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Coming Back Down: An interview with Eicca Toppinen

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Cello/Songwriter


For quite some time, from the outside looking in, everything seemed very quiet in the world of Finnish "cello metal" pioneers Apolcayptica. And for a while it was. The band took a well-earned break after the touring cycle for 2010's 7th Symphony, only emerging briefly in 2013 to play a two-night stand in Leipzig, Germany celebrating the 200th birthday of the composer Richard Wagner (released later that year as the Wagner Reloaded live album).

Composing the Wagner pieces was the only thing Eicca Toppinen did during the band's time off, and he had in fact wanted to take a break earlier than they ended up doing, but it didn't make sense to do so because of what they had achieved with 2007's Worlds Collide. "The record company wanted new stuff. For me personally, I have kids, I've had kids the whole time this band has existed, and I was totally worn out after the Worlds Collide record. But because it was really our first big release in America, we had to have the second wave. It doesn't make sense that you have one record, and then you disappear. Nobody will get it. So we had to make the second record, which was more pressured. Of course if you ask the fans, they would love to have a new album every year. If you ask the record companies, they would be happy to push at least every second year a new album out – the machine would be rolling. So people tried to make us scared of having a break, and I said fucking hell, we are Apocalyptica. There's no other band coming to take our position, people won't forget us."

And so after that next album the band got their break and finally regrouped in 2014, announcing to fans that they would be recording a new album. Everyone therefore expected a year of updates as the new music progressed, as has become the trend in recent years with the social media boom, but again very little information was provided to the public about what they were up to. At no point were fans and media privy to the progress the band were making. "After the break when we came together, our record deal ended, so we wanted to get back to the basic core of the band after all those collaborations, and get a feel for what we want to do and work out the music we want to do together. We started that process of writing new music and getting a new label, and at some point we thought we need to sort out the vocalist issue, because we didn't want to make any more albums that depend on so many people. It was great making songs with great people, but making a whole album is a fucking mess, a logistical mess. There are so many things you need to take care of, and so many opinions you need to listen to, so we really wanted to make a band record, and we thought the only option for that is to get a singer in."

“ we just didn't want to have anybody around ”
- Eicca Toppinen

They did eventually tell people that the new album would feature just one singer, but again provided no access to the selection process. In fact, they didn't reveal that Franky Perez would be fronting the band until after they had completed the recording of the album. In reality, it wasn't any kind of calculated withholding of information, they had just wanted to be left alone. "We also wanted to better connect between the album and the touring, to have the same guy on the record that we'd have on the tour. So we did this quiet audition through the Summer and we found Franky through that, and he’s a fucking amazing singer, and fits to the group really well. But we didn't contact Nick Raskulinecz to be our producer for the record until August, so many things happened really late, and we wanted to keep everything between us, so that we were just five guys preparing the record, then when we were sure of the kind of record we wanted to do, then we went to Nick, then we were six of us, and we made the record we wanted to make. And nobody had a thing to say toward that, which was totally the opposite to our previous records, maybe that's why we forgot to call anyone, because we just didn't want to have anybody around. We were in the middle of woods close to Nashville, in the countryside in Franklin, we rented a house there, and all we did for six weeks was record the album, and make sure it was going to be exactly like we wanted it to be. Because we didn't have a record label at that time, taking care of flying in journalists from Europe to make a studio report, we didn't even think about it, we were just so focused on doing an album. It was a really nice change. And it's not against anybody, it was just really cool to make a band record, and it was also a massive change that we were able to practice and arrange the songs together with a singer."

"Cult album [2000] was the only previous record that we did like this, where we had a super-clear vision, and prepared for the recording, and we knew which kind of album we wanted to make. We kind of knew with Reflections [2003] and Apocalyptica [2005], but on Reflections we had Dave Lombardo playing drums, so he was recording his drums in his garage in L.A. and sending the files. He played his drums on the top of cellos, which is a fucking strange approach.

