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Though this interview was originally intended for other purposes (watch this space...), circumstances in the shape of a global pandemic intervened. So, rather than wait that out, now's a reasonable time to spread the word about Kuolemanlaakso - which Comrade Aleks does, with the help of founder Markus.

Interview with Kuolemanlaakso.
"This interview with Markus Laakso, spiritual leader of Finnish band Kuolemanlaakso, was done almost a year ago, for another project which is now postponed by the Covid force majeure for an as-yet unknown period. So there's no special reason to publish it right now, since Kuolemanlaakso's last album was released four years ago. But, you know - our sacred mission is to spread the Word! So there's actually always a reason to speak about the doomy side of metal. The band deserves the attention of those who prefer melodic Doom/Death metal, especially Swallow The Sun, as their vocalist Mikko Kotamäki recorded vocals on all Kuolemanlaakso's releases besides the last one. This, 'M.Laakso - Vol.1: The Gothic Tapes', shows the band's decline from their main direction. And, you should know - Markus is also the author of the first and only Amorphis biography. I hope you'll like this in-depth interview as much as I like it myself."

Kuolemanlaakso: Laakso (guitars, keyboards), Tiera (drums) , Usva (bass), Kotamäki (vocals), Kouta (guitars). (Photo: Krogography).

Hi Markus! The first Kuolemanlaakso album, 'Uljas Uusi Maailma' was recorded in 2012. You were heavily influenced by Tryptykon back then: what attracted you to this sound? And what about other Doom influences you reveal in the album?

I was blown away by the sheer power, dirtiness and roughness of Triptykon's sound on Eparistera Daimones (2010). It inspired me to start experimenting with a new style of guitar playing. Instead of hiding the smut, muting the feedbacks, and playing it safe, I went the opposite way. I also switched to a drop tuning for the first time in my life, which was a game-changer. It was an honor and a privilege to have V. Santura, the guitarist of Triptykon, who recorded and mixed Eparistera Daimones, produce all Kuolemanlaakso releases later.

The initial spark to start composing this type of music came from Triptykon, but the album has quite a bit of different influences and styles. As for the melodies, I think it sounds very Finnish. Sielun Veljet, a genius cult band from the 80s, influenced Roihusydän, which is completely based on rhythm and hypnotic chanting. The chorus melody of Uljas uusi maailma came out sounding a bit like early Amorphis by accident, and there's a Sepultura beat on Etsin. I wasn't copying anyone; I just wrote what came from the heart. As a whole, I think the album is quite unique.

I would agree with that: like Italian bands have their so-called "Italian Dark Sound", so too Finnish bands have their own features - these cold beautiful melodies like Amorphis, Kuolemanlaakso, even Lyijykomppania or the grim, down to earth, dark vibe of bands like Ajattara, Tenhi or Vainaja. How do you see the roots of this phenomenon?

I'm not qualified to answer that, as I'm not a musicologist, but my guess is that is has a lot to do with the greater roots of Finnish music.

If you look back a century or a half, most of the compositions are in minor key. Traditional Finnish songs, schlager and even the church hymns, they're all melancholic to the max. The same goes for the lyrics. It's basically very similar to later day Finnish metal: gloomy, powerful, emotional and oozing with despair. It doesn't get much doomier than that.

(Photo: Krogography).

You were the main songwriter in the band, so how did you work with the other guys in the studio? Did you tell each one what to play or did you describe some ideas behind each song?

We didn't have that much time to rehearse before flying off to Santura's Woodshed Studio in Germany. When I decided to make Kuolemanlaakso a band instead a solo project, I handpicked the nicest possible guys that were also top musicians. Everyone had free hands on their arrangements.

However, I had written, arranged and demoed most of the guitar, keyboard and vocal tracks quite comprehensively, so they remained almost unchanged. I can't underline the importance of Usva's (bass) and Tiera's (drums) creativity, playing and musicianship enough. They are a huge part of Kuolemanlaakso's sound. Kouta's (guitar) playing is tight as fuck, and Kotamäki (vocals) is one of the finest and most versatile metal vocalists out there. A huge chunk of credit goes to Santura as well. He helped us out quite a bit with the arrangements and song structures that needed a boost. He even played on five songs on the album.

The lyrics for 'Uljas Uusi Maailma' are inspired by Eino Leino's poetry, did you feel that his lyrics fit well with the Kuolemanlaakso concept or was it something else, a kind of sympathy to his works?

