Amoral: Interview with Ben Varon (30.05.2012)
"…many fans share our feeling that this is Amoral at it's strongest so far."
Since the Finnish band Amoral's fifth album, Beneath was released last October (in Japan and Europe), I thought it was time to ask guitarist Ben Varon some questions.
I think, since your latest album Beneath has also been released in North-America, you have an overall view of sales figures. Are you satisfied with the feedback?
Ben: Actually, I'm not even really sure about overall sales yet. For whatever reason, it's always been a bitch to get proper figures known. But overall, the actual sales haven't been amazing, which doesn't surprise us in this day and age. We're just happy the reviews and feedback has been good, we've gotten to play shows in new territories and many fans share our feeling that this is Amoral at it's strongest so far.
The cover is the Spanish artist Marta Nael's work. How did you meet her?
Ben: Still haven't met her actually! I found Marta through our merchandise company, who recommended her. The whole band fell in love with her work and style immediately, and it was clear that for the idea we had for the artwork of "Beneath", she'd be perfect. I think the cover turned out amazing.
We can see a guy chained to the sea-bed on the cover (which is also a poster when unfolded) of Beneath. But what does this word "beneath" mean to you?
Ben: The album got it's title and artwork concept from the song, which is based on a recurring dream of mine. I'm still not sure if this is a nightmare or a good dream, but it's a thrilling image for me all the same. If I had to guess, I'd say the dream is a combination of my occasional need to "get away" from everything, as well as my love for the sea. The name works within this concept.
In my opinion, Beneath is a very varied album. I know, it is subjective, but some people think that variety is an attempt to find your own musical world. What do you think of it? Ben: Could very well be! Maybe 20 years from now we'll look back and say, "hell, we never really had a style of our own, did we?". But right now, it feels nessessary for us to keep the musical palette as wide as possible, just to keep it interesting for ourselves and to the listener. We get bored real fast. And we enjoy listening and playing all kinds of music. I don't want to have to choose between playing long, proggy metal like Beneath, or Offspring-y punkrock like Wrapped in Barbwire. Both feel good to us, both is fun as hell.
Every composer has his own method of writing songs. As for you, what inspires you?
Ben: I try to keep the doors for inspiration open from every direction. But in general, I think the main inspiration for the music is all the other music I listen to, as well as the guitar itself, and lyric-wise most of it comes to me from life experiences and observation. For some reason the lyrics tend to stay on the gloomier side, but I guess it's better to vent out this way than climbing a clock tower with an automatic.
In general, do you write music first or sometimes there is an idea for lyrics and the music is built around it?
Ben: Typically the music comes to me first, but every now and then it's the other way round. And sometimes I'll have a piece of music that complements perfectly a lyric idea I wrote down six months before. That's one of the things I love about writing songs: it's a little different every time.
Guitarist Masi Hukari joined the band just before you started recording the songs in the studio last January. Were there any songs that you thought were ready but later you rewrote them at Masi's suggestion? How has the new guitarist with his own songwriting talent influenced Amoral's sound?
Ben: none of the songs were rewritten, but we did add little guitar parts here and there according to Masi's suggestions, and wrote two whole new songs together just before the studio. Both This Ever Ending Game and Hours Of Simplicity are based on riffs by Masi, which were just too cool not to end up on this album.
Masi is such a talented guy, it's annoying. He'll have just the perfect three notes to add on top of a riff, things I'd never think of. And he comes up with killer riffs from thin air really fast. It'll be on the next Amoral album where his songwriting will properly be heard.
Usually, how are your lyrics born? Are they connected to specific events or do they reflect feelings?
Ben: There's both in there. I kinda touched on this subject in an earlier answer, but yeah, those are the two basic sources I pull from for lyrics. I try to leave the sword and dragon stories to other songwriters!
Has it ever happened that Ari was unwilling to sing any of the songs?
Ben: Luckily, not yet. I'm lucky in a sense that I have Ari's trust when it comes to lyrics: he knows that I wouln't bring him anything I didn't back up 100%, and because of this he's not quick to dissapprove them. There has been some texts we've discussed about, and sometimes I've had to explaing him a point of a lyric which seemed weird to him at first, but so far we haven't had any big differences in that area.
