APOCALYPTICA: Interview with Cellist Pettru Kivilaasko
For Finnish symphonic rockers, Apocalyptica, music is about feelings and the art of translating those feelings into an experience for the listener and band to share together. As one of the most unique metal bands in the world today, Apocalyptica is still producing their own brand of heavy metal music and breaking new ground and blurring the lines all along the way. I mean seriously, who would’ve suspected that a band made of 3 classically trained cellists and a drummer would be around creating some of the most intensely moving and expressive heavy metal music after 17 years and 6 albums? And who would’ve thought that not only would they come so far from their original form of playing only beloved Pantera and Metallica covers to becoming one of the most sought-after collaborative bands for many vocalists in the industry? Well, cellists Eicca Toppinen, Pettru Kivilaasko, Paavo Lötjönen, and drummer Mikko Sirén are all of these things and much, much more! With the success of their previous album, Worlds Collide, and the internationally commercial success of the single “I Don’t Care” (a collaborative effort with Three Days Grace’s Adam Gontier), Apocalyptica continues to carve out their own niche in a generally homogenous music genre! Now with the release of their 7th studio album, aptly titled 7th Symphony, Apocalyptica is back with their most daring record to date! As the U.S. release date approaches, Pettru Kivilaasko took time from his Thai holiday to chat about Apocalyptica’s new album, the band and the guest artists we have to look forward to on the new album!
Give us a little bit of background on how a group of guys who play cello became a heavy metal band.
The beginning of the group was really not too well organized or planned because it was just a bunch of guys…friends who shared the same passion for rock music and especially metal music at the time when we were teenagers. There came this idea to play these favorite songs of ours with the instruments we were able to play. So after that, we got a couple opportunities to perform for audiences. Then it turned out that there were people who shared the same enthusiasm for the music we were doing. Then step-by-step, everything was growing and the band got a name. It was so cool that we really weren’t like, “Let’s form a band…let’s make it proficient and see what it’s like after 14 years.” We have been able to establish our brand and all the time tried to develop and try to find the limits of cello and what all is possible to do with this instrument in rock music’s use. It has been a wonderful journey through all these years !
Your music is so amazing and so unique! There definitely isn’t anyone else doing this, that’s for sure! So could you introduce us to the other members of Apocalyptica and maybe tell us a little bit about each member?
We have had various lineups, actually. When the first combination of the group played…like ‘92 or ’93…I wasn’t in there, but I played in ‘95 the first time with the group. When the record deal was offered, I was still like 16 years old. We decided that I would stay and finish studies and stuff like this and then come back a little later. Then I joined in ‘99. Eicca has been in the group from the very beginning and through all the combos. In 2003, we added the drums in the group, Mikko Sirén. We were searching for a core drummer who would fit mentally as well in the group, and we were lucky to find that guy who turned out to be a wonderful friend and a great musician. We’ve gone through a couple lineup changes and I’m really happy that we still are here and doing this thing! The biggest wish would be to have the possibility to do this year after year.
You just finished recording your new album, 7th Symphony, that is due out here in the U.S. in August. Could you give us a sneak peek at the album?
Actually the mastering was done like 6 weeks ago, so it’s already complete! It was kind of like a difficult process because we found that Worlds Collide was a really strong one and had a lot of great elements, sound-wise. So we have been trying to over-do and kind of bring up our music every single record after each other. This was the biggest challenge…how to break the mold of Worlds Collide. When we began to write new material this for this 7th album last summer, we didn’t have a really clear vision of how we will manage to do even one better album that would be different from the previous one. But then, making a lot of songs, it began to turn out. Actually, I think we went a little into the wrong direction in the beginning…maybe doing like typical rock, but then we realized that the live show is basically what would be like the main thing in this group. That’s the thing that we have to capture! That idea actually led us in the right path. We had begun to think it’s really obvious whenever we are on stage and we are together sharing this moment with the audience, there is the magic and we kind of wanted to bring the magic from the live performance to the record. Therefore we played a lot of stuff on the record as a band…all together with just with one take…even maybe having some mistakes or not- so-perfect things. That’s one of the things that Joe Barresi was looking after…the performance and not a perfect way of playing. That’s how I think everything turned out great! We found somehow the way of bringing the atmosphere of a live show to a studio album with a studio sound. I think the songwriting was a big step forward again because we were probably more free to create music using all the capabilities of cello and not just trying to make rock music with cellos….or only aiming for memorable choruses or this type of thing. The kind of progress here was that this time, we didn’t think of traditional songs or how they should go, rather trusted in improvising in many parts…what was the feeling that day that we were recording? We went in the studio with quite rough ideas and that was also a difference from other years…we had really ready ones when we were going to the studio, but now with more jamming and arranging and writing music together. I think everything of these elements is possible to hear from the album. It has kind of an interesting, exciting and fresh touch!
