Interview with guitarist and keyboardist Markus Laakso
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: December 29, 2012
Kuolemanlaakso ("Death Valley" in English) is a completely new entity in the Finnish Metal scene. The band was formed as a side project by Markus Laakso, his intention to create something totally different from his other band, Chaosweaver, and was heavily influenced by Triptokyn's 2010 debut album, Eparistera Daimones.
Soon, Markus put flesh around the bones of Kuolemanlaakso. The line-up features some very experienced musicians from other Finnish acts including Swallow the Sun, Elenium and The Cult of Endtime. Triptykon/Dark Fortress guitarist V. Santura's is strongly involved in it, too, as a guest musician as well as co-producing, mixing,mastering and engineering-wise.
Mr. Laakso took some time to shed some light on his whole Kuolemanlaakso project, giving us a full root cause analysis of the formation of the band.
Luxi: Kuolemanlaakso is an interesting entity and features some key musicians from the Finnish Metal scene, plus one special character who also made his guest appearance on the debut studio album, Uljas Uusi Maailma. How did the whole Kuolemanlaakso project get started? What kinds of things pushed you to create something different from your main band, Chaosweaver?
Laakso: The band, or project at that state, got started soon after I heard Eparistera Daimones by Triptykon, and got seriously hooked on it. We were making Chaosweaver's Enter the Realm of the Doppelgänger (2012) at the time. Every now and then I had nothing to do at the studio because the other guys were sleeping, playing PS3 or just hanging around so I decided to start composing and demoing Triptykon-influenced music with Finnish lyrics.
I recorded a demo of a few tunes. The songs attracted so much buzz from my musician friends that I decided to put an end to the one-man thing and start up a real band.
Musically speaking, I wanted to keep things simple, dark, heavy and evil. No gimmicks, just real rootsy metal.
Luxi: Uljas Uusi Maailma was recorded at several studios. Was it hard to focus on this record and maintain the original idea and concept that you carried with you since the beginning?
Laakso: Well, all the basic tracks, meaning drums, bass and guitars, were recorded at Woodshed, Germany, so it wasn't a hard task at all. I had previously recorded a demo with keyboard tracks of each song at my home studio and/or at Chaosweaver drummer Jack Tyger's Studio Perkele. I didn't have to re-record them afterwards; I just played a bit with a different set of sounds at Studio Perkele, which has a much wider selection of software than mine.
In other words, when we were finished with the Woodshed session, the album was pretty much done with the exception of vocals, which are usually recorded last anyway.
Our guitarist, Kouta, is a studio geek by education and has a lot of experience in recording, mixing and producing albums. He and Mikko recorded the vocals together in various places in Helsinki, and I recorded "Roihusydän" at my studio. The track has only vocals, witch drum and my son's Moomin maracas, ha-ha...!! The whole thing features just me, and none of the other guys.
Luxi: Was the choice of the Finnish language part of your personal artistic vision for Kuolemanlaakso's doom and death sound?
Laakso: Yes. That is something I had never seriously tried before. On this project, I did a lot of stuff for the first time. For example, I had never tried a drop tuning. As it turned out, I wrote all the songs for this album with a drop c tuning, except "Roihusydän," of course.
Writing lyrics in Finnish is extremely hard, because the language is so harsh. It's a tough task to make the words sound good on top of the music, and at the same time avoid sounding corny with stuff you're actually singing about.
I also wanted this album to reflect my own personal life somehow. A lot of the texts are based on real life. Some of the deepest stuff is "concealed" between the lines and in metaphors. The lyrics are also somewhat poetic, and at times philosophical.
It would have been a safer choice to stick with English, but what this band truly represents is love for the mystique of Finnish forests, folklore and melancholy. Thus, the lyrics are in Finnish.
Luxi: There's a song called "Roihusydän ("Flare Heart")" on the album which of reminds me of thee unique yet legendary Finnish Rock band Sielun Veljet. There are some elements rooted in a primitive shamanism. Was it a coincidence that this song turned the way it did?
Laakso: Yes, Sielun Veljet was certainly one of the key influences of "Roihusydän." Their music is very much based on shamanic rhythms and evoking the primordial senses, as is "Roihusydän." Another important source of inspiration was "My Wild Love" by The Doors.
I came up with the concept and basic structure of the song at Linnanmäki amusement park in Helsinki. I was standing beside an old rollercoaster waiting for my wife.
