BARREN EARTH CHECK IN FROM THE FINNISH METAL TOUR PART II
Veteran touring musicians are able to tune all sorts of things out, from tinnitus-inducing treble to terrible opening bands to snoring bandmates. Still, it must have been quite the endurance test for Barren Earth’s Oppu Laine and Mikko Kotomäki to talk to MetalSucks from the balcony of L.A.’s Key Club, right in the middle of sound check for their first ever tour. They were there as part of the Finnish Metal Tour Part II package, in support of last year’s excellent debut Curse of the Red River. As snare drums thwacked repeatedly and guitars sprayed ear-splitting distortion at regular intervals, the Finnish band’s bassist/founder and lead vocalist (respectively) opined about their musical pasts and presents, why Finland seems to produce folk and funeral doom bands almost exclusively, and what excites them about being on the road.
Mikko Kotomäki: Basically because we got such fucking shitty offers for Europe.
Oppu Laine: We were seeking a slot for a European tour for last fall, but there was only one offer, supporting Tarot.
MK: Yeah, we really shouldn’t tour with power metal bands. [laughs]
OL: Yeah, yeah, I know. We’d rather just work with our sound. It’s not good for the band to tour with that.
MK: Especially in Europe, people are a lot more strict: if there are power metal bands and death metal bands on the same bill.
OL: Yeah, that’s true.
MK: Like people who see headliners there are more strict about music so it doesn’t work out if you tour in Europe with other styled bands. I guess things are, in that sense, a lot better here.
OL: Yeah, yeah that’s right. We are still looking forward to arranging a European tour, but it’ll take another year or two. We must do it.
MK: Of course we were a little bit busy last year with other bands.
OL: Other bands. We had this one month that was free for all, but we blew it. [laughs] For some reason. I don’t know.
You were considering doing a tour for that one month?
OL: Yeah, yeah, yeah. It was free for basically everyone because we thought that we should tour with Barren Earth.
MK: I’m very glad we saved that money for this tour. [laughs]
OL: I’d rather be here.
MK: Of course because basically we’re all friends with everybody. Finland is a small country and we basically know each other well.
OL: Yeah, but music-wise we differ from the other bands of course.
MK: So that’s Rotten Sound, Ensiferum and Finntroll.
OL: There’s maybe a little more folk metal connection in Finntroll than Ensiferum. It is kind of strange, but whatever. It’s working, at least so far.
MK: Yeah, I guess people really respect Scandinavian metal music in this country.
OL: It only makes it more interesting when you see different bands doing their thing.
You mentioned that in Europe the fans seemed to be more sectioned off. You have your power metal fans, your death metal fans…For a bill like this, have you found that people react differently to more folk-oriented stuff vs. the grindcore?
MK: Absolutely, because I think that . . . well, we’re a totally new band anyways, but we’ve got to get a response – that’s the difference. When Rotten Sound is playing . . .
OL: People go nuts. And there’s more…
MK: Punk rockers. They come in…
OL: Yeah, when we come people concentrate more on the music more (I guess). And that’s a good thing.
MK: Hopefully we can turn some American Vikings to aggressive death metal fans, too. [laughs]
I saw some kids outside that had brambles painted onto their faces.
MK: That’s terrible.
OL: We are more old school stuff. Our roots are somewhere where they can’t even recall.
Do you mean like the projects that you’ve had before like Amorphis?
OL: That also and . . .
MK: Like 70s progressive rock music.
OL: And also 90s death metal.
MK: Yeah, we don’t really give a shit about nowadays death metal, which is just a fucking speed competition. [laughs]
MK: Fastest drummer… Who plays the fucking fastest but shittiest solos. [laughs] I don’t like death metal like that. I like it like old school. Old Morbid Angel, Entombed…
OL: With feeling.
Is there anybody that’s making death metal these days that you’re really amped about?
MK: I like bands like, for example, Death Breath from Sweden.
OL: Hooded Menace, from Finland, is quite good.
MK: Oh yeah, they’re pretty good. Of course, Entombed still keeps going on.
OL: Yeah, yeah. Morbid Angel, Autopsy is coming back.
