“Moonflowers” bloom in Brooklyn: Interview with Swallow the Sun’s Mikko Kotamäki

Author Samantha Chilli - 10.12.2021

Swallow the Sun recently stopped in Brooklyn, New York, bringing their signature melancholy to the Brooklyn Monarch venue and its desolate, industrial surroundings. The tour began one day after the release of their eighth studio album “Moonflowers” (Century Media Records) and this Tuesday-night performance was the 10th of 28 shows, marking a shred of normalcy after two years’ worth of canceled tours, including North America.

Three local openers warmed up the room, followed by Boston-based progressive metal act Wilderun. Floral backdrop panels accompanied their new-era-Opeth-esque performance; vocalist Evan Berry’s clean vocals and the time signature changes in “Passenger” were memorable. They saved the best for last in “Far from Where Dreams Unfurl”, whose folky vibes were a nod to the band’s earlier releases.

Black metal troupe Abigail Williams are no strangers to Finns, as their most recent venture to New York City was alongside Kalmah and Ensiferum in December 2019. The hooded four-piece delivered a set largely based on their most recent opus “Walk Beyond the Dark”, and even brought a violinist on stage for the first time this tour. The “Black Waves” backing track included strings, but the live violin added further dimension to their intense performance.

In a pre-show chat with Chaoszine, Swallow the Sun vocalist Mikko Kotamäki defined the band’s sound—also including the talents of Juha Raivio (guitars), Matti Honkonen (bass), Juuso Raatikainen (drums), and Juho Räihä (guitars)—not as death/doom, but simply “melancholic Finnish metal music.” Their hour-long set mastered this sorrowful feel, spanning across several albums and spending the most time on “Moonflowers”. Noticeably absent were the “Hawk of Doom” and its handler, keyboardist Jaani Peuhu who performed his last show with the band in September 2021. Their stage plot remained largely unchanged, with Räihä simply having more space to himself.

“The Fight of Your Life” was a haunting requiem, immediately filling the gap left by the band’s two and a half years’ time away from New York. “Rooms and Shadows” made its way into the set from 2015’s “Songs from the North I”—the band dialed-in, the sound in the room balanced. Emotion-laden “Stone Wings” highlighted Kotamäki’s harsh vocals, which stayed consistent for the entire hour, showing no signs of fatigue from the band’s ambitious touring schedule. “The Void” was an audience favorite, and many in the crowd sang along, despite having only twelve days to study the lyrics.

Honkonen riled up the audience, and right on cue, mouthed, “…the phantoms, the nightmares,” in “Firelights” as per usual. The first “Moonflowers” single, “Woven into Sorrow”, offered authoritative soloing from Räihä, who accompanied in growls as well. “This House Has No Home” wrapped up the main set the way it concludes the album: overflowing with despair, equal parts gentle and forceful, this time inciting a surprise mosh pit before ushering the crowd home with an encore.

Band painting by Doppelganger-Art

After so many tours being rescheduled, including the 20th anniversary, what’s it like to be back on the road in North America?

Kotamäki: Well, great but weird. It’s weird to see how much the world has changed since two years ago. It’s not the same America, but I guess it’s not the same all around, but of course it feels good. Things are a bit shit in Europe again, so I think maybe North America is the only place on this planet where you can actually tour at the moment.

Is there anywhere special you’d been looking forward to stopping on this run—whether for the crowd, to see friends, or eat barbecue? [Laughs.]

Kotamäki: Eeeverything. Yeah, of course it was nice to be back in Texas, Florida, Arizona. It’s winter now, it’s getting colder, so it was nice to catch a bit of sun. And good barbecue doesn’t hurt anyone!

I noticed that there is an aggressive amount of distance between many of the tour stops, with few days off; what are you doing to stay sane?

Kotamäki: Well, I try to sleep and that helps. But I don’t know, it is what it is, you just stay sane or not.

Fair enough! You were last in New York in 2019 alongside Children of Bodom and Wolfheart at Irving Plaza. Brooklyn is also the home of your beloved Type O Negative. What fond memories do you have of New York?

