APOCALYPTICA — the groundbreaking Finnish orchestral rock group — has just released “Wagner Reloaded – Live In Leipzig” (BMG), an epic live collaboration with the acclaimed MDR Leipzig Symphony Orchestra. The album’s release is perfectly timed since 2013 marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of iconic German composer Richard Wagner.
For “Wagner Reloaded – Live In Leipzig”, APOCALYPTICA created new compositions based on Wagner‘s body of work and his life, teaming with award-winning choreographer and dancer Gregor Seyffert to stage a brilliant and magical, cross-genre event featuring a live concert and theatrical production.
Since its inception, the Finnish cello-based heavy rock group APOCALYPTICA has been mining the classical form and structure creating compositions that are both unpredictable and unforgettable. From the METALLICA covers that turned the music scene on its ear to 2007’s “Worlds Collide” — which saw the group collaborate with everyone from SLIPKNOT‘s Corey Taylor to RAMMSTEIN‘s Till Lindemann and LACUNA COIL‘s Cristina Scabbia — APOCALYPTICA have released seven studio albums featuring numerous cello-based instrumentals and vocal-based songs. They’ve explored styles from atmospheric interludes to fast, battering rhythms–their music has always been gripping, dynamic and full of melody.
Here’s a question-and-answer session with APOCALYPTICA‘s Eicca Toppinen and Mikko Sirén where they discuss the controversial character of composer Richard Wagner, performing inside metal dragons with pyro as well as the creation of the music and production for “Wagner Reloaded”.
Q: What role did Wagner play in the decision for this project?
Eicca: Wagner was both the whole starting point and the glue. “Wagner Reloaded” is not just an homage to Wagner and performance of his music, it’s more about showing Wagner‘s life and character and personality in a new way.
Mikko: Wagner‘s whole career was an inspiring element for the creator Gregor, he wanted to make a movie out of it and for APOCALYPTICA to make a score for it, so, it was a new approach to his life and I think his life was more interesting for Gregor than his music even. That’s the contradiction.
Eicca: Yes, that’s very true and it turned out to be so bombastic and massive, which is “Wagnerian,” it’s really in the spirit of Wagner, because he was famous for being over the top. Wagner wanted to make a 12-hour opera, opera trilogies, and he wanted to build his own opera house — his visions were crazy. Wagner‘s craziness was driving this project from the very beginning.
Q: In Germany, there are controversies regarding Wagner‘s life and personal political choices. How is that looked at in Finland?
Mikko: In general, at least in Finland, people don’t look at Wagner as a political character or a person; his music is well-known, and people, who follow the scene, which in truth is a minority of people, might know more of his history.
Eicca: Yeah, it doesn’t stir up such emotions in Finland as it seems to in Germany, of course. It’s a complicated issue, because nobody knows exactly how to think about people, who have already passed away long, long, long time ago. Whether their music or art was used for certain purposes — it’s complex territory. But in Finland, people listen to Wagner just as Wagner music and don’t think so much about possible political relations, or anti-Semitic writings. It’s not really at the top of the conversation in Finland. But in Germany it seems to be a hot topic.
Q: Musically speaking, what were the greatest challenges?
Eicca: The greatest challenge of doing this project was the way we worked. Gregor Seyffert, who was also dancing one of the main roles, had a very clear script for how all the scenes would follow each other, how Wagner was born, was a kid, and I got a length for every scene. Like, for example: This scene is four to five minutes long, and this is what’s going to happen on stage, and this is what the energy of the music should be like. And sometimes Gregor wanted to have a specific composition by Wagner and therefore maybe the biggest challenge was to combine Wagner‘s music with new music, because Wagner, of course, was a great composer and a lot of his music is perfect and there is nothing to add to it. So it was a combination of what is APOCALYPTICA‘s role in the Wagner pieces, and how we could create music, which is as exciting in the performance as Wagner‘s original music. Because all of APOCALYPTICA‘s music was newly composed for this project, no one had ever heard it before — and everybody knows all of Wagner. The biggest Wagner songs were in the piece. So the biggest challenge was to write the score for a “movie” that didn’t exist. Like coloring a picture you can only imagine in your head, without seeing it.