There’s one Finnish band on Woodcut called, I don’t know how to pronounce it: Sotajumala?
MK: Yeah, yeah, I’m actually from the same city as those guys.
OL: That’s kind of Bolt Thrower stuff.
MK: I love Vader. They’re great. Those guys are friends of mine. They’re a little bit too technical for my taste, but I like them. They have good tones.
Mikko, tell me about what it’s like working for Barren Earth as a vocalist. You have tons of other projects with different styles.
MK: Not tons, only three.
Okay, there’s Swallow the Sun and Alghazanth.
MK: Yeah and I have one underground black metal band [Verivala].
Do you find that you have to alter your approach as a vocalist for Barren Earth?
MK: Not really. In this band the only weird thing for me is that all the guys are singing doing harmony vocals. Nobody in Swallow the Sun, for example, can sing including me. [laughs]
OL: There’s one singer in the band…
MK: Our guitar player [Sami Yli-Sirniö, also in Kreator], is the only guy who can really sing.
I thought everybody was doing backing vocals.
MK: Yeah, yeah, yeah…
OL: But we’re talking about who can sing. [laughs]
Not just who will sing. [laughs] If Sami is a little too drunk then a few of you can get together and do the backing vocals.
MK: He’s a professional. He never plays drunk.
OL: A very talented fellow.
MK: I’m feeling totally comfortable singing in this band.
Does it feel any different singing with Barren Earth than it does with Swallow the Sun?
MK: Maybe a little. I think that’s because we haven’t been touring that much and with Swallow the Sun I’ve been touring for four years now. This is our first tour together, but I guess I’m getting used to this. It doesn’t feel uncomfortable.
Does it feel, for the both of you, like a full-time project?
MK: I wouldn’t say “project.” I consider this as important and as full-time a band as Swallow the Sun. I don’t like when people think that this is some kind of project for us. This is a real band.
OL: It seems like people think that this is a project band because we have these backgrounds.
It’s weird because you haven’t been in Amorphis since the mid 90s.
And you had Mannhai. But that’s not happening anymore?
OL: It’s not happening any longer. I have one hardcore band that’s just for fun. I like to keep it that way. I want to concentrate on this.
Do you feel like anything that you learned from your years with Mannhai translated into Barren Earth?
OL: Yeah, sure. I’ve learned to manage a little bit. I had to learn how to compose a song all by myself. In Amorphis we did it together, but in Mannhai there was no one else to work with. I also had to write the lyrics, so it was a really good school for myself.
What about onstage presence? Did you bring something new to Mannhai since you had to fill up all the extra space?
OL: Of course it’s different, because it’s rock music and there’s lots of jamming. You had to work much more in Mannhai than in Amorphis because we had good crowds, and good venues and so on. In Mannhai we played in small places for punk crowds. We had to really work with interaction with the audience.
MK: From my point of view, one thing you still haven’t learned was when to stop composing music. We have 20 new songs all the time. [laughs]
OL: That’s right. That’s the next thing to learn.
MK: Then we’re arguing which songs we’re going to record for the next album.
OL: Yeah, that’s right. You got the point. [laughs]
OL: It’s really different to play them live than in the studio, where you have to think of the parts that come next. When you play them several times there isn’t any surprise, so we kind of let them go. It’s a little bit different.
OL: No, whatever sounds good. It’s almost certain that it will sound good live if it sounds good with an acoustic guitar.
MK: Yeah, yeah. I think we’re a pretty organic band.
OL: Yeah, the most important thing in rehearsing or in the home studio is that it sounds good. If it sounds bad, you shouldn’t use it. That’s the key.
MK: I don’t think we’re ever going to use any backing tracks on our gigs.
OL: No, no, no, no.
MK: On the album we can do them live as well.
OL: Yeah, and it will sound different because of that. In the studio we can add 20 tracks. We just play how the songs are.
There is a lot of acoustic instrumentation on the album. Are you able to translate that to a live setting or no?
OL: Of course we try with clean guitar sounds and so on, but we don’t take too much pressure out of it either. We can make it work somehow.
