HELLO DARKNESS, MY OLD FRIEND: An interview with Swallow the Sun's Jaani Peuhu
From its earliest, most rudimentary sketches to the painstaking adjustment and refinement of the final master, the tricky process of bringing a musical vision to fruition is seldom a smooth and easily achievable feat. And when the album in question centres on such unflinchingly dark and harrowing emotional territories, even the most confidently assured of artists would likely shy away from such a monumental, all-absorbing project. Not so for Finnish masters of melancholy, Swallow the Sun…
“When I heard their music for the first time I totally fell in love with them right away, it felt sort of like coming home almost,” reminisces keyboardist Jaani Peuhu on his first deeply affecting introduction to Swallow the Sun. From exquisitely delicate melodic subtleties through to turbulent bouts of blackened, coldly abrasive riffage and bloodcurdling screams, theirs is, indeed, a rare and instantly bewitching magic. Having first encountered the band some fourteen years ago at a festival whilst touring with darkwave act Iconcrash, it was with almost the same swiftness and immediacy that the keyboardist struck up a firm friendship with visionary composer Juha Raivio. Making his first appearance as a guest vocalist on part II of the band’s epic ‘Horror’ song series, it’s unsurprising that this hauntingly evocative experience is one the musician recalls with the utmost clarity and fondness.
“After I heard Swallow The Sun on stage I was simply blown away, and then when they started working on the ‘Hope’ album they asked me if I would join them in the studio and sing on one of the songs. That song just so happened to be ‘Don’t Fall Asleep’ and that’s something I will remember my whole life. That song was just so special and emotional and yeah, I think that the emotions are the core of this band. The feelings are just so strong. The songwriting is just so honest, we’re not singing about dragons or ninjas or anything like that,” Jaani notes with a chuckle. “Everybody can relate to these emotions which makes the listening process much easier when you can really just dive straight into it.”
But however instantaneous this newly-forged creative chemistry proved to be, it wasn’t until 2015 that Jaani would play a truly integral role within the tight-knit collective, with the engineering talent handling vocal production duties on acclaimed triple album ‘Songs From The North I, II & III’. The years that followed, however, brought with them a prolonged period of unprecedented change and upheaval beginning first with the departure of drummer Kai Hahto in 2015, followed swiftly by keyboardist Aleksi Munter just a year later. But, unbeknownst to their many adoring fans and followers, composer Juha Raivio was, around roughly the same time period, waging an infinitely more grave and damaging personal battle culminating in the tragic loss of life partner Aleah Stanbridge to cancer later that same year. Crippled by the unimaginable burden of this recent bereavement, the months that followed saw Raivio retreat into an extended period of self-imposed isolation as he desperately set about attempting to process his grief.
But after many months spent languishing in the desolate shadows of self-exile, a sudden and unexpected burst of inspiration saw the musician pen a fresh wealth of new material all within the space of a mere three, relentlessly industrious weeks. With every bar and note having been inspired and lovingly dedicated to the memory of Aleah, it was through the resulting body of work that Raivio could finally begin a healing catharsis of sorts, starting first with 13-minute epic ‘Lumina Aurea’. As the first track to be conceived out of this intense period of prolonged emotional turmoil, there’s no mistaking the unrelenting darkness that abounds from every deathly, doom-laden inch of this exceptionally bleak composition. Forming an emotionally torturous but indisputably essential gateway into the slew of breathtaking, beautifully orchestrated songs that followed, Juha was quick to note the track’s dramatically different tone and energy, finally electing to issue ‘Lumina...’ as a separate EP release connected to, but at the same time, wholly independent of forthcoming
album ‘When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light.’
“It was indeed a gateway into the album, yes,” Jaani agrees. “But in a way it’s kind of part of the album too, because without that EP the album just wouldn’t sound right, because you have to dive deep down into that big, bleak, black hole first in order to really experience the uplifting feeling of the album. When we started working on the album, the concept was really clear that we would release this EP beforehand and take everybody down to that horrible dark place. And then when the album will come out we might try to relieve them from it all and drag them from the shadows. And that’s one of the reasons that I felt this album was so important and why I so strongly wanted to be part of the process because I, as a human being, don’t want to drag people into really dark places and make their lives miserable. So it’s good to know that the next step will be a healing process because there is so much more to life than art, and ultimately, we are playing with really big, important things here.”
With the album’s final title having been affectionately borrowed from Aleah’s own hauntingly poetic verses, these few words alone speak infinite volumes for the intensely complex and emotional material contained within. Faced with the exceptionally challenging task of balancing the exhilarating intensity of the record alongside its more subtle, quietly affecting dynamics, the painstaking engineering process that followed was one that Jaani undertook with the utmost care and diligence.
“With the string arrangements, the idea was to keep it pretty small and subtle in a way,” Jaani explains. “I didn’t want it to be too orchestrated because the concept of the album was so personal that, if you were to have a huge orchestra there, it would take to you too far from the story and make it too movie-like. It was a difficult one to do, because at the same time you want it to be as big as you can get it, so it was very delicate that way, but I think it ended up just the way we initially imagined it would be. Up until recently, I’ve been working mostly with electronic or goth music so I see things in quite a different light to maybe a guy who works mainly with metal, so I hope I was able to bring some new dimensions to it. I wanted an almost 3D kind of quality, a sound you could almost dive right inside of.”
But for all the engineer’s impressively seasoned studio expertise, it’s undoubtedly his deeply intuitive grasp of Raivio’s overarching artistic vision that ultimately enabled him to bring the album to fruition precisely as the composer had originally intended. “It really helped that we did the ‘Songs From The North’ album together. I knew their stories so well already, so it was easy to sync back into that dark world of this album, because it certainly wasn’t the first time I’ve joined Juha there,” Jaani notes of these privileged glimpses into the darkest corners of Raivio’s brilliant, compositional mind. “With an album like this, the concept is so special that you can’t work with an album like this the way you would work with normal albums. The way Juha wrote this album was incredibly spontaneous. He wrote all the material in just three weeks, and 70 per cent of it within one week, and that was something I really wanted to honour with the production as well. To embrace that very first feeling he had when he first started writing these songs. We didn’t want to change that feeling so, as you can imagine, it was an incredibly delicate process.”
'When A Shadow Is Forced Into The Light' is out 25th January via Century Media