It’s been nearly a year since we managed to sneak an interview with THUNDERSTONE to hear about what it’s been like touring and working on an album from a variety of cities (or countries, in the case of bassist Titus Hjem). This time, we sat down at Sonic Pump Studios once more with guitarist and proprietor Nino Laurenne to talk about “Apocalypse Again,” the current line-up, and what’s next for THUNDERSTONE!
Your newest album, “Apocalypse Again“ is finally done, and it’s been a long time in the making now. How are you feeling now that it’s all done?
Totally relieved, because it’s been quite a trip since Pasi left, to be honest. The motivation was pretty low when he left the band and it kind of came back with Rick, but still. After talking with Pasi in the bar, the whole thing kind of started again. It was 2012, I think. That was the year… I don’t remember what month it was, but it was in the bar! That was the moment the whole thing started again. So it’s been what, 3 years of working on this album basically. I think we started recording the drums like a year ago or something. So to answer your question, the feeling is good, relaxed, we have no stress or panic or whatever at all. We know it’s a really fucking great album and there are no expectations at all. It’s pretty fun now.
You answered my next question, which was “when did you start working on the album.” You’ve mentioned a few times that you guys have these summer cabin sessions for brainstorming and putting songs together. How many did you have for this album?
Three. The first one was without a drummer, because at that time there was only the four of us. The first session was just where we wanted to go and fool around and try to do some songs and just checking how the feeling was with Pasi. That was the main thing. Since it worked, we decided that maybe we should do one more album. Let’s do it! The whole band, in the middle of the woods, by the lake, a couple of beers, electronic drums, and this light recording system – microphones and everything. Actually, we did at least the demos and raw versions for most of the songs during those sessions.
Actually, I was in London for some other business and I met with Titus… I don’t remember, like 2 years ago or something, and we hooked up and we had a session and “Fire and Ice” started from that. I’ve composed a couple of songs with Jukka here in the working room, but most of the songs are from the sessions in the woods.
What’s your album-making process? It sounds like it has the potential to be interesting, because you have these cabin sessions first, and then some of you are in Helsinki and some of you are in Jyväskylä and some of you are in London…
Yeah, it’s not like those old-school sessions where the whole band is in the studio and we’re just jamming around and taking like three full takes from the beginning to the end and then we just decide which one is the best and then we release the album. It’s more or less, nowadays, drums first, then we do the editing or whatever, and then… I think most of the time, after the drums are recorded, you record bass, but I always want to record the guitars then so that Titus can still think about his bass lines. So it was guitars, and then Titus came to the studio and recorded bass. At that time, Jukka was already recording keyboards at home. There were a couple of sessions here with Jukka doing grand piano and Hammond and all that real stuff.
Then we had these demos with the demo vocals, and nowadays Pasi also has a home studio where he can record everything. This was the first time he was actually rehearsing the songs and singing them before we started to record the vocals, so it helped a lot. Usually before it would be like, he’d come to the studio and then I’d show him the lyrics, and this is the melody, and that would be the first time he would hear the melody, so it’s more fun for him to check out the songs beforehand. But basically, it’s the same as before. We’re just listening to the demos and the melodies and I get the files from Jukka and I have an assistant who’s editing and putting all the pieces together, and then finally we are in the situation that we’re doing the mixing – the last day! The mixing and the lead vocals and the backing vocals at the same time. I don’t know how it’s always like that. You always hit the deadline in the last minute. The last day was 16 hours and Pasi was recording lead vocals in a different control room while I was mixing the album, and we were also doing the backing vocals, and I had this really fucking aggressive stomach flu for the last 3 hours of the mixing session for the last song, “Barren Land.” I’m not sure if you can hear the stomach flu in there, because I had to fix it a couple of times once the actual mixing session was done.
Was the recording process – or rather, creative process – for “Fire and Ice” different from the rest of the album, since it came out so much earlier than the other songs, or do they still follow the same pattern?
I think we recorded all the drums and bass and guitars during the same sessions, but then we decided to take one song – we wanted to release one song before – and at that time we didn’t have a record deal at all. We just wanted to put one song and video out to let people know that, “We’re still here after 100 years!” We recorded that song first, all the keyboards and vocals and everything. That’s the way it usually happens when you release the single. You record everything and then you just decide on the single song and you work with the single and mix it and then you go on with the rest of the songs.
