Within the metal realm, many groups have similar styles to one another, so much so in some cases that it's difficult to distinguish between some groups. Now and then though, a group emerges who've developed a distinct sound, a sound immediately recognizable without needing to be told the name of the artist.
One such group is arguably Apocalyptica
, whose marriage of cellos and more conventional rock instruments provide an interesting twist on things. Starting out as a Metallica
covers outfit, Apocalyptica wisely favoured a more longterm future, opting to record mainly originals for the last decade.
Issued on August 20th, 2010 in Germany, Switzerland and Austria, August 24, 2010 in the U.S. and Canada and August 23rd in the rest of the world through Sony Music, "7th Symphony" is Finnish outfit Apocalyptica's seventh full-length studio album. A number of musicians guest on the album; inaugural single "End Of Me" features Bush vocalist Gavin Rossdale, "Bring Them To Light" includes Gojira vocalist / rhythm guitarist Joe Duplantier, Slayer member Dave Lombardo drums on "2010", Flyleaf singer Lacey Mosley donates vocals to "Broken Pieces", and "Not Strong Enough" boasts Shinedown frontman Brent Smith. The latter was written by none other than Diane Warren, responsible for writing for the likes of Aerosmith, Meat Loaf, Bon Jovi and many others.
With the exception of "Not Strong Enough" and "Broken Pieces" - which were produced by Howard Benson - "7th Symphony" was produced by Joe Barresi. The album's iTunes deluxe edition has a cover of Black Sabbath's "Spiral Architect" (originally on December 1973's 'Sabbath Bloody Sabbath'), originally available as part of a free Sabbath tribute CD with the September 2010 issue of Metal Hammer. Three music videos were shot in a crematorium in Altadena, California at the end of May 2010, all directed by Lisa Mann.
On November 6th at 17:00 GMT, Hit The Lights' Robert Gray telephoned Apocalyptica mainman Eicca Toppinen to discuss "7th Symphony".
Eicca Toppinen: Hello?
UG: This is Robert Gray from Ultimate-Guitar.com. How are you Eicca?
I'm fine, thank you.
Would it be alright if I began the interview?
Could you talk me through the writing and recording process for '7th Symphony'?
I think the whole process was different than when we've made albums in the past, because this time we didn't do a proper pre-production. We actually spent a lot of time finding the right vocal songs for different guests, and made proper demos for those. In the end though, we realized that we had a lack of instrumental material, so a lot of the instrumental material for '7th Symphony' was written at the last moment really. Our drummer Mikko was already recording drums in L.A., and I was still sending him new songs for the album (laughs). That made the album's production very intense, but on the other hand it was very creative. One reason why we wanted to work with Joe Barresi was because we really wanted to get deeper into the world of sounds and pedals and amps and everything, and he's very experienced in all kinds of sound equipment. In the past on many occasions, we did the final sounds and the mix by mainly recording the pure cello like it is, and then doing the rest during the mix. On the '7th Symphony' production though, we actually recorded all the sounds when we were recording. Whatever we started to play, we first thought "Ok, let's find an exciting sound for that". It was a very different approach, which also affected the way we played a lot.
Why did Apocalyptica feel that Joe Barresi would be the man to help the group delve "deeper into the world of sounds and pedals and amps and everything"?
We really liked the work that he did in the past, but he's a sound freak as a person (laughs). He collects all kinds of stuff, so he owns more than a hundred amps and hundreds of pedals - he's really into that. We just wanted to have somebody who could lead us deeper into that world. It was really like exploring all the time - it was really fun.
Was having cellos alongside drums, guitars and so on something different for Joe?
Yeah. Actually, we recorded cellos for four weeks and the first week he was really suffering because he didn't know how to do things with cellos (laughs). He said "How can it be so difficult?". For some reason, he thought they would be very easy to play. The cello was very tricky for him though, as well as also controlling the sound and listening while recording, and all this stuff. It took some time, but we all got used to it and found a good way to work. He seemed to enjoy it during the final weeks, but the first week we were doing it everybody was suffering, both Joe and us (laughs). There were too many options, and we had to just find the best options and try options which didn't work, and so on. It was a very open field we started from, but in the final moments it was a lot of fun.
Would you say Apocalyptica is proficient enough to produce itself when recording cello parts?