You’re able to weave in so much into the new album, not just the acoustic stuff but definitely a lot of rock stuff, a lot of prog and folk influences. When you’re writing these songs is there a process of stitching it together or is it more of a free flow?
OL: For myself, I like to write riffs a lot on the computer. When I find two riffs for the song, that’s the start. I start to really find dynamics and different sort of acoustic parts – whatever I find on my computer, if it fits. It’s intentional to have the dynamics in the songs, therefore it’s not a free flow. Sometimes it comes and you get a surprise acoustic part because something comes into your mind. Basically it’s intentional.
This seems connected to your aversion to straight-ahead, boring, brutal death stuff. You want some dynamics in the music you’re playing and listening to.
OL: Yeah, that’s right.
I’m curious about the folk element. Of course there was a lot of that in Amorphis, but what draws you to Finnish folk music? Is there an element of national pride in there?
OL: Not at all, no.
MK: I’m not very proud of my country.
OL: It’s just music. Of course it sticks in kindergarten, or wherever you hear it the first time. It’s cool to sing folk melodies. After 10 years with Amorphis, we intentionally tried to find folk melodies in our music. We tried to learn about Finnish folk music and it kind of stuck and won’t go away.
I know Amorphis lyrically was also very influenced by the Kalevala, a sort of Finnish national poem. Is there a similar lyrical basis for what you’re doing with Barren Earth?
MK: Not at all.
OL: No. That’s something we can’t and won’t do from the previous band.
So tell me what’s going on lyrically on Curse of the Red River.
OL: Well we’re dealing pretty much with dark, gloomy stuff – a lot of personal stuff.
MK: Maybe a little alcoholism.
OL: Alcoholism and a little bit of humor as well.
I guess I didn’t get that humor part. [laughs] I was just so lost in the music itself.
OL: Yeah, yeah. When it goes dark enough it gets a little perverse because we aren’t like that.
Most of the Finnish metal that you hear about is in one of two categories: there’s a lot of the folk stuff, like Ensiferum, and then there’s this incredibly depressive, melancholy, funeral doom with Skepticism and Shape of Despair and all of that. What do you think it is about your country that makes it so polarized? What attracts you guys to those different poles?
OL: Well, try living there for 20 years with all those horrible fucking winters.
It’s not really that different weather-wise from the rest of Scandinavia.
OL: There’s also the history of living next to the Soviet Union and stuff like that. That hast to be the reason as well.
MK: There’s definitely a Finnish brutality as well. I don’t know where it comes from.
OL: In the beginning, people didn’t get there to get reached like you do in America. People came here for fortune but Finnish people were exiled from the rest of the world.
Sort of like Australia was.
OL: When it comes to folk metal, that’s also kind of trendy. Young bands start to play folk music because that’s what others are doing.
OL: Because there are tons of crappy folk metal bands. [laughs]
MK: Coming back to the Finnish mentality, I think if you come from America to Finland, I think people here like guns. It’s very easy to buy a 9mm handgun here. In Finland, that’s almost impossible. Everyday on the news, you read that a husband got drunk and stabbed his wife to death.
MK: Somehow Finland is a pretty violent country. I guess people are a little bit depressed.
OL: That’s right.
MK: I don’t know. It’s cold, boring and dark.
I’ve read interviews with you where you talk about Finnish prog metal that influenced the Barren Earth material a lot. Who are those bands, and what’s the Finnish prog scene like?
MK: There are bands like Wigwam, from the 70s, and Kingston Wall.
OL: That’s a fucking amazing band.
What did it sound like?
MK: Pretty much like Amorphis, but not metal.
OL: Yeah and lots of psychedelic stuff like Jimi Hendrix and Led Zeppelin are big influences. Then there was Pekka Pohjola, who was a jazz musician. Or was.
Yeah, he died a couple years ago.
OL: There are loads of bands. It might be too complicated for American people. It’s really jazzy and complicated progressive rock. But that’s what I learned, during the 90s, when I started to explore new bands and new music.
That’s interesting that after your time in Amorphis is when you started exploring a whole lot of different music. Or was that during?
