IN 2008 I was working as Amorphis’ guitar technician. The band had been booked for two shows on a weekend in May: first in Croatia, and then in Serbia. The band’s manager, Jouni Markkanen, made me tour manager for those two gigs, in addition to my normal job. The most important part was to collect the rest of the band’s takings from the show promoters at the venues. Jouni could still remember a previous encounter with a Polish promoter, who had falsified contacts and payment slips, with the result that the band had never received their payments for the shows. He was determined not to make the same mistake twice.
This was why I was heading down to Markkanen’s King Foo-office, for a thorough briefing a couple of days before the trip. He told me to be extremely careful, and he told me to make sure I had the gig fee in my hands, before allowing the band to leave their hotel for the venue. Jouni told me that he trusted the Croatian promoter a little bit more. The Croatian had also served as a guarantor for the Serbian promoter, who was an unknown figure to Jouni. The deal was that we would get the money for both shows in Croatia already, in advance of the first gig.
I HAD ALREADY put Amorphis’ backline into a sensible shape, the next challenge was how to get all the equipment we needed onto the plane and to the gig. Esa Holopainen’s pedalboard was the single largest piece of gear to be transported, which I had designed recently. Its case alone weighed a proverbial tonne, but it would have been sheer madness to rip apart and reassemble the functioning board, just for the sake of two fly-in shows.
I felt it was very important for the band to evolve as a touring entity. This included stopping unnecessary unplugging of pedal effects and wireless systems. The band had so far transported parts of their equipment in plastic bags and stuffed inside their own suitcases – I had to put a stop to that. Before I joined their crew, many FOH-engineer had rolled their eyes, or even laughed at the unprofessional way Amorphis had been setting up. I was determined to raise the technical standards of the band, to hone them into an efficient touring unit, that would be ready to do more fly-in shows, too. I believed that Amorphis were still on the way up, meaning that while the costs of upgrading their rig would be felt now, they would reap the rewards later on, in the form of well-paid shows.
OUR FLIGHT departed at 7 a.m. sharp, so we made sure to be at the airport, along with all the gear, at shortly after five. I had compiled a concise list of all the different items – along with the weights – well in advance. We had everything we needed – nothing more nothing less. Despite my efforts, the amount of equipment I had planned on taking along, resulted in a heated discussion with the band.
Sande Kallio, the band’s keyboardist, was shocked by the size of Esa Holopainen’s pedalboard. The rest of us were adamant that it had to be taken to the gig, despite having to shell out extra for overweight. In Sande’s view, the board was much too large to be practical in any case, regardless of weight restrictions on the flight. He said the case was big enough to serve as his granny’s coffin, which is how Esa’s pedalboard got its name. Sande had gone and bought himself the most lightweight Nord Stage keyboard he could find, along with an equally light keyboard stand, and now we would be dragging along this, this… well, metal granny.
At that point, I had already been in plenty of similar check-in situations, with many different bands, which is why I reminded the band to shape up, and to locate the sack full of band merchandise we were also carrying along. I took care of everybody’s passports, and asked them to stay close at hand.
“That’s a lot of excess weight you’re carrying” the check-in clerk informed me.
Despite the early hour – and a short night – I managed to talk in angel tongues. I conjured up the importance of cultural exports, the Kalevala epos, the fact that the Balkans were so far away, and threw in the kitchen sink. The final deal-breaker must have been my charm, though:
“Excuse me for asking, but you’re a size S, aren’t you, Miss? Would you be interested in a stylish Amorphis T-shirt, perchance?”
The clerk’s cheeks flushed a little bit, and I knew I had clenched it. The other band members all kept admirably straight faces, as I asked Tomi Koivusaari, the band’s heartthrob, to join me at the check-in desk. We gave the lady an Amorphis tee, an autograph card, and a few other little trinkets, in exchange for getting all of our gear on board free of additional charges.
WE FLEW TO ZAGREB via Munich, and we arrived in Croatia in the early afternoon. Local runners were at the airport, as agreed, to take us to the venue first. This was a great relief, because I know what a headache it can be, to cram a band’s flight cases into a small hotel storage room.
