INTERVIEW WITH SAMI LOPAKKA

Were you ever so moved by a band and their music and not know why? Perhaps it is just that Sentenced are phenomenal at what they do. Twinkling somber electric guitar passages, blended with melancholy acoustic pieces. Catchy and uplifting guitar solos, combined with aggressive melodic riffing. Romantic piano interludes and a mournful organ that sounds like it should be accompanying a funeral procession. On 'Crimson', their latest misery soaked opus, Sentenced throw everything from their souls into the mix and it all works. One minute you want to kill yourself, and the next you see a ray of sunshine on the horizon. The darkness creeps over you, and then you are hit with a riff played with so much emotion and conviction that it manages to rescue you at the last moment. With lyrics that will have you reaching for the nearest razorblade, 'Crimson' asks the question: To Die or Not to Die? Sami Lopakka, guitarist and chief lyricist, reveals some answers.

Ill Literature: Since 'Frozen' came out, it seems to me, that you guys always have to defend yourselves, especially from the press. They like to say you had some kind of big stylistic change - that it was all of a sudden. I see it as your style was put in place beginning with 'Amok'. Do you think this perception had to do with the change in vocalists?

Sami Lopakka: When Ville [Laihiala] came into the band, he brought us new possibilities. We could do different things. We were able to do more than just this growling type of music. He could really sing so we could plan different vocal melodies and harmonies and build up different kinds of atmospheres. He gave us many new possibilities for the music. I would say that with the 'Amok' album we had already found our style. It was the first one from us that featured our kind of melodic metal music, with lots of catchy melodies. Ever since we have been reborn, it is not the same style as before. We have been taking little steps here and there with each album, and I think we always will. However, the basis of Sentenced's style was already found in 1995. As far as what people say, we do not really think about those things. We have to stay true to our own music and do what we want to do. When we compose new songs, we never take any pressure from outside the band. We totally do not think about other people's expectations. It would be pretty stupid of us to try to kiss someone's ass. We always have to do what we feel. The band will live longer for it.

IL: I would have to agree with you that the foundation of the Sentenced style was created on 'Amok.' What really impressed me, when I heard it, were the guitar melodies. Although I said to myself, these vocals do not fit with this music. Then you put out 'Down', and I said, yeah, this is right, this fits. It was like the ideas you were exploring on 'Amok'; you were finally able to expand on with 'Down'.

SL: Yeah, I totally agree. With Ville's vocals it was so much easier to concentrate on the atmosphere we wanted to make. With the former singer, there was never more than one possibility. It was always the same and we knew what to expect from him. With Ville, we did not have to think like this anymore. We could change the atmospheres with the vocals, and he gives us a variety of possibilities.

IL: From 'Down' and then to 'Frozen', there was a bit of a progression within your musical style. The same ideas were there, but the music was less bombastic and had more quiet, dreamy parts. Now with 'Crimson', you have used even more acoustic and piano parts. Is this about as quiet as you will get or will you take it further?

SL: It is hard to say. We even do not know what the next album is going to be like. I am sure that it will not be the same as any of the previous ones, but it will be in the same style. We always take some musical direction and try out something new. I would say that our quietest album was 'Frozen'. With 'Crimson' we have already taken a step in the heavier direction again. There is stuff on 'Crimson' where we wanted to make a very drastic contrast between the quieter and heavier parts where the band are really playing. It is somewhat silent when there is just the acoustic guitar and piano, but then when the band really starts playing, it feels so much stronger. We have made this big contrast in dynamics on this album. I would say that with 'Crimson', we are moving away from the quiet direction of 'Frozen'.

IL: Starting around the time 'Amok' was released, and up until 'Down', I was seeing many Iron Maiden comparisons. Where do you think that came from?

SL: They probably came from the fact that we did an Iron Maiden cover in 1993. I would say that 'Amok' had almost no Iron Maiden influences, it was a totally different thing. It seems people always need to compare music to other bands, or need to find some category or label that they can stamp onto your forehead. We do not give these comparisons a lot of thought. We understand that the people have to do it, but sometimes they compare us to bands that we have never even heard.

