Hello Mr. Laakso! Naturally we know you as composer for the amazing doom/death metal collective Kuolemanlaakso, so this solo effort comes as a real surprise to us. But a nice one, don’t worry. You made this album when vocalist Mikko was busy touring with Swallow The Sun. But you must have written these songs before, isn’t it? What can you tell about how these songs came into being?
We had some studio time booked from V. Santura’s Woodshed Studio for February 2016, but it came clear to us that it wouldn’t make sense for us to record the next “proper” Kuolemanlaakso album yet, because of the reason that you mentioned. So, I suggested to our label Svart Records that since the studio is already booked, I’d be interested in doing what KISS did with their solo albums in 1978: releasing it under Kuolemanlaakso’s moniker (the band originally started out as my solo project), naming it after my name and having a portrait of me on the cover. When Svart gave me the green light, it was already November 2015. So, I had three months to come up with an album’s worth of top-class material. I had some of the songs more or less written and demoed beforehand, minus the lyrics and vocals, but the other ones are brand new. I approached this project with a “worker’s attitude”: I dropped off my son to the kindergarten and my wife to work each weekday, drove to Kuolemanlaakso’s rehearsal room, grabbed my guitar, turned on my Mac Pro and started composing. It was tough, but the riffs, melodies and structures came together relatively easily. The arrangements were the hardest part, but I think the album turned out fine.
Finland has a fine reputation, also in gothic metal style. Think about bands like Sentenced and Amorphis who moved from death to smoother styles. Band like Charon, To/Die/For, etc. What are your roots and preferences in the gothic rock style?
I dig Sentenced, Amorphis and Charon a lot, but as for more gothic Finnish stuff, I’m particularly fond of For My Pain’s only album ‘Fallen’ (2003). Poisonblack’s debut Escapexstacy (2003) is killer too, although they quickly changed their style to more masculine guitar-oriented heavy rock. I definitely have a soft spot for HIM. I think their whole discography and concept is brilliant. It was an honor to be asked to open for them at one of their legendary New Year’s Eve shows at Tavastia, Helsinki. But as for the main goth rock influences with this album, I’d say Sisters of Mercy, Tiamat, Lucyfire and Paradise Lost are at the top of the list.
How did this solo project turn into a real band?
I wouldn’t categorize this album’s line-up as a real band, because we’ve got no plans for excessive touring or actually even making more records with the same bunch. Anyhow, it was obvious that Kuolemanlaakso’s drummer Tiera and bassist Usva would play on the album. We could also have flown in our other guitarist Kouta to Germany, but as the budget was tighter than what we are used to with Kuolemanlaakso, it wouldn’t have made sense financially. He was supposed to play a couple of parts later in Finland, but we ran into some scheduling conflicts, so I ended up playing the parts myself. When we were in the middle of the recording at Woodshed, I realized that Santura had played about half of the guitars, so I asked, if he’d like to be officially credited as the guitarist of this special line-up. He was aboard instantly, and now we’re playing at least one show with him in Finland on the album release day, August 26, 2016.
What struck me in a positive sense is that it is not only a bunch of catchy gothic songs, but there is quite some variation on the album. I think that was on purpose? What are your thoughts on that?
Thanks! Variation and experimentation are very important for me as a songwriter – and as album-oriented music listener. There are quite a few surprises on the record for sure. It wouldn’t have made sense to record a “B-class” basic Kuolemanlaakso death doom album with a different singer, and I wanted to showcase other styles of music that I’m personally into, as well as what sorts of other stuff I’m capable of writing. I hope that Kuolemanlaakso fans will listen to the album with an open mind, as it’s definitely not a death doom album – with the exception of the track ‘No Absolution’. This album isn’t targeted exclusively to Kuolemanlaakso fans anyhow, as it probably appeals to a wider and partly different audience. If I choose to make Vol. II and Vol. III someday, I’m sure that they’ll be something very different from Vol. I. However, I did enjoy making this gothic stuff a lot, so I’m definitely not saying that I won’t record more stuff like that in the future.