I was rather excited. This was my first time in Croatia. Back then, the Balkans started opening up to touring bands, and playing shows there also started to make sense financially.
Serbia and Croatia had been left deeply scarred by the Balkan War, which could still be seen 15 years later. I had read about the fighting, and the break-up of Yugoslavia, recently, so I knew that horrible things had happened in the disputed territories, and that NATO had bombed many targets to smithereens. That war had been among the most complicated conflicts in the history of our planet. The way that different ethnicities and religions were intertwined in the former Yugoslav states was very confusing to outsiders; it was hard for me to grasp then, and it still is.
The journey from the airport into town seemed like a precursor for what we were dealing with. The outskirts of Zagreb were rather barren, and much of the town’s infrastructure was falling apart. While the southern, Mediterranean parts of Croatia are beautiful and well worth a visit, the country’s capital seemed like a dreary place for gigging musicians. The city is full of Soviet-style bleakness, with some older Slavic buildings adding only a little in terms of beauty. It seemed hard to imagine anybody would want to take a holiday trip to Zagreb. Would our rented backline be up to snuff? Would we get paid, as agreed?
WE GOT double rooms in a Hotel called Remetinec, that I would describe as akin to a shed. We had been told that Behemoth and The Misfits had also slept at that hotel, or so the promoter claimed. The place seemed very strange to us all. It reminded you of an empty school or army barracks, with long, dark corridors full of doors. We had to walk quite a bit to find our rooms. After taking a short look, we all gathered in the corridor to compare notes. “Does your bed also look like this?” “Do you have this strange shower in your bathroom, too?” The place felt like the Soviet Union, with an added exotic twist.
We rested for some time in our rooms, until we got picked up for dinner, as arranged by the promoter. There were tables reserved for us at a local bar, called “Pivnica Zlatni Medo” (Beerhouse Golden Bear). At the door I first met our Croatian promoter, a man named Branko. He looked like a Marine with his shortly cropped hair and his well-trained biceps. Branko greeted us warmly and recommended many local delicacies from the restaurant’s menu. Some of Amorphis’ members were vegetarians, so I asked him if any vegetarian meals were on the menu. Branko laughed out loudly and stated that “in this country you eat your meat”.
Despite the Spartan selection of vegetarian foods, the rest of the evening went down nicely. This wasn’t haute cuisine, but rather straightforward, hearty meat dishes. I sympathized with Sande, the keyboarder, who was one of the vegetarians. Before becoming a guitar tech, I, too, had been a vegetarian, but I quickly found out that, while the band might have vegetarian dishes on their rider, for roadies the choice was often “eat or go hungry”. This meant I ate the food I was offered at any given time.
I knew well that the next two days would be a pressure cooker for me, which is why I headed straight back to the hotel after dinner. The band went on to get to know the old town and sample a few of its pubs. I was glad for them, but I knew I had to catch some precious sleep, even though this was my first visit to Zagreb.
AMORPHIS’ CREW assembled at the venue in the morning for soundcheck. The band was still sleeping, after having been on the town, which was OK by us. Amorphis were the festival’s headliners, so our soundcheck was slated for 10 a.m., even though their part of the show would only start at 1 a.m. the next day.
I spoke to one of the promoter’s representatives at the venue and asked him about our fee. I was very friendly, but made it very clear nonetheless that we wanted to get our money upfront, delivered to the hotel. The band would only leave for the gig, once we had received the payment. The representative said that this would be no problem, he would take care of the matter. Our crew returned to the hotel, and I took a nap in my room.
A few hours later I looked at my phone. No texts, no missed calls. I wrote a text message to the promoter’s representative, trying to get any news on our money. I got no reply.
I knew from experience that a musician is hard to stop, once he (or she) is full of adrenaline and ready to walk out on stage. If we were to hang out at the venue, we would be easy prey for manipulation and pressure from the organizers. A band never wants to let down their fans, which could easily lead to the band doing the gig, even without prior payment. Manager Markkanen had given me very clear instructions, which I followed faithfully. We stayed at the hotel and waited for the money.
