Blind trust – True feelings
Tuomas Holopainen is a real Finn: introverted, shy and surrounded by a touch of melancholy all the time. Even in a conversation about the new album ‘Once’ the band boss gives information only hesitatingly at first. But in the course of the interview with Zillo Tuomas thaws slowly so he allows a more and more deep insight into his creations.
Nightwish are a rare phenomenon. In Kitee of all towns, a small town located deep in the Finnish province, the band which was supposed to change the metal genre radically came into being at the light of a campfire in 1996. The beginning seems quite insignificant today although a record contract with the domestic label Spinefarm was signed and the debut album ‘Angels Fall First’ came out. Even though these first steps appear bumpy compared to the present times the unusual combination of melodic metal and the operatic soprano of a certain Tarja Turunen made you sit up and take notice. The song ‘Elvenpath’ reached Germany on a sampler of Nuclear Blast and on it it cut out even well established bands with its fresh innovative manner. On the other hand a surprising series of critics’ mistakes concerning Nightwish began at the same time. For example a so called ‘expert’ certified ‘missing commercial potential’ to the band – something that could have been a warning example for similar embarrassing prophecies to other journalists. Don’t worry about it now. With the following records ‘Oceanborn’ (1999) and ‘Wishmaster’ (2000) the Finns made a huge jump to the front. The record sales rose up high and both in the metal- and the gothic-camp a lot of fans themselves, some simply fanatic – but also fierce enemies. Especially for some conservative old-metal-chauvinists or bitchy gothic-girlies the charismatic front woman Tarja with her classically educated voice represented a bright red cloth. But the success agreed with Nightwish. But endless tours and internal difficulties cast a shadow on the band, at times until the brink of splitting up. As a result of that ‘Century Child’ (2002) sounded unusually dark. Additionally Tarja sang less operatically and found herself a male counterpart with the new bassist/singer Marco Hietala (Tarot, Ex-Sinergy). Because of these changes lots of critics and a few fans reacted a bit peeved in the beginning but in view of rising record sales all around the world and triumphant concerts with the thunderous performance in front of 8.000 people in Oberhausen such prophecies of doom finally grew silent. On the very intimate interview-DVD ‘End Of Innocence’ (2003) Tuomas presented the first years seen of his own point of view and draws a line under the past so to speak.
Here and now the release of the fourth Nightwish-album ‘Once’ is on the schedule. Even at first listen it becomes clear: Once again the group was able to change and to evolve without betraying their roots.
“We are still Nightwish”, Tuomas hesitates after a short break of thinking. “But how we bring the guitars to the front will frighten some people. For me personally this is the biggest change. The guitars sound more down-to-earth and have a more dominant role; our songs orientate themselves more by the riffs. On the other side there is the mighty orchestra that you cannot overhear as well. This could be a shock for all those that regarded Nightwish as a keyboard-Metal-band.” In fact already the first song ‘Dark Chest Of Wonders’ with its really heavy guitar-work and the glorious orchestra-entry proves Tuomas’ words to be true. After all the Finns weren’t afraid of costs and effort especially for the classical passages and engaged the London Session Orchestra which has an excellent reputation among experts not only because of the soundtrack for the third part of the movie trilogy of ‘The Lord Of The Rings’. But the question remains to where the keyboards have vanished? “They are still there all the time”, the Finn grins meaningfully. “Probably there are more keyboard-entries on ‘Once’ than there were ever before but they are a little bit hidden. The orchestra takes over big parts of their role but at the same time the keyboard is always playing. I doubled the orchestra-passages to get an additional effect but the electronic stuff was mixed into the background. That is why it is not that easy to hear me.”
You could hardly explain if Mister Holopainen of all members would have eliminated himself completely because he is one of the only keyboarders in the world who places his instrument at the front of the stage – even though he is regarded as a quite reserved person. “Perhaps I really am a front keyboarder”, Tuomas ponders. “When the band started it appeared absolutely clear that I had to be in the front and I stayed there since then. After all it was me who found the band and who wrote all songs back then and now as well. Although I am really shy I like it to stand there and communicate directly with the audience. Still the band boss sees no conflict with his front woman since on and off stage the main interest focuses on Tarja.