IL: I think these comparisons probably come from the style of how your riffs are written and arranged. I have never thought that Sentenced sounded like Iron Maiden. Okay now, not like you sound like them or anything, but starting with 'Frozen', and continuing on with 'Crimson', I am reminded of Queensryche. It has to do with the guitar tones you use, and the way you write some of your quiet riffs, and the way you arrange the songs. Are you familiar with this band at all?

SL: Yes we are, and we like this band quite a lot. We have listened to them from time to time and really respect what they are doing. I would not say that nowadays we have any musical idols or anybody we are specifically influenced by. Of course, all the good music we have heard or liked eventually will influence us one way or another. It is really hard for me and the other band members to point out what influences we might have. Maybe there is something with this Queensryche thing. I never thought about it, but we do have something in common with them.

IL: Well, it's kind of subtle. When I mention it to people they either say, "yeah, you know you are right, I can hear it now," or they say, "what the hell, are you crazy?" One thing I noticed about your music is that although the subjects in your lyrics - which you write most of - are mournful and depressing, the music always seems to be more upbeat than the themes presented in the lyrics. On the one hand, you are reading the lyrics saying, wow this is so sad, but on the other hand the music sounds so good, it gives you a bit of a hopeful feeling. How do you do that?

SL: I would say there is an intentional contrast between the music and lyrics. Usually we do the music first. Then when everything is finished there, I listen to a song and write what I feel. Even if the music gives off a good feeling, I always like to put it together with depression, death, or something like that. I do not know, maybe writing lyrics is a kind of therapy for me. To get these negative things out of me for awhile. Depression, despair, self-hatred and so on, are always the first things to come out when I start writing. Usually, we like to build up a strong relationship between the music and lyrics, so they actually make each other stronger. Sometimes we also like to play with them and if there is a positive feeling in some part of a song, we give it very negative lyrics. It is something we, more or less, have been doing for a while.

IL: Your riffs, and the hook lines, are so catchy. I find myself humming them repeatedly long after I have stopped playing the album, like when I am driving in my car or something. I always get a good feeling from your music, which is such a contrast from the feelings I get from the lyrics. When I read them I sometimes have to say to myself, my god, where is this coming from? Is it really that bad?

SL: It is coming from the Finnish mentality. This depression and melancholy runs in the blood of the Finnish people. It shows in everything we do. It is even kind of romantic for me to deal with these depressive and negative subjects. It just feels very natural for me. Writing about sunshine or driving a Ferrari is not my kind of thing. It is very hard to point out exactly where it is coming from, but I am pretty miserable overall. Although, I would not say life sucks as much as the message the lyrics might give out, even my life.

IL: So being in this band and creating this music is good therapy for you. You get these feelings out, instead of letting them build inside you. Do you feel the happiest right after you put an album out?

SL: No, not really. Maybe I feel empty for a while. However, it comes back. You never totally get rid of it. I would like to think that maybe some of our listeners, when they listen to our music, might find a relationship between our lyrics and their own lives. And maybe it will work as a kind of therapy for them as well. Maybe they will listen to it and go through these kinds of emotions. I don't know though, maybe that is wishful thinking.

IL: I know that you are referred to as the suicide band. Do you like being associated with that subject?

SL: No, not really, but it doesn't matter that much. It is the same kind of thing as comparing the band to Iron Maiden. I would say that suicide was the main topic for 'Down' and even 'Frozen'. But 'Crimson' is less intense, we are dealing with a wider variety of feelings, thoughts and emotions. I don't really mind being associated with self-destruction. Maybe we have given out that image of ourselves, but there is nobody to blame but ourselves then.

IL: You are right when you said you are dealing with different subjects on 'Crimson'. You have moved away from the suicide themes. I am seeing more of a "relationship gone bad" theme on this one. It seems to me that you, and Ville, have been struggling with your romantic relationships.

SL: Yeah. Are you asking?

IL: Yes, I am asking. I don't want to get too personal, or make you uncomfortable, so you just say what you want to say.

