Interview with guitarist Kimmo Kuusniemi
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: April 21, 2019
Sarcofagus was the first heavy rock/metal band that emerged from Finland in the late seventies. The band released their first two albums, Cycle of Life and Envoy of Death, in 1980 and their obscure, heavy and progressive sounding stuff didn't attract many followers in their home country. Two years later, the band was forced to release their third album, Moottorilinnut (Motorbirds in English) under the name Kimmo Kuusniemi Band due to dissent with the label. It was the first heavy metal album completely sung in Finnish, featuring three vocalists two of whom were female. What made this album a bit more special was the entire thing was released on video. Talk about a band that was ahead of its time...
After Moottorilinnut, the band broke up in 1982. The mastermind behind the band, guitarist Kimmo Kuusniemi continued his career as a professional film maker, producing and directing several TV commercials, short documentaries and music videos (from Grace Jones to Vader to Madonna, etc.).
In 2000, Sarcofagus made a comeback after an 18-year hiatus. It took seven more years to get their fourth studio album recorded. Core Values came out in April 2007.
The band's fifth studio album, which is actually a collection of 2010 re-recordings of material from across the band's discography, was partly crowdfunded and released in 2013.
The story of Sarcofagus is interesting enough but The Metal Crypt contacted the band's Kimmo Kuusniemi to get more insight into the world of this legendary and pioneering Finnish heavy rock act. In the following interview, Kimmo goes through some of his memories from the past of Sarcofagus as well as reveals a little about his future plans... read on!
Luxi: How's life in UK Kimmo? Have many things changed in Great Britain with all the Brexit struggles?
Kimmo: I don't really do politics. I think that politics and entertainment should be kept separate. I know not everybody agrees, but I don't want to go into it. Of course, it hasn't really even happened yet, and these questions were done like a year ago [*chuckles*]. We don't know what's going on with it. It's just like, things change.
Luxi: As Sarcofagus is probably an unknown entity to most of our readers here at The Metal Crypt, would you mind giving us a bit of a history lesson?
ONCE UPON... SARCOFAGUS
Kimmo: Yes, here's the history of Sarcofagus briefly.
Sarcofagus was formed in 1978 by me and Hannu Leidén. My background was heavy rock, progressive music, blues, and jazz, and that was a time when you wanted to do something new and break boundaries and so... and that's what happened with Sarcofagus in a very brief time. We became a heavy rock band and then a heavy metal band and that was quite a quick change, just in two years' time. Three albums were done in two years and I think the third album, Moottorilinnut (Motorbirds in English. This album was released under the name Kimmo Kuusniemi Band instead of Sarcofagus) is still quite interesting because it was a bit ahead of its time in the music style and it was a proper heavy metal album.
It was also turned into a full-length music video, which was way ahead of its time because there weren't many channels showing music videos and certainly not metal music videos. Music TV wasn't even invented yet and nobody really understood why you would need to have a music video. The whole album-length video was a strange thing for people that didn't understand what it was and why there should be one in the first place, so it was forgotten. As for me personally, I think that was one of the biggest things that Sarcofagus did that was really groundbreaking, the music video part.
There was also the fourth album, which was released in 2000-something, which was called Live in Studio 1979. It was basically the first album but a version that wasn't released in the early times because I wanted to redo it again and do it better. The album had a different drummer and it was a little bit different concept and it was also released later as a vinyl (on Svart Records in 2010).
Then in 1981, after three years and three albums—basically four albums—I wanted to have as a good band line-up as possible and the only way to have it was to have a session set-up in the studio. I got the best guys I could find in Finland to record the Moottorilinnut album. At the time when it was done, metal wasn't really popular in Finland, and there wasn't any way to get out of Finland either. I realized I can keep on doing albums and maybe make a better album, but unfortunately wouldn't change anything.
I moved into filmmaking and Sarcofagus was put to rest. It was buried quite a long time. I think it was around 2000, due to the internet, that suddenly there were all these things out there related to Sarcofagus and that's when we thought, "it would be cool to revisit Sarcofagus". That revisit took quite a long time though, which wasn't the original plan. Core Values, which was a brand-new album, was released in 2007 but was recorded in 2004 if I remember correctly. It pretty much had the original lineup as much we could have it, and that's the album I'm probably most proud of because it tried to have the original '80s style and feel, but also be the cutting-edge new music. As far as reading the reviews of it, I think that's what it was. People didn't really understand what the hell they were listening to, so that was mission accomplished, I would say.
