Apocalyptica's "Eicca Toppinen" Interviewed For Ontario Metal
So, first off, how's your tour been going so far? How many days have you played now?
Ah maybe thirty, this year. We were touring one month with Rammstein, in Europe, and we will play a few - like a metal festival kind of thing. Few shows, and then we played yesterday in New York and today here.
Right, how was New York?
It was very good, we played the Knitting Factory - it was 450 people capacity, so it was good for a first year show. And today, it's our first time in Canada. Not for me, but for the band.
How does it go over when you play with bands that aren't quite the same - like you said you played with Rammstein. It's a little different fanbase.
Yeah, it's a different fanbase, but on the other hand it's great to play with them because both bands have a different specialty. They're not competing against each other, you know?
Going back, for people who don't know about Apocalyptica, how did you guys come together?
We've been all playing cello since we were small kids and we were just friends and going to the same music camps, playing in the same orchestras. And we used to just do it for fun, playing the songs together. We used to play at small parties. I think we began to play like in 1993. We had another cello band in Finland, with six cellos, and with that group we played everything from Bach to Jimmy Hendrix. So that was with six acoustic cellos and it worked so well that we thought "Why don't we try to play heavy metal as well" you know... because there are a lot of parts in metal music and actually there was no real band when we got our first record deal. We just did it for fun and when we went off to play at a rock club at a rock/metal evening and one week after that show, one guy from a small independent record company called us and asked for an album. And we thought "Fuck, he wants to break us! Who would like to listen to this kind of shit on an album!" But you never know, you know. I mean, it's more like an accident that we made the first album. [laughs]
But it was a good accident!
[laughs] Yeah it's my best accident!
So after you guys got signed to this small label, did you find it hard to break out into the scene, getting people to come out to shows?
Not really actually. When we released the first album, we thought that okay, we sold one thousand copies, that's cool. And the same one now, we've sold more than nine hundred thousand copies. And it's like, we didn't expect any success for the album. And we were so surprised, because suddenly it became sold in some countries abroad because they it was not very normal that Finnish bands get released abroad at all. And we got released in inland Japan and in more than 30, 40 countries. But of course the first shows, for example in like Germany, when it became the first time to play abroad, it was like really small crowds. It was two to four hundred people. And it's growing up to two, four thousand now, so it's cool.
What do you think about people calling Apocalyptica a "novelty band"? I mean, there's no other band like you guys, it's hard to copy.
Yeah, it's very hard. Many times people often ask how will you describe the music. I dunno… cello rock? But it sounds very boring in a way eh, cello rock? I mean especially nowadays, we feel like we are more of a rock band. That one song which you heard in soundcheck is not a final song you know, we're still testing stuff, but still it's basically not so much to do with all the other crossover… more like rock band, we just use string instruments. Because I think we used to be more like a metal band around the Cult album, around 2000. But then we found that we could be much more and that the image was very metal and we wanted to get a little bit rid of the metal thing because it's boring to be just a metal band in a way, you know… because we can be so much more than that. And metal music as a word, it has a image for certain people - they don't even touch the album because it's so-called "heavy metal" and they don't want to get into it. So that's why we'd rather call it rock, because I think that average of the music style is rock.
Is that why you decided to add vocals and drums to the newer material?
Yeah, well it became natural when we were making our own songs. We used to work in the past with so many different bands, just featuring them. And then we thought, when we do our own songs, why don't we ask somebody to feature us. And then we found it very interesting - we did the first vocal progression with Sandra Nasic of Guano Apes - I don't know if you know them here. They were big in Europe. But it was very interesting because it was uh… very interesting to see for the instrumental songs, when someone's doing vocals on it - how the image of the song changes and how much you can do with that. And it's very interesting for songwriters to see how different people work and how they go to the same result. They're all heading towards the same result but everybody has a different way to do it and different rules. So incorporating different artists is always cool because you learn new things and develop yourself by doing collaborations. And also, adding drums was more like a thing when we had all the songs for the Reflections album ready, we already had a little percussion on Cult. And we realised, "Okay, you can't compete with drums by cello, as a rhythmical instrument." And the music was more like rock songs and we felt that okay, it works better if we have the drums in it. And now it was different - after Reflections, the drums came into the studio. And so we're there and the drums just played there. And after that we played like a hundred shows with Mika [Siren, drummer], and that gave it a completely new angle and new view on songwriting… because then we were realised, we really realised that when the drums are take care of the rhythmical stuff, we can concentrate on other stuff more. Get more sounding riffs, more chords, more harmony out of the cello and make it sound more rich.
