Interview with guitarist Kimmo Kuusniemi
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: June 11, 2021
Finnish heavy metal legends Sarcofagus decided to call it quits in December 2020 after 43 long years, five full-lengths, a live album, a compilation and, in March 2021, their so-called swansong, a 4-song cassette called Absence of Light on Hungarian label Old Skull Productions.
Sarcofagus are often mentioned as the godfathers of Finnish heavy metal as they started out back in 1977 and were the first Finnish heavy rock/metal band that had a real stage show (with a flame-throwing guitar and stage shows based on the mysteries of ancient Egypt and black magic in their early days). Even if Sarcofagus are no more, it goes without saying their musical legacy will live on from one generation of metalheads to the next.
Kimmo Kuusniemi, who's always been the heart and soul of the band, is far from being completely retired from making new music. In fact, as it is said when one thing comes to an end, often it's the start of something new.
We here at The Metal Crypt headquarters decided to contact Kimmo once again and ask about his decision to let Sacrofagus go for good as well as what he has been up to since.
How's life in the partly Coronavirus-ridden England these days?
Kimmo: For me personally, COVID-19 has been a weird blessing in disguise because I have been working mainly in the film business and secondarily in music. When Corona happened, it ruined all my film plans. That was a good moment for me to contemplate what I wanted to do next.
In the past, I've gone through a lot of big radical changes in work. In that way, coronavirus was just a new type of problem to solve, "Okay, this is the situation, I have to do something else." For me, it was a really good thing as, for the first time I have been a professional musician for the whole year. I have been working on this exciting new music project, and I have never spent so much time in making music as I have now.
I think/hope that you can hear this extra effort in the end result, the difference of putting 100% into the music. Making the Core Values album was a bit similar as I put a lot of time into it, but I still was working on films at the same time.
In a weird way, it has been good for me because it has enabled me to completely focus on music making, which is what I really want to do.
REMEMBERING THE PAST
First off, I understand that a lot of things happened in the Sarcofagus camp in the past year. Many months ago, you mentioned to me that you have been working, slowly but surely, on a new album, which will be released under the Kimmo Kuusniemi name instead of Sarcofagus. Could you tell our readers why you dropped these plans? Did you feel you didn't have anything left in your tank of creativity?
Kimmo: If you have a band like Sarcofagus that is sort of a cult band, the problem is that most of the people who are fans are sort of still living in the past. What I made in 1980 and '81 is what the fans want to hear. In a way, Sarcofagus was like a prison. So, I had been thinking for quite a long time that I need to end Sarcofagus and set myself free.
I think Core Values was a good example. I'm very proud of the album. Some of the fans understood that 25 years after the original albums, Core Values is different, it cannot be the same.
An Italian record label called Mellotron re-released the old Sarcofagus CDs in the '90s. When they heard that I was making a new album, they were so excited, but when it was finished and they had heard it, they said to me, "You cannot release this album. This is not what we want." It turned out that they wanted me to do exactly what I had done with the Envoy of Death album. I got quite annoyed about this.
This gives you an idea of the type of challenges you have with the band like Sarcofagus. You cannot really be yourself and express yourself and do what you want if you use the band's name. Well, you can, but it means that people who are fans of the band won't like it.
Then we did that little comeback tour, and we did the Back from the Valley of the Kings album, which I really like. I always wanted to do some of the old songs again. I thought that the Envoy of Death and Cycle of Life album songs were good, but I wasn't that pleased with the outcome.
For me Back from the Valley of the Kings was brilliant in the way we remade then songs; respecting the past but trying to bring them a little bit to the present day. I think we succeeded in this.
All the CDs that were made are nearly gone. I just have a few left, I believe.
What an artist wants from a band is very different from what the fans want. Of course, it should be the artists first and foremost, who decide what they want to do. It was not that I did not have ideas for a new Sarcofagus album, but it would have been pointless to use that name as it would not have lined up with the fans' expectations.
Time to change course and listen to my inner voice.
This new project has been on my mind for a long time and now it has been my main project for the past year.
One thing people don't really know is that heavy metal is just part of my musical background. I also listen to progressive, jazz, experimental music. All kinds of things that are already in Sarcofagus but also still very strongly present in me.
Since '85 I've been making film music for hundreds/thousands of films. I've been composing all kinds of music from techno to orchestral music.
I like film music because it's made for a purpose, and you have the instant reaction from the audience.
What I'm doing now is a combination of my much more complicated music background than just heavy metal. Of course, heavy metal is there, because that's part of me.
