AMON AMARTH (Olavi Mikkonen) INTERVIEW
Conducting an interview is not always as interesting or as pleasant an experience as some people might think unless, of course, the person that is sitting opposite you is as friendly, accommodating and grounded as Olavi Mikkonen – founding member and axeman of the Viking-inspired Death Metal band Amon Amarth. Having released one of their strongest albums to date with “Surtur Rising”, the band is once again performing on UK soil, this time as a headlining act. As you can appreciate, I immediately took the opportunity to meet up with Olavi and in the backstage area of the London Forum I found myself taking to him about issues such as the band’s current tour, modern technology, the music business and how cool it would be for Amon Amarth to be able to recreate a naval battle in no other venue than the…Colosseum in Rome!
By Yiannis (John) Stefanis.
• Hi Olavi. It is such a great pleasure to have you guys performing in the UK for the second time this year. Last time round it was the beginning of the year in this exact same venue and in support of Children Of Bodom. Back then I did an interview with Fredrik (Andersson: drums) and I did explain to him that as a fan of the band I was somewhat frustrated by the fact that you had to perform only a forty minute set. Now, we finally have the pleasure of seeing you guys headlining this largish venue, which is great! Is this, you reckon, the result of years of hard work?
Olavi: Yeah, definitely! Last time we did a headlining tour here in the UK we played at the Koko in Camden, which is not far from here, and as far as I know that show was sold out, so this is definitely the next step for us. It is definitely the result of a lot of hard work and also the fact that we were given many good support slots here in the UK playing for, as you mentioned, Children Of Bodom and also Dimmu Borgir, not to mention the Slayer tour that we took part in.
• A good friend of mine works for Metal Blade and he always mentions how he respects you guys for all the hard work and patience that you put in, taking one step each time in the evolution ladder. Now, this is undoubtedly the best way to approach things but was there ever a time that you wished that thing were happening faster for you guys?
Olavi: I don’t think that we ever expected to grow in a certain way as a band. I think that the only time when you could say we experienced a ‘down’ period was when we were writing “Versus The World” (2002) and that was because we were fu*ked really badly by the music industry – not the record label but other people around us. We did tours where the promoters would fu*k things up for us and there was generally speaking a lot of misery around. That was a time that we thought that maybe we should be doing something else but then, after that time, we got a very good response from the media and the people and that gave us the incentive to continue. Band wise, I don’t think that we ever had certain expectations like “oh, in two years we will be as big as Iron Maiden”, you know? That was never our thing; we appreciate where we are and our main focus is to maintain, keep our fans – we don’t want them to get bored of the stuff that we do. That is our goal, to keep our fans with us and then, of course, we would like to be able to reach out to a bigger audience and that is why we did those support tours – we wanted to reach out towards a new crowd. I don’t know, I think that we are too old now to have dreams of becoming huge or whatever. We are very satisfied being where we are and…I think that we always kept our feet on the ground and as we took one step after the other, we never got any bad attitude. We are still the same five friends doing what we love.
• I once spoke to Geoff Tate from Queensryche – a member of a very successful band and a guy who has seen how the music industry operated during its heyday, when a label would spend ridiculous amounts of money for a single video let alone an album. This is something that you have never experienced as a band to a similar extent, however, you always managed to keep a buzz around the band’s name by using a variety of different mediums such as YouTube and Blabbermouth. Is this mentality one that you cultivated as a band early on and is it also in your complete control, or do you have other people assisting you in that respect? Does Metal Blade deserve the credit for bombarding us with news about the band and its activities?
Olavi: Of course we need to thank Metal Blade as well and their people who are dealing with this side of the business, but as far as YouTube, Facebook and all these media are concerned, that is all under our direct control – that’s what we do. Today things are not the same as they were twenty years ago; fans look out for things all the time. If you want people to access any specific information you have to be the one to reach out to them! That is why we have been doing a video blog for this tour on almost a daily basis. We always try to do stuff as there is a strong community on the Internet, whether that is YouTube or Facebook, to reach out to. These are things that we can do and which do not require a million dollar budget or anything like that. I think that for the kids and for our fans it is enough to have a hand camera and showing them what is happening when the band is on tour. That is enough for them, you know?