ALBUM NUMBER FIVE: BACK FROM VALLEY OF THE KINGS
Luxi: Back from the Valley of the Kings was the band's fifth studio album and contained re-recorded versions of some classic Sarcofagus songs and came out at the end of July 2013. Can you tell what made you decide to re-record all these old Sarcofagus songs?
Kimmo: Well, Back from the Valley of the Kings was quite an interesting album because in 2010, we reunited and did some gigs in Finland. It all went well, and the band sounded really cool so I thought that it would be brilliant to go into the studio and record the album in one day. Everybody was saying we couldn't do that anymore, record an album in a day. The studio session members liked the idea, so we went for it and spent a very long day in the studio. There were all kinds of technical problems, but we managed to record thirteen songs that day.
The backstory is that I have always thought the Cycle of Life and Envoy of Death albums were uneven. The drummer wasn't really up to the job and it wasn't that perfect studio lineup. The songs were better than the band. That's why I wanted to see what could be done now with new technology and now that we all are on different levels as musicians and people. In a way, I had been thinking since the '90s that it would be nice to record some of the old songs again. This was the perfect, maybe the only, moment to do it and we did it.
Then, of course, I spent a lot of time mixing it because everything was recorded raw. I had to try to get the sound right. I wanted to make it sound like the '80s but still be modern. I'm quite pleased with the result. It has never really been published properly. If you have a copy, it's very rare [*chuckles*], so be happy to own one.
Luxi: You used a crowdfunding campaign to finance the costs of making Back from the Valley of the Kings. What was your initial experience with crowdfunding? Would you do it again?
Kimmo: Yes. There was some crowdfunding but it wasn't like a proper crowdfunding because it was just done through the band's website. I've been working on a crowdfunding approach on other stuff and it is definitely the future for anybody who is doing anything interesting and cool, because you won't get the money from the commercial companies, but you can find people who are keen to support you.
My crowdfunding experience is really good because you almost become friends with the people who are financing you. It's a two-way street. They give you money but also they give you good comments and criticism that helps you as a creator. It is definitely the future. In this case, like I said, it really amounts to that much financing. I think that most of that album was financed out of my own pocket but that's how it is, and it's not about money.
That was a peculiar time for Back from the Valley of the Kings because in a way, like those gigs we did in 2010 and this new Sarcofagus album, I was thinking in my head it's going to be the end of the original Sarcofagus. That was all a special time for me and will stay with me as good memories because I am good friends with the guys and there are no problems. But I knew that there would be changes. The original band worked with the original '80s type of music. The Core Values album that we recorded together, was, of course, a very radical sounding album compared to our earlier sound, but the guys had no problem doing that. I'm always looking for new things and trying to connect to something that hasn't been done before whereas the rest of the band is into doing what they do. They are not necessarily so ambitious. In a way, if I want to do something radical, I need to do it with different people, no disrespect. It's not about that. It's just like some people do some things really well and some people do other things well.
Luxi: The digital version of this album contained one new song, "Return from the Valley of the Kings," plus two other rerecorded old songs as extras. These songs were recorded with a completely new lineup, not with the same one that recorded the album's thirteen official songs. Why did you end up with a new lineup to record these extra songs?
Kimmo: That was kind of an interesting experiment because there were a couple of songs that I wanted to do and I found these guys who are really, really good. The idea was to make an album with that lineup but then things changed and I also have so many other projects going on.
For the Back from the Valley of the Kings album, there wasn't a lot interest toward it. I realized that a lot of people who like Sarcofagus, like the band's original albums and the original band. They don't necessarily want to have anything new or even new versions of the songs because they just want to hear the originals. That made it very clear that this is the point of Sarcofagus' history where the old is done and the past is behind. Now, it's time to do some new stuff with the band.
I haven't been doing anything with this new lineup. There's one song that is not finished yet that we have been working on but otherwise, there aren't plans for new songs. I've been doing more songs by myself now and deciding if I will work with somebody else or not. I'm drifting here.
Luxi: I am pretty sure that not everyone is so keen on hearing stuff via digital downloads only. Are there any plans for a physical release of this record with the three bonus songs on it?
Kimmo: I would like to have had Back from the Valley of the Kings on vinyl but again there isn't anybody who really wants to release it because it's an oddball album and has old songs remade by the same band. There isn't a record label that wants to invest money in a vinyl version. I know that if it was on vinyl, it would sell better because CD is a crappy format and you really don't get any money out of digital downloads. It's like you just release it and let it be. I think that Back from the Valley of the Kings from my point of view, is done on all accounts now unless some label approaches me with a willingness to release it. I don't have any problem with that. I'm not doing anything regarding that. It's done and the CD copies that are out there, that is all, there aren't going to be any more.
