Max Lilja may be one of the biggest name cellists out there, but it’s the particular niche that he’s carved for himself and his classical instrument that make him such a fascinating character. He dropped out of the prestigious Sibelius Academy in his native Finland when his cello-metal group Apocalyptica began finding success, and has been involved in a number of bands since leaving in 2002. He now finds himself playing with opera-metal sensation Tarja Turunen (formerly of Nightwish) and, with a solo career beginning to blossom, we thought it would be rude not to have a chat with the heavy metal cellist himself.
“I started [playing the cello] really early, after I started violin at five,” Lilja tells us. "I don’t come from a very musical family, but for some reason I wanted to play an instrument; and at that time in the early '80s, the music school system here in Finland was really good. So for some mysterious reason, I really wanted to play the cello! I guess it was something in its darker tone.”
There is, in fact, a certain dark quality in Max's voice which matches his words perfectly. Matching his desire came a great talent for the cello:
“I guess I was somewhat talented,” he says, modestly, “as I was chosen for the Junior School of Sibelius Academy at the age of nine, which is not common at all.”
The parallels between classical and metal music have been pointed out many times, and it wasn’t long before Lilja started seeing them for himself.
“For me, it’s the same chords and the same style. There might be a different sound and a different culture surrounding them, but it was all just music to me. We (Apocalyptica) started playing metal songs on our cellos because we loved the songs, and we couldn’t really play any other instrument! It was just for fun, then for some reason it became a little bigger.”
We were keen to know if writing his own music is new to him, or a constant part of his musical life.
“That was something I wanted to do for many years. And after departing from Apocalyptica in 2002, I had a vision of some kind of electronic cello solo thing, but it took many years to get it together,” he says, in enjoyably muddled terms. “First to get the vision together, what I wanted, and then figure out what is possible. The main idea was that all the music should come from the cello, and all the sounds should come from the cello, also."
Turning his instrument into a full band was the biggest challenge Lilja faced:
“At some point, I was going through some rhythmical stuff, and I was wondering how the hell I was going to get rhythm from the cello without the tonality in it. Luckily, I found one pedal that sliced the tone, and with that I was able to produce beats on the first album. So really it was a process of sound science, and just experimenting with a lot of stuff. I never had any plan to perform these songs live, but when the opportunity was there, of course I wanted to give it a try. It’s been really educating, but a lot of fun.”
It’s very note worthy for anyone with creative aspirations, that Max Lilja seems to have succeeded just by always doing what he finds fun and enjoys, and recognising what it can teach him also.
“I’ve been in a lot of bands and orchestras,” he says, very matter of fact, “and it’s a totally different world to be on stage alone; to be responsible for all of the music, for the communication with the audience, and creating the magic there.”
We piqued his enthusiasm for music tech when asking how he stays on top of all this work.
“I’ve always been an analogue guy, but I’ve been wanting to try something different for the upcoming tour [with Tarja Turunen],” he says. “The processing power in computers is so good now, you can do wonderful things. So I’m running a computer-based system now, and for that I needed a good interface, and RME has the wonderful Babyface Pro out now. I’ve been using RME for the last 10 years now.”
In fact, he’s used a whole span of their interfaces over the years:
“I had the small Fireface, I have a UFX here in the studio, and now the Babyface Pro will go on tour with me," he explains. So why RME, exactly? “Well, I've compared the interfaces with all the other big manufacturers, and I just like the overall sound more; it really is as simple as that. Of course they have wonderful features in all their products, too, but mainly for me it's that sonic quality that ticks all the boxes.”
Despite using these cutting edge interfaces, Lilja is old school at heart:
“I’m definitely an analogue guy; I’m a Moog user, I have all the Moogerfooger pedals. That’s my studio rig for my solo stuff.”
While Max is clearly quite the tech head, the cello will always be the centre of his universe, and he has some rather exciting news for us:
“I’m getting a new cello next week! A new carbon fiber electric cello by a German company called Carbon Klang. I think it will be wonderful, it’s the first cello they’ve made.”
Lilja further explains that the new scene of carbon fibre instruments are really starting to compete with their traditional wooden counterparts, which may raise an eyebrow or three with the traditionalists among us.
Lilja is heading to London next week with Tarja Turunen - he plays Rock On Green Festival on June 5th - and when he isn’t on that 50-date tour with the Finnish soprano, he has all the songs for his third album ready to go. And they are “one hundred times better" than anything he's ever done before, he tells us, with a mischievous tone in his voice. We wish him all the best with the tour, and the new album.
For more on Max Lilja, CLICK HERE
To find out more about his favourite RME Audio kit, CLICK HERE
Interview by Adam Protz