Apocalyptica Interview Drummer Mikko Sirén By Jonathon Freeman-Anderson
Mikko Sirén is the drummer for the Finnish metal band Apocalyptica. Sirén has a degree in Jazz music. Currently, Sirén is promoting the live album recording of Apocalyptica’s epic Wagner Reloaded. In a recent interview, Sirén describes the process behind creating the massive performance and recording of Wagner Reloaded. He also details how he became an official member of the band affectionately referred to as “the football hooligan who just keeps drinking beer.” Plus, he gives tips on how to remain successful without losing your identity alluding to how U2 and Madonna maintained success by changing, but that “if AC/DC did a single thing differently, it would be a blasphemy.”
Are you very busy?
Yes, but it’s a good busy. We’ve been having a lot of time to ourselves. So, it’s good to be active again.
Is Apocalyptica performing concerts of Wagner Reloaded now or doing other shows with your own material?
We’re just doing promotion for Wagner Reloaded now. When we are not promoting we are writing new original material for the next album.
It seems that Apocalyptica have been working non-stop. Is there a schedule for the next album?
It seems non-stop work, but we released an album in 2010, 7th Symphony, and then toured for two years. We decided after that to take a one-year break, but during that one year break, we did this live album project called Wagner Reloaded. Now, it’s done, released, and we’re now focusing on the next studio album, which won’t be done until 2015. We have a year to make it perfect.
You were playing drums while the other members of the band were running around on stage during the performance of Wagner Reloaded. How did it feel to see them going from one set to another set while you stay in one place? Is it scary?
I’m scared for the other guys. At some points, one guy was playing at exceptional heights, like forty feet high. He had to climb up a narrow staircase with no safety wire. I got a terrible rush every time he climbed up there. I was scared to death that he would kill himself. I played downstage on a riser with a drum kit on it. There’s lots of action going on during Wagner Reloaded and there was this urgency to get from place ‘A’ to place ‘B,’ but it was fun. It is a very entertaining show.
It sounds exhausting.
(Laugh) Yeah, I think we were always exhausted.
How many of the live performances of Wagner Reloaded did you do?
We had two shows, which wasn’t a remarkable number of shows. After the first show sold out, we had a second added on and that sold out. So, in the summer, we are going to have two more. It’s a massive event. You can’t compare it to any other gig. There’s something like 250 people on stage alone including dancers, acrobats, orchestra, and a choir. It’s a really, massive, big, show event. As we are so proud of the project and we have so much fun with it, we are now trying to see the possibilities of getting that show touring. In the future, we would like to pack it in the trucks and take it on the road. Now, though, it’s too big. Wagner’s scales were not from this world and his measurements were always so big, which happened with this project. Now, we have to figure out how to scale it down a tad.
You are very successful at taking contemporary songs from your favorite artists and turning them into sounding like classical-style songs, how do you feel about taking Wagner, a legend in the classical world, and making his work modern? How much of your own influence, or alterations of the music, were done with Wagner’s work? Did you leave most of the original scores the way they are or did you revamp the music entirely?
Actually, the project was likened to a progressive electronic DJ remixing a track. Gregor was the one making most of the arrangements. I was so proud of him because his approach took the main melody line and built chords/riffs on top of or underneath it. I was really into that. For me, doing any cover, you just play it how it is and add distortion. Being able to produce stuff in a completely new way was very cool, especially with such a legend as Wagner.
Are you thinking about how you would tour Wagner Reloaded? Would it be every other show or would you franchise the project out to other groups?
We would perform it if it toured. Musically and show-wise, it is an Apocalyptica show. Everything is around us. You can’t just take good actors and make them look like us while we stay on the couch at home. That would be lazy. We need to plan Wagner Reloaded carefully. Due to all the other things that we do on the side, we need to make time for it. That show is going to be rare. Now that we’ve performed it, maybe, in the next five to ten years Wagner Reloaded can be performed every now and then wherever, but it does require quite a big space to be performed. We will be there every time it is performed.
Has Wagner Reloaded changed your perspective on the new music that you are writing now?
It’s hard to tell. With the last two years, we’ve been extremely involved with things that are crazy and far apart from traditional rock, which we were doing. However, everything affects everything else, but how it will affect is impossible to say. I would say that since all of us write songs for Apocalyptica then likely it would, but personally, I am looking forward to getting back to doing just basic rock stuff in the basic rock clubs. I would guess that the affect that this has had on me is just straight forward, but for the other guys, they might be influenced and get fresh ideas. The cool thing about having done Wagner Reloaded is that we realized that there are no limits. We can do anything musically, technically, and with the formats with which we are involved. There are no borders. We can go wherever. That actually may have made us more arrogant. (Laughs). We have come so far.
Many other artists probably want to be involved with Apocalyptica now. Over the band’s history, so many people have done guest vocals and Dave Lombardo from Slayer performed on drums. There is a certain mystique to Apocalyptica.