You’ve been picked up by Sakara Records, who also has MOKOMA, STAM1NA, DIABLO, and so on. How did you get signed on with them?
I know Tuomo, the guitar player of MOKOMA and one of the owners of Sakara. When we were thinking about the labels, I just threw him a message that we were coming to Tampere to play a gig there, so come and check out the band. He said, “Okay,” and then he came, and he was surprisingly thrilled about the whole thing. He was expecting something totally else, like most of the people, I think. They think we’re a lame power metal band, but we’re not! I think that was it. He was like, “Yeah, I want to do this!” and we were like, “Okay, let’s see!” It’s not a small label either. They have Sony as a distributor and all the connections and everything. After Nuclear Blast, which was a really, really great label – nothing bad to say about them – but now it’s even funnier because I can get real feedback from the musician fellows. I can really ask from Tuomo, “What do you think about this?” and he’s telling me his opinion and I’m really, actually listening. It works great. I’m really happy!
Moving on to the album itself then, are there any major overlying themes to the album, or does it go song-by-song?
It’s more song-by-song. There have been a lot of things happening with the members of the band over all these years – divorces and all that relationship shit – so I think some of the songs are inspired by that. Also, I’ve written some lyrics about the situations happening in the world now, but it’s not a concept album. It’s not that dark, even though the songs aren’t happy either [laughter].
Where did the album title come from?
Actually, we were thinking that the title should be the same as the opening track, “Veterans of the Apocalypse,” but then we started to think that… we’re not really veterans. BLACK SABBATH, they’re veterans. I think it was Titus, again, who said, “What about Apocalypse Again?” and I loved it. It looked cool and it sounded cool.
It has alliteration and everything!
Yeah! It’s close to the opening track, and on “The Burning” there’s “Until We Touch the Burning Sun” and then on “Tools of Destruction” we have “Tool of the Devil.”
Is there a story behind “Veterans of the Apocalypse”?
It was that there have been these “judgment days” almost every year.
The Mayan calendar’s end and those types of things?
Yeah! Titus was chatting with his colleague and the next day there was supposed to be another apocalypse, and they said, “Yeah, we’ve survived another ‘end of the world’ again, so we’re veterans of the apocalypse!” and he was like, “Okay, that’s a fucking cool line there.” So it comes from there.
How do you feel the new album holds up against the older albums? Is it as good, is it better, is it just totally different and can’t compare?
The newest album is the best one. Always the first demo is the best one, of course, but I think this is the best. I think a lot of people will think the same.
I would have to agree!
Yeah! There are lots of old things – Pasi is back, he sounds better than ever – and there’s still this riffing but it’s much lighter and every single chorus is pretty catchy. Of course, I think it’s catchy because I’m one of the composers, but the feedback so far has been so great. I mean, who can actually make an album and say after that, “No, this is not the best album”? It’s always the best, but that’s a hard question.
Well, you do hear from bands every once in a while, sometime after the album has come out, and in hindsight they think, “Yeah, we kind of phoned it in on that one,” but it doesn’t happen all that often.
Ah, okay. I try to be as honest as possible with everything I’m doing. With “Dirt Metal,” I was really, really happy with the album, but I still had mixed feelings because it wasn’t Pasi. Maybe I was subconsciously thinking about how the album would sound with him. Still, I’m really happy and I’m standing behind it 100%, totally.
Do you think that this album is a “traditional” THUNDERSTONE album, or is it an all-new experience?
Traditional, definitely. The mid-tempo, pop-ish songs with one hell of a catchy chorus… what else? Big choirs, clichés, modulations, fast playing, racing with Jukka, and all that stuff. It’s great!
Is it hard for Jukka to play those slides on a Hammond? They have quite sharp-edged keys, not like the soft, rounded ones on a keyboard.
We have photos of Jukka’s hands! In the first minute, the skin was peeling off his fingers. He was using these laastarit [bandages] on his fingers after 5 minutes because it’s totally something different than those soft keyboards. It’s a real thing to play that stuff. It’s the same as when I started to play the new songs. Now I’m rehearsing like hell. I’m playing guitar more than in the last 10 years, to be honest. So I’m getting these calluses and they’re getting harder and harder.
You guys have a small Finnish tour coming up, and then you’re off to Canada. Will that be your first time over there?