"Besides the mixing this was the easiest album production for me personally. It was a lot of work, long days, like 10-14 hours every day, six days a week for six weeks, but still it was moving, it didn't get stuck on any point. On the previous records there was such a fucking lot of stress. There was this and that and that and that, and trying to track your own stuff. So this was very relaxed, and also Nick as a producer was super-cool. Very creative, always in a good mood, always created a good vibe. He was all about getting performances right. Not too picky, but it was more about long takes to get the feel. We wanted to make sure we got as organic vibe to the record as possible, because we'd been tired for a long time of these full-blast productions because in the metal scene it seems to be a competition of who sounds the biggest. And the results is everything has really big drums that all sound the same, massive guitar walls, and no personality, it's like just a wall of sound and you can't hear the band anymore behind the sound. We played live and tried different tempos, then we recorded a live take of the song, then we adjusted the tempo map of that, then Mikko [Sirén] started to track his drums, but with tempo changes that are natural, going from one section to another section, all that kind of stuff, not to fix every hit. It's not surgery, fucking hell, it's making music. It should stay alive. But still you have the feeling of fun.

"He [Nick] really appreciated that we had a really clear vision of what we want, he understood it totally, and he encouraged us to get further. He pushed us even more. We had a kind of slogan, “be brave,” from the very start of the pre-production. So he would strive to find, all the time, the brave options. Let's not try to make lame because we think people would like to hear the lame version, let's make it more crazy. For an example of what he did for us, on Till Death Do Us Part, it was supposed to be like a three minutes, 15 seconds instrumental, just a little piece. And when we played it for him the first time, he was in the same room listening through headphones, and he could hear the cellos and everything, and he was like “no, no, this part, repeat it,” “now this time play it more powerful.” Then he said “I've got to go and pick up my kid from school, I'll be away for two hours, I want you to write something new from here on. I want to hear your aggression, and everybody plays a solo.” So while he was away we wrote another two minutes of music for the song, and we ended up with this almost seven minutes long epic fucking piece of shit, and it's a good example of what he encouraged us to do. It felt like we were kids in a sandbox, and nobody was creating the rules."

And when it was all done, that was when the band took a "big bang" approach to telling everyone. News about the new singer, the album, and a tour all came out in quick succession, but the band got themselves in hot water with their European fans at the end of that period when they postponed the headlining tour they had only just announced, citing recording delays, only to very shortly after confirm a support tour with Sixx:A.M. scheduled for the exact same period the original tour had been booked for. Soon after that they announced their new record deal with Nikki Sixx's Eleven Seven Music, and the timings left European fans feeling like the whole thing had been very cynical, not knowing whether to blame Sixx - thinking that maybe he had demanded they tour North America with him as part of the new deal - or the band for what they suspected had been a lie about a delay with the album. But the delay had not been on the band's part, they had actually finished recording Shadowmaker more or less on time.

"That tour was booked in the scheduling that the album would be out in January [2015], and you need time after a release to sell headlining tickets. But now it would have been in the middle of the European headlining tour, so there was just no way to make it work. A support tour is a different thing because you don't need to sell the tickets. Nikki Sixx is selling tickets and we're just being part of it; it's not our responsibility. I think it would not have served fans in Europe to play half halls just because we are rushing. And because we didn't want to compromise on anything on the album, we just needed that time. We postponed the studio with Nick because we were not ready to start. We needed to do pre-production and work on the songs more. And then we had to change two times the mixing guy because the sound wasn't right. The sound was not what we wanted, so the mixing took two months. We finally got Greg Fidelman, who wanted first, but he was not available. Then some project he was supposed to do cancelled, and we were struggling with the mix. It was alright, but it was not what we wanted exactly. Then we got him in and it took more time."