There is. We truly feel blessed and privileged to be in a position where it’s like legal cheating. It’s amazing that we can fool around with whomever and no one blames us. To be able to play with such great artists is amazing. I can’t describe with words what we’ve learned from each of those musicians in collaboration.
Has there been any discussion as to who might be doing guest vocals on the next album?
There is always discussion. Depending on how many beers we have drunk determines the more absurd collaboration ideas. There has been nothing remotely close to any development. Surely, we are tempted to try out new and fresh things. It’s hard to imagine that we wouldn’t collaborate with somebody, but who it’s going to be and how we are going to collaborate is impossible to say.
They made you an official member of Apocalyptica after 200 shows. Do they still treat you like the new guy?
They treat me like a stupid monkey because I’m the only guy who is not classically trained. Technically, they have been open-minded from the very beginning. Despite all of the good times, I’m a little sorry to say that this isn’t a democratic effort. It can’t be a democracy because then nothing will happen. There is a strong leadership in a seemingly democratic way. Apocalyptica treats me very well. There’s a constant joke where I keep calling them posh idiots who just live like eating fancy food and drinking their sherry and red wine in cool places while they call me a football hooligan who just keeps drinking beer. I think that both are accurate statements.
You must balance them out then.
I guess so. I guess so. I keep them rooted.
Have you found a difference in the audiences around the world?
Everybody already knew our background in Europe when we started to tour the U.S. They knew the sound was this thing with cellos and metal. However, it was a completely new audience with a fresh starting point when we came to the states. Some people saw us as being a gimmick band with just the desire, but no musical content behind that. However, we could see the audience’s perspective. They’d say, ‘o.k. these guys know how to play metal,’ but the audience had no idea about our energy happening on stage. I think that’s the difference. It’s not so much about the nationality. We have been playing for a very long time in some places. Without exception, one thing that’s true about American audiences is that they are amazingly supportive. It hasn’t always existed in Nordic countries or Germany. People have been quite skeptical. They come to the show feeling like, ‘entertain me.’ They want to be entertained. However, of the cities in North America, Los Angeles is a different vibe than anywhere else in the United States. Los Angeles is tough. You have all the bands in the f—king world there. I think it’s understandable when the audience in Los Angeles become demanding because they see the greatest shows there every day. Nevertheless, I have the feeling that if you go to have a coffee outside and you tell them that you’re from the band that they’re always going to be supportive. It’s something that I’ve really enjoyed when touring the states.
What is the process for songwriting new albums?
For the last three albums, the main thing has been that whatever it takes that we have to search new territories, break the boundaries that we’ve built ourselves, and come up with fresh ideas. We have to become excited even if the audience does not hear the difference. It’s not so simple where we try to do the same thing that we used to do and write a song that’s like another song we’ve already done. We need to be actually inspired. We try to find completely new styles, fresh ideas, sounds, and new people to work with sometimes. We’ve tried many things, but the key thing is that the four of us have to stay connected, united, and a band. No matter what happens or whom we work with, that is first. We are a family. It must be strong. We feel that way wherever we go. We have fun and it’s the same with the music. We really live from the joy of creating.
Wagner Reloaded was recorded live. Did you tweak anything for the record in the studio?
A couple cello parts needed to be taken again. There were huge iron statues that are moving on stage while the guys play a very tender classical part. All of a sudden, there’s a fifty-ton metal dragon going by (Siren makes mechanical screeching noise). It’s a cool thing when you see it on stage, but when you hear it on CD it just sounds like shit. It made no sense to leave it on there when you can just fix it in the studio. We didn’t have to approach the project dogmatically where we never touched a single note on the live recording because it would sound like something is broken when you listen back to the album. We played with a symphony orchestra, but there’s not too much you can change really. Drums are leaking in every f—king violin player’s microphone. You can’t do anything about that. You would need to record everything again and that’s not possible. So, there, you can enjoy the pleasures of mistakes.
It sounds grueling.
That’s very true, but it’s funny and fun. It gets to a point where you start to get too nitpicky on yourself when you’re in the studio. It goes really out of focus. ‘This pitch is wrong.’ ‘Listen to the music. It sounds kind of cool.’ ‘Yeah, but it’s not right.’ ‘Yeah, but it sounds cool.’ ‘Yeah, but it’s not right.’ It gets horrible, but it’s a great lesson because ultimately you can’t change anything. That’s what our producer on our last album would say to us, ‘Learn to love it.’
How much influence as the drummer do you have in choices like that?