THE FUTURE OF SARCOFAGUS?
Luxi: You mentioned via email that you have some new Sarcofagus songs ready and the next album's artwork is done. That's pretty cool I must say, looking forward to it. Can you tell us anything about this next Sarcofagus album? Will there be some elements in these new songs that may surprise a devoted Sarcofagus fan?
Kimmo: Well, I think that I do always have ideas and plans. When we were talking about this in our emails, this new album unfortunately is still in progress. The album cover has been finished for a long time and it looks absolutely fantastic. I do have a few songs that I'd like to release and they are very different sounding compared to what I have done earlier.
Like I said, I have some new stuff and I don't think that they will be on an "album" anymore because the album concept has died a bit with all the digital downloads. I think it's more about putting the songs together and releasing whatever you have. If you have three or four songs, just put them together and put them out.
People often make the mistake that my music style is the '80s style and I should put Sarcofagus first, but I was inventing things and trying different things back then as well. I haven't changed through the years so I'm still trying to invent new things and still trying to do something that hasn't been done before. Also, since '83 I've been making film music. I've been making film music much longer than the Sarcofagus stuff. Film music, of course, involves all kinds of music. I always tend to go to heavy and extreme whenever I can. You can use quite heavy music on normal films when it's going to suit what's happening.
In a way, film music is quite a big part of my life. I like that type of stuff because film music is kind of like progressive music; you have a song that progresses and changes. I have a lot of that type of music and it is quite tempting to release it. I've been working on some songs that I think are going to fit quite nicely into the new Sarcofagus.
Like I mentioned earlier that there is a slight problem with the true fans. They love the band as it was in 1980, 1981. They encapsulate it into this bubble and there is nothing else. In a way, if you are an artist, you cannot really stick to that. You have to do what you want to do and then see if you can find people who like it.
A lot of people didn't get Core Values but there were also some very diehard Sarcofagus fans who thought it was exactly how the band should sound at that time. It is still like the '80s music but it's going to progress based on how we all develop and change as people. Yes, I think the new Sarcofagus music is probably going to be a bit surprising. It's heavier because I like extreme metal, so basically I'm combining the more extreme side of metal with the cinematic style of film music. That maybe the future of what I'll be doing. Sooner or later there will be a new release from Sarcofagus and I don't think the band will completely die. It keeps on changing and disappearing for a period of time when I'm doing other things, and then it comes back.
I don't think I can ever give up on making my own music. I think all music is under Sarcofagus. There is commercial music, which is totally different and is going to be just like work for me. But then there is your personal music, which is very important and I think that if you are a musician you can never leave it, so in that way, yes, there will be more Sarcofagus stuff sooner or later.
Luxi: Songwriting can be challenging. How do you challenge yourself when you want to create something new for Sarcofagus? Is it hard to break out of your comfort zone of progressive-tinged old-school heavy rock/metal?
Kimmo: For me, songwriting is quite interesting because I don't really plan what I do. I just start to play the guitar and end up with a riff. Then I save it and then I think about it and get another riff. Somehow these different things come together and form a song. It's not really that complicated for me, the actual songwriting process. Like I was explaining earlier, I don't really have a comfort zone and if we're talking about the original heavy rock in the '80s style, that's not really related to anything I do anymore because that was then and this is now. I think overall it is metal and the progressive side of metal and maybe blues and jazz that are still the styles that are in the back of my mind that influences what I do.
SPARE TIME JUKEBOX
Luxi: Which bands do you admire nowadays that also fuel your fire to keep Sarcofagus going?
Kimmo: It's interesting because I struggle to find new bands because I think that there's so much same-old that nobody has really been inventing anything new. The bands that I seem to be listening to quite a lot are the new Slipknot albums, not really their first or second album so much but their later era albums. I also like Korn. Again, I like the new Korn albums. There's a band called The Browning that nicely mixes dance and metal and I really like that. I think it's a very cool band. There was a Massive Audio Nerve, a band that doesn't exist anymore. That was a very interesting band. Of course, one of my favorites is Meshuggah and I actually met them not that long ago. I had a really interesting discussion with them and they are really cool guys and it's a great band. They were quite groundbreaking with their style of sound. They maybe haven't done anything groundbreaking for a while but when they first started, they created a totally new type of metal genre.