I finally got hold of the promoter’s representative. After some toing and froing, he agreed to take the money to our hotel. We met in the lobby and he handed me an envelope. He told me a van was waiting outside to take us to the venue. I told him I would quickly count the cash, and then return with the band in tow. I first went and grabbed hold of Niclas Etelävuori, the band’s bass player, who was used to handling foreign cash, because he was in charge of the proceeds from selling the band’s merchandise. We went over the bundles of cash in the dim light of my room. Everything seemed to be in order, the sums added up and the notes looked genuine, so I asked Niclas to get his bandmates ready for transport. It was already almost ten in the evening. I had taken along a money belt from home, which I now filled neatly with the cash. Then I strapped the belt tightly to my body, kept safe underneath multiple layers of clothes. We were ready to roll.
THE GIG ITSELF was your regular Metal festival appearance, without any changes in the usual sequence of events. The last band before Amorphis’ closing slot was Sodom, a band we all knew well from the 1980s. Actually, we got more than our earful of their gig, as the “backstage area” was an open gallery with a straight line of sight (and sound) to the stage. The din was infernal, so there was no way to relax before going on.
Amorphis has very loyal fans in Croatia, and their set went down a storm. Once the festival was over, we were finally able to hang out with some of the other acts “backstage”. We heard rumours that the Serbian festival’s first day hadn’t gone down according to plan, regarding ticket sales, which meant that the Serbian promoter probably wouldn’t be able to pay all the bands booked. Some of the bands that had played the Croatian festival were also slated to play in Serbia, like our compatriots Finntroll. We were quite intrigued about what the next day would hold in store for us. The Serbian festival had seemed a little less enticing from the get-go.
WE ASSEMBLED in front of our “ghost house” hotel at 8:30 a.m. to board a 50-seat coach that had been booked to take us to Belgrade. We would be joined by Unleashed’s and Belphegor’s touring parties, who had also played the Zagreb festival. I spotted some of Finntroll’s members, completely shitfaced on the lawn in front of the hotel. Their management had made a last-minute call to the band, telling them not to travel to Belgrade, because they wouldn’t get paid there. This made it a day off for the band, and they had already started making the ”most” of it.
We, on the other hand, took the trip, because I had already secured our fees, which were neatly tucked away underneath my shirt. We shared the bill in Serbia with acts, such as Testament and Obituary, so I hoped the arrangements at the Belgrade festival wouldn’t be too bad. We set of for a journey of 368 kilometers.
OUR DRIVER was a rough looking fellow. He was an older guy, bald and scar-faced, in a white shirt and steamed trousers, who didn’t say a word during the whole trip. Not in English, nor in Serbian or Croatian – nothing. Judging by his looks, here was a man who had seen the rough side of life. His mean appearance would be a big plus, though, if we were to run into any sort of trouble on the way, I mused.
Our Croatian coach had room to spare for us all, but we couldn’t really rest, either. The route was barren, but fascinating. We were taking a road along dusty mountains and war-scarred buildings. The bus’ suspension was put to a test by the impossible amount of pot holes in the road. Some of the holes looked like grenade craters. There wasn’t much in the way of vegetation, and the echoes of war seemed almost palpatable on the coach.
WE ARRIVED in Belgrade almost on time. The driver took us to our hotel. The Holiday Inn Belgrade seemed like a five-star hotel, when compared to our ghostly Croatian abode. There would have been a few nice sights to see in the vicinity of the hotel, but I had to focus on other things. I sensed that I would get my next breather only, once we would leave the hotel in the morning.
I informed the receptionist that our group had arrived, only to be told that our reservations had not been paid for by the local promoter. The contract had included the flights, the transportation, catering and the hotel bookings, which meant we were in trouble. We had also been promised a local “host” or go-between, who would take care of us during our stay in Belgrade. This person was nowhere to be seen, either.
