Interview by Chris Chantler
As the Finnish funeral doom pioneers’ far-reaching Decibel Hall of Fame-inducted debut Stormcrowfleet celebrates (or commiserates) its 25th anniversary, we sat down with Skepticism organist Eero Pöyry to disinter some memories of making of this abidingly special LP, and ended up covering the past, present and future of this abidingly special band.
Happening across Stormcrowfleet in a record shop in 1995, the first impression was one of deep cryptic mystique. From the nameless sleeve and dimly-lit, indistinct photography to the lack of credited musicians, the package refused to give anything away. Was this a consciously militant unwillingness to reveal too much?
We wanted to be focused on the music and nothing else, so on purpose we had no band logo or album name on the front cover and so forth. Looking back, these ideas of focusing on the music and shading out the people wasn’t unique; bands had been experimenting with these things from the ’60s on, but being young and ambitious men that was something we really wanted to do. It took a long time before our names were written down anywhere; it was only in the 2000s, someone who knew us wrote our names on Wikipedia. Before that, we hadn’t written our names in any of the albums, the only names you’d see would be session members.
You were also very reticent to play live, did you find it was hard for this music to connect onstage in those days?
We didn’t play live for a really long time. We played a couple of shows before we started using keyboards in ’93, when we were still two guitars and bass, but it wasn’t easy to get shows at that time, and as the music became slower and heavier, we began to wonder whether there would be any audience for such a performance. Throughout the rest of the ’90s, I thought this kind of music would not work live. It was 2001 when we returned to the stage, and after that I realized I was completely wrong; my current opinion is that this music works best live.
But things were really different in the ’90s, especially when we were in the mode of thought that we’ll just create the music and if it’s interesting then people will seek it out. We basically did nothing to promote the band. This of course is idealistic and somewhat naive, but that is something you will find with ambitious young men! It’s quite different when you think of a new band these days, they have professional quality photographs before they release a single song, and we were completely the other opposite. I’m not saying it’s ideal or wrong, but it felt right at the time.
How much can you recall of your first session playing the keyboard in Skepticism, was it instantly clear that this was a powerful sound that would work long-term?
A friend of mine had a basic keyboard, I borrowed that for a while and we did some improvising, just me and the drummer [Lasse Perkonen], to get a feel of how keyboards work — we might even have a tape recording of the very first session somewhere. Then we decided this was somewhat interesting, and I got my own real keyboard, with bass pedals, which is actually still what I use as my primary instrument. We had a bunch of songs written already, including “Pouring,” “The Everdarkgreen” and “The Rising of the Flames,” which we’d arranged for two guitars and bass; we’d even played those live at our early shows. We added to those songs the keyboard with the bass pedals, which was a defining moment for the sound.
Keyboards were just coming into metal at that time, and keyboardists were like wannabe guitarists, so there’d be keyboard solos and all that. Or at the other extreme, it would just be like a mild background instrument, like a spice, like how some bands used female vocals: it appears here and there and that’s it. Our approach was more like, the keyboards are the rhythm and bass, and they’ve got to be as strong as the guitar. I was also looking at what the keyboardist is; not a solo guitarist, but more like an organist in church, almost like next to the Master of Ceremonies!
After that early, successful improvisation, have Skepticism songs continued to come together through jams?
We don’t jam so much. We did some of that back in the day — for example the  mini-CD Aes came together in a jamming situation – but mostly how we work is, the guitarist [Jani Kekarainen] does a lot of composing riffs and parts, but playing together we craft songs out of this pre-initiated material, arranging and adjusting it. Our last rehearsal was last Saturday and that’s still how it works, it’s simply what we do, and have done for almost 30 years now. It’s a routine of life: go to the store, cook, sleep, wake up, go to band practice, write songs!
Are there any particular composers, organists, pieces or techniques that stood out as particularly inspirational on your early keyboard work?
At that time it was mainly the sound of the organ that inspired me, I wanted to bring that feel into the music. I learnt by brute force and just started doing things; it might have been different if I had some training or I’d studied earlier forms of music, but I didn’t, for me it was just the sound of the instrument plus the underground metal of the day. For me much of the classical-era organ music is a bit complex, but since 2000 I’ve been listening to a lot of modern organ stuff, like Philip Glass and Arvo Part; it’s a more minimalist take on it, and I think it suits the pipe organ very well. My go-to record for a getaway walk is Philip Glass Organ Works, I put it on when I’m walking and it takes me elsewhere.”
Often this seems to be the way that musicians become innovators, by having to create your own reference points?
“Yeah yeah, but of course it’s a bit naive to think that you’d be innovative and original, because everyone is standing on the shoulders of giants. I just wasn’t aware of the traditions that I was leaning towards, but I think for the freedom of the mind it’s good to be in that misconception that ‘all of this is coming from me.’ It’s often coming from cultural references that you’re not aware of. But I know a lot of bands who’ve had a lot of training, they’ve done all their homework and research, some of them are really good but some are just, kind of easy to forget.
The style pioneered on Stormcrowfleet came to be known as funeral doom, although lyrically the album doesn’t overstate themes of grief and sorrow, the prevailing mood is of being over-awed by the immensity and permanence of nature.
