ZT INTERROGATION: FINNISH ROOTS DEFINE THE LANDSCAPE FOR NIHILISTINEN BARBAARISUUS
Not only would Nihilistinen Barbaarisuus wipe the floor with your friends in a game of Scrabble, the trio’s new album is also pulsating with black gold. Mika Mage spells out the story behind their second album, The Child Must Die.
Many thanks for taking time out to speak with Zero Tolerance. You’ve just released your second album The Child Must Die. I’m really enjoying listening to it and the rewards are all the greater the more you explore its many shapes. Can you tell us something about it please?
I really appreciate hearing that, Paul! I’ve definitely noticed that feedback for The Child Must Die has been consistently more positive, both from the perspective of fans and the media. Since my personal goal was to bring noteworthy concepts and events from The Kalevala to life via sonorous qualities unique to ambient black metal, I dig that people are taking the time to contemplate the album on a deeper level.
How would you compare it to your first album Synkkä Tuuli?
Before highlighting the differences I’d like to point out the similarities, in that both are tributes to my motherland (I hold dual citizenship with Finland and the USA), are limited in duration to about 30 minutes (encourages the listener to experience it as a play through), and are concept albums. This final aspect is a little more subtle for ST, and I don’t think many people picked up on it, but it was meant to be essentially a hidden thread to begin with.
As for the differences, in writing for ST my riffs were created to compliment those already devised by NB co-founder Manuel Rodriguez, as such it is mainly his play style which comes through on the album (Graveland, Horna, Hate Forest). This changed beginning with the Väinämöinen EP as Manuel left the band, leaving me with lone creative agency and thus allowing me to stretch my legs fully. Several reviews have mentioned an evolution to the NB sound, and I think this is what they are responding to.
Did you approach your latest album with any kind of theme that you wanted to explore?
The concept for The Child Must Die is The Kalevala, or a collection of stories gathered by Elias Lönnrot and first published in 1835, eventually becoming the principal folklore of the Finnish people and a defining aspect of the Finnish national identity. While on its own a distinct mythology, it does share roots with Norse and Greek mythologies, as is not uncommon amongst oral traditions. For example, Ukko in The Kalevala is the sky and/or thunder god who wields a magic hammer named the Ukonvasara (I won’t insult your intelligence by explaining the copyright infringement further).
On a guitar geek level, I wanted to experiment further with employing keys not often found in black metal, something I had slight success with on ST but mainly was overruled by Manuel when I tried to implement. Personally, I don’t see any reason why tremoloing chords can’t work just as well for major riffs; ‘A Light In The Dark’ seems to do it quite well.
Can you give us an insight into the actual makings of it? Was it a long process and how did things come together in the studio?
The making of The Child Must Die actually took far longer than I had anticipated, due to a combination of both technical and personal factors, as well as one very negative experience we had attempting to hire out to get the tracks mixed. The story with that is following the recording of Joel’s vocals I was running out of time to mix him in and thus finish the album before having to head to school (plus I was working full time as a Medical Assistant, which didn’t leave me much free time to do anything). I attempted to hire out a professional studio in Pennsylvania to only mix in the vocals, but the chief engineer insisted on mixing everything (all instruments, effects, mastering, levels, etc.), stating it would be impossible to do anything otherwise. I spent over a thousand dollars with this dude over the course of 2 months, attempting to steer him in the direction I knew the material needed to come to life, but it just never clicked with him. Finally, I scrapped the entire project rather than throw more time and money away, and I wound up doing everything myself.
The Child Must Die credits At Thee Illuminated Studio as the main production location, but the final release edition was actually done almost entirely in my own personal set-up, which by completion of the album essentially evolved into a home studio. For example, I wound up purchasing an Auralex MAX-Wall 1141VB portable vocal booth, Shure SM7B microphone with Cloudlifter CL-1, and Focusrite Scarlett 8i6 interface just to record vocals for 6 songs (having decided some moving blankets in a closet weren’t cutting it). I redid guitar and bass by reamping, Lawrence and I redid synth with improved software, and Jeff “Kol Slavv” Willet (ex-Black Crown Initiate, ex-Single Bullet Theory, ex-Aborted Existence) was brought in to replace my programmed drums with real actual drumming (he acquired his own studio time and delivered the recorded drums without ever having met me). It is worth mentioning how great a job Kol did matching my programmed drum lines hit for hit. Hell, some reviewers who never read the liner notes have criticized the drums for being programmed (they better not be, or I want a refund, Kol!)!
How important is it to have a producer who has sympathy with the band’s ideals and an appreciation of what you are trying to achieve musically?
I spoke of my negative experience attempting to bring in an outside producer earlier, and ultimately I think the producer is the single most important person involved in album production as it is their ear and taste that will define the final direction of the product, and if you aren’t careful it could be radically different than what you envisioned creatively.
M.w.s. tells of the olden-times back in the 90s how when he played with Wykked Wytch, and the band considered spending close to $30,000 to hire a prominent engineer/producer who had worked with Cradle of Filth. It seems crazy to me now, but perhaps then without the easy availability of studio quality software you really did have to hire out and really pay for that sort of thing, but these days I think everyone and their mother has at least some comfort with Protools or something similar.
Although based around Philadelphia, I believe that Mika Mage has Finnish roots. Clearly this is an influence. The new album is based on the Finnish national epic The Kalevala (a poetic Book with a Collection of Myths and Legends that occupies a prominent Place in the Finnish Identity). Can you tell us a little about what The Kalevala means to you?
