Originally published in Guitar World, October 2010
As Finland's Children of Bodom prepare to join forces with Black Label Society on their upcoming Berzerkus tour, guitarist/frontman Alexi Laiho reflects on the path that got them there.
Serious fans of heavy metal shredding have had little to complain about this year. Between the numerous package tours featuring the guitar heroics of Megadeth’s Chris Broderick, Ozzy Osbourne’s Gus G. and countless others, arpeggios and sweeps have been gushing out of amps all summer like BP’s oil leak in the Gulf of Mexico.
But for true connoisseurs of six-string ferocity, the knife fight of the year will take place this autumn when Black Label Society’s Zakk Wylde and Children of Bodom’s Alexi Laiho face off on the Berzerkus tour package. While Wylde is something of a national treasure, Laiho is still a bit of a cult figure.
Born Markku Uula Aleksi Laiho, the guitarist recorded his first album with Children of Bodom in 1997 in Finland. Since then, he and his Nordic band have released six studio efforts, two live albums and an assortment of EPs and DVDs. Beginning as a death metal unit, Bodom rapidly discovered their own unique voice by mixing and matching elements of Scandinavian black metal, European progressive rock, American thrash and Eighties hair metal into a compelling blend of flat-out aggression, catchy choruses and instrumental virtuosity. Are You Dead Yet?, Blooddrunk and last year’s album of cover songs Skeletons in the Closet established them as rising stars in America, and tours with the likes of Megadeth and Lamb of God sealed the deal.
Not surprisingly, Laiho, Bodom’s vocalist and guitarist, has been singled out for attention. Looking like a trendy, young vampire, and shredding like a 21st century Randy Rhoads, Alexi mixes bluesy hard rock ferocity with dashes of Western classical harmony that rarely sounds fussy in the way that European metal often can. For example, on “If You Want Peace…Prepare for War” from 2005’s Are You Dead Yet?, he takes most of what’s good about the past 20 years of hard rock lead playing and condenses it into concise, violent blasts of sonic rock salt.
But as Laiho reveals when we sit down with him to discuss the upcoming Berzerkus tour, he’s still growing as a guitarist. “I’m still hungry to play and improve,” he says. “I still practice every day. I would never think, Okay, now I’m finally good enough.”
Does that mean Laiho is pumped and primed to, er, “Finnish off” Zakk Wylde in the upcoming guitar slugfest?
“Zakk is one of the best, for sure,” he says. “Everyone who was involved with Ozzy Osbourne were the guys I looked up to when I was learning to play. Randy Rhoads, Jake E. Lee and Zakk were some of my biggest influences. Zakk’s playing is just so over-the-top crazy, and he’s a great singer, too.”
Oh, well. So much for the knife fight.
GUITAR WORLD Even though Children of Bodom are an extreme metal band, the group’s appreciation of classic song structure is evident on Skeletons in the Closet, where you cover songs by everyone from Britney Spears to Anthrax to Creedence Clearwater Revival.
ALEXI LAIHOSkeletons in the Closet is an accurate reflection of what we like. We have a bunch of mix CDs on our tour bus that jump from Norwegian black metal, like Darkthrone, to [British pop singer] Samantha Fox to Slayer. One night Britney Spears’ “Oops, I Did It Again” was looping over and over, and I could just hear a metal version of it in my head. My keyboard player [Janne Wirman] and I were slamming White Russians and we decided to cover it.
I think the only way you can earn the right to do something like that is to just have the attitude that, “I don’t give a fuck if you have a problem with us covering Britney Spears.” And all jokes aside, we put a lot of effort into the arrangement. It’s played really well and recorded professionally. It’s not just a goof. I think it works as a metal song.
GW What other bands do you think do a good job of balancing hooks and aggression?
LAIHO Pantera did it well, especially in the early days. The entire Cowboys from Hell album, for example, had great catchy riffs, but at the same time it had elements of extreme metal. It was really a “punch-in-the-face” sort of album. It was melodic and super-aggressive at the same time. It would be great to hear Britney cover one of their songs.
GW On Skeletons you covered “Talk Dirty to Me” by Poison. Did Eighties hair metal have an impact on you when you were growing up?
LAIHO Definitely. That’s where it started for me. Bands like Twisted Sister and Mötley Crüe, and guitarists like Van Halen and Randy Rhoads always had good guitar riffs and solos. It led to harder music like Metallica, Anthrax and Megadeth, and ultimately to death metal and black metal.