Surprisingly a lot. As long as I’ve been a band member, I’ve always been composing for the band. I think that I bring a fourth of the songs. As far as arrangement, the guys have always asked me for my opinion and input even to their compositions. I think it’s fairly balanced how much influence that they allow me to give. Sometimes, I fear that I’m allowed to give too much influence. To my taste, sometimes it feels like the guys are leaning too much on the drums when it comes to the material. The core of the band is the cellos playing metal. I always try to step aside for a moment and say, ‘Take your f—king five minutes, just you guys, and go crazy with the instruments.’ That’s the cool thing. Then, when I add my stuff later on, it will be even more, but sometimes I feel they lose some of the perspective of what the key theme is with the band. It’s easier to play with the drummer because then you can sort of hide and pawn your responsibilities off on the drummer. I think it’s even better when they are just proud enough to do it themselves.
Do you alter the way that you stylistically play as a metal drummer with the classical sounding cellos versus perhaps something more traditionally metal with double bass pedals?
Actually not so much. Everything is Dave Lombardo from Slayer’s fault. They met at some festival in 1997 or 1998 somewhere in Europe. He heard the band and was doing a drum clinic at the festival. He asked the guys if they could play a couple Slayer songs on his drum clinic. Without rehearsing, they went, and I don’t know what they played, perhaps ‘Raining Blood.’ From that day, they have always decided when they wanted drums on their album that Dave Lombardo would play them. At some point, they composed songs that required a boost to it. So they called Dave and he played most of the songs on that album. After that album, it became obvious that Dave couldn’t go on tour with Apocalyptica because he had a couple other projects going on simultaneously. Eicca called me and said, ‘would you like to come and play with us?’ I said, ‘you’ve got the wrong number. I don’t play that kind of music,’ which is somewhat true. I did not. They said that they were not looking for a typical metal drummer to join the band. I consider myself more of a pop or contemporary drummer. They broke me into the metal music, which I had never played before except for a few stupid jam sessions. I still don’t consider myself a metal drummer. My influences and style of play comes from a different background. Maybe that is the twist with this band. I don’t play or approach these songs as a normal metal drummer. Of course, I’ve learned, studied, and know how to play metal if that’s what they prefer and that generally tends to be the case. Honestly, I tend to copy Lombardo.
Do you feel as a drummer that you have grown in this process?
Oh, yes, of course. This has been like my high school, college, and university all at once. It’s just amazing. Playing with such incredibly talented musicians, producers, mixing and sound engineers, it has just been massively educating. Getting to travel the world with the four of us has been a huge education and adventure to grow as a human being. You can trust that your friends will hold you. It’s a family. You grow on so many levels as a musician. Sometimes, when I’m in the studio I think, ‘for f—k sakes, there’s all these guys including the sound engineer, the drum tech, etc., who are so much better than I am.’ In those moments, I really need to push myself, top myself all the time, to play better than I actually am. Those moments definitely make you truly able to improve your skills.
What advice would you have for other metal bands and artists who are trying to succeed in the music industry and maintain their identity?
Normally, you have the opinion that bands start in a garage or basement and go from there to find your scene. On the other side, there are the solo artists who come from the music machine that don’t have the background of creating their own thing. It’s easy for them to be pushed, modified, and made as part of the mold. Some bands have been able to change with the time. I’ve always been wondering how U2 has been able to maintain themselves from the early 80s to late 90s. They were all the time, the band, creating every new f — king sound and style. Of course, that’s beyond and rarely happens. Madonna did it for a long time. Of course, shit’s changed. She changed the producers around her. Anyway, she was feeling progressive and she needed to develop. It’s quite f—king amazing that someone can do it. So often when you try to be a trendsetter and at the edge of the current flavor, you outdate yourself so easily. Then again, if AC/DC did a single thing differently, it would be a blasphemy. They just need to stick to what they’ve always done.
What’s the difference for you between music and noise?
Oh, that’s a good one.
Circumstances. Noise can be music in the right circumstances. In the wrong circumstances, music might be noise. Alone, some electronic sounds can just be noise. If you go to a concert and see a Japanese guy with a computer and he plays this noise, you’re prepared to call that music, but it’s not just noise for three minutes. You call it music because you approach yourself and set your mind to listen to the noise so it would be art for three minutes. On the other hand, say you go out with your girlfriend. You want to have a nice candlelight dinner. All of a sudden, Slayer is playing. Under those circumstances, it would be noise and not music.
At what point do you decide what you are going to discard versus keep in the process of writing a sound for a song?
That’s a very good last point. You must follow your intuition or your own heart. I’ve quite often been wondering about these raw ideas in the early stages of writing. You try it out based on that certain specific mood or idea that is in your head. You may choose to skip some idea. On the other hand, you may choose to keep that one. However, there can’t be room for everything. I’m sure everybody makes mistakes when it comes to that choice. You’re always going to be a skeptic at some point, but you just have to live with it. At least at that moment, you need to believe that you chose right.
For more information on Mikko Sirén, Wagner Reloaded, and all things Apocalyptica, go to www.Apocalyptica.com.