Amorphis revamp their environment and switch eras

Even though Amorphis remain satisfied of their evolution and of their last four albums, the Finns felt it was time to shake up their environment a little for this new album, Circle. On the admission of guitarist Esa Holopainen, Amorphis’ working process was a tad to run in, to the point that it was starting to ruin their ability to create surprise. The result was a series of well-constructed albums, which always managed to convey the band’s unique personality, but were admittedly a bit predictable.

Thus the need to revise the working process when the time came to record the album. For the band, this is the first step towards a new era, even if, in point of fact, they haven’t gone as far as changing the music with Circle – at least not in the proportions the fans were used to with Amorphis in the first half of their career. The guitarist talks about this topic, and covers the peculiar career of Amorphis, as well as the band’s collaboration with lyricist Pekka Kainulainen, a rather original bloke.

« When we were recording Beginning Of Times, the process started to feel too familiar. There were no risks, and I guess there was no passion in recording that album. »

Radio Metal: Apparently, Beginning Of Times was the first Amorphis album to enter the German Top 20. Do you consider it an important album for the band?

Esa Holopainen (guitars): It’s not a cornerstone or a milestone, but it sort of ended one era of the band. Eclipse, Silent Waters, Skyforger and Beginning Of Times – these four albums shared one common theme. The lyrics were based on the Kalevala, so I consider those four albums as being from the same era. We did quite a lot of shows during the tours for Beginning Of Times, and they all went really well. But for me, personally, it’s not a milestone. It’s a good album, but if I’m totally honest with you, it’s probably not my favorite Amorphis album, even though I like them all! (laughs)

What would be your favorite album?

I have a couple. I’m really excited about Circle, but I can’t really say. It was the same thing after Beginning Of Times, it’s the enthusiasm speaking. But the highlights for me are Elegy, Eclipse and Skyforger. I think those three albums are my personal favorites. I think we really nailed it, and succeeded in what I like Amorphis to sound like.

As a musician, how long does it take for you to be able to analyze an album and have more insight on it?

For Beginning Of Times, it took around a year, after we finished some of the tours. Then we had a little perspective, and we could really see where it stood in our opinion. It definitely takes some time. Once you’re finished recording an album and you start promoting it, you’ve heard it hundreds and hundreds of times. Usually, you need to take a little break and come back to the album to see if you can still listen to it or not! That shows if you’ll like the album on the longer term.

Does that help you avoid some mistakes on the next album? For example, there can be something you liked at first, but that starts to bore you after a few months.

Probably, yeah. But when we start writing music for the new album, we don’t look that much back at what we did on the previous album. A good example is that we always have a lot of left-over tracks. Sometimes we had three or four songs that didn’t end up anywhere. We simply didn’t finish the recording sessions for those. We had a plan to come to these when we would start writing new music, or when we would start rehearsing. But that never happened. When you start to work with new material, you totally forget the previous album. It’s a whole new session, and it doesn’t work if you look back on what you’ve done before. We take all the new things and new ideas as they come, and we really don’t think that much about whether we already did that in the past.

You recently confessed that you were giving the same explanation over and over about the band’s recording process, and that said process was secure and didn’t offer any surprises. This apparently led you to change the process for Circle. Concretely, what has changed in this album’s developing process?

In terms of composition, or of how the songs turned out, I don’t see any radical changes. I spoke with Santeri [Kallio], our keyboard player, who also writes a lot of the music, and for him there isn’t any change in the writing process, either. If the ideas that come work, then we start to rehearse, and we proceed with demos. But when we were recording Beginning Of Times, the process started to feel too familiar. There were no risks, and I guess there was no passion in recording that album. I like how it turned out, and I like the sound of the album, but it started to feel too secure. We wanted to change the environment, and basically just record in another studio, somewhere we could spend time together, think about the arrangements and talk about the music we were doing. I think that was important. So was taking a producer, extra ears, to the studio, to have an opinion on our music. I think it was also quite necessary to have one guy leading the whole process, telling us what’s working and what’s not.

« If you don’t write and play the music you enjoy listening to, I think there’s no way you can continue. You can fool people, but you can’t do it to yourself. […] That’s one of the reasons our career has been such a roller-coaster. »

Do you think that the fact that Peter Tägtgren is both a singer and a guitarist helped you get a more complete vision, or a more appropriate approach for the band?

I think it did both. Because he’s a guitar player himself, it was really nice to work with him. He had plenty of good ideas for the sound, alternative tuning, and other little things. It wasn’t necessarily groundbreaking things or anything we couldn’t have figured out ourselves, but he led us on the way we used to record albums before. Especially to use the old-school sound, and not only the sound we can use today. So we combined and re-recorded a lot of tracks with different sounds, and came up with pretty massive guitars. That was the best thing about Peter: the sound is more guitar-oriented thanks to him. If you compare Peter to Marco Hietala, who produced the vocals for the last four albums, it’s like comparing night and day. These guys are like Beauty and the Beast. It was something we were not worried about, but there was some stress about how the vocals were going to turn out. We wondered if Peter could handle the lyrical arrangements. But it was no problem at all. Tomi [Koivusaari] was more prepared than ever, I think. His vocals are really good.