SL: I would have to say it does not really suck that much, as the lyrics might imply. Some songs have more of a relationship to reality than others do. I would have to say that some of the lyrics are maybe fears of what could happen, or might happen in the future, but never really did yet.

IL: So your relationship is not as bad as you have made it out to be in your songs.

SL: No, No. I have written about suicide also, and if everything were that bad I would not be here to discuss it with you!

IL: Have you ever attempted suicide?

SL: No I haven't. If I ever do, it will be the first and last attempt. If you really want to kill yourself, you can do it. I think some people who have had several attempts are just crying out for help, they do not really want to die. If you really want to die it should be no problem.

IL: The artwork on 'Crimson' is amazing. You used Niklas Sundin from Dark Tranquillity. Did you give him total free reign artistically or did you give him ideas to work with?

SL: We first gave him just the title, 'Crimson'. He then came up with different motifs for the cover. Then we picked out this fossil theme. It seemed to fit the best. He was pretty much given a free hand to do what he liked. It was very easy to put the packaging together this time. He would put the pictures on the Internet as he finished them, and we could immediately pick out what we wanted and what we didn't want. For the booklet, we created a visual theme for each song. It was good to work this way. We were constantly in contact with him. I have to give all the credit to him for all this great artwork. Even if we did influence him during the process, we are not going to take any points away from him.

IL: What is the meaning behind the dinosaur?

SL: Well, it's not really a dinosaur. It is nothing that ever really existed. It represents something that has died and is gone forever. Therefore, it matches with some of the lyrical themes on the album. The artwork is very atmospheric, so it relates to the music as well. It represents the whole feeling of the music and lyrics very well.

IL: One thing you just said has struck me. You said it has died and is gone forever. But if it is a fossil, it is not really gone forever, part of it is still here.

SL: Yes, but life is gone forever.

IL: I wanted to really get to know Sentenced with this interview. Too often I have read interviews with you and didn't get much information about the feelings of the people behind the music. The interviewees always tend to dwell on the amount of alcohol you guys drink. Does it bother you at all that people interviewing you focus on that?

SL: Yes, it does bother me. I do not see what is so interesting about it. It is not very important overall when we think about the band. Drinking is just our way to get away from things from time to time. It certainly has more attention than it ever should have. So it does bother me but in the end, I just don't give a fuck.

IL: I wanted to focus as much as I could on the music. I read a Terrorizer interview just recently that left me very disappointed. I just didn't get much information from it.

SL: Yeah, that guy, Nick something, he always asks us the same questions over and over again. Mostly about alcohol. Then he criticizes us.

IL: I think there could be a huge market for Sentenced in America. I think that people who listen to melodic heavy metal, like Metallica and Queensryche, for example, would really appreciate your music. That's why I wanted to focus on it. I think that you have moved away from your death metal roots a long time ago, but I think it has taken your fans and critics too long to move away from it.

SL: We have moved away from that style of music since 'Amok'. However, even nowadays we still have people come up to us and ask us why we are not doing music like the first or second album. They should get the point by now. It has been four albums since 'Amok'. It will never be anything like that again. Death metal is a style of music where everything has been done already. For us to do it again would just be repeating some other band or ourselves.

IL: Do you chalk up those first two albums as youthful whimsy? Was it just that you were young and influenced by that scene at the time?

SL: We are not ashamed of anything we have done. We always did what we liked and didn't listen to anyone else. It is our past, and we do not regret it. But I have to admit, I never listen to our first album 'Shadows Of The Past' anymore. It is not very interesting to me.

IL: How far back in your catalog do you go for a set list?

SL: We play stuff from 'Amok' on. To play earlier stuff would not make too much sense. The stuff from before 1995 is so different from what we are doing now. Even starting with 'Amok' on, we still have four full albums from which to choose material. We certainly do not have any problems building a set list.

IL: Are you hoping to do a full US tour for this album?

SL: Yes. At the moment, there are discussions about two tours. The first one we might possibly do is with Moonspell in the fall, and the other one is with Iced Earth later in the year. I do not know which one is or even if both of them are going to happen, but I am sure we will tour this year.

AnneMarie Bowman / ILL LITERATURE


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