Against The Grain – An Interview With Oz

originally written by Juho Mikkonen

This week we take the time machine all the way back to the formative years of Finnish underground metal (it was either this or travel back in time to find out how the pyramids were actually built). Oz was one of the first real heavy metal bands to come into being in the land of thousand lakes, and their sophomore album, Fire in the Brain (featured in volume eight of our list of 80s essentials), has become one of the most revered-yet-unsung classics of an era that shaped the very essence of heavy music. The outfit was also only a half of a hair’s breadth away from breaking big, but eventually… they didn’t. Oz drummer and founder, Mark Ruffneck, was kind enough to explain us why…among other things.

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1980s was the decade that gave birth to every single sub-genre of metal, so identifying what we think of as the 100 most essential albums from that ten-year period was a mindfuck of epic proportions, as you can probably imagine. However, Fire in the Brain was a no-brainer when we were trying to figure out what classic, old school heavy metal records we should include. We know that we’re not the first ones to acknowledge the album’s superiority to almost everything else, so how do you nowadays feel about having created something that is so significant to a whole genre of music, even after 30 years of its release?

It’s obviously great that an album we made is being recognized. But let us also remember that when we created metal music in the 80s, it was done for the very same reasons music is still being made: for the pleasure of doing so. Of course our music was different at the time, because, for example, nobody in Finland was producing this kind of rumpus. And we also had to pay for it. There was no record label that would’ve been interested in our music. So, we were forced to evacuate ourselves to west, to Stockholm.

Fire in the Brain was also one of the first really influential Finnish metal albums, which is no small feat, especially considering how pivotal Finnish metal has become in the grand scheme of things. What was the Finnish and Nordic scene like back early 80s?

In the beginning of the 80s, punk and fifties style rock were the kind of music that was all the rage in Finland. Our noise-y music was the odd one out. Of course, heavier stuff started gaining ground even in Finland through bands like Rainbow. When the real heavy hitters began playing in Finland, we left for Stockholm, where world of music was completely different (from that of Finland). In the 80s Stockholm was the rock city and it still is!

Did you take a lot influence from the blooming NWOBHM scene or were you rather determined to create your own thing, something that would be emblematically Finnish or Nordic?

Sure, some influence might’ve come from that direction also, but things were different in the 80s. We couldn’t really follow what was happening with the rest world, because it just wasn’t possible in Finland. The selection in the record stores was limited and the music press were driving their own agendas. It wasn’t exactly Hollywood. We developed our own style of playing, because we didn’t have any idols to compare ourselves to and we also didn’t even want to do that. Our chosen path was good enough, so why try to compare ourselves to anyone else!

As mentioned, around that time you also made the decision to relocate the band to Sweden for what you thought was greener pastures. Coincidentally, Fire in the Brain became you breakthrough album in terms of popularity. So, apparently there really was a correlation between these two things.

When Fire in the Brain was ready, the Swedish label was sending it all over the world. The fax machine in Stockholm was really put into good use, and I thought that the Finnish scene was now done from our part and that we might as well relocate to Stockholm, because it seemed like something could happen there.

You had already produced the bulk of your recorded output in Sweden with the help of Börje “Boss” Forsberg. How did you team up with him and what was it like to work with the guy back in the early days of his career?

Like I said earlier, the Finnish labels thought of us as clowns, so we went to Stockholm to check things out. Through the contacts we had at that point we could open a few doors, and we finally chose Börje’s company for producing the album. First, everything went well with him. It was fun, but in time it turned out that he had double-crossed us, which ended both the fun and the cooperation. And we had still had our contractual obligations, so where we supposed to go on a foreign land…nowhere.

If it’s not something you’ve promised to take with you to the other side, could you tell us a bit more about what happened with Börje?

Here’s Börje’s final über screw up. Jason from Atlantic Records flew to Stockholm to see an Oz gig just when Decibel Storm was mixed and mastered. After the show he told us that now everything is ready and that we should stop pondering, because we’re in the game. He just needed to agree on some practical issues with Börje. He went to New York to do that, but when he came back he didn’t talk to us nor was he reachable. After tough chasing we found Börje, and he explained that that Atlantic deal wasn’t such a good thing after all. Somewhere around that time that collaboration started to fall apart…

Anyway, the hand of young Quorthon makes an appearance on the cover of Fire in the Brain and he’s been credited for “design” of your first two albums. Did he join the sessions through his father and did he have a real role in the production team?

Yep, Börje’s son! I met Thomas Forsberg for the first time when he around 15 to 16 years old. He was with Börje in Finland to watch Oz play somewhere. It was before we had a record deal. We were good friends, but he had nothing to do with the production of Oz albums. The idea for the cover just popped up somewhere and he did it. There’s nothing more behind it. Don’t believe everything you read!

Fire in the Brain is also one of the first Nordic heavy metal albums with some occult lyrical themes. Did people find it shocking or was it no big deal already back then? Did you have real spiritual connection to occultism and Satanism or did it rather come with the territory?

The feedback for the album was great, but the lyrics never sparked off any major discussion. We’ve always written lyrics that we’ve liked and other people have not been consulted for opinion. It’s always been like that. We’re storytellers, but we don’t want to change the world. That’s for other people to take care of. Devils and Satans have always circled around us, but what people believe in is their own concern. Myself, I don’t believe in any stories. After being a scientist (in the field of theoretical chemistry – ed.) for more than 15 years, gods and other related nitwits have become impossible to believe in. We’re just a pile of atoms, and in due time these atoms will form something else. There’s neither need nor room for spiritual contemplations there.

In the early 80s, you had the makings of a really big band. You had one of the most impressive stage setups in Finland, the goddamn Hanoi Rocks as a supporting act and tours planned with Venom and Slayer. However, despite the underground success of Fire in the Brain and the following releases, you didn’t take the final step to mainstream popularity. Other than Mr. Forsberg, what do you think was the reason for this? Would you do something differently if you had the chance?

The whole conquest of the world failed, because we didn’t have a manager to take care of things. Börje turned out to be a bullshitter, and on top of that he screwed up many things. Creating music is not enough. You have to be in the right place and have the contacts which we didn’t. What would’ve I done differently? Well, I would’ve gone to the States myself to check out what’s happening there. And that’s what we did in 2013 now that we don’t just sit around wondering what we should do.

Indeed, you continued operations in 2010 after an almost 20-year hiatus and released your sixth full-length, Burning Leather, in 2011. What was the motivation to return to true heavy metal…or did you ever even leave its sphere of influence?

The making of this album is easy to explain. Afterburner time, just do it! I provided everybody the possibility to make music after all these years and everybody grabbed the chance. And why wouldn’t one do it? Old friends together and having fun, what could be better? Quite soon our games are over and we can hear the coffin call, so let’s rock while we still can. We don’t have too many years left!

Posted by Old Guard

The retired elite of LastRites/MetalReview.

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