For me, the thing is, this music is not about sadness or depression. It’s purely an aesthetic choice: this is the kind of music that I find beautiful. People often get the wrong idea that this is music about suicide or depression. For some it might be, but for me it’s purely aesthetics. Slow, heavy and dark is beautiful to my ears.
Delightfully, in the 2018 Skepticism documentary The March, it is revealed that the first ever copy of Stormcrowfleet was buried under moss within a forest in the band’s hometown Riihimäki, because the band felt such gratitude to the woodland for the album’s inspiration. Will there ever be a treasure hunt to retrieve it?
We roughly know where it is, but I doubt it will ever be found! We did that sort of stuff, but I wouldn’t say we were too carried away with it. The forest thing was just, we spent time there, thought about things and expressed ideas about music and the band. I think what was so strong from the beginning was that we had a lot of conceptual ideas. Why the drummer is playing with mallets is not only because of how it sounds, but because we had the idea of him being more like a tympani player than a traditional rock drummer; similarly, I play the keyboard sitting down, using the bass pedals. This was the sort of thing we were working with, not only what kind of song shall we write, but also what, conceptually, this band should be. That really helped us find our own sound.
When did the concept of the mourning suits come about?
The guitarist and I had our stage clothes from the first gig we played in 2001. The tailcoat was introduced in 2002 — and our singer [Matti Tilaeus] has worn it ever since that show. It’s a nice tailor-made piece from probably the 50s, we found it in a place next to our hometown, they rented it out for good money — it’s really thick, good material — and they happened to have an intern working there, and by accident she sold it to us for a very good price, so we really got lucky there! My coat is from the same place, and it looks like it might have been made for an organist because the sleeves are really long, so they cover your wrists even when you’re playing.
Something people have commented on a lot is that the drummer wears his normal clothing. This also defines how we do things. We don’t have strict rules, like ‘the band image is this so let’s all conform.’ The drummer is a very strong person, he doesn’t see a reason to dress up behind the drums, so he won’t. I have an anecdote about the guy, even though you didn’t ask! Our drummer has never played on a song written by someone else. He’s only ever played songs by Skepticism and the other band he plays in, Throndar. He plays the guitar and bass – no one ever taught him, he just picked them up and started playing. Nowadays he’s writing and recording his own songs; he doesn’t really speak English so it’s difficult for him to operate the recording software, but he just memorizes the places he needs to click. That drive and ambition in him, is something I haven’t seen in practically anyone else. People ask why we don’t just tell him to wear a suit — someone with that sort of drive, you don’t really instruct them, that wouldn’t help!
On Stormcrowfleet the atmosphere is so rich, were any thoughts ever given to adding Bathory style sound effects of wind, rain and squawking crows?
If everything had been available we might have done something like that, but when you think of what it was like in the ’90s with the quality of recording and availability of sample CDs, it was quite different. But I think we thought about it. Around ’94/’95 we’d go out in the forest and notice it’s silent but it isn’t, then when you go to record in the studio, again, it is silent but it isn’t, because there’s the hiss of the tape and so forth. The background noise in a natural environment is much more pleasing, so we thought of bringing that into the recording, but pulling it off with ’90s technology, it wasn’t important enough to pursue.
When we spoke to Stormcrowfleet’s session bassist [Jukka Korpihete] for the album’s Hall of Fame article, he mentioned that during the recording you stayed in a mansion, where some “weird happenings” took place. Can you elaborate on that?
I’d rather not go there.
Were they supernatural experiences?
Let’s just leave that topic be.
Do you see much of Jukka nowadays?
I met Jukka recently with the remix of Stormcrowfleet. We did practically all the album photography with him, as well as playing bass on the album. We went through many of the photos from the sessions that he did, and he did feel appreciation for the ambition and strictness of our young selves back in the day. When you get older and wiser you lose some of that edge. When you come up with something and it feels like your own idea, it’s unique and the best ever! When you act on that, it’s great. And when you’re older and more sophisticated, you’re more ‘well, here’s an idea, this is kind of like that and a dozen other things that have been done’, so you don’t accelerate with those. You’re more likely to break down more easily!
The first song you wrote after Stormcrowfleet, “The March and the Stream,” became one of your greatest, most emotive signature songs. It took two years to piece together, was there a feeling that the debut was so unique that it would only take something very special to follow it?
It’s a bit more complex than that. After the debut, we were at an age that all Finnish men have the obligation to go into the military or civilian service. So we did that, at slightly different times, which meant we could rehearse a fraction of what we had done earlier. So we did proceed with that song while doing that, we just went back and forth a lot with that one. Then, while we were writing it, my girlfriend of the time died. That song is dedicated to her. For me, that song describes those years, the lyrics describe how that experience was for me. 20 years old, going through that, it was a really intense period of time. How that song came together, I think really well summarizes how you move in a stream like that.