Mikko did some growls/screams on two songs I think and Helena can be heard in some of the songs as well. But when can we hear the contributions of other guests Jaani Peuhu and Tomi Henttunen?
Mikko provides backing vocals for ‘Roll The Dice With The Devil’ and ‘No Absolution’. Jaani did some backups on the chorus of ‘Roll The Dice’ and Tomi played some of the leads on ‘My Last Words’. I have a dream/nightmare pop project with him, and he actually worked as the graphic designer of this album. He’s a very talented guy; keep your eyes and ears open.
I guess it is your debut as lead vocalist. Well, you have a deep proper gothic voice! How do you feel as singer now? What about this new experience for you?
Yes, this is my lead vocalist debut, and thanks for the feedback. When I write lyrics, I instantly hear the melody and the vocal rhythms inside my head. So, it’s natural for me to record a demo of them as guide tracks to the vocalist. I’ve done so with all of my lyrics for Chaosweaver and Kuolemanlaakso. Only this time it was my voice that made the final product. I’ve sang on all the records that I’ve been a part of, but I haven’t been the lead vocalist before, so in that sense it was a weird experience and unpleasant for me, as I’m overly self-critical. We didn’t have that much time to record the vocals in the studio, but I knew what to sing and where. Santura was actually quite impressed with my performance, but to tell you the truth, I see myself as a songwriter-guitarist, not as a singer, hehe…
I can understand it fits better to write English lyrics within the more accessible gothic style. Was this a huge or difficult switch for you? Can you tell a bit more about the lyrics?
I’ve written a lot of lyrics in English in the past and it’s easier for me than doing it in Finnish. I first tried to write the lyrics of ‘Roll The Dice With The Devil’ in Finnish, but it didn’t work at all, so I quickly switched to English on all of the tracks. The lyrics are inspired by dreams, 1800s gothic poetry, decadence, my personal views and emotions, and true events. ‘Where The River Runs Red’ is as clichéd and text book goth rock as it gets, but most of the texts have a real substance to them and are actually very personal.
For the recordings (and even within the new outfit) V. Santura is very important. Can you tell a bit more about your connection with the Triptykon/Dark Fortress mastermind?
When I first met Santura back in 2011, we instantly clicked on a personal level. At the recording session of ‘Uljas Uusi Maailma’ it was apparent that our artistic views were greatly similar, too. We’ve never thought of using another producer/engineer than him, as we’ve seen no need or point of working with anyone else. I wanted to use his skills on the solo album as well. This time it was quite different than before as the band was used to playing very different music than what can be heard on the album and Santura is specialized in more extreme stuff. However I think it worked out very well again. As for actual playing, it’s always comforting to know that if I can’t get some guitar part on hard disc properly, I can always hand the instrument to Santura, and he’ll nail it in no time. That dude is awesome.
You can even present him in the live outfit on the release party. And that will be a special day, isn’t it? Birthday and so… Well, tell us about this happening!
Yes, it will definitely be something very special. I’ll turn forty on the album release day, so that alone is quite special. We’ll play a one-off show at Ottopoika in my hometown, Kuopio, on my birthday with a lineup consisting of Santura, Tiera, Usva and Toni Henttunen, and we’ll have a special guest singer on stage as well. I also managed to resurrect my absolute favorite demo band from the early 1990s, Messiah Paratroops. They’ll play as our openers, awesomeness of which is hard to describe with words. Tons of my childhood friends are coming to the event and some foreign fans have contacted me stating that they are flying in from abroad to see the show. So, it will be very special for me personally in numerous ways. Hopefully for the bands and audience, too.
By the way, Kuolemanlaakso did only play in Finland until now and not so often. Is there a chance that the band will come over to continent for some shows?
I’ve always wanted Kuolemanlaakso to tour abroad, but unfortunately we haven’t done so thus far. Perhaps we haven’t found the right partners for it yet. We’ve gotten a few interesting offers, but they haven’t worked out for one reason or another. I truly hope that we’ll make it to continental Europe when the next album comes out.
