the album Cult.
I: This problem may also come from a deformation due to your debuts... Knowing that you began by covers for which a cello had to interpret the singing lines, it might have had an impact on the way you were composing your own pieces by trying systematically to put something which looked like voices. Probably that now you acquired a certain experience in composition of "apocalyptic-ish" pieces you succeed in getting loose from it to turn to more instrumental things.
Eicca Toppinen: Yes, certainly, as far as on the previous albums, I really wished to learn to write good vocal lines, that's why I persisted in this direction. In a way, I directed all my compositions in the same way without knowing if there would be some singing or not. For me it's the reason why this new album is more exciting. The vocal parts are very good, but these are "simple" songs. You have a singer and even if the arrangements are very good, all the attention is on him. Naturally there will always be persons to criticize these pieces, saying that it's not real Apocalyptica; that we became just an average band, blablabla, but we don't really care. The real renewal comes from composition.
I: For the moment, the piece which gets to me the most is the last of the CD, "The Rage Of Poseidon". I think that it's one of the roughest and most epic titles you wrote to date. Even if on Apocalyptica we could find "Deathzone" who lasted a little more than 10 minutes, it's nothing compared to this new title which is more contrasted and varied throughout its 12 minutes. Would you like to turn to longer tracks or in the same spirit in the future?
Eicca Toppinen: To be honest, personally I wish I could actually send all the business packing and make an "anarchic" album. No several tracks, just a unique piece all along the record; the first tune, "At The Gates Of Manala" and "The Rage Of Poseidon" give a good idea of what it could sound in symphonic term. Because those are two tunes which could be played by an orchestra. I appreciate you like the last one because for me it's a title in which you feel a certain madness, a madness which I also felt while composing. It's the next to last song I wrote for the album, just after "At The Gates Of Manala" while Mikko was already in Los Angeles to record his drum parts. "Sacra" is the very last one to have been written and is a part of this trio which I composed during the third week and finalized in the last week of cellos recording. So these three songs are really important because they were less worked and thought, they are more spontaneous.
I: The name of the album is rather understandable because it's your seventh studio record - in addition it avoids you racking your brains to find a title, which you had told me that it was always a living hell for you - but can we see there also a hint about Beethoven's 7th Symphony and the classical world in which you had your initial training?
Eicca Toppinen: (Laughs) This time we didn't have too much of a hard time to find the titles of the songs. But it's true that there is this small reference to the classical music even if it's not too serious, it was more about fun for us to do that. But that also made sense, because for the majority of classical music composers, the 7th Symphony is an essential work in their career, it's a real change in their directory. The accent which we put on the instrumental parts highlight even more the "classic" flavors which we can have, even if it blasts and you feel the thrash side of our music all the same (Laughs). Anyway, 7th Symphony is really the most symphonic album that we have done, particularly because of all these contrasts between the very quiet passages and the more furious ones.
I: There is also a particular title in the sense that it is very quiet, but the way you recorded it is quite crazy. It's "Beautiful", which you recorded in studio being totally naked, according to the press kit. Can we expect that you play it on stage the same way?
Eicca Toppinen: (Laughs) Ah OK, they wrote it in the press kit. But as to whether to tell you if we are going to play this song naked on stage, I prefer you have the surprise (Laughs). But it's not necessarily something to make in public. We stripped naked in studio at this moment because of the atmosphere. Everything started by Mikko who was playing double bass for the first time, so he wanted to celebrate it by undressing and by being drunk. He putted his clothes off, opened a beer and a bit further that we began to play, he said, "Hey lads, I think that you should be naked too." So we are all stripped and we had fun a lot. But it must be typically Finnish, you know when Finns party there is always one of them who ends up naked (Laughs)!
I: Did this experience have given to Mikko the urge to learn to play cello to accompany you on stage when he doesn't play drums?