Also, a lighter angle to that is, when we started writing that song, it immediately felt like this was going to be a somewhat defining song for us, so that’s why we didn’t rush completing it. It’s basically three riffs, but to find the balance of how to make the structure of the song really work, we went back and forth with those parts. It was probably iteration 700 that we finally found a way that defined the mood we were after. So it took so long partially because of practicalities, partially because of what happened, and partially because of how it felt, that this was going to be more than just a song. We play it live still; the first years of playing it live in the early 2000s, I felt really strongly about playing it, and it was hard for me to speak to anyone for the next hour, because we often closed the set with it, and it was really, really intense. That’s what happens when you manage to pour yourself in full into a piece of music.
Unusually, 2015’s Ordeal LP was recorded in live performance. Will you be keen to replicate that method with the new album?
I would say it’s unlikely we will do that ever again. The next one will be a studio album, plan is to release it in the spring of 2021 when the band turns 30. Hopefully the situation in the world next year will be such that there will be fewer traveling restrictions, so we’ll be looking to appear on as many interesting shows as possible for the 30th anniversary.
What was the impetus for you to record the album live?
People say at our shows that they experience the music in a stronger, more physical way, and I wanted to somehow capture at least some of that on tape. That was one of the reasons, but on the other hand, we always play together live in the studio when tracking songs, and how we write songs is by playing together; it’s never someone bringing a ready-made song that everyone else just practices. For us, music only comes together when we do it together. In practically all cases, when someone has a vision for a part of a song, it becomes different when we play it together, and that’s the strength of this band. With previous albums we felt that we couldn’t play some of the cool things live because we just have one guitarist, and then we thought, let’s just write the songs so that we can play them live. We did use a session guitarist [Timo Sitomaniemi] to strengthen the sound a bit, but it’s a thing we wanted to do, and now it’s done. We have no plans to do it again, but you never know.
What was really great about it, when compared to a normal live show, this time we had the entire day to focus on playing the best show we can in the evening. We did play the album once in the afternoon, just in case something went dramatically wrong in the evening, so we had a back-up recording, but we didn’t need that, so the album is exactly what we played in front of the audience. There were some technical difficulties, the final mix wasn’t exactly what we wanted, but as an experience for the band I think it was really cool. The focus of years of songwriting and rehearsing climaxes in one day, where you’re really focused on one thing, and after the show I felt almost ecstatic. When I think of studio sessions, they take a long time, then you do the mixing, and after that the mastering, it takes a couple of months and then you get the LPs in the mail… of course that feels fine, but there’s no clear climax like with a live show.
One very rare facet of Skepticism is that the core foursome have remained together for nearly 30 years. To what do you attribute that stability?
It’s interesting, when our drummer and guitarist formed the band they were looking for people who they thought would be compatible and remain in the band. So they recruited me, instead of a more experienced musician; I could barely play the guitar, but they thought I’d be a good band member. Our singer had never sung in a band, but he had a strong voice, and we knew him, so we said ‘join our band’, and he did. Even though we don’t entirely agree about everything, we have quite similar ideas on how to operate the band. We are still a very serious band, we don’t do things for the fun of it. We wouldn’t do a different style song just to see if it gets a lot of clicks on the internet, we want to do something we can all really stand behind. On the other hand, no one in the group had ambitions of making a living out of this music, so these kind of things being in line helped.
We’re not the closest friends, as people sometimes think incorrectly. Outside of band rehearsals and trips to shows, we haven’t really spent time together, and I think that probably helps. I do see some of the guys occasionally, for example we’ve been going to a lot of concerts in the past couple of years. But the band isn’t based on friendship, the band is based on being in a band and taking it seriously, but there’s some friendship on top of that. If it was all friendship based, and the important thing was hanging out together, that wouldn’t probably last 30 years.
Currently the plan is, the way to leave Skepticism is by dying. If someone dies — if! When someone dies — we will not replace anyone. So if the drummer goes, that’s that, there will be no substitute drummer. We might be able to perform without organ or guitar, that’s to be thought of later, but the idea is when the first one goes, they will not be replaced. Skepticism is the only band I’ve ever played in, I’m not planning to join another. I have been looking into some new things myself, there’s going to be an album out this year featuring a piece of organ by me, but I’m not looking to join another band, ever.
How have you all changed since those early rehearsals?
I’ve been thinking of that lately. We’ve gone through a lot in our personal lives, and it feels like you’ve learnt to know the same men three or four times. We are all now fathers, there have been five marriages and three divorces – so far! — so we’ve gone through a lot in our home lives. When you know someone deeply as a young ambitious man, then we have these experiences in our lives and come together and share them, it’s about getting to know again these same men who are now fathers and experienced in their professions and whatnot, it is different and it’s really valuable.
In all of our lives, the band is the longest standing single thing. The second longest relationship in my life is my first born child, who is now 18. That has been really… I don’t have a word to describe what it’s like, but it feels really strong and valuable to get to know the same bandmates again. Towards the end of last year we did three demos for new songs for the new album, just instrumentals, and I built a vocal booth in my home and the singer came down for a day to sing on them. We had several passes on the vocal demo, we changed the lyrics to bend and match how the singer wanted to sing — we were doing proper pre-production, for the first time ever! We’ve done multiple albums in the same way: I write, he sings. This time we did something that’s really common in creating music, but it was the first time for us. So even if we know each other really well, we’re still doing new things.