Hiili Hiilesmaa

Helsinki 2011

(c) Hiili Hiilesmaa Official

"Rock´n Roll needs a spontaneous vibe"

Suiciderock: You are active as producer since the 90`s. What made you decided or when did you actually know that this is what you want to do?
It started pretty early. I was about 12 years old back then. My grandmother was an opera singer and she had students as well. Every now and then they had a concert in a church in Porvoo. I helped her to record her students with that grey tape recorder which you can see down there. My job was to put some microphones inside the church for the recordings. After we got home I got some porridge and when I went to bed she started to listen to what we had recorded during the concert. She started to analyse the music of her students to know what they could do better during their concert. I kind of did the same thing later on when I started my own bands. We went to the rehearsals right after school and I recorded the stuff we’ve played during this rehearsals with my own tape recorder, I listened to it in the evening and the next day at school I could tell my mates what we could change. All this was just fun and more like a play for me. Later on when I got to high school I continued with the recordings and some other bands came and asked if I could record something for them as well. That’s how it started, little by little.

Suiciderock: That means you always knew that this is exactly what you want to do for living?
Hiili: Somehow yes. I was working in a bank for two years. I was working with stocks in there. This was not exactly what I wanted to do, so I started to search for a place where I could study how to make recordings properly. Unfortunately there were no schools around here where you could do that in early 90’s. So I contacted the Finnish TV channel, called YLE. They stopped to educate people in that sector as we already had enough sound engineers in Finland. Well, I decided to go to a little studio and I started to do some demos on my own. That was exactly 19 years ago from now. After a while I got in contact with the guys of Waltari, Sub Urban Tribe, HIM among the others. I made the first demos for some of those bands and after they got their record deals they wanted to continue to work with me. When they asked me if I could record an album for them as well, I said that I could surely do but nothing would change comparing to their demos. I did the same thing when we went to the studio as I did when we recorded their demos. But as I said all happened step by step. First it started as a hobby but than I realised that I should get some money out of this as otherwise I had to do something else to make my living. I never really decided that I want to become a producer.

Suiciderock: The bands didn’t have to pay for their demo recordings in the first place?
Hiili: Well, in the beginning my salary for a two days session consisted of one bottle of wine. I got a little better later on when I got a whiskey bottle instead of the wine. But than I started to realise that I couldn’t survive from that and that I really have to get some money for that. It was very difficult but it worked out. I haven’t done any other work or job since about 20 years now.

Suiciderock: Many people out there would love to become a producer, so tell them how do you become on? Is it learning by doing or what does it take?
Hiili: I studied some business later on, plus I took some singing and piano lessons. I have played drums and guitar before already. It was learning by doing. My father is a ham. He is really much into technical stuff. I learned from him how to fix old amplifiers and how to handle cables. Let’s put it that way: the technical side came from my father, the musical one from my grandmother. There are four things you need when it comes to production: Technical knowledge, musical knowledge, humanic knowledge and last but not least, the economical side of the whole thing. It is very important for your existence to know how to make the right calculation for a production. You need money to be able to invest in  your studio gear, you should also be able to have some savings to have a break between the recordings. And of course not to forget the pension payments.

Suiciderock: You have played in many bands yourself. So it is important to know the artistic side as well? I mean to see things out of the musicians perspective? Would you say, that this has helped you when it comes to production?
Hiili: I think it is very important yes. Of course, you can have a great vision how an album should sound like even without having any artistic background. But it is quite difficult to tell an bass player for example how he should play his bass parts when you don’t know how this might sound life on stage later on because you don’t know anything about the instrument yourself. It helps a lot if you have some experience with those instruments beforehand. That doesn’t have to mean that you have to be one of the best and most talented players in the world. The same when it comes to the business side of the whole thing. It is enough when you know something about these things. It’s kind of a good cocktail if you know the basics.

