Coste Apetrea is the longtime guitarist & composer for the Swedish progressive rock band Samla Mammas Manna. While that band has kept him busy for many years with album releases and tours, Coste has found time to fill his schedule with other projects and recordings. Which brings us to the recent release of his solo album Rites of Passage, a wild combination of prog rock, gypsy folk, heavy metal, and jazz-fusion styles. It might just be one of the best kept secrets in recent memory, and an album that all progressive music fans should seek out. Sea of Tranquility staff writer Steve Pettengill had an opportunity to chat with Coste Apetrea, and gain some insight into this album, Samla Mammas Manna, and his long and storied career.
Read on for the complete interview!
Sea of Tranquility: Coste, let's talk about your album Rites of Passage. As mentioned in our review, you seem to take joy in putting together elements of music that don't typically go together. Can you tell us a little about the process of writing and recording this album?
Coste: My composing is really very diverse, I have a lot of practice since I've made my living during the last 22 years as a composer, mostly for all kinds of media, which has been a great school since I get to do all styles of music that you don't normally hear in the media….so when I write music just to express my own feelings it reflects all these styles. I didn't plan a certain style it just came out like this depending on my mood at the time. I have been playing a lot of world-music from the mid 70´s up till today and the heavy guitar thing has always been my favorite since I started, and I could use some of the agressivity lately, and now for my next CD I am digging even deeper into that heavy field. Maybe the mix on "Rites" reflects my history and the next CD feels more like I've discovered some new ground and sort of got in touch with my first influences.
SoT: How would you describe your music to a new listener? Would you call it progressive rock or something else entirely?
Coste: I guess you could call it progressive rock whatever that means (hopefully it changes from year to year) but people seem to be very fond of finding the essence of a music style and constantly guard their definitions of what this style should be. This makes music stop developing for the sake of purity, but if the word "progressive" stands for curiosity in finding new ways of expressing music within or outside certain concepts I guess I am doing prog rock. I have seen the word fusion a lot with my music, and that word got really out of hand since fusion at the end of the 70´s and beginning of the 80´s was very predictable and didn't "fuse" much at all, I was doing jazz-rock at the end of the 70´s. I prefer to see it like that.
SoT: As you are probably well aware, today's popular music scene isn't very receptive to alternative forms of music. How does your music fit into this generation and are there current artists that inspire you?
Coste: I've seen figures that say about 10% of average western kids are genuinely interested in music and they stand for the variety in the business. Whenever they hear my music they seem to be amused; the rest of the kids are of course busy finding music that match their teenage/juvenile needs of romance and sex, also music that fits their look…being cool is way more important than having musical experiences that take your feelings to different states….I do find a lot of the young heavy metal scene very inspiring, I am very fond of Avenged Sevenfold. They make great music with great talent, and I introduced them to my 13 year old daughter and she loves them!
SoT: What is the current state of Samla Mammas Manna? I take it you balance your time between SMM as well as that of your own band. How do you do it?
Coste: Samla is working (still) on a dvd-project. We did some new recordings live in Stockholm 2 years ago that suffered from bad sound, which really delayed the whole project. But last year we recorded some new music, so now it looks like we will put together a mixed sound track and live films and slide-show; a kind of dvd that will probably reflect the bands history. We found a very funny TV show from Swedish national TV with Stephan Grossman as host and Samla doing a 14 minute long suite live….very funny. We also have a tour in the fall, it seems like we're going to Canada. My own work is mostly in my studio, which has developed a lot and I'm very thrilled with my new sound, so no stress when you're having fun.
SoT: How often are you touring these days? Do you still enjoy it? I would imagine that the eclectic material of your music would present a challenge to reproduce on stage. Do you find your music difficult to arrange for a live setting?