GW Can you give me some sense of how you progressed from listening to Van Halen or Randy Rhoads to embracing the music of a band like Obituary?
LAIHO I remember hearing “Arise” by Sepultura, and thinking, Holy fuck! Who are these guys? I was, like, 10 years old, and thought they were probably evil and crazy. They really had this appeal because they were so…I don’t know…just so fast and insane that it made a huge impact on me.
GW Were you playing guitar by then?
LAIHO I was just starting to play.
GW Did you hear American music all the time in Finland?
LAIHO Yeah, and then gradually the Nordic countries began developing their own metal underground. Swedish death metal bands like Entombed and Dismember and the whole Norwegian black metal scene began picking up steam. I really embraced that music when I was around 15. I was all about black metal, but in those circles you were not allowed to play lead guitar. Guitar solos are not allowed in true black metal. You pretty much have to play like shit! You know, turn the distortion and treble knob up to fucking 10, and go! [laughs] I loved it, but I kept practicing and secretly listening to Steve Vai, or whatever.
GW So what was that scene like when you were in your teens? Were guys in your neighborhood playing death metal?
LAIHO Yeah. There was a lot of pressure to conform, but then again, I just didn’t care about that. We’re talking about a really small underground metal circuit. I was definitely the best guitar player around. I could just kick anybody’s ass, and I was appreciated for that.
GW You must have been thrilled that people in your area of the world were creating something unique.
LAIHO It was great. Black metal was really a Nordic thing, you know. It just felt like that was our thing.
GW But ultimately you felt a little trapped by the musical limitations of the scene.
LAIHO Probably, yeah. Playing minor chords as fast as you can just wasn’t enough. Bodom was really my response to that. I took some of the elements I liked from traditional black metal and mixed it with the things that I liked in thrash metal. It has elements of both, but at the same time it’s neither.
GW How did you start playing guitar?
LAIHO I had a teacher, and he gave me an American [instructional] book, but I forget what it was called. I really started from the very beginning, going through each of the strings and what they’re called, and so on. My teacher was pretty cool, because he was a conservative dude, but he knew a lot of Metallica, Guns N’ Roses and what have you. So he promised me if I learned all the fundamentals of music he’d teach me Metallica’s “One,” or whatever. For the next five years that was his way to get me to practice stuff that at that time was boring for me. And believe me, I practiced my ass off.
His determination to make me learn music theory definitely helped me. When you’re a 15-year-old kid and you’re into Steve Vai, and someone says you have to learn to play some fucking bossa nova song or whatever, you’re going to think it sucks, but the song is not the point; it’s just important to know there is something else besides majors, minors and power chords.
GW Your signature ESP guitar has a Randy Rhoads vibe. Was he the crucial guy for you?
LAIHO Definitely. Ozzy Osbourne’s live Tribute album was the first time I heard Randy Rhoads. Technically, he wasn’t as advanced as Vai or Yngwie, but his sound really hit me. Tribute is still my favorite Ozzy album. Randy’s playing had that classical element, but it wasn’t overbearing. Randy and Slash are both players that I really admire. They play to serve the music and not themselves, and they compose guitar solos that any teenage girl can sing along to. Their solos are really just integral parts of the song, and that should be the object as a guitar player. That’s the sort of guitarist I’d like to be.
GW I read somewhere that the first Children of Bodom album, Something Wild , is your least favorite because it had too many neoclassical elements. It sounded too much like Yngwie Malmsteen.
LAIHO I wouldn’t say that we sounded like Yngwie. We were pretty fucking far from Malmsteen. But yeah, that classical element is in there, especially in the guitar solos. There was too much of that, and at the time, especially in Europe, every guitar player was doing that thing. I decided I didn’t want to be one of them.
GW It seems to me that each of your albums has gotten progressively harder, in a good way. Each has gotten less dainty and Euro. Your sixth album, Blooddrunk, is the most organic and original sounding.
LAIHO I agree. It came from a more emotional place. It has a lot musical detail, but also a lot of primitive rage. I try not to think about stuff like that when I’m writing music. It’s just been a natural evolution.
GW Using keyboards in metal is always a tricky thing. They tend to make music sound more polite.
LAIHO Polite I’m not into. [laughs] Yeah, you really have to know how to use keyboards right, or else you start sounding like a “European metal guy.”
GW On Blooddrunk, the synthesizers add color without dominating the surface, like they do on some of your earlier records.
LAIHO A lot of people ask me, “How come you don’t use as many keyboards as you used to?” I tell them, “We actually have more keyboard parts. They’re just less obvious.”