Q: In what way is APOCALYPTICA‘s performance in “Wagner Reloaded” different from a regular concert?
Eicca: The difference between “Wagner Reloaded” and a regular APOCALYPTICA performance is, of course, that we were part of “Wagner Reloaded”. It’s not completely our show, we are part of a bigger structure, and we needed to follow the choreography and need to fulfill a certain role given to us. A scary moment was when we played on the top of the tower, ten to twelve meters high and it was narrow. It was only two meters deep and there was no fence in the front, and many times, we had to run from downstage up to the tower with the cellos, fast. It was four floors of narrow, dark stairs with only thirty seconds to be up there and start to play. Also, playing in the moving vehicles — was tricky for us. In the beginning, we were playing on top of a very high bed and people were pushing it fast, then we were playing inside of a metal dragon, which was massive. The dragon was moving with pyro, and us cello players were in the metal head of the dragon — all these specials were really fun to do, but something totally different compared to our regular shows.
Q: How did the contact with Gregor Seyffert come about?
Eicca: Gregor Seyffert contacted us through our management, because he definitely wanted to have APOCALYPTICA‘s music in his project. He had used some of our songs in the past in his piece “Marquis de Sade”. I went to Germany to meet him and to talk about the project. I was so overwhelmed with his vision — this was three years ago — even then, he had a very clear vision of: the drama, the scenes, the script. Luckily, we were able to produce this in Leipzig.
Q: How close was the working process with Gregor Seyffert?
Eicca: The working process with Gregor was close. We had several meetings to talk about the script, and then I started to write the music and sent him demos of the songs. Then he gave feedback, you know: “Okay, this is great, this works …” Or he wanted different kind of endings for the scenes. Musically, many times I would have done different. If I would think about the music just as music, I would have done different solutions for some songs, but if you are writing music for such a piece, you need to be a servant for the full action, and it needs to fit with the choreography and the drama of the story. So, he was involved — I had to get an okay for every song in the end, and I had to re-write many of the songs. [laughs] But that’s how it is.
Q: Any especially surprising experiences?
Mikko: We were surprised about how big the production was, and we were also surprised of how well it all worked out. There were a billion of different elements that needed to match-up to make the event run. And even up to the last minute, things were still kind of floating and weren’t locked, and still it somehow worked out.
Eicca: Surprising in a positive way, was the passion, which everybody working in the project showed. Everybody — not only the people on stage, you know, people carrying stuff and preparing — worked their asses off for weeks and months to get it done. When we came to Leipzig for the first time, we were like: “Wow, this is cool.” We liked the people’s motivation to do things.
Q: If you had to describe “Wagner Reloaded” to someone without the musical background — how would that sound?
Eicca: “Wagner Reloaded” sounds like a modern symphony, because the orchestra parts are symphonic, but the other half is a full metal blast. Then suddenly, it’s very fragile with just a few instruments, beautiful acoustical, classical music, so it’s a modern symphony. You can’t describe it, you have to listen to it. You have to experience it.
Q: Did the visual aspects of the production influence the compositional aspects of “Wagner Reloaded – Live In Leipzig”?
Eicca: Once I visited the warehouse in Leipzig, where all the dragons and mechanical things were built, I got a vision of the roughness and the visuals. So, of course, if you know: “Okay, there’s a big scene, where there is a dragon and somebody’s fighting with dragons and giants …” — that’s quite a strong visual image. Even if you don’t see it for real–you can imagine, and of course that influences the writing of the music very much, because you go: “Okay, this needs to be on the scene where the dragons are, so what can I do? I need to do dragon music.” [laughs]
Q: What was the most interesting part of working with the MDR symphony orchestra?
