» Olavi Mikkonen - Amon Amarth
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Interview conducted February 27 2009
Interview published March 03 2009

Prior to Amon Amarth's gig at the House Of Metal in Umeå, Sweden, I had the privilege to meet up with guitarist Olavi Mikkonen for a chat about the past, present and future in the Amon Amarth camp. A great and laid back bloke who, according to his own testimony, apperantly already before this is a relatively frequent reader of Metal Covenant (follow his example, kids...). Read on to find out what he has to share with us at this point in their career:

Tommy: How are you doing, Olavi? All set for tonight's gig in a couple of hours?

  • Olavi: Everything is just fine, thank you. We are all prepared and it's gonna be a blast.

Tommy: Have you noticed that the venues in this place all have names like Odin, Freja, Tyr, Idun and so on?

  • Olavi: Yes, indeed. That's quite appropriate. (laughs)

Tommy: You have lately after quite some years of hard work taken a big step up, especially after the last two albums, and just recently you were a part of the Unholy Alliance package together with Mastodon, Trivium and Slayer. How does it feel now to finally really be up there and to get paid off for all the work and sweat over the years?

  • Olavi: It feels damn good, of course. To finally get acknowledged in a bigger league, so to speak. But here in Sweden it may look like we have taken a giant leap in a relatively short time, but already around the time of the Versus The World album bigger things started to happen for us outside Sweden. We have been kind of one step ahead elsewhere in the world for some time now so for us it does not feel like a remarkably big thing. It feels like we have taken it step by step, slowly but surely building it up to the present situation. It's of course very nice that things are going the right way, but at the same time I think it should be a bit of a struggle also. It shouldn't be simple, you can't go like "Ok, now I'm gonna start a band and sell albums" and fly up there on the charts, go on massive tours and so on. The fact that it has taken us some time to reach where we are now I think, in my opinion, has made made everyone in the band pretty humble and thankful for what we have. We appreciate and value it very, very much.

Tommy: How is the feeling in the band and how do the discussions go: what is the next natural step for Amon Amarth? Is there at the moment a long term plan on how to take it further?

  • Olavi: A break! Taking a break, that's what we are discussing. That might seem a bit like the wrong thing to do at this point, but it feels like we have not done anything else the past seven years than just kept grinding on and on and on with this… Well, we'll see about that, but the nearest future, let's see, we're going to tour approximately one more year, I think our last tour ends around March 2010, and then we have finished the Twilight Of The Thunder God promotion. And then, if the time is right, we will try to see if we can get ourselves a break. Recharge the batteries for a while and after that start to write new material again, contrary to how we have done it before. Earlier we used to come home after the last tour and immediately start the work on a new album, record demos, enter the studio again and it has just rolled on like that. But, as I said, first we're looking at one more year of touring ahead so we're just gonna focus on that and give everything we have. In five days from now (March 04) our European headlining tour starts and we're doing that until the end of that month. After that we will head over to the US for another headlining tour during April. In May, South America is next and then we have the summer festival season. Then there are plans for some kind of Scandinavian tour, which is something we haven't really done in quite a while.

Tommy: On a personal level, do you feel that you at this point have accomplished what you aimed for when you started Amon Amarth?

  • Olavi: Yes, a long while ago. My dreams kind of came true already when we released the first mini cd. I don't think we still have any kind of major dreams or goals. Nowadays we are just taking it more or less day by day, as it feels.

Tommy: Just riding these waves and see where it takes you?

  • Olavi: Correct! (laughs) Well, of course one has certain aims, stuff you want to do, a few interesting ideas that you feel it would be cool to try out. If I have to mention one thing it might be to get to conquer places where we haven't got a break yet, Japan for example. We have never been there and our albums are not even released there. We're not really signed to the right kind of record label for that to happen, I think.

Tommy: That comes as a surprise to me. I really thought that you were released over there.

  • Olavi: No, we're not. Japan, I think, is the only market we have not been able to enter yet. So doing that would be damn fun. On a personal level, I think it would be really cool to also play in places like for example China.

Tommy: Metal bands like Arch Enemy are doing really well over in Japan, due to their melodic approach which that audience is known to like. Melodically, and logically, you should stand a fair chance of competing with that since you have somewhat of a similar melodic touch.

  • Olavi: True, but for example Arch Enemy have different and better people backing them up, it's as simple as that. I think Japan in particular is a lot about what record label you are signed to, and how you actually sound is a secondary thing. Of course Arch Enemy is a great band, otherwise they would not have sold as much as they in fact do in Japan, but the whole business and political factor is important.

Tommy: One might think that it should get harder and harder for you to keep producing those monster riffs over and over again. Have there ever in the band's career been moments of serious lack of ideas and times when you have felt uncertain about your future productivity?

  • Olavi: Well… during the time of the Fate Of Norns album. That was a period when we really struggled with ideas. We were very stressed out at the time, we had been touring extensively, and I think we all were mentally exhausted and sick and tired of each other. And at that point we were supposed to put an album together. But after that we decided that we are never going to work that way again. We are nowadays taking the time that is necessary, we have no immediate hurry. There is no record label that can tell us how long time we have to write songs. So we have never felt or worked under pressure since. Of course, after the With Oden By Our Side album there was a period of uncertainty and slight anxiety for what would be, but the very first song we wrote after that was Twilight Of The Thunder God, so… from there all barriers were broken. Regarding the next album, I haven't even started thinking about it one bit. I have only just very recently installed a software on my computer so I eventually can start playing around with some ideas. I don't think it's going to be a problem in the future. We would not settle with "only" something good or decent. The bar is set on Twilight Of The Thunder God now, so it's from there and upwards in the future. Or at least as good as that album. We would never take a step or two back. If we happen to encounter creativity problems, well, then we have to give it a couple of years. But I feel we have a good momentum, we are all enjoying ourselves, we are a close team and like I earlier said; we are all appreciating what we have so damn much, especially nowadays when we actually make a living out of it. And it's not only us band members that live off this, we have a crew of five persons working for us around the clock who also making their living out of this. Just that very fact we think is so cool, so we are really eager to keep this going. We have fun during gigs, and if you are having fun in a band, you are also having fun when writing songs. I'm convinced that we will make a smashing album next time.

Tommy: You have been critizised, if you can call it that, for not being "true" death metal, and for musically not being "viking" metal either, only lyrically and image-wise. How do feel about being looked upon as a band "just in between everything…"?

  • Olavi: "Just in between everything" is a pretty adequate description, I think. The Crusher was really our last death metal album. But not even then... I mean, if you include guys like Cannibal Corpse in this discussion then we have never been close to anything like that. We have always been closer to the melodic, Swedish style. But after The Crusher it just came naturally that we embraced a bit more heavy metal riffs, and the song...errhh…I'm not going to say that we sing, because we really don't, but the "singing" has turned a bit more melodic, so to speak. It kind of follows the verses and riffs in a more traditional heavy metal way, a way that makes it easier to sing along. But all of this comes from the fact that we are all from the beginning fans of classic heavy metal. We are all born in the early 70's so we grew up with heavy metal and first later on death metal made its entrance. So maybe we're simply going back a bit to where it all started for us, the stuff we listened to when we were young. But to answer the initial question; I really don't know… to me we're just "metal". I don't think we have anything to do in this Viking Metal genre either, if you connect that to certain folk music elements because that has never really been our thing.

Tommy: Do you have, or have you had earlier during your career, any serious plans on incorporate more folk influences, alternatively to go the more brutal way? Or even change style radically?

  • Olavi: Should we happen to stumble across a riff that has some distinct folk vibes to it, of course we would would try to work something good out of it. But personally I do not like this folk metal genre at all, not the least. We have found and are safe in our thing now, and…. Well, some people think that you are boring if you don't expand and try new elements and horizons, but I think it is a damn lot harder to stay within one specific area and develop that to the better instead of completely changing style from one album to the next, which to me feels completely useless. I personally wouldn't want to listen to an AC/DC album that sounds like Judas Priest.

Tommy: Does it always feel "natural" to do for example photo shoots that build on the Viking theme, or does it feel a little awkward or forced sometimes? A good example, and one among many, is the front cover for this year's February issue of Metal Hammer.

  • Olavi: We have actually always said to each other that we would not do things like that. We're just a metal band. We have shows where we have Vikings on stage, but then it's not we who are performing anything, we bring in guys that are handling that part and everything around it. When it's time for promo shoots we always tell them "we're just a goddamn band, that's it". But then Metal Hammer approach us and say that they want to do a cover based on us, but they want us to wear Viking outfits, and…well... sometimes you just have to agree to stuff like that even though you can't wholeheartedly stand behind it.

Tommy: The cover in question turned out really great, I must add.

  • Olavi: Absolutely! I also think they are cool, but… well, we approached that from the humorous side and saw the fun in it, and at the end of the day you don't get the chance to be on the cover of Metal Hammer very often. And that is a magazine where image plays a big role and it doesn't really matter if it's us or, let's say, Megadeth. If you look at pictures of Megadeth, he is probably standing there with a machine gun or something similar. They want pictures that no other magazines get. I guess you just have to play along with this every now and then.

Tommy: There has for some time been an ongoing debate in the metal scene regarding the "coolness" level of your lyrics. Have you ever at one point considering stepping off the concept that you thus far have stuck rock hard to?

  • Olavi: It would just feel so wrong if we all of a sudden started to write about something completely different. So I think that we will always stay within this lyrical concept. Then of course we can always develop your own little stories, like with Guardians Of Asgaard. I mean, there are officially no such thing as two guards walking around in Asgaard. You can be a little creative and things don't have to be so damn correct all the time. We had a lot of fun writing that song, by the way. It was born from us just fooling around with some ideas in the rehearsal room and immediatly someone just came up with someting like "two guardians of Asgaard". We started talking about it and from there it just grew; "let's see how that sounds", and so on.

Tommy: Perhaps an odd question, but; regarding the synchronized headbanging you are heavily engaging in on stage, have you ever practiced it in the rehearsal room and worked out a choreography for it?

  • Olavi: Back in the days we did kind of rehearse and practice it, yes. Let's say around ten years ago. We were doing it in the rehearsal room when playing. We even practiced playing when drunk so we would be able to also do that. (laughs). Nah, we don't do that today but… well, of course it looks better if we are synchronized, or at least are doing somewhat the same thing. Now it's just nothing more to it than that we look at each other, and if you see that someone is doing something you just keep up. It's not like we make a schedule for certain activities during certain parts or riffs, and rehearse them in front of mirrors. We have also played so much together for so long so it's just comes to you naturally. But it sure looks better when it's synchronized, so we just look at each other when we think something is coming up and you just follow.

Tommy: What is the medical status of your necks after all these years?

  • Olavi: I actually went to an orthopaedist three years ago and he told me "Well Olli, the only thing in good shape on your body is in fact your neck". So that was really the only part on me that was holding up.

Tommy: Then a few words about the gigs you played in Bochum, Germany at the very end of 2008. It was the last four days of the year, right?

  • Olavi: Yes, indeed. It was the 28, 29, 30 and 31 of December 2008.

Tommy: You then played four nights in a row, performing 4 different records of yours in their full length, one for each night. That is quite a unique thing, as far as I know. Many bands are nowadays playing one classic of theirs (Slayer with their Reign In Blood, for example) but as much as four nights with a new album each night is not so often done. Could you walk us through the preparation for the event and the actual gig nights?

  • Olavi: We were quite nervous before it went down, I have to admit. We had to practice enormously prior to the whole thing. There were around 50 songs in total we had to play, some of them we haven't played in a long while. We did not only play the album in question each night, we did sort of a Best Of set. First we played the album of the night for about 40 minutes, and after that we played an additional 40-45 minutes with mixed songs. And that additional set we wanted to vary from night to night, of course, so it did not look the same. So in total I think we had to nail somewhere around 50 songs, so you can imagine the amount of riffs to keep track of and remember. But - the nervousness was all gone as soon as the intro started the first night. So it was really, really fun! The response we got was amazing and all four nights were sold out. After the gigs we were hanging in the bar with the fans and everyone was very pleased. I have only heard positive things about this event and the fact that people travelled from Australia, USA and South America to a small village in Germany to witness it is just incredible. I thought it was really cool - but man, did we have to rehearse hard for it! The idea for it came from when we talked to our management about that we thought it would be fun to do a smaller club tour playing older songs. We don't have much space for old songs in our current sets anymore. And the whole thing was borm from there; "Well, let's do four nights in a row and we'll go through all fours albums in their entirety". And of course our record label are not late to make something out of it, so now they are going to re-release our first four albums remastered and as bonus material on each of those albums there will be a recording from the night in Bochum. So from the idea that we wanted to play old songs live, it grew to also be bonus material on remastered albums.

Tommy: A really cool thing indeed.

  • Olavi: Yeah, it was a lot of fun and we very pleased with what we also filmed, and the idea is that some of it will end up as some kind of bonus material on a future dvd release.

Tommy: No concrete plans for that at the moment?

  • Olavi: No, not really. We first have to decide what that future dvd is going to be all about. We don't want to release only that as a dvd, we want something really decent in that case. But this will serve as a very nice bonus on the side. Fans that crave older songs will get their fair share.

Tommy: Thanks a lot for sharing your time with us, Olli. We have to round this very nice chat off, so you can go and prepare for the gig. Anything to add to the fans or whoever else that might read this?

  • Olavi: Well, Swedish fans that unfortunately haven't seen us that much will have to hang in there a while more, but this fall we will head out on a scandinavian tour. See you all then!

See also: review of the gig the same night
See also: review of the album Twilight Of The Thunder God

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