Stratovarius line-up went through changes during last Fall. Tours abroad were over and the band had split into two. The guitarist and the boss of the band Timo Tolkki says that he wouldn't fire anyone just because of being a bastard. Everyone in Stratovarius couldn't keep up with the development and the band suffered. Warnings were given at first, but then it got slipped again. It was annoying to go on stage without knowing what would happen next.
Timo Tolkki decided that Stratovarius needed a new drummer and a new keyboard player. Tolkki also wanted the new men to be professionals. The first to come in mind was German drummer Jörg Michael, who has made name in such well-known heavy metal bands as Rage, Running Wild and Headhunter. Tolkki had got to know Jörg about three years ago in Germany, and the man had turned out to be quite a musician. Tolkki sent Jörg a demo on which Janne from Waltari played drums. Jörg liked the material and decided to join Stratovarius.
Then there was only a keyboard player missing. One of Tolkki's long-time favourites has been Swedish-born Jens Johansson, who has played in Yngwie Malmsteen's band and Dio. Tolkki had never met the guy, but got the phone number to Jens' home in New York with the help from Japanese contacts. A call there, and also Jens was interested. Again some demo tapes in the mail, and Jens informed that he's in.
Jens Johansson is a respected man, who has been rated in heavy metal circles as one of the best solo keyboard players in the world.
- That's why he fits in this band like nose in the butt, says Tolkki. - I wanted to take our music more into technical level, which Jens masters brilliantly. Earlier synths played mainly minor keys in the background, they were only a spice. Now there's a lot of soloing with keyboards and guitar. And the synth is up with good reason, as we have that good guy playing.
Jens Johansson proved to be an interesting personality. When Tolkki went to pick him up at the airport he was worried about what Jens would be like. Man turned out to be Big-Arnie looking guy, whose second sentence to Tolkki was "vedä virtahevon vittu päähän" [some swearing in Finnish :-)].
- Jens has a home page in the net, and there he has listed Finnish swear words, Tolkki tells. - He sends me also offensive faxes, where he calls me "Timo Krapulaperähuuhtelu Tolkki". His brother Anders Johansson, who has also played in Malmsteen's band, sent some faxes after we [Finland] had lost some match against Sweden. "Saatanan muumitontut".
- Jens is a hell of an intelligent guy, he has the education of a computer programmer. I guess he tries to hide his intelligence by being a complete moron. I rented a pad from Sturenkatu for Jens, and one morning went to get him to studio. He had rearranged the letters on the name board in the stair. It said Hitler A., Göbbels and Helvettinen.
The new Stratovarius drummer Jörg Michael is instead a typical German, who eats a lot of cheese and is a soccer maniac, a big Dortmund fan.
- Naturally we're really happy to get for once so good players that we can't complain, says Tolkki. - And finally we feel like Stratovarius already has some kind of reputation. I don't think foreign guys like that would go to play anywhere. For the first time we have the chance to write songs without worrying whether the band will be able to play them. Looks good.
- Of course having members living abroad causes some practical problems. We can't have weekly trainings, but then again many other bands don't have. Airplanes have been invented, and before the tour we have to train a few weeks.
Because of having foreign musicians, Stratovarius has no chance of doing one-off shows. Stand-in drummers or keyboardists won't be seen on gigs. Bass player Jari Kainulainen complains that sometimes you get bored. You can't train with the whole band, and you have to play bass home alone.
- We did look musicians from Finland as well, but this kind of music doesn't overall have that much players, and in a small country like Finland even less. There aren't too many that good guys even in the whole world, says vocalist Timo Kotipelto. - We had an ad even in Soundi. It said: "We're looking for a double-bass drummer and a keyboard player with similar style to Jens Johansson". What do you know, we got pretty similar!
- Of course players that good draw interest. We have noticed it both abroad and in Finland. Here we've always had the problem that we don't get enough publicity. People may still have a wrong picture of us, they may have heard our first record, which is terrible.
- Although we can't train all the time, we don't have problems with our freetime, remarks Tolkki. - In a year we spend four months in studio, two months on road, a month on a promo-tour, and we still have to write new songs for the next record. And we should still be with the family too. Now I was over three monts in studio, every fucking day. I had only two days off. So, it's sometimes really nice to do just nothing.
When you ask Tolkki about the recording of the album, he smiles patronizingly. At first we pressed the button that says REC.
Well, actually everything wasn't so simple, when Stratovarius recorded their new album, Episode. Recording turned out to be a time consuming process. When the new players were learnt, Jörg flew to Finland and they trained with him for two and a half weeks. In October they went to studio. Jens in turn came to Finland before Christmas and spent here memorable two and a half weeks playing his own parts.
Overall Stratovarius was in studio over three months. The whole record was made in Finnvox [the best studio in Finland], because the band wanted to invest much into it. So, the record became shockingly expensive, one of the most expensive ever made in Finland.
After a long persuading Tolkki agrees to tell that the budget for the record is a six-number digit, which begins with three. But the price includes 30-piece choir and 20-piece string orchestra from Sibelius Academy.
- Well, the last record sold a bit over 70.000 copies, it gives you certain possibilites for making the next one, notices Tolkki. - Sales in Japan was 50.000 and in Europe around 20.000. As an import it has gone to surprising and weird places, like Argentina and Brazil. And we have received pretty much mail from the USA. It is surprising, the record hasn't even been released there. We really wanted to invest into this record, because the material felt so good, and we have together a real dream-team line-up. Let's see. If this doesn't sell, we'll make the next record a bit cheaper.
Timo Tolkki has recorded for several bands, and all previous Stratovarius records as well, but this time they trusted in Tarmo-Tuulikki Oksala's recordings. It gave Tolkki free ears, because he didn't have to be with machines all the time. For mixing Mikko Karmila was also brought in, but Tolkki took care of the producing.
- I couldn't work with an outside producer, says Tolkki. - Someone saying what to do would feel weird. I might think a co-producer, but I don't see any need for it. Probably the direction is right, because every record has sold a hundred percent more than the previous one.
- When we began recording the songs, every now and then I had to calm down Kotipelto a bit. He had a kind of "balls to the wall" -attitude, tells Tolkki. - When he first time opened his mouth, too much sound came from there, with 150% power. I wondered what the hell was going on, and flew two meters back with my chair.
But hasn't Stratovarius thought about making a record abroad? Finnvox is still an expensive studio after all.
Yes, it is. In fact we did think about it at some point, but this was easier, as most of the band lives in Finland anyway. Recording abroad would've probably become even more expensive, hotel expenses and the like would've come in addition. Besides, Finnvox is hell of a good studio, this was the first time we could afford to record the whole album in so good studio. It can be heard in the sounds. Besides, Karmila and Oksala are used to work at Finnvox. Well, we did cause quite a chaos. When we booked the studio for three monts, big multinational record companies were in deep shit when they tried to get booked. And there we were, playing ice-hockey game with Super Nintendo.
- When we recorded bass, someone came to carefully ask, if we could close some doors, as the whole building is shaking, laughs Kainulainen. - They must have been really relieved when we left.
Even though Stratovarius' previous record was diverse, the new Episode is even richer experience. It has fast killers, symphonic heavy metal, and some slow material. The band themselves guess that the opening track Father Time is the clearest hit, fast songs do always well in Japan, and Japan is the main market for the band.
- We made a demo and sent it to Japan and Germany, says Tolkki. - The Japanese said that it has too much slow songs, they don't work there. Germany said just the opposite. Attitudes changed to happiness when they got this record into their hands. I've learned one thing during these years: you must trust yourself enough to not to listen to what others say. We have a perfect freedom to do just the record we like. We give the company a finished master, and if it isn't good enough, then it isn't.
Kotipelto and Kainulainen describe that Tolkki is a demanding man in studio. If something doesn't work, he comes to shout ten centimeters from your face, and snot flies. And sometimes every kinds of dippers and pots fly around the studio, but a good result requires hard criticism.
But do the other guys in the band ever say to Tolkki that now you played badly?
- Me? I don't play badly, Tolkki cries out.
- I have sometimes complained something, but there wasn't really much to be complained, says Kotipelto. - For me Timo is the first and the only guy with whom I can really work seriously. Timo knows how I sing, and he can sing himself. He's a hell of a good, and demanding producer. I have really hard self-criticism, and sometimes I'm even too hard on myself. A human can't sing that high for eight hours. These songs get quite high, and it produces some problems.
Kotipelto has to train his voice constantly. Before the gig he has to open up his voice carefully, and he has to warm up after the show, just like after sport exercise. Also his own physics must be trained all the time. He has also studied singing over two years in Jazz Conservatory.
- Singing this kind of rock music is actually close to classical, because the producing the voice has the same technique, says Kotipelto. - These songs can't be sung drunk, or especially under influence from any other drugs. And I can't basically tolerate cigarette smoke at all. Bassist and drummer smoke, but never at backstage. And it is clear that singing requires enormous concentration. I try to sing like I did on the record, or varying melodies a bit.
- Singing live has so many aspects. You must also offer a real show. It is horrible to watch the band that plays to themselves. By the way, it is pretty general problem with Finnish bands, they just are on stage and play with each other. They don't realize that the thing must be delivered outwards, not to the side. You also have to draw a line on whether you run as much as Dickinson, or try to sing as Dio does. He doesn't run much, though he moves.
Episode will be released at the end of April in Germany through Noise International and in Japan through JVC. It means that now the delivery works definitely better than before, and the record company seems to be excited, even enough to advertise their new band. Stratovarius has a three record master deal with Noise International.
Compared to Europe, a different version of Episode is released in Japan. It has a bonus-track, because the Japanese always want something extra. Before the album, also a Maxi-CD of four tracks comes out in Japan. It has three songs from Episode and a new version of one track from the debut album.
In Japan there are also two Stratovarius bootlegs, named Twilight In The East and Live In Three Dimensions. Covers are beautiful, but the recordings weak. So we've had plans of making an official live album. During the forthcoming European tour a couple shows will be recorded, and some of the material will be released on a video.
- USA is not included in our deal, but we get half a year to search contract from there ourselves. If we don't find satisfying one, those companies will take care of it. And we had the possibility of making straight deal with JVC in Japan, now it goes through Germany. That is, it has German mouth in between, and it takes about half of the money away. Financially own deal would've been more reasonable, but this only proves how serious we are with this. We really want to invest in Europe as well.
When the new Stratovarius record hits the shops, the band will leave to a little club tour in Finland to break the thing in. In June follows a three week European club tour with Virgin Steele. Then it's time to take hold of Greece, Italy, Spain, Holland, France and of course Germany. They'll barely get back to Finland by the Midsummer. Later in Summer they are going to Japan. But before all that: infernal promotion. Tolkki will tour Europe for a couple of weeks, and at the middle of May Kotipelto in turn does an interview tour in Japan. Fan meetings have been organized in the largest cities, as the local audience has doubled in one year.
They don't know about Finnish festivals yet, but they are hoping for them. Sure in every festival you see bands that sell as much in Finland as Stratovarius does, but you don't often have the chance to see this band.
Stratovarius knows that staging is part of a heavy metal band. Magnified record covers have been seen in their shows, but cardboard pyramids are not even wanted on stage. Stages are after all pretty small, and if there was more stuff, it would require also more crew, and money to buy them coffee. Currently the regular Stratovarius road crew has only a mixer and a light technician.
Doesn't Tolkki want to get himself even a fire-breathing guitar?
- How about a fire-breathing singer? In this band, if something is done at all, our intent is to do it well. You can forget that kind of laser cannons. Bombs are starting to be pretty comical too.
Tolkki remarks that in Finland it is often settled for getting things half-way through, and the result can be even amusing.
- I have inside experience of this, because I've made many records for several Finnish bands. And it isn't always upto the bands. If you have to do a record with 7000 marks and it should sound like Aerosmith, you don't have much alternatives. There isn't even a right rock-scene in Finland at the moment, everyone sells 300 records. Who makes one's living with that? It is totally amateurish action.
- Now I'm talking about rock bands. Aikakone [a popular Finnish pop band] and the rest are totally different thing. And Waldo. Compete Musical Adventure! Finland's export hope. He totally screwed up at Midem fair in Cannes. People left when Complete Musical Adventure walked to the stage. The name comes from the beginning of that one song. "Welcome to the complete musical adventure, uh-uh-uh". And the guy raps with wanna-be-Jamaican accent, you can't even understand it. And lipsticks are so-so. This kind of clowns we have, that's what I'm trying to say.
- Yes, Waldo is played on the radio a lot, but our music instead isn't heard anywhere, says Kotipelto.
- Doesn't matter, we're still happy, assures Tolkki.
- Happy and quiet, answers Kotipelto.
- Miisa in turn is a good singer, but I feel pity for her, because she made a mistake of signing a slave-deal of about ten records, says Tolkki. - What's the fucking point? And before the record has been even released, we have huge headlines of it. Like this latest, which is on Ilta-Sanomat [one of Finland's leading evening papers] every other day, is based on disco-play. If someone goes to disco to dance, does he listen to what is played? He goes there to shake his ass and drink booze. Disco chart has nothing to do with how popular the chick is there by record sales. This is some sort of media trick too.
- How can you "tour" if you are Waldo or some techno band? They play DAT and are so "European Tour", even though the guy never did anything else but embarrassed himself at Midem. Do you get some satisfaction out of it when everything comes from the tape? And where do they always find these stereotypes, as the line-up is always the same. White chick and black guy. They have probably picked a train full of niggers from the deep south, and somewhere there is an ungodly big techno-factory, where they are first pumped full of ecstasy and then begins rapping. Fortunately we have -ism, Marko Ahtisaari's [son of the Finnish President, Martti Ahtisaari] band, which "breaks in the States".
Tolkki doesn't have anything bad to say about Finnish heavy metal bands. And it is true that a couple of metal bands sells pretty well around the world [probably meaning Amorphis and Sentenced]. Waltari in turn isn't metal, they call themselves crossover 2000.
- But I'm not saying we were traditional metal either, says Tolkki. - This new record doesn't sound like Deep Purple either. We've been labeled as a 70's band without a reason. But for example Tarot is a band that would have deserved more attention, it is a good band. On the other hand, you can't force anyone to be successful. How do they get visibility, unless they sell themselves everywhere aggressively. It doesn't happen by snapping your fingers. Unless you play techno.
Even though Stratovarius is known abroad, it doesn't mean constant celebration. The band can't always be too picky about the places to play. During last spring they toured little clubs in Germany, and a lot larger places in Greece, where their success is quite heavy. They were in Japan in August, and in between they had time to play three festivals in Finland. Hurriganes-festival in Virtasalmi was wrong place for the band. Audience didn't get warmed, though heads did roll.
Stratovarius trusts in restrained progress. For example making a video based on one song is still considered. Though you can disagree about its necessity. Tolkki notes that Waltari's very expensive video didn't help significantly the record sales.
- You must draw the line somewhere, how much money to put into it, says Kotipelto. - If you make a video that's crap, it has the use of giving a negative picture of the band, and that's it then. But it's pointless to take loan from the bank and pay half a million, when we don't have money.
- I have, says Tolkki.
- Well, you have money, but it doesn't matter with this thing. And if you once make a video, where is it then shown? Once on MTV. It wouldn't help us.
Stratovarius hasn't searched for sponsors to support them either. They've tried to keep a gap to the whole thing, but within reasonable limits something might be done.
- We are not [Leningrad] Cowboys anyway, and we can't take the benefit of it as those guys do in their brilliant manner. They do a hell of a good job, making money for Lastenklinikka and others too. For example the ice-hockey game in Germany was an ingenious idea. In the evening they played in the same ice-hall and got reputation for their band too. Of course, if we could find some reasonable, pretty large company somewhere abroad... I don't think any forestry company around here would sponsore us.
Stratovarius admits the success of a few Finnish bands, but they get tired of the big talks of some bands.
- That Japan thing has got on my nerves already, as we have headlines of bands that sell 300 records there, says Tolkki. - I guess we have some kind of media cheat going on. Japan is only one region of the world, it isn't any fucking kind of Klondyke, where everyone sells. At the moment we are the only Finnish band that sells there over 50.000. You can always imagine and wish, but we have dreamed a little that this record would break the hundred thousand barrier, which is their gold limit for foreign records.
- Stormwing from Pietarsaari got a story in nine o'clock news because they had got a record deal in Japan. When the record came out it sold 2.000, and no-one has heard anything from the band since, except for the horrible Estonia-song, which is the all-time flop. The idea of taking advantage of the accident and get publicity with it is horrifying. There are unwritten laws of what not to do, and this is definitely one of them. And now they have made a Hjallis-song. How anyone can take that band seriously?
- Well, we have had some interesting heavy metal bands in Finland. For example Oz in its time, but Oz was still always Oz, they didn't leave that frame. At least they tried to do it well, they had huge stagings and everything. The guitarist had got an inheritance of around 200.000 marks from his grandmother, and he bought something like a hundred Marshalls. Sargofagus was also a pioneer in Finnish heavy metal. I wonder why Hannu Leiden doesn't like when it's discussed. At least it proved that you can make heavy here too. And even in Finnish. The record Moottorilinnut [=Motorbirds] has perhaps the best heavy song of the decades, Tuhannen Megawatin Totuus [=The Truth Of Thousand Megawatts].
Timo Tolkki smiles when he hums the theme of the song.
At the moment Greece and Japan are the countries, where Stratovarius-enthusiasm is the greatest. In Greece audience yells like animals, in Japan they take a little easier. They appreciate skilled playing and good singing. The higher you sing the higher the thumbs rise.
Stratovarius has also its own Fan Club in Japan. The Japanese don't speak English too well, so magazines and shirt offers have to be in Japanese. The club has its own magazine that comes out four times a year. European Fan Club is also being planned, because the band gets much mail, but there isn't time to reply.
But have you been proposed in Japan?
- Let's leave that with no comments, the guys laugh. - But the Japanese like long, blond hair. Every time we go to Japan, every guy dyes his hair blond. And eyebrows too. Actually the Japanese are really withdrawn and shy people. They don't even necessarily dare to come to talk.
- It's funny that Japan has only a little foreigners, says Kotipelto. - You really stand out from the crowd. Even I am there of almost normal height, but when these 190-centimeter [around 6' 3"] long guys go there, and one has even blond hair, you can see them from far away in shopping mall.
It's a bit odd that Stratovarius don't have a manager yet. The band themselves still take care of almost every practical issue. For example the manager of Dream Theater has been interested, but you have to be sure that you'll get something for the money the manager takes.
But Tolkki doesn't have to sell gigs anymore. German agent takes care of them. But the truth is that all big and even small decicions are still made in Finland, by Tolkki. If the band gets too democratic, soon anyone won't make any decicions.
- That's true. You have to have the leader, says Tolkki. - If you have five guys who disagree with one another, it doesn't work. You see, there are such bands. But everyone who has worked with me is ready to admit how fair I am. I really am not an asshole, even though I may have gained that reputation when I fired those previous players. You can easily get that kind of reputation, especially here in Helsinki. Even though I'm mostly out of those circles, as I don't go drinking, and show my face in the city very rarely. I've always been ready to help almost any band, sent tapes and given advices. I'm basically so kind-hearted guy that sometimes it's really hard to say no. It's easier to exchange phone numbers.
Last time Tolkki recorded the Capital Crime record. Now he simply doesn't have time to do outside work. He still admits, though, that if it's about friends, he may still record demos or do mixing in the studio for a day or two.
Have you ever counted how many records you've recorded and produced?
- No. A hell of a lot, plus demos too, there are hundreds altogether. I've developed the kind of ear that I can't always explain in words what I want from the band. When I hear something, I know if it works, but I can't explain what's wrong with it. Good basic sound is easily made, but if the band's not good, you can't make good out of it, no matter what kind of wizard you are. Good producer can only highlight the good sides of the band. Except bass. You can never hear it anyway.
Talking about record sales with Stratovarius makes Tolkki smile. If Episode sells 100.000 worldwide, they're happy. Or you can hope that it will sell 58 millions in Taiwan.
- It's somehow pervert to talk about some numbers, says Kotipelto. - The only thing that matters is that the previous record sold well enough to make the next record possible. And now we hope that we'll be again able to make the next one, and even get paid for it. But we're not yet bathing in money. Except of course Timo [Tolkki].
- Often Finnish bands don't talk about sales figures, because they sell so little, says Tolkki. - We have taken a bit more open attitude towards interviews, because usually we have maintained even too low profile. This is marginal music after all, but let's hope that it would get some kind of success in Finland.
Have other Finnish bands showed jealousness towards you?
- The better you are as an musician the more you got enemies, says Tolkki. - Instead we should worry, if they weren't jealous at us. Everyone who knows us personally knows that we're just ordinary nice guys. We've always tried to keep policy to talk afterwards about what we've achieved, not about what might happen in two years. The current trend seems to be just the opposite. Praises before anything has been done, which is damned short-sighted. Like Waldo.
We should get you a Waldo shirt, as you talk so much about him.
- Waldo is actually a jeans salesman, "Waldo's Clothings". Hessu Reijonen is his father. Soon we'll see Waldo special guest starring in The Bold And The Beautiful, "Finnish super rock star with a Jamaican accent"-DAT playing... [Hessu Reijonen has brought many of The Bold And The Beautiful actors to visit Finland]
- You'll hear about this Waldo-enthusiasm later, sighs Kainulainen.
- It doesn't matter. We sell a hundred thousand, he sells two thousands. It is because of guys like him the media tries to bring out the delusion of heavy metal being dead. It is not dead. It just can't get out while all the waldos are in the headlines. And it's not just in Finland, it is a worldwide phenomenon. But we have toured in Europe and Japan and seen that heavy metal hasn't disappeared. The people are there. And everyone of us knows that Finland has metal people too. Finland is a heavy metal country, because we have this kind of climate. You won't be able to listen to techno kick forever, and actually it isn't even a bass drum, but a tom. In fact it feels like heavy metal is the only genre of music that still has some kind of rebellion left.