Kotamäki: I’ve been in New York quite many times. I used to come here a lot, my buddy Jesse from Daylight Dies used to live here. Good memories like getting drunk at Duff’s, and once I went to Oktoberfest party in what fucking island was it?

Roosevelt Island? Governor’s Island?

Kotamäki: Yeah, one of those, and it was so packed that I didn’t get any single beer. I remember that always! But yeah, this is also a good city to come here eating greasy, shitty food. It’s a great place.

The last time you and I sat down for a Swallow the Sun chat was at the last John Smith Festival in 2019, and you mentioned then that you weren’t sure whether there would be a “next Swallow the Sun album.” At what point did you—or perhaps Juha—know it was time to start working on “Moonflowers”?

Kotamäki: That’s a good question, because we don’t really plan the albums much in advance. They just come out when they come. Of course last and this year we had to cancel over 100 shows, so of course that affected it. In a perfect world without Covid, I don’t think this album would have come out yet, because we would have been on the 20th anniversary tour the whole last year, and maybe had a break this year. At the beginning of this year Juha basically texted me, “Hey, I just wrote these eight tracks, I think we can make another album.” It just came out of nowhere, but he always does that; he doesn’t say much in advance, but when he finds the inspiration it just comes out really quick.

Speaking of his well of inspiration for the composition process, was it mostly the pandemic and being stuck in Sweden? Were some of the “Moonflowers” songs previously written material that maybe didn’t make it to a prior album?

Kotamäki: No, no, we basically never have any leftover tracks. In some way it’s a result of this pandemic, like, he was stuck there in Sweden in the fucking forest and maybe had a little bit too much time to think about things. So, I think that’s where the album comes from.

Regarding the collaboration with Trio Nox: how did you become involved with them, and where did the idea come from to release the instrumental arrangements prior to the album? Do you find yourself listening back to those arrangements, just for enjoyment or reflection on the progress of releasing “Moonflowers”?

Kotamäki: Well, we’ve had these real strings and instruments on our albums since Aleksi [Munter], our old keyboard player, left the band, so we’ve replaced a lot of the keyboards with real instruments. So did we this time. We were already going to record the cellos and violins, so Juha got this idea with Helena, one of the violinists, to record classical arrangements for the whole songs. But yeah, we were recording the strings anyway so it didn’t take that much effort to do the whole version. But yeah, then the record label liked the idea, too. Of course it was a bit strange idea to release the classical versions before the actual metal version of the album. I think they sound good, but not my cup of tea, so I’m maybe not the right person to answer this, but of course they are songs that work with whatever instrument. You can fucking play it on the acoustic guitar, same songs. But I think those versions show actually how musical the songs are. Maybe it’s not for everyone, but even pops and grandmas can listen to those versions.

There are a lot of contrasting moments on “Moonflowers”, plenty of in-your-face moments next to the hushed, melancholic stuff and guest vocals from Cammie. Was there anything in the process of creating this album that felt like you were taking a creative risk?

Kotamäki: Not really. I think we did it pretty much the same way as we did the previous one, and the one before that. We never rehearsed the songs together; Juha just sends us demo tapes and we do our own work. Jens Bogren once again mixed the album, and he mixed the previous one. Everything worked on the previous one so well that we didn’t have to change a lot of things for this new one.

Since it hasn’t been widely discussed—Jaani [Peuhu]’s Instagram post in September mentioned “one last time, for now at least”—so it’s not super clear; what is the current keyboard situation?

Kotamäki: Well, at least for this album period, we’re going to be like this, a five-piece band. But who knows, so far it’s been working this way quite well. Never say never, but again, same thing as we talked last time; I don’t have the answer if there’s going to be a new Swallow the Sun album after this one or not, so we’ll see. But yeah, we are a five-piece band, at least for now.

