Before Apocalyptica emerged on the scene in the early ‘90s, perhaps no one realized that playing the cello could be so badass. But the world has since caught on, as the heavy metal band has sold over four million albums worldwide. Originally a Metallica tribute act, Apocalyptica has played all over the globe with the core of three cellists, Eicca Toppinen, Paavo Lotjonen and Perttu Kivilaakso, along with Mikko Siren on drums and occasionally a live vocalist. They have worked with singers such as Till Lindemann of Rammstein, Ville Valo of HIM and appearing on their most recent album, 7th Symphony, are Gavin Rossdale of Bush, Brent Smith of Shinedown and Lacey Mosley of Flyleaf.
Apocalyptica will be coming to the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville on Thursday, March 17. Classical and metal fans alike are going to be in for a treat, seeing as how it is impossible for these extremely talented performers to be anything less than spectacular.
Founding member Toppinen checked in from icy Finland for the following phone conversation.
Could you pick a favorite guest vocalist to appear on an Apocalyptica song?
It’s hard to pick up, it’s very hard to say, because every artist is so different in character, but I will say one of my all-time favorites is [German singer] Nina Hagen. We made a song with Nina Hagen in 2003, I think, we made a Rammstein cover [“Seemann”] but she was a special person (laughs). Such an amazing singer, so maybe that’s the most memorable of all the collaborations, but it’s impossible to put the guests in order.
Do you have a favorite song by Apocalyptica?
That also varies, from every album, my favorite song depends on the day because there is so many different moods and different styles and different records and different songs, so I don’t have an ultimate, all-time favorite Apocalyptica song. But I think from the new record, “Sacra,” is one of my favorites and from really older stuff there is a song called “Cohkka,” which is also one of my favorites, but it’s impossible to pick up on one.
Do you talk to any other bands from Finland on a regular basis?
Yeah, it’s a small country so basically I know all the other Finnish bands, more or less (laughs). I’m actually going tomorrow to meet the Finnish band called Stam1na, a great, great metal band, going for a meeting with them, to talk about their future and next album and what they will do next, but of course, I know the guys from Amorphis, HIM, Nightwish—Turisas, even.
Who would you say is best singer out of you, Paavo and Perttu?
We never tried that really. It’s impossible to say, I think we are all very bad singers (laughs). We are not really brave enough to try it.
Are you bringing a guest vocalist on tour or are you going to be doing the singing?
We have a touring vocalist called Tipe Johnson, he’s been touring with us for about two years now, and he will be joining us for the shows this year as well. It’s more like he will do the songs we really need a singer for, like new singles such as “Not Strong Enough,” “End Of Me,” “I Don’t Care” or “I’m Not Jesus,” but if we play some Metallica stuff, it’s all instrumental. Also, some songs like “Bittersweet,” which is originally a vocal track, we play it as an instrumental, so every vocal song that works very well as an instrumental song we don’t use a singer. But there are a few songs that they really need the vocals.
Are there any cities in particular you like visiting when you come to America?
Yeah, many times they are the very obvious ones (laughs). You know, the big ones, the coast sides I like very much, also it’s very interesting to go to a place like Dallas or Nashville, but I appreciate the coast sides, though. But it’s exciting to go to the Midwest because the life is very different there (laughs). Every city has its own personality, like Chicago, New York, Philadelphia or Washington. Every city has their own unique personal style. That is something that is missing sometimes with the cities in the midland, the architecture is the same, basically everything is almost the same. But the coast cities, they have very much character, also in the south, like in New Orleans, or places like that.
Do you record your songs in Finland or somewhere in the U.S? You have quite a few singers on your albums that live in America.
Yeah, actually we record all the drums in L.A., in Pasadena, and then we do all the cello recordings in Finland and then we do all the vocal recordings in Pasadena, so yeah.
Have you started working towards a new album yet or are you still pretty focused on touring?
We are very focused on touring. We just had a touring break, and I think this tour is going to last until the end of summer of 2012 so there are absolutely no plans for the next album yet. We’ve been working on some special songs for some—how do you call it in English, like language territories? Like, we are making one Spanish collaboration, then one French collaboration, then one German collaboration during this break. But besides that, it’s been all taking a break, taking a rest, get more energy for touring for this year, and it’s all focused on touring and I think we might take a little break at some point just to invent new things, and you need to have some time off on touring. Personally, for example, I feel when we are on tour and we perform it’s natural every night. It’s very hard to come up with totally new ideas songwriting wise. Every time I try to write music for Apocalypica on tour, I kind of feel bored because I feel like it’s exactly like what we’re doing, it’s nothing new, so I like to get some distance to the band, and get new fresh ideas in them.
How did you turn from playing classical music to hard rock and metal?
Everything happens very slowly in that sense. We had another cello band in Finland before Apocalyptica. I was the founding member of that, and we played very different styles of music—like Jimi Hendrix, stuff like that—so we knew that the cello band/ensemble is very suitable for this type of music stuff. And then when we started playing Jimi Hendrix “Purple Haze,” we thought we should be able to play “For Whom The Bell Tolls” by Metallica. And then we started playing for fun in small parties for a long time. So it really took years and years since we released the first album that Apocalyptica started to take all the time. So we were playing classical music all the time, on the side. But the progression of Apocalyptica was so strong all the time during those years that we turned, slowly, to be metal cello players (laughs). I think for the first four or five years, we were more like cello players who played metal for fun, but then we turned into metal cellists.
Did you grow up listening to more rock or classical music?
Both. I remember very clearly, I was around 13 years old when I found heavy metal, and at the same time I found classical music. Even though I played cello before, but you know when you’re a small kid and you want to play an instrument, you don’t necessarily think so much about what kind of music you’re playing, you just want to play the instrument. For me, when I played cello, I didn’t like classical music too much when I was like, nine or 10. But when I was 13, I found both [styles]—I think that’s the main reason why Apocalyptica was ever formed. Both music [styles] were close to the heart, so I personally grew up in both worlds, so I never saw or never felt any kind of border between the music.
If you can only play at one venue for the rest of your life, where would it be?
Whoa, one venue (laughs). I never played Royal Albert Hall, in London, that could be nice (laughs). Or I don’t know, today I went to Helsinki to see the new music house that they’re building, which will be opened in September, and I saw for the first time the concert hall, and that was something very unique and amazing, so maybe that could be it, Helsinki’s new music hall.
What do you like doing more; recording songs in the studio or performing live?
I need them both. I’m a performer, but also I love this laboratory kind of feeling in the studio, creating something new, so I think the studio part is the more creative part and the performing part is very important, so I need them both. Sometimes I feel the tours are too long, and at some parts on the tour I start to get the feeling that I would love to get into the next mode, songwriting, and producing.
Do you have any plans for after the tour?
More touring (laughs). When we come back from the United States we tour in France, then we might come back to the States in May, then the whole summer is festivals in Europe, then before Christmas we are going to make one more tour, it depends on how things go, but it might be North America, it might be Latin America, so basically we are willing to tour until September 2012. And after that, my plan is to have a little break. I think I deserve it (laughs).
Apocalyptica’s latest album, 7th Symphony, is available now through Jive Records. They will be playing at the Starland Ballroom in Sayreville on Thursday, March 16.