A Tale of Two Festivals: Interview with Swallow the Sun’s Mikko Kotamäki

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Rounding the corner of their 20th year, Swallow the Sun has blazed through 2019 with a series of powerful appearances in support of their most recent full-length, When a Shadow Is Forced Into the Light, released on January 25. The album, which was largely composed by lead guitarist Juha Raivio in the wake of personal tragedy, covers significant emotional ground and appeals to fans of death and doom metal; we’ll spare you the effort of trying to confine them to one genre.

During their Nummirock set, the six-piece delivered an expressive performance which began with the most recent album’s title track and a cigarette-touting lead singer Mikko Kotamäki. By the time the band- also including Jaani Peuhu (keyboards), Juuso Raatikainen (drums), Matti Honkonen (bass), and Juho Räihä (rhythm guitar)- arrived at “Stone Wings”, the audience was noticeably peppered with misty eyes. Many patrons, transfixed by the band’s delivery, appeared as though they were on the verge of asking Kotamäki and company to forgive them their sins. Honkonen riled the crowd and the band roared through “Swallow (Horror Pt. 1)”, battling chilly temperatures as the Juhannus sun barely dipped below the horizon.

Metal Solstice bumped into Kotamäki briefly on the train from Helsinki to Jyväskylä, the nearest major city to the John Smith Rock Festival, which began in 2016. As a young festival in age but tenured in production value, Swallow the Sun fit right into the weekend’s robust lineup. A flame-lined stage and dark skies created the atmospheric conditions best suited for “Firelights”, “Lost & Catatonic”, and a rarer song, “Labyrinth of London”. Prior to their set, we caught up with Kotamäki again to discuss his thoughts on festival season, adventures abroad, and the group’s musical direction. He also divulged perhaps his worst-kept secret: a love for Phil Collins and Genesis. (Are you reading this one, Phil?)

Metal Solstice: You guys have had a pretty tireless schedule this year. How did you choose which summer festivals to play?

Mikko Kotamäki: We don’t actually choose that much. If we get a really shitty offer money-wise, and then you have to pay for your own flights, we’re too old for that shit, so we don’t have to play everything we get. I guess we’ve been pretty lucky this summer with all these festivals we’re playing; only turned down a few we didn’t want to do.

MS: At Nummirock, people were openly crying- like, really weeping- during your set. Have you noticed that happening?

MK: Well, I don’t really pay attention to the audience that much on stage. I just do what I do, and of course I’m not wearing my eyeglasses so I can’t see shit anyway, but yeah. I guess we kind of play some kind of emotional music, but it feels weird. I’ve heard that crying has been happening, it feels fucking weird actually, but at least it shows that people- our fans- appreciate it, that it feels like something, which is pretty cool. I’m not a big fan of music that doesn’t have any fucking meaning, so I guess we are doing something right.

Swallow the Sun at John Smith Rock Festival 2019.
Photo credit: Jukka Pihlajaniemi / John La Hanhi Photography.

MS: What was a highlight of that set for you?

MK: The Nummirock highlight was when the gig was over because it was so fucking cold, I was freezing on stage! But yeah, of course I used to go to Nummirock every summer when I was a teenager, so a lot of good memories from that festival and it was nice to play there. I guess it’s gonna be something like that tonight as well, but a little bit nicer weather.

MS: Let’s talk a little bit about the difference between Swallow the Sun indoors and outdoors. At the Irving Plaza show in April, there was less real estate on stage because of Children of Bodom’s gear, and the mix was quieter, more intimate, for that room. What adjustments do you make for each kind of performance?

MK: First of all, we’re not Manowar, so we don’t need to be fucking loud. Of course live sound should be something that you can hear everything; if it’s loud it’s just noise and doesn’t matter what people are playing on stage. Our sound guy makes everything clear-sounding. Of course, we were really worried about that tour, how Children of Bodom fans like our music, but I think it was a pretty nice contrast between bands like Wolfheart opening, since they’re pretty heavy and fast. Then we play this slow, melodic, girly music in between and then Children of Bodom headlined, and it actually worked out really well.

MS: It seemed like there was a mini reunion from that tour at the July 17 Wolfheart show at On the Rocks in Helsinki. How well did you all know each other before that springtime U.S. tour?

MK: Oh yeah, our history goes way back. That wasn’t the first time we’ve toured with Wolfheart. Finland of course is a small country, so people know each other. If you’re in the same business, you pretty much get to know everybody.

MS: Definitely is a village. Speaking of which: when I chatted with Paara at Nummirock, [lead singer Helmouth] told me about a time that you not only joined them for recording guest vocals, but brought along Katatonia’s Niklas Sandin as a surprise. Why is it important to you to support other bands that way, and really build a sense of community?

MK: It’s not very important, and I guess I’m too easy; it’s easier for me to say yes than no! [Laughs.] I don’t know. If somebody asks for help, I’m always going to help, so it is what it is.

Swallow the Sun at John Smith Rock Festival 2019.
Photo credit: Jukka Pihlajaniemi / John La Hanhi Photography.

MS: I think there’s more to that story, but will leave it there! You mentioned on the train that you have friends in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, too. What kind of adventures did you go on when you were in town?

MK: Well, I’ve been to NYC a lot over the years. I can’t even remember how many times I’ve been there. When I go see my friends we usually explore new restaurants and I always want to go to Duff’s and get shitfaced. I kind of like the city a lot, it’s very crowded, but at the same time you can be totally alone there, which I kind of like to feel.

MS: When Songs from the North came out, the music and three-album format was pretty groundbreaking. Now, with When a Shadow is Forced Into the Light, it appears you’ve outdone yourselves. Do you feel any pressure to take Swallow the Sun in a certain direction on future releases?

MK: No, no, no. I think we all trust Juha’s vision; he’s pretty much always putting out great songs, so when we all play together it sounds like us. Absolutely no pressure; this kind of music cannot be just fucking forced, it comes out naturally like that. Who knows how the next album is gonna be, or is there even gonna be a next album? Time will tell.

MS: This album was extremely personal to Juha’s life. What about the creation of these eight songs, or the performance of them, is personal to you?

MK: Of course it is personal. Every one of us has seen or very close to what he’s going through, so of course it feels very personal to us. We’re all very good friends. But personally I really cannot overthink when I’m singing the lyrics of the songs. It just comes out somehow; but yeah, of course they are fucking personal.

MS: Are there any Finnish bands on your playlist right now that you’d like to share?

MK: One band from Finland is Lost Society; they’re a very energetic live band. But otherwise, nothing really! I’m getting old, so I’m not following the scene that much. I just listen to Phil Collins and Genesis, Type O Negative, and Bruce Springsteen.

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