I knew Kuolemanlaakso's lyrics had to be in Finnish from the very start. I had recently bought Leino's Helkavirsiä (1903) anthology. I felt a strong kinship to his texts, and had a Eureka moment. Old poetic Finnish and Kuolemanlaakso's doom made a perfect mix.

Kuolemanlaakso - 'Minä Elän' (Official, 2012):

Did you use the original poetry or did you rework it someway?

There are four lines borrowed directly from Leino on Kuun lapset, but all the rest I wrote myself. I drew inspiration from Leino's style and use of words. His stuff is fascinatingly gloomy and tragically beautiful. It is very much inspired by the nature - both human and the great outdoors - as are my lyrics. That's basically what I'm aiming for with my music, too.

Some bands avoid using texts in their mother tongue thinking that it may limit scales of promotion and recognition. How does it work in your case?

As I explained, I knew that the lyrics must be written in old poetic Finnish, so didn't give a crap about anything else. It's impossible and useless to estimate, how many more albums we could have sold or how much more exposure we could have gotten if the lyrics were in English. Either way, it makes absolutely no difference to me. We're not in it for the money and fame. We're here for the art.

Speaking about art - you demonstrated a careful approach in picking up artworks for both Uljas Uusi Maailma and Tulijoutsen. These were created by young artist Maahy Abdul Muhsin. How did you explain the concept behind the albums to him? Did you set a concrete task before him?

I got in touch with him immediately, when I bumped into one of his early owl artworks online. I'm a sucker for Twin Peaks, and had an owl-based idea in mind for the debut's album cover. I explained what the last two songs, that are kind of a pair, represent. To cut a long story short, I told him that the world first burns and then drowns. After the apocalypse the world is reborn - or reset, if you will. Everything starts from ground zero. Everyone is equal. No debt, no riches. He sent me a draft based on my stories, and I fell on my ass when I saw it. He just nailed it and beyond.

On Tulijoutsen I was much more specific. I wanted the fiery swan to have space to breathe. Maahy wanted to paint dragons and what have you, and make it look like a fight or show a reason for the swan to have caught on fire, but that was a no, no for me. Again, his first draft just absolutely blew my mind. That guy is a WIZARD and an ARTISTIC GENIUS!

Artwork for 'Uljas Uusi Maailma' and 'Tulijoutsen' (click to expand).

How did 'Uljas Uusi Maailma' change your life? Did you feel Kuolemanlaakso became a demanded concert band? How often did you play in this period?

I was immensely surprised when I got an email from our label manager a couple of weeks after the album was released stating that the first press of the CD was already sold out. The vinyl sold well, too, and we were all over the music press.

We didn't play that many shows after the release, but the ones that we did, were quite special for a new band. We played a small tour with Jess And The Ancient Ones and did a few club shows here and there. The definite highlight was performing at Tuska Festival to a massive horde - at least on our scale. The show was filmed. One of the cameramen came to tell me after the show that the crowd had sung our songs louder than our singer, heh…

So, basically Uljas Uusi Maailma did change my life quite a bit. There was definitely a demand, and we aimed to fulfill it. We started working on the Tulijoutsen and Musta Aurinko Nousee songs immediately. Those releases took us to another level in many ways.

Your label colleagues Jess And The Ancient Ones seems to be a strange company to play with. How often do you play with local Doom bands? There are a lot of solid names there.

The Jess folk and I are good friends, as are some of the other KL members, too. We had been talking about doing something together. It was an easy task for our agents to cooperate and set up a small tour. It went quite well. Even though our music is not the same, we share a lot of listeners.

I don't think we've ever played with local doom bands. By local, I mean Kuopio, the headquarters of Kuolemanlaakso. We just got an offer for a tour with a Swedish doom band and couple of Finnish ones, but we turned it down. Gotta make an album first. We've done shows with Throes of Dawn, Hanging Garden and Ajattara, but we've mostly shared the stage with bands that not from the doom scene, such as HIM, Insomnium and Shining (Swe).

How do you see the place of the 'Musta Aurinko Nousee' EP in your discography? Is it a link between two albums, or is it a short collection of different thoughts and "out-of-album" concept ideas?

When we headed out to record Tulijoutsen, we knew that we would be releasing a full-length and an EP. We had way too much of quality material for just an album. However, we didn't know beforehand which songs would go where.

When we heard the mixes, the division was crystal clear. The album tracks were longer and more "epic", and the EP songs more straightforward. As we recorded both releases at the same session, and the musical influences and the production were identical, I find Musta Aurinko Nousee to be an extension of Tulijoutsen.