How did you guys go about collaborating with the guest musicians, guest singers? How did that come about?
We've known each other for about ten years. For example, I mentioned that show we played when we got the record deal. H.I.M. was also playing in the same party! It was one of their public shows from those days. So we used to hang around with Ville and those other guys, in '95, '94. And actually Ville was singing with us once, in '96, in a couple of shows and we've been always talking about it. "One day we should do something together!"And also with Lauri Ylönen [singer of The Rasmus] who sang, I called him when we were recording Reflections as well, I said "Why don't you come sing on the album?" That was really successful
It sounds like the Finnish music scene is pretty tight.
Yeah, it's funny, with The Rasmus - they're a really old band. When we played in the spring of '96, we played our first TV show in Finland, we played in a talk show. And The Rasmus was also playing their first TV show in the same program. So we have like... really common roots! Accidentally!
We were talking about it with Amorphis last night and
- Are they here?!
Yeah, they played here last night and we were telling them that they should tour with you guys!
Ah really!! Hahaha! How was it??
Ooh, amazing! It was awesome!
And we asked them how they found their new singer and they said "Oh, we've known him for years."
Yeah, sounds like they're doing well. Because they had some bad years, so many of those. That's great!
Yeah, so it sounds like you guys have a really tight metal scene there.
We were talking to them about Finntroll coming here in the summer too, and how they're friends with Moonsorrow as well.
Moonsorrow yeah! Yeah, I know personally the singer of Finntroll too. [laughs] Yeah well, it's a small city, and in a small city there's not too many rock bars. I think in Toronto these rock bands know each other, some of them, because they used to hang out in the same place and they're from the same genre. And it's always very active, the underground metal scene, that some people were really organising a lot of stuff, even weekly. It's like a regular thing to have. So that's maybe why everyone comes together because there's so much stuff, there's several bands, and bands are changing and stuff… everyone has a good time! [laughs]
How did you guys decide to start working with Dave Lombardo on drums? How did you pick him and what did he think about working with Apocalyptica? …I mean it's so different compared to Slayer!
Yeah, he loved it! We once played live with him in '97. We were in some festival and he was giving a drum clinic in the festival. We played just before him and he came to our backstage, it was in The Netherlands or something, and says "I've heard that you played some Slayer songs… would you like to play with me??" and we said "Wow!!" Dave Lombardo! Of course we'll play! And we played with him South of Heaven and Mandatory Suicide… and then he gave us his phone number and he's like "Whenever you need a drummer, just give me a call." And he came to see some of our shows in Germany later on as well. And then when we realised that for Reflections, we wanted to have drums… and we thought "Okay who could do it better? So let's call Dave" and he was luckily available although he had a really tight schedule. And it's really cool, that on that session, we all four missed that, to work together in the studio because and it's tough talking, you know, touring Slayer and… it's a really tight schedule, because it's more like…we had to send the tapes to his home and he did his stuff in L.A. and he'd send the tapes back. And like, the song we played on the new one, Betrayal - our drummer Mika, he's an excellent drummer as you can hear. But he was like "Okay, I'm not specialised on this double-bass stuff, I do it my own way. So if you want to get a particular style on this song, why don't you get Dave to play it?" And then we said "Umm… eh maybe?... we don't know, is it a cool thing to do again?" But then we thought, you know, Slayer was coming to Helsinki. So I thought ah fucking hell, let's call Dave! And then I called him and he was lucky to have an off-day before the show day in Helsinki. So he came there and we booked the studio, we went into the studio and we worked on the song riffs together. It was really, really, really, really nice! And he really enjoyed it.
When you go into the studio, what special stuff do you have to do? Because every other instrument in metal, you just plug it into an amp and go! Is there a special way to mic the cellos or something?