Mikko: I come from the more strict rock and pop world so working with classical musicians is interesting, because the state of mind, approach, culture, and everything comes from a different angle. Every time you’re in contact with another musician, who thinks differently, that’s a place for you to learn, if you keep your mind open, and if you try to hear what they are trying to express.
Eicca: Yes, it was a big challenge, because we had to work with time codes, which is something that orchestras don’t like to do normally. The conductor gets the tempo all the time, and needs to follow the right tempo, because everything was built and rehearsed in certain tempos. So, we had to follow that timeline and that could be a challenge. There are always little mistakes in a timeline, and fixing those, when you have the full orchestra waiting in the room — trying to get things sorted out and trying to keep the orchestra in a good mood so that they won’t be totally pissed off, can be challenging. But, we succeeded pretty well at that, and I thought the orchestra had a very good attitude.
Mikko: And working with Kristjan Järvi, who was the conductor, was great — he is an open-minded guy, has great ears and can hear the music, no matter what style it is, so that was cool.
Eicca: Yeah, that was really cool. Kristjan was relaxed, and he was able to conduct the orchestra and keep the orchestra together, building a bridge between the two worlds.
Q: How did the recording affect the live performance?
Eicca: We had so many other things to be scared of, and had to be focused on the performance — I think nobody even thought about it while the performance was going on, and that it was going to be recorded.
Mikko: Alex Silva, who is the musical producer together with Eicca, sort of took part of the burden from our shoulders by staying with the recording engineers.
Eicca: We were more worried about the sound that ended up in the TV performance, because the MDR broadcasted the show live on TV, and we weren’t able to remix it. We had to trust in the sound guys and the sound car. We knew that when we did our live album, we can go back to the studio and mix it, and mix every sound. I think that was the main thing we were worried about when the performance was coming up — that we they could fuck it up in the broadcasting car.
Q: Is there something you are especially proud of regarding the live album?
Eicca: I’m proud of the fact that on the live album there is a powerful energy with APOCALYPTICA playing. We were able to fully capture the live energy on the album and that’s something we have to learn more about when we do the next studio album. And the sound of the cellos — it’s more cello-ish. You can really hear the cello, but it still has a lot of power and edge from the amps and distortion. So, there are a lot of cool things, and I think the music itself is unique and exciting.
Q: Which song is the most important one for you–and why?
Mikko: My personal favorite of all the tracks has been “Birth Pain” from the very beginning. That is a new approach to our music, it’s brutally intense and beautiful-there’s something, as a poor drummer, that I find to be very touching about the song.
Q: As “Wagner Reloaded” is not only a unique, but universal project – are there plans to bring the event to other parts of the world?
Eicca: We are actually working on it. “Wagner Reloaded” was made for this big arena, which had an even bigger room for the stage than most arenas. Ice hockey arenas are much smaller. We can’t bring this production exactly like this to those places. We are working on a plan how to get “Wagner Reloaded” on tour, and what the changes will be. We would like to bring this to as many places as we can, but, we can’t have the full orchestra, we can’t have the full choir, we can’t have this … We can’t, you know, have a U2 production, but we’re working on keeping it as massive, powerful and effective while making it possible to pack it into trucks. Hopefully, in autumn 2014, we will be able to have many, many more shows in as many places as possible with this project. We would like to keep this for the long run, as a side project beside APOCALYPTICA‘s own shows, to have extra performances from time to time with “Wagner Reloaded”. That’s what we hope.
Q: The last studio album came out in 2010 and was followed by massive touring. What are the upcoming projects for APOCALYPTICA in 2014?
Eicca: We are aiming to get into the studio in late spring. We can hopefully get the stuff together, mix the album in April/May, and then release it at the best possible time. But, yeah, there will be a new, ass-kicking studio album by APOCALYPTICA in 2014. It’s no. 8 already.