Interview with guitarist Anton Kabanen
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: November 4, 2021
Transcription and translation by Terhi Lahtinen
Live pictures by Tatjana Braun, Mike Carignan, Cristina Gregori, Sami Hinkkanen and Pixx From The Pit
Thanks to Silke from Nuclear Blast Records for setting up the interview
Beast in Black rose dramatically from the ashes of Battle Beast in 2015 and guitarist Anton Kabanen, with his fellow beasts, have released two very well-received and successful albums, Berserker (2017) and From Hell with Love (2019). The band has been getting stronger and stronger with each release, which has been helped by touring the globe, although that has been tough due to the prevailing Covid-19 pandemic that's been raging around the world.
The band's third album, Dark Connection, released on October 29, 2021, brings us 11 new Beast songs on a silver platter, all following the beasts' uncompromising vision, which mastermind and guitarist Anton Kabanen set since departing from his previous band.
The Metal Crypt had the pleasure of sitting down with Anton to talk about the band's current situation in the world of the pandemic, how it has affected the band's comings and goings, the pleasure (and pain) of both song and lyric writing and all kinds of other stuff related to the band's existence.
IN CONNECTION WITH THE DARK WORLD
First of all, my sincere congratulations on your third album, Dark Connection. What was the song writing process like for this album compared to the two previous albums, Berserker (2017) and From Hell with Love (2019)?
Anton: In fact, it was pretty much the same. Musically, could I call it a challenge? Maybe, yeah, the musical challenge is always the same, and the method of how an album is made is also always the same. I go through my old songs, song skeletons and ideas, which also inspires me to make new songs and, in the end, the result is a kind of hybrid of past and present. Once the songs are selected, the process of writing the lyrics begins. It was actually a little more challenging this time and took longer than usual, half a year. It was really painful to give birth to the texts, but in the end, I am completely happy with the lyrics. Making music is the best part and it is fun, the best phase in making an album. After that, the more difficult parts start, i.e., lyrics, recording, editing, producing, mixing and mastering. Those are things you just have to do.
You established the band's recognizable and distinctive sound on the first two albums. Did you feel that you no longer had to think about what should have been done differently this time around?
Anton: Not really. I didn't even think about the whole thing. It didn't enter my mind. When you create art, whether it's painting or writing or making a movie or writing songs, you must be able to exclude the outside world and focus on your own vision and intuition. You have to trust what resonates in you as you go through the process then you choose the parts that work for you. The end result is what it is. This is how it has been since the beginning and the trademark style and sound of Beast in Black has indeed been very clear. I think that with this third album it was just expanded a bit and the album is a little heavier than the first or the second album, but at the same time there are also more synths. Same stuff but expanded. Still, it is diverse enough as a whole, there are slower and faster songs, different kinds of singing, different types of arrangements, lyrics, etc. On the whole, it has to be diverse. While we're offering that familiar Beast in Black trademark sound that is easily approachable for fans, that little extra brings freshness and perhaps interest, that there is also something else and it is not exactly the same as the first and second albums. Familiar enough but also a sufficient amount of something else.
So you are always looking for new and different nuances for your songs that have not been used on previous albums?
Anton: Kind of, yeah. It's strange that it's not a calculated thing, it just happens the way it happens. In a way, it is because we humans change all the time. At different times we resonate with different things, and then we want to tell everyone about those things. That is also why we cannot completely repeat our previous work, even if we wanted to. Even AC/DC only makes the same song all the time, but if you really cut them into pieces, the songs are not exactly the same, after all, but there is always that familiar feeling. Yes, our goal is to add a touch of freshness to our songs, but luckily it doesn't have to be calculated, it happens by itself.
A partially dominant theme on your new album is the so-called cyberpunk world, which is commonly associated with movies like Blade Runner and Mad Max, and the Armitage III animated series. Have you always been interested in the cyberpunk world and did you specifically want to include it as a new thing? On the new album, such songs as "Highway to Mars" and "Moonlight Rendezvous" refer to it.
Anton: It is an old familiar topic to me because two of the three albums I wrote for my ex-band Battle Beast were influenced by cyberpunk, and it's been ten years since that first album was released. For me personally, it is a return to the roots, or origins, but for Beast in Black it is a whole new profile. So, a familiar thing to me, but a new thing to BiB. There are so many animated movies, so much literature and art about this sci-fi subgenre of cyberpunk that you can just go and choose where to start writing. Armitage III was perhaps the biggest source of inspiration in the background for this album, and the Blade Runner movie as well. There was also an anime called Cyber City Oedo 808. Kind of niche stuff, not very mainstream, but they have something that has fascinated me for years. I thought that if I liked them for so many years, then maybe I should bring them out through the songs.
A FASCINATING CYBERPUNK WORLD
Have you ever had wild thoughts that it would be cool to place Beast in Black in the world of cyberpunk, for example, in the form of a half-hour animated short film? You as the band members would fight against evil creatures on the side of the good characters...
Anton: Actually, it would the other way around! [*laughs*]
Anton: Indeed. It's such an ambitious idea, we would be happy to carry out that kind of a "think-outside-the-box" thing and not do what bands normally do, i.e., album, tour, typical music videos. Such animation is very interesting. Some bands have done it, most recently Iron Maiden. Before them, there have been all sorts of artists who have made pixel animation videos. Gunship is one of the artists that has done it. We did "One Night in Tokyo," which is an animation clip that reminds me a little of the pixel art style but is not authentic pixel animation. Those videos have stories that are fun to tell. They have visual power, plus the song. In my opinion, a properly done animation or pixel is beautiful if there are good artists who do it. It also immediately adds value to the band when you get the "wow!" feeling realizing that they offer more than just songs and live gigs. So why not use that card, and we are trying to use it. That's why the first single we released, "Moonlight Rendezvous," offers a short film, and the second single, "One Night in Tokyo," was an animation-type thing. We offer something sort of unusual.
Because you haven't been able to play gigs due to the prevailing pandemic, I assume you probably wrote a number of new songs during these past months. Did you have a hard time choosing which songs to include to the album and which to leave off?
Anton: In fact, choosing the songs was in no way different from the previous albums. It was the same process as before. I first go through numerous songs and song skeletons, melodies and riffs I have written over the last nearly twenty years. Then I get new inspiration and write new songs. It then becomes a combination of both old and new. I didn't set out to make only new material now that I have time. Actually, the pandemic had no effect on how the songs were selected. It was a similar process as before. I had gone through a vast number of songs and eventually ended up with a small number, just under 20. Then the guys from the band listened to them and shared their opinions on which ones could be dropped. I listened to the feedback and 11 songs were left.
Did you have a clear vision for the order of the songs?
Anton: The first and the last songs were very clear with "Blade Runner" the first and "My Dystopia" the last. Everything else was a tough nut to crack. I had made my own version of what I had been going through over again and again, putting the songs in different orders, and when I had the final version done, we still went back to it. An initial final version was made with Yannis, but after that, I still changed the place of two songs. We were really chopping and changing. At the end, we came up with the correct order for all the songs. At least the feeling remained that it has the right kind of drama or drive, that there is variability to the right extent towards the end, so that the interest remains from one song to another.
When it comes to more dramatic stuff, "My Dystopia," which you mentioned, is a pretty epic song. It is very emotionally loaded throughout. Is there a personal story behind "My Dystopia"?
Anton: You guessed it. BiB's albums have always had three categories: Berserk/anime/manga, other fictional stories, and then those completely personal stories. "My Dystopia" is in a way based on a completely personal life, but it is made to fit the cyberpunk feel as well. When you listen to it and read the lyrics, and even look at some sci-fi landscape inside your mind, you can see it and hear the music and lyrics correlate with each other at the same time. Yeah, it is one of those personal songs. There are a couple more, but this was perhaps the one that is the most straight out of my own life, lyrically.
Maybe people can identify and who knows perhaps even find some connections to their own personal lives in the lyrics of that song?
Anton: Yes, exactly.
THE KINGS OF HEAVY METAL MEET THE KING OF POP
I have to bring up the two cover songs on the album, the flamboyant "Battle Hymn" by Manowar, and "They Don't Care About Us" by Michael Jackson. Are there any special stories behind why these songs were chosen for the album?
Anton: They were just good songs! [*laughs*] There are so many good songs in the world. There will be moments when you chat with a bandmate, and it clicks. In this case, it was with Yannis. In practice, Yannis and I talked about these songs and Yannis was the first to mention covering "Battle Hymn," and we both had a Eureka moment at the same time imagining a Beast in Black version. It already contains the trademarks we also have, namely a certain kind of simplicity, chord progressions very similar to Beast in Black. A melody and a simple chorus that is catchy and enough drama. There are soft parts, and a "macho-metal-fire-all-canons" type of part can be found in the song as well. Everything clicked and we decided to do it.
It was the same thing with Michael Jackson's song, we immediately saw the potential. I don't remember which one of us mentioned it first, but it had an obvious Beast in Black chorus or melody. Three simple chords and a catchy melody, and the song grows all the time. But the fun thing was that the original version is really spacious, practically just percussion and vocals. It has the middle part with distorted guitar and some synths, but because it has so much space, we put a lot of our own elements in, more synth than in the original song, heavier guitars and drums to get a Beast in Black vibe. However, the original song was respected, meaning we didn't change anything that we think is essential to the song and what makes the song good. But October 29th is the day when the guillotine goes down, we will see whether our heads are under it or not.
That's when at some Manowar purists will put their thumbs up or down...
Anton: Exactly, and all my theories will be crumbing down after that [*laughs*].
You mentioned earlier that writing lyrics is different from writing music and there were some challenges. Does it require a certain amount of time and space to really be able to focus on lyrics? Music comes naturally but there also needs to be a good story popping up in your mind to complete a song. Do you need some special inspiration to get lyrics written?
Anton: It requires a lot of being alone or being at peace actually. It doesn't mean you have to be completely alone all the time. When I do it, I have to be at least in a separate room where there are no other people so that I can delve deeper. Writing stories, prose, poetry, is by no means hard for me, I like it. But writing lyrics is tricky because I don't want to change the melody because of the lyrics. Rather the melody is what it is, and I have to find text that adapts to being able to sing it in a way that sounds natural. You have to understand the English language, how words are pronounced, how words are emphasized, how syllables can be stretched, etc. I think about these things so much, and that's why it takes half a year, not because I don't know what to tell. I can write a complete prose here and now in fifteen minutes. It's just that I'm so strict about the melody that every syllable has to be natural and perfectly fit. It's kind of torturing your own brain.
When you hand the lyrics over to Yannis, do you listen to how he pronounces the words so that the rhythm goes as it should?
Anton: They all go as they should because I sing all the lines myself. I can somewhat sing, too. I am a guitarist who understands singing enough to be able to understand singing as an instrument. There are never any surprises because I sing every single syllable, word and sentence, and go through them so there will never be any dark spots.
On the previous album, there was a guy named Paolo Ribaldini helping with the lyrics. He is also known as a Berserk/manga fan. Did he also write lyrics on Dark Connection?
Anton: We started making some songs together, but in the end, I wrote those songs myself. He was indeed involved in the early stages. We had the idea of getting a couple of songs done with him. But then Anton "The Editor" entered the room [*laughs*] and said, "let's change this and I will now write this version myself."
PERFECTION KNOWS NO BOUNDARIES
It's been stated many times but Yannis really does have a very chameleon-like vocal register. When you listen to his vocal performances on this album, one can only wonder how he is able to change the tone of his voice from soft and tender singing to really high-pitched screams so easily. It seems like nothing is impossible for him. Does Yannis still surprise you from time to time with his singing performances?