The hotel’s receptionist introduced me to the place’s manager, who asked me to have a chat with her in a more quiet corner of the lobby. This friendly and stylish lady would turn out to be our closest and most sensible contact here. She told me that she was sorry for the situation, but the promoter had failed to pay for the hotel accommodations, just as he had failed to pay the lighting and audio companies. Because of this, the local crew had turned everything off and walked out, which is why – at least at the moment – nothing was going on in the hall meant to be the concert venue for the festival. The festival was already hours behind schedule, and it wasn’t certain if it would continue at all. You could say the festival was in gridlock.
We were in complete limbo. Here we were, our flights home were only due the following day, and if we were to find a way to play in Belgrade, we would need a place to stay. This meant we had to take our rooms, pay for them at our own risk and with our own money, and use Amorphis’ credit card as a guarantee.
THE BAND WENT to their rooms to chill. I only threw my bags on my bed, because the band’s FOH engineer, Sami Koivisto, and the drum tech, Jari Niiranen, and I wanted to get a clearer picture of the situation. Despite all the organization having gone down the drain, the festival’s concept was rather interesting. The venue was the hotel’s 2,500 square metre Convention Centre area. The hotel rooms were the backstage area, meaning you could conveniently take the lift to get from your room to your gig.
There must have been some payment to somebody, somewhere along the line, because the first, local band started their set, just as we stepped into the convention hall. The schedule had long since lost its true meaning, but I was puzzled (and I am still puzzled) that local logic seemed to dictate, that any delays in the timetable early on affected the headliner’s slot. Usually, a headlining artist or band had a strict clause in the contract, clearly stating the time slot during which the set would take place. If the schedule starts to drift, normally, the sets of earlier bands would be curtailed.
If the schedule was a joke, then the backline din’t fare much better. There was only a single drum set present, which was used by all the bands. Once a band’s set was over, the bass drum pedal and the cymbals were removed. Then the following band’s pedal and cymbals were screwed into place, and the set made ready for the next drummer. Drum tech Niiranen’s looked shocked, and I must have looked just as flabbergasted, because the amp stacks used on stage were the only ones present.
I tried to get a closer look from the side of the stage, and I was able to spy a few Marshall stacks, that I would only get access to a couple of minutes before my band’s set.
Normally, Amorphis would hire a complete backline for themselves, and I would have sufficient time to set up everything correctly, going by my notes, the playing feel and my ears. This time, Serbian bands would have been shredding all day long through the same amps, that I’d be forced to offer Esa and Tomi for use.
BACK IN THE LOBBY we bumped into an agitated and swearing American, who turned out to be Testament’s tour manager. Testament hadn’t received their fee, and the man was clearly about to go ballistic. I thought of manager Jouni’s foresight, quietly satisfied that our money was already safely tucked away beneath my shirt. I watched Testament’s tour manager trying to negotiate with the promoter. He tried to look cool and collected, but his blood was clearly boiling. Regarding the timetable, we were in the same boat with Testament. Amorphis’ contract stated 10 p.m. as show time, while Testament were the last to go at midnight. Because Amorphis were second headliners, we had a say in any scheduling decisions, and we tried to help each other out as best we could.
By now, the delay had already reached three hours, and matters looked set to get worse. I couldn’t make out anybody holding down the job of stage manager. There wasn’t anybody, whose job it would have been to try to keep to the schedule and make changeovers as fast as possible. The local bands made the most of the chaos, many playing much longer than their allocated slots.
It looked like Testament would be on at 4 a.m. at the earliest. Their tour manager told me that they were forced to stop their set at a certain time, because they needed to get to the airport to fly to their next show (funnily enough at Finland’s Tuska Festival). I quickly made the calculations – Amorphis would only be able to play 15 minutes at this rate.
Everything was a huge mess, and there would be no-one to stand up for our rights. If I wanted my band to have enough time to play their set, I would have to find the time myself. I joined forces with Testament’s guitar tech, and we became the de facto stage managers for that day. We tried to make changeover times as short as possible, and we tried to shorten the sets of local bands. We tried our best to get each band to start quickly and to get off the stage quickly. I had some heated shouting matches with a few of the local musicians, who tried to question our working methods.
Testament’s crew made full use of their headliner-from-the-US status, and they even managed to cut a few bands’ sets short. In the end, it was time for Amorphis’ set.