GW Is that an ongoing conversation that you have with your keyboardist, Janne Wirman?
LAIHO You know, we’ve been working together for such a long time. We’re always coming up with keyboard sounds together, and most of the time we’re on the same page. Sometimes it’s cool just to shamelessly ape the Eighties and play big minor chords with a string setting, but more often we’ll try to come up with super-wacky sounds that we just put somewhere in the background. You can feel it, but you can’t necessarily tell what the hell’s going on.
GW Very few American metal bands use keyboards. Is that your Nordic side coming out?
LAIHO I never really thought of it that way. But you’re right—none of my favorite American bands have keyboard players. It’s probably something I picked up from Scandinavian death metal.
GW Does playing with a keyboardist inspire you to play different patterns or scales that you wouldn’t ordinarily think of?
LAIHO It would be pretty strange if it didn’t. Before Janne joined Bodom, he was a straight-up jazz player and wasn’t really into metal that much. I thought that was great and have always encouraged him to play whatever he wants when he solos. I really love it when he plays a bunch of gnarly jazz and classical shit.
GW Who writes the unison and harmonized lines that often appear in your arrangements?
LAIHO I usually do, and more than a few times I’ve totally bummed him out, because I’ll write something from a guitarist’s perspective that just isn’t possible for a keyboardist to play. He always figures something out, though, and then he gets me back. All of the sudden, he’ll throw these arpeggios at me that are barely possible to do on the guitar, and I’ll say, “I don’t know how to do it, but I’ll find a way.” But it’s really cool to get a mission that seems impossible. If something feels like a challenge, it just fucking fuels me up to the point where I can’t sleep at night until I figure it out.
GW Do you ever regret when you’re playing onstage that your songs are so technically demanding?
LAIHO No, it’s not like that. I just practice until I can play whatever I need to play. I’m not saying it’s easy. I’m the front guy, so I’ve gotta sing and engage the audience while playing this impossible shit. I have to work at it.
GW You’re going into the studio soon with producer Matt Hyde [Slayer, Porno for Pyros]. Where do you see your music going with this next record?
LAIHO It’s hard to say at this point. We have a lot written, but all I can say is, this is definitely gonna be heavy. I’d rather not get into it too much, because it’s always too early to tell before it’s recorded. But I’ll tell you, we’re not wimping out.
GW Matt Hyde is a great choice. He’s done Slayer’s God Hates Us All, one of the heaviest records of all time, as well as radio-friendly albums.
LAIHO It’s not really about what he’s done in the past; it’s just the way he talked to us about music. We sat down with eight different producers, and Matt just seemed the most committed and enthusiastic. He showed up to rehearsals in Helsinki and just started throwing ideas at us. It was a really cool thing, because we never really had anybody work with us in preproduction, and his ideas were actually good. That said, it’s not a bad thing if he produced God Hates Us All.
GW Do you ever feel confined by some of the musical decisions you made when you were young? It must take a lot of energy to sing and play the way you do.
LAIHO Singing? You mean the screaming? [laughs] Yeah.
GW I didn’t mean to imply…
LAIHO It’s cool. That’s what I think, anyway. I’m a guitar player more than I am a singer. I just scream my ass off.
It does take a lot of physical energy when you’re touring and playing live night after night. It can wear you down if you’re not used to it. I remember the first time we started doing long tours—by “long” I mean more than four gigs in a row—and it was just terrible, because I would lose my voice completely after the fourth show. Nothing would come out, and I didn’t really know what to do about that, so I just started asking other dudes who did death metal vocals. They all tried to explain how they sang from their stomach [diaphragm], but I couldn’t figure out what they meant. Eventually, it clicked. I started using my stomach without realizing it, and after that I never really lost my voice again.
GW Still, your stamina must be extraordinary.
LAIHO I know what you’re saying. It’s not even just the singing and playing. You have to headbang, run around and act a little crazy onstage. I always try to give 100 percent, but sometimes you’re just tired. Our drummer and I will joke after gigs on occasion and say, “I wish I would’ve gave some serious thought before I made a career out of playing extreme metal.” It can fucking hurt. I’ve actually vomited my guts out while playing the solo to “Blooddrunk” and then run back to the front of the stage and kept on screaming. But what are you going to do? You have to get it done, and once you’re done—once you pull it off—it feels like you’ve actually done something, that you did your job. And that’s a good feeling.
GW The grass is always greener…
LAIHO That’s why I’m saying that, at the end of the day, the grass on this side is pretty fucking green. I can’t complain for even one second