Anton: By now, I have gotten to know the man. It's no surprise that he's able to sing a line or a note with that sound. I know his vocal register and colors of his sound. But even more important, I want to emphasize the fact that he can add drama, interpretation and emotional charge to the melodies. In the beginning there was that "wow!" effect. Of course, those important heavy screams are part of it and must be the Manowar style or Rob Halford/Eric Adams style screams, good old "all-or-nothing" type heavy metal interpretation. Yannis can interpret melody and music from outside the genres. He reads the lyrics and tries his best to get the right interpretation to the message. He knows how to combine text and music. He can analyze it as well. Of course, as a producer I will also guide him in that direction. But it is easy, because he's so musical and talented and also understands the recording techniques. It's very easy to find the final version, i.e., THE shot, and the parts that will be edited for other versions. We almost never have to explain to each other why something is good and something bad, we listen to the versions together and then choose from those. The flow goes really well with him because we have similar quality standards for song production, for which I am really grateful.
Yannis is also known for his strong work ethic. When others may think something is perfect, Yannis may want to sing it again until he is happy with it. Are there situations in the studio where Yannis continues to have severe self-criticism and pushes himself over and over for better results?
Anton: Yeah, absolutely. After everything was edited and recorded, we both had a moment when we thought that there is still one shot that we want to do again. And then we did do it again, for one reason or another. We both had reasons. We had our own studio so, of course, we took advantage of it. It is absolutely true that he whips himself as a singer for a better result more than anyone else in the band. I don't think I can ask any more than that. As a producer, bandmate, and sound technician, I am very pleased that someone understands the importance of small things and how the overall picture is built from small pieces, why every single thing matters. Sure, there will sometimes be disagreements, but it's something like 0.1%, which means it's marginal.
So, working with him is very easy.
Anton: Yes, absolutely.
OF DEFINING A GOOD CHORUS
The songs of Beast in Black have always been exceptionally catchy and hooky. There always seems to be a good chorus in every one of your songs. How is a good chorus created from scratch and how do you define a good chorus?
Anton: It has to be something I like myself. It's as simple as that. You must trust your subjective view. If, for example, I am jamming with an acoustic guitar, and find a good melody, then that's it. A good chorus can be ready in a minute. It is not calculated; it is just a creative instinct that is active all the time. I have to trust my instincts, they are the tools of a composer, or any artist. You can't ask everyone for an opinion all the time. You need to be able to trust your own feelings. If I find a melody or chorus to be catchy, that'll be it. It's hard to explain, but they are always simple. Technically, they are always rhythmically simple enough. They are not complex prog rhythms where time signatures change. Yes, maybe in the future it could be like that, but right now it's like 4/4 beats and then some basic simple melody. Usually, it just resonates at least with me the most. Why change anything just to be a bit more original, or not to be so self-evident? Many people do not trust the melody to be good if it is simple, and they complicate it, but then a certain kind of artificial art will appear. That's why we want simplicity. If it resonates, trust it and then it is more authentic. Sounds cliché, but that's how it is.
Does it feel like everyone in the band has a better understanding of what Beast in Black is all about and does everyone want to be more involved in the song writing, or anything related? I am sure everyone has a desire to invest in the band. Do you think that all this can be seen since Atte joined three years ago?
Anton: Song writing is usually only my job, with the exception of "From Hell with Love," where my friend Paolo Ribaldini wrote lyrics together with me. But that's just one part of being a band. I know that for most rock bands, song writing is teamwork. For me, it is a holistic thing. If I think something is clear, I can't leave it halfway, I'll take it to the finish line for every single instrument. But as said before, song writing is the best thing to do on the whole album, and for me, the easiest. After that, other phases start and they require work and you need other people. After all, once you've got all your content done, like music videos, promos, cover art, and the stage production is planned and then once the tours are done and you look back, you are like "wow," because throughout the whole process, there are so many people involved. It really isn't a solo project. Even if I do all the song writing it doesn't automatically mean it would be a solo band. We have so many things we discuss and ask opinions, even if it's not necessarily directly related to song writing, but so many other things we actively communicate about, and that makes it a band. A solo artist does not ask what to do but will do what he wants. So, song writing is just one part of being a band.
You could safely say that Beast in Black is more than Anton Kabanen nowadays, correct?