TESTAMENT’S GUITAR TECH lent me a much-needed hand. The local stage hands were much too young and inexperienced, some had gone missing, some had imbibed, and many spoke only their native tongue. We assembled the Marshall stacks at both sides of the stage, then we dragged the Ampeg bass stack to the other side, and finally we stacked up the surplus cabinets at the side of the stage. I hooked everything up and got a signal from each instrument. Jari was in for a tough ride, trying to make the drum set work for Jan Rechberger. The drum heads had all received a thorough beating. Under normal circumstances, Jari would have had to replace all drum heads, but now time was of the essence – we had to hope for the best, and get the band on stage. Amorphis had abbreviated their set to just short of an hour, by dropping a few songs from their list, to give Testament enough time for their set.
We got our equipment off the stage as quickly as possible, and then helped Testament’s crew to get everything ready for their band. As the first Testament song started to thunder through the hall, I packed up our instruments, and assembled all the pedalboards and wireless systems into a neat stack behind the stage. I sat down on the floor and took my first breather after a very long and hectic day.
WE DECIDED to take a short break and watch Testament’s show with the crew and Amorphis’ band members, mingling with the festival crowd. People of our age were clearly very into the band, as its music was an important part of our youth and the 80s Metal scene in general. Their set gave us a boost, the band played a fantastic set that night. Nevertheless, I still had a bone to pick with the local promoter. As Testament’s set was nearing its end, I signalled Jari, and we set off to find the promoter. We wanted to make sure the guy would pay for our accommodations, after all.
We spotted the promoter chilling in the lobby. When I tried to approach him, he started running away. Jari and I tried to tackle him, but he was too fast for us, and managed to disappear. We parked ourselves at the bar in the lobby. You couldn’t get from the venue to the hotel rooms, without having to pass the bar, so we were quite sure the guy would have to turn up eventually.
THE AIR OF the phone booth was thick with angry curses and shouting. Testament’s tour manager had used the band’s set to try to smooth out the band’s travel arrangements. Turned out Testament’s flights hadn’t been paid as promised, either. The clock was ticking, because any further delay would mean Testament would miss their important slot at Tuska Festival. The tour manager wished the local promoter would rot in hell, and he promised to tell everybody he knew in the business never to do any business with this guy.
The promoter managed to elude us for a while, but in the end we spotted him at the other end of the lobby. This time, Jari and I managed to corner him. I used my physique (the full 6 foot 4) to “persuade” the guy to sit down with us for a little chat. We settled into our best “good cop, bad cop” routine, and finally got the guy to talk.
After some toing and froing, he told us that he was very sorry, but that he was basically penniless, because tickets hadn’t sold as expected. He gave us the spiel. He solemnly pledged that he would pay for our rooms in the morning, but he had already lost all credibility in our eyes. We needed some concrete action. I noticed the promoter was clutching an important looking stack of paperwork in his hands, which I wrenched from his fingers in a sudden and unexpected move. I told him we would only return his paperwork, once we were sure he had paid our hotel bill.
The poor guy looked very frightened. He told us the papers contained all the accounting details of the festival’s merchandise sales, and that he would be killed, if he didn’t get them back. I stayed unmoved, though, and told him to pay for our rooms there and then.
Jari and I escorted him to the reception desk to make sure he wouldn’t slip our grasp. He handed his credit card to the receptionist, who charged his card to pay our hotel bill. I was now quite sure that the payment had been made, and returned the papers to the guy. I was pitying the promoter.
The promoter seemed like a young Metal fan, who wanted to organize a Heavy Metal festival, without the necessary experience and connections. He must have gone hopelessly over budget, and after that night it was extremely likely, he wouldn’t be organizing any event ever again. Jari quipped laconically that the promoter would most likely be found at the bottom of a river, come next week. An unsettling thought, no doubt, but considering the country we were in, this could have been a likely scenario.
TESTAMENT’S SET finished, and now the band and their crew were in a real hurry. The crew were scrambling to get all gear packed up and out of the venue, because they were in very real danger of missing their flight. Failure wasn’t an option, so Jari and I helped the guys as best as we could. They were hours behind schedule by then. Before boarding their airport shuttle, the guys told us that Testament had to book new flights, after all, and that the band hadn’t been paid for their appearance, either.