Coste: When I started as a pro I was constantly touring, doing between 150-200 gigs a year for about 12 years. Today I'm doing a lot of local gigs with a lot of different musicians and from all parts of the world and now and then we do really long trips with Samla (Russia, Japan, USA, etc) My intentions are to go out with my trio and add an extra guitar and keyboard and do my new material as well as some of my old favorites from the old records. I need to release at least one or two more CDs before that.
Coste: Yes , my main work now is my next album. I am also working with my good friend Michael Rickfors on his new album, and we will do some stuff together on my new record. Michael wrote a nice tune with old Procol Harum member Keith Reid that's never been recorded, so I'm gonna record it with Michael. If it turns out well I'll put it on the album.
SoT: You have toured all over the world for many years. Do you have a sense as to what constitutes a typical Coste Apetrea/SMM fan? Or does it vary from country to country?
Coste: Well, a normal Samla/Coste fan can be any age today, and yes it varies from country to country. I think the Russian audience is younger than the US audience. We have a bit of a crowd in Moscow and they are very well educated and aware of things, also the Russian young prog-bands reminds us of Swedish prog from the 70´s….
SoT: Let's suppose that you decided to leave the music industry entirely. If you could only leave an hour's worth of recorded music as your legacy, what material would you choose and why?
Coste: Oh, probably the stuff I'm about to record…..but if I would have to choose from my old stuff…..hmmm…I'm not really content with any of it, I feel that I can always do better music now. I guess that's why I keep on making new music.
SoT: Your music has a very visual flair to it. For those of us who aren't fortunate enough to see you in a live setting, is there any chance that you might eventually produce a concert DVD?
Coste: Yeah, as I mentioned Samla is working hard on it, and I noticed some months ago that there is a DVD with me and Jukka Tolonen as acoustic duo from 1982, live in Holbaek/Denmark. I was surprised to find the playing so good…maybe that's the record to leave as my favorite!
SoT: You have written material for classical instrumentation as well as rock music. Are you a classically trained musician yourself?
Coste: No, I'm an autodidact! But as I mentioned I've been fortunate to work for 22 years with music for the media, so I have learned a lot through my colleague Anders Henriksson who is classically trained. To my surprise one day I wrote all this music, and today it's just as easy as any style…I think it has to do with a whole complex working method and suddenly just like learning to play you find that you grasp it. I did have some music classes at University, mostly music-theory.
SoT: Are there other art forms that inspire your creative streak? For instance, do you read a lot or do you perhaps extract ideas from films?
Coste: I read a lot, and I was studying Theoretical Philosophy when I first came to Uppsala, which then (and maybe still) was my main interest, music was just for relaxing….All cultures before our modern western has had a strong need to express what's inside the human mind and mostly people have just made music and done pictures etc themselves, only today as a result of our thoroughly commercial way of valuing our actions we have professionals doing this and we judge it mainly by it's possibilities to sell to as many as possible. I have always been inspired by all kind of art that comes from deep within and I find that this is mostly the case with all native, ethnic culture, I can hear the same expression in the blues as I hear from a Romanian "Doina" played by a farmer from Banat, and the pure power of that inspires me a lot.
SoT: Do you have any funny stories that you would like to share with us? Either something that happened while on tour or in the studio?
Coste: Well…..hmm…this one might be fun, I was playing a concert with Tolonen in Copenhagen round 1980 when our manager comes along with the whole of Black Sabbath who at that time had Ian Gillan as lead vocalist. I've never been into Sabbath so I didn't know them but I was impressed by the tall husky looking guys. Our percussionist and vocalist, Bill, also didn't have a clue who they were, except for the name Black Sabbath. I knew about Gillan since I was a Purple fan in my youth and he was sitting right next to me and Bill. Suddenly I heard Bill ask Gillan – "are you also with the band ?"…Gillan looked at him and said without showing anything – no, I'm just a roadie!!
SoT: That's a great story! Thank you Coste for taking the time to answer these questions. Do you have anything you'd like to say to our readers out there?
Coste: I think I've said too much already…..Take care!
(Click here to read our review of Rites of Passage)