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Heavy Metal & Recorder

 an interview with Lauri Õunapuu

Who thought somebody would ever have the idea performing with a recorder in a heavy-metal band!? Nik Tarasov spoke with Lauri Õunapuu, the recorder-playing member of the Estonian band Metsatöll. (Photos by Andres Toom and Laura Künnap)

What are your instruments and how you found your way into a rock band?

I play mainly traditional instruments that have been played in our region: torupill (Estonian bagpipes), different types of kannel (stringed instrument, relative to zithers and harps), 6-stringed kannel, folk-kannel, 11- and 12-stringed kannel, South-Estonian kannõl. Also parmupill (mouth-harp), talharpa (Estonian Swedish stringed harp) and different types of flutes, also recorders, mainly because of they are chromatic and can be used with rock music with no problems. Although I prefer natural tuning – for instance, I usually tune my torupill over, when I play solo and for fun.

Some of my instruments are made by myself and by my friends – there is not possible to go to a shop and buy good Estonian traditional music instruments. But I guess, this situation is in every land – the handcrafted good instrument takes too long and too good material to repay for an instrument maker. And for traditional flutes – somehow, even when a flute takes less material and time –, there are only few traditional flutemakers in Estonia who makes flutes for selling. Maybe because flutes and recorders are somehow become "children’s instruments" together with traditional reed- and willow-tree-flutes, they are not taken too seriously in wider audience.

I joined Metsatöll in the end of 1999. The members were my good friends and we lived in the same neighbourhood in that time, so, I visited some rehearsals with sauna and a lot of beer and jamming with acoustical instruments usually. The combination of my traditional approach and metal riffs seemed to fit well together and so it went. The first concert with Metsatöll was after practising 2 hours in the back of the car that went to the gigplace. I had taken accidentally one of my recorders with me and learned one hour of Metsatöll’s music in this road, was forced to play those songs in that concert by the members of Metsatöll, and somehow participated every Metsatölls gig from that day. Never officially joined, but somehow melted into the band.

Can we have a closer look to this blend of metal rock and traditional music? I've learned that this style is called metal folk, and that it is typical for Celtic, Scandinavian and Northern countries, recalling musical myths and stories from the past. Have you been influenced by that, or does this mixture of old and new elements automatically brings up such contexts?

It really doesn’t matter to me, what is called that style of music, we are playing. It’s something for criterions and melomanics. One of the reasons I play music, is that I can do whatever I want, not fabricating borders to myself and feel a false-shame of doing something not so style-pure. I have noticed, although "metal" subculture wants to be different from majority and wants to be as "underground" or "not mainstream" as possible, it doesn’t tolerate bands from the same "metal" subculture who are too different from the usual "metal".
Sometimes yes, the style we are playing with Metsatöll, is called "folkmetal". But there is a "but". If you look at the bands, what are counted among "folk metal" – the music palette is very wide, some of them have nothing to do with folklore or folk at large. Maybe they want to call themselves (or romantic reviewers want) folk, because this is some kind of way to be more mystic or more scene-oriented?! In that context, Metsatöll is definitively not folk-metal.
Maybe folk-metal should be metal music blended with local traditional folk music? In that context also Metsatöll is not folk-metal. In Metsatöll I just play traditional instruments, we are not using folkmusic. (In my opinion authentic folklore is the best only when its not arranged with modern music. At least, I don’t want to do that, I love those songs and music too much to spoil them). Maybe the only biggest thing in Metsatölls folk is our music- and lyrics language. But then should everything, what comes from any land, be folk. Particularly Asian and African music, what is mostly the carrier of a local music-language!
I think Metsatöll is just music.
I play in Metsatöll, and Metsatöll is this kind of music because of we are Estonians and that I am so full soaked through Estonian folkmusic and roots already from my childhood, that I have no other possibility than play and sing in my own home language and to make music, we are making.

The usual metal instruments like guitars are extremely amplified and distorted. Do you also transform the sound of your recorder electronically? How you can stand the hard contrast between might rock guitars and a pure little recorder?

I am a big fan of acoustical live music, to play and hear music acoustic and live and being a part of it is the most beautiful thing. When I was young, I dreamed that one day I would become a “music”.
In the studio I always stand for the acoustic instruments, also flutes and recorders, would sound on the record as live and natural as possible. The contrasts are everywhere and every time – day and night, dark and light. They always seem to be against each other, but actually, together they attain perfection. Little flutes fit well together with big (sounded) instruments.

