Turner, Lehtisalo revisit making debut Split Cranium album, discuss their future

A few months ago, a killer emerged. Its name is Split Cranium, and their debut album did, indeed, mash skulls. It was full of punk, hardcore, metal, even some unexpected Southern rock, and the collection is just a mangler.

The folks behind that band, you know well. Aaron Turner (ISIS, Old Man Gloom, Mamiffer) on vocals, electronics, guitars; Jussi Lehtisalo (Circle, Pharaoh Overlord, Steel Mammoth) on guitars; and his other Mammoth mates Jukka Kröger on drums, and Samae Koskinen on bass, didn’t all work in the same room together on these songs— Lehtisalo and his other Finnish mates worked on the songs, sent them to Turner to finish, and so on—but you wouldn’t know if from the kinetic and organic energy of these cuts. Simply put, it’s one of our favorite albums of the year so far, and we wanted to get a little more detail about this band, these songs, and their ideas. We also wanted to know if more was ahead from the band, so we talked with Turner and Lehtisalo about their experiences.

Turner’s and Lehtisalo’s answers are quite different in length, but that’s because of how the interviews were handled. We talked with Turner by phone and were able to go in and dissect stuff a little more, while Lehtisalo offered his input in an e-mail interview.  So Turner gives you the bigger story, and Lehtisalo pops in to add more color and insight from his perspective. Here’s what we learned.

Aaron Turner

Meat Mead Metal: I guess to start, let’s talk a bit about how Split Cranium came to be.

Aaron Turner: I guess there’s a long and a short of it. I guess the condensed version would be ISIS and Circle toured together. Jussi and I particularly hit it off and started talking about doing music together, and Split Cranium just happened to be the first thing that came up. I don’t know that this is what we both had in mind. Jussi just sort of recorded the music with Jukka on a whim, and Jussi didn’t feel comfortable doing vocals for it. He thought of me, called me up about it, and I said yes after hearing a couple tracks. The longer version of it would be that I guess there has been sort of a long-distance mutual appreciation between Jussi and I, and I think it just took us spending some time together on the road for things to evolve further and for us to develop a personal chemistry. So everything sort of came out of that, the Split Cranium record, Circle doing a record with Hydra Head, Pharaoh Overlord doing a release on Sige. I’m surprised it took this long for us to do something, but I’m just glad it happened at all.

Jussi Lehtisalo: I am very active with music. We do different kind of sessions with different people and we want to see what will happen. I started this project with the drummer Jukka Kröger and we recorded the music here in Finland. We didn´t have vocalist for it, so I wanted to ask Aaron.

MMM: How long are we talking from the idea to this taking place?

AT: I probably encountered Circle’s music about 10 years ago, maybe longer, and I liked it immediately. Maybe about 7-8 years ago we started talking about it, and nothing ever came of it. But like I said, it all kind of came together after spending some time on the road together. And it’s weird, because long-distance recording projects often render dubious results and sort of has a lack of personal connection that somehow stunts the music, and even though we did file trading to get the record together, the fact that we got to know each other beforehand added to the overall process.

JL: We work very fast. Composings and recordings will take a day or two.

MMM: Talk a bit more about the recording process.

AT: Well, Jussi and Jukka had been doing some recording together on some other projects, and they had time left over and ended up doing some speedy punk tracks. They got Samae to do some bass on them, and then Jussi sent me the rough mixes. I did all my vocals at home. Kurt (Ballou) did the mixes, we sent them back and forth and talked about them, talked about what we liked and disliked, finessed all the details, and that was that.

MMM: Aaron, did you do anything other than vocals?

AT: I did some guitar work. I did the intro to “Black Binding Plague,” like the noise thing. Then there are two tracks, the longer noisier tracks (“Blossoms From Boils,” “Retrace the Circle”), that I did the electronics for.

MMM: It would seem obvious you would release the record on Hydra Head, but did you consider putting it out anywhere else?

AT: Not really. We weren’t even thinking about who was putting it out.  When we were working on it originally, we did it and thought about what we were going to do with it afterward. Hydra Head wasn’t the first choice, or it wasn’t the immediate decision, partially because Hydra Head has such a busy release schedule. Throwing an unplanned release into the mix isn’t always viable. But after talking about what the other possibilities were, it just seemed like Hydra Head was the best idea. Plus, I knew if Hydra Head released it, I could have a little bit more say in packaging and could have some control over the production process.

JL: We were really happy that Hydra Head put it out. My Ektro Records was very into material too, but we choose the better label!

MMM: The one thing that I always really like about Hydra Head releases is all the add-on stuff, like the plates with the Big Business release. You guys did the one-eyed ski mask with this one. How did that come about?

AT: (laughs) Yeah, that was my idea. I’m not sure where that came from exactly. It just seemed like an appropriate thing to go with Split Cranium. I was talking about it at lunch one day with some of the other Hydra Head employees, and our friend J Bennett (well-traveled music scribe, guitarist for Ides of Gemini) mentioned we should do a one-eyed ski mask. It was already ridiculous enough, so I figured why not go with it.