In a way, there hasn't really been a lot of new innovative bands lately. I do like a band called Animals as Leaders. I was just listening to a British band called Architects, which is some sort of progressive metal. But yeah, I do listen to a lot of different types of music but those are some of the bands that I like. Weirdly enough I do like some of the songs from Five Finger Death Punch. I like Hatebreed and also Fear Factory. I like quite a lot of their stuff, and what else? Deftones is a band that I like to listen to.
Maybe that was a cool selection of bands that I listen to but I don't really take influences from other people's music much. I try to find things in my own head. I think if you listen hard, you might hear some Meshuggah influences because I do like their "math metal" or whatever the style is.
Luxi: In 2010 Sarcofagus played three gigs in Finland after a very long break. Is there a possibility Sarcofacus will play more gigs in the future or is that completely out of question?
Kimmo: It was really really cool to play those 2010 gigs with the guys because that was almost 30 years after we started. It was very different from the old Sarcofagus because, as I said, we are good friends and we get along very well. It also felt really good that we were like a real band not like me and the band as it was in the '80s. But in 2010, we were a cohesive working unit and that's why it worked really well and why we recorded the album. It was just like in 1981 when I realized that there wasn't really a future for my type of music in Finland at that time, and there wasn't any way out, so I started to do something else. I think that 2010 was again, the kind of moment when you realize that this is the end of something and you should end things when it's nice and not like when it's going bad or something.
Because I was quite excited about the gigging and everything, I started to organize normal gigs and I called all the usual venues in Finland. I actually had lined up another set of gigs. The problem was that Sarcofagus always had a stage show and it was quite important how we looked and the kinds of things we used on the stage, the flame-throwing guitars and everything. In a way, if I did Sarcofagus today, I would like to do it as a really visually cool thing. But unfortunately, that's not really possible because we had the gigs lined up, but it didn't add up financially. It wasn't enough money to do a proper live show.
I guess we would have had a nice time playing but I don't think it would have been right for the audience if we would do some sort of compromised version of our stage show. I didn't want to go on that road. I thought that it was better not to gig. There's been offers from festival organizers from Sweden and Germany that would like to have us play at their festivals.
I don't want to do it unless we can kind of do it really, really well, so that it could be something new and something really cool. I rather let people remember the band as it was and just move on and do something different. On the other hand, there are some film projects that I'm working on for quite a while that have the possibility to get the live stuff exposed.
It's not that there won't be Sarcofagus on stage at some point, but it will be very different from what people expect. It's not ruled out that there will be live performances and I'm really looking forward to that, but it depends on how the things go. It's a more complicated project but during the last half year, it's been moving forward quite a lot.
I am sorry but I don't want to tell too much more about it yet. It's something when it happens, it happens, and then I will let everyone know about it.
THE MEMORABILIA OF SARCOFAGUS
Luxi: You sold a lot of cool Sarcofagus memorabilia some years ago, like the flame-throwing guitar that you used in some of your videos. What made you decide to sell this stuff?
Kimmo: The selling of the Sarcofagus memorabilia was, how can I say it? Let me put it this way; because life changes and you just go with the progression of things. I think that because the flamethrower was used so many times in all kinds of instances in the past and present, I had to let it go. I felt that if there's ever going to be something on stage, I'd need to invent something new. So I started selling some Sarcofagus memorabilia because there's also a lot of people who seem to want to collect stuff.
I think it's much better that they have it than I have it, because I have the memories in my head, which is really enough for me. I don't need to have stuff to remind me. That's why I sold a lot of stuff. I still have some master tapes that I've been thinking about selling to somebody or whoever wants them, but haven't done anything with that stuff yet.
So yeah, it's all about keeping life's light and getting rid of the stuff that you really don't need to store for the rest of your life [*laughs*].
PROMISED LAND OF HEAVY METAL
Luxi: Back in 2009, you released a video documentary about the Finnish heavy metal scene, aptly titled Promised Land of Heavy Metal, featuring everything from Lordi to our ex-President, Tarja Halonen. Currently, you have a sequel to this in the works. Did you feel like some of the stories about the Finnish metal scene were left untold or did you feel like there are Finnish metal bands since 2009 that also deserve to be a part of a documentary?
Kimmo: Promised Land of Heavy Metal was a very interesting project and it was quite tough to make actually because I haven't followed what's happening in the Finnish metal scene. When I was doing that it all was going to be an outsider's point of view. It was really cool to make it and we also got some support from Finnish TV, which is very rare to have. When you start thinking about doing a part two, you have to realize the scene in Finland has changed a lot. In other words, the sequel might be quite different. At this moment, due to a lot of things that I'm working on right now, the idea of part two is pushed into the future. Maybe if the time is right I will do it but funding is a problem with this type of music documentary. Crowdfunding, of course, is the main way of getting the money and I think that Promised Land of Heavy Metal - Part Two probably could be very easily crowdfunded, but I have other music-related things going on right now that are on the top of my list.