All of the sudden I heard the witch drum beat and shamanic chant in my head, and remembered a poem, which I had written more than a decade ago. I combined the elements right then and there, and hummed the whole thing on my iPhone. When my wife arrived from the rollercoaster ride, the whole thing was done and "demoed". Sometimes, great ideas drop out of the sky.
Luxi: Which songs on this record make you very darn proud of your musical accomplishments?
Laakso: I'm actually very proud of all of them. The whole thing started with "Minä Elän," a song which people seem to really dig, so that's a key track. V. Santura actually told me that he thinks that the main riff of "Minä Elän" is "the riff of the year." He keeps hearing it in his head all the time; while doing dishes, while driving, while cooking, etc. That was a great compliment, as I am a big fan of his bands, Triptykon and Dark Fortress.
Some of my favorite parts on the album include the chorus of "Kuun Lapset," the intro melody of "Nostos & Algos" (which was actually written by our bassist Usva), the first part of "Etsin," the Amorphis-like melody of "Uljas Uusi Maailma" and the whole "Ikiuni" and "Aurinko" songs.
Of all the tracks, "Ikiuni's" arrangement is the one I worked on the hardest. There must have been a dozen different versions of it, and I think it turned out superb. "Aurinko" is another highlight. We had the basic riffs and melodies for it, but the arrangement was completely undone. Victor is the guy who sewed it all together. He did an amazing job on it in addition to coming up with killer leads on the intro and the chorus! Can't thank him enough for that.
Luxi: Eino Leino's collection of poems, Helkavirsiä, has had a deep impact on your lyrics. Was it your intention, right from the beginning, to pay tribute to his past works, and fit them into the concept of Kuolemanlaakso?
Laakso: I had written some of the stuff down before I consciously decided to search for inspiration from that book. What I most love about Leino's style is the use of old and forgotten Finnish words, building slowly towards the climax and using a lingual rhythm, which fits perfectly into this kind of heavy-ass shit.
"Kuun Lapset" has a few excerpts, which are borrowed directly from Leino's poem by the same name, but all the other stuff is from me. Some of the lines are very much influenced by Leino, but not all of them.
Luxi: Were there other things, music or non-music, that inspired you during the creative process for Kuolemanlaakso's debut album, Uljas Uusi Maailma?
Laakso: Yeah, real life experiences for one. As they say, sometimes truth is stranger than fiction. I was deeply mind-fucked by Triptykon's Eparistera Daimones. If I hadn't heard it, his band would not exist. There is obviously a much wider selection of influences than just Leino, Triptykon, the Finnish woods and my own experiences, but those four are probably the biggest ones. There are, for example, some references to Sielun Veljet, The Doors, Twin Peaks & Angelo Badalamenti and Amorphis, as well as movies and literature.
Luxi: What about the cover concept for Uljas Uusi Maailma? Was it relatively easy to figure out the type of album artwork you would wrap your songs up with, something to reflect the content of the album itself?
Laakso: I had decided at a very early state, way before recording the album, that the cover artwork would be hand-made and would feature an owl for symbolical and inter-textual reasons. I saw an a owl drawing by the 18-year old Maldivian, soon-to-be-star, artist Maahy Abdul Muhsin, and I immediately send him an email and asked if he'd be interested in providing the artwork for us. Gladly, he said yes, and was very enthusiastic about the project, because he liked my ideas and the concept of the album.
The front cover represents Uljas Uusi Maailma, the brave new world. On that song, this world burns up in flames and drowns in the ocean. On the ending track, "Aurinko," a new world rises from the ashes. Everybody is equal at birth, point zero. Nobody is richer or poorer than the next guy. All debts are wiped out. It's all about survival. Would we make it this time around and did we learn from the mistakes that will ultimately be the demise of this world?
Luxi: What's the best place for inspiration? Wandering in a silent wood is the place for many of us northern-born, breathing, smelling and feeling the forests. Does this work for you?
Laakso: Yes, but it's not absolutely necessary. I just usually grab my axe and start testing if something cool comes out. Most of the time, I record the riffs on the spot with my iPhone or in my home studio. I have an annoying tendency of forgetting them, if I don't record them while they are fresh...
