“I’ve come to the conclusion that the less you think about it, the better the outcome is. This is our ninth studio album, and it’s not easy to keep the music fresh and genuine sounding. If I start wondering if fans are going to like a song or how they might react, it’ll throw me off track. It’s not like I don’t care. Of course I care. But I just do whatever comes naturally and hope for the best. I hope that people like it.”
This M.O., as articulated by Children of Bodom guitarist and leader Alexi Laiho, is working out pretty well for the Finnish melodeath metal band. Since the band’s inception in the early ’90s, Laiho and company have seen bigger and bigger tours, an ever-growing fanbase, and more and more accolades for the skills of their guitar hero frontman.
The band took a hit three days before the recording of their latest, I Worship Chaos [Nuclear Blast], when longtime guitarist Roope Latvala left the band, forcing them to record as a quartet for the first time. The Bodom kids didn’t let it throw them, however, because the results are as heavy as ever, as evidenced by the Randy Rhoads-approved rhythm lines and blazing solos on every track. Laiho spoke to GP from his native Finland, fatigued after a long day of pre-tour press, but psyched to talk guitars, techniques, and what it takes to survive in the new musical world order.
This album was recorded as a four-piece and that’s a new thing for you. How did that influence the making of this album?
Musically, it didn’t really make any difference at all, because I wrote all the riffs. If anything, I think the guitars turned out a lot tighter, so at least something good came out of it. Basically we parted ways with our guitar player three days before, so there was no other choice than for me to do all the guitars.
Did it throw the vibe at all, having a bandmember leave three days before tracking?
Of course it was pretty messed up, but we didn’t really have any time to talk about it. We figured we’d make the album and talk about it later. You can’t just sit down and cry about it. You’ve got to do what you got to do. If anything, it kind of pushed the rest of us closer together and made everybody work extra hard.
Watching you play the intro to the title track, “I Worship Chaos,” I was really struck by how relaxed and loose your picking hand is. How important is staying relaxed for your rhythm playing and your lead playing?
It’s really important. That’s how you control the tone and that’s how you control everything. You can control what the whole song sounds like. If you’re too tense, there’s no room for any dynamics or anything. Keeping your right hand loose all the time and then emphasizing certain notes, like every fourth note, gives it a groove and a pulse. I try to do the same thing in solos.
The riff in “Morrigan” contains some surprising notes. There’s a major 7 in there, and some cool chromatic notes. Can you describe how you come up with a riff like that?
Honestly, I just kind of do it without thinking about anything. I jam with the riff at first—the rhythm part of the riff—and then I start messing around with the harmonies a little bit. I add small details here and there, which makes a difference. You’re talking about the prechorus, which is in B minor, but all of a sudden I throw in a G minor instead of G major. I guess the G major would be the normal thing to do, but to me, the G minor just makes it sound a little bit more evil.
You get a lot of midrange in your sound, and that’s something that was very uncommon in metal for a long time. Can you talk a little bit about your relationship with mids?
I think it comes from the fact that I grew up listening to a lot of ’80s metal. For example, with the Ozzy guys—Randy Rhoads and Jake E. Lee—it was all about midrange. That guitar tone always sounded best to me. When I started understanding something about amplifiers, I wanted to crank up the mids to make the guitar stick out a little bit more at band practice—be a little bit clearer. The more midrange you have, the more unforgiving the sound is in a way. It makes you practice harder.
I think it lends a real clarity to your lowered tunings. With too much low end and the mids all notched out, it’s hard to hear the low B. I really hear your B string.
I know what you mean. It gets all muddy and fuzzy otherwise. I go for a lot of midrange and not that much gain. A lot of it is the way you play, too. I hate a muddy sound. I just can’t stand it. To me, dialing in a lot of mids has always made sense. It’s also a little different from what a lot of other bands do. Even though we’re a death metal band, the guitars definitely have an ’80s sound to them.
How did you get that tone? What was your rig for this album?
I played Marshall JVMs, like I did for the previous album. But up until then, I recorded every album except the first one with this really old Lee Jackson preamp, which is basically all midrange. That’s all you get out of it, whether you like it or not. I recorded everything with that. I switched to Marshall initially because the Lee Jackson kept breaking and I wanted to try something new. With the Marshall, I could get that midrange but I could still add as much low end as I wanted. Now, I can’t honestly picture myself playing anything else.
Which channel on the JVM do you use?
I use the Crunch channel, which has a clearer sound, a meaner sound. When I would double certain rhythm parts I would sometimes use the Ultra channel, but mainly I’ll use the Crunch one.
Do you use that for both your rhythm parts and your solos?
Yeah, it’s pretty much the same tone. If I find one really cool sound that I’m super comfortable with, I don’t really need anything else. I do have a gain boost built inside the guitar that’s always on, so, sometimes on certain parts, I’ll take the gain boost off. But it’s mainly just one sound and that’s it. For my live setup, I have a little chorus on all the time and then I have a wah pedal, but that’s it.
Do you really have a little bit of chorus on your tone at all times?
Yeah, definitely. That’s part of my ’80s fetish. All the bands that I grew up listening to had chorus on all the time, so to me it was super cool. I use the Boss Super Chorus.
You have to sing over some pretty intricate riffs. Was that difficult to learn when you were starting out, singing and playing at the same time?
Yes and no. The thing is, I’ve been doing it for such a long time that now it just comes out naturally. Way back in the day, when we were 13 or whatever, I just wanted to play guitar and that was it. But nobody wanted to sing. Eventually I said, “Okay, I’ll do it then.” I got stuck doing the vocals so I learned that as I was learning how to play guitar. The funny thing is, when I do something pretty gnarly with the guitar and sing on top of it, like fast picking or something, that’s sometimes actually easier than doing rhythm parts that may sound very simple. But the rhythm riff might be the complete opposite of what I’m singing. What I do is sit down and play the riff slowly and kind of whisper the vocal part on top of it. I start off slow and then build up the speed a little bit. Then, after 20 minutes or so, I’ll pretty much have it down.
You’ve mastered a bunch of different rhythm and lead techniques over the years. What kind of stuff do you practice these days? What do you find challenging about the guitar?
I’m still not very good at it, but lately I’ve been working on a lot of fingerpicking and Travis picking. I’ve been on this Fleetwood Mac kick and Lindsey Buckingham’s style is like a whole new world to me. I saw them play live at the L.A. Forum last year and I was blown away. I knew the songs, but I always assumed there were two guitars on a lot of them. But it was just him fingerpicking. So I started practicing that. It’s super cool because I get that feeling when I was 13 years old and trying to learn how to do sweep picking for the first time. It’s one of those things that I might never use for Children of Bodom, but on some level I’m sure that it’s going to help me write different sorts of riffs.
This is your ninth studio album. You’ve been at it most of your adult life. What keeps this whole thing fun and interesting for you?
Just playing live and touring. That’s the best part of it. I can honestly say that that’s reason enough to keep making albums: just so I can get back on the road and play live. We’ve always been about that. That’s the best part of the whole music thing. No matter what’s going to happen to the music business, I’m not going to bitch and whine about it. My answer to that whole thing is that if you know how to play your f*cking instrument and if your band knows how to put on a good show, you’re always going to be fine. There’s nothing to worry about. Nobody knows what’s going to happen in the music business in the next five years, but I try not to stress about it because I know that we can keep on touring as long as we’re alive. I know that.