Yes! And it’s going to be great. I’ve never been there and the band’s never been there. It’s really, really exciting and let’s see if we have fans there, because we have no idea! You can’t tell from Facebook or whatever. We’re touring with SCYTHIA, a local [Canadian] band. I mixed their two last albums, so after the second album we started to talk about doing something together, and here we are, going there.
Do you expect to do any other tours for this album, or is it wait-and-see at this point?
We have booked, at this moment, twelve shows. We’ve actually been confirmed to play South Park -festivaali in Tampere too! We’ll have three gigs in the UK as well, so May will be pretty busy for us – Canada and then this RadioRock cruise, and then the UK. But only one festival so far, but we’re still booking. I think there will be a lot more shows. At this time we don’t have a booking agency outside of Finland, but we’re looking for that and we’ll see what happens.
But I think this is great now! We’ll do a long weekend in the UK and then one week in Canada. Let’s see. I’m not sure if I want to go 5 weeks in Europe [laughs]. Let’s see. We’d need a good slot. It must be a good tour if we want to do it. We don’t want to be picky, but, you know, “been there, done that,” so it must be something other than small places with fifty people.
I can understand that. This is a pretty kickass comeback album after about a 5-year or so break – do you think, at this point, or do you have any idea, will THUNDERSTONE remain a casual band or do you think that we’ll be getting more regular material after this?
Now it looks good, because the motivation is higher than it has been in 10 years. This is really what it’s all about now. Everybody’s really thrilled and excited, like little boys at Christmas. It’s hard to say, but now it feels like it won’t take 5 years for the next album. I’m already starting to think about the next album and if we want to release it and when we will release it, so when should we start the first cabin session… I think we’ll do something like that again, because it worked. Not next year, but maybe 2018. Let’s see how this goes. Everybody’s really, really motivated.
All right then, these are the last few “general interest” questions then. Do you actually remember where the name THUNDERSTONE came from?
Yeah! I decided that I wanted a band name that starts with “thunder,” and to be honest, I opened the dictionary… I checked where thunder was, and then I did this [points at a random word] and there was “thunder stone.” Pretty close to “thunder storm,” but that’s something you just can’t pick… but “stone”! It was just a little bit weird and… what is a thunder stone?
How did the band progress from a Nuclear Blast all-star newcomer to a hobby and back to where it is now? Was that largely due to Pasi leaving?
Yeah, it was totally about that. When you’re on stage and you don’t feel that this is fun then you should stop, because you don’t get any money from it anyway. It’s always been a hobby for us, to be honest, because every time we got any money, we rented a big bus and we bought big backdrops – they’re pretty expensive – and we put all our money there, so it’s just a hobby and all about having fun.
Did THUNDERSTONE without Pasi feel a little bit like IRON MAIDEN without Bruce Dickinson?
That’s true. Of course when Pasi left and Rick came, people complained that it’s not the same anymore.
Everyone always says that.
Yeah. I didn’t care. It always goes like that, but now actually when he’s back and people can listen to the first single… the feedback’s been like, “Whoa, he’s back! He’s back! It’s great, they’re back, this is the real THUNDERSTONE!” That’s the way it is. I can promise you that this is the last time that Pasi is in the band, if you know what I mean.
If he leaves again then it’s done?
We’re going to quit the whole thing. I’m not going to try with another singer again. …Maybe with DIO, but he’s dead [laughter]. But Pasi’s not going anywhere. He’s in better shape than ever! He’s handsome and thin and really in good condition and grey and sings like an angel [laughter]. He’s hairy as a grizzly bear.
Properly manly hairy?
How did you guys get selected to compete in Eurovision a few years back?
I think it was 2006. We were in New York at the time. I got a phone call from YLE [a Finnish media group], and they asked if we want to join the competition and I ran out from my room and knocked on the other guys’ doors and asked if we should go, and everybody was like, “Yeah, sure, what the hell, of course we’ll go!” That was it. It was fun. I’ve never played that well… because everything was coming from the backing track. Except the vocals. So I played perfectly, even after ten beers! [laughter] Great party!
We heard a rumor that “Face in the Mirror” was written very, very quickly for the event. Is that true?