When I re-released Core Values I did say, long before COVID-19, that I am tired of metal lyrics about doomsday and darkness because the world is dark enough, so we don't really need to sing about those topics anymore.
I have lots of good memories and about Sarcofagus. Sarcofagus is not forgotten, but it has had its time.
You mentioned that unlike Sarcofagus' Core Values album, this new album was supposed to bring up some lighter and more positive sides of life lyrically, the main topic being love in its many forms. What made you abandon this pretty unconventional love topic? Some heavy metal purists may even think love isn't much of a topic for metal music at all...
Kimmo: I think you have slightly misunderstood the planned last album by Sarcofagus, Absence of Light. It would have been dark and heavy. The world is full of bad things, and that was what the album was meant to be.
No, I'm not going to make a love-song album. The new project I'm working on now has no lyrics at all. The main idea is that the vocals are used as an instrument. There are messages, but they are in the songs and in the videos and in the atmospheric things that we have made.
That's the thing. The new project is going back to the old sagas and the stories from the past. Yes, it's different. I'm trying to tell the stories with the music, not the lyrics, so that's kind of different.
I remember you telling me that album's working title would have been Sampo, and for those who didn't know, the "Sampo" is a pivotal element of the Finnish epic poem Kalevala. With such an epic topic, did you feel your idea to build up the concept around the Sampo was perhaps a tad too massive?
Kimmo: The album's working title is not Sampo. That was just the song that I was using in one video clip. That song has been now remade completely. Now it has a Viking sagas name. Kalevala will be part of the new project as it mixes things from the different cultures and different epic stories like Gilgamesh, the Icelandic sagas, the Viking stories. We have songs from Siberia, Far East, and all around the world...
THE END IS HERE - ABSENCE OF LIGHT
Moving on, you ended up releasing a 4-track tape titled Absence of Light, which features two songs from the band's early single ("Go to Hell" and "All Those Lies"), originally released in 1979 as well as two re-recorded tracks ("Go to Hell" and "Astral Flyer") from 2008, recorded with the original lineup. Could you tell us about your decision to put this out as a 4-track cassette instead of doing one final studio album under the name of Sarcofagus? Do you feel that releasing Absence of Light is a perfect closing to the final chapter of the band?
Kimmo: Absence of Light is an EP. I thought that Toni Hietomaa's artwork for the album was so brilliant, I wanted to release something to get that album cover out.
I realized that with Hannu Leidén, we had actually recorded "Go to Hell" and "Astral Flyer" in 2008, but they hadn't really been released. "Astral Flyer" was used in the "Promised Land of Heavy Metal" film.
I thought that releasing them was a cool idea as we had the closest lineup to the original Sarcofagus playing on them. "Go to Hell" was the first single and then there's the "Go to Hell" 2008 version. Like you said, the EP is a perfect ending for the band as the first album was Cycle of Life, and the whole album ends with the song "Cycle Closes". It is like a perfect cycle.
The cassette release wasn't my idea, that was Toni Hietomaa because he works with Old Skull Productions, so he made it happen.
I thought that the EP is perfect and brilliant, and I thank Toni and Old Skull Productions for doing the release.
Absence of Light was limited to 41 hand-numbered copies. What happens when they are all gone? Any plans to satisfy the needs of those Sarcofagus fans that got their wake-up calls too late? I am positive there are more than 41 Sarcofagus fans in the whole world, right? ;o)
Kimmo: I was also quite surprised that the edition of Absence of Light was just 40 or 41 copies only. I think that's quite awesome. That's how it should be. When they are gone, they are gone. I think that's how limited editions should be.
Of course, I have few copies left. [laughs] I can put them out at high price now, or maybe not. I will probably do some kind of bundle because I also have the posters of Absence of Light.
THE MUSICAL LEGACY OF SARCOFAGUS
As Sarcofagus' saga has come to an end after 43 long years, I need to ask you which of the band's albums is your personal favorite and why? I know this is a pretty unfair question because it is like picking your favorite child, but still...
Kimmo: 43 years is a long time. Of course, Sarcofagus hasn't been active all this time. It's been on and off. From the albums, of course, my absolute favorite is Core Values because I think it is very modern, yet you can hear the '80s roots in there. I was very pleased with the reviews that were written about it. People really didn't know how to label the music, which is really brilliant. That's how it should be.
The other favorite album for me is Back from the Valley of the Kings because it has all the good, old Sarcofagus songs. That was my chance to be my own cover band and do the songs the way I would do them now.