The Kalevala has a strong defining role in the establishment of the Finnish national identity. Growing up as an ex-pat from Finland in several other countries (Malaysia, Switzerland, and the USA) I’ve had to look to such things as links to my heritage, and when the time came to put out another album I felt it would be a great opportunity to further strengthen this link while hopefully contributing to the folk tradition of my ancestry.
The ambient nature of your work with dark atmospherics can be completely compelling. I believe you don’t see yourself purely as a black metal band alone?
I began my foray into metal being completely engrossed with progressive and power metal, thus when I got around to heavier genres I still gravitated towards more melodic – as opposed than chaotic – material (although 1349 is most excellent…). On ST, I tried to weasel in a lot of melodic and major sections I felt would provide more dynamic, but these were mainly vetoed (the exception being lead parts, I suppose because they were sparse in the production). The explanation I was always given was that the niche wouldn’t be able (or willing) to appreciate the uniqueness, whereas I like to believe there are enough people out there bored by the thousands of bands which saturate the genre with the same old thing and excited to see what else can be done that is new and exciting. So to answer your question: I definitely see NB as a black metal act, but one with power and progressive influences that are trying very hard to crossover.
I’ve seen Mika speak glowingly of Sonata Arctica. What is about them that connects with you?
Other than the obvious Finnish aspect, Sonata Arctica happened to be the first metal band I ever really got into, and if I had a gun to my head I would still say they are my favourite band (despite some experimentation on more recent work I may not agree with completely… sorry Tony!). Most metal heads (at least in the USA) probably start listening to metal via nu-metal (Korn, System of a Down) or traditional heavy metal (hair metal, Metallica, Iron Maiden) and then slowly progress to the more obscure options while largely abandoning the originals; since Sonata Arctica is such a highly dynamic and talented contemporary band I never really “grew out of them”, and rather they remained with me as the gold standard for which all other metal was compared to. Furthermore, the original guitarist Jani Liimatainen’s amazing shred played a large role in getting me to pick up a guitar in the first place. I mentioned in a previous interview I have a few live SA videos on YouTube with thousands of hits; if you Google search “Elias Viljanen” my video of his key solo pops right up (he gave me his wolf wristband at the end of that show!).
I know Mika first formed Nihilistinen Barbaarisuus but the original members have since left. Joel is now the singer – how did you two meet, and have you got a strong bond that can take the band forward?
NB was originally founded by me and Manuel Rodriguez, with M.w.s. contributing bass (joining after he heard a four song guitar-only demo I put together). Manuel only wrote (never recorded) and always planned to leave following the release of ST to focus on his video game production career (he currently works for a large game development company in Denver), and M.w.s. left to focus on his main project Serpent ov Old. This left me the only full member for the VM EP, as such I brought in outside talent where I felt necessary for that release.
As for Joel, we met while studying at the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He was wearing a metal shirt so I approached him and we have been good friends ever since. Joel sings for the Raleigh, NC band Omelas, and while I knew he was talented I had no idea just how great he was until I ran an open audition for NB vocalist. He blew everyone else out of the water, to the extent I was willing to add him as full member. Unfortunately, Joel just recently left NB as he has to focus on completing his PhD studies in Nordic Medieval History, and thus won’t be able to tour this September (something I will speak more of soon). As such I regret to inform the world I am now (yet again) the lone full member of NB, but then as long as I’m kicking so will be NB!
I understand you had a guest drummer? Are you actually looking to recruit a permanent drummer?
With my withdrawal from school last October I suddenly had much more time to refine the album. As such a close friend of mine Jen Mitlas offered up her husband Kol Slavv as a human drum machine, capable of taking my programmed drums (many of which I designed without consideration as to human playability) and actually recording them. His drums were thus added last to the mix (not first, as is almost always done), making his accomplishment all that more amazing. Kol is not available to play live, and as we are playing support for Unearthly on the second leg of their US tour this September we are absolutely looking for a steady drummer, at least for the tour but hopefully to continue onwards after as well.
How important are visuals for the band. I’ve seen publicity shots of you all in shirt and ties which is not the norm for a black metal band?
I personally like that look (I call it “The Akercocke”), as it places the emphasis on the music foremost. I would rather people listen to NB because they feel the music is good, or purchase TCMD digipak because it was smartly done (with superb original artwork by the lovely Luciana Nedelea of Luciana Nedelea – Artworks) than be fans for any stage trickery or posturing. Plenty of bands do that sort of thing and are great for it; it just isn’t what I want for NB right now.
When you first named the band did you not think it would be tricky for fans to spell!!
The Finns don’t seem to mind, and you can’t get much worse than …Aaaarrghh…
How much is the live side of things important to you all?
It wasn’t important until after the release of The Child Must Die when we were approached to play the aforementioned support slot for Unearthly (black metal from Brazil) on the second leg of their U.S. tour. A live line-up has been largely filled out with exception of a dedicated tour drummer and keys player, but we are very optimistic and can’t wait for this September!
Will there be a tour to support the album?
The second leg of the Unearthly U.S. tour will run about a week, starting September 17 in or around Philadelphia (details tbc) and ending in Texas, with a few more dates planned for our trip back to Philadelphia. Furthermore, there has been some discussion about us perhaps starting earlier in September and beginning in NYC, but nothing is set just yet.
Many thanks for speaking to us and congratulations on the album – Paul, ZT
Thanks for the thoughtful questions, I very much appreciate that!