MMM: Yeah, I wasn’t sure if it was supposed to be missing an eye or the eye was swollen.

AT: (laughs) I’ll leave that up to interpretation.

Jussi Lehtisalo

MMM: As far as the style of the music goes, obviously it’s more punk, a little looser. Was it cool to just kind of jam out on this one?

AT: Yeah, I know with the Circle guys, they think a lot about what they do, but there’s also a lot of spontaneity in what they do. The way I understand it, the record Jussi and Jukki had been working on was more contemplative. It was more abstract and sort of a minimal art rock record. I think by the time they got through that they felt like having at it doing something that was a lot more visceral. I think that’s sort of what gave birth to the sort of more fiery energy of the music. I had dabbled in heavier stuff with Old Man Gloom. Some of the other stuff has been on the slower side and developed over longer periods of time with a really meticulous process. I figured maybe I would give it a go and let the beast out. I have to say it was really liberating and it reminded me, without sounding really clichéd, of what I love about punk and hardcore.

JL: I think the music is still rock and roll, but maybe little bit faster than we have done before. I have been into punk and hardcore in late ’80s and now I am even more. I have always made music without any pressures.

MMM: Aaron, lyrically, what are these songs about?

AT: The lyrics were written physically for these songs. It’s hard to say how directly a song or riff will influence me, but it often affects the kind of lyrics I write. Instrumental music might have an atmosphere but it doesn’t have an explicitly implied meaning, at least for me when I listen to stuff. I guess I was just trying to think more of the energy of the overall thing and stuff I could write that could further fuel that. (laughs) I’ve dodged this bullet many times and have chosen not to talk about my lyrical content, and in a certain way maybe there are some aspects that should be talked about because it’s not just deeply personal stuff that pertains only to me. At the same time I don’t really feel all that comfortable talking about it, so maybe I’ll just leave that to other people to figure out. I will say it has a lot to do with personal struggle, and that’s one of the things that was really liberating to me about punk and hardcore. I think a lot of the lyrics for ISIS got really impersonal for a time, and maybe I was trying to be too intellectual or something. I lost my direct connection to what I was really writing about, so with this I was like, fuck it, I’m going to write about exactly what I’m going through right now, what I’m thinking about, what I’m dealing with, and not hold anything back.

MMM: Jussi, you chose to have Aaron handle the vocals rather than doing them yourself. Why?

JL: I love his attitude, voice, and point of view. This was a good starting point to make music together.

MMM: I really dig the song “Blossoms From Boils.” There’s that cool little Southern rock thing going on with it. Where did that come from?

JL: I am into Southern rock. I love Ozark Mountain Daredevils, Atlanta Rhythm Section, Grinderswitch, Molly Hatchet…and I love boogie stuff too. One of my favorite tracks is “Poor Moon” by Canned Heat.

AT: Yeah, we were just talking about Jussi and his adventurousness, and he seems pretty open to do just about anything. I think it would be really hard for him or me to do a record that was narrow in its scope. So I think there has to be moments where other things just came up and were sort of just dropped into the mix. When I first heard it, I was thinking that I had never sung anything over something that was remotely that rock-oriented, and I was not sure what to do. But at the same time, it wasn’t really that unexpected when I heard that song.

MMM: Another interesting track we talked about, the closer “Retracing the Circle.” It’s a much longer song, it’s more melodic, it even has some clean vocals. It’s a really powerful closer.

AT: It’s one of those songs where, the first time I heard it, I noticed there was this really long section in the middle where it’s the same thing over and over. And that’s one of the things I really like about Circle is the repetitive nature of their music. I knew I couldn’t take the same approach to that as I did to the other songs, like a relentless barrage of yelling. I felt I had to become a little more abstract. The idea of the electronics came to me because it’s something I always enjoyed doing in my own music, and the one thing I always liked about Circle’s music is there are those parts that sound like they kind of exist outside of the songs. I felt like a six-minute rock part of this song needed to be subverted somehow. So it was another one of those fun aspects of working on this record. An idea came to me and I kind of just ran with it.

JL: Hats off to Aaron. He got this song to (come) alive. It is an open closer for the record.

MMM: Do you see the Split Cranium album as a one-off, or do you plan to record again?

JL: We are going to continue it for sure, as soon as we have a chance to meet each other again!

AT: I certainly hope it’s not a one-off, and we’ve already talked about doing another record and even starting some of the recording this summer. We also talked about doing more of it in person this time around. I can’t say for sure yet whether that’ll actually happen, but I’m pretty sure this isn’t the end of Split Cranium. I’m also pretty sure we’ll end up doing live shows at some point. We may never get to the point where we can tour, but I can definitely see us doing a handful of shows here and there. I would really like to make that happen.

For more on the band, go here: http://splitcranium.bandcamp.com/

To buy the album, go here: http://www.bluecollardistro.com/hydrahead/categories.php?cPath=4

For more on Hydra Head, go here: http://www.hydrahead.com/

For more Ektro Records, go here: http://www.ektrorecords.com/