Greenleaf Interview with Tommi Holappa: Accounting for a Multitude of Sins

For more than a decade, Greenleaf has existed in its own place within the sphere of Swedish heavy rock. Begun as a side-project for Dozer guitarist Tommi Holappa and drummer Karl Daniel Lidén with bassist Bengt Bäcke (who also engineered Dozer‘s earliest demos), Greenleaf released their first EP in 2000, working with the simple ethic of paying homage to ’70s rock. Then fronted by Peder Bergstrand of the still-underrated Lowrider, it would be Dozer‘s own Fredrik Nordin in the vocal role for 2001′s Revolution Rock full-length debut, and that lineup would be joined by Demon Cleaner guitarist Daniel Jansson for their Small Stone Records sophomore outing, 2003′s Secret Alphabets.

Four years pass, and in the meantime, Demon Cleaner has broken up, Lowrider has broken up, Dozer has put out an excellent album on Small Stone in the form of 2005′s Through the Eyes of Heathens, and subsequently toured on it. Time has gone quickly, but when Greenleaf is picked up again with 2007′s Agents of Ahriman, the result is one of the decade’s best records, and I’ll say that flat out, no hesitation. Bringing in former Dozer drummer Erik Bäckwell in place of Lidén — also by now a noted recording engineer — the reinvigorated unit now boasts vocals from Oskar Cedermalm of burgeoning fuzz mavens Truckfighters, as well as a slew of guest spots, including from Bergstrand and The Awesome Machine‘s John Hermanssen, and songs like “Alishan Mountain,” “Black Tar” and “Ride Another Highway” make it an absolute classic in its genre, giving a sincere modern edge to what many of their countrymen and others around the world were just starting to discover within heavy ’70s rock.

Five more years pass. Dozer too seems to have been at least mostly put to rest following the Lidén-produced Beyond Colossal and Nordin, an essential piece of that collective, is back in school. Holappa — having tried to get a new band going with Lidén called Dahli (an apparently premature interview about the project was conducted early in 2010) that didn’t materialize owing to the drummer’s busy schedule and the lack of a vocalist — decides it’s time to once again reform Greenleaf. He calls Bäcke and they begin writing. Young drummer Olle Mårthans, who played on the last Dozer record, is brought in for that position, and Dozer bassist Johan Rockner is brought in on second guitar. Cedermalm, fresh off the success of Truckfighters‘ European release for Mania, returns on vocals, and Nest of Vipers starts to take shape.

And in the 12-year-plus semi-tenure of Greenleaf, it might just be Nest of Vipers that stands as their crowning achievement. Holappa, who seems to play the role of organizer as much as that of guitarist, has assembled a terrifyingly rich collection of songs that, set to tape by Lidén, not only provide an answer to Dozer‘s (allegedly) final statement, but push their classic heavy rock influence into bombastic new territory, a five-minute track like “Tree of Life” sounding positively epic for the space in the recording while cuts like “Jack Staff,” “Case of Fidelity” and “The Timeline’s History” refine the ultra-memorability that first showed itself on Agents of Ahriman into something wholly Greenleaf‘s at the same time guest appearances from Bergstrand, Nordin and former Opeth/Spiritual Beggars organist Per Wiberg make it plain that Nest of Vipers is bigger than the band itself. A to-date career performance from Cedermalm doesn’t hurt either.

Let me not mince words: This shit is about as close as I’d come to ever calling anything “my jam.” However important I think a release like Nest of Vipers might be to the scope of Swedish underground heavy, foremost, I think it fucking rocks. When I had the chance to see Greenleaf play at this year’s Desertfest in London, I jumped on it immediately, and it proved to be one of the many highlights of that trip. Being fortunate enough to have some time to chat with Holappa there (as well as to see Truckfighters again, which makes any day a good day), I knew I wanted to get an interview going, if only to give myself another chance to nerd out about the record. The guitarist agreed, and at the beginning of June, the following discussion was conducted over Skype about Nest of Vipers, the scheduling complications that go into making Greenleaf happen at this point, the status of Dozer, the status of Dahli, recording with Lidén and much more.

Q&A in progress and photos from Desertfest London (click any to enlarge) can be found after the jump. Please enjoy.