Yeah, because we had almost a full album done. I think all the songs were done. We picked “Forevermore,” but the rest of the songs were either too long or too weird or too heavy for this kind of thing, so we wanted to make another song, and Kari and I wrote it… I was personally totally sure that “Forevermore” would win the competition – you can find the Eurovision version, which has a kind of melodic C-part without this thrash metal fast solos and stuff – but it was “Face in the Mirror.” So that was the song we went on with during the competition.
Now regarding the band’s history and line-up changes, Pasi and Kari left around the same time, right before a tour, correct?
Yeah, it was like 2 months before a European tour when Pasi said that he couldn’t get or he didn’t want to burn his vacations on this. The tour before we did was really bad. Maybe that was one of the first times when we started to lose our motivation. He said that he didn’t want to burn his vacations on this tour and I said, “I don’t want to be in a band where I can’t be sure that everybody’s ready to go on tour, like bam, if we decide to do it.” So he said okay, we should split, and I said that that would be the best thing. We would go on and thanks for everything. I remember that phone call. It was really… more or less emotional, but still I was totally like, we must do this 100% or not at all, so we’ll take the next one if it comes to that. But there was nothing between us over it. We were good friends the whole time. He was in the studio doing backing vocals for HEVISAURUS several times. It was all good.
Then Kari left… I think it was the next day. He said, “If Pasi is not in this band then I’m not going to be.” At the same time, he didn’t like the style where we were going. It was getting heavier and heavier, and so the keyboard stuff was going towards the background.
Well, we all know the story of how you got Pasi back and how you found Atte with your drummer competition, but I could never find any information on how Jukka joined the band. How did he end up in THUNDERSTONE?
I remember, I was sitting with Mirka and Titus in the studio lounge and laughing, like, “Okay, we have a tour in 2 months and we don’t have a singer or a keyboard player.” We started thinking about keyboard players and then Jens [Johansson, STRATOVARIUS] was the first we called, and he said at first that ok, he was coming, but then he called back and said that something had come up, so he couldn’t do it.
So he didn’t end up on tour with you at all? There is some serious misinformation regarding this on the internet – Wikipedia, and even your (old) website said that he did the tour.
There are some rumors that Jens was there, but he wasn’t. We actually made a press release about Jens coming on tour with us, but he canceled after that. Then we had also asked Janne Wirman [CHILDREN OF BODOM, WARMEN] and maybe one of the SONATA ARCTICA guys, but it was totally impossible for them because of their schedules.
Then I remembered that we had this one band in my studio, STATUS MINOR, and I remembered this nerdy-looking guy with a way-too-big keyboard with the headphones on and glasses doing these really fucking fast runnings, so I got his contact information – I had only ever seen him in the lounge, just playing. So I called Jukka and asked him with these words, “Do you want to spend 2 weeks in the tour bus?” and he said, “Yes.” So then we started to check out the schedules and other stuff. At first he was supposed to be just a tour musician, but it was so much fun and he’s a great player and a great guy, so… I think we asked him before the tour had even started, [drunk voice], “Do you want to be in the band?” “Yay!” “Let’s get naked!” [laughter].
On that note, am I allowed to ask what exactly happened with Mirka?
Sure. I mean, it’s not like it was a big, dramatic fallout. No one ever asks about this. Basically, with the HEVISAURUS thing, we ended up in court facing off against one another. When you’ve been through something like that… well, afterwards I just told him that I didn’t think I could be in a tour bus with him after that sort of thing. He said that he understood, and that was that. It was very gentlemanly.
That’s really nice to hear. We’re at the last question now. What is the band’s chemistry like now, compared to the very beginning?
In the very beginning? It’s pretty much the same. Pasi and Titus and I have always been like this, and Atte’s really easy going. He speaks a language we don’t understand because he’s from the north, but he’s funny and weird, and Jukka is funny and weird, so it’s a perfect fit for this band. Everything is great. We haven’t spent 3 weeks in the same bus, but I can tell that there aren’t going to be any problems. If you’re 3-4 days in the summer cabin drinking together and making songs and everything is all fun all the time, then it’s easy. It’s pretty much the same now. There’s not any tension or whatever. I’m also not 35 years old anymore, the dictator in the band, so I think everybody else is more relaxed. The old grumpy guy has loosened up more than ever.
Well, that’s all of my questions! Thank you so much for the interview and best of luck with the release of the new album!
Interview by Bear Wiseman
Interview Phantom Elite – “It’s always good to share that feeling that none of us is alone in hard times”