I think we got a good selection of bands that have been somehow important for the development of the Finnish metal scene, but we probably just scratched the surface. In a way, it would have been quite interesting with part two to get more of the new stuff and forget the history, see what the scene is now, what's happening within it. In that way, there would have been, of course, more different bands. During 10 years' time some bands have, naturally, disbanded. Norther is one of those bands. Kristian Ranta, who was the main guy in the band, as far as I know, he's a business dude nowadays. That would be quite interesting to see how you leave metal behind you and do something else in your life after your "metal career". I remember we interviewed him for the documentary and there was one section where he told that he was playing reggae or something, before he got interested in metal and formed Norther. What I have heard, he is not into metal anymore, so probably he wasn't a metal head in the first place. That would be a quite interesting angle for a sequel if there ever is one. But like I said earlier, the future will tell if the sequel happens or not...
Luxi: How was the overall response to the first part of the documentary?
Kimmo: Part of the reason why part two was even on my list "to-do" is that the first part has been getting absolutely brilliant response globally. It was liked a lot and got some great comments. Of course, you want to follow that up because part one turned out to be so successful.
"HEAVY METAL WILL NEVER BECOME POPULAR IN FINLAND..."
Luxi: There is a very old interview with you made for Finnish TV back in 1982, in which the interviewer asked some silly questions about heavy metal's true essence. You said in that interview that "I doubt heavy metal will ever become popular here (in Finland)". Obviously, you could never become the next Nostradamus based on that funny comment of yours, hehe! ;o)
Kimmo: I thought that interview from 1982 with Hector was really funny. I couldn't see the future for heavy metal in Finland, but yes, I was proven wrong. It's one of those moments when you're happy to be proven wrong. So, that was great! Occasionally people tell me that there are all kinds of metal documentaries happening but some of them seem to fade away, for some reason or other.
Luxi: There's another documentary (titled A Heavy Metal Civilization) in the works about Finland and the relation of its society with rock and metal music. Are you aware of that one?
Kimmo: I haven't heard about A Heavy Metal Civilization so I don't know anything about it.
Luxi: What other projects are on your table that you'd like to do in the future? I guess you are the kind of guy who always wants to have something going on, right?
Kimmo: About my new projects, I think there are a few that are very close to the point that I can actually talk about them soon [*chuckles*]. They are music-related projects that I have going on right now, not metal, but about music. That's part of why I haven't been able to respond to your interview earlier because I just felt I've been constantly bombarded with things to do.
So yes, there are always projects, both film and music projects that I am working on. I've done them in the past and I happen to know I have a big mouth and tend to talk too much about some of my ideas in advance and then people start expecting something. However, after a while some of these ideas that I have in my head may transfer to something else. I believe that it's better that I don't tell too much about what I'm doing now. I'll be happy to tell more about them when they are actually happening.
Luxi: Well Kimmo, I believe I got everything covered that I had in my mind for this little chat with you. Thanks for your time and all the best for any future projects that may come your way. Last words?
Kimmo: Last words are always kind of a very ominous sounding thing. My way of thinking about things is that we're living in a very interesting time because of all the political stuff and everything. Heavy metal has been preaching about doom and everything. I think we have a lot of doom in the world so maybe we should start to do "happy metal" or something. In a way, as I can see it, the world as it is - the technology, everything is really great because I'm able to do different things now like a film project/documentary that I only could have dreamed about in the past. I was actually dreaming about things like about drones, for example.
In '88, I was trying to get a film camera in the air with very expensive helicopters that cost me 10,000 Finnish marks at the time. In a way, I think it is really great because there's so much you can do now. I think the biggest problem is always time itself and finding enough to do all those things that you'd love to do. I think that heavy metal should probably look more towards the future; we should be trying more to figure out how we can navigate metal into something different. There's always been these traditional metal followers who think that metal should not change but everything changes.
I think that's what's needed in metal so that it can survive and become even better. People should be more open-minded and try to do all kinds of things within metal and other things.
If we are talking about Sarcofagus, there's a lot of die-hard Sarcofagus fans who only like the period between 1978-1981. Perhaps it would be better if people tried a bit more to see the future, seeing new things and kind of like just let go of the past and embrace the future. Now that sounds like Steve Jobs or something, doesn't it? [*laughs*]
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