Kuolemanlaakso - 'Me Vaellamme Yössä' (Live, 2014):

In one of your interviews you said that Kuolemanlaakso was started as your solo project, but the second album 'Tulijoutsen' is an example of teamwork. How do you value this work today?

I think Uljas Uusi Maailma was a somewhat of a practice piece, and getting to know the band members musically and personally. All the guys had been my friends for years, with the exception of Mikko Kotamäki, whom I didn't know at all. Some of the other members had never met each other before joining the band.

We spent quite a bit of time together at our rehearsal place, in the studio and on the road, which reflected positively in our work on Tulijoutsen.

I find Tulijoutsen to be more maturely and thoughtfully arranged than the debut. The personality of each musician shines through their performances more clearly than on Uljas Uusi Maailma. It wasn't just me writing the songs alone in my basement, we were interacting more. We were a unit. Usva wrote a couple of great songs, and Kouta provided some material, too. Kotamäki's singing was just off the walls. It will be a tough task to top Tulijoutsen with the next album.

'Tulijoutsen' was inspired by Aarni Kouta's Lusiferin Kannel, and he isn't as well known as Eino Leino. Why did you choose his works that time?

I wanted to expand my horizon and get more into the late 1800s and early 1900s Finnish poetry. I was talking about it with a friend of mine, who blew me away with the fact that she's actually related to Aarni Kouta. If I remember correctly, he was her great-great grandfather. She told me inspiring stories about him and his correspondence with Eino Leino, who was kind of a mentor to Kouta.

I dug out all the Kouta anthologies that I could find, and ended up browsing through Lusiferin kannel over and over again. It is a collection of his works from the early years to his dying days. His early writing was full of passion and fire, and the element of nature is omnipresent. His first anthology was called Tulijoutsen (1905), by the way.

The band's next album, 'M. Laakso - Vol.1: The Gothic Tapes' was strictly determined as your album too, it's even in the name! Why did you decide to release it as a Kuolemanlaakso album?

That's a good question. In retrospect, I wouldn't. I was going for what KISS did back in 1978 with their solo albums. (The KISS solo albums were released under the band's name, even though they were not KISS albums.) A lot of people didn't get that. Not even when I tried to make it as clear as possible with the title, using English instead of Finnish, playing a completely different style of music and having my face on the cover. M. Laakso - Vol. 1: The Gothic Tapes does not belong in the Kuolemanlaakso canon. It is my solo album.

As the Kuolemanlaakso albums had done quite well commercially, I sold the idea of releasing a Kuolemanlaakso "KISS solo album" to the label. I was on a creative high at the same time when Kotamäki was busy recording and touring with his other band Swallow the Sun. I just wanted to compose, record and release music, so I asked my Kuolemanlaakso buddies to participate. It was a side project with a KL stamp on it. ¬

You classified this material as Gothic, though it's more varied stylistically. How do you determine "Gothic Metal" personally?

Yeah, the range of the material is quite vast, but the overall sound is mostly gothic. I'm not a fan of labeling and strict genre barriers. To me gothic metal is Type O Negative, HIM, Sisters of Mercy, Tiamat and so on. They were some of my influences on the album, too.

Oh, I can't avoid that… Speaking about Gothic Doom we have too many variants: Theatre Of Tragedy were Gothic Doom during 'Velvet Darkness They Fear' because of Liv Kristine's vocals, Paradise Lost were Gothic Doom during 'Draconian Times', Type O Negative are remembered as a Gothic band even though they have huge Doom riffs and Hardcore roots, and if you ask me there was Stillborn in 1989 with a perfect mix of Mercy-style Doom metal and Fields Of The Nephilim-style Gothic Rock. What's Gothic Metal, from Markus Laakso's perspective?

Yeah, you're right. I love all the bands that you mentioned. Theatre of Tragedy is underrated. I like their later synth pop metal records as well. Another hugely underrated gothic doom band is The 3rd and the Mortal. Tears Laid in Earth (1994) one of the best albums ever, and Kari Rueslåtten is one of my favorite singers in the whole world. I've gotten to know her personally during the last few years. She is as wonderful as a person as she is talented as a singer-songwriter. I cherish her solo work, too.

(Photo: Krogography).

'Gothic Tapes' was marked as 'Vol.1', how far away is 'Vol.2'?

There's a possibility of Vol. 2, but not in the near future. I haven't thought about it that much yet, but a ton of people have been asking me about that. I am a fan of a wide scale of music, so I'm quite sure that it would be something completely different than Vol. 1. I have a bunch of unused songs in my archives, but lately I've had a strange urge to start making dungeon synth stuff.