…We have a big festival gig coming up with Greenleaf in like three weeks from now.

What festival?

It’s the Peace and Love festival here in our hometown. It’s the biggest festival in Sweden at the moment, so we have a gig there. It’s really good for us.

You just had the show with Brain Police?

In Berlin with Brain Police, at the Desertfest. In October we go on tour with them. It will be Greenleaf, Brain Police and another Swedish band called The Graviators. That’s in October. Things are finally starting to happen for Greenleaf (laughs). We have only done like 10 shows in 10 years. Now it’s finally time for Greenleaf to do some shows and tour and do all that.

So this is by far the most productive year Greenleaf has ever had.

Yeah, definitely.

How was Desertfest in Berlin?

Berlin was awesome. I can’t describe how good it was. It was sold out and the venue was packed, and yeah, what more can you ask for? Good audience and a great show. I stayed there for the whole week and that was really nice. It was as good as in London. You should definitely go there next year (laughs).

True. Tell me when you started writing for Nest of Vipers, when you picked Greenleaf back up. Had you been writing all along?

I have to think back. It’s been… we did the last Dozer show in 2009 I think it was, and then after that, I started a new band with Daniel, our former drummer, Daniel Lidén. We started a new band, and we worked on that for almost a year. We did some demo songs and were looking for vocalists, and at that time, I didn’t do anything with Greenleaf, but then Daniel was busy. He got a lot of work as a sound engineer, and he got a lot of jobs coming in, and I got tired of waiting for him (laughs), so then I took up Greenleaf again. I started to write songs, it must have been in late 2010 or something. I called Bengt and asked if he was in the mood to make a new record with Greenleaf and he was up for it. Then I called Oskar  and asked him the same thing, and of course he was up for doing a new record. We didn’t have a drummer. Erik [Bäckwall], who played on Agents of Ahriman, had moved to another city called Sala, like 200 or 300 kilometers from here, so I thought it would be easier to ask Olle [Mårthans] to play drums, because at that time he lived here – now he has moved away also (laughs). It’s just me and Bengt left here in Borlänge. So I asked Olle if he wants to play drums, and yeah, of course he wanted to play drums, because he was missing playing since Dozer was on a break. So them we had the core of the band ready to do a new record. I think we started writing songs at the end of 2010 , I think it was. I have to think, when did we record the album (laughs)? That was, Jesus Christ, my memory is not good (laughs). Anyways, I think we wrote the album pretty fast.

It seems like a hard part of the process has to be bringing everyone back together. You said Bengt was ready to go and Olle was ready to go, but with Oskar did a Truckfighters record and they were doing shows.

It makes things a lot more complicated actually. It’s not only Oskar. Of course he has Truckfighters and he plays a lot of shows with Truckfighters. If we get a show offer, I always have to check with Oskar first that he’s not booked with Truckfighters. That’s one thing, then we have Johan – he has two kids now and two jobs. Even to have a rehearsal, it’s a lot of… yeah. I have to call around, ask everyone, can we rehearse this weekend, and everybody has to check first with their wives and their jobs (laughs). It’s a lot of work to get a rehearsal together only.

How did it work out now that you guys got to a point where you could do things like play the Desertfests and make this record? What changed?

What changed for everyone being busy and then we have time to do that? Actually, I don’t… I think it’s like, for example, when Johan – he has the kids and the jobs – but when we ask him like five months before if he can do the show it’s no problem. With Oskar it’s the same thing. For the Desertfest in London, he was playing there in Truckfigthers, so that was no problem for him to do that show, and Bengt, he has never been on tour for real, so he’s just happy to go for whatever gigs we get. He’s just happy to play (laughs). He’s really excited about the tour in October. He’s never been on tour, and it’ll be a tour with three bands on a nightliner. He’s super-excited to do that (laughs). But the rest is hard. For example, Olle, our drummer. He has moved now to Örebro, where Oskar comes from also. He is studying there, and he didn’t get free from school in October, so in August we will have a stand-in drummer for the tour. In August, we will start rehearsing with him. We have to somehow figure things out, and if, for example, if Olle can’t play, we have to find someone else. As long as me, Oskar and Bengt is there, it’s… you know what I mean? When the core of the band is there. It’s easier to replace a drummer than Oskar, for example.