There is an ancient forest in my backyard. Literally. I love taking long walks and spending time there. I'm sure this album would be quite different if I didn't. I love it all; the look, the feel, the smell, the majesty, the atmosphere, you name it. I actually came up with the lyrical concept for the next one a couple days ago as I was walking on a small path, surrounded by gigantic trees and small streams.
Luxi: Can you tell us about Santura's (of Triptokyn/Dark Fortress fame) input on Uljas Uusi Maailma? Did he give you any useful tips or guidance when you visited his Woodshed Studios?
Laakso: Many of the songs on the album were recorded almost 1:1 compared to my demo versions. I guess everybody thought that the arrangements worked on those, and they didn't need fixing. But for some songs, "Aurinko" and "Uljas uusi maailma" in particular, his input was tremendous.
Sounds are his thing. When I started recording my parts, Victor did a little bit of knob turning and said, "hit a chord and tell me how it sounds." I almost fell flat on my ass, because the sound was so fucking great and brutal! That was that, no changes made. Same thing with the other instruments. That guy's a sound god, really.
He also provided some leads where they were needed, and did a little bit of experimenting with the sounds. One of the coolest and most important things about his participation in this project was the way he made everybody feel at home. His sense of studio psychology is unbeatable. If somebody felt like crap or things didn't work out as well as the musician had hoped for, he always found a way to cheer us up and make us do our best very gently and in good spirit. He's a really, really nice guy. I bet that Triptykon and Dark Fortress fans don't even have a clue how smart and sharp that guy is, because he is more of a background character. I feel honored and privileged to know him.
Luxi: Did he, at any point during those recording sessions, compare Kuolemanlaakso to Triptykon, trying to push you toward the dark, sinister and bowels-turning, heavy soundscapes found from Triptykon's 2010 debut album, Eparistera Daimones?
Laakso: Not directly, and not by any means in a negative context. He did say that if "Minä Elän" was arranged a bit differently, it could easily be a Triptykon song. He also mentioned that he wishes he had written the groovy bending riff of "Uljas Uusi Maailma" for his own band, and that the intro of "Aurinko" should have been on the next Triptykon album. The whole lead guitar thing on "Aurinko" was written and executed by the man himself. He also asked me to translate the lyrics of "Etsin" for him, as he liked the song so much. In my books, there couldn't have been much larger compliments.
Luxi: How much improvising did you do when you entered the studio? Were there many changes to the songs as you had originally demoed them?
Laakso: This is actually the first album that any of my bands has really rehearsed for. As I said, some of the songs followed the footsteps of the demos almost identically, but on some tracks there was a lot more spontaneity involved.
"Nostos & Algos" is a good example. The intro melody used to be the same as the ending melody, but Usva revamped it to sound a lot less like Timo Rautiainen & Trio Niskalaukaus and a lot more like Amorphis. That song is probably the most laid back and jamming sort of tune in other aspects as well. There were some modulations, re-worked melodies, experimenting with guitar and bass sounds and so forth on it, but the basic structure is still pretty much the same as on the demo.
"Uljas Uusi Maailma" is another good example. "Aurinko," too. The original version "Etsin" got updated at our rehearsal place on the last day of rehearsing and just before leaving for Germany. It was a band effort.
Luxi: Without you, of course, Kuolemanlaakso would never have been nor sound like Kuolemanlaakso, as this band is your project from start to finish. How much have your band mates helped you create this infamous vision and infernal sound?
Laakso: They provided a lot of fresh ideas and brought their own signature style of playing to the songs. Kouta, Usva and Tiera are far more superior musicians than I am as far as technicality is concerned, which exactly why I wanted to recruit them. And don't even get me started on Mikko's vocal abilities, ha-ha...!!
So, everyone brought their own bag of goodies to the table and this is what came out. I'd like to point out that Victor's slice of cake was a big one. He contributed more to the arrangements on some songs than the rest of us. I consider him as an "honorary member".
Luxi: Do you believe that working with Kuolemanlaakso gives you access to create whatever you want, to a certain degree?
Laakso: It has certainly given me access to do whatever I want artistically. This time it's mostly me, who's doing the limiting, which is necessary. This band is supposed to sound heavy, dark and evil. The only other acceptable option is super melancholic. Those are the unwritten rules. Other than that, there are no limits.