• Does it make you feel more empowered to know that more things are nowadays under your control? Before we were all hoping to see an article in one of the few Metal related magazines for information and label politics would establish which bands would get the much desired slot.
Olavi: I agree with what you say but I still think that these few magazines that are out there are much needed. If, for instance, you either buy the magazine or subscribe to it, then you will read it from the first page to the last. On the other hand, on the Internet you can skip things, you know? The same thing applies with albums. When you buy an album, the whole thing, you will eventually listen to it, but if you simply download it, you will give it a few seconds and if things do not grab you straight away then you will discard it and perhaps never listen to it again.
• I believe that what you describe is the approach of a specific age group of fans and not people like you and me who grew up listening to music in a very specific way.
Olavi: Yeah! Actually, I think that…I don’t mean to say anything bad about the kids today, but I believe that our generation, we kind of learned how to really appreciate what we had as we didn’t really have that much, you know?
• We couldn’t buy things that frequently!
Olavi: When I was a kid, I used to buy one record a month and the one I bought I listened to it until I fu*king knew it by heart (laughs) or if it wasn’t to my taste I could always trade it with somebody. Today there’s so much out there! Of course that is the future and so even guys like you and me have to comply, you know?
• Otherwise we will not listen to any new music ever again!
• You do need to adapt, especially if you are a professional musician and your livelihood depends on it. I do however remember fondly the days when I would sit around my stereo with my friends and listen to the latest acquired album, which I still consider to be the ultimate listening experience. Now that the rhythms of life are relentlessly fast and people are constantly on the go, music experience translates to an IPod and listening to music on the tube to or from work. Do these people pay enough attention to music? We will never know! Do you think that, at some point, Amon Amarth will adapt to such an extent that you will eventually start selling your music to people without having the need to use intermediates for that very task?
Olavi: Hmm…I don’t know! I mean…I don’t know – I kind of hope not because I think that by yourself you will never be able to reach out to many people. Sure, you can sell your music through your homepage or other Internet channels, but even if the Internet is a huge thing, it is not everything! I am probably the one guy in the band that really resists new technology – I don’t even have an IPod and I will probably never have as I always listen to CDs.
• Well, even the CD is s massive step for some people – people who still prefer vinyl as a medium!
Olavi: Yeah, but I cannot put a vinyl player in my car, you know what I mean (laughs). If I could, I would probably do that!
• Olavi, “Surtur Rising” has been out for quite a few months now, it’s been tried and tested and you have seen the reaction of the people and experienced high positions in the album charts, especially in places like the US which is a difficult market for Heavy Metal. Fredrik mentioned during our chat that if there was any pressure to come up with this album that would have mainly been felt by either you or Johan (Hegg: vocals). If I ask you to mentally go back a few months to the time that the album was in its finishing creative stages, do you remember at all feeling intimidated having to top an album as successful as “Twilight Of The Thunder God” (2008)?
Olavi: Of course I was under pressure, it would be a lie if I were to say no, but on the other hand, I am well aware of what it is that we can achieve as a band and, in the end, I am well aware of the fact that we can deliver the goods. I know that we can deliver because we never settle for anything less. We are in a good position where we do not feel that we need to hurry up with things. If we don’t feel that we have a great album to create then we just wait a few more months until better ideas appear. Nobody can ever tell us when we need to do things or give us a specific time frame with regards recording an album – we are the ones to provide such a time frame. With that said, I am not worried at all, but of course you feel pressured as it is always difficult to top certain songs but that motivated me as well. This time around with “Surtur Rising”, I experienced writer’s block for a couple of months, at the very time that we were supposed to start writing, but luckily Johan Söderberg (guitars) came up with more ideas this time round. This is more like a 50/50 album, whereas “Twilight Of The Thunder God” was more like a 70/30 album in my favour. That was indeed very convenient as I didn’t really have as many ideas as I thought I would. Yeah, I think that “Surtur Rising” is a great album and it does well especially in the US, a place that we have toured to twice and we have played the album in its entirety – something that is quite unusual for new albums to happen. It is cool to see people’s reaction when we do that.