Is there any chance you could get Daniel to fill in on drums?

I don’t know. He’s so busy. He’s producing and recording a lot of albums at the moment, and he’s drumming also for a band. He will be touring probably with them also, so he is busy at the moment. I haven’t asked him because I know he’s busy (laughs).

I’m glad it’s working out, but it sounds rough…

Yeah, it’s a lot of work. Me and Bengt, we said we have to make this work. Otherwise, I have to start another band, or ask Fredrik [Nordin] to start doing Dozer shows. We’re making it work. It’s a lot of work, but it’s a lot of work. We want to tour with Greenleaf. We have a new album out, and we really want to tour. So yeah, a lot of work, but we’re making it work.

It’s not even just the band. For the album, you have a lot of guests. You don’t make things easy for yourself.

I know. We talked about that. The next album, I don’t know, maybe we should only have Oskar singing on it. It would make things a lot easier. And we don’t have the organ with us when we play shows, so maybe we should not have Hammond organ on the album. Maybe one song or so. I’m trying (laughs).

You said 10 years before, and it’s been a long time that Greenleaf has been not your main focus as a project. Can you talk about the development of Greenleaf as a band to get to this point?

First of all, we started the band because me and Daniel loved ‘70s music. It was really simple ‘70s-type rock. And then I think – when did the second album come out? Was it 2002? Revolution Rock was 2000, and then the second one came pretty fast after, I think. Alphabet City was 2002 or 2003, and then there was a pretty long gap until Agents of Ahriman. It was 2007. We were touring a lot with Dozer at that time, in 2004 and 2003. We were touring all the time, so there wasn’t any time to play with Greenleaf, actually. That’s why it took so long to get Agents of Ahriman out. Because of Dozer. Then, after 2007, I think we only did like one show after Agents of Ahriman was released. It was also kind of chaotic. We did some touring with Dozer, the last tour we did. We did like two tours right after Agents of Ahriman was released with Dozer, and then I guess I was just lazy (laughs). So yeah, and now it was like five years between Agents of Ahriman and Nest of Vipers. But I can promise you this, that the next album will not take five years (laughs). Me and Bengt have already started writing riffs and hopefully we will record something next year already. I have some riffs ready. I can’t wait to make another album. But first we will tour a bit and then start working on the new one.

What happened with Dahli?

We wrote like six or seven songs that are almost ready, and we recorded a demo with no vocals because had problems finding a good vocalist. And then, yeah, like I said, Daniel got busy with other stuff. His sound engineering stuff, and I got tired of waiting for him because it was like six months that he was busy, and I started writing Greenleaf material instead. So yeah. And Daniel is still busy recording a lot of cool bands, and we’re both busy on our own. He’s busy with his stuff and I’m busy with Greenleaf. We will do something about it when we have time. When I have a break from Greenleaf and he has a break from his recording, we will actually continue the Dahli stuff. Some cool riffs there (laughs).

Was it hard for you to pick up Greenleaf again after so long?

No. It was easy. I was really looking forward to making simple rock and roll riffs again. It was really easy to pick up the Greenleaf stuff again.

How has the collaboration with Bengt grown over the years?

The first time we met Bengt, I think it might have been in 1996, when we recorded our first demo with Dozer. He was the sound engineer at the local studio here in Borlänge. And that was the first time we met him, and then we recorded like four or five demos at his place. After a while, we became friends. We recorded the first two Dozer albums there with him, and we became friends, and then me and Daniel decided to start Greenleaf and we asked Bengt if he wants to play bass, because before he started his studio, he was a bass player in different local bands. So yeah, that’s the story about Bengt. He was the sound engineer in the studio and we became friends in the studio.

Greenleaf is always fascinating to me because it’s all so intertwined. Everybody’s known everybody for so long, you’ve all worked together and it’s all very kind of linked together.

I have an answer for you why it is like that. It’s because we are lazy (laughs). It’s always easier to ask your friends, “Hey, you want to be on the new Greenleaf record?” and they say, “Yeah, sure.” Finding a new singer and a drummer, it’s hard work. For example, finding Olle. We played in Dozer for a few years together, and I know exactly how he plays, and he knows how I play. It’s so much easier than finding a new drummer and getting to know him and know how he plays. You know what I mean? It’s a lot easier (laughs).