How do you manage to amplify your recorders in concerts with Metsatöll? Do you use a pick-up microphone or a usual microphone stand? How do you avoid negative acoustic feedbacks in such loud metal-gigs?
(Could you speak of your experience with such situations and could you give others tips who want to try what you are doing?)

In Metsatöll’s concerts I have an usual SM57 an instrument microphone made by the Shure company for flutes, the rest is up to sound technician. There is one barrier to the acoustic instruments in our live-shows: this "guitars-bass-drums-and-all-the-heavy-metal-stuff". So, we take quite narrow sequence of acoustical sound and make it heard through shifting different sequences in our mixing-equipment. And never get an ideal sound.
But what can you do, this is, when you playing with metalband. I have made electrical versions of some folk-instruments to play with Metsatöll – kannel (stringed instrument played in Estonia, relative to zitherns and Finnish kantele) and talharpa (bowed harp played by Estonian Swedes). Maybe the next electrical instrument of Metsatöll will be traditional Estonian flute "valipill" – You never know when bearing of not hearing brakes! :)
About feedbacks: there is no problem – you have to find problem-sequences, it have to do only with good soundman. Also, in our shows we use only ear-monitors and we do not use stage-amplifiers, so there is comparatively silent on stage to have a light possibility to use acoustical low-voice instruments like a tiny recorder.
I have experienced, that it is a mistake to use top-quality (and price) sensitive microphones with recorder in connection with rock-music, cause when the microphone starts to catch everything even from the streets outside of concert hall, you cannot really do nothing with it. The best variant with loud rock and recorder, I think (by my experience), would be a wireless low-sensitive microphone connected to flute or to your arm, the short stand connected to arm bows over the flute. But when you use a lot of different instruments, the best choice is a static simple microphone stand. But if you play acoustical, there is sooooo much playing room for technicians you cannot imagine.

What needs to happen during the song-writing process that you decide to include a recorder? Is it pure jamming until it sounds good or do you have certain other reasons to do so?
(It would be interesting to know - maybe also from the perspective of the other guys in the band - what convinces a metal musician to play with a recorder player on stage ...)

There is of course different ways for writing a song for the band. Sometimes one writes every part of everything, sometimes its spontaneous jamming. But I live 300 km away from the other band members, so, there is not much more jamming than on the tour. Often I hear some material from the recordings of others and make something with that at my home. Or in rehearsals I teach every part of songs to others and then practice it and maybe do something over. My songs usually are made in my head, all instruments together with melodies and backing. Usually when a song is made, there is absolutely clear, what kind of melody instrument there would be the best to play. I usually don’t change that.
Every acoustical instrument has its own unique sound, it is alive and its colour doesn’t compare to anything in the world of electrical and amplified instruments. When you recognize its allure, you never get a rid of it.


Videos showing recorder-playing with Metsatöll:

Self-portrait Lauri Õunapuu

“When I reached age 16 and got my passport, I wanted to run away from my home. I had in mind, that I travel with hitch-hiking somehow to Africa and be there at least few years. But of course, I managed to travel, with 20 deutsche-marks in my pocket, only through Europe to the border of Austria, where I was sent back, ‘cause I had no visa of any kind. It was strange, how I even got so far. But I also drunk beer in different towns, I had no money, but a youngster from Estonia in that time was surely interesting enough to different town-guys to buy me a local beer and bread. In Köln, under one of the bridges I managed to live with "local resources" about two weeks. Ough, those were the times. From that time I used to travel every summer wherever my feet, and different cars, of course, took me.
In this first runaway-trip (imagine my parents worry) I learned my first recorder-tunes. I bought the cheapest recorder (it did cost around 3 Euros) from one of the musicshops in Tallinn (now they are closed) and took it with me to learn it and to play on the streets and just for fun. The guitar was too heavy to carry and the torupill was of course too loud.

Today, I live in the country-side in the middle of nowhere and there is not always too good reason to leave home so far.  
Spring comes as fast as it can and there is much to do in forest and fields, also, the only road to the village is flushing away. And I have children from music school to watch over (I am a teacher), a pair of singing sessions to visit and carry (my biggest real job) and we have a concert with Metsatöll in Helsinki day after tomorrow. And, let me see, ough, also one lecture to give in the end of the week about folk traditions of South-Estonia.”

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