Eicca Toppinen: On some occasion during concerts it happens that he uses it, yes, but I don't believe that he really wants to do it because it's not easy. Nevertheless, he's doing very well when it's a about making pizzicato.
I: You and him have, beside Apocalyptica, a side-project under your own name which you used to record a BO for a Finnish thriller three years ago. Is this project, which directed to movie theme music still active?
Eicca Toppinen: In fact it's a project that I created alone, for which I asked Mikko to play on some tracks. I've always made things beside the band, but I worked so hard during the last 15 years that I decided to calm down a bit and to concentrate mainly on Apocalyptica. Or then it would mean that I'm being able to work in better conditions in Finland because I am used to make everything myself. I would have to build up a team which would work for me so I could just concentrate on composition. But as long as I can't make it, I prefer not to dash into another project, so small it might be, because it's a huge sum work when you want to make good as well. Apocalyptica already represents an enormous amount of work; there are many trips to be made, decisions to set, rehearsals, composition. When I wrote this BO I was really exhausted; we had worked on Worlds Collide's production during 4 months and the day after the mastering finalization, I had to start the movie. I had 7 weeks to write 60 minutes of music, so I composed 25 pieces which I all played myself because the budget was very tight, and then I moved on the album promo, then the tour during 14 months in a row. I would like to be able to do this kind of project again, but in the end, if it becomes a constraint it's useless.
I: Since several albums, the presence of invited singers is constant. When you began the writing of the album last autumn, did you know already how many singers you were going to contact and who would appear on the record?
Eicca Toppinen: Well, at first we had many more potential vocal tracks than what appears on the album because we wanted to have a rather big margin and to be able of contacting several persons. It's always quite complicated to set up these collaborations because you never know who is available, who will be able to give you a little time, nor which tunes they will appreciate. For example, Rob Halford (Judas Priest) wanted to participate, but we had no song fitting for him. Then we were supposed to have Maynard James Kean of Tool, the tune was ready but he cancelled at the last minute because of a timing problem. The song had been set for him and we didn't have time anymore to look for a fitting replacement. It's always a real mess. We generally try to approach persons whom we know or whose we appreciate the work, and if we have a track which corresponds, we propose it to them.
I: I have the feeling that you had an approach really more Pop/rock than Metal this time in your singers' choice. Was it led by compositions or did you wish to open your sound to something new?
Eicca Toppinen: It's both. It came from the way the track sounded, but there is also the huge success the songs "I Don't Care" (with Adam Gontier, Three days Grace) and "I'm Not Jesus" (with Corey Taylor, Slipknot, Stone Sour) on the previous album had. "I Don't Care" particularly scored in US Rock charts and we have to think about how to deal with that. So we have to consider this factor when we start the vocal tracks production, we have to have some songs which will have a good potential to be broadcast on American radios. In Europe it has no real importance because we haven't as important Rock radios music as over there. It's thanks to these broadcastings on radios that we managed to impose Apocalyptica in the United States. If at the moment we proposed an album in which no song that can be broadcast, all the work we achieved there would fall into pieces. When you arrive at a certain stage, you have to continue not to fall back; otherwise it would be really stupid. It's not about writing FOR radios, but if, at a moment during the composition process, you realize that there are one or several tunes with this kind of potential, you try to make it sound as original and unique as possible, but at the same time you try to make it stick with what these radios wait for. For us, these radios are not that important, but for our label, it is crucial.
I: About singer, I have never seen you on stage using vocal sample to play these tracks, sung on album, but I saw that recently you had a live singer. However until then, every time I saw you, you were playing the vocal lines with a cello.
Eicca Toppinen: Yes, we tour for one year with a Finn who sang previously with Leningrad Cowboys (comical rock band). We had the feeling that the tunes on which there was some singing didn't really work in instrumental version. We have never tried with "I Don’t Care" for example because it is impossible to reproduce this kind of singing with an instrument. We tried, but that doesn't really work. But we continue to play "Bittersweet" as an instrumental and of course for Metallica covers we won't have a singer as that would make no sense.