As you said, Marco Hietala had been working with Tomi since Tomi joined the band, and that team was working really well. Given that Marco was not involved in Circle, did that role go to Peter, or did Tomi handle things himself? Last time we spoke, you said he was more at ease when he had someone coaching him.

Tomi’s role as I see it was much stronger on this album. As I just said, he was really well prepared beforehand. He already had many ideas for growling and melodic vocals before going in the studio. But for them, the hardest work was to arrange the lyrics to the music we had. That was the biggest challenge. Because the way we work in the studio is probably a bit different from what other vocalists do. We always record the music first, and when that’s finished, we start working with the vocals and lyrics. Only then do we arrange the lyrics into the songs. That’s the hardest part. Sometimes, there are parts that don’t work together at all, so you just have to try and make it fit, or find alternative ways to do it. That’s usually quite a long process.

« Pekka Kainulainen [note: songwriter of the band] writes poems, he teaches art, and he does a lot of performance art as well. His performance art is about alternative egos. Usually, he takes a mask with horns, he goes out and checks other people’s reactions.

Tomi’s harsh vocals are more diverse on Circle: his typical death metal growls are mixed with more saturated, almost black metal-ish vocals, for example on “Nightbird’s Song”. Was there a desire to try new things on his side?

Probably. For “Nightbird’s Song”, I don’t know if it was Peter’s idea or Tomi’s to have black metal barking on it, but it really works well. I remember the other guys were pretty surprised when we listened to the result and heard what they’d done. I was pretty sure it was Peter who sang on that song, but it was Tomi all the way. It’s definitely a new dimension for him. I’ve never heard him do that type of vocals. As you said, it reminds me of a Dimmu Borgir album or something! (laughs)

A circle represents integrity. Is that something that characterizes the band?

I think the title represents the themes the album deals with lyrically. “Circle” describes a magical ring where the character is. On the other hand, I think you can find other meanings as well. I hope it means a continuous working method, so this album is like a phantom: it doesn’t die, it keeps going on! (laughs)

In the past, the band has been known for trying different musical approaches, but since Eclipse, your albums follow a more or less similar musical vein. Is it important for you to keep some constancy between albums now?

Yes. What we try to do is go forward musically with every album we do. On the past couple of records, we did have similarly-sounding albums. But that doesn’t mean there aren’t any challenges or surprises music-wise. If you compare Eclipse, Silent Waters and Skyforger, these three albums are totally different. At least that’s how we see it. We have different kinds of songs, with different vibes and different parts. As musicians and songwriters, we try to go a bit further, to have little surprises on every album. We don’t do it constantly, and we don’t want to imply we’re doing something totally different on purpose. But we’re not afraid to try different things. If something more ambient or more extreme works in the music, we’ll try it. That’s the good thing about Amorphis, I think: all the musicians are really open-minded.

Since the band changed its working process for Circle, didn’t you also think about changing your musical orientation, like you did in the past with more rock-oriented songs, or by including more psychedelic, progressive structures?

That’s something that’s been interesting in the band. Back in the days, with Elegy and Tuonela, for example, there was a huge change in music style, and in vocals as well. That was when Pasi [Koskinen] took over lead vocals, and all vocals suddenly went from death metal growls to cleaner stuff. We didn’t think we were doing anything radically different until later, when you start to compare albums. There’s definitely an era in our career when we did more easy-going, more emotional music, with a more rock touch. That was just the way we wanted to proceed with the music. After Elegy, which was a huge album for us and opened a lot of doors to us, we could have easily done another album like that. But it didn’t feel right. We wanted to do something totally different, even if we knew a lot of people would be disappointed by the new sound. For us, it was really important. If you don’t do what you want to do, if you don’t write and play the music you enjoy listening to, I think there’s no way you can continue. You can fool people, but you can’t do it to yourself. That’s pretty impossible. That’s one of the reasons our career has been such a roller-coaster. Musically, we’ve changed radically in the past. But one of the other reasons, I think, is the line-up changes we’ve had. Every person in Amorphis has a huge impact on the overall sound. When people changed in the past, the music changed radically as well. We’ve had this line-up since Eclipse, so I guess it’s obvious we sound a bit similar. But the way we work and the way we think the music haven’t changed at all during the years.

Each Amorphis album shows greater skill at arrangements. Would you say you have acquired a certain know-how in this respect?

Definitely. Writing and rehearsing music together improves the arrangements as well. I don’t know how other bands usually work, but we pay quite a lot of attention to the arrangements. We try to avoid extra or nonsense editing in the studio, because that’s really boring. You can always write songs and then edit them with computers, copy/paste some parts. But that’s unnatural, and I think it shows. When you listen to some albums, you think it sounds too edited. It’s really boring, and I find it lame. Instead of editing your songs, the best way is to arrange them at the rehearsing stage, so you don’t have to do it after recording the album. I think we go further with the arrangements as well. If I look back to when we started, like with Tales or Elegy, it was just parts put together, and we didn’t pay much attention to arrangements. Perhaps that’s one of the reasons those albums sound more progressive! (laughs) If you just add parts and riffs one after the other, you can say your music is really progressive, but it doesn’t have any sense at all!