Suiciderock: Since last year you have your own studio, the “Yellow House Studio” here in Hämeenlinna. Why not Helsinki? Isn’t it difficult to convince the bands to record in a smaller town like Hämeenlinna instead of Finland’s capital?
Hiili: It always belongs to the atmosphere of a band that you kind of leave your home someway. I mean you go on tour, to shoot some video clip or whatever. Many bands think it’s cool to go somewhere else for their recordings. I have deals with some hotels and apartments around here so this is absolutely no problem. Many bands have told me that it is very good for them that they could leave their everyday life behind to concentrate on their studio work only. Helsinki is very close to Hämeenlinna, it is only 100 km away so if the band is from Helsinki for example it is very easy to visit their loved ones whenever they start becoming homesick or feel the need to get back for some other reason. When it comes to other bands from other cities, the most prefer Hämeenlinna instead of Helsinki as many of them say in Helsinki it’s tricky move from accommodation to studios. I remember that I had rented an apartment in Helsinki when I recorded with Moonspell over there. The band had to travel about two hours by bus every day just to get to the studio and back. That’s kind of boring, isn’t it? Look, if the band records in Hämeenlinna and they live in some hotel around here, they walk about 10 minutes and they are at the studio. At their free weekends they can visit Helsinki. No stress, everything is very easy, handy and also cheaper.

Suiciderock: It is kind of cool in a way. When a band is asked where they have done their recordings they might answer, L.A., London or wherever. It makes it kind of special to record in a town like Hämeenlinna…
Hiili: *smiles* that’s true. I like to visit some other places as well every now and then. I also like to work for example in The US. But it is good to have your own place where you can always return to. There are so many studios in Helsinki. There is also a lot of competition. Look outside this window, I personally don’t know any studio that has this kind of nice view. It starts at the simple things, for example when you want to have lunch. In Helsinki most of the studios are outside of the centre and you have maybe one supermarket or one place where you can have a lunch. Here I can have a studio in the very centre of the city with all the services just around the corner. This is very peaceful and easy going. However I have to admit that it is not so suitable if you want to make a party. *smiles*

Suiciderock: So this might be some kind of problem or can you live with that fact?
Hiili: I actually don’t do any parties during the recording sessions. Well, of course at the beginning and in the end when the record is finished and everybody is pleased with it. I have to be in a good shape when I produce. Otherwise it doesn’t work, at least for me.

Suiciderock: You have been working in all different kind of studios during your career, not only here in Finland but also elsewhere in Europe. Would you say that it is difficult to adapt to a new work-surrounding all the time or has it become more like a routine for you?
Hiili: It is definitely not like a routine for me. That’s also one reason why I like to have my own studio now. But one good thing is that almost every studio has the same Pro Tools system nowadays. That makes it easier. Usually I have an assistant or somebody who knows the studio and it’s connections. You can’t know how the monitor System is connected in the studio for example. But the more you see the more you understand. I also take some of my own gear with me sometimes.

Suiciderock: That means you go to check the studio some days before the band arrives?
Hiili: Maybe one day before or something like that…

Suiciderock: What do you prefer? Working at your own studio or at some other studio abroad?
Hiili: That’s hard to say. I would say that I prefer both. During my career as a producer I have noticed that it can be very good and inspiring to change the studio during the session. It starts to feel like “working” if you work for two months in the same seat. It is very nice to have for example a two weeks session somewhere outside the actual studio. We could do the vocals parts here, then the overdubs somewhere else. This could be in the country side or wherever, the main point is to have some change. It keeps you fresh and the music sounds different in different places, so it is good to compare.

Suiciderock: You mentioned an assistant a little earlier, so you don’t work on your own?
Hiili: I like teamwork a lot. For example I have a mixing engineer with who I work a lot. I have been working on the material since around two months already but he will hear it the first time. It’s interesting what comes to his mind and what kind of ideas he has. I really like working in a team. There are producers out there are like lonely wolfs. They keep their strong opinions ‘til the end and they stick to them no matter what.  I prefer the way of thinking, that you observe band members opinions too, no matter you do the final decisions. It’s great to work in a team and to work out the best ideas together. It doesn’t matter where the idea comes from as long as it’s good. I think that’s also one of the reasons why I have been in this business for so long now. I listen to the artists very carefully and try to understand where are they coming from and where are they going to. I talk about the aim with all the members of the band. They all have a personal relation to the music and a personal vision which can be very different from each other. Then I study the bands career, their previous albums, I talk with the record company guys. I also ask the record company what they think.  I take influences form all parts of the project than I try to make my own vision to see where this is going.

