Interviews

Interview: Mikko Kotamäki of SWALLOW THE SUN

Swallow the Sun have released an absolutely flooring, intense new album entitled When a Shadow is Forced into the Light.  Forming in 2000, the band have released six prior albums all of which contain a high level of professional polish.  In the time that has spanned, they have carefully fine-tuned their version of Doom into an absorbing experience sure to transport the listener to a different realm altogether.  In the days briefly before the band released their album, I had the chance to chat with singer, Mikko Kotamäki.  Forthcoming and friendly, he elaborated upon their career, the new album, and much more including our shared love of Type O Negative.  Read on to dig deeper into the mind of the frontman of an epic band who have just released an album that is already a contender for the year’s best.  Read my review of When a Shadow is Forced into the Light here:  Swallow the Sun review


ANTIHERO:  There’s a TON of great bands from Finland, especially Death Metal and Doom.  What’s the scene like over there?

Mikko:  Well, it is what it is.  I think we’ve had a lot of Metal bands since the ‘80s and I think the scene is still going strong.  It’s nice to see there are still new bands coming up and that the kids still play Heavy Metal.  I think the scene is still good, but from my point of view, it’s always been the same here, always a lot of Metal bands.

ANTIHERO:  Do most of the bands know each other?

Mikko:  Yeah, small fucking country.  Most of the bands do know each other, yeah.

ANTIHERO:  Congratulations on the new album.  It’s great.

Mikko:  All right, thanks bud. 

ANTIHERO:  I wanted to ask, though, what was the idea behind the recent EP that came out first?

Mikko:  Well, it was actually our guitar player, Juha, who composes most of the music.  It was his idea.  He wanted to do that before the album.  He needed to get out some shit in his life.  Of course, the album is a lot different than the EP so it needed to be released separately.  From that, comes some light, actually, when the album comes out.  Yeah, it’s a pretty dark piece of music.  It was his idea.  I was like, “what the fuck?” but we just did it.

ANTIHERO:  It seemed to have almost a soundtrack quality to it.

Mikko:  Yeah, I don’t even know if it’s like music or what is it, but it’s definitely something else.

ANTIHERO:  I dig the difference between the two, though.  It shows that you’re a varied band.

Mikko:  Yeah, there’s a slight difference between those (laughs).

ANTIHERO:  I saw the “Firelights” video the Saturday morning after it was released and it already had 54,000 views.  What are your views on videos specifically?

Mikko:  Well, it is what it is.  When I grew up, there was music television.  There were actual real music videos all the time…

ANTIHERO:  Yeah, I grew up in the 80s too.

Mikko:  Then it completely changed to reality tv and it basically killed music videos back then.  Now there’s just YouTube, you know.  Yeah, there’s still some promotional value, but I don’t see it being that important anymore.  You still have to do them, though.

ANTIHERO:  They should help some promotionally, though, especially in garnering new people.

Mikko:  Yeah, of course.  Record labels don’t release singles anymore so they just put singles straight to Spotify and YouTube now so in that way in makes sense.

ANTIHERO:  How has your band adjusted to the monetization of streaming versus the traditional way of selling albums?

Mikko:  Well, at first, I was really against that.  At some point you just need to accept that.  Times change and technology changes, but what can you do?  I guess it’s easier for people now, but of course the compensation for the band if you compare like actual album selling versus streaming, it’s ridiculous.  It is what it is.  You just need to deal with it.

ANTIHERO:  Listening to the album, it’s like an experience.  Is there a certain mood you have to be in in order to write?

Mikko:  Juha, our guitar player wrote all the music for the album.  He wrote it now almost two years ago in a three-week period by himself…

ANTIHERO:  Wow…   

Mikko:  He really can’t remember much about it.  After all that happened to him, he was definitely in some kind of mood when he did that.  When we recorded, everyone was happy that we got to finally do some new music.  Overall, it was a good experience, actually.

ANTIHERO:  Do you write the lyrics?

Mikko:  Some of them.  It’s mostly Juha, but I write some of them as well, yes.

ANTIHERO:  Would I be far off to say I hear an Anathema influence on the new album?

Mikko:  It could be.  I don’t think Anathema is his favorite band or anything, but of course, pretty much this kind of music comes from those classic British bands like Paradise Lost and Anathema so of course, they are always an influence back there.

ANTIHERO:  It really reminded me of when Alternative 4 came out.  I got the same vibe.

Mikko:  Oh, thanks!  I like that album, actually.

ANTIHERO:  Yeah, it’s a good album.  I’m not sure how to phrase this next question, but there’s a warbly type of effect on the vocals on “Here on the Black Earth”.  That kind of reminded me of Peter Steele there.

Mikko:  Well, sure.  Type O Negative has always been a big band for us.  They were one of the reasons why we even started this band.  Definitely my favorite band ever.

ANTIHERO:  Mine too, actually.

Mikko:  Yeah, so you heard right.

ANTIHERO:  Cool!  I saw them eleven times back in the day, man.

Mikko:  Of fuck, I only saw them three times.

ANTIHERO:  The orchestration of the album.  Is that something that your guitar player does or is that the keyboard player?