• You know what; “Surtur Rising” is such a strong album that I would personally be more than happy to have you guys performing it in its entirety here, even if that means skipping a few much loved classics in the process . Is there anything about this album that you would have done differently had you been given the chance?
Olavi: That happens to me all the time! I believe that the day when I am going to be completely happy with the way a whole song or an album is made, then that will be the time that I will begin contemplating quitting this band as I would have felt that I would have reached my limits as an artist. I always find stuff in my songs that people think are amazing but I still think like “no, maybe we should have done things like that”, you know? That is the experience that I take with me next time that we do something similar and I then say to myself “oh yeah, now we are going to do this thing the other way and see what happens”. I would say that the day that you are completely satisfied is the day you have reached the end.
• I guess that every single recording experience in itself creates new ideas for you as an artist right?
Olavi: Yes, of course. Form every recording session that you make you learn something new!
• Do you find that in your style of music, which is very specific and easily recognisable to you, there is still room for further evolution? Do you still feel capable of pushing the boundaries of your creativity?
Olavi: I certainly hope so, however, we also don’t want to move too far away from our sound and style. I think that our goal is to kind of stick to our roots, well not our roots but to those elements that make us who we are, but still manage to make things interesting. We could make things interesting by maybe working on different tones or stuff but style wise no – I really cannot see us…I cannot see us using melodic vocals, for instance!
• That would be pretty strange…
Olavi: We like to play fairly down tuned guitars, even if it doesn’t always sound like we do but I cannot imagine us not doing that – not playing down tuned guitars. Of course we try to progress as a band and we also grow as people and our tastes also change with us so…we will see.
• Just a few hours prior to coming to the venue I checked the band’s website and I happily discovered that quite a few shows in the European leg of this tour are already sold out. It has to feel great, knowing that you will go to a fully packed venue playing for people who are desperately waiting to see you guys live. This tour features two other pretty diverse bands- the symphonic Deathsters Septicflesh and the fairly popular Metalcore act As I Lay Dying. How are you enjoying the experience of touring with these guys?
Olavi: I personally think that touring with these guys is brilliant. I like the idea of having three totally different bands playing together rather than having three bands which sound exactly the same. I believe that this makes things more interesting also for the audience to see three completely different bands in the same night. I like it – I really like both these bands and if we didn’t like any of those bands then they would not have been taking part in our tour because in the end, it is always us who gets to choose which bands we are going to tour with.
• In any such billing there’s always the challenge for the opening acts to win over fans of the headlining band. Do you believe that, as the headlining act, you feel equally motivate to steal some of the fans that would have come to see the opening acts? Will that be in the back of your minds tonight you reckon?
Olavi: Of course, and also these band are trying to have a kickass show and so we have to step up our performances as a result. In a way, we have to be even more kickass than them (laughs). I think it’s good as everybody is pushing each other! At times that we have been the opening act for other bands, for instance to bands like Slayer, whose crowd is well known to be tough towards support acts, we have to ensure that when we go out we give our very best and if it so happens that we win over some of them in the process then we have truly reached our goal.
• So far we have been very lucky as fans to have seen you guys perform in some really interesting settings; having had a massive long boat on stage, or re-enactment societies creating a battle environment for us to enjoy. Are you still interested in that visual aspect of your shows?
Olavi: Definitely! I think that you always need to try and make things interesting for the fans as coming to an Amon Amarth show is not only about seeing us as people – it is the whole package. There are specific stage arrangements that we take with us on our current European tour and next time that we will come over we will bring with us something completely different.