OL: It was that period. Since the late 80s I started doing that.
I’ve read that you had an instrumental project going on before Barren Earth was around, with a couple of the other members.
OL: Yeah, with Kasper [Mårtenson, also former keyboardist of Amorphis] and Marko [Tarvonen, also drummer in Moonsorrow].
Did any of those songs make their way onto the album?
OL: Not yet, but there are a couple of songs that could be arranged for Barren Earth. We’ll see because we have enough songs flowing all the time and stuff. [laughs]
Are you contributing musical ideas as well?
MK: Not much. I would love to do something but last year I was so fucking busy so it makes things a little complicated.
OL: Now he lives in Helsinki.
MK: Yeah, I moved to the same city as everyone so that makes things easier.
How far away did you live before?
MK: It was like 200 miles.
MK: That’s not much.
I think when you grow up listening to metal in America, you think “Oh, these two bands are from Sweden. They must live right next door to each other.”
MK: Oh yeah.
And it’s totally not true. You hear stories about the early black metal scene in Norway, and it’s like if you lived in Oslo you had to travel three hours out to Bergen.
MK: Yeah, yeah. What really sucks is that it seems like every time we’re making a new album with Barren Earth, we’re also composing an album with Swallow the Sun as well. I’m a fucking lazy lyric writer. I can’t really do two albums at the same time. But these guys are very helpful with kicking my ass.
OL: We’re kind of over-excited with the songs because we are living together there in Helsinki, and we meet each other twice a week.
MK: It’s been a little bit different for me, but I guess it’s going to be better. I have guitar riffs but I simply don’t have the energy or time to do it. [laughs]
I’ve never been a touring musician myself…
MK: Lucky you. [laughs]
Well some people would say that I’m sitting behind a desk from 9:30 – 5:30 every day and you guys get to actually go somewhere. Do you find invigorating energy whenever you’re out there onstage? Does that compel you to keep going even when you’re just tired as fuck?
OL: Yeah of course. It’s such a fucking cliché to say, but the energy you get back from the audience . . .
MK: It comes from somewhere, and that half an hour or an hour of the day, which you’re waiting for for the whole day, is worth it. After the show you’re not tired at all.
Can you compare that rush of being onstage to anything else that you’ve experienced in life?
MK: Maybe drugs. [laughs]
Where can I get them? [laughs]
MK: Oh, California, of course. Cocaine is the best thing. Not weed, that makes you sleepy.
What about the inspiration to write metal, especially the more depressing kind? How do you transfer whatever sadness or gloominess that’s expressed in those songs into energy? Why is it that you really want to get up there and express sad stuff?
OL: I don’t really like to think about those kinds of things. When I’m onstage, I don’t really want to turn that depression into any kind of energy. I just fucking stand there. We’re not a very smiley band. [laughs] guess depressing music can actually help depressed people.
MK: That’s right, that’s right. With Swallow the Sun, I’ve had that kind of experience where the guy comes to us and says his wife drowned two months before. He was totally not in a good mood, and he asked us to play one song which he finds very helpful for him. It was a fucking awkward situation. This kind of music can be very helpful for a lot of people who have troubles in life. That gives me a fucking good feeling when somebody comes to me and says “This song has helped me” in this kind of situation. That’s probably the only thing in my life where I’ve helped somebody.
OL: Of course you get rid of those feelings for yourself as well when you transfer that stuff to somewhere else.
MK: It’s a catharsis.
OL: Yeah, yeah, yeah it is. I don’t consider Barren Earth only as a gloomy band. We also have lots of hopeful stuff as well. There are lots of different moods.
MK: There always has to be a light at the end of the tunnel otherwise you could just fucking kill yourself. [laughs] If you don’t believe that the next day is going to be better, then you’re already dead. That’s what I believe. That’s my opinion.
The last Swallow the Sun album is called Hope. It’s not ironic to me. It’s an ideal that you’re actually searching for.
MK: Life is not so easy all the time. There always needs to be some hope.
Oppu, you were in what a lot of people consider the classic period of Amorphis. How do you feel about where the band has gone today?