“ some of us were really super-nervous ”
- Eicca Toppinen

When it all comes down to it though, the most significant thing to happen in the world of Apocalyptica in the last 18 months, possibly ever, is the arrival of Franky Perez. After all, this is a band who for the first half of their career so far had no vocals on their albums at all. They didn't even have drums until their fourth album. And when they did start using drums and vocals, and made their name internationally, it was by inviting rosters of guests to sing some songs on each album while maintaining their roots as an instrumental band. For them, having a permanent singer is a huge change. "I was probably the least nervous, but some of us were really super-nervous, because there was also a fear that could we find a singer who's good enough to beat the old stars? Because we've been so lucky to be able to work with such great singers in the past, and of course as soon as you get a singer in the band, people compare to the old ones. And that kind of quality singers are usually reserved, they have their own bands, and they're successful, so we were so lucky. Magical things happened that we were able to find Franky, and Franky wanted to prioritise Apocalyptica over his own gigs. He was planning to do a record with Steve Stevens and stuff like that, he's collaborating all the time with crazy artists, like a big charity concert with Gibbons from ZZ Top and Richie Sambora, and all these people, but he didn't really have anything solid, like a band. It's such a strange fucking thing. And he is so experienced. He's our age, but he's been performing all this life. He's all the time doing gigs with top, top guys, so he's very highly appreciated, he belongs to the A-class. The odds to find such a guy were not really high. Then we thought maybe he's too busy. Because we couldn't buy anybody out. All we could offer was good tours and a fee, not like paying tons, no chance. I was really sceptical, because we're Finnish, with families and kids, getting somebody from Vegas – how would he fit? And usually singers are not the easiest guys, with their egos, but he fits into the group right from the start."

And the band are now anticipating that the addition of a singer to the group will actually solve some other problems for them as well. Conceptually they have always been a difficult band to position. They're not a popular choice for festival organisers, and it's very difficult to find a touring package they can fit with because no one else sounds like them. The idea of multiple singers on an album made getting a consistent sound much more challenging, and not having a more traditional band dynamic made them awkward for promoters to get a handle on. "The Apocalyptica style didn't necessarily get defined with guest vocalists. With most of those bands the uniqueness of their sound is dominated by the singer. Bands might have a really cool, original sound, like Chili Peppers or something, but still the most dominant thing is the vocalist. And that's what I'm most happy about with this record. There are more vocal songs than on previous albums, but it still kind of fits together. The whole album has a general sound, and the instrumental songs sound like they are the same family. What I was missing a little bit on the previous albums was that the instrumental and the vocal songs didn't connect well enough. That was my initial idea for Shadowmaker, the title song. It was the first song I brought for the album, and my idea was that I wanted to write a song that could be at the same time a great instrumental and a great vocal track. If you cut it off, you can make a single out of it, but the full thing is a big piece where the instrumental and vocal work connects."

“ Is it a bird or a fish? ”
- Eicca Toppinen

"It seems like not having a permanent singer has been the difficult point for people to get. Someone who maybe likes Corey Taylor and the I'm Not Jesus track doesn't necessarily dive into the other material. I've heard now that Franky's in the band, from a lot of people in the business, "now I know how to market this band." So it's been a business problem that people didn't know how we should be presented to people, or to the media. Is it just a real band? A metal band? A rock band? But it doesn't have a singer? Is it a bird or a fish?"

Maybe the best way to answer that question is to create t-shirts saying "Bird" and "Fish", and see which one sells the most. From a musical point of view it seems pithy to only be able to qualify and market bands based on commonly established criteria, but in the reality of trying to sell tickets, people need to understand what they're buying. Some might see conforming to such rules as a backwards step, but Apocalyptica don't, because they haven't abandoned anything in order to do it. It's just another string to their, well, cellos. The release of the Wagner Reloaded album demonstrates beyond question that they are still connected to their instrumental classical-meets-metal beginnings, and they want to add a consistent song-based side to that. It's an idea which has grown from having singers collaborate with them in the past, rather than a regression from it, and might actually mean they are able to produce stronger albums faster, and tour further afield where maybe promoters previously didn't feel they could market them appropriately. It might open doors for then, and no fan should be upset about that.

Written by Andy Lye
More: Interviews,

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