Indisputably one of the first ever heavy metal bands in Finland, if not the world, SARCOFAGUS and their leader KIMMO KUUSNIEMI were always pushing the limits of rock ‘n’ roll, even becoming one of the first metal bands to make a full-length music video. But after 30 years they’re back with a new album and tell IRON FIST how it pays respect to a legacy they thought was dead and buried.
Sarcofagus was laid to rest in 1982, when did you realise that there was an interest in the band again?
Kimmo: “I think it was around 2000, because [legendary Finnish rock radio DJ] Klaus Flaming wanted to find the ‘Motorbirds’ film. That’s when I realised on the internet there was so many stories about Sarcofagus and that these albums had become cornerstones of Finnish metal. Of course back in the day, when I started to make films I never showed the ‘Motorbirds’ video to any places that I was looking for a job because I was embarrassed by it. And I was embarrassed by Sarcofagus for probably the whole of the ’80s. Metal was like a bastard, all the progressive bands thought it would die and it’s a joke, so in the end I tried to believe that it was the case. And then it took until 2000 to realise that actually now it’s seen in a different way. I know that there have been quite many bands listening to Sarcofagus but it’s maybe not something they would put on their list of influences. Because they are Finns. It’s a Finnish thing.”
Is that when you put the band back together?
Kimmo: “We started in 2004, because that is when we did the Sarcofagus website and then we did ‘Core Values’, which was released in 2007. Back then we started talking about whether we should do a gig and then of course the ‘Promised Land Of Heavy Metal’ started when I realised what was happening in Finland. Even when we were doing the film I didn’t know much about the new metal scene.”
You finally got together to play live at the 2010 Metal Warning Festival in Helsinki. How did that come about?
Kimmo: “Ilmari, the guy behind Metal Warning, had been bugging us for quite a long time about it, but it’s quite complicated because we are here in the UK and the rest of the band is in Finland. None of us are wealthy enough to just take time off but even so that was the moment where we thought we should just do it. We suffered for half a year after that with money troubles, but in a way that was good because it opened our eyes to the reality of a touring band and that’s what had lead to now, with us starting to film the ‘Promised Land Of Heavy Metal’ part two that will be more about the actual business side.”
Tanja Katinka (vocals): “But wasn’t it when the invitations to do a few gigs in Finland came about we felt it’s now or never? If we are not going to do it now then we are never going to do it. We are not spring chickens anymore.”
What was the reaction from the crowd?
Kimmo: “First it was quite strange, and also I had the problem that so many people were telling me that ‘Motorbirds’ changed their life. That was very hard to understand and I was always making jokes about it and then I realised that was wrong because I was dissing their feelings. I don’t see myself as any kind of important figure, I’m just making music and even in the the Sarcofagus days we had some people following us and I thought they were mental.”
How did it feel to be back on stage?
Kimmo: “I think the weirdest thing is that I was really worried about fucking up and playing badly and the first gig was a little bit like a practise so it was the worst of them and we were occasionally playing different parts of the songs. But I think the strangest thing was that it has always been me and the band in the past, so I always had to be guiding thing with the iron fist. I had to be in control. I had to push people. I had to constantly monitor what was going on and keep people in check but now I could feel that we were together and that took all the pressure away. It was no longer about me, it was about Sarcofagus. And that was great, and I always loved to be on stage. I always hated the travelling but I always loved performing in the early days and we only stopped gigging because we tried to put on a ‘show’ back in the day, but back then you had to have your own PA system, you had to have lights, you had to bring everything. And of course now it’s so easy, you just take your guitar and they have a backline all ready for you.”
How often did you tour back in the ’80s?
Kimmo: “Quite a lot, because the Helsinki city council had all these youth clubs so we did a lot of those and all sorts of Open Air things. It was a struggle for me to get my music out as before we started I was playing all sorts of rock ‘n’ roll groups and I wasn’t the band leader, so I had to do what the band wanted. The first bands were like school gigs and they all had a venue so we never, which I find strange, did what I call the ‘pub culture’, where the pub is having a back room for bands to play in. For me that’s quite sad, we have a lot of friends who do that and it’s fine but we have always been playing on a stage, even when we were just a young teenage band. What people don’t get is that is what it was like in the ’80s. Everything was complicated and you had to have everything with you and it was very expensive. Sarcofagus, at the time, were very highly paid, because we drew a lot of people, because we played in a more Western style. We were getting, probably in present day money, two or three thousand pounds per gig, but that was because the places we played were big, where you have the Saturday night dance, which is kind of Humppa. But in some places you had the rock stage and there was a story about us in a Finnish men’s magazine about how Satan was controlling the band, like a typical men’s magazine crazy story, but that was something that everyone read because it was a popular magazine and people got to thinking we were like Ozzy Osbourne and were were eating bats, so we had all these non-metal people coming to see us because we were the weirdos and had the flame-throwing guitar. All the money went into the pyros, so that’s why we stopped gigging because it didn’t make any sense. The distances are humongous in Finland, you have to travel a whole day somewhere and then the next gig is another day in the other direction so that’s when I got fed up with it and that’s when ‘Motorbirds’ started, which isn’t really a band. I just gathered together the best people I could find because with Sarcofagus’ original line up there was some skill issues that the drummer wasn’t the best drummer in the world, he could drum fast but he wasn’t always accurate so in a way the guy who was playing on ‘Motorbirds’ was a very highly regarded session musician but who could do metal. And the Babatzin [Muska and Kirka] sisters who had nothing to do with metal, they just fit into my idea. I could never make a band as good as that, so I thought, ‘well, I don’t need a band, I can do a studio album’. And of course a metal album with session musicians wasn’t done anywhere at that time because metal needed to be real and true so we went into something that I think a lot of people didn’t get. Sarcofagus was a band that people didn’t get at that time. What we were doing was too weird, especially with our Monty Python style video so people didn’t understand what we were.”
