When I talked with Before The Dawn mastermind Tuomas Saukkonen last June about their then-new extraordinary CD, Deathstar Rising, it seemed like nothing could bring the band down. But just a short time later, Saukkonen announced that the Finnish outfit were to undergo significant changes, as clean vocalist/bassist Lars Eikind and drummer Atte Palokangas would be leaving. Rather than trying to find another clean singer to complement Tuomas’ growls, Before The Dawn decided to proceed with a much darker, faster and heavier sound.
While Tuomas is still joined by lead guitarist Juho Räihä, the band added bassist Pyry Hanski and drummer Joonas Kauppinen to the mix in late 2011. With their revamped lineup, the melodic death metal quartet went on to successfully tour Europe with the likes of Insomnium and MyGrain, and after numerous changes to the band, it’s safe to say that no matter their direction, Before The Dawn will continue to amaze.
On Sept. 25, Rise Of The Phoenix, the group’s brand new full-length, made its U.S. debut. While Lars’ vocals are certainly missed, the new direction they’ve gone in is far and away better than I’d imagined. I recently spoke with Finland’s back-to-back Musician Of The Year award winner, Tuomas Saukkonen, about what led to the lineup changes, their new sound, Rise Of The Phoenix, and more. The conversation is below:
A little while after I talked to you last year, it was announced that the band would be parting ways with both Lars Eikind and Atte Palokangas. What were the reasons behind these changes?
With Lars we had quite a big trouble for a few years already, at that point. He had some personal life issues which started to reflect on the band quite heavily with heavy drinking, and 99 percent of the gigs were performed with him being really drunk. And basic stuff you get when somebody starts to drink more before the gigs than after is that, you know, you’ve forgotten a little bit of lyrics, you don’t really stay in tune, you start to act really crappy towards the fans and the band members, and that kind of behavior poisons the whole environment.
It’s like a bad marriage. Like, nobody was enjoying themselves anymore when we were touring, and also same with the studio. The whole recording session of the Deathstar Rising album was, how can I say… We didn’t have so much fun. We made an album because we were supposed to make an album and we added Nuclear Blast, so there was no point of like, actually thinking of big changes at that point because things like that need some time to escalate into a point where you have no choice and know the decision, and that actually happened when the album was out already in Europe and we played the tour in Finland, and we realized we haven’t played any gigs in a professional level in two months anymore, so that is quite a bummer for the motivation. When you realize we are actually starting to suck no matter what we do on stage because one of the members is in a bad condition always, we pretty much suck all the time we go on stage.
And with Atte, it was a totally different thing. When we made the decision with Lars, we made it together with him, so it was not that we kicked him out or he left the band; it was a mutual agreement to part ways. And with Atte, he just was not into the new style, the new elements in the music. He doesn’t like to play blastbeats or fast-paced drums, and I said to him that I would never kick him out and I would always love to play with him because I love him as a guy and a friend and a drummer, but there were certain things I wanted him to change in the music and one of them was to have those melodic death and black metal elements in the music. And then he just said like, it’s not his cup of tea, he’s too old to modify his whole playing to be able to play blastbeats and stuff, and he really doesn’t like to play them.
So he advised us to find a suitable drummer for that style; there was no drama in there at all. Actually, this is one of the rare occasions when you can actually honestly say that it was musical differences. Usually bands use that term when they don’t want to say the real reason (laughs). But with Atte, it was musical differences. He doesn’t like to play that fast music and doesn’t want to rehearse to be that fast; it’s just not something he wants to play.
How has the transition been going from Lars and Atte to Pyry and Joonas?
Really easy. Both were friends of mine already. Actually, Pyry used to be my drum student a long, long time ago. And we’ve been playing with both Joonas and Pyry in many projects before and shared the stages with their bands with my bands. And with Joonas, we’ve been trying to find a common project or band for about five years. When the other one has time, the other one is busy with his things, so we never really got the schedules working but we’ve been actually trying to hook up for a long time already, so it was quite happy-go-easy that now we have a time when we needed a drummer.
So to me, it was really easy. And it was actually a really healthy thing for the band also because they were really not new guys; they were already friends of me and Juha. We didn’t really have to, you know, invite new people into the band and get to know them little by little and see how things go, so after two quite frustrating years and bad mood in the band, everything changed quite fast into a lot better mood because, you know, when you get to play with friends and they prove to be reliable and professional, everything goes really smoothly.
The album was just released in America after hitting shelves this April in Europe. What kind of feedback have you heard from European fans over the last few months about it?
