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Interview: Monolord

29 October 2021

Photo Credit: Josefine Larsson

Nothing comes easy to bands these days — even ones who started their career on RidingEasy Records. After forming in 2013 and issuing three colossal records through the highly regarded label shortly thereafter, the Gothenburg trio of guitarist/vocalist Thomas Jäger, drummer Esben Willems and bassist Mika Häkki would’ve been forgiven for thinking that it’s easy to become rock stars. Monolord’s upward trajectory continued when they signed to Relapse in 2018 and cranked out their fourth album, No Comfort, the following year.

In hindsight, it’s a damn good thing the band — whose sound resembles the slow shifting of tectonic plates — raced around the globe touring as much as they could before everything went to shit last year. Monolord’s mouth-watering new record, Your Time to Shine, was right around the corner, and the band showed no signs of letting up. Unfortunately, as we all know, the universe had other plans in store.

Today, at very long last, one of the most potent posses in the doom-metal netherworld are witnessing — along with their ever-growing fanbase — the long-awaited release of their fifth album. The Big Takeover recently caught up with Häkki, who, despite feeling the unbearable sadness of being, came across as relieved and even in good spirits (gasp!) that the time had finally arrived for Your Time to Shine.

So, as most interviews are beginning these days … how’s your pandemic?

MIKA HÄKKI: Oh, it’s been pretty heavy. It wasn’t an easy journey. Before the pandemic hit, we had decided to have a six-month break from everything. I was looking forward to seeing old friends we hadn’t had much time to see because of touring. But that didn’t happen.

Sounds like your planned break lasted a wee bit longer than expected.

MIKA HÄKKI: Oh yes.

So when the pandemic hit, you had tour plans in place. Was the new album complete at that point as well?

MIKA HÄKKI: No. We started writing when the pandemic hit, so we wanted to take our time. It was a perfect way to do that, because there were no tours or anything getting in the way, so we could totally focus on that.

Not to mention you have you have your own studio, Studio Berserk. When did you establish it?

MIKA HÄKKI: Esben owns that place, but we use it as our rehearsal space as well. December 2020 is when Willems acquired the studio.

Is it a blessing and a curse to have your own studio? If you know that you only have a set amount of time to record songs in a studio that costs money to use, you gotta be pretty structured and organized about it, right? But if you have your own recording studio, do you run the risk of improvising or goofing around too much instead of buckling down to record?

MIKA HÄKKI: Very much so. We recorded our past albums in a tiny rehearsal room. Everything’s mic’d up all the time, so we can record demos and preproduction stuff. So it’s very easy to keep going, and you don’t really feel that deadline pressure. But when you have deadline pressure coming from a label — like, “We have to have masters now” — then suddenly you realize, “Oh shit, we have to get this going.”

In 2018, I watched you guys at blow everyone away at Psycho Las Vegas. And when I went this year, I think I saw more Monolord patches and shirts than any other band — even though you weren’t even on the bill!

MIKA HÄKKI: [He laughs.] That’s awesome.

Do you feel like you currently have the highest profile in your career so far?

MIKA HÄKKI: Oh definitely. It’s a weird thing. Now we’ve had time to look at what we’ve done and see where we are. Before the pandemic, we worked so hard for three years. Touring was nonstop, and we never really looked back to see where we were. We just worked hard at the next set all the time. Now we can actually see that, oh shit, we’ve been to places. We’re looking forward to the next step.

A lot of musicians have told me that: how lacking the ability to tour has given them the chance not only to look back on their career but even reassess how much they want their band to be part of their life. Can you share any specific takeaways from your period of reflection?

MIKA HÄKKI: Music and touring has been my whole life, since I was a teenager. So beyond arts school, I haven’t had a real education. I’ve always put all my cards on one spot. Not being able to [play music], you start questioning who you are as a person, if you’re not a musician.

But I am a musician. So not only did we make the fifth album, I also wrote and recorded a solo album somewhere in there. I’ve been active.

What’s the plan for the solo record?

MIKA HÄKKI: Right now, I’m looking for a label. Having some discussions. Hopefully someone will support it.

Back to the subject of getting into music when you were very young, did you see bands like Dark Tranquillity, In Flames and Amorphis when they were just starting out?

MIKA HÄKKI: Yes, especially Amorphis, since I grew up in Finland. I worked at a club voluntarily, helping with wardrobe, so I could see all those shows: Amorphis, At the Gates, all that. And also, the hardcore scene was super-big, as was the punk scene. So I saw Refused and Meshuggah when they were small bands too.

Were you surprised when those bands took off?

MIKA HÄKKI: No, not at all. After art school, I had lived in Finland and really wanted to live somewhere else. So I moved to Gothenburg in Sweden because of the music scene. I really wanted to check it out. It wasn’t really what I expected — it’s a really small circle — but there are a lot of really good bands that have come from here.