I: It would effectively be strange to hear a singer on these occasions because we are used to listen to them only with cellos. And then the public is there to sing in with you anyway.
Eicca Toppinen: Exactly, people wouldn't understand.
I: There is a recurring guest on every album since Reflections, Dave Lombardo (Slayer) playing drums. Is it now done? Did Dave officially join the studio line-up of Apocalyptica till kingdom come?
Eicca Toppinen: No, there are no rules. But we have already joked about that, saying that we might not be able to make an album any more without him on at least a track. For 2010, everything began with a crazy idea when Dave moved in Los Angeles. As Mikko records his drum parts there, he wanted to experiment the writing of a song from the drum. So we had two drummers in the same room, facing each other and who played rhythms together above some casual riffs without having a written song. Then we took these drums patterns to create a song base on which we composed cello parts.
I: Generally, how do you decide of songs on which Dave has to play instead of Mikko? When he doesn't like the song and when refuses to play it?
Eicca Toppinen: (Laughs). No, we always try to have a different approach. For "Bring Them To Light" for example at first we thought that it would be a totally adapted song for Dave's game, but finally we thought that if he played on this it, it would be too obvious regarded to his style. Mikko plays in no way double pedal, so he would be capable of creating something more innovative and unexpected. We do not want to confide to Dave the most evident tracks for his game because he is very good at playing unusual things.
I: Did you have the same kind of approach with Joe? Because in the end, he sings in a rather unusual way regarding to what we know of him in Gojira.
Eicca Toppinen: We composed this track two weeks before the recording of Worlds Collide, but I had the feeling that it didn't fit with the whole album. In the end, we have made this song together without particular context nor preconceived idea, we just wanted to try to work together and see where it would lead us. I completely like Gojira, but I really wanted to compose a tune different from their style. I had some rather fast riffs and when I came to Paris and made him listen to some samples, he was very enthusiastic because he told me he never sung on this kind of music and in this style before. And he did a very good job, whether it's about the rhythm or the energy, not every metal singer is fortunate enough to do so. I like the fact that the final result is not what people could expect in a collaboration between Gojira and Apocalyptica.
I: To end with the guests, the feeling about the more Pop/rock orientation of the singing, it came from listening to "Not Strong Enough" and "Broken Pieces". I thought that Brent Smith's vocal tone (Shinedown) was really similar to what Elton John would have made whereas Lacey Sturm (Flyleaf) and her particular voice reminded me of Alanis Morissette. It's with this kind of Pop/rock artists you should collaborate. I think that the result and the opening to Pop it would create could be interesting.
Eicca Toppinen: (Laughs) Really? It's cool. We would like that indeed. You know, we always wanted to ask Pink to sing, we would even agree for Christina Aguilera without any problem. Contrary to some, we actually are open-minded towards other musical styles. As long as they are good singers, it's the main point. We don't wish to take a pop direction, but for example I wrote "Broken Pieces" with Guy Sigsworth (who collaborated among others with Madonna, Seal, Bjork. Editor's note) who is completely in the Brit-pop and the electro. That's why this song, even if I partially composed it with him, is very different and brings something new. It's like Apocalyptica doing Brit-pop (Laughs).We all like this track in the band, we find it fresh and modern. We listen to some pop and a whole lot of other styles, we are not that metal guys. Mikko and I for example, who are the biggest composers within the group at the moment, we like a lot of things, I appreciate even hip-hop sometimes. I like all which sounds good. Naturally, when you make an album, it must be structured and you have to follow a steady line, that would have no sense to mix everything no matter how, but what makes things interesting is when you mix a few elements coming of almost everywhere. We would like to experiment a real pop mix of "Broken Pieces" to see what that can give by going in a different way from the one that Joe Barresi, who produced the album, knows how to make.
