Interview: Children of Bodom’s Alexi Laiho - Fast and Slow
Children of Bodom’s eighth release, Halo of Blood, marks the first time the band has recorded an album in their Helsinki, Finland, rehearsal studio. “We got this hall with three different rooms and there was enough room for a studio so we built one there for demos and stuff. Then we were like, ‘Why not record the album there as well?’ It made sense since we’re paying a shitload of rent for that place anyway,” says frontman and guitarist Alexi Laiho. Initially this move was a source of consternation. Just to be safe, the band recorded drums at Petrax Studios up north in Finland. But there was another concern besides the sonic aspect of the recording. “At first I was worried about how it was going to turn out because we’re used to going somewhere totally secluded, like in the middle of the woods,” Laiho says. “This was definitely different and I was worried if the guys were going to be distracted by everyday things because everyone was so close to home. But it turned out to be really good.”
The change of scenery resulted in COB’s most diverse album to date. Halo of Blood features the band’s fastest and slowest songs ever. And as to be expected from a band that’s recorded covers of Britney Spears’ “Oops! ... I Did it Again,” Pat Benatar’s “Hell is For Children,” and Billy Idol’s “Rebel Yell” (among other unlikely selections), Halo includes covers of Roxette’s “Sleeping in My Car” and Bananarama’s “Cruel Summer,” the latter featuring a guest appearance by Jeff Waters from Annihilator. “I just played rhythm guitar on that one,” says Laiho. “I wanted him to go crazy and play stuff, throw licks here and there throughout the whole song.”
The seeds of this new album were planted in the summer of 2012 after Laiho fell ill with a serious stomach infection and was rushed to the hospital, forcing the cancellation of several key dates on the COB tour. Shortly after his recovery, he began writing music for Halo. “I write everything—the riffs and melodies—and take it to the rehearsal space. We jam on them and take it from there. We do all the arrangements as a group,” says Laiho. The band hit the studio just after Christmas and everything was mixed and mastered by the end of February.
Premier Guitar caught up with Laiho to discuss the Halo sessions, his guitar heroes, and why after all these years he’s finally retired his Lee Jackson preamp.
Halo of Blood takes the Children of Bodom sound to new places.
I think it has more diversity, for sure and I’ve heard other people say that, too. The title track, in my opinion, is the fastest song in the history of the band. It’s basically like blast beats throughout the song. Another song, called “Dead Man’s Hand on You,” is by far the slowest song in the history of the band. That was definitely something we’d never done before. It has clean guitars and a grand piano, and just the whole vibe of the song in general is so different from the other tracks.
Did you intentionally aim for these extremes?
It just turned out that way, dude. None of this was thought out or planned—everything just happened naturally. It was definitely a challenge for us to do something like that but I think we did a pretty good job. Those two songs are my favorite tracks on the whole album, so we must have done something right.
Even so, Halo still distinctly has that COB stamp throughout.
A lot of people have told me that there are a lot of elements from the early COB days, like elements from Hatebreeder or Follow the Reaper. That’s something I wouldn’t have even noticed until someone pointed it out to me. Then when I listened to the record, it kind of made sense.
What specific elements were they referring to?
You’ll have to ask the people that told me [laughs]. I guess certain types of melodies and the fact that it is more melodic. That’s the main reason.
Do you feel that over the years COB has strayed away from its original sound?
Not exactly strayed away, but we’ve definitely developed it. When you listen to Something Wild, our first album, we were still searching for the sound of Children of Bodom. I’d say we found it on the Hate Crew Deathrollrecord. And now with each album, we just try to make it better. But it’s still the same concept—super angry and aggressive death metal or whatever the fuck it is. It’s metal, anyway.
As to be expected, Halo also features a ton of smoldering solos. Are your solos worked out or improvised?
I improvise them on the spot. I like to keep things fresh and spontaneous sounding when I do solos. I usually don't like to write anything beforehand. What I do is take the solo part and loop it over and over again. Then I record every take—I’d do like 20 different takes or as many as it requires—and then listen to each one of them and if I hear something that I like then it’s like, “Okay, I’m gonna do that thing.” Then I do it again and I listen to it again, and eventually I have the whole solo and I just play it.
Some shredders focus on one technique and use it almost exclusively throughout their careers, but you have killer legato, alternate picking, and sweep picking abilities.
I was just really driven to learn all of those techniques. I wanted to learn pretty much everything. I started to work on most of these things the day I got a guitar in my hands for the first time, when I was 11 years old. So now, when I’ve got those techniques down, I can finally concentrate on the musical content of the solo. The techniques are just like tools, really. Of course there has to be some showing off too, that’s part of the whole thing. But at the end of the day, I think a good solo should complement the song and serve the music.
What’s your favorite solo on the album?
