INTERVIEW WITH SAMI LOPAKKA

Finland's Sentenced may have taken their homeland and the rest of Europe by storm, but they've still got a long way to go yet in America. Indeed the epic metal quintet got a rather rude awakening to the United States with a thankless debut performance at the chaotic March Metal Meltdown in New Jersey where, after traveling 2,000-plus miles, they ended up playing four songs at 2 a.m. Two days and 2,000-plus miles later they were back home with 17 minutes of stage time to show for their efforts. Look for Sentenced to be back, however. Response here to the band's latest album, Crimson, has been the best of their career and with bands from the region (In Flames, Dimmu Borgir, Emperor, Arch Enemy) already having toured successfully in America during the past year, the demand is obviously there. Sentenced is feeling pretty confident these days, and has every right to be, given the success they've been having in Europe, including Crimson's #1 debut on the Finnish album charts.

Sentenced took root in the northern Finland town of Oulu, where the nights are long and the winters cold, more than a decade ago playing the sort of crude death metal favored by many with big ambitions, but little instrumental skill. Sentenced released a couple albums before coming to the attention of Century Media, who's been their label since 1993. As the band's musical prowess improved their sound took on a more dramatic, classic metal feel, a progression that picked up speed when bassist/singer Taneli Jarva left and was replaced by the more versatile Ville Laihiala in 1996. Everything comes together on Crimson, a grand, hauntingly beautiful and immensely powerful album that recalls such epic masterworks as Queensryche's Empire or Iron Maiden's Powerslave. Phoning at midnight from his home, guitarist Sami Lopakka offered the following.

So the first U.S. show was a little rough? Sami: It was really weird experience. The whole festival was something I had never seen. There was 100 bands playing in two days on four stages and there was this room that had these two stages side to side and bands were playing at the same time totally blurring up each other. It wasn't really good thinking by someone. And each band had a half-hour to play and there were delays during the day when we played, some moron, the vocalist in some bullshit band, burned himself onstage and the whole event was stopped for two hours. We had to make our set even shorter and as we were the last band on Friday it turned out we had 17-18 minutes to play. We traveled like 600 miles for each minute we played (laughs). The reaction was quite cool and at least we got to play some songs. I think it was still worth it ... maybe.

What did you hope to accomplish by coming over here for one show? We weren't expecting much. We were there to check out the scene. We have been receiving a lot of positive response from the states. People have been asking us to come there and play live. And we were kind of seeking out whether they really wanted us or whether that was just bullshit.

Do you have any plans to come back? We are coming back in the autumn. There are a couple of tours that are happening then that we might join. I think Iced Earth is touring, and we have toured with them in Europe and that would be very good for us. And there's some other tours, but there's nothing sure yet. But we will come there for a real tour and play some real shows.

Had your previous records drawn much interest here, or is Crimson the breakthrough? There has been interest for three albums at least. It started in '96 and ever since people have been asking when were going to come there and why didn't we come already? So it has been a long process to get the band over there. The sales can't be anything amazing, maybe like 10,000 or so for the whole country, which is practically nothing because the country is so big. But we are selling some records, so that's a start.

The band has a pretty big body of work and you've stuck with Century Media for quite some time, could you have gone to a bigger label? Before this album we made a new deal with Century Media as we had been satisfied with everything so far and the chemistry between the label and the band has been getting better and better over the years, so we figured that it doesn't make any sense to change at this point. They are giving us more and more attention and advertising and so on. And the new deal is a lot better than the previous one.

Since you're well established now in Europe, when did things start happening for you there? We started the band in 1989 and we made some demo tapes and our debut album, Shadows of the Past, that sold maybe 2,000 worldwide and we had a really shitty label from France that in the end ripped us off and so on. The second album, North From Here, sold a lot more. We made it for a Finnish label, Spinefarm, and then Century signed us. I think the breakthrough album was Amok in 1995, with that album we toured all of Europe for the first time and from that album we have been growing with every album in Europe.

The success of the No. 1 album has to feel good. The No. 1 was a really cool thing, we were expected maybe top 10 or so because it is the official chart of Finland with the Michael Jackson's and Madonna's, not the independent chart or metal chart. So that was pretty cool and we had quite a party after that.

Has Finland always been good to you? I think we made it there after we toured Europe a couple times. A band has to be approved somewhere else before it can be approved in Finland when it's a Finnish band. But when it started to happen it really happened fast and they have never left us since then.

Is there much happening musically in Finland? There's quite a strong scene here. There's probably 10 bands that have had some type of international success, especially in Europe, like Amorphis, Stratovarius, Children of Bodom, and Impaled Nazarene. Finland is producing a lot of quality extreme bands. It took a long time before Finnish bands were really recognized, but now that it's 2000 the Finnish scene is the strongest scene in the Scandinavian region.

Do you look at Crimson as your crowning achievement? Yeah, at the moment at least it feels that way. We're very satisfied with the way it turned it. It shows what we are at the moment and how the music is at the moment and we have been progressing as musicians and people over the years. Every album has given something new to the band and I wouldn't want to think that this is as far as we can go. On the next album we will try to top everything we have done before.

Your sound has undergone quite a metamorphosis, how much of a factor did changing singers play in that or were you headed in a more melodic direction anyway? At the time it felt like a big difference. The Amok album is the first album where we did the more melodic kind of rocking metal thing, and then Taneli left. When we decided to get a new vocalist and we had a certain kind of voice in mind and we had 10 or 11 candidates that we checked out and Ville came around and he was the obvious choice because not only can he sing the aggressive stuff, but also really sing in tune and we could really start building up different melodies and make harmonies with the vocals and not just the instruments. So it has given us a lot more new possibilities to progress and build up different atmospheres for each song. It turned out to be a very good thing for the progression of the band.

The one thing that is striking about the new album is it has an elegance to it, even though it is really heavy? That is something we had in mind when we went to the studio. We picked out four places to record the album in just to get this really dynamic result. We wanted to make the quiet parts really quiet and when the band starts playing it comes from the speakers to your face. And we used a lot of different instruments and amplifiers and effects to bring the best sound to each song. On the albums we like to try out different things and build up different atmospheres for each part. But we like to keep the live set more straight and intense and more aggressive and more rocking.

The elegant sound helps take some of the melancholy edge off the lyrics. We always like to play with music and lyrics to make up some contrast. We could have a happy sounding melody and lyrics about suicide and the result is always pretty weird, but that is the way we like it. We also include some our black humor in the words, so it is not always as serious and depressing as it might seem.

Where does the grim mood come from? Basically, I get depressed a lot and those are the times when the best lyrics start coming from mind to the paper. That is really what I am, I'm not trying to make up some image with the lyrics or make it seem cool to say that I want to kill myself, or something. It is mostly based on reality, what I see, what I am and how I live. But sometimes I do like to take it over the edge and give it some humorous aspect because without humor I wouldn't be talking to you here. On the whole, all the Finnish people are pretty melancholy and even depressed. The suicide rates here in Finland are one of the highest in the world and a lot of the music that comes from Finland is pretty sad. It's always natural for me to write about these things. Whenever there is something positive it feels natural for me to want to hide it and keep it to myself.

Is it safe to say the Finnish melancholia is from the long winter and lack of sunlight? There's more to it than that, but where we live in the north, almost on the Arctic Circle, the sun during the winter comes up maybe for two or three hours, and that is not very good for anyone. And in addition to that, it's very cold, it's like -30 Celsius. So there's maybe three things you can do in northern Finland during those times, one is to become a drunk, one is kill yourself and one is to become a musician. So we started a band to write songs about suicide and get drunk.

Peter Atkinson / Delirium


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