OUR COACH back to Croatia was leaving at 7 a.m. – or let’s say, it would have left then, had everybody turned up in time. We were all accounted for, but one of Belphegor’s members – who looked very hung over, one and all – made us wait. I made Jari stand guard at the bus’ front doors, as I went back into the hotel to make sure everything was settled. It looked like everything was hunky dory at last: both shows had been paid for, the hotel bills had been paid as agreed, and our flight tickets back home were in our pockets. All that was left to do was sit on the coach for the almost 400 kilometres back to Zagreb.
Our driver was the same grouch who had brought us here. The trip back to Croatia seemed to last forever. The stress levels began to drop and fatigue was setting in, as endorphin and adrenaline levels started to fall. The biggest annoyance, though, proved to be our fellow Black Metal band, who were still totally pissed, and who hadn’t even bothered to remove their smeared face paintings. They were playing around with a goat’s skull and other BM paraphernalia. They didn’t intimidate me or make me laugh, all they did was piss me off royally. I tried to catch some sleep on the curvy mountain roads.
The coach dropped us off at the airport, and even our driver seemed to acknowledge us with a final wave goodbye. Our flight back – via Munich – was to lift off at ten to four in the afternoon, meaning we would touch down at Helsinki Airport shortly before midnight.
BUT FIRST, we had to make it through check-in in Zagreb. It all seemed to go our way, even if the corpulent desk clerk, who had squeezed herself into a tight uniform, didn’t speak a word of English. Sadly, bribery – using T-shirts, autographs and a little flirtation – wasn’t an option here. After all of our luggage had been weighed, the lady took out a pen and an A4-sized sheet of paper. She folded the paper and wrote “1,000 €” on it. This, obviously, was the amount we had to pay for excess baggage. I tried to find out, by any means at my disposal, what the basis for this steep sum was, but the clerk didn’t budge or flinch. I couldn’t get a foot in the door; each time I tried to open my mouth, she pointed to the sum using the pen. The round nature of the sum simply didn’t look right. Anyway I looked at our baggage, I simply couldn’t fathom, how the amount payable could add up to 1,000 euros. But that sum was what the lady had decided on, so that was what we would have to pay.
Sande was foaming, as he had to use the band’s credit card again. Most of Sande’s dirty looks seemed directed at Esa’s “granny’s coffin”, the pedalboard I had constructed. To him, the large case seemed to personify the excess weight of our equipment, even though we were carrying a lot more stuff than that. Esa and I exchanged glances. I was still sure that I wouldn’t have changed one thing on Esa’s board.
The band was on its way up. You don’t get anywhere near the top of the game, if you carry your effect pedals in plastic bags. The brunt of the band’s gigs were still played in Finland and Central Europe, so I didn’t see any point in stifling the band’s forward push, just because of the odd fly-in show. No way was I going to go back to assembling and disassembling rows of effect pedals at each show. Besides, last night’s “gig from hell”, wouldn’t have gone down as well as it did, if I would have had to hook up lots of pedals – and look for a power source – in all that mayhem. Sometimes you just have to bite the bullet.
All in all, this trip to the Balkans ended on a positive note. The band got to play their sets, the fans were ecstatic, and I managed to deliver the money to Jouni, who was very satisfied with my work.
ABOUT ONE WEEK later, when the dust had already settled, I got an E-mail forward from Jouni. According to information provided by our Croatian promoter, the Serbian bank had frozen the credit card of the Serbian promoter. The Holiday Inn in Belgrade had invoiced us for our stay there, after all. It seemed that the Balkans got one up on us in the end.
27.4.2020 Kimmo Aroluoma (Pic: Mika Jussila)
The writer is the owner of Custom Boards Finland. He is a veteran guitar tech who has toured for years with Finnish bands HIM, Amorphis, Michael Monroe, The Rasmus and Von Hertzen Brothers. Today he designs pedalboards and runs his own web shop in Helsinki, Finland.