What expectations of yours were dispelled?

MIKA HÄKKI: I was expecting more shows. I love going to shows and always did, and when I moved to Gothenburg, it was like, “There’s not that many shows happening here.” He laughs. But there were, it’s just that the shows that were happening [often took place in] half-legal clubs, places with a do-it-yourself mentality. It’s the bigger death metal shows that weren’t there.

Why do you think that was the case?

MIKA HÄKKI: In Gothenburg, there’s so much music coming from here that … it goes in cycles. When I got here in 2003, the indie-pop and alternative rock scenes were super-big.

Monolord has a very different sound than the bands we just mentioned, wouldn’t you say?

MIKA HÄKKI: Yes, sure.

Were you guys consciously trying to do your own thing or did you just find that, coming together as Monolord, you were organically taken in some different directions than bands you had listened to before?

MIKA HÄKKI: It was very organic, because we found each other at the right time. Thomas and Esben had a band before (Marulk), more of a boogie-rock band, and they wanted to do something different. I knew Esben from other places and really wanted to play loud, heavy and sludgy stuff. I was mostly playing in my old band’s rehearsal room alone. We got together spontaneously and hit it off very fast.

Can you recall that first day you met?

MIKA HÄKKI: I was actually in Texas with my wife when Esben asked me to join the band. I was awake at night because of jet lag, around 3 a.m., writing [online] with Esben. He said he and Thomas were starting this band that would suit me well, or so they thought. Esben asked if I would give it a try. When I got back, we met a little, jammed a little, and they had already started writing material. It took off very fast.

Ever since you joined, have you had a hand in writing the songs?

MIKA HÄKKI: Sure. Every one of us writes riffs and song ideas. The past two albums, it’s been only Thomas who wrote the material, and we produce it together. We put our own touch on how we play it.

Bands often say that they all had a hand in production, but from a practical standpoint, how does that actually play out? Does one band member work on production for some time, then hand it off to another band member?

MIKA HÄKKI: With No Comfort and Your Time to Shine, Thomas made the songs at home, wrote the material, and then he made demo tapes that he put in our DropBox. We’d listen to it at home before meeting at the rehearsal room. Then we would start building it up from there. I’d write my own bass lines, and Esben would do his drum stuff. So we’d find everything in the production together.

So how did the pandemic impact the creation of your new album, beyond what you stated before?

MIKA HÄKKI: Due to pandemic-related delays, we wound up starting the recording in February of this year. But the writing had actually started in the first half of 2020.

Did you find that any of the writing was informed or affected by the pandemic? Do you find that any of the five songs on the new album are especially topical or timely?

MIKA HÄKKI: I don’t necessarily think that the record is pandemic-themed. It is, generally, about how we treat human beings in our society and how we manage the world. But it was amazing to have all this time to focus on the writing and really fine-tune everything in the sound.

Given the amount of time you devoted to making the record, do you find it’s the most well-crafted Monolord album to date?

MIKA HÄKKI: In a way, yes. We chose the songs for the album quite early on. We felt very strongly about them.

When you say the five songs fit together, is that a feeling that only the band members can have because they created them, or can listeners pick up on it as well, whether it be a theme or a sound?

MIKA HÄKKI: It probably is more the artist that feels that, because of the creative process. We had a lot of songs that we bounced around and switched around to see how well they’d go together. But we felt that these song fit together and also bring something else to the table.

Did you incorporate any new instruments or styles into this fifth record?

MIKA HÄKKI: Oh yeah. We have Mellotron. Also, I’m playing fretless bass in clean parts. I believe this is the first Monolord album with a completely clean bass, no distortion, on one of the songs [“The Siren of Yersinia”]. I also played some six-string bass.

Does this album have a certain identifiable personality?

MIKA HÄKKI: Yes. This has more sadness in the whole thing. It feels a little more serious in a way. It’s not as playful.

Why do you think that is?

MIKA HÄKKI: Oh, that’s a very good question and very hard to answer. I think the lyrics got really into the whole general feel to it, because they were made very early on.

From what I gathered, Sweden didn’t get hit by the pandemic too hard at first, but then around the middle of last year, the cases started rising.

MIKA HÄKKI: That sounds about right. The cases were not too bad early on, and we didn’t have the same isolation as the rest of Europe did. We were still going to work and there were no mask requests. So you’d go to the store and no one would be wearing masks at all. Compared with Finland, which was completely different.

So once the pandemic started surging in Sweden, did it affect Monolord’s ability to rehearse together or communicate? Did you play together over Skype or another online portal?

MIKA HÄKKI: We had a lot of online meetings together. We’d use Skype or Messenger to have meetings together. And we were very careful not to meet up if any of us had any kind of symptoms. [Studio Berserk is] a big rehearsal room, so we could stand many feet apart.

What was the longest break you took from playing together?

MIKA HÄKKI: The first six months of 2020. We actually didn’t meet at all.

