Since forming in 1993 in their hometown Helsinki, Finland, orchestral rock band Apocalyptica have been taking the world by storm with their unique combination of aggressive, cello-driven rhythms and melodic atmosphere. With a career spanning eight albums, the group are also renowned for collaborations with other artists over the years, from Max Cavalera (Soulfly, Sepultura) to Corey Taylor (Slipknot, Stone Sour) and Till Lindemann (Rammstein).
The band have been playing seminal debut record Plays Metallica By Four Cellos in its entirety across over 40 countries to celebrate its 20th anniversary. Ahead of their upcoming return to Australian shores in September, rhythm cellist Eicca Toppinen sat down to chat about recording a new, fully instrumental album, collaborating with Sabaton and his transformative experience with Metallica.
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You first toured here in 2012 and then did your second headline run in 2016. How would you reflect on your relationship with Australia?
“I really love Australia and I’m so happy that we’re able to come back now, because it took so long for us to make the first visit. I love the cities and people, and the atmosphere of the Australian crowd is wild in a way. There’s a lot of energy and response at the shows.”
It has been a little while! But we’ve got such a love and respect for heavy music here.
“Yeah, and it’s exciting to play new venues like the Sydney Opera House. It’s going to be exciting to see the kind of people attending the shows this time. We’ve been playing this Plays Metallica By Four Cellos concert all around the world in classical venues or theatres, which changes the style of audience a little bit.
“It’s so crazy because I always thought, ‘Let’s just play 20 to 30 shows to celebrate the first album’, and then it just exploded. People wanted to see it and the promoters wanted to book the shows. It turned out so much better than how we expected in the beginning – much more fun (laughs). We were a little skeptical about how long it would be fun to play only the Metallica tunes again, but it’s been a pleasure.”
So what’s your own experience of Metallica been? Is there a song or show that really sticks with you?
“I was 13 years old when I heard ‘Orion’ for the first time and was blown away. I used to listen to Jimi Hendrix and Billy Idol, that kind of stuff. Then when I heard ‘Orion’, I got into the whole Master of Puppetsalbum and I’ve been a huge Metallica fan ever since. My first rock concert as Metallica playing in Helsinki in ’91. It’s so crazy being a huge fan of them, we’ve turned out to be very close friends and done a lot of things together as well. I met the guys a little while ago and said hello to them, they were playing in London. I’m actually going to see the [S&M2] symphony concert in San Francisco at the beginning of September. Metallica has been one of the biggest influences for me.”
It’s pretty incredible that they visited your hometown Helsinki at the time, because a lot of big bands just weren’t stopping over there.
“That’s very true. There were a couple of big metal bands who came to Finland, but the bigger acts like U2 played southern Sweden and never came up north here, because it takes so much time and it’s so expensive. I think the situation changed when the Soviet Union came down, and the bands started to play more in Russia. We just happened to be on the way there (chuckles)… In those times in the late ’80s and early ’90s, there were not too many huge bands who came. I think Metallica played Finland for the first time in ’86, but they were really small.”
So let’s talk about this upcoming album that you’ve just finished recording. What I love about Plays Metallica By Four Cellos is that it’s got a really stripped back sound. Have you guys gone back to that kind of vibe on this one?
“Partly, yes. We wanted to combine the main elements of Apocalyptica on the new album, and try to keep the band playing really tight and close up. But at the same time, we do a lot of symphonic stuff and it’s a very atmospheric world. Sometimes, it sounds more like movie or even game music, but it still has a strong presence of just having a couple of cellos there.
“This album’s pretty epic, actually (chuckles). There are big songs and it’s 55 minutes of music, and there are only nine tracks. So some of the songs are really long and progressive, and there are aspects of thrash metal, a lot of classical flavours… It’s a very exciting album. There’s no other record I can compare it with.”
How free flowing were the ideas for the record?
“Getting the songs together was somehow easier because three of us wrote for the album, and it was nice that there was no producer. It gave us a lot of freedom. We didn’t actually rehearse the songs together before we went into the studio, so we were working on the arrangements while recording. It would not have been possible with a producer outside the band.
“When we were working together, we didn’t need to explain to each other what was going to happen. It was a lot of work as always, but everything happened in a really natural, flexible way. We got Andrew Scheps (Metallica, Black Sabbath) to mix the album, which gave the record its final flavour and it sounds really amazing.”
Something that I imagine would have helped was that because there were no guest vocalists, you could really control the album timing, right?
“I realised a couple of years ago, we are living in the streaming world and that actually gives us a lot of possibilities. So why not use the possibilities? That’s why I thought, ‘Let’s do the album independently’.
“The [guest] featuring is as important for Apocalyptica as the instrumental side. We can do the songs with people individually, and in the streaming world you don’t need to tie up the instrumental and single world. Even though this album is going to be fully instrumental, next year we’re going to release different collaboration tracks song by song. So we’re walking the two paths at the same time…
“When we had those guest appearances on albums, almost every time our planned single timing fucked up because of something we couldn’t control… We wanted to get rid of that completely and now when we do a featuring song, we do it at a time that works with everybody’s schedule.
“We know that our core fan base will appreciate a fully instrumental album and not adding vocals gave us so much freedom to create a complete world. Once you start listening to it, it stays in the same territory even though it has loads of different styles. I’m thankful for modern technologies (chuckles).”
Now what excited you the most about collaborating with Sabaton in covering their song ‘Fields of Verdun’?
“The most exciting thing is the whole vision of collaboration. We’re not just collaborating on that one song. We’re doing a big tour with them of Europe at the beginning of next year, and we’re going to Sweden and playing the Sabaton [Open Air] festival there this month. It’s not just about making a cover of their song. There are lots of different elements in the collaboration and it’s very tied together. These guys are super cool and they’re following their own path, and it’s fun to share our journeys.”
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Grab your tickets for Apocalyptica‘s upcoming east coast tour here, where they’ll be playing debut album Plays Metallica By Four Cellos in full.
Interview by Genevieve Gao
Apocalyptica – East Coast Tour
27th Sept @ Fortitude Music Hall, Bris
28th Sept @ Hamer Hall, Melb
29th Sept @ Sydney Opera House, Syd
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