Okay, back to touring a little. This is a pretty well-timed touring cycle, since “When a Shadow Is Forced into the Light” enjoyed its run and festival season in 2019. Swallow the Sun used the pandemic not as “downtime” but rather to regroup—including the live album, stream sessions, and now “Moonflowers” is born. What’s it like to play this music for the first time live in North America, or perhaps for the first time anywhere?

Kotamäki: It’s great. We did a couple of those streamed acoustic shows, but it didn’t work out for me, it’s not the same fucking feeling. You just play in front of cameras and answer some questions in the chat; that’s not very heavy metal. But yeah, of course I prefer club shows, tiny and dark venues. I think that’s where our music works the best. Personally I’m not a big fan of festival gigs either. Festivals were fun when you were 15 or 20, but not anymore.

Rightfully, the setlist is at least half “Moonflowers”, with other choices peppered in across the catalog. Is there anything special on the setlist that you haven’t played in a while, or maybe brought out of hiding for this tour?

Kotamäki: Well, yeah, of course the focus is on the new album on this tour, but of course we needed to think about what we have played here before. Basically we had to cancel the whole 20th anniversary shows, so at least we are trying to add a couple older songs that we’ve never played in North America.

Can you share which songs those are?

Kotamäki: No! But we have quite a big catalog these days, so it’s quite hard to build up a 90-minute set, and it’s impossible to please everyone. It is what it is.

Swallow the Sun at Brooklyn Monarch, 2021.

Let’s talk about your tourmates, Wilderun and Abigail Williams. Any callouts on those bands, or things that have impressed you? The Abigail Williams guys surely must have learned some Finnish by now, since their last big tour was with Ensiferum and Kalmah.

Kotamäki: They’re funny guys, easygoing dudes to be on tour with. They are not afraid of weird Finnish behavior.

Like what? [Laughs.]

Kotamäki: Well, I think it’s the silence. Some people might find it a little bit weird how quiet Finnish people can be sometimes. We’re not doing it to be rude or anything like that, we just fucking hate small talk. It’s in our blood.

After this run, you’ve got the holiday break, Finland in January, then it’s right over to the European tour. How are you preparing for this long stretch in advance? Are you taking any precautions?

Kotamäki: Well right now I’m preparing to not lose my mind, because I’m pretty sure it’s not going to be easy to make that European tour happen when we don’t know if it’s possible right now. Yeah, after almost two years of this shit, nothing surprises me anymore. Disappointment is a fucking everyday feeling, so it’s started to feel normal. But yeah, let’s see. I’m not going to promise anything what I’m going to eat if the tour happens, but maybe one whole ghost chili pepper. [Laughs.] But yeah, I have no high hopes for the European tour, but let’s see, we still have around two months to figure out. The whole Covid shit is getting weird in Europe again.

Lastly, congrats on being sandwiched in between Adele and ABBA on the album chart! Have you listened to either of those albums? What does it feel like to have your music that high up on a national album chart?

Kotamäki: Well yeah, I heard at least one single from Adele’s new album, and it sounded pretty alright. She’s quite a successful artist, so it didn’t surprise me that she’s number one around the world. New ABBA was alright, but it’s not as good as before. I love ABBA, they’re great—think about songs like “Summer Night City”—they have good stuff. But I don’t think this new thing was—well, it kind of sounds like ABBA, but I could have lived without it. But anyway, they’re a great band, they were. But we’re only at number two, it’s not number one, so what’s there to celebrate?

Maybe that doom is all the way up there, nationally recognized, and that Swallow the Sun can be a torchbearer for other bands trying to do the same?

Kotamäki: Yeah, but first we need to play doom metal, which we don’t.

Okay, but if it’s not death/doom either, how would you classify it? The last time we did an interview, you called it “slow, melodic girly music”, and I quote, “We’re not Manowar.”

Kotamäki: Yeah, yeah, it’s something like that! I think we’re melancholic Finnish metal music. It might have some doom roots, but we are pretty fucking far from traditional doom metal.

I won’t argue with you.

Kotamäki: [Laughs.] You shouldn’t!

Find Swallow the Sun‘s “Moonflowers” on Spotify here: