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Sonata Arctica and its youth


It’s to a Tony Kakko full of hindsight regarding both Sonata Arctica’s evolution and himself that we’ve talked a couple of days ago, as the band’s last record, Stones Grow Her Name, will be out soon, the 18th of May. The key-notion of this interview is youth. The youth that you have to protect from the previous generations’ foolishness. The youth that makes you imitate your idols to the price of your own personality. The youth that makes your first records what they are and that you can’t, or won’t find back again. Tony Kakko also puts into perspective Sonata Arctica’s last two records, admitting they went “to far” into complexity.

As a reaction to this, the new record has been written with the following leitmotiv: K.I.S.S., which stands for Keep It Simple, Stupid! We were just talking about youth: this album is also a tribute to the band’s first musical loves. Not to Ecliptica’s speed metal, but to some older ones.

This interview is full of wisdom but not lacking humor, especially thanks to a couple of jokes, some well-placed anecdotes and even a few cutting remarks.

« On Unia and Reckoning Night, we had like six or seven layers of keyboards at the same time. It’s insane, there was no room for the guitars. It was just a buzzing thing in the background. »

Radio Metal : In January 2011, you began working on the new album. Your guitar player said you were already writing some pretty dark riffs. A year later, in February 2012, you announced that the album was not going to be too dark – quite the contrary. What happened in one year?

Tony Kakko (vocals) : Never believe what Elias tells you! It’s bullshit! (laughs) When he said that, he had heard this one song that had really extreme riffs going on. He was worried how that would work with his playing. That song was “Somewhere Close To You”, it’s the heaviest song on the whole album. He might have based his statement on that. But it’s not the first time that Elias has said something that made us go: “What the fuck?” (laughs) That’s Elias!

There are however a few heavy riffs on the album.

Yeah, this is a more guitar- and rock-oriented album than the previous ones. We used to have emphasis on the keyboards. Now the guitars are on top of everything. This is more rock.

Do you think the keyboards and the orchestral arrangements were flooding the guitars on the previous two albums?

Absolutely, yes. On Unia and Reckoning Night, we had like six or seven layers of keyboards at the same time. It’s insane, there was no room for the guitars. It was just a buzzing thing in the background. But we’ve learned a lot, and now we’re composing and arranging things from a different perspective. This is something we have slowly learned after Unia. The Days Of Grays was already a lot better in terms of arrangements. Now we have stripped down the extra elements even more. The whole thing is basically as simple as possible.

Does it mean Elias was frustrated on the last two albums?

No. I don’t think so. I don’t know, nobody told me. Elias never said anything about it. Maybe Jani [Liimatainen, former guitar player] was frustrated, because he started messing things up and we had to kick him out! (laughs) But I don’t know, I think it was because of other matters.

We’re not used to hearing those kind of heavy riffs in Sonata Arctica’s music. Where does this influence come from?

As a songwriter, I always try to find new things for each album and try to change things a little bit. We don’t want to repeat ourselves too much. I write on the keyboards, but I also use a lot of synthesizing software. A few years ago, I bought this guitar synthesizer. It has a great sound, it’s a lot of fun to create riffs with that thing. Then Elias plays them with a real guitar. It really helps with songwriting, to get the right mood on the demos. When I play the demos to the guys, they can actually tell that this part is supposed to be played with a guitar. Maybe that led me in that direction, and that’s why we have more riffs now.

Did you have albums you listened to while writing this album, to get inspired in the riffs department?

When I’m on a busy songwriting pace, I don’t really listen to music that much. I try to concentrate on my own thing, keep the radio off and not listen to any albums. But on tour, the albums I’ve listened to that have had the biggest influence on my songwriting were by mister Devin Townsend. I’m not sure you can hear that influence on the album, maybe on some places. I’m thinking about an album like Addicted, from the Devin Townsend Project, which is slightly softer.

Apparently, on the last two albums, you were very much influenced by Queen. Do you think it’s also an influence we can hear on this album?

I’m sure it’s there, always and forever, because Queen is the first band that really hit me big time. It had a huge impact on my musical growth, around 1985-86. There was a time, maybe during five to ten years, where I didn’t listen to Queen at all, but then I found them again. It was funny, because I rediscovered the material that I did not like when I first knew the band. I’m sure Queen will always be there, even if I don’t mean things to have this Queen flavor. They will always be there, because it’s something I’ve grown up with.

« I think we went too far with the progressive style along the way. It was fun, it was like songwriter masturbating! (laughs) […] I was intentionally trying to write songs that were a bit difficult to get a hang of. »

What it striking with this album is that you kept the new elements you used on the previous two albums, but you also came back to a more simple and concise musical approach. Do you think the band had somehow lost the catchiness of the first albums, so you had to find it again?

I think we went too far with the progressive style along the way. It was fun, it was like songwriter masturbating! (laughs) I wrote a lot of things that gave me the kicks and made me laugh and smile. I was intentionally trying to write songs that were a bit difficult to get a hang of. I wanted to add and combine surprising elements together, make the song difficult to listen to, even if that meant they were also difficult to play. I wanted to get away from that. During the last tour, when I slowly started writing new songs for this album, I had this text on my desktop that said: “K.I.S.S. – Keep It Simple, Stupid!” I wanted to go back to the origins of the band. And I don’t mean Ecliptica, because even that was already a bit far from our origins. When we started the band in 1995, the whole thing was more rock. So Stones Grow Her Name is actually closer to the beginnings of the band than our first album, Ecliptica, was! It’s kind of funny.

« When we started the band in 1995, the whole thing was more rock. So Stones Grow Her Name is actually closer to the beginnings of the band than our first album, Ecliptica, was! »

This album is more concise, but you’re not really back to the sort of speed metal you played before. Do you think that sort of music was associated with your state of mind at the time, the fact that you were younger? Do you think speed metal is played by young people in general?

Well, obviously not, because there are guys aged 40 and over who are still playing this power metal thing. It’s something we’ve grown out of. It was a hit thing back in the day, I really got into it back in 1997. That’s when our original style started to morph into power metal. It was fun for many years, but then we started slowly going back to what we loved – and what I loved – about music. That’s always been more on the rock side than on the progressive side, although it was a lot of fun to do. We’ve learned a lot, but we’ve realized that we’re not kids anymore. For example, it’s starting to look goofy if we try to headbang! (laughs) It can be destructive sometimes! I have neck pain sometimes. I’ll be 37 in a few weeks, so I’m not a kid anymore! I can feel my age. It would be fun to still be able to do this kind of thing, go on tour, release albums and be a musician till I’m 60, and the only way to keep this band going for such a long time is to change our style gradually, to adapt it to our age. I think the same thing is happening with our fans. When we started, a lot of them were around 20 years of age. They’ve also got 12 years older! It’s great to know that these people are still following us, probably because we have changed our style and refreshed what we do from time to time. We’ve grown up together with our fans.

« It would be fun to still be able to do this kind of thing, go on tour, release albums and be a musician till I’m 60, and the only way to keep this band going for such a long time is to change our style gradually, to adapt it to our age. »

There’s a song on the album called “Shitload of Money”. Is it a kind of soft derision towards those who say you’ve been selling out with the last two albums?

No, that was actually a demo name for the song. The only reason I kept that name and started writing lyrics in that direction was because the only thing I sang at first was “shitload of money”. Those were the only words I had on the demo. When I played the demo to the guys, they liked it, but Henkka [Klingenberg, keyboards] was like: “No, this can’t be ‘Shitload Of Money’!” At that moment, I decided that yeah, it was going to be “Shitload Of Money”! But I know it makes people talk, the same way that “Victoria’s Secret” did, back in the day.

The title “Shitload Of Money” made me think about the song “Champagne Bath”, from one of your earlier albums. Is there a link between the two?

(laughs) No! Absolutely not! It makes me think of Las Vegas, where you have a fallen angel coming down and selling her wings in order to get some action in the city and have fun for one night. Then she tries to buy her wings back, but it’s impossible, but someone else bought them already. It’s telling people they shouldn’t sell something they can’t buy back. There’s actually a moral to this goofy song!

« Your way of thinking changes when you think the album is ready, you have enough songs and you don’t have to write anymore. You can just have fun and relax. That’s when you can come up with something totally different, out-of-the-box-thinking material. »

I read in an interview that the song “I Have A Right” was written at the end of the recording process for this album, and that it was written and recorded in like five minutes. Do you think the best singles are those that are written very spontaneously?

Often, yes. There are many examples of that. At least here in Finland, I know a few songs that were the biggest thing ever and started out as bonus tracks. Sort of: “OK, we still have room on the record, let’s come up with something”. Then the artist thought for ten minutes, recorded it, and it became a big hit. Your way of thinking changes when you think the album is ready, you have enough songs and you don’t have to write anymore. You can just have fun and relax. That’s when you can come up with something totally different, out-of-the-box-thinking material. We have two such songs on this album: “Cinderblox” and “I Have A Right”, which I wrote after telling the guys: “This is it, the album is ready”. I came up with more songs afterwards. I think I actually spent two nights on “I Have A Right”, and Tommy [Portimo, drums] sent me a text saying: “I’m done with the album, I’m going to go and drink beers”. I texted him back, saying: “Don’t do that yet! Check your e-mails, because I sent you a new demo”. He was like: “Fuck you! I was about to have a beer!” (laughs) He drank the beer, checked his e-mails, heard the song and loved it a lot. He played it right on the first take. It’s not a difficult song drums-wise.

You said “I Have A Right” is about how we should not pass the burdens we get from past generations on to future offspring. Do you adults are behaving irresponsibly, not thinking about the future of our kids?

Of course we are. But it’s the small things that we don’t necessarily think through. Of course we love our kids, and we want them to have all the best. But we might pass some things on to them, that are in our subconscious, like hating a color. We don’t necessarily think on why we hate that color – because our parents told us to, for example. You learn from your parents that red is a bad color, and then you teach it to your kids, only because that’s the way it’s always been. It shouldn’t be like that. We should teach our kids to think for themselves and be good people.

This album features “Wildfire” parts II and III, which are sequels to the song of the same name on Reckoning Night. This track is not originally an epic song, while parts II and III are. How did you come up with those sequels?

I started playing with the theme from the original “Wildfire”, that you can now hear at the beginning of “Wildfire II”. I liked that theme, but somehow it got lost on the original “Wildfire”. I wanted to use it some more, and the only way it was OK to do that was to call the new song “Part II”, or “Sequel”, or “Revisited”, or whatever. I just played with the idea, adding more material, writing lyrics in the same vein. And at the same time, I had this other song that was starting to be quite long, and it was probably not smart to have two very long songs on this particular album, where the average length is in the vicinity of four minutes. The only way to keep that second long song in was to make it “Wildfire Part III” at the end of the album. It came out pretty well, and I think they complete the whole idea that I had of humans and animals fighting nature and destroying the planet.

This album is very straightforward, except for these last two songs. Do you think they sort of make a link with the previous two albums?

Not necessarily. At least it wasn’t what I had in mind. Those were just songs that came to be. That’s how it’s always been: I don’t plan the albums ahead too much. The only criterion I had for this album was the idea of Keep It Simple, Stupid, which I failed to follow, obviously! (laughs) Because these two songs are quite complex and full of different elements, and they tend to be a little bit progressive. But I think it’s good, because like you said, in a way, it does connect Stones Grow Her Name to the previous albums. It’s pulling things together, because this album marks a change of style, in the same way that Unia marked a change of style, but in an opposite direction.

How do you think the fans will react to this album? Do you think the band might have evolved a bit too fast with the two previous albums, and this new album is a way for the fans to accept that more easily?

I think the people who have followed our career from the beginning are still there, following what we do. They have already noticed that our style is pretty unstable, and that we constantly try to evolve and find new ways of expressing ourselves. There’re pretty much used to it. Of course, there have always been people who dislike the new things and would like to see the band doing what we did on our first album, like AC/DC or Motörhead. These bands have a solid style, and they’re really good at what they do. But our style is changing, just like Queen: they changed their style a lot along the way. I don’t even approve all the things they’re released! But when you look at their whole career, those were just tiny steps on the side, and the big picture is much more colorful. Just like Queen, on each album, we do have some songs that would make it on some kind of greatest hits release, and that are consistent in terms of style, even if the rest of the material is somehow totally off the line.

On the album there’s a song called “Don’t Be Mean”. That’s too nice to be metal!

No, it’s not metal, but we’ve always had one foot on the softer, rock’n’roll side. I didn’t grow up listening to metal. The first metal album I bought was in 1997, it was Stratovarius, and I was 22 years old at the time. I wasn’t brought up with metal and it wasn’t my first love. Now I think I’m strong enough and old enough to do what I want to do musically and otherwise. I think we can put whatever we want on our records. I think a ballad should be just that. I wrote two slower songs for this album, the other one is a bonus track for the digipack. We had to decide which one would end up on the final album, because after I write “I Have A Right” and “Cinderblox”, it was obvious we couldn’t have both ballads on the record. “Don’t Be Mean” is a beautiful song, and I don’t know how the hell it would work if it was full of heavy guitars!

I was more referring to the kind of innocence in the title.

Ah, well, “Don’t Be Mean”… It’s another aspect of human relationships and love. I’ve talked about hate a lot, and there’s hate on this album as well. But this is not about hate, this is how you deal with hate that is not deserved. You don’t have to be mean, just bloody hell leave!

Do you think people are being too mean in the world?

Pretty obviously! Humans are shitty in so many ways! (laughs) There are good people as well, but as a whole, this human thing is bad.

« On the first albums, yes, I’ve been pushing my voice way too much. I was trying to be something I’m not. Especially on Ecliptica, I was trying to mimic Timo Kotipelto from Stratovarius. »

Let’s now talk about your vocals. In the past few years, you’ve been criticized for your live performances. Do you think you’ve been pushing your voice too much on the old songs?

On the first albums, yes, I’ve been pushing my voice way too much. I was trying to be something I’m not. Especially on Ecliptica, I was trying to mimic Timo Kotipelto from Stratovarius. It was what I wanted to do and tried to do, but it was not natural. On the past two or three albums, I’ve been doing what comes naturally for me, and what is really me, Tony. My vocal performances have changed and evolved. The older I get, the more difficult it is for me to sing the early stuff, because I composed the songs an octave higher than I should have – honest to God. They’re really, really high, and I was barely able to sing them in the studio. But what do you do? You’re a young guy, you try to impress people and to do something that you think is cool at the time, which was singing really high. Little did I know that we would actually end up touring, or what touring would be like, and what kind of things it would do to a voice. I didn’t think how it would be possible to keep singing these songs 10 or 15 years later. When you get older, you voice gets lower naturally. But that’s life, it’s normal.

It reminds me of Edu Falaschi, Angra’s singer, who basically said the same thing: for years, he tried to be a vocalist he was not, a speed metal vocalist. He said recently that he was done, that he would no longer sing speed metal and stick to songs in his range. Can you relate to that?

That’s true, but in my case, I have nobody to blame: it’s all my fault, because I wrote all the songs! (laughs) But I understand a singer who would sing something written by another artist. I know a few cases where the composer asked: “How high can the vocalist go?”, and the result was usually going as high as possible, without taking advantage of the lower range of this particular singer. But I can only blame myself, dammit!

Does that mean you would rather have written songs within your vocal range, rather than songs that would allow you to expand that vocal range?

My vocal range has expanded enormously, especially down. In some cases, I can actually sing higher on stage than I could ten years ago. My technique is a hell of a lot better, and of course, over 600 shows do wonders. You have to learn to get better and stronger. Physically, I think I’m in better shape now than I was ten or fifteen years ago. It’s odd, but that’s how it is.

A few years ago, I saw Sonata Arctica on stage with Gamma Ray. I think it was in 2003…

2001, actually! I remember that tour, it was the Silence album tour.

Yeah, you’re right. When we left the venue, I heard something that was quite amusing. Sonata fans were saying: “Gamma Ray did a cover of a Sonata song”, because they’d played Helloween’s “I Want Out”, which you’ve also covered. What do you think of that?

(laughs) Awesome! That’s just great! Yeah, it happens sometimes, when people don’t have general knowledge in a certain subject. They don’t know shit, so to speak! (laughs) They just know our band, they didn’t know Gamma Ray at all, or the history of metal. I think these people must have been pretty young, they probably hadn’t heard the early Helloween yet.

That’s it for us. Do you have anything else to say?

I hope all your listeners out there will listen to our new album, Stones Grow Her Name. It will be out soon enough. If you like it, send me an e-mail. If you don’t like it, send Henkka an e-mail! (laughs) I hope to see you all on tour!

Interview conducted on april, 29th, 2012 by Spaceman & Metal’O Phil by phone

Transcription : Saff’

Sonata Arctica’s Website : www.sonataarctica.info

Album : Stones Grow Her Name, out on may, 18th, 2012 via Nuclear Blast Records



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