Anton: Indeed. Yes, that's right. I'll have to go back to when you said that Atte joined the band. I thought for a moment. In 2018 it was officially announced that Atte was in the band, even though at the end of December 2017 we already knew it. But it's not that long ago, almost four years but it feels like much longer. At least I feel like I've known Atte for much longer. It's maybe a sign that everyone in this band has become friends and we click together. Atte is like an old friend, and I think everyone else has the same feeling. By the way, technicians should also be mentioned here. We have an absolutely great team of technicians. Every time we go on tour, we have a good team. The tech team and the band get along well. We're kind of an extended family. It's all Beast in Black as a whole.
No one has been able to play shows in a long time because of all the Covid-19 restrictions, but this August you got to play some gigs at a few festivals, like SmugglerRok, Kuopiorock, Porispere and then Metal on the Hill Festival in Austria. Do you feel that it looks better regarding shows and that you can continue doing gigs in the near future?
Anton: Yeah, at least after the fourth festival, Metal on the Hill. I remember when I had a chat with our mixing guy, Sami, and I got a very positive and optimistic feeling that things could soon return to normal, and we will be able to do the tour at the end of the year. No one yet knows for sure what will happen, but sooner or later things will return to normal, nothing will last forever, humanity will come up with a way to adapt to this. While the corona will not disappear, we will find some way to live with it. Touring will return to normal and at that point I hope Beast in Black will be able to do a massive tour cycle for the Dark Connection album, 2-4 years of touring. At the same time, whenever possible, new content would also be made, for example thinking about the fourth album.
Your European tour will start on November 22nd, and you will be touring for about a month. Do you usually read any newspaper headlines and follow the corona statistics wondering which gig might be in danger of postponement or even cancellation?
Anton: Normally I am not very optimistic, although I've been optimistic now since the last festival gig. But after being in contact with our booking agency, I have noticed it is so country specific. From what local promoters have told us from different countries, it's really hard to draw any conclusions about what will happen. In one country the gigs take place quite normally and, in another, there is no chance. But in a country where there is no chance whatsoever, it could be that in a couple of weeks the gig will happen after all. This is such a chaotic time that I can't really say anything. I wouldn't be surprised if the whole thing just didn't happen. We really hope that something will happen, but sooner or later, maybe next year, I believe we could make a long tour cycle true. That is the goal, and we will not give up until the massive tour has taken place.
Have you considered other plans besides playing shows for next year?
Anton: Yeah, we have plans for next year and also 2013, but the situation affects the plans, no matter what we decide. You have to be ready to react to realities as soon as possible. But there are clear plans, yes, because if there is no plan, then the whole thing is not going anywhere. I think well planned is half done.
If the tour doesn't happen for one reason or another, does Plan B or C exist?
Anton: I have endless plans, even Plan D and E, etc. Even if there aren't any gigs in the next say five years, the empty time will be filled with creativity. Whenever there is a moment that something is moved, in my mind the connection works in such a way that I have to create content, use creativity, even plan a new video, or a music video like a short film, and write new material. Maybe even on a personal level, I might consider doing a solo album or EP or one solo song or something. As long as there is a hunger for creation, then the calendar will be filled with something. Beast in Black is such a setting that there is always something to do.
You've already had a long day so let's wrap this up. It was nice talking to you and I hope all the best for the whole crew and I hope you can start the tour and make fans happy again with live gigs.
Anton: Me too. It was nice chatting again, it's been a while. Thank you.
|Other information about Beast in Black on this site|
|Review: From Hell with Love|
|Review: From Hell with Love|
|Review: Dark Connection|
|Review: Dark Connection|
|Interview with guitarists Anton Kabanen and Kasperi Heikkinen on March 4, 2018 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)|
|Interview with guitarists Anton Kabanen and Kasperi Heikkinen on February 8, 2019 (Interviewed by Luxi Lahtinen)|
The Metal Crypt - Crushing Posers Since 1999
Copyright © 1999-2023, Michel Renaud / The Metal Crypt. All Rights Reserved.