“Do you mind if we step out on the balcony for a smoke?”
We are in the middle of the Atlantic Ocean on the Independence of the Seas, and after eight hours of sleep, a set played on the ship’s Pool Stage, and numerous beers, Swallow the Sun’s frontman Mikko Kotamäki needs a cigarette. We step out on the balcony, a brisk breeze cutting through the warm air, to have a chat about the 70,000 Tons of Metal cruise, his band’s epic Songs of the North I, II & III triple album, and their three performances on the cruise ship that is on its way to Grand Turk in the Turks & Caicos Islands.
This marks the second year that Swallow the Sun have been invited to perform on the cruise, and when the request came in, it was a no-brainer according Kotamäki, given that, compared to touring, it is “more like a vacation.” Not only were they asked to join the cruise, but they were asked to play three sets (a first for 70,000 Tons of Metal), covering all three albums from their acclaimedSongs of the North I, II & III over the course of the cruise. In addition to the core band (Kotamäki, guitarists Juha Raivio and Markus Jamsen, bassist Matti Honkonen, and drummer Juuso Raatikainen), they also invited two backup singers and a four-piece string section to bring the album to life. At the time of our conversation, they had played a blistering Thursday night set featuring the first album from the release, Gloom, in the ship’s Alhambra Theater followed the next day with a sunlit, mellow reading of the eloquent second album, Beauty. A couple of days later, the band would take the stage to perform the bone-rattling, apocalyptic doom of the third album, Despair, in the Ice Rink. This final set, Kotamäki says with a touch of anxiety in his facial expressions and voice as he thinks forward to the performance, is the most challenging of the three, particularly for him. “The vocals are fucking hard.”
Writing and recording Songs of the North I, II & III was a feat unto itself, given the scope and the orchestration, but Swallow the Sun were inspired by the great albums from past decades that have stood the test of time. “I think that probably all the music in the ‘60s, the 70s, the ‘80s, the ‘90s, the albums were like real fucking albums, not just one fucking song you put on Spotify or something,” he says. “We were kind of like born and raised that way. Music is not a fucking disposable fucking paper copy you throw away.”
Creating such a recording, one that is tangible and lasting, was a formidable task, and Kotamäki is reluctant to think through the long-winded and tense project. When asked how long it took, he chuckles, “Don’t even fucking ask. It took so many fucking work hours, unbelievable. We were so fucking stressed out.”
Even performing all three albums is daunting, and he said he resisted the idea at first. “I had to make myself … because it is so fucking depressing.”
Despite the success of the album and the epic performances on the cruise, he claims that this will be the last time that Swallow the Sun perform Songs of the North I, II & III in its entirety. By playing the triple album one last time, they are closing the door on an epic era in their 18-year career, and they are already looking forward to the future.
Despite having Songs of the North I, II & III in the rear view mirror, Kotamäki says he is feeling the pressure as much, if not more, than ever about the next record. “We pretty much have all the new music done already,” he says. “We just have to record it. Realistically thinking, I don’t really know how far up we can go with this kind of music from the point where we are right now. There are no high hopes, but we will keep doing what we like to do.”
Two nights following our conversation, Swallow the Sun would take the stage in the Ice Rink to play Despair, the third and final album on the release, and despite Kotamäki’s anxiety over the set – the difficulty of the vocals, the intensity of the material – the group pulled it off in spades. Those three expansive performances on the open seas will live on in 70,000 Tons of Metal lore for years
Songs of the North I, II & III was released in November 2015 on Century Media Records. Buy it here!
Video by fellow cruiser Anthony Serafino III
Video by fellow cruiser Anthony Serafino III
Juha Raivio playing Beauty from Songs from the North I, II & IIIon the Pool Deck stage.
Swallow the Sun joined by backup singers and a string quartet playing Beauty from Songs from the North I, II & III on the Pool Deck stage.