"We actually spent a lot of time finding the right vocal songs for different guests, and made proper demos for those."
We produced two albums by ourselves, 'Reflections' and 'Apocalyptica', and then we started to work with producers again because we thought "Ok, we know how to do it, but if we get somebody from outside in to produce we might find something more exciting and different". We know the basics, like how to do the stuff and also how to explore the stuff. I like to have a producer around who has a totally different perspective and view on the whole thing and for the songs. I love to work with producers.
In another interview, you explained how you composed the vocal tracks for '7th Symphony' with vocals in mind, and that the instrumentals were originally composed as instrumentals. You described that as "a big difference this time around".
Yeah. When we wrote songs for our previous albums, it wasn't very clear whether the songs were going to be vocal tracks or instrumental tracks, so in the end we had all instrumentals and some would end up with vocals as well. Therefore, maybe sometimes some people get the feeling that when they listen to the instrumental tracks, they sound great but they would sound even better with vocals. This time, we wanted to avoid that kind of feeling, and wanted to have instrumental music which is exciting by itself and stands on its own. We had a lot of leftover vocal tracks from the pre-production, and even when we had a lack of instrumentals, we decided we weren't going to transfer those leftover vocal tracks into instrumental tracks. We'd rather write something totally new and exciting, so therefore, I think the instrumental tracks on '7th Symphony' have a better variety of styles. I think there's more of a classical flavour to this album, but it's very aggressive stuff and very classical stuff which I think is more exciting.
Considering '7th Symphony''s vocal tracks were written with vocals in mind, are they more comfortable?
The song structure of the vocal tracks pretty much have this verse-chorus-verse-chorus kind of thinking, and with the instrumental tracks, we thought that they could go just further and further and further and without repeating too much of the same stuff. Of course, when you have a song which you feel is great and could actually be a single, that also starts to lead the production towards some direction. If you have a great song though which you feel could be played on the radio even, you want to make the production in such a way that you can use it as a tool to promote the record.
Would it be ok if we discussed specific tracks on '7th Symphony'?
"End Of Me" features Gavin Rossdale from Bush on vocals. Apocalyptica remixed the Bush track "Letting The Cables Sleep", and that's how the group came to initially meet him?
Yes. We did a remix for Bush at the end of the nineties - I think it was 1998 or 1999 - for the song "Letting The Cables Sleep", like you said. Since then, Gavin's name has sometimes been around when we've been thinking about possible singers. This time, when we had "End Of Me" written, we thought it could really be a song for Gavin. We saw if he was interested in working with us, and luckily, he was. Every time we have a song, we start to think about possible singers; people we know, and people we like. We start to approach them, and see if... It's always a big puzzle doing collaborations, because it's so much about timing, company policies, record label stuff, and management shit (laughs). From the moment the singer says "Yeah, I would love to do that", it's still a long, long way with a lot of manoeuvring from both parties before the song is recorded.
Have there been instances where Apocalyptica has written vocal tracks and didn't successfully get the favoured singers onboard? Where the tracks in question were shelved because the group didn't feel they would work with different singers?
Yeah. For '7th Symphony', we had four to five possible vocal tracks for the record which didn't happen. For example, we had Maynard James Keenan from Tool working on one song, but at the last minute he said "I'm so sorry guys, but I don't have enough time for this". He was busy with Puscifer, and didn't feel it was right to the Puscifer guys to just dive into this project so deeply. He said he couldn't do it with the passion he would love to, so he had to skip this time. There were a lot of open questions with the songs, but maybe we'll use those leftover songs at some other point.
So it's very much possible that the track Apocalyptica wrote which the group feels Maynard James Keenan's vocals are suited for might feature on a future Apocalyptica album?
It might, though it's hard to say what's going to be next. We're on tour with '7th Symphony', and it's impossible to say what we want to do in two years or three years. It's hard to say what's going to be the musical style for our next album, and what we want to do, and what will be the whole approach. It's impossible to say; maybe it'll be a full instrumental album, or maybe it'll be something totally different. Nobody knows, so that's why it's hard to say whether these leftover songs are going to be used for the next album or used for some other purposes. A lot of territories would like to make their local version of an Apocalyptica track in their own language, territories like France, Spain and Italy. They would love to have a song for them that could be recorded with a local singer - it's very typical, especially for France, to have a local version of one of a band's songs. Maybe we'll use some of those songs for that purpose.