What did it feel like when you reunited after that?

MIKA HÄKKI: It felt very good. I was very anxious to start playing again. It felt very good to have taken that break — it gave us some time to think about what we’d done and what we’d missed in our regular lives.

In those first few days, was it like riding a bicycle or was it challenging to get back into the groove?

MIKA HÄKKI: It was like riding a bicycle. We just turned on the knobs, and it felt really good to be in the same room together again.

A lot of bands that might be considered having a “doom” sound tend to make longer albums. Your new one is about 39 minutes. Were you tempted to lengthen it or did you find that those five songs worked so well together that you didn’t want to expand past that?

MIKA HÄKKI: Yeah, we really wanted to stick to those five — and we also saw the positive side of sticking to one vinyl record. All of our other albums are double-vinyl records. We wanted to do simpler packaging, and maybe it’ll be more easily available for some people [as a single-vinyl release]. There’s also the cost of making a double-vinyl album too.

You mentioned that the album has a sadder feel to it — and yet it’s called Your Time to Shine. Why is that?

MIKA HÄKKI: Well, you can see it from different perspectives. I feel that the world has a sense of hopelessness. If you reflect on the world and see what we’ve done to it, we’ve already burned it to the ground, so it’s better to leave it to the next generation to really do something good to it. It’s their time to shine because we couldn’t save it.

Heavy metal used to be all about destruction and anti-authoritarianism, but in the past couple of years it seems that a lot of metal bands are focusing on climate change more seriously than pop stars or indie-rock bands. It’s quite a juxtaposition and maybe something a person who isn’t familiar with metal might not expect. Do you find that to be true?

MIKA HÄKKI: Sure, I can see that.

What going on there, do you think?

We both laugh.

MIKA HÄKKI: That’s a good point. I guess a lot of metal musicians and also probably country artists who are into darker themes are people who reflect more inward and take a look at who they are, instead of maybe a pop artist who is more interested in making party beats. [Pop music is] a more pompous, selfish act — to put it simply.

By definition, is supposed to be more ephemeral anyway.

MIKA HÄKKI: Yeah.

So tell me, are you feeling optimistic about the future at all?

MIKA HÄKKI: He laughs. No, not at all. It’s hard to stay positive seeing what happens politically, environmentally, economically and socially. You can focus on small things and celebrate positive actions that happen in politics or in nature, but when you zoom out and take a good look, it’s not really that good-looking.

How do you cope with that? Is playing music all the catharsis you need, or are there more actions you take in your daily life to get through it?

MIKA HÄKKI: Yeah, writing music is a very big part of it. It’s a coping mechanism for sure. Writing what’s on your heart gives it life and meaning to the suffering, if that makes sense.

Is the material on your solo album in a similar vein, not necessarily sound-wise but message-wise?

MIKA HÄKKI: Kinda. It’s more into alternative country. I play acoustic guitar, and it’s much more vocal[-oriented], so all the shorter songs are much shorter — three to four minutes. It combines alternative, country, indie. The lyrics are very personal, about my own struggles.

Do you find when collaborating with Thomas and Esben, you decide some ideas that come to your mind might be better saved for your solo efforts?

MIKA HÄKKI: He laughs. Yeah, maybe.

Will we maybe see that album this year? Is it hard to say?

MIKA HÄKKI: It’s hard to say, because it’s a huge deal with vinyl records now. Right now, pressing a vinyl record is a 10-month process.

Yeah, I’ve been hearing that. Certain materials need to manufacture vinyl are more scarce, and they can’t find enough workers to keep up with demand, is that right?

MIKA HÄKKI: Yeah, all that — and there’s not many plants that do records either. There’s a limited number of vinyl plants that press the records, but there’s metal molds that press the vinyl — I think there’s only a couple of those that make them. And the big labels have finally opened their eyes … “Oh, shit, this vinyl thing is not really going away.” So they’re pressing all the classic records again. The indie ones are having to wait.

In closing, I’d like to circle back around to what a tremendous following Monolord has managed to build in the U.S. That’s a challenge for bands overseas sometimes. What do you think it is about Monolord that’s so alluring to metalheads in the U.S.?

MIKA HÄKKI: It started with our relationship with RidingEasy [Records]. Having an American label, especially RidingEasy … Daniel Hall is a relentless guy who works nonstop. And he’s good at what he’s doing. He created a following with his label, which got a lot of attention for us as well. Because of that, we could start touring [in the U.S.] very fast. It really made it easier to come back all the time.

After we left RidingEasy to go to Relapse, we still wanted to have Daniel with us. So he’s our manager now.

Well, props to you and the team behind you for creating such a stellar record and finally getting it out there.

MIKA HÄKKI: Thank you. The record was done in early February, and we’ve just been waiting! We’re already working on the next album. We’re also hard-core in that way. We never stop and are always moving on to the next step all the time.