You are undisputedly the first Finnish heavy metal band, so when you were touring the country playing these polka dance gigs what other rock bands were you gigging with?
Kimmo: “At that time, if we did a gig we were the only rock band. There was Zero Nine, but they were more like hard rock and there was a big difference because our music was kind of dark, more like Black Sabbath, not because of the riffs, but just dark music. Most of the bands we were gigging with were more like progressive bands but they were always afraid of us because they didn’t know who we were. There was one gig where I was drinking too hard and I fell into a ditch and my face got all swollen up and the other guys were curing their hangover on a beach so they were all badly burnt, so the bass player couldn’t put on his trousers so he was playing in his underpants. My trousers were ruined and I only had one other pair that was too tight so I could only hold them together with some rope and we so hungover. I remember that the band we were playing with were so scared of us and I was always trying to say that we are nice guys.”
So it must be nice to have played live in 2010 with other bands who understood where you were coming from?
Kimmo: “It was really nice and quite weird, because like I said, Tanja and I know about the fanbase and the respect of Sarcofagus, but the rest of the band didn’t expect that there would be kids about 20 years old singing along.”
Tanja: “Like I said to Jukka [Ritari, vocals] beforehand, we don’t have to sing this one, like for ‘Truth Of A Thousand Megawatts’, because the audience will know the lyrics and he was like ‘no, that’s rubbish’, so he was really impressed afterwards, saying ‘that was fantastic’. Because we have been in touch with the fans but the rest haven’t ever had that experience. They were really impressed, they loved it.”
Kimmo: “It’s still like nothing would happen with Sarcofagus if I didn’t do it, but the other guys are happy to be part of it. For them it’s just a gig though and they don’t even want it but are happy if I arrange everything and then let them do their part. But the drummer, Anssi [Nykänen], who is a really accurate drummer normally, when I got the flame thrower out he didn’t know about it so when I started going around the stage with it he started missing the beat because he was looking at the flame thrower and forgetting to play.”
Tanja: “And then he came off stage and said ‘wow, that was awesome, we have to go to Japan!’”
You’ve had so many members come and go throughout Sarcofagus’ career so how did you decide which bands would form the current band?
Kimmo: “Every album had different members. Esa [Kotilainen], the keyboard player has always been there, Juha [Kiminki] the bass player has also been constant. Hannu [Leiden] came and sung ‘Astral Flyer’, he was the original singer on that. And then Anssi is the new drummer because all our old drummers are dead, like Spinal Tap.
Tanja: “So it’s as original as possible.”
Kimmo: “Yes, we didn’t have a drummer, that was the only thing, and then there’s Jukka, who was the ‘Motorbirds’ singer. I haven’t been in touch with him since then. He’s some sort of Tango king. It was hard [to find him] because weirdly enough if you google him you cannot find him. But I found him through a mutual friend. Jukka is a funny guy and in a way we didn’t get to be friends in the ’80s. He was describing how I treated him and it was like ‘get in the studio, sing, goodbye’, no rehearsal, that’s it done, ‘bye’. So he didn’t know what happened.
Tanja: “But he was happy to be singing the songs again and he’s a professional musician he got the grasp very quickly.”
How did you find Hannu again?
Kimmo: “That happened quite early on around the time of the ‘Promised Land Of Heavy Metal’.”
Tanja: “Kimmo and Hannu had quite an ugly break up in the first place because they were both headstrong.”
Kimmo: “We spent the ’80s hating each other. Back then it was quite complicated to kick anyone out of the band, I could never be the person to could fire someone. So when he went to do military service that was the chance to find someone new. We had a real rocky relationship when we were doing ‘Cycle Of Life’ and then we started to do a new album and he wasn’t part of it and that’s what probably made him quite mad at me.”