“That has never been a problem for me”, Tuomas emphasizes again. “People who know a few things about Nightwish also know about my position. Tarja is the natural focus of our band not only as the vocalist but also as a particularly beautiful woman. I gladly leave all the attention and the communication with our audience to her because I would never be able to do it as well as she does.” Many women regard Tuomas as a handsome specimen of a man as well. “Next question, please”, Tuomas wards off embarrassedly but after a short break he adds: “Well ok, I feel flattered.”
The avalanche of photos
The loud controversy that caught fire because of the current band pictures and the cover of the single ‘Nemo’ which was published in advance match the topic ‘looks’. Comparisons to the ‘Pirates Of The Caribbean’ belong to the more harmless comments.
“Well, we have just been on holiday”, Tuomas jokes self-ironically. “I like the photo for ‘Nemo’ a lot and Tarja thinks that she looks better on it than ever before. We never had a picture of the band as a cover before so this seemed to be a good opportunity for it. My basic idea was a picture like an old-fashioned movie-poster with Humphrey Bogart and Katherine Hepburn. So the artist adapted our faces according to my plans. Unfortunately, we got a lot of negative reactions for it.”
With this concept in the back of your head the picture looks a lot less terrible already. But apart from criticism concerning the personal taste which Tuomas accepts without restrictions the band was confronted with an avalanche of narrow-mindedness and evil scorn. “Probably people have a certain imagination of our outward appearance”, Tuomas thinks. “Since we are from Finland we have to be pale of course and in the background there has to be a pile of snow. Additionally we were reproached that we sold our souls and cast an eye on the American market with the photos. Things like this hurt although it is the worst bullshit. Why does everything have to be thrown in a narrow drawer? Compared to that the statement that we betrayed the metal-scene because we do not wear our hair open is simply funny.” Everything’s ok? It seems that for some so called ‘fans’ all the fuses blow as soon as their idols start to try something new or leave the path of eternal happiness. A bit more open-mindedness wouldn’t be bad at all even though you do not have to like the new look of course.
In contrast to the single the discreet cover of ‘Once’ should hardly provoke such fierce protest although it deviates from the previous formula of ‘naïve’ painting. “This time I wanted to get away from the pattern of the last three albums”, the Finn confirms. “It was to be a picture with light colours like in a snow-covered landscape and with a fallen angel no matter how much this idea sounds like a cliché. On the booklet there are only the graphic arts because our band logo is printed on the cd-case. This picture came into my head from somewhere without having a deeper meaning for me at first. When I look at the picture now and listen to the music I notice that it represents a few songs like ‘Higher Than Hope’ or ‘Dead Gardens’ very well. Nevertheless it simply remains a beautiful picture without a deeper meaning.
In contrast to the cover the title ‘Once’ means a lot to the musician.
“Already two years ago it was clear to me that this album could only be called ‘Once’”, Tuomas tells. “But I will not publish the reasons for that. Everyone who will read this article will think the same way then and this would finally rob the secret of the name ‘Once’. It is the same with my lyrics. For me the wealth lies in the different interpretations of every single reader and these set in relation to the lyrics or the song title and the whole artwork. Why should I take the pleasure away from the people by revealing the content of my own thoughts to them?”
Does a video like Nightwish shot it for their first single ‘Nemo’ doesn’t form a sharp contrast to the last statement? Especially the seemingly harmless small clips enduringly suppress all pictures of your own in one’s head. But Tuomas emphasizes that ‘Once’ consists of eleven soundtracks that are properly to form short movies in the listener’s thoughts. “Of course the danger exists”, the Finn admits. “But I hope that there is enough space left for thoughts of your own. At least the original script for the ‘Nemo’-video was written by me so it reflects the atmosphere of the song and my feelings to it at least in part. I haven’t watched the final clip though and the director wanted a few changes. A film-pro just knows his way about the necessities better but what I saw so far satisfied me. It orientates itself closely by the music and the melancholy that is hidden in ‘Nemo’ comes out.”