Err, yeah, we have what we use when we play live. American microphones. And in studio conditions, we always have an acoustic microphone, like when we do riffs for example. So we record at the same time, both. And then we put the amplifying simulation plug-ins, only on the sound which is taken from the bridge of the cello. And then we mix the balance between the acoustic sound - because otherwise it would sound exactly like guitar! Really exactly like guitar. That's why we mix the acoustic sound little bit with that, to give it a special flavour. Even if a lot of people sometimes say that "Umm, I can't hear the cellos, only I can only hear guitars." There's no fucking guitars you know, it's cello! And the thing is that, there is a slight difference in the sound of a distorted guitar and a distorted cello but because people are always used to that, when you have distorted sounds, it MUST be guitar! There's no other way you know, to think. And when you begin to listen to it carefully, you really hear the big difference.
Going back to guest vocalists, would you ever think about having more guest vocalists on future albums? What about like death vocalists - you guys had some death growls on the end of Fisheye.
It's possible, I think in the future, collaborations will be a big part, an important part on the upcoming albums in general. This time what was great was Ville and Lauri because we were able to really co-write the song. I mean, several times during the months, we'd really have a good time with the song and it was great. You know, sometimes we just send the stuff to some vocalists and they were working their own parts by themselves and we were not very much involved in that. But this time with Ville and Lauri, we really worked on the song together. I don't know what could be next. We also made on one of the album tracks - maybe it's not been released on the Canada version. There is one song called Quutamo, it's the second track on the album. We made a version in French, in German and in English. But this idea only came after the album was basically done, so we didn't want to break the album's structure, so we just released it like as a bonus. So, I think that the world is full of interesting artists to collaborate with. And I think for the next album there will be some other people to work with.
When you're writing songs, most bands would base it around a vocal theme or lyrics. But you guys generally don't have that so how do you come up with where the song is gonna go?
Well… for example, I make my songs by myself and I do the arrangements also very far from the final end, before I present the songs to others. And it depends on the songs. Sometimes… like Life Burns is a song that I arranged while I was practicing some classical stuff. You know... just happened for some reason. Sometimes I practice cello, but I think mainly nowadays I like to write with piano. I bought a piano, like a normal piano. I used to work with keyboards and this kinda shit but it's not so… innovative, you know? You might get into some sound or something. But I was all the time concentrating more on finding a real clue to the song. That song we worked on - like piano, simple piano thing, or acoustic guitar or just cello and the song must be so good that they work in every form. And that's why I worked a lot with piano, because I love the possibilities - you can do all the chords and the same time you know. Songs like Ruska and Deathzone, it's more like you need to know how to create a mood, because they're based more on the moods than the chords. So you need to be able to somehow get them out.
Have you ever thought about using a kantele?Oh not really - my oldest son was going to a group to study kantele but then he decided he didn't like it. [laughs] So I have one, a five-string kantele, and I showed him once how you can do cool things with kantele. I never played it, but you know… it's really cool! There are these cool kantele artists in Finland, they do this electric kantele stuff. They do really, really great stuff with that!
Is there a story behind the cover art of your latest album? The weird etching of a cello…
We always have a cello in the album cover artwork, in different ways. Reflections was a girl's back and then there was a skull on Cult, but it was a cello too. And then we had the band with the cellos on the first cover. So we wanted to continue this idea and we were talking about several ideas, and for some reason we liked most this idea of having a huge cello-hole in the ground. There's something mysterious in it, you don't know where it goes, or what made it. But there isn't a real story behind it, we just wanted to have a good looking picture which has a question in it. But we don't know what it stands for! Hahaha! [laughs hysterically] That creates a question, like "What is this hole," you know?
Going back to your live tours, you guys must be a bit restricted because of the cellos, you can't move around the stage as much as-
Yeah we can!
Yeah we do.
Yeah… you will see! Hahahaha! We got frustrated and we were like "Fucking hell! We must be able to play and run at the same time!" [laughs]
Okay, this is gonna be interesting to see!