Suiciderock: You recently “quit” your job as a drummer of  Kypck to concentrate on producing. So it is obvious what you prefer? Producing comes first and than the musician career?
Hiili: It was really hard for me as I started the band together with Sami after Sentenced had finished their career. I wanted to keep the friendship with Sami so we decided to make an album together. The whole thing started to get a little bit bigger than we expected at the beginning. We had to travel to Russia couple of times a year. It has been my dream to play drums in a band since ever so it was really sad to give that up now *smiles*. But you can’t do both things only 50% and as I couldn’t tear myself into two halves I had to decide what’s more important. It was a difficult decision to make, the production side and the musician side would only suffer if I would try to do both.

Suiciderock: You’ve also been a singer of The Skreppers. What’s up with the band? I read that there was this gig last weekend at the Virgin Oil in Helsinki? Are you still singing in the band?
Hiili: Yes, the band still exists. There will be a new album which is ready to be mastered. Maybe we will release it in February next year and then we will also do couple of shows with The Skreppers of course. I just hope that this isn’t getting any bigger as if so I would have to quit singing there as well. *smiles*

Suiciderock: People who ever had the pleasure to see one of the gigs could see you perform wearing this special latex dress and high heels. How could you walk in that shoes?
Hiili: If I remember correctly I bought the shoes I’m wearing on stage back in 1996. We had a gig the same day I’ve bought them. I didn’t really have time to try them and to rehearse walking with them. I just put them on and went to the stage. Nowadays I couldn’t imagine to do a Skreppers gig without those shoes. I tried without, but it just didn’t feel right. Though I had to sacrifice something: I lost the tension in one of my toes. It never came back. Kind of sad but maybe that’s the price you have to pay for Rock`n Roll.
Suiciderock: Have it been the same shoes since that day or did you change them ever?
Hiili: No,no. I have replaced them couple of times. All in all I own six pairs of them. I took them away from here. Like a week ago they all were still here at the studio. It was really funny when I started to sing for this band. Cause we decided that I sing because I can’t sing, the guitar player started playing the drums and so there we were. It has always been lots of fun that’s why we always kept going and going and we wait until we are 60 or 70 years old as it’s getting pretty cool then. Imagine me wearing the same leather dress at the age of 70. That’s going to be quite something.

Suiciderock: You’ve been working with all the big names here in Finland, “Sentenced”, “The 69 Eyes”, “HIM”, just to name some of them. Four of the albums you have produced reached platinum, many others gold. What was your personal biggest success?
Hiili: I think that it has to be HIM`s “Love Metal” record. It was a very good album and a very interesting times for the band when it was produced. All doors opened for them for the American market. It is very hard to answer that. It’s comparable to having your first girlfriend, then there comes your second one and a third and maybe a fourth. All of them have their good and bad sides. But somehow each of them is very special to you. It’s the same with the records I have produced. It’s hard to choose my personal highlight from them.

Suiciderock: Could you work with any band out there or what does a band need to get you interested?
Hiili: Some people have been very difficult. None of those well-known bands *smiles*. But I have been working with people who change their opinions like twice a day. I hate that kind of attitude. I mean when we finally find a common vibe on which we try to focus and the next day one made up his mind and everything is totally different again…that sucks. You will lose all your energy and the theme which you have worked on. I’m that type of person that goes forward and that sort of attitude just stops all the flow of creativity. The magic which we need for the whole process fates and that’s very sad. In my opinion music, especially rock music should be done spontaneously. Rock`n Roll needs that spontaneous vibe, it has to be done fast otherwise it sounds too overproduced, too perfect. That’s not what Rock`n Roll is all about. Take The Rolling Stones or Frank Sinatra and you will find out that there tuning isn’t always the best but their songs are classics. I recently listened to some newer American records where everything is perfectly produced. Yes, it “sounds” good but it feels bad.