A really good feedback. Also, not [just] from the fans, but also from the media—which actually was a little bit surprising. I was prepared in a way that the feedback would be a little bit more diverse, because, you know; kicking out the clean vocals is quite a big thing musically when you compare the new album and the whole history of Before The Dawn. The first album with no clean vocals and I know there’s a lot of fans that really dig the clean vocals, so I was prepared to have a little bit more negative feedback this time. Not because of the quality of the music, but because of the change. But actually, it seems that it was a really welcomed change after all because a lot of people who actually were doubting that they’d really like the album because there’s no clean vocals have said that it’s one of the best albums of Before The Dawn. So surprisingly good feedback.
How much harder was it recording Rise Of The Phoenix as opposed to others seeing as how you were the only vocalist on it?
Well, it’s only vocals that I had to do more of, so actually it was a lot easier. A lot faster and easier than before. This was one of the first albums in Before The Dawn history that there was no bigger problems in the studio. Nothing had to be rerecorded or anything like that, and it took 12 days to record the album, so it was quite a fast and easy session. A lot of people might be asking about how difficult it was with the new members and the big changes and everything, but then again, they don’t really realize how positive the change was. It was not like we lost two members and we were in really big trouble and then we were just trying to go on. Pretty much we were able to take all the malfunctioning parts of the machine and replace them with, you know, better ones.
So the whole band started to function a lot better and the overall motivation in the band was like, 10 times better. Even my own motivation; I was feeling a lot better about the band and the music and the actual recordings and new album and the future of the band a lot more. Everything was like, more brighter and easier and positive. So to me, it’s like doing double amount of growling is quite an easy thing. Pretty much one day more with the growling, so it didn’t make it pretty much any heavier—it’s just growling (laughs). I mean, you just go there and shout, and you can’t really make a hero of yourself because you growled five songs more this time, so it was easier.
In the past, you’ve had to play the drums, guitars, keyboards, bass, etc. all on one album. How’d it feel to just play the guitar and keys on this one?
It was really, really easy. Actually, Joonas is one of the drummers that I’ve been a fan of for like, many years. I really like his style and actually, I’ve been adopting a lot of things to my own playing from him. I don’t know how well that can be heard, but I know exactly what things I do the way I do because I’ve seen him do it. It was just an easy transition because I didn’t have to play the drums. I had to play the demo guitars when he was playing but it was also really motivating and refreshing as a musician to be able to, you know, see how his drumming affects the songs and how he makes the songs sound. A lot of things made me happy on this album.
Also, Lars did all the bass when he was in the band, mostly, and it really felt like a band working with an album this time. So, of course, I was in the studio every day because I was producing the album and recording the album, but that is a different thing. It’s always quite a drag to play a lot of instruments in the studio and of course, when you have a specialist on the job like a drummer who’s dedicated his life to be a drummer, he probably has a lot more in his sleeve than I have because, how I see it, I’m just an overactive songwriter who wants to play all the instruments he’s able. But of course, that gives quite a big limit. I don’t have 30 hours in a day for practicing the instruments and when you have an [actual] drummer instead of like, me—guitar player/drummer/bassist/pianist/growler/whatever—I actually have a saxophone, but I have never played it yet so I can’t add that to my list yet—it’s always good to be able to work with really talented and, you know, specified musicians on their own instrument. That opens up a lot of new things for the music.
Your live shows are obviously going be affected with the musical change. Will you have a possible touring vocalist to play the older songs that require clean vocals?
No. When we were talking about the decision with Juha about the changing of the music style and changing the lineup, we also, at the same time, decided like, if we were going to make the decision, it has to go all the way. Like, if we’re going to change the band, then we have to stand behind the change 100 percent and not, you know, try to sound like the old Before The Dawn at the same time when trying to be the new Before The Dawn. And it wouldn’t really make any sense for me to keep a clean vocalist for three, max four songs in a set. I know fans would like that idea, but then again, that would be made only to please the fans. That wouldn’t come from the band in a way that it should be. Bands should always play the music they like.
I really don’t like the new In Flames. I haven’t liked In Flames in 10 years, but [they’re] still one of my favorite bands because they made one of the biggest albums in my childhood, so they can play what they want. That doesn’t make it a bad album or like, a bad band in my book, but I understand that bands do what they do because they really need to love what they’re writing and playing. Not because of what the fans might want to hear.
Before The Dawn’s new album, Rise Of The Phoenix, is available now through FrostByte Media. For more information on the CD and the band, go to beforethedawn.com.