So the Apocalyptica track that Maynard James Keenan initially worked on, providing the stars align and Maynard has time, hopefully he can record it, though how the track in question surfaces in the public domain is open to debate?
Yeah. We had so many different options; we were speaking with people who really wanted to guest on the album, but it didn't work with their own schedules. Many people who we've worked with, like Joe Duplantier from Gojira who sings on "Bring Them To Light" on '7th Symphony' for example; that song I wrote for Joe three years ago, but we were just waiting for the right time to record and release it. With Ville Valo from H.I.M. and Lauri Ylönen from The Rasmus, we made the song "Bittersweet" in 2005, and it felt like we had been speaking for years about doing something together one day. There's so many open possibilities, but it's always about finding the right song and the right timing.
Why was "Bring Them To Light" the right track for Joe Duplantier to sing?
That was great. I have a French publisher who knows Joe very well, and he said "I think if you met Joe and wrote something together, that would be interesting". I said "Ok, let's try". I went to Paris for two days, and we went into the studio. I actually had a musical idea already for the song, and then we started to work on the lyrics and things like that. It was great. He's a really nice guy and really easy to cope with and work with, so it was a really nice experience. What I like about that song is that it isn't a typical Apocalyptica song and it isn't a typical Gojira song - it's something different. Many times, the coolest thing about collaborations is that you can create something with artists that they don't do normally; it's an open platform for them to do something else other than what they do with their usual band.
How did Apocalyptica come to record "Not Strong Enough", a Diane Warren-penned composition?
That was funny. I was in L. A. in May 2009 doing some other co-writing with different people, and Diane Warren wanted to meet me. I went to her office, and she wanted to play me some songs. I listened to the full production demos, and said "These are cool songs, but I don't hear Apocalyptica in any of these". She then said "I actually have one song which I haven't had time to demo yet", so I went into her working room, and she played on the piano and sang over the top. I thought "Hmm, this song has some special quality", so I picked up the song. I told her that I couldn't guarantee that we were going to record "Not Strong Enough", because we needed to find an arrangement for the song and to feel that the song was our own. We needed the Apocalyptica flavour in "Not Strong Enough" before we could record it, because we would never do a song just because somebody gave us a great song - we always need to feel that it's our song. We were suffering with with "Not Strong Enough"; we said "This is a great song, but we can't find the right angle". We found the arrangement, and then we said "Ok; this is the way it should be".
Once Apocalyptica discovered the right arrangement for "Not Strong Enough", how did the group recruit Shinedown's Brent Smith to lend vocals to the song?
In the last few years, we've played a lot of festivals in America, and Shinedown was on many of those festivals. We were really amazed about Brent Smith as a singer, and we met the guys quickly there. The connection was built up three years ago, and then when we had this Diane Warren song - "Not Strong Enough" - we thought "This is the type of song that requires somebody who's a really good singer". The track required somebody who's not just characterized by a certain sound, but who's a really technically great singer. We immediately started thinking that Brent from Shinedown would definitely be the man, and then we contacted him. He said "Yeah, I'd love to do that - I love the song".
Why did Apocalyptica feel that Brent Smith would be "the man" to sing on "Not Strong Enough"? Obviously, there's plenty of options out there.
"It was a very open field we started from, but in the final moments it was a lot of fun."
We didn't think of too many other options for "Not Strong Enough". We've had a lot of trouble with collaborations, sometimes with management and sometimes with record labels. To be honest, sometimes it's a fucking pain in the ass (laughs). This time we said "Let's approach people who we know personally and who we know like Apocalyptica", and not just write all over the place to see if somebody's interested. We wanted to contact people we knew would want to do something with Apocalyptica, providing the timing was right.
Is there a chance Apocalyptica might record something with say James Hetfield, for example? Apocalyptica has obviously recorded plenty of Metallica cover versions.
I think that would be great, but it's more up to him (laughs). We always hope for that collaboration, that's for sure (laughs). It's more up to Metallica whether they want to do something one day with us or not.
The results of that collaboration would sound really good in my opinion. Anyway, '7th Symphony' also features "Broken Pieces" with vocals from Flyleaf's Lacey Mosley.