OL: I haven’t been following what they’re doing that much, but we had those anniversary shows and I started to appreciate Amorphis in a different view. I started to like the band again. I kind of tried to ignore it because it was hard with the split with the band.
OL: Yeah, it was sort of a divorce.
OL: Yeah, we did those gigs and it was kind of fun. It should have happened 10 years ago. I still appreciate what they’re doing currently. The new singer is amazing.
MK: Yeah, he is totally amazing.
OL: He’s a true professional and a great singer as well.
MK: They just got a new singer out of nowhere and now he’s a fucking metal god. [laughs] He’s a totally cool guy. I’ve always been a big fan of Amorphis. I even liked those shitty albums. [laughs] For me they came back and totally deserve it.
OL: Yeah, totally.
Can you see Barren Earth touring with them at some point in the future?
OL: Of course, of course. That would be great.
Maybe they’ll bring you in for a couple of the older songs.
OL: I don’t know. I don’t believe that would happen if we’re touring together – maybe the last show or something. We were actually speculating about bringing them out to do one of our songs.
MK: I actually did a few old songs with them when we [Amorphis and Swallow the Sun] were touring together.
So they would bring out you out as the vocalist?
MK: No we did it together with Tomi [Joutsen, current Amorphis vocalist]
OL: It wouldn’t be right to use Barren Earth for an all-star tribute with the members.
Some people say that at the age of 30 or 35, you stop listening to new music. I know you must hear a lot in your daily lives, both on tour and at home. Do you get less out of listening to music in your free time than you used to?
MK: Actually, I’m only 26 and I quit listening to music about five years ago. I like the old stuff. I’m not looking for new stuff because I fucking love the old CDs that I have. A lot of the music scene is pretty much bullshit anyways. I don’t really understand music these days.
Music in general? Or just metal these days?
MK: Well, both. Like I said before: I like my death metal old school. I don’t fucking like this speed competition these days.
OL: It’s also the technology is so good. You can do whatever you like in your home, but it kills something from the music.
MK: Yeah, absolutely.
OL: You have those four-tracks with just stereo micing in the 50s sounding so much better than those 40 tracks in today’s metal albums.
Don’t you think there is something liberating about the ability of a kid who might not be able to afford time in an actual studio to get down his vision with a simple piece of equipment on his computer?
OL: That’s what we planned with our second album. It sounds great but it’s a little sterile because of that – we can create in those empty spaces and stuff like that. Next time we’ll work differently.
You want a more analog recording?
OL: Yeah, yeah. There are, of course, bands today that are doing that that aren’t that big.
MK: When you tour a lot you hear music all the time every night. When you go back home, the first thing that you really want to do is not to put the fucking stereo on.
OL: Yeah, that’s right.
It’s like “Let me listen to silence. Give me a bird chirping.”
OL: Silence is beautiful.
That sounds like an album concept right there – 50 minutes of nothing.
OL: Yes, yes.
Tell me a little bit about your plans for the next album and then I’ll let you guys go.
OL: Where do I start? We booked a studio for May, and then we’ll have one month to go from there to finish the album.
MK: We have too many songs already.
OL: Yeah. We have 12 songs, but we have to track maybe three of them. We are doing pretty strong with the new material. We just need to rehearse them.
So they’re not fully arranged yet?
OL: No, no. We practiced maybe three songs. I’m pretty optimistic about it.
MK: Yeah, the songs are fucking great. I like them so much. I think it’s going to sound a little bit more tight because we’ve played a lot more together than it was two years ago. I think it’s going to be a great package.
OL: Ourselves, yeah. I think we’ll manage by ourselves. We did the last album with Jukka Varmo at the studio where we did the album. This time we did the preproduction by ourselves already. Dan Swanö will mix it again.
You don’t get better than Dan Swanö!
OL: Yeah, that’s right. I think we don’t need a producer, maybe with the next album when we can’t stand each other any longer. That’s how we’ll do it. [laughs]
Barren Earth tour North America with Finnish brethren Ensiferum, Finntroll and Rotten Sound through March 4th. Check out all the dates at the band’s MySpace page.