There is clear separation between the new and the old. With the old ones, my absolute favorite is Moottorilinnut (Motorbirds in English). It had a fantastic lineup and it still sounds good after 40 years.
I find it quite interesting that in just two years Sarcofagus progressed from Cycle of Life to Envoy of Death to Motorbirds.
Cycle of Life was more blues and rock. It was also a compromise between me and Hannu because Hannu was more into American rock and I was going towards heavy metal, which didn't really exist back then, but was maybe living in my head.
Then Envoy of Death album was heavy metal in its song structure and with quite a lot of darkness.
Then Motorbirds was at that time, a perfectly ready heavy metal album. Again, maybe a little bit ahead of its time.
What do you miss most about the days of running the band?
Kimmo: I don't think that I will miss anything. But I do have plenty good memories.
In 2010 it was great to get back together after 30 years to play live again.
In the early '80s we weren't friends; we were a band. Hannu and I were always fighting about the leadership. When we went our separate ways in 1980, we were not on good terms.
It was great to meet a short lifetime later and then we could actually be more like friends. The comeback and working together was very pleasant and we were all enjoying it. When we were on the stage in 2010, it wasn't me and the band like it was in the past. It was us together. I thought that was brilliant.
There's nothing like playing for an audience. My new project will be touring.
I am writing a new chapter now. I'm not really a person who looks into the past. My focus is on future adventures.
Many people see you as a pioneering forefather of Finnish metal music due to Sarcofagus' precious, long-lasting legacy. How do you take that compliment?
Kimmo: One of the greatest compliments for an artist is that you have created something that you will be remembered for. I am actually very honored to be called the Godfather of Finnish Metal. Yeah! I think that is super cool!
ANCIENT STREAMING ASSEMBLY
As you stated yourself, "It is the end for Sarcofagus but a beginning of a new project". We are all ears, so would you kindly tell us about this new project and what people can expect in the coming months? What some of us already know is it will involve contributions from violin player Tuomas Rounakari (Korpiklaani) and bass player Steve DiGiorgio (Testament). What else would you like to share about this project with the readers of The Metal Crypt?
Kimmo: The project that we have been talking about in this interview is Ancient Streaming Assembly (ASA).
ASA is a collective cross-arts project. The idea of cross-arts is understood only from the very piece of art itself as it comes to life. It is defined by the moment artists in collaboration cross their own discipline borders to make art that is vibrant, alive, and speaks to an audience, small or large.
ASA is unravelling the ancient myths and legends of the world. These epic stories were songs first, so the music has always played a fundamental part in them.
I met Tuomas Rounakari in Siberia. Tuomas comes musically from a very different background than me. He's not a metalhead at all, but we are on the same wavelength with ASA. He is a kindred spirit. Tuomas is not just a collaborator in this, he is an integral part of it. The songs are mine, but Tuomas plays on all songs and he's also going to be in the lineup when we go touring.
Steve DiGiorgio from Testament plays on two songs. He is a collaborator. There are other collaborators and there will be more. This is just not about a band or an album. This is about a much bigger concept. It will be all revealed soon.
These new songs have the element of metal, but the music is definitely not metal. I call ASA "Nu World Music." :)
SURPRISE FACTOR WILL BE THERE
Do you believe this new project will be surprising maybe even shocking to some people, especially for those who have always expected Kimmo Kuusniemi to stay loyal to the sound of your biggest legacy, Sarcofagus?
Kimmo: I think it will be very surprising to a lot of people because it is very different. The cool thing is that I have a brilliant team of people working on it. This is new to me as I have always worked alone and done everything myself.
ASA has been a long project even for me. I've never spent so long on individual songs.
ASA has required plenty learning and inventing new ways to play instruments.
The first songs I finished over a year ago, but I had to completely remake them as they sounded very different from how the songs sound now. For me, it's been very cool and rewarding because I've been pushing my own boundaries, which is the whole idea of this project. Everybody who plays in ASA should try to leave their comfort zone and do something different.
When can we expect some teasers from this upcoming musical project of yours? By the summer 2021 perhaps?
Kimmo: There's no rush to get it out. We are taking our time to do it the right way but soon...
NEW MANAGEMENT COMPANY
You joined forces with Tarja Virmakari, Eugene O'Connor, Roberto Risso and Sakari Heiskanen to form Split Screen Management & Productions. All of you are professionals from many areas of the music industry, so would you tell how you actually got involved with this company and what's your strategy for the coming months?