So I hear there is an interesting story about recording the song, “Beautiful”. Can you tell me about that?
(laughs) “Beautiful” was…we felt that it was a necessary moment for the album. We have such a really brutal and aggressive sound in many songs already there…a lot of true metal elements, so we wanted to do a song that was just purely classical that had nothing to do with popular music at all. It was one of those moments we want to bring a little part to breathe and to make this kind of classical song to sound most fragile and to be captivating. It was obvious that we played together… just one take…no mercy…and, of course, we did it naked (laughs) because that’s a good way to get some extra good feeling between the group. Especially that track and in general on our album, you can also hear that we have been enjoying the time together! I’m really happy about the fact that after all these years, 14 yrs since the first album, that we feel like teenagers again! And really like the atmosphere and attitude-wise we went back to the roots where everything began… like friends going to the studio or rehearsal room and play the music that they love and share that feeling! Therefore, I’m really happy about the fact that after all the years, we have been able to maintain a good environment and that reflects also into the live shows! Thank God for passion and it’s so important to enjoy it and the company of the group! (laughs)
So you have 4 vocal tracks on this album…tell us who you collaborated with on this album and how you hooked up with them.
Yeah! We have done vocal collaborations already for a long time and we find that it’s really a good way to also offer the audience a different side of Apocalyptica. We have been extremely lucky to find always really exciting performers to those vocal tracks! Also, Apocalyptica music is really cool that we have a possibility to hear completely different performers in the record and it feels like they have a connection…that their voices are talking to each other. Basically the other singer is continuing the same story that the first character began…even when we have Lacey singing beautiful , fragile, female things, and the next step, we have one of the most brutal-sounding screamers on earth! And that contrast between every song, even if they’re completely far away from each other, they’re talking about the same emotion and that connects them. We met months ago with Gavin for the first single…we got in touch because we knew him from a long time…Apocalyptica made a remix of a Bush song already from ‘98 or something like this. So when we have ”End of Me” song and were thinking about which type of vocals would work for that song. It’s the most traditional rock song in the album…so we didn’t want the most traditional rock vocalist for that one. I think Gavin’s way of how he’s telling the story and how he’s using his voice is exciting in that it’s really well-connected to our story. I think it’s highly entertaining! Then “Not Strong Enough”…Brent (Smith) of Shinedown is delivering that song insanely well! I think it’s really magical how he sings “Not Strong Enough.” It’s a song that reminds me quite a lot of “I Don’t Care.” It’s pretty obvious that we have this kind of same continuing thing from the last album and that’s a good thing! And people really loved “I Don’t Care.” I’m really convinced “Not Strong Enough” will probably be a favorite track of many, many listeners…and the way Brent sings it is insane! It’s at the same time sexy and scary and beautiful and strong and harsh. It’s really, really cool! Actually, he was pretty clear option for that particular song…because he will deliver the song in such a perfect way. The same thing with Lacey (Sturm of Flyleaf) because “Broken Pieces” is for ourselves the weirdest song so far that we have recorded… it has elements from pop music as well as African percussion and a lot of really strange illusions in production . And over that, we have Lacey’s voice which is really pretty tempting and fragile…and really something you can easily go with and feel in common, I think. That song has a wonderful twist of surprising elements, and then we still keep that quite natural brood sound of the distorted cello…and it makes the sound Apocalyptica. Then, of course the track with Joe Duplantier (of Gojira)…we felt that we wanted to have something extreme in there also to let people who love the hardest stuff have something special in there. And Gojira is such a wonderful band and Joe is one of the absolute coolest -sounding guys on earth. I think we have a wonderful combo of 4 different voices…I think they are 4 different characters combined into the same bigger story.
So tell me, will you be touring in the US to support this album?