[laughs] Okay but sometimes we don't play so good when we are running around, you know. But that's not the point. [cracks up laughing]
Okay, I've got a couple of small, not really serious questions for you now. Is there any difference in the cellos you play? Because you guys assigned each cello to a different musical instrument (rhythm and lead guitars, bass etc)
Yeah there is actually. My cello is really the "riff cello". What we use nowadays are the Chinese handmade cellos. They are cheap, but they are good quality. They are done from good wood and with a good professional level… and they sound okay. They're not like old good cellos, of course not. But they're good enough for the amplified stuff. But my cello is uh… for some reason it's very hard to play, it's heavy to play. But it gives a really powerful sound. So for example, we recorded all the riffs by that cello on the new album. But also, we had to borrow one good cello for the lead, because at the moment, none of us have a really good classical cello… because they're so fucking expensive. We can't simply buy one, it's like $100,000 US, you know. [laughs] So that's why we play the shitty one! And also with the bow - we use carbon bows now, not the wooden ones. And we have changed the hard stuff - we use the black rosin because it's more thicker and sticky than the white one. And then there's the cello rosin. But we use the same rosin, like you put it on the bow to get a good grip - so we use the same what the bass players, the double bass players use - the most sticky one. No other cellists would use that! [laughs]
[laughing] So did you name your cellos too?
No no, not on this [album]! It was more like a joke on the first album. We put that because every other band, they have it like, "We play this and this guitar, we play this drums" and we're like "We play this cello" but it's not a real name! [laughs] It's more like a joke!
How many strings do you break in a show?
Umm sometimes. Yesterday I broke one. I dunno, it depends, but not on every show nowadays. We have learned how to use the power. But in the past like four years ago, we could have broken like six strings in a show and then we realised it was getting too expensive, because one cello string costs like 100 euros. So, it's getting quite expensive if you broke even three or four. But yeah, I broke one yesterday, but hopefully not today!
[laughs] Yeah, it's so much easier with guitars - you get six strings for like… ten bucks.
[laughs] Yeah, and you have somebody to change it on stage!
Do you guys ever throw your bows into the crowd, like how other musicians throw picks or drumsticks out?
Not really at the crowd, no. I broke one bow couple of shows ago - it was really fucked up, it didn't work at all, something was wrong with it - maybe it was a bad bow or something, so I threw it into the riser. But these are not uh - even if the bows are the cheapest ones, they still cost a couple of hundred euros so it's not a thingy that you can just throw! [laughs]
What about mosh-pits, do you ever have mosh-pits at your shows? And people playing air-cello?
Oh yeah yeah yeah! Haha! Yeah we have mosh-pits! Yesterday was so funny, I saw when we were playing - there was this girl playing air cello like this "Bloop bloop bloop!" [mimics playing a cello on his arm] She must be practicing at home "bloop bloop bloop!" It was really funny! [cracks up laughing] And people are headbanging and stuff. But yeah, sometimes more mosh-pits if we're playing in a metal festival or this kind of venue.
What's the weirdest song you've ever covered on stage?
Uhhh Ramones! What the fuck is it called? "Hey ho let's go!" What's it called? You know that song! [sings] "Hey! Ho! Let's go!" [laughs] We made a cover of that in '97, but it was terrible, we were really ashamed!
Did you record it?
Oh no no! We just played once and it was like "aw fuck!", not our style.
What are the best and worst bands you've played with live?
[thinks and laughs] Ummm can I say it?? [whispers] Yesterday was kinda horrible support… [laughs] They are not our picked ones, you know. In Europe, we never don't have a support band - oh actually now for the first time we had a support band in Germany, but normally we don't have support because it's always very difficult to find a band who would fit with our audience. …Because our audience is a mix of such different types of people, from different musical tastes, so it's very difficult. But I must say, some heavy metal festivals we've played, they are sometimes so amazingly horrible bands. And some of them, the names are so fabulous… Gorgoroth! [laughs] Gorgoroth is okay, but you know - like we now played a festival called Metal Mania. We were headlining the thing but like, the first bands began at ten o'clock in the morning! There were some Polish and Ukrainian black metal bands. But I don't know the best band we played with. We've been lucky to play with such good bands - like Metallica, Rammstein, that was so great. Festivals of course, we've been playing with many others like Audioslave, many many other good bands.
Are you guys still fans of Metallica, do you like their new material?
Yeah, I'm not the biggest fan of their new material, but I still appreciate it. I still really appreciate it the way how they do it. There's a couple of really good songs in there. And I think it's the right thing for them to do, such an album. We played support for them several times in the past.
Cool, Eicca thanks so much for the interview! We should let you go now!
Oh no problem, thank you!