Mikko:  They did it together.  We actually used some real strings for this album.  There’s a string quartet playing throughout the album and they made the arrangement for those parts.  There are more real strings this time.

ANTIHERO:  That was where I was going with my next question…

Mikko:  Yeah, this time we decided to use the real ones.  Why should we use just fucking samples and shit?  Actually, that string quartet played with us when we played last year on the 70,000 tons of Metal cruise so we knew them from before.  It already sounded good live so we asked them to play for the album as well.  

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ANTIHERO:  How did you like doing the cruise?

Mikko:  Well, it’s kind of fun, but it’s rough.

ANTIHERO:  Yeah?  How is that?

Mikko:  Well, all the cocktails.  The boat is shaking even when it’s not shaking.  It’s fun especially for a Finnish guy in the middle of winter.  Actually, I stayed for two weeks in Florida after that and had a nice vacation.  We stayed in Key West.

ANTIHERO:  I’ve actually never gotten down that way.

Mikko:  Fucking go there!  That place is sweet.  Yeah, Key West is definitely my favorite place in the United States.  It’s like a smaller version of Bourbon Street.

ANTIHERO:  OK, yeah, I’ve spent some time in New Orleans.

Mikko:  Yeah, if you like it then you will like Key West too.

ANTIHERO:  I like the fact that the normal time constraints like having a song be five minutes or less aren’t an issue for you guys.  How do you know, though, when a song is finished?

Mikko:  That’s a good question.  It is finished when it is.

ANTIHERO:  When it’s finished? (laughs)

Mikko:  (laughs)  Yeah, of course, we’re all fans of good old ‘70s Progressive music when songs were actually quite long.  It doesn’t need to be radio friendly all the time.

ANTIHERO:  There’s a very cerebral quality to the music.  Are dreams any kind of an influence on how you guys approach the music?

Mikko:  No, it’s actually just real life, everyday shit that people go through.  That’s where the inspiration comes from.  Well, our guitar player’s long-time girlfriend passed away almost three years ago so of course that’s been a big influence for this album.

ANTIHERO:  That’s got to be rough.

Mikko:  Yeah.

ANTIHERO:  The series of “Horror…” songs, 1-4, was that finished on Emerald Forest and the Blackbird?

Mikko:  Who knows?  For now, it is, but who knows?  It just didn’t fit the latest two albums.  If there’s another one still coming who knows?  Never say never.

ANTIHERO:  I just saw you guys are touring over here in the Spring with Children of Bodom and Wolfheart, all Finnish bands.  Any surprises for the setlist?

Mikko:  Let’s see, I think we need to play a bit heavier set actually.  Maybe we shouldn’t play the most girly songs (laughs), but let’s see.   We haven’t figured it out yet, but we’ll think of something.

ANTIHERO:  How would you compare the U.S. shows to European shows?

Mikko:  Actually, they’re not so different.  Of course, the venues are different in Europe.  Actually, I like touring in the States better.  Europe is kind of boring.  There’s always something going on in the States…

ANTIHERO:  Yeah, there’s always something going on…(laughs)

Mikko:  (laughs) 

ANTIHERO:  I know this is a cliched question, but what would your dream tour be?

Mikko:  With Type O Negative and Black Sabbath, but that’s probably not going to happen…(laughs)

ANTIHERO:  Yeah, that would probably be mine too.  This may be random, but do you guys ever just jam?  Ever do any covers just for fun?

Mikko:  No fucking way.  We don’t even rehearse together.  We actually rehearse just before the tours.  That’s it.  We don’t even rehearse when we make an album so no fucking jam. 

ANTIHERO:  Looking back in the past, unlike a lot of other established bands, you guys came out with a polished sound which you’ve stayed true to.  What would you say is the most important thing you’ve learned since in your approach to music in general, writing, the industry?

Mikko:  (sighs)  Well, I think from the music industry we have learned in a pretty hard way to not have too high hopes.  (laughs) The music industry is bullshit.  Well, let’s not go too deep into that. 

ANTIHERO:  How do you approach your vocals now compared to in the beginning?

Mikko:  I think on the first album I was seventeen/eighteen.  Now I’m 34 and after a lot of tours, I have a lot more confidence.  I’m actually starting to handle the clean vocals now…not too well, but I’ll get there someday.

ANTIHERO:  Are there any special exercises you do to keep your vocals in shape?

Mikko:  I smoke Camels and drink beer (laughs).

ANTIHERO: (laughs) The Lemmy approach!  One last question and it’s a bit clichéd, but what is the most non-Metal musical influence for you?

Mikko:  Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds…

ANTIHERO:  Good choice…murder music!

Mikko:  Yes!  Yeah, I love it.  Of course, I listen to a lot of Pop music as well like Genesis for example, Lana Del Rey, Cypress Hill.  I like all kinds of music, but as an influence, I’d say Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds.

ANTIHERO:  Where do you see the band heading in the future?

Mikko:  I honestly don’t know.  Let’s see what happens with this album.  I hope we are still alive in five years.  That’s the only thing I can hope for. 

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