Kimmo: Split Screen Productions is my company and has been around for some time. Eugene O'Connor and I have been working on and off together since early '90s.
I got to know Sakari about 2005 when he was a producer in YLE (Finnish Broadcasting Company).
He was the head of entertainment at YLE in 2008 when we did the "Promised Land of Heavy Metal" documentary.
The brilliant thing is that we all are on the same wavelength and our skills compliment one other.
Tarja Virmakari I've known for several years now. We started to talk more during the COVID time.
Tarja and Roberto were working in a management company, but they weren't too happy with how things were done there. They wanted to start fresh with a new company with me as the manager. I liked the idea as I thrive on new challenges. So that is how Split Screen Management was born.
The music management business is something I have been interested in doing. The music business is full of crooks so what we are trying to do is to create a fair and just service that will help bands to prosper. That's what we are trying to do.
Like I said, I enjoy challenges, so I take this as a new opportunity to push my own boundaries to some other direction.
All of us have a very long history of working in the entertainment business. So, besides the general management, we can help bands to avoid repeating the same old mistakes.
This COVID time is very hard on bands, but actually the only thing that has dramatically changed is that there are no concerts, otherwise bands can push forward as usual.
Do you have any plans to expand the Split Screen family in the future, getting more professionally experienced people to work with your gang?
Kimmo: Yes, of course. We are always looking for people to work with. That's always how it works and that's how I've always been, because I believe that working together is how we can get bigger things done. Yes, we are creating hopefully a nice network of different professionals that have mutual interests. That is the plan.
FIRE IS STILL BURNING...
How ambitious and goal-orientated are you after being active all these decades as a musician? Is there still something special that you'd like to achieve as a musician and where does your inner drive and fire come from?
Kimmo: Well, I am hyperactive, ambitious and goal orientated.
This music project I'm working on now, Ancient Streaming Assembly, is the most ambitious music production that I have ever attempted.
On the film side, I've done very complicated, big and ambitious projects thus far. In a way, that's what makes me tick. I can look back and say, "Wow, did I do that?" That's something that drives me. I don't want to play safe. You have to be able to dream big. That's not for everybody as big dreams also means big risks.
Hyperactive people have a lot of energy. The more complicated things you do, the more energy you need. Also, these big projects take a lot of money, so you have to have 100% trust in yourself that you know what you're doing.
There's an old joke about a film-maker. A person comes with a great idea:
Film-maker: "Great idea, do you have any budget?"
Person: "No, we don't have any money."
Film-maker: "Well, let's do it anyway."
This is what I am always trying to avoid. I do get easily excited and get involved in projects that are great but not wise to do...
The Korpiklaani documentary films were a good example. They ended up costing me personally quite dearly because in the end the financing went very wrong. It was a big challenge to finish them, but I did, and they are good films that I am proud of.
Would I do them again if I had a chance to go back in time? Of course, I would do them again because it was great experience to go through Siberia and Russia and then Japan.
I think some of the best memories come from hardships that you overcome.
I'm really happy that I haven't lost the drive. I haven't lost the need to do something new and something bigger and better than before.
The future is, of course, unwritten but I am sure curious parties would like to know whether you have ever thinking of releasing all the Sarcofagus albums in one single boxed set with liner notes, never-before-seen pictures, unreleased demo songs, video material, etc.? It goes without even saying but that kind of thing would be absolutely amazing...
Kimmo: I'm always open to ideas, but I'm not planning any Sarcofagus releases myself.
Nuclear War Now! Productions, the Los Angeles-based label, are reissuing the Envoy of Death album on vinyl. That's something that is happening for sure.
I have some old, never released rehearsal tapes that might be used... not sure yet.
We'll see what happens.
... AND THE FINAL THOUGHTS?
Thank you very much for this chat about your future plans, Kimmo. It's always such a pleasure and an honor to talk to you. The last commentary is for you, so be my guest... ;o)
Kimmo: Well, thank you for doing this interview and it's always nice to do these.
COVID-19 has been just horrendous for everyone and especially bad for the entertainment industry.
A bad thing can also be a good thing.
The bad thing was that COVID-19 ruined everything I had been working for. The good thing was that it made me rethink my life and as a result I now have a new music project well underway, and I met great people to start up a management business.
I hope that other people might also be looking at their lives to re-evaluate what is actually important.
Time to try to turn bad things into good and new?
|Other information about Sarcofagus on this site|
|Review: Cycle of Life|
|Review: Envoy of Death|
|Interview with guitarist Kimmo Kuusniemi on April 21, 2019 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)|
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