One of the nation’s most prestigious doom metal bands, Swallow the Sun, is releasing their new album, When a Shadow is Forced into the Light on January 25th, 2019. On those terms, we caught up with vocalist Mikko Kotamäki at Majava Bar in Kallio, Helsinki. Befitting the theme we picked a dark corner for a pint and a chat. We discussed the new album, the music biz, the tour, growling vocal techniques, and the current state of concert venues in Helsinki.
Hey Mikko, how has your new year started out?
It’s mostly been about interviews so far. The real work is just starting.
Indeed, you have a new album coming out, When a Shadow is Forced into the Light!
Yeah, is that next week already? A whole lot has happened in a short amount of time. Feels like we just got it done and it’s already coming out. I guess days go by faster once you get older.
Your last album, Songs from the North, I, II, and III was a three-disc-long epic. It was kind of like the three faces of Swallow the Sun. Was it meant to be a sort of thesis on what the band is?
Not necessarily. It was [guitarist, Juha] Raivio’s idea; he’s a prog rocker. If you listen to some old prog albums, they’re sort of like, pieces. It was made in reverence to that and also as kind of a “fuck you” to today’s music scene.
Yeah, nowadays, especially in the pop world, bands release tracks rather than actual albums. Whereas you guys went more for a quality product?
Yeah, I think it’s good quality all throughout. I don’t really get how these days, especially the youth release, like, a track each month, and no albums at all! I grew up thinking albums were things with covers and they were a whole, that’s how you make an album! Times change, of course. I can’t always keep up.
What does When a Shadow is Forced into the Light have in store for the listener?
To me it sounds pretty fresh. It’s definitely the kind of album we haven’t done before. It maybe even has a glimmer of hope and the songs are a bit more melodic. We’ve toned down on the heaviness but it has some real gut-wrenching bits, too. When I first heard the demos for it, I felt like this was exactly the kind of music I was interested in making.
You had some acoustic and slow bits on the last one. Do you have a lot of that sort of stuff in the new album, or is it more straightforward metal?
When it comes to that triple album, it was sort of a cross-section of our whole career but split into three. The new album might be more like the middle part [Disc 2 – Beauty], played heavier. This is pretty much what we’ve always done. No album is a copy of another.
Indeed, Did you try out any wholly new elements?
Like, so many! Throughout the whole album there’s a string quartet. We didn’t wanna use a MIDI sound. There are a lot of vocal harmonies. We had two new members who could do backing vocals. So of course, we had to utilize that.
Speaking of singers: Occasionally you’ve had guest stars, such as Jonas Renkse [Katatonia]. Any of those?
None of those this time. Just the string quartet, really. There’s also a spoken section in French.
I’ve been given the impression that you’ve taken a more active role in writing for this band ever since New Moon. Is any of your handiwork on display?
In one song, yeah. These last two albums have been quite personal for Raivio, so he’s taken to doing a lot of it himself. I got to participate in one song. He holds the reigns though.
In what ways, when you think back on the history of the group, has the band’s outlook and approach changed over the years?
It hasn’t changed, really. We’re doing the same things and for the same reasons as we did in the early 00s. When we started out as kids, it felt obvious to us what real music was. That’s where we started from and that’s how we do it even today.
As a growling vocalist myself, I’d like to talk about how you sing. Generally, you mostly do low death metal grunts and switch it up with some black metal screams.
True. The new album has very little grunting though. After all these records, to me, the death metal grunts have started to feel like they’ve been done already. I feel like I’m using them more sparingly. My music career started with black metal, so the screaming comes more naturally. I’m actually kind of bored of it. It’s probably part of the reason why about 80% of the vocals on the new album are clean vocals. These days, I just find it more engaging.
When you play live do you feel like you have to conserve your voice?
No, I’ve never really lost my voice on while on tour. I don’t feel like I need to spare my voice. It’s really all about finding a technique that works for you. Even if you’re doing growls and screeches, forming the voice doesn’t mean you always have to scream as loud as you can. If it hurts your throat – you’re probably doing something wrong.
Of course, but I mean when you’re making a loud noise and you’re doing it a lot. Like if you’re doing something like classic heavy metal and you have to do the high and loud bits…
I’d argue that that stuff is a lot harder on your voice.
Absolutely, yeah! And speaking of gigs, you guys are starting a new tour. Starting with Nosturi, Helsinki…
Actually, we just added some more. Now we’re starting out at Lappeenranta! Then we go to Nosturi a week later. Seven Finnish dates on three weekends. Then we take a 2 week break and then home. Then Canada and America. We’ve got the whole spring pretty much booked.
You know, Nosturi is closing it’s doors.
Yeah, it’s very unfortunate. A lot of bands are gonna lose their rehearsal studios as well.
We’ve seen Swallow the Sun there on multiple occasions.
Yeah, we’ve definitely done some shows there. It’s a shame but the city needs to build more housing. They’re not exactly asking musicians how they feel about it.
It’s starting to get cramped with the loss of all these mid-sized clubs. In terms of street cred, Nosturi is right up there with Tavastia. There really isn’t a third.
Yeah, this city could absolutely use another. The question, really is where? The Circus has profiled itself as a pretty different entity. Sure, I like going to gigs there. In some ways though, it’s not that good. When they have a full blown circus going on you can’t get a beer without missing 45 minutes of a band. They hire so many temporary staff members behind the bar.
One more thing. I’ve read that back when you first founded Swallow the Sun it was a side project for you guys. Now, you’ve been in loads of bands such as Funeris Nocturnum and Barren Earth. Do you have any other active projects right now?
Well, what counts as active? Kuolemanlaakso is still alive. We made a pretty raw-sounding album with our drummer, Juuso [Raatikainen] and our guitarist, [Juho] Räihä. It comes out this spring. It’s gonna be something very different. It’s mainly influenced by GG Allin and Marduk.
Whoa! I’ll be looking forward to it then. Before then When a Shadow is Forced into the Light comes out on January 25th. Then you’ll be in Kulttuuritila Nuijamiehes, Lappeenranta, on February 1st and Nosturi, Helsinki, on February 7th.
Yeah, for starters.
Thank you so much for your time.