« It has become an everlasting circle now: write music, rehearse music, go to the studio, release an album […] then go home, write music, and the circle goes back. But it’s OK, I don’t complain. Everything about every step of the circle is great, I really love it. »

The lyrics were once again written by Pekka Kainulainen, but unlike your previous albums, they’re not based on the Finnish national epic, the Kalevala. Instead, they depict an original concept. What motivated him to do it?

I don’t know. I think that would be a good question to Pekka or to Tomi. After albums like Silent Waters, Skyforger and Beginning Of Times, which talked about stories that strictly followed the Kalevala, we wanted to have a bit of the old flavor in these new stories. Pekka is a good friend of Tomi’s, he’s actually his old teacher. He’s a true artist at poetry. If Tomi didn’t feel at ease writing lyrics, it had to be someone else. And it couldn’t be someone from the band, because we can’t write such good texts as Pekka. It was a good thing we met Pekka and he was interested in writing lyrics for us. For Circle, we wanted to take a little break from the Kalevala, pick stories and turn them into lyrics. What inspires him in our music to write lyrics? It would be nice to know. He wrote a storyline for the Circle album. It reminds me of the old stories from the Kalevala, especially the one we did on the Eclipse album, which talks about an unfortunate man’s fate. I think this is a modern, updated version of that! We’re really happy we can take new steps with the lyrical themes as well. We don’t have to be limited to the Kalevala – at least not that strictly.

By the way, can you tell us more about Pekka? He writes lyrics for the band, but who is he? We don’t know much about him.

Pekka Kainulainen is Tomi’s friend. We were introduced by Tomi. He writes poems, he teaches art, and he does a lot of performance art as well. His performance art is about alternative egos. Usually, he takes a mask with horns, he goes out and checks other people’s reactions. He can go to downtown Helsinki, sit in a row-boat and look at people’s reactions. People can be shocked, or interested, or they start to laugh, or anything in-between. I think that’s the way performance art should work: it makes people react, and everyone reacts in a different way. Someone usually films it, and you have performance art. So he does things like that. You can say he’s really, truly dedicated to what he does. We’ll release a special edition of the Circle album, which includes a DVD with a sort of making-of documentary. There’s quite a long interview with Pekka. It shows where he lives and what kind of character he is. If you check that out, it gives a pretty good picture of what he is.

Isn’t Tomi interested in writing lyrics?

No. He’s been pretty strict about not wanting to write lyrics. Lyrics have always been a big part of Amorphis’ music. For every release, we want to push the lyrical side as well as the musical side. Both parts are equally important to us when we start a new project. For any of us to start writing lyrics would be quite a big task. Tomi’s said himself he doesn’t feel good about writing lyrics. He’d rather leave that to the guy who knows what to do. He’s really comfortable that way. Everybody always ask: “How does it feel to sing another man’s lyrics?” But he’s really familiar with that, so it’s no problem for him.

From what I’ve heard, you have a passion for the work of painter Alphonse Mucha. The album cover seems to have been done in his style. Can you tell us more about this?

The artwork was done by a British artist called Tom Bates. I was introduced to him by Nuclear Blast. I asked Andy from Nuclear Blast: “Do you have any names of new-coming artists who would like to work with us and who would have an artistic view and touch that would fit Amorphis?” At first I was afraid he would come up with fantasy painters. But Andy knows what we are about, and he said we should definitely check out this guy’s art. That’s what happened: we checked him out and thought he would be a perfect match for the themes and ideas we have now. We got in contact with Tom, gave him the ideas we had, and he did a sketch that was exactly what we had in mind. We proceeded from there. I’m totally happy with the result, it describes perfectly the feeling we wanted the album to convey.

Two years separate each of your four last albums. Are you trying to maintain some regularity in releases? Can we expect a new Amorphis album in two years?

Probably. That’s the way it’s been going. We never calculated anything, we never said: “Let’s do this, then do some shows, then go in the studio”. But that’s how it’s been with the last albums. It feels good, because everyone is doing this thing for a living. All the time we have, we spend on Amorphis. Being creative and productive is not a problem. Writing music on tour is impossible, but when we have time when we come home from tours, we start to work on new material and write music. At some point, when we start sharing demos with the other guys, we realize we have a shitload of songs. So we rehearse, then we usually rent a studio, and we start to think about the next project if there are no tour plans. It has become an everlasting circle now: write music, rehearse music, go to the studio, release an album, go blah blah blah with reporters, go on tour, and go blah blah blah with the fans! (laughs) Then go home, write music, and the circle goes back. But it’s OK, I don’t complain. Everything about every step of the circle is great, I really love it.

Interview conducted on phone March 19th, 2013
Question sheet: Spaceman
Transcription: Saff’

Official Amorphis website : amorphis.net

Album Circle, out since April 19th, 2013 via Nuclear Blast Records

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