Tanja: “He became quite successful with Havana Black, they were one of the first Finnish bands to get an American contract and he’s a producer now. And then we were filming ‘Promised Land Of Heavy Metal’ and this girl, as we were walking through the Finnish Metal Expo, said, ‘oh that’s Hannu Leiden’. I went up to him and I asked him if he wanted to meet Kimmo and Hannu went ‘NO WAY’ and they just shook hands forever. He asked if we were going to stay and could we have some beers. And the guys just sat there for the whole evening.”
Kimmo: “It was like the godfathers sitting there.”
Tanja: “And I was sitting right by them, but of course no one knew who I was, so I heard all the gossip. There was this circle of people going, ‘oh I can’t believe it, they are like two Santa Clauses’, and I could never believe I would see this happening. A lot of 20 years olds around were saying this is a historic moment.”
What you’re doing now, with the re-recording of Sarcofagus classics, is pretty brave as your die-hard fans love the early records just the way are. But you’ve always tried to evolve and do something ahead of the curve, right?
Kimmo: “A lot of bands are suffering, like Judas Priest and Iron Maiden because they are just repeating what they did in the ’80s. If they try to do something new no one is interested. They have to do ‘Breaking The Law’ but the beauty of us is that it was stopped and it was buried, so in a way we are stuck in the past and that’s fine and now I’m doing what I really wanted to do but in a way that if you have 30 years in between you cannot go back and carry on in the same way. You cannot wear the same stuff as you did back then, it would be silly. Judas Priest and Iron Maiden can because they’ve been doing it all the time. The fans have an expectation, but it is based on the old material and now you have what we’ve just done, which is fine, because it’s trying to stay as true as possible. But we needed to do ‘Core Values’ [Sarcofagus’ 2007 progressive comeback album] because I needed to show that I still do stuff that is different.”
Tanja: “There’s always a dilemma between the artist’s voice and the audience’s voice. The artist should have the freedom to do what takes his or her fancy.”
Kimmo: “Some hardcore Sarcofagus fans are the real underground people who see that metal should be deep underground, if it goes above it’s not metal anymore. But some of these guys actually really like ‘Core Values’ and see that it is a natural progression.”
Tanja: “For example Portrait’s Richard [Lagergren], who we have been in touch with, came to me himself and said that he really likes ‘Core Values’. He sees that it’s a continuous process from ‘Motorbirds’ into ‘Core Values’ but he knows there are loads of people who diss it completely and think it’s wrong to do something different, which is fair enough but we needed to get it out of our system.”
Kimmo: “I think that when we started to do [the new album], one thing I was trying to keep in mind was that I wasn’t going to let this be any pressure. I was saying to Tanja that if this gets too heavy duty then I quit, like I did before ‘Motorbirds’. I made the decision back then that this was too much and I did something else. I’ve been trying to make sure I don’t get put under any pressure because we don’t see this as any commercial enterprise, we’re not going to make, for example, a tour where we end up paying for it. Even if you’re an underground band, you have to understand that you need to do things that make sense. So in that way there is a certain amount of commercial thinking and that is a lot of pressure, but I guess if you’re not able to organise a tour then don’t do it. We can make albums but I can’t tour.”
So why did you decide to go back to the studio and make a new album?
Kimmo: “I’m quite good at inventing things as we go and having new ideas and I realised in Finland when we had the gigs that we could get more but the problem is that they cannot pay. But then you realise that there are too many gig venues in Helsinki that on a Friday or Saturday night are holding different metal events and Helsinki is a small city so of course they don’t have enough people coming to see them. So I saw that the whole system is broken. I was talking to some people and trying to tell them that we should do something radical and there was some talk that maybe in March we would do some gigs. I realised that the gigging worked better in the ’80s, even with the technology that you don’t have to carry everything with you and I realised that we had put quite a lot of money into those three gigs and we needed to come out of this with something. Then I had the idea that we should go to the studio, because in the back of my mind Marco [Hietala from Tarot] was saying no one can do an album in a day so when I realised how well the band works, considering we only played five times together, I was thinking that since we already invested so much into this we have to come out with something. Then I thought that we could do the album and do the video. And in a way I was already gathering the footage for it without having a plan.”
Ah yes, you told me you were challenged by Marco on the back of Tarot’s redub of ‘The Spell Of Iron’ from last year. Were you in part inspired by that?
Kimmo: “No, because, because even in the ’90s I was thinking that I would like to do the ‘Cycle Of Life’ songs again. And I remember that I was trying to find the original multitrack tapes so I could replace the guitars and do some tweaking from the originals. But of course they are lost. I’ve never been following what other people do. It’s just random that I’m in time for once, because I’ve always been out of time or ahead of time or somewhere sideways, even with film-making. So in that respect it’s just something that happened, it’s not something I calculated. I haven’t heard the Tarot album either, but I didn’t like the idea that they changed a lot of stuff. That sounds a little weird as it was a good album as it was.”