Yeah, absolutely! We’ll be touring quite intensively! We are coming already next week. We play a couple shows in Mexico and then shoot 2 other videos. We’re doing all the videos with the same director…the one who directed “I Don’t Care.” We wanted to keep the same group doing all of this album’s videos because we just loved the way she felt the picture…just like the right and correct way to approach our music. We build up a larger thing also with the videos. It’s a continuous story…all the album artwork is strongly influenced to the videos. Basically, this character we have in the artwork is one character of the videos. The videos are telling the story of this character…how its evolution and all these things…so the entire package was really important for us. We felt that the mood in the music is so strong that we need to support it with all the pictures. Then, in July, we have a couple more festival shows in the States. But the big one will be after that in August/September when we tour for 5 weeks in the States. And then there will be another month or so before Christmas and then, for sure, more dates in the spring. So, there will be a lot of U.S. shows!
Awesome! So, you guys started out, as you mentioned, just playing songs of bands that you like. Do you play any covers in your live shows?
Yeah, we do. We did find with the later albums, the feeling of making covers for the studio album has been changing because it’s so cool to create some music from scratch and fooling around with the instruments and we are more free when were doing something new. But in a live show, it’s a completely different situation. We still love to play everything…that Metallica track…the enthusiasm of playing those favorite songs…we still love to do it in a live show. We are playing material from all of our albums. And always, of course, it’s really exciting to tour with a new album because there, you’ll get the reaction of the audience to material and you can see how the people feel the new songs. Now, I’m particularly happy that we have such an album that all 10 of the songs that ended up in there are really worth playing live. I think the live versions will be really cool and actually, it would be even cool to play the entire album in row in a show!
Do you have a favorite song on the new album to play or in general?
My favorite song also varies. It’s a song called “Beautiful,” which is really a classical song. That is the moment in the show where we sit together in chairs close to each other at front of the stage and all that reminds me of my roots. I’m a classical performer, and the concentration for that kind of classical song is really high and I’m always so merciless…painstaking…like classical playing has to be 150% perfect, otherwise I’m not satisfied. I think “Beautiful” is a pretty special song. But my other favorite is definitely “Bring Up the Light” with Duplantier. That track has an insane groove…it’s really fast, wonderfully rich and has an extremely cool middle section…reminds me something of early Pantera or Sepultura. We were able to capture a wonderful feeling for that song, as well. And then the opening track, “At the Gates of Manala” is kind of progressive and it could also be named one of my favorites.
If you could tour with anyone who would you choose?
I would like my favorite bands and it’s so funny to see how different they are! For example, at the moment, Muse is one of my absolute favorites. I don’t know why, I didn’t listen to it earlier so much but now I’m absolutely in love with it! I think all Radiohead stuff…it’s really funny to see how different from when we are growing up musical taste can change. When I was a teenager, I only listened to Slayer, Metallica, Testament… when I was a youngster, I was a huge fan of Iron Maiden, Skid Row, so musical taste has been different over time. Actually we already made a 5 week tour with Rammstein a couple of years ago, which was absolutely one of the coolest things I was listening to 4 years ago. I would love to have a tour with Muse and Napalm Death…that would definitely be the weirdest combination!
(laughs) Yeah, cool! I like the way you think! So for people who are not familiar with your music, tell fans why they should check out your new album?
The new album is challenging and I’m sure it won’t open from the first listening. The music is quite complicated and there are a lot of different things happening at the same time. But there is also the possibility when the person listens to it once through, that he or she wants to go back immediately to the beginning to capture the little details that they missed the first time though. And that’s, I think, when music could be called interesting…if it leaves this kind of feeling that, “Hey! I need to check it once again and cannot get it to go away!” I think 7th Symphony is definitely a challenging album. For ourselves, we’ve probably listened to the songs hundreds of time already. They give every time something new…a new way to approach the song. That’s why I’m so confident and sure about the fact that we were able to make a good album because it has a long lifetime. If we are not already bored to it, it is very likely that the audience is not getting bored to it too.
7th Symphony is due out soon! The album is absolutely amazing, and has something for anyone who loves any type of music! An amazingly talented band with an incredible gift to share! Don’t let this album pass you by! Be sure to watch for Apocalyptica on tour!
Photos by Ville Juurikkala