Grave Pleasures guitarist Aleksi Kiiskilä talks their new album Plagueboys and the dark new world it’s been born into.
Grave Pleasures, like the band that prefaced them Beastmilk, write love songs about the apocalypse.
Doomsday Rainbows, Falling for an Atom Bomb, Nuclear Winter, Be My Hiroshima – these have been fixations of theirs for a long time, and their catalogue is littered with timeless metallic post-punk hymns to intertwined sex and death that crackle and fizz with the pent up energy of people shaking every bit of Epicurean energy out of their bodies before whatever bad thing that is coming comes and they can’t anymore. This stuff isn’t new to them.
Last time we heard from them in 2017 with their exceptional Motherblood album – home to ten of the most addictive earworms mainstream airplay missed out on – these were not quite such global concerns. Politics were volatile, but there weren’t boots on the ground in a vicious European conflict and we hadn’t been shut indoors prevented from seeing loved ones due to a global disease outbreak. The world, unfortunately, caught up with Grave Pleasures. They’re one of the few bands who could title a new album Plagueboys after all that and get away with it, because if anyone’s track record earns that it’s them.
Guitarist Aleksi Kiiskilä – joined in the Finland-based band by fellow guitarist Juho Vanhanen, vocalist Mat McNernery, bassist Valtteri Arino, and drummer Rainer Tuomikanto – is ruminating on what that meant to a band so obsessed with the end times anyway, and how that resulted in their most labour of love album yet.
After six long years between albums, it’s a relief to have you back with new music. Lots of you guys have been involved with other bands like Oranssi Pazuzu and Hexvessel, so what went into that timeframe for you in terms of coming to making this record?
Kiiskilä – Quite a lot. I think some of the demos for this new album go back maybe even five or six years ago. We did a lot of our own stuff, a Pazuzu album, a Hexvessel album, I had my own things, and we started slowly coming back but then COVID came in. It was this long, uncertain period of time but we decided to focus and it came quite fast after that, maybe six months after we had the meeting where we committed to making an album we were already recording the drums.
This album sounds like it’s been the most slaved over of the Grave Pleasures album and had the most time taken, where Motherblood had this real feeling of just walking into the room and having this immediate burst of energy, this album feels like it rewards patience more with the different layers going on in the sound. Is that reflective of how it was put together?
Kiiskilä – You are right about that, and I would say that we already knew that we wanted to add a lot of layers and atmosphere and more colour than the previous one. Being a bit more sophisticated was in the centre of this whole record. Juho actually produced this album with Niko Lehdontie our sound engineer, and so he was responsible for most of those aspects of this album and he spent so much time thinking about all the details. He’s really patient and determined, where if you listen to an Oranssi Pazuzu album you can hear that same visionary thing going on, and I want to say that he did such a great job with this album as well.
As the first single the first thing you heard from Society of Spectres being that huge keys hook was a real surprise, and then the drum machine in High On Annihilation being this incredibly bold burst of colour that had never been there before. Was this a record of really trying lots of new things out and seeing what worked?
Kiiskilä – I wouldn’t say that, maybe tone-wise that is true but all the decisions of what would go on in songs were really calculated. We keep our minds open when we are in the studio, we might use real drums on something but then decide to use a machine if it sounds better. The goal is to make a good album, something that has not been done before while also embracing a certain musical era like the 80s and that style. There was not that much trial and error though, more being open to all kinds of inspiration and every possibility. We didn’t want to do another Motherblood, we wanted to do something different and took a conscious risk that there will be people bitching about new sounds and poppy songs. I think that’s really rewarding, to make something that you won’t exactly expect.
1980s post-punk is style people have a familiarity with and may know where it might be going, so to be able to throw those things into that template that do take you off guard is something that makes this record stand out. Grave Pleasures have always been about writing hard aggressive rock songs that you can dance to, so was it reaching a natural point after Motherblood of incorporating some new instruments and sounds to progress that in more dynamic ways?
Kiiskilä – We were talking about this with Mat just a while ago that sometimes the records are like reflections of what has happened before. Motherblood was a reaction to what the band went through before, where after Grave Pleasures made Dreamcrash, we had a new line-up and felt quite aggressive saying “fuck everything, let’s make a really aggressive record”. Plagueboys then reflects on that, where it gave us a new kind of platform to develop our sound and dig deeper.
It results in some different kinds of atmospheres where more so than anything on Motherblood, the last few tracks are really brooding while Lead Balloons almost sounds like a 90s alternative rock radio hit where there is this deeper sense of melancholy in the record over that Motherblood rebelliousness you mention. Was that the feeling with this?
Kiiskilä – Yeah and we also liked this idea where Roadburn has this phrase of “redefining heaviness”. We want to create something that is heavy but is not metal. It’s too heavy to be pop, but it’s not metal. It’s still dancey and every song is catchy, but there is a slower feel.
You’re able to land on these really tight, infectious grooves, formed out of quite unconventional things. The riff in Heart Like a Slaughterhouse almost sounds like the kind of krautrock-inspired riff that could be on a Oranssi Pazuzu record, who could not write songs that are more different from Grave Pleasures, so how do you actually go about plucking these strange inventive sounds out of the ether and turning them into very accessible melodic rock songs?