I: Joe Barresi, who worked a lot with Tool, is thus a usual sound experimenter, is this why you chose him this time? I know that in the group you like to test a lot about sound, effects, etc. You had to have a big time with him.
Eicca Toppinen: Yes, I believe that we made a big step forward in terms of sound and production working with him. It's true that we contacted him because we knew that he's always enthusiastic about working on new things, he's not only interested in the fee, and it's rare enough to mention it (Laughs). He's a music lover, same for equipment, all the effect pedals that can be found. He's a real geek. We didn't record a single part which wasn't treated at the moment. But all the effects were applied while we were playing. We had a lot of pedals in the room, and every time I was starting a new part, he was asking me to show him what I was going to record. Even on parts which were not extremely important, he wanted everything to be completed and set at the best. He was constantly testing various effects or pedals until being completely satisfied by the result. We didn't even record the direct signal; everything was caught on the moment with the effects which fitted best. As a result, the sound remains very natural and organic even if we used many more effects than on whatever of our previous albums; all the effects are analogical, nothing was redone in post production with whatever digital effect. The dynamics are more important, the whole breathes better, and it's more colorful.
I: Every time you occur to come in France, you succeed in filling bigger and bigger venues. During the last years, you have played in the Elysee Montmartre in 2006, in the Bataclan in 2007, then in the Olympia in 2008 and now you'll have Paris' Zenith this autumn. Do you see this increasing number of fans in France? Is it the same in the other countries? Is our next purpose to fill Bercy at the headline act after having played it at opening of Rammstein?
Eicca Toppinen: (Laughs). Not necessarily. It's true that when a tour is proposed, I always check the various locations where we have to play to make sure there are no bad venues. And when I saw that we had a gig in Paris' Zenith, I was impressed. I believe that we grow in several countries, actually particularly in France, I noticed every time we played that people really like what they hear. So I am surprised that it takes such an importance, but at the same time I noticed it during concerts. During a period we didn't succeed to develop in certain countries but apparently now that works almost everywhere in Europe, in the United States, so it's gratifying because we worked hard for it by touring a lot. We are now going to try to arrive at the same level in England because that would simpler for us. It's not easy in terms of production and logistics to go from 4000 person venues to 500 persons hall (Laughs). One day you have a big production and the next day all your money is gone because the venue is not able to take enough persons to make the gig profitable. So now when we tour, we avoid countries where we don't have a big enough audience, even if it means return later with a smaller production and tour. So we have to target first and the countries where the label sells best to play soon after the album release. Then there are countries where there is only bootlegs and pirates copies, so shall we play there or not, nothing will change, they will continue to sell only the new album bootlegs (Laughs).
I: I don't know if you are conscious that since Apocalyptica has success, many labels or bands try to profit from it by releasing metal covers played by cellos albums. Particularly there's an American label which released a whole series of albums like "The String quartet Tribute To System Of A Down", "The String quartet Tribute To Iron Maiden", "The String quartet Tribute To Korn", etc. (all in all, this label released more than one hundred albums of this kind in all the styles, from metal to jazz to Pop/rock, the editor's note). Is there enough room for two Apocalyptica?
Eicca Toppinen: Really? I never heard about it. That doesn't bother me, I find cool that people try new things. It doesn't frighten me because the level we are now is the fruit of 15 years of relentless work. I'm not afraid of the arrival of another band in the same register because you simply cannot imitate what another group creates. If it's only for money, it's quite stupid, but if people have fun by playing this kind of thing, I think it's good.
I: I know that it's too early to think of it, but when will come the moment to issue the next album, in approximately 3 years, you will celebrate 20 th birthday of Apocalyptica. Do you already think of what you could do for this occasion?
Eicca Toppinen: It's too soon indeed. I think I would like to have a small break when this album will be out and when we'll have ended the tours. Maybe we will celebrate our 20 years by a long break (Laughter). Or perhaps I would finally have the opportunity to compose a symphony, I really don't know.
© Apocello.ru, 2010