We and Flyleaf are on the same label in America and have been for five years, and that's how we got to know them. I wrote this song quite awhile ago together with Guy Sigsworth - a British songwriter - and that's why the song has a little different flavour. He's written songs with many people, but he's very pop and a more electro-driven guy, and it was very exciting to write with him. "Broken Pieces" was the song that was the result of us writing together. That song has so much pop flavour that we wanted to have somebody to sing it who has a poppy voice in a way but still has some power, and Lacey's voice was very good for that. It's kind of funny, because we knew her before as well. It's kind of tricky, especially with the female singers; when you start to think about good possible female singers, you can't find so many who're in the rock world (laughs).
A lot of female rock singers sound like clones, no offence to them.
Yeah. There's Shirley Manson and singers like that, but we don't know them. It's harder to approach people that you don't know.
Yeah, because you have to mess around with management and all that bullshit.
Yeah, because if we ask somebody through their management and we're told "No", then it might be the management who says "No" and the artist never hears about it (laughs). For us, it feels embarrassing, so we'd rather approach it in a different way. We never want to pay anybody to appear on an Apocalyptica album; whoever does something with us needs to do it because they want to do it, and not because we paid them (laughs). That's very important for us.
That's definitely a good approach, because you know their heart is in it then.
Yeah. We want to have fun making music. If we collaborate with people, then they need to also have fun working with us.
Apocalyptica filmed three music videos in a crematorium in Altadena, California, two of which were for "End Of Me" and "Broken Pieces" respectively. Do these three music videos have a recurring theme?
The three music videos are a trilogy. Of course, the story is very abstract, but if you see all the three videos in a row you might find a theme. Sometimes it's easier for the director to have the storyline in his or her head though. We made those three music videos with director Lisa Mann, who we also made the video for "I Don't Care" with. We really liked her style and felt that the way she sees the band is something that we really like, so that's why we wanted to make all of those three videos together with her. We put a lot of effort into the artwork and everything, because we wanted to have whatever is included in the whole album to be strongly connected. There's a little wave of anarchy in these times, and people have started to focus more on releasing songs than making full albums. We still want to make full albums, so therefore, if people get the physical copy of '7th Symphony', it's really cool, nice and worth buying (laughs). It's more worth buying rather than downloading.
As a music fan, are you more inclined to buy a CD as opposed to downloading music through iTunes or whatever?
Yeah. I still buy a lot of records. Sometimes I buy from iTunes if I need to get something urgently, or I listen through Spotify if I get some song into my head. Really though, I always usually buy full albums (laughs).
So you don't see Apocalyptica solely releasing its material in digital format? There'll always be a physical option for fans?
Yeah, I think so. At the moment, we also release albums through vinyl. We released so many different versions of '7th Symphony'; there's the regular version, then we have the limited edition where we have a bonus DVD in which we play acoustic versions of old and new songs live at our old music university The Sibelius Academy - the packaging is really nice - then we have the USB stick version, and then the vinyl. There's so many different options and versions available (laughs).
Slayer drummer Dave Lombardo returns on '7th Symphony'.
Yeah. That's like a tradition for us, because basically Dave was our first drummer ever. We met in '97; we were playing a metal festival called Headbangers Fest in the Netherlands, and it was more of an indoor festival. After our show, Dave was giving a drum clinic on the same stage. We all spoke before the show, and then we eventually ended up playing together. We played together - with no rehearsals, no soundcheck, nothing - for one song as an encore with Dave. Later on, he came to see some of our shows when he was in Europe recording, and he said "Whenever you need a drummer, give me a call". On 'Reflections' - which was released in 2003 - we were writing songs that we really strong felt we needed drums on, so we called Dave. He recorded four to five tracks for that album, and since then he has appeared on every Apocalyptica album, drumming on at least one song (laughs). This time, there was a little bit of a different approach. We put our drummer Mikko and Dave in the same room. They had drumkits with space from one another, and they were jamming and fooling around with their kits and playing on top of some riffs. A full song didn't exist at that time - there were just riffs, and they were creating patterns and cool stuff on top of riffs. We then put the best takes together, and made a song out of it ("2010"). That's really nice, and it always is with Dave. We always love to work with him because he's so inspirational, and he's just pure fun when he's playing music.