So with these re-made songs you’ve kept them close to the originals?
Kimmo: “Yes, this is as close as we can. We’d probably have to play more badly if we want to be completely accurate [laughs].”
Where did you record it?
Kimmo: “In Esa’s studio. If you have a really crazy idea, he’s the one you go and talk to because he’s excited about weird stuff. And there’s been weird things happening lately. There was the ‘Promised Land’ project where we got pulled back into the metal world but in the ’80s we did a lot of other stuff, like the traffic safety films [see sidebar], and now the Finnish Traffic Safety have been paying us to restore them, because now when you look at them you realise they were quite wacky and cool and fun so we’ve had a lot of things lately that have taken us back into the ’80s.”
Tanja: “It’s the magic 30 years, that’s a generation and you go back, for good or bad.”
Most important question, is the infamous flaming guitar out of retirement too?
Kimmo: “It’s the thing that people know Sarcofagus for so it is kinda essential. So yes, I really wanted to use it, but of course you’re not allowed to use a flame-throwing guitar on stage anymore because the safety regulations are so strict, but Gloria is a big venue so it was quite safe. I’ve never burned anything with it. It might look vicious but it’s not.”
Tanja: “But it’s bloody health and safety, they say no fireworks.”
Kimmo: “And we had some other types of pyros. There’s a Swedish cult band, what are they called?”
Tanja: “Nifelheim? They are big Sarcofagus fans and they came to see us and brought with them some fireworks.”
Kimmo: “They were meant to be for another band but they didn’t work so they thought ‘oh well, let’s give them to Sarcofagus’, which was really nice.
Tanja: “Oh man, they had Sarcofagus t-shirts on. Unofficial because we didn’t know about them.”
Kimmo: “Because there hasn’t really been a lot of Sarcofagus merchandise.”
Tanja: “But there were fans from all over for the Gloria gig; from USA, from Italy, Sweden, you know that especially came for the gig.”
Kimmo: “We were walking through the city centre before the gig with Esa to get some ice cream and these Italians came in and were like ‘wow, you’re Kimmo Kussiniemi’ and we were eating these ice creams and they told us they’d come all the way for this gig. It was one of those moments that felt so bizarre.”
So the appreciation from a younger generation spawned the live gigs, which spawned the new album, do you feel like the Sarcofagus has been dusted off and crowbarred open for good now?
Kimmo: “We’re the ancient ones. We have to come back to show the youngsters how it’s done.”
Tanja: “And it’s cool about the name because we can be wheeled out in a coffin and be de-mummified.”
Kimmo: “Now the idea is that we will try to do a really weird and strange Sarcofagus film, which will be the backdrop for the tour that we are trying to do. So the idea is to combine theatre, circus, whatever comes to mind, we want to go back more to the theatre style like Alice Cooper who was a big influence to me.”
You’ve always been a very visual band, with one of the first ever heavy metal music videos in ‘Motorbirds’ and then the film-making.
Kimmo: “Yes. When the ‘Motorbirds’ video came out music videos had just been invented so it was something that people didn’t get and when I was trying to get the video to the reviewers they said, ‘I don’t have a VCR, why would I watch a video’, because to them the album was the main thing and the video was seen as some kind of stupid gimmick, which now sounds really stupid. The video was a bad idea to a lot of people and people are always against me on things and that hasn’t changed.”
And now no one has a VCR…
Kimmo: “Yes, maybe we should release it again on video cassette.”
Tanja: “Cassettes are back now and vinyl is back, so video is next. Who knew? We got rid of all our old vinyl because we thought it was dead.”
Talking of vinyl Svart Records did an amazing job in re-pressing all your old records onto wax. How did that partnership come about?
Kimmo: “They contacted us in 2010, before the gigs. There have always been labels approaching us. There was an American label who wanted to release all the albums but it was not a good indication that he wouldn’t call me from the US because he couldn’t afford it.”
Tanja: “And they’ve been re-released so many time illegally. There’s all sorts of cheap copies available. And then Svart contacted us and said they wanted to do it properly. They were upfront. They were honest. And Kimmo delivered them some extra material, with photos and so they could have a band bio in all of them so although they are very faithful to the original releases they have lots of extras as well.”
So what does the future hold now the album is done and the tour is being planned?
Kimmo: “This is not the end of Sarcofagus, but the end of an era. This is a new beginning. We don’t know which way it will go, that’s how I see the video and the album, that this is the final chapter of Sarcofagus. Musicwise, if people enjoy this thing we are doing now and want to hear more then I have already been composing songs that are similar, but if this doesn’t seem sensible then we have written another album, which is totally different than anything we’ve done. In a way we’re at a crossroads, we have to decide which way we’ll go.”
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