Some electronic effects can be heard in the song Wasteland. How much are you a follower of industrial music?
Ben: I'm not an industrial expert by any means, but I am a huge fan of Trent Reznor and Nine Inch Nails, so I'm sure that comes from there. Many other industrial bands are just way too distorted and noisy for me, but Reznor is one of the most gifted songwriters of our time and he has an amazing knack for hooks. I felt that Wastelands, being a very simple and minimalistic acoustic song, could gain from a less-traditional percussion vibe, and I think it turned out really cool.
If you had the task to promote the new album, what slogan would you use to get people's attention?
Ben: Classic Rock Of The 21st Centrury. We really have no idea what other slogan could hold all the different styles of rock and metal that Beneath has on it!
In March, you played in the USA for the first time, then you also visited China and Japan in May. These performances also show that people and organizers are getting to know the band and the new album. Do you have any plans for a tour outside Finland in Europe or in other parts of the world?
Ben: There are plans, but we've learned to keep our mouths shut until everything is 100% confirmed. We've toured Europe with every other album before, so it'd be a real shame to end the tradition with this one. We and our people are doing all we can to get the band to play in as many places as possible!
Sticking to the previously mentioned Asian trip, you performed in China for the first time, didn't you? How responsive do you think the audience was to your music?
Ben: Yes, this was our very first China trip. The people who showed up were great, packed in front of the stage and seemed to really enjoy themselves. But the rock and metal scene is still really small over there, it's not as accepted and popular as in Europe, Japan or USA, for example. But for a first visit and for a weekday I think we did okay, and we'd be happy to go back soon.
The second video for the album Beneath was released about a week ago. Some people may wonder why this video is similar to the video 'Garden Of Eden' by GN'R. Is it something like the covers of 'Year Of The Suckerpunch' and 'Lies'?
Ben: Guns N' who? Oh yeah, I think we've heard of them... Yeah, it's no secret that the idea is lifted straight off Garden Of Eden. Me and Valtteri (the director) have always liked that lesser-known GN'R video, and talked about how much fun it would be to do our version of it, and how well it'd fit the song Wrapped In Barbwire. So both the band and Walde had a little time off and decided to go for it.
In April, you had an acoustic show that was also recorded at On The Rocks. What are your plans with the recordings?
Ben: I'm not really sure. The initial idea was to just get the songs recorded with a decent sound and film the show with multiple cameras, so we can release the show online etc. Which might be what will happen. We have to hear the tapes first, if it was good enough to be released at all!
Is it a big challenge to make a song acoustic?
Ben: It's easier with some songs than others. Of course with songs like Silhouette, which were written on an acoustic, it's not hard at all. And then there's songs that need a complete makeover to work properly. But we chose the setlist by figuring out the songs which we thought would sound best acoustically.
When you were in the studio to record Beneath, who played on the Royal Rumble pinball machine most :)?
Ben: I'd say Ari, I'm not sure... I know I didn't play it much, even though I'm sure I'm the biggest pinball fan of the band. But this particular game isn't my favourite, and I had my hands full with the album anyway. I'd rather play my Guns N' Roses pinball here at home on our days off :).
People have already read about Amoral quite a lot, but what about you? If you don't mind, I would ask some questions.
I think, you are a horror movie fan. What was the first horror movie you saw?
Ben: Yes, I'm a huge horror fan. A movie nerd in general, but horror is one of my favourite genres for sure. I think Critters was the first "proper" horror film I saw, and and it scared me so bad it's not even funny! Well, it's funny now, considering what a crappy and goofy movie it is, but as a little kid, those hairy biting fuckers gave me nightmares for a long time!