Apocalyptica recorded a cover version of Black Sabbath's "Spiral Architect" as an iTunes exclusive. How did the group approach making "Spiral Architect" an Apocalyptica track?
We did that track for Metal Hammer, because they released this covermount CD of Black Sabbath covers. We picked "Spiral Architect" because it's not very known, but I think it's a cool song. I don't know why we decided to make it a little retro, but I think our version of it is funny; I always laugh when I listen to it, because for me it's so seventies (laughs). The strings bring out the positive feel of the song very well. It's an extra thing, something we recorded separate from '7th Symphony''s production. We just decided to not make it sound like the full album production, and did something different for fun.
Is Apocalyptica always in a lot of demand to appear on these types of albums? Due to the unique treatment the group gives its covers?
"We produced two albums by ourselves, 'Reflections' and 'Apocalyptica', and then we started to work with producers again."
Yeah. When we listen to covers other musicians have made, there's too many that make no sense. For us, it's also the reason we haven't recorded covers for our newer albums. Of course though, we recorded "Helden" which is David Bowie's "Heroes" in German with Till Lindemann from Rammstein. For us, if we make a cover version and record it, we want to be able to create something new. We want to make the song come from a totally different perspective, and for us, it's not enough to take a pop song and then put strings to it. I think it's the most boring way of making so-called covers (laughs). There always needs to be some idea behind every song, and that's why we aren't recording any Metallica songs at the moment. Our sound is so much closer to normal metal bands than it used to be in the beginning; I think in the beginning, it made sense because we made totally different sounding versions of metal songs. At the moment though with the sound we have, it makes no sense to record any metal covers. We always want to have the feeling that we are able to bring new life to a song.
How would you describe Apocalyptica's transition from solely recording and performing covers to introducing new material to its forte?
It was a very natural development for me. I did so many arrangements - thirty to forty arrangements for different metal songs - and the first step we made was recording a Christmas single in '96 for Finland, a version of "Little Drummer Boy". I just grabbed a part of the melody, and the rest was totally free, self-written. That was the first time I started to think "Maybe I should try to write totally new songs", and then I wrote "Harmageddon". There were three original songs on 'Inquisition Symphony' (1998). Given the difference that we found between playing original songs and cover songs, with 'Cult' (2000) we felt really strongly that we needed to record mainly original songs because when we write songs by ourselves, we can double up the band much more. It was necessary; if we had made a third covers album, I think Apocalyptica wouldn't exist today - it was a very crucial move. Of course, songwriting is difficult (laughs). It's challenging, let's put it that way, but I always love the challenge and I always have the passion to learn more and more and to write better and better songs. I think it's really the whole thing I enjoy very much. There's two sides to all this work; there's the performing side and there's the recording side, and they're very different from each other. That's why it's so much fun to switch between those two worlds.
How does Apocalyptica successfully replicate its sound live considering the possible obstacles involved? Like transporting the live equipment, which is likely a full-blown production? And obviously, you have to hire a suitable vocalist who can songs originally sung by different artists.
We have a singer on tour, a Finnish guy named Tipe Johnson. He's been touring with us now for a year and a half. We use a vocalist during the show for only a couple of tracks, mainly the new tracks we've recorded which aren't great instrumentals, like; "I'm Not Jesus", "I Don't Care", "End Of Me", and "Not Strong Enough". Those are obviously tracks which need a singer. For Metallica songs, we always use the audience (laughs). The audience sing them, so we don't need anybody onstage singing them. Also, some of the songs we've released as vocal tracks we can make acoustic cello versions of live, so there's different approaches. At the moment, if we play a ninety-minute show then he sings four to five songs, and the rest is instrumental. We've bought great new sound gear. We did a lot of research after '7th Symphony''s recording into how to make our live sound be totally massive and very defined, and then did massive research into how to do that with the cellos. Now we have a very good sound system for ourselves. It really works, it really works well.
Finally, do you have a message for the fans of Apocalyptica?
Yeah. Keep up the good work. We're really grateful that the Apocalyptica fanbase is so solid and so big, and our fans seem to come to our shows again and again and again. That means we never get tired of making music.
Thanks for the interview Eicca, and the best of luck with Apocalyptica.
Thank you very much - thanks for the interview.
All the best.
I'll see you at some point on tour.
Let's hope so. All the best.
Thanks, and take care.
Interview by Robert Gray
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