It also helps that he’s a complete madman drummer.

He is (laughs).

He’s a lot of fun to watch. And when I first got Nest of Vipers, it was so striking how much the drum sound reminded me of the last Dozer record. I don’t know what Daniel does to those drums, but it’s a really distinct sound. So open-sounding.

It’s a lot of good microphones and a lot of room microphones. That’s how he does it. He’s really good at recording drums, I think. He gets the best sound out there, I think.

 Tell me about not just writing, but structuring the album and putting the songs together and giving Nest of Vipers its flow.

When I do a record, I always have kind of a plan how I want it to be. I don’t want it to only have mid-tempo songs. An album should be like watching a movie or something. It should have its ups and downs. Kind of like a movie. So, for Nest of Vipers, I think we had all the songs recorded, and then I started listening to it, and I don’t know how exactly I came up  to it at the end, but it felt right to have three catchier songs in the beginning. I tried to make the album flow in a good way, so it doesn’t get boring.

What’s the story behind the title-track? How did that huge jam at the end come together in the studio?

It was all instrumental from the beginning. We wrote it in the rehearsal room, me and Olle and Bengt together, and then, yeah, it’s just all jamming and putting pieces together and finally we tried to make it a little bit shorter, but it felt like there was something missing from it. It’s all about jamming in the rehearsal room. Then we have the final track, we sent it to Fredrik, and he came up with the vocals.

Did you know going into writing it that you wanted it to be longer, or was that just what came out of jamming?

When we were starting to jam that riff – we came up with the verse riff first, and the more we played it, the more we jammed, it felt like, yeah, right away, this is going to be a longer track. I almost felt right away that Fredrik should sing on this one.

What about it made you feel that way?

It was the mood in the song, the vibe that was going on. I could just hear Fredrik’s voice in my head. We have a bunch of Dozer songs that are more epic also, like “Big Sky Theory” and “Two Coins for Eyes,” for example. So I could really hear Fredrik’s voice on that song. He heard the instrumental track and he was like, “Yeah, of course I want to do this.”

What’s the status of Dozer at this point?

We’re doing nothing. We still get offers from time to time to do festival gigs and stuff, but yeah, it’s pretty much up to Fredrik. He’s still in school, but yeah – I think he’s done now in June. He can’t have many days left in school. So then he’s finished in school. Maybe I should just call him and ask him if he wants to do some shows at least or something. So until now, it has been all up to him. We have called him and asked him, “Do you want to do that show?” and he’s like, “No, I’m too busy with school.” School and a kid. Hopefully we will do at least a few shows or something. If not a whole tour, we could do like a Desertfest would be a perfect thing for us. Just fly away for a week and do two shows or something. That would be perfect. If not a tour. So yeah, I just have to call him and ask him.

And I know Oskar is recording now with Truckfighters. Does that affect your timing with Greenleaf at all?

At the moment no, because we only have that festival show here in Borlänge in three weeks. He will come here and rehearse for that show, and after that, we don’t have anything booked until October, the tour, so I think they should be done with their album at that time. We’re trying to make it work for both bands, but of course Truckfigthers comes first for Oskar.

You’ll be writing new songs in the meantime?

Yeah, we’ll be writing new songs. Me and Bengt write together most of the time, and like I said, we’ll have a stand-in drummer for the tour and we’ll start rehearsing with him in August.

Would you get another drummer for the next album?

It’s too early to say. We would love to have Olle again. If he has time, we will probably have Olle on drums, but we will see. It’s too early to say anything. I hope it will be Olle.

You said he moved to Örebro. Maybe he could catch a ride with Oskar.

Yeah, exactly (laughs). Last year, we went to Örebro, me and Bengt and Johan. So they don’t have to come to Borlänge all the time. We can go to Örebro also, since two guys are there. That’s how we make things work. It’s a lot of planning and work, but we make it work.

It’s a band of compromise.

Exactly. It’s too bad. In the early Dozer days, it was like, “We have a show, can you do it?” “Of course, let’s do it!” and we went on tour all the time. It’s complicated, but still worth it.

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