Chaosweaver is a three-songwriter democracy. In this band, I'm the "benevolent dictator." I listen to everyone's opinions, and if their ideas are better than mine, we go with those. I'm sure there will be tracks by other band members on the next Kuolemanlaakso albums. I actually just received a text message from Usva stating that he'd like to come down and record some of his ideas at my place. I think that's great, because it brings more flavors to the soup.
I don't want to sound like a dick, but this is still first and foremost my band. I started it to have complete artistic freedom without compromises. Don't get me wrong, I absolutely love doing stuff for Chaosweaver, but at times it can be tough and time-consuming with so many different opinions on every little detail.
Luxi: What did you learn from these recording sessions with Santura?
Laakso: If you want to sound heavy, you don't need eight rhythm guitar tracks on top of each other. On this album, as well as on the Triptykon album, there are just two rhythm guitar tracks on every song, and that's it.
Some engineers, like for example Kouta, are much more precise than Victor is. Victor wanted the best possible takes with the most emotion, not just the technically "correct" one. That's why the album sounds raw and "live," which is exactly what we were going for. It gave us a chance to sound like we actually do, and not like a machine.
Santura has a lot of tricks up his sleeve, so if we wanted a certain kind of a sound, he'd wave his magic wand (not a reference to genitals) and after a while the sound was there, bigger and badder than we expected. We will definitely continue the cooperation, if our schedules match. We've already been planning it together.
Luxi: Are you aiming to play live with Kuolemanlaakso someday and will you use the actual recording line-up or some hired musicians?
Laakso: Yes, we are, and with the complete line-up. We've got at least a couple of shows coming up in December, and we just signed a booking deal with RedBerg Agency (HIM, Moonsorrow, Mayhem etc.). We've got some super exciting plans for the near future and I sure hope everybody involved will give us the green light!
Luxi: A band's visual side is always important, especially when it comes down to playing live. Do you have some special settings in mind for the Kuolenmanlaakso live show?
Laakso: We're working on that right now, actually. As you hinted, it's better to stand out than look exactly the same as the audience, but it won't be as theatric as Chaosweaver, that's for sure. The live setting should look the same way as we sound.
Luxi: Will there be a continuation of this project, record-wise? I hope you won't let Kuolemanlaakso be just a one record "miracle." It's too good to be abandoned after having just one album, correct?
Laakso: Yeah, this is not a project, it's a real band. I've already got some new stuff cooking, as do Usva and Kouta. If everything goes as planned, the second Kuolemanlaakso release will see the light of day next year.
That's how I'd like the band to operate; to make great albums, do live shows and always keep writing. No unnecessary breaks, no extra hassle, just good times and ultra heavy music with great friends.
If you take a look at rock history, say The Doors' and KISS' discography, they were on the road all the time, but still had the time and effort to make awesome records. That's the direction I want to be heading to, not this mp3 chew once and throw away bullshit. I'm damn fucking happy that our albums will be released on vinyl as well as on cd! Old school rules.
Back to the Doors and KISS for a moment. KISS released KISS and Hotter than Hell in 1974, Dressed to Kill in 1975, Destroyer and Rock and Roll Over in 1976 and Love Gun in 1977. That's six classic albums in three years!
The same pattern occurred with the Doors. They released The Doors and Strange Days in 1967, Waiting for the Sun in 1968, The Soft Parade in 1969, Morrison Hotel in 1970 and L.A. Woman in 1971, which is at least one record every year. Black Sabbath too! In my books, The Doors and Ozzy's Sabbath are the greatest bands in the history of recorded music.
If you can keep the standard high, why hit the brake pedal? I really, really hope Kuolemanlaakso will have the chance to follow these footsteps; to make great albums, with no pointless breaks. This would never work with Chaosweaver as the songs are so detailed, and take a helluva lot of time to perfect. Composing Kuolemanlaakso stuff is very natural and quite fast for me.
Luxi: What about doing a split release with Triptykon in the future? Would this be completely out of question?
Laakso: I'd shit bricks if we were given the opportunity to do so. Some live shows with Triptykon would also be killer. So, if you are a promoter, please contact our agent about this matter immediately. =)
Luxi: Thank you for taking some time to do this interview, Markus and, as always, all the best with all your future band/project endeavors. If you want to make some last comments, then by all means, be my guest...
Laakso: Thanks again, Luxi! Check out our latest music video, and tell us what you think. You can write to us directly to the band via Facebook (www.facebook.com/kuolemanlaakso).
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