Markus, you're the author of the Amorphis biography: how did you start that? Was it a DIY project from the start? Or did you already have some agreement with your publisher and the band?

I pitched the idea to the publisher, and they immediately said "yes". I had previously spoken about my interest about writing an Amorphis book with Tomi Joutsen, the singer, but it took a few years for me to actually go forward with the idea. After a negotiating with the publisher and Amorphis's manager, I started interviewing the guys and writing the book. The rest is history.

What was the most difficult part of this work? How much time did it take you finish the book?

It took forever to complete: 3,5 years from the first interview to the last edit of the manuscript. As Amorphis is a professional band that tours the world all the time, it was sometimes hard to make our schedules meet to do the interviews. The guys are great, though. I truly mean all of them. So, I had no trouble with the actual interviews whatsoever. There were no topics that they wouldn't discuss. The hardest part was going through hundreds of hours of interview tape. Transcribing is by far the worst in the whole process. I can't think of anything more boring than that. I bet hell is filled with headphones, computers and endless amounts of talking to transcribe.

What's your favorite period in the Amorphis discography? If you have any, of course.

Well, I like all of their albums and periods, but some are closer to my heart than others. Tales from the Thousand Lakes (1994) is their most important album for me, because it blew my mind to splinters when I first heard it. I had been a fan of the band since The Karelian Isthmus (1992), but it was "just" a great death metal album. With Tales, they did what no one else had ever done before. Elegy was brilliant, too. Tuonela (1999) is my favorite from the "Kingston Wall" delay pedal era, Eclipse (2006), Skyforger (2009) and the latest two from the present day Tomi Joutsen days. Amorphis is quite a unique band, as they only move forward and challenge themselves artistically with each release instead of just releasing insignificant crap like most of the artists that have been around for decades. They are the fine wine of progressive-melodic death metal, or whatever their style is filed under these days.

Kuolemanlaakso - 'The World's Intolerable Pain' (Official, 2016):

Nowadays physical formats are losing their position step by step, young people prefer digital books and digital records. Of course it's more convenient, I listen to music on my player and I often read digital books as well as paper ones... But what's your position? For whom did you write it?

I have never read a digital book. Not one. I stare at a computer screen all day anyway, so grabbing a physical copy is vacation for me. It's relaxing and comfortable. There's no ctrl + f (or cmd + f if you're a Mac user like me), but I like to leaf through the pages just for the hell of it. Amorphis has been released as an ebook, too, but I haven't even seen it.

I use Spotify, but that hasn't stopped me from spending ridiculous amounts of money on vinyl and CDs every single month. I can't think of a better way to invest money than buying the things I love: music and books. Files are just files.

Well, agreed! You've said that you're currently working on a book about Finnish Pagan Metal, how did you came to the idea that you needed to do that? What's the book's structure?

My publisher Like Kustannus asked me to write it. The title of the book is Folk Metal Big 5, which is an inside joke by the biggest Finnish bands of the genre: Moonsorrow, Ensiferum, Turisas, Korpiklaani and Finntroll. Each of the bands will have their own massive chapter. On top of that I will discuss the origin of the genre, what folk metal actually means (it is a very controversial and misunderstood term) and where the scene is now.

There are plenty of great stories in there for sure. I can't wait for people to read it.

I think all those Big 5 bands are vitally important to the whole scene. They are the leaders and innovators. I'd like to be politically correct for once and express my love for Tenhi instead of picking just three from the bands that I'm writing about. Tenhi isn't metal, but I absolutely adore their gloomy acoustic folk and elegant, nature-respecting lyrics.

By the way, are they popular in Finland? They aren't a "loud" band, and for sure they never filled stadiums.

I don't actually know. A lot of my friends like them, but they are usually so inactive hat I've never seen them on stage, or do I remember when they last toured here. I think they are more popular abroad. Be as it may, it would be awesome to tour with them someday. I don't know if they've even heard of us, but I feel a certain artistic kinship with them.

Markus, what are your plans for 2020 concerning Kuolemanlaakso?

Once I finish my book, I plan to start writing new material for Kuolemanlaakso. I have a ton of riffs, melodies, parts, ideas and even a couple of songs for the band already, but it's still a long road ahead. Usva has a lot of material, too.

The construction of my home studio started this week, which means that I'll have the perfect place to write music and record my demos soon. I'm hoping to finish writing the material for album number three in 2020. No touring before that - unless someone sends us a horse head with an offer that we cannot refuse…

Kuolemanlaakso - 'My Last Words' (Official, 2016):

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Interviewed on 2021-02-08 by Comrade Aleks Evdokimov.
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