Does Tuomas’ sad side come out of the song with the Latin word for ‘nobody’ (‘Nemo’) again? The musician has the reputation of having the blues now and then. “Am I like that? Tell it to me,” the artist replies. “For me music is a way to get through my life. When I put all my bad thoughts into the songs I get my head clear. Then I can feel a bit happier with myself. This is exactly the case with ‘Nemo’.
The tendency of her band boss to doubt himself led even Tarja to a little outburst in the past. “Sometimes I could really shake him when Tuomas is not able to be really glad”, the singer told at the phone.
So it seems really surprising that Tuomas shows himself so satisfied with ‘Once’. “For the first time I’m happy for almost one hundred percent with my work”, the composer is pleased. “In contrast to the last albums I never lost trust in the final result with ‘Once’, from the beginning of the recordings until the day of the completion.” Tuomas needs this self-confidence really well at the moment because a few colleagues who were troubled for example with the bigger complexity seemed to be a bit sceptical at their studio-report. “Thank God that ‘Once’ is no easy-listening-disc”, Tuomas calls out relieved. “It is always the same with the scepticism at the beginning. This was no difference with ‘Century Child’ as well. And it is ok that way. Because I want to offer a real challenge to the people and me. If anybody should tell me that he remembers all the songs and every detail right after the first listen I would have failed. Hopefully the listeners will be astonished at the first time and remember only a chaos. But their interests should be caught so much that they listen to the album again and again and discover it for themselves slowly so the enjoyment continues for a long time. You just have to give more than one chance to the album.”
What may confuse some people is the absence of references because ‘Once’ is standing quite alone in the metal-scene with its strange combination of metal and soundtrack. “That is how I gladly regard it myself”, the musician agrees happily. “I don’t want to appear arrogant but I think that I created something unique with ‘Once’. We managed to unite the whole chaos and still sound like a heavy metal band without those pseudo-cultural claims. Some people try to create some really deep, intellectual and particularly and artistically valuable stuff with as much elements and orchestra musicians as possible.” Unfortunately Tuomas doesn’t want to tell names and continues: „However, we simply remained five schoolmates who play their favourite music.”
When Tuomas talks about ‘chaos’ he causes confusion at first because actually ‘Once’ sounds quite clear and hardly like a Free-Jazz-session. “I just mean the abundance of the material and the different elements”, the Finn points out. “I have a vision of the finished song in my head but for the others it meant pure chaos. In the rehearsal room I had to tell the other guys again and again: Just trust me. With a song like ‘Ghost Love Score’ the single parts never seemed to make sense. So there was a lot of conviction-work for me to do and I had to refer to the upcoming orchestra-recordings all the time. I felt sorry how much they had to rely on me blindly and their big trust honours me deeply. Especially when Tarja told me after the recordings that it was her best experience so far to sing on ‘Once’ my heart really went up. I was extremely flattered and this comment will probably make me live for ten years longer”.
Apart from the problem to demand a lot of patience from his colleagues Tuomas had to face other difficulties as well because of the complex production. Again the Finn acted as a producer. “Our sound-technician Mikko Karmilla was completely at a loss at times”, Tuomas grins nastily afterwards. “He simply ran out of channels. Only for ‘Ghost Love Score’ there were 170 channels to mix.” Blind Guardian, please queue up in the back. But the works escaped a full-grown catastrophe only by a hair’s breadth. “At the end of the recordings in Kitee we went through an ice-cold moment”, Tuomas remembers shivery. “For the final keyboard-recordings our co-producer Tero and I put a candle on one of the speakers to create the right atmosphere. When we left the studio deadly-tired we simply forgot about the burning candle. The morning afterwards a caretaker told us about smoke in the studio but luckily the candle only melted through the speaker and went out then. Today it still smells of smoke there.” Blessing in disguise.
You have to wait to find out if ‘Once’ will go down well with the fans. But it is certain that Nightwish stayed loyal to themselves.
“When you make honest music which comes from the heart you are able to hear this”, Tuomas is convinced. “A nice pop-song sounds artificial even when the word ‘love’ appears at the right position. Our honesty is our strength. No matter how complicated or strange the music appears the feelings behind it are true.” So hopefully as many people as possible will follow Tuomas’ final wish: “Give ‘Once’ more than one try although apart from ‘back then’ it even means ‘for on time’.” It is worth it!