What kind of horror movies do you like? Full of zombies, aliens, lots of gore (Saw, Hostel), bloodthirsty animals (Jaws)…
Ben: I honestly love all the subgenres of horror! My shelf is equally full of slasher films, zombies, psychological thrillers and remakes of old classics. I do have this bad habit of buying every single shark-related horror film I find, even though 99% of them are just horrible. If I had to mention some of my favourites, titles like The Shining, Jaws, Alien, Frankenstein, Nosferatu, The Exorcist, Hellraiser, Suspiria, Halloween, Rosemary's Baby, Evil Dead and Lucio Fulci's Zombie 2 come to mind.
A short question. Why Jackson guitars?
Ben: I guess it's a combination of quality and nostalgia. When I was a kid, a lot of my favourite bands played cool Jackson guitars, so that rubbed off on me. And a local guitar store here in Helsinki had these beautiful Jacksons in their window which I used to drool over. So Jackson was always the goal. And once I could afford those, the quality measure I wouldn't be switching brands any time soon. I'm so lucky to have an actual endorsement with them these days, as I'd be playing their guitars anyway. And when you add to this the amazing way they've taken care of me, even though I'm in no means a big artist for them, I feel really loyal to them.
You mention in the section 'biography' on the band's website that you have taken lessons from Roope Latvala (Children of Bodom and Sinergy). How did you meet him and how did he influence your guitar playing?
Ben: I met Roope backstage at a Waltari show in 1998 I think. I knew he used to give lessons in Helsinki, so I just flat out asked him if he might still be available for a lesson or two. He told me to call him and schedule a session. I had been a big fan of his for a while, his playing on those old Stone albums blew my mind when I first heard them. So I was beyond excited to take lessons from the man. He actually lived really close to me around the time, and I think I ended up going over for around ten lessons alltogether, whenever he had some time. We went through some theory, technique and such, and of course I kept bugging him to show me Stone and Sinergy licks. A great experience for sure!
What do you think makes a guitar solo good?
Ben: I love melodic, memorable and playful solos. Mindless shredding does nothing for me. Of course there are killer fast shredding leads as well, and Roope is one of the kings in this area. But many of my favorite solos of all time can be heard on albums by Slash, Dimebag, Randy Rhoads and Nuno Bettencourt. Each one of these guys have their unique style, are melodic but still technically amazing.
You play in different projects like Sweet Little Sister (Skid Row) and Rocket Queen (GN'R). Moreover, you have taken part in a few Dimebag Beyond Forever Tours, participate in Grease Helmet with Andy McCoy and used to play with two other Amoral members Juhana Karlsson and Pekka Johansson in Tornado. Presently do you have any other projects, as well?
Ben: Wow, when you put it that way it sounds like I have a lot of projects going on! :) But the only bands I'm in right now are Amoral and Grease Helmet. The Skid Row and GN'R cover bands are just something we do a few times a year, whenever we get a nice offer from some venue. It's fun to play those classics every now and then. Same with the Dimebag tour, it was a blast to get to play Pantera songs with a bunch of cool guys.
As for Tornado, I just played some leads for the debut album, I'm not part of the actual lineup, and I think same goes for Pexi and Juffi. Grease helmet, on the other hand, is definitely a proper band, though it doesn't take all that much of my time, seeing how busy the Amorphis guys (who also play in it) are. But it's a blast playing rhythm guitar in a straight-forward rock'n'roll band, and with Andy McCoy, no less. We have the debut album ready, it should be out this fall. Hopefully we'll get to play some shows around it too.
Michael Jackson is also one of your favourites. Have you ever thought that Amoral should cover a song by him?
Ben: Yeah, Michael is definitely a big influence on me, I've been listening to him since I was a kid. There's only a handful of MJ songs I think could work with a rock band, like Dirty Diana and Give In To Me, but these songs are so important to me, I don't think I'd want to mess with them!
At the end of the interviews, you usually find requests or questions like 'say something to the fans' or 'what message do you say to the fans'. Well, what punchline would you use to round off the interview?
Ben: With about four hours of sleep and jetlagged as hell from the Asian trip, nothing snappy comes to mind! But this was fun, interesting questions. And it inspired me to go watch a bunch of horror movies! I haven't seen a film in over a week because of the trip, so I'm having the shakes already! Luckily the postman has brought me a pile of new DVDs while I was away.. :)
Thank you for your time!