In the Shadows: An Interview with Apocalyptica’s Paavo Lötjönen

People can be very possessive about the art they enjoy. From the girls screaming maniacally outside of a One Direction concert to the fans arguing about the exact day in which Metallica totally sold out,” there’s no doubt there are some who get pretty damn invested into it.

Apocalyptica, the Finnish metal band that came into prominence in the mid 90’s with their covers of Metallica, know all about how hard it is to keep your fans happy. Their move from a cello-only project to their current incarnation, having added drums, singers and even guitars (although only seldomly) has turned them into a metal heavyweights, with great record sales and sold-out concerts, but also pissed off a fair share of their more “hardcore” fans.

I met wit Paavo right before one of their concerts for their Shadowmaker tour, to discuss precisely this change in the Apocalyptica sound, the reaction of the fans… and Angry Birds.

We are the servants of our audience

MB: Thank you for taking the time today Paavo, it’s always a pleasure.
It was very interesting to listen to Shadowmaker, and to realize that Apocalyptica seem to be taking a rather different approach towards their music, for example by the adoption of Franky Perez as a more or less permanent singer. Some have seen this as a move away from your more “metal” origins and more towards a heavy rock kind of thing. Do you feel that is an accurate take on what’s going on?
Paavo: I agree with some of those points, but not with others. The Shadowmaker project started from the idea that we wanted to create an album that was more compact, as well as a more solid album as a band. By that I mean that the album should sound a bit “smaller.” Many Finnish metal bands are now sounding very bombastic and huge, and even we sounded quite huge from time to time, using a lot of overdubbing in the tracks. This time we tried to get a more raw and clean sound, trying to find our very own sound.
This is why we also wanted to avoid hassling around too much with different singers and styles, so we made the decision that we would do all the songs with a single singer. We tried to find the best possible one, so we had a kind-of “secret” audition, with about 30 different singers who were suggested to us. Frankie won the game; he’s a singer that can provide us with a really metal sound, but also a really soft and beautiful sound. He has a very wide range of colors in his voice, he’s very talented. Having a single singer kind of brings the whole album together, the combination of drums, cellos and the singer. This gives the whole album a single sound.
As for your other point. We didn’t try to create a progressive rock album in the sense of bombastic and huge orchestrations. It’s more like if you go deeper into the structure of the songs you can see a lot of trickier time signatures; still, we try to hide it, since we try not to make very “mathematical” music.
We ended up with so many songs with lyrics in the album that we thought about cutting some of them… but they were so good that there was really no reason to do it. Maybe if we had cut those songs our more “hardcore” fans would be happier, but they’re free to just skip them when they’re playing the album.

MB: Are you concerned about the fact that in a song-oriented album, with Frankie’s voice taking such an important role in most songs, the presence of the cellos might become secondary?
Paavo: In a way I think you are right. Maybe we should have cut those songs, and then you can criticize that. [laughs] This isn’t really a criticism about you, but about the internet and about how things are there. People start talking about things even before they hear them. My wish is that people listen to Shadowmaker as an album that has a lot of great songs, and listen to each one. Start with “Shadowmaker,” “‘Till Death Do us Part” and “Dead Man’s Eyes”; these are three songs that really show the Apocalyptica “mood” in a fresh new way.

MB: Since you mention this issue of the Internet. Did you perceive that people are bitching about it? Because I notice that you’re kind of bothered by it. [laughs] 
Paavo: We love our fans, especially the hardcore ones, but it’s usually those fans who are the most conservative when it comes to any change. Adding drums to the band, adding a singer; even though Frankie isn’t a permanent singer nor is he a member of the band. He is with us at the moment, he’s kind of part of the band, but not an official member. We don’t know about the future.
People start talking on the internet even before they hear a thing. This kind of “hate” talk against Shadowmaker started when we released the number of songs and how many of them were going to be instrumental. “Shadowmaker,” for example, is a song with a singer, even though over half of the song is instrumental.

Paavo performing with Apocalyptica in Groningen, the Netherlands (Photo: Juan Salmeron)

MB: I find it fascinating that the band has done quite well in its history, you sell many albums, you play main stages at big festivals, etc., and yet you still care about whether some 15 year-old pimple-faced kid bitches about your album on the Internet. It’s incredible that you give it that much weight.
Paavo: Of course we care! We love our fans; we are the servants of our audience. Still, we can’t create music thinking about what they will think about it.
It’s art, it’s just coming from the universe around us. The process of composing is like a miracle; creating music is the result of many things, mental and emotional. It’s a lame way to make music if at every point you think about what others will think about it. Then you will only make average music.

MB: I guess you also never know what people will like anyway. There isn’t a recipe. 
Paavo: Yeah. But, you know, Shadowmaker is compact, it’s a band album. We really love playing those songs live, and when those hardcore fans see our live shows, they love those songs too. They really love “Shadowmaker,” for example. You’ll see.
We also do a lot of different projects. We did a massive dance project in Germany, Wagner Reloaded, where we had 200 dancers, a symphony orchestra, a choir. We composed almost 2 hours of music for that. Check it out on Youtube, it’s really cool.
Last year we also played at the Wacken Open Air festival with a small orchestra, and we also played an “Apocalyptica Symphony” project with them during a small tour.

MB: Speaking of your collaborations and projects… there was one that I thought was pretty interesting. Your collaboration with Rovio to do the Angry Birds theme, which I thought was pretty remarkable. 
Paavo: [laughs] Is it remarkable?

MB: Well, I didn’t expect it. I didn’t see that one coming
Paavo: Well, Rovio are a Finnish company. Angry Birds are kind of a cool thing, and Finnish people are proud of its success, so it was just a funny project. Nothing too serious.
Ecca and Perttu are also composing an opera. A real opera, and it will premiere in January 22, 2016. It’s called Indigo; it’s mainly composed by Perttu, but Eicca also composed some part. We are not playing anything there but, of course, you can also hear Apocalyptica vibes, because it’s composed by them.

MB: As a classically-trained musician, do you also feel this desire to have a bigger participation in orchestras, or in the more classical aspects of cello playing?
Paavo: Well, that’s not really their motivation either, it’s just that it’s great to do these kind of things.

MB: In previous occasions we’ve talked about Jean Sibelius. I know that he is not only an important figure for you, but also very important in the shaping of Finnish identity. Have you considered working with his music the way you did with Wagner?
Paavo: Well, his music is based on more fragile and sensitive colors. It’s a bit more complicated and modern than Wagner. I can’t imagine making something with his music.
Of course, we could do versions of some of his songs, but his surviving family, who still owns the rights, they don’t let anybody do anything with the music. We still need to wait 10 years. I think they want to expand it even more.

MB: That’s an interesting thing, because you as a composer are constrained by this copyright limit. At the same time, that same copyright benefits you if somebody wants to do transformative works of your music. How does that make you feel then when you see fans trying to do something like that with your music?
Paavo: If they ask, we can let them do it. 

MB: Paavo, thank you very much for your time. 
Paavo: It’s good to see you, thank you.

Paavo performing with Apocalyptica in Groningen, the Netherlands (Photo: Juan Salmeron)
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J Salmeron
Considered by his mother as the brightest and prettiest boy, J's interest in metal started in his early teens, listening to bands like Iron Maiden and Metallica (coupled with an embarrassing period in which Marilyn Manson "totally represents me, man") eventually moving into the realm of power, black, and death metal. He is a practicing attorney, and a lecturer on commercial law. He is also a terrible guitar player and martial artist, and someone who enjoys coming up with excuses as to why he has to miss work after going to a concert. He also dabbles as a concert photographer, you can see his sub-par work on his instagram.

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