Off the top of my head I’d say, “Scream for Silence.” That’s a good example of what I was just talking about. I think that solo actually makes the song sound better.
That solo also has some fierce trading between you and keyboardist Janne Wirman. Does having to compete with a keyboardist who can play cleaner and faster than most guitarists make you ’shed even harder?
It’s a challenge to do the whole guitar/keyboard duel thing, that’s for sure. We have this fun, competitive thing going on. Usually I record my guitar solos first then he listens to them and plays off of my solo. We’ve been playing together since the first record, which came out like 16 years ago. We know each other musically so well that it’s fun.
"Transference" from Halo of Blood
I understand you picked up the guitar after seeing Steve Vai’s “For the Love of God” on MTV. Have your influences changed over the years?
Steve Vai and Zakk Wylde, among many others, are still definitely the guys that I look up to. There are so many good guitar players out there, man. So many. But those two, and guys like Jake E. Lee, Randy Rhoads, Dimebag, and Paul Gilbert are always going to be the main influences.
But now that you can play just as good and fast, if not better and faster than those guys, and considering that you are also now a bona fide guitar hero, does that change your perspective?
No, not at all. They’re still heroes to me, and those are your words not mine [laughs]. I think it’s healthy to keep it that way. I know what you mean, though. All I can do is just try to improve as a guitar player and a songwriter every single day. I know those guys do the same thing. Zakk and Vai still practice and they’re all about just getting better. In my opinion, you can never be a good enough guitar player.
Tell us about your gear. Is the V-shape of your signature guitar inspired by Randy Rhoads?
Yeah, it’s a Randy Rhoads shape. That’s one of the reasons but back in the day, a lot of bands used guitars like that. I remember the guys from Anthrax had those Jacksons with the pinstripes, and Chris Holmes from W.A.S.P had a badass one, too.
What pickup do you have in your guitar?
It’s an EMG HZ passive pickup and I have a gain boost thing built-in. It’s not my own design but it’s my own signature pickup. I’ve always had this setup. I don't even know why. I don’t remember how that came about. One of my guitars had that setup and I thought it sounded badass.
Does the gain boost require a battery?
So since you have to use a battery anyway, why not just go with active pickups?
I think that passive pickups have a cooler sound than active ones. That’s my opinion.
A lot of shredders like to use .009s because they’re easy to play. You use .010s. Is it harder to shred with that set up?
You get used to it. Its .010–.056. When I first got that setup I was like, “Holy fuck. This is way too thick.” But I got used to them real quick and now I just love them. The low strings are pretty thick but perfect for the dropped tunings.
What about pedals?
I only use an MXR Stereo Chorus. That’s all I need really. I don’t fuck around with effects that much. I like to keep it rock ’n’ roll: one good guitar sound and the rest is up to me.
In the interlude of “Transference,” it sounds like there’s a flanger. What did you use there?
Yeah, it’s a flanger. That was added later on in the mix. I thought it was just a cool thing to do.
What about amps?
I’ve recorded everything through an old school Lee Jackson preamp but with this album, I played everything through a Marshall JVM, one of the newer ones. I wanted to have a bigger guitar sound. The thing with the Lee Jackson is that it’s all about the midrange, and I’m all about midrange too, but it wasn’t possible to get enough low end from that thing. I went through a shitload of amps and I just landed on the Marshall. It sounded the best. What I did was crank the middle all the way up and then just added a lot of bass so I got the mean Lee Jackson tone out of it but with more balls. More low end and with that Marshall punch. It’s kind of hard to explain but you know what I mean. It sounds like me through a Marshall. It turned out to be a really good idea to do that.
Are the Marshalls going to be part of your touring rig now?
Yeah, I’m sure they’ll work fine when we play live, but obviously I have to do a tour or two with them to see how they work. But they’re fuckin’ Marshalls so what could possibly go wrong? I’m used to touring with that Lee Jackson thing, which would break every fuckin’ day, so I’m sure that it’s going to be a lot easier.
Watch the amazing shredmaster Alexi Laiho in action.
In an unaccompanied solo that lasts 51 seconds, Alexi Laiho runs through an encyclopedia of shred techniques starting with a tapped fury that leads a bluesy alternate-picked repeating phrase and then into some sweeping arpeggios with tapped high notes. And that’s just the first half! Tune in to see the fireworks fly off his fingers.
Children of Bodom could make it as a cover band if the death-metal market died. In a live rendition of their hit “Downfall,” the band opens up the number by quoting classic metal songs like Motley Crüe’s “Too Young to Fall in Love” and Judas Priest’s “Breaking the Law.”
For a definitive taste of COB’s brand of melodic metal, here’s a full-length concert clip from German metal festival Wacken Open Air 2011.