Suiciderock: How does a band hire you as their producer? Do they simply send you their demo or do they give you a call? How does it work?
Hiili: It’s pretty easy. If a band wants to work with me usually they or their manager or record company send me an email or give me a call. I will maybe ask some demos and so on, about the budget they have for the album and the question if they want the album to sell a maximum amount of copies or if they want to make arts. Usually the band and the record company have different answers *smiles*.

Suiciderock: Can you take control on the record sales starting in the studio? Even before the record is burnt on CD?
Hiili: Yeah, you can do that. If you want the record to be done for the radio, you won’t use some extraordinary, extravagant or spooky sounds for instance. If you work with an experienced producer he has all kind of methods and tools to control that aspect. I’m acting like a listener and I try to be as unprofessional as I can be. I try to listen completely with emotion. I listen and try to find out if what I’m hearing moves me somehow.

Suiciderock: Could you refuse to work on a certain project or do you take whatever you get?
Hiili: If I really don’t like the project I could always say no. But I take it as challenge if somebody from a record company calls me and tells me that they have this band and they can’t work with any producer. That’s the moment when I really wanna try. Sometimes the band is fighting with each other during the session for some reasons. I see it as a big challenge to get between them and to remind them on the actual meaning of their work.

Suiciderock: Did it ever happen that you had to stop working with a band during their recordings?
Hiili: Yes. Sometimes a band loses a member during their recordings. Then they have to ask themselves if they want to continue, if they find an replacement or whatever they are going to do with the new situation. Look, when HIM started to work on their second album, they didn’t have any drummer, nor a keyboard player. So Ville said, ok we will start this recordings now and by the way you have to play the drums. The idea was not working so we decided to make some tracks with a certain programme. However the record company didn’t like this idea too much. They said that they didn’t want a computer programme, they want a real band feeling. But usually these things aren’t happening. I try to check the chemistry inside the band already in the pre-production to avoid any bad surprises later on. I check if they have enough songs, lyrics, if the financial situation is ok and all that kind of aspects.

Suiciderock:  Any bad surprises you’d like to share?
Hiili: No comment here, I’m afraid to hurt someone in person:)

Suiciderock: It’s been said that you have all kind of special methods to get the best out of the artist. Playing naked was mentioned… Is that true?
Hiili: That sounds kind of familiar… You know when you constantly work on something for around one month or longer you have to do something to awake the spirit. Sometimes you have to catch the moment. In that particular case I thought taking the cloth of was a good way to do so. I also asked somebody to sing outside,… I had one guy, he was singing in English and his English was too perfect. He sounded like an exchange student. I asked him to eat some paper and to try again than. It started to work out. You have to try different things to keep things going.

Suiciderock What are the positive and negative sides of your job as producer?
Hiili: Negative is that you have to face a lot of risks. If somebody cancels for example. Timetables are sometimes very difficult to handle and to make because it is almost impossible to know how long you might take to get an album ready. The producer has to keep everything together, the budget and the schedules. That can be very stressful at some point. The good side of the whole job is that you have the opportunity to work with cool people, talented musicians. Artists can be very crazy sometimes, in a positive way of course.

Suiciderock: How do you see nowadays musicscene?
Hiili: It is a challenging time right now. There are just too many artists around out there. In the past there weren’t “that many” bands, it was kind of a cool thing to be in a band and a very small circle where everybody knew everybody. Nowadays everybody’s grandmother can be in a band. Magic is also disappearing when there are so much documentaries of behind the scenes. Everybody could take a look behind the scenes when a band makes their album so the fans realised that they are just normal guys. There was more magic in the air before when the real classic sessions were taken. I don’t know why people always have to reveal everything. But if you ask me it will get better now. The bands are returning to the  “old fashioned” way. When the gear gets cheaper many bands put up their own studio but slowly they are realising that it might be easier if there is someone outsider producer involved in the session too.
Suiciderock: What kind of advice would you give to someone who really wants to get into your footsteps?
Hiili: Definitely to find their own way to do things. They should find a good band with who they work and than you can grow with them and make yourself some name. Its important to find your own sound too. Specially, when everybody are using more or less the same recording gear at the moment. Always be aware of the fact that you shouldn’t push your own ideas too much  cause in the end it’s always somebody else’s album. There will always be the band’s name on the front cover, not yours.

(c) Suiciderock.com