Kiiskilä – I think this band is more than the sum of its parts. For example I wrote Heart Like a Slaughterhouse in a hotel room in Germany after a show, because everybody else went to a bar but I didn’t want to go and it just came out of somewhere. It wasn’t quite ready yet, but when we start playing it with the band, how we arrange those things together is how it starts to sound like Grave Pleasures. Rainer’s beats have this man meets machine kind of playing style, and it’d probably even work without me and Juho playing guitars because he and Valtteri have such a good groove together. That’s the core, and then we can try to write pop songs but when we play them together it starts to sound like our band and it will have something odd and a bit off and some dissonance.
With you all having experience playing in different genres like extreme metal or more progressive or folky bands, do you feel like Grave Pleasures is enhanced by that feeling and pool of ideas from outside of straight post-punk?
Kiiskilä – Absolutely, I don’t think this band would sound like this if we were all only listening to post-punk from the 1980s. I make burgers and somebody makes pizza and together we have this kind of mixture. This genre is a good platform for dancey and dark music, more-so than metal because Mat can really bring out his voice and write poppy melodies, but I don’t think it would be like this without what we have done before or what we do outside of this band. It’s necessary for us to have all those other influences there.
With the Beastmilk album Climax and then the first Grave Pleasures album Dreamcrash there was obviously a lot of turmoil in the band during those times, so in a way Motherblood from an outside perspective at least looked like the first really smooth album cycle for you. Did that give you a stability to really build on that maybe hadn’t been there before?
Kiiskilä – The whole band was about to disappear after Dreamcrash and those line-up changes. When me and Rainer joined the band, it was the band giving it one more try, but it became a perfect line-up in my opinion. All of us really wanted to have this and we needed it in our lives, and so something about this chemistry now that we’ve been together for seven years or so it’s the chemistry that gives stability and the reliability to create where we can trust each other and trust this thing. I think it’s quite essential for making good records as a band. None of us want to leave and everybody is really happy about that. It’s a band of opposites but also similarities.
Obviously with the title of this album, and then the ideas in the title track about living on the edge of history and watching civilisations crumble, it’s impossible not to think about this album as you guys coming to make a record together and then waking up one day and there’s an outbreak happening, and then a huge conflict on your doorstep in Eastern Europe too. There’s been a lot of bands who have written records about the shock or drastic change of that happening but for bands like yourselves who have had this preoccupation with those things for years, how much of making an album like this is coloured by almost the irony of that thing you were talking about coming true?
Kiiskilä – It was quite weird and we really had to think about it, because it was not only fantasy anymore. We really had to think about whether we needed to change our approach but the title I actually think was around before the pandemic already. We almost ditched it because when COVID came it was a bit on the edge of whether it was good or not anymore, but we decided to stick with it because it expresses these times quite well and this whole album is mostly about civilisations and how we mimic being a great civilisation. There are some more traditional Grave Pleasures things like mixing love and nuclear imagery, always that balance and ying and yang of dark and light.
Grave Pleasures has always had a very identifiable approach to imagery and re-occuring lyrical ideas around nuclear disaster and incoming apocalypse and dancing your way through that turmoil and there’s this sense of having this last manic burst of joy and energy before the end comes that makes your music feel so euphoric. There is a lot of concern at the moment about the kind of oppressive forces there are at work in the world in global conflict, or rising fascism or authoritarianism, whatever it may be. Does it feel like that particular sensation of that hedonism in the face of that has become more relevant since the band actually started?
Kiiskilä – I think that more people get what we mean now. Mat grew up in the UK in the 80s so he was really affected by the Cold War and all the news at that time, as were we because we have the neighbour there. All of this stuff is not everyday stuff but kinda hands over the everyday for us. Now it is more concrete. For some people they don’t want to listen to this kind of thing but some people are feeling it more. I don’t know yet how that’s going to be, maybe in a year it will be more obvious how that landed. You put it really well in dancing your way through it, that’s the thing with this whole band.
Post-punk was obviously born during the 1980s when East vs West was still a huge concern and with the way the band have always had this kind of Cold War imagery hanging around you, when the band started people could almost view that as nostalgic or a throwback. Is there a sense now of people waking up to that idea that the Cold War was gone and in the past being shattered a little bit?
Kiiskilä – Yeah, I think when Beastmilk came out ten years ago or more it was like reflecting on the Cold War in a way, and now it’s so much more relevant and even scary. I think it would be stupid now though to change our themes and be a bit hypocritical in a way that when things are getting closer to yourself you change from that.
Do you feel like you really fit anywhere as a band? You’ve toured with metal bands and hardcore bands like Converge, and at least in the UK post-punk has become a really big deal again with bands like Idles but you don’t really feel like you’ve got much in common with that either, so there’s not an obvious scene for you to really slip into.
Kiiskilä – You’re quite right and it makes it a bit more confusing that our band members are related to the metal scene, so we have played a lot of metal festivals and our fanbase is mostly metal fans. People hear the name of the band and see a photo and think “oh, this is one of those metal bands I guess”, but when they see us live it’s very dancey and catchy. It’s the thematics that some people don’t find very comforting when there are so many dark things going on. We are only in a small pond rather than a big ocean, it does feel like, and I think it’s good to have your own little area when you can hang but it can be difficult to find large audiences outside of that. We’ve never done it because of the audience and we don’t want to push too hard to appeal to that, because we know that the people who like us will come and see us.
Plagueboys from Grave Pleasures is currently available via Century Media Records – HERE