• Fredrik told me a few months ago that you guys are no longer interested in spending a massive amount of money for big production videos – a real shame as you have made some truly amazing videos in that format over the years, culminating in “Twilight Of The Thunder God” epos. He did mention that you were planning on filming two low budget videos while on tour in the US – did that take place at all?
Olavi: Yeah! By the time we had “Surtur Rising” delivered to Metal Blade we told them that we were not interested in doing any videos for it. I mean sure, it’s nice to have a video on YouTube, but it will only be YouTube that will be playing it! A few years ago there were at least a few Metal TV channels. Doing a very expensive clip and having a hundred people working for it nowadays, only to have it screened in a small screen on the Internet…it’s not really worth it! So yes, we decided to do something that would be low budget, a live version for “Destroyer of the Universe”, as we haven’t really done a live video recently. I believe that the days of music videos, as far as I see, are well over. People that come to your shows will film them on their mobile phones, some being better quality than others, and they will eventually find their way on YouTube. If you do a search on YouTube under the name Amon Amarth you will find so many entries there, so I don’t really see the point why we should add one more!
• That is a good point, plus you could use that money on something that will potentially be more significant to the band.
Olavi: Yes, exactly. We can use that money to create a much cooler stage set for instance.
• Now that you mentioned it, if somebody was to come to you today and say that they are willing to give you an enormous amount of money in order to stage the ultimate Amon Amarth show what would you go for? I have one really good idea that is, unfortunately, impossible to implement – not even for all the money in the world!
Olavi: Well, that would definitely involve a huge, huge Viking show – a Viking ship that will be so huge…I don’t know. What’s your idea?
• I would do what Nero used to do in ancient Rome – flood the Colosseum and stage a naval battle – now, that would be a show to remember right?
Olavi: Yeah, that sounds fu*king awesome (laughs). Seriously, it would be so fun to do something like that as I really like to have a huge and pretty messy battle with tons of pyro being used – what Rammstein are doing times ten!
• It is probably too early to ask, as you guys are still touring for “Surtur Rising” and you will continue to do so till the end of November if my memory serves me right, but have you started contemplating what the next Amon Amarth album will be like or are you blocking the whole writing process when you are on tour?
Olavi: I think that each member of the band is different when it comes to that thing. I never block…I used to block…when we wrote “With Oden On Our Side” I took a whole year off from creating new material and it was only one year later that I began working on new material. Between “With Oden On Our Side” and “Twilight Of The Thunder God” I did the exact opposite; I brought with me recording equipment when we were on tour and I wrote my best parts of “Twilight Of The Thunder God” while on tour. Between “Twilight Of The Thunder God” and “Surtur Rising” I didn’t really have a plan – I just worked on material when I really felt like doing so. This time round I am going to try to, you know, start to write early, even though there is not even a plan as to have a new album out any time soon. I am going to collect material and I have already done so – I think that I already have ideas ready for three songs! These of course are just ideas and there is a lot of work to be done still before they turn into songs! Yeah, that is how I am going to work now and of course we have to have a plan as we cannot simply take things day by day – things cannot work like that. Of course we have a plan! We have like maybe…that month we will go to the studio to record; we don’t know which studio that will be and with whom we will work just yet. The only thing we know is that around that period it will happen. But, having said that, if we are offered to open up for a band like Megadeth or whatever, then of course we will have to change these plans.
• That’s good to know – do you plan on becoming slightly more specific here?
Olavi: No, no (laughs).
• Shame on you! You build up all this tension and in the end you reveal nothing!
Olavi: I know (laughs).
• Well, whatever your plans are I know for a fact that they will be implemented as you are quite a methodical band. Thank you very much for your time! I hope that you will enjoy tonight’s show.
Olavi: You’re welcome!
Last edited Thu Nov 24 22:13:33 2011
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