Are you working on a third full album of Kuolemanlaakso and can you tell us how far you are in the process? Any details you want to reveal at the moment?
I’ve got a couple of songs and tons of unfinished ideas, but Usva (bass) has been composing new material like a madman. I think we’ve got material for a double album right now, but I suppose at least a half of it will be scrapped, and we’ll compose some more. We’ve got only one plan: to make the ultimate death doom album from the very best of the best material that we are capable of writing. Our previous releases have been praised to high heaven, but the third one must take us on a new artistic level or there’s no point in recording it.
’No Absolution’ and the closing track ‘My Last Words’ have proper doom influences. Do you agree with that and tell a bit more about these particular songs?
Yeah, ‘No Absolution’ is a doom song for sure. It’s actually the very last track that I wrote before entering the studio. I wanted to feature different feelings and a wider palette of colors than just shades of grey on this album. ‘No Absolution’ represents anger, resentment and revenge. It was much softer at first, but it got darker and darker until it was pitch-black. I was dealing with fucked up issues in my life during the writing of it, and it all manifested on the track. ‘My Last Words’ is immensely personal. It represents mourning, hope and love. It is sort of a letter to my children. The thought of them grieving over my ultimate death is unbearable. I often dream of my lost loved ones. It gives me comfort. As long as there are dreams and memories, death is not the end. The working title for ‘My Last Words’ was ‘Anathema’, by the way.
Are there plans for a music video? And I think with some of the songs you would deserve huge radio airplay…
Well, I agree, hehe… There are plans for an actual music video as well as a lyric video. We have already shot some footage for the former, and I’ll have a meeting concerning the latter today. I hope that we’ll be able to do them both, as I believe that the visual expression would bring another level to the music.
What can you tell about the artwork?
The front cover is actually a self-portrait. I work part time as a freelance photographer, and I shot this highly symbolic photo last year just for fun. It turned out awesome, and it fit the album’s concept perfectly, so it was a no-brainer to use it. This is my solo album after all, so why not go all the way? There will be four different versions of the album: black vinyl, red vinyl, mini-gatefold CD and a limited CD art book. The DVD-sized art book is the ultimate version of it, as it features a bonus track and a 28-page booklet with handwritten lyrics, exclusive liner notes and custom-made photographic art for each song, all by yours truly. It’s very, very cool, something that I’m really proud of.
In the title one can find ‘Vol. 1’. So, that suggests a Vol.2 or not? Will volume two focus on once again another style? Are you a musical omnivore? Are there songs for a vol. 2 at the moment?
I haven’t been writing songs for Vol. II, and I honestly don’t know, if there will be one. Let’s see, how things go with Vol. I. If the label is happy and they want to finance another one/other ones, I’d be happy to make more. As I said before, Vol. II wouldn’t be ‘The Gothic Tapes part II’. I’ve been listening to Dire Straits, Rush and The Who a lot this summer, so perhaps it could be ‘The AOR Tapes’, ‘The Vintage Prog Tapes’ or something, hehe… Having said that, I have about four unreleased black metal songs demoed, so it could be that, too. Don’t know.
The first part of 2015 you finished writing a book: the biography of Amorphis. Please tell us anything about that investigation, huge work and realization? Will there be an English version some day?
It was an immensely time-consuming and laborious project, but also a very rewarding one. It took me three and a half years from conducting the first interview for it to have the actual book in my hands. I had huge piles of archive material, and I also borrowed a big “treasure box” from Tomi Koivusaari, the guitarist of Tomi Koivusaari, as I didn’t want to rely exclusively on new interviews. I interviewed the whole band as well as all the ex-members, producers, managers and so on. The book did quite well in Finland, and according to my publisher Like, it’s the first Finnish rock book to be translated into German. It was released in Germany, Austria and Switzerland in German early this year. As far as I know, there has been some interest from other companies to release the book in English, and a couple of other languages, too. No signed papers yet, though.
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Thank you very much for the interest and support, much appreciated!