Kettledrums and Trumpets
Interview: Melanie Aschenbrenner
Turbulent months lie behind the Finnish mega-sellers. Rarely a band dispute has been made as public as in the case of NIGHTWISH vs. Tarja Turunen. The introduction of ANETTE OLZON as the new singer did not stop the speculations – quite the opposite. The most recent question: Is the new material any good? Are NIGHTWISH still NIGHTWISH without Tarja? METAL HAMMER met TUOMAS HOLOPAINEN and ANETTE OLZON and thinks: Yes and yes again. With DARK PASSION PLAY, the most sweepingly realised NIGHTWISH-epic, a new era begins.
The German baptism of fire Anette already passes at the end of July: That which has been planned as a small, intimate autograph session turns into a siege, lasting several hours, as thousands of curious fans overwhelm the ‘new one’ in the Nuclear Blast-Shop in Donzdorf. For hours Anette laughs and talks with the fans – although she would prefer to lie on a couch somewhere with an ice pack: The day before she received quite a lump in the boss’ bureau – courtesy of a Nightwish-trophy of all things. “I take it as a happy omen!”, she grins and holds her head.
Among rock-related accidents, collisions with golden records are a bit unusual – then again, what is normal concerning Nightwish? Whether one likes them or not, the band is a phenomenon: Their fans range from the Finnish head of state to completely normal metalheads; they can lead the charts worldwide without scaring off their fanbase and their symphonic mixture of Heavy-, Power- and Gothic-Metal is so unique that they actually could patent it. At least it has been, until recently. And now?
From the deep
While Anette does a lap of honour, one relaxed Tuomas Holopainen leans back. The Nightwish-boss is calm and thoughtful – a dialogue partner who listens very carefully before opening his mouth. His kohl-gaze speaks of self-irony, especially when the rubber meets the road – when confronted with questions concerning Tarja Turunen, the idolatrously adored ‘ex’. For a long time the fans saw the frontwoman as a synonym for Nightwish: Tarja’s, in terms of rock music, untypical classically trained voice, her charisma and her extravagant outfits let her colleagues pale more and more in comparison – ignoring the fact that all music and lyrics come from keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen.
In 2005, when the divorce took place, the fans – and even more so the singer – were caught red-handed: The Helsinki concert, which was meant as the conclusion of the world tour, was celebrated like a major national event. As soon as the applause had vanished however, Tarja got her cards in form of a public letter in which Nightwish announced that their once adorable school friend had turned into a diva whose collaboration they would gladly do without in the future. Tarja countered shortly after – with a public letter, too – that she had been misunderstood and hurt terribly. Since the split happened inmidst the boom, shock and scepticism were caused along with an ugly media circus, especially in Finland. “The reporters even broke into the structural work of my new house”, Tuomas remembers. “They waylaid us like paparazzi. We couldn’t do anything else but withdraw into privacy.”
Those who saw Nightwish going south were mistaken: DARK PASSION PLAY does not leave room for phantom pain. This eagerly awaited sixth album marks the dividing line between Nightwish 1.0 and 2.0. No matter if they are poaching in ‘Lord of the Rings’-fields, laying down the heaviest riff-attack of their career or jingle Finnish-Irish folk – Tuomas Holopainen, Marco Hietala, Erno ‘Emppu’ Vuorinen and Jukka Nevalainen have broken clear: DARK PASSION PLAY sounds like a collective sigh of relief.
It is strange, though, that it is their darkest and most melancholic opus – a parforce-ride through Holopainen’s moods. “Yes, there’s a certain contradiction”, he grins. “Lyrically and musically it treated me quite hard, but the bottom line is… optimism. I experienced the positive power of music myself. Although the album is full of choirs, orchestra, guest musicians, elements and styles, it’s more band-orientated than ever.”
This does not really show on the symphonic opener, but one cannot start an album more dramatic than with ‘The Poet and the Pendulum’. The nearly fifteen minutes long track, balancing between Edgar Allan Poe and film music, does not hesitate: It throws the listener down into the deepest torture chambers and dungeons, caresses his sweating head and finally drives a knife into his chest – a multi-part monster in which Nightwish pulls out all the stops with help from the London Session Orchestra and a choir with 33 singers. For Tuomas it is an excellent possibility to give all doubters the finger. “Shall I be honest? Of course showing off is a part of it”, he chuckles. “Why should I hide the best track I’ve ever written somewhere in the middle of the album? A song of this calibre needs to be either at the beginning or at the end – and the latter was already reserved for ‘Meadows of Heaven’ in my mind. For a while I was afraid to propose this idea to the others, but they liked it from the very beginning!”
Following this dark beginning, energy levels stay high: The beat-leaning ‘Bye Bye Beautiful’ (an ‘Up yours!’ between Anette and bassist Marco Hietala) and the potential hit ‘Amaranth’ are followed by the next, completely different colossus: ‘Master Passion Greed’, entirely barked by Marco, is Tuomas’ State of the Union speech and an undisguised look on the inside, respectively. “There’s a lot of self-loathing in there”, he confirms. “Definitely the heaviest track.”
The following path is more intricate and leads from oriental, ballad-like and celtic influences (with bagpipes and flutes) to a gospel choir. No doubt: Holopainen’s palette is more colourful than ever. For two songs, he passed the sceptre over to Marco (‘The Islander’) and guitarist Emppu (‘Whoever brings the night’) – a novelty in Nightwish. “I will always insist on Nightwish staying my baby, a mirror of my soul”, the songwriter explains. “Who would I be on my own, though? Without the other’s dedication and input I’d never be able to express myself this way. Nightwish isn’t my solo; it’s a cosmos we’ve created together.” When finally the credits are rolling in the above mentioned hallowed outro ‘Meadows of Heaven’, one has left behind a playing time of 75 minutes in which one has trembled, suffered and laughed with Nightwish, lying on the ground, exhausted but happy.
Tuomas calling DARK PASSION PLAY a ‘make or break’ album, the boat that will let Nightwish float or sink, causes Anette to shake her head. “I never had the impression of them doubting themselves; they simply were crestfallen”, she states. “Of course they were in a down mood after Tarja. At the same time, this was meant to be the best album of their career. They prepared themselves for a long time… and as a result waited for a long time before they chose me.”
Filtering out the ‘new one’ was a pain for all people involved: Tuomas & co needed to go through more than two thousand applications and experienced the chutzpa of the ‘Idol’-generation themselves. “Everyone believes himself a star – without education, without talent, without a clue”, he grumbles. “Some of them made a scale of four to 66 tones out of the eight tone scale. The funniest ones were the non-Finns who had a go at ‘Kuolema Tekee Taiteilijan’ – that was more droll than anything else. I don’t want to be mean, though: A lot of them really put their hearts and souls into this.” About fifty applicants made it through the first round, ten managed the last one and met the band in person.
Then it got serious. “We knew that she was out there, somewhere”, Tuomas remembers. She, the new one, the woman everyone would look at. However: Just found, he was about to reject her. Why? “I was afraid because she’s got a family”, Tuomas admits. “I immediately liked Anette, but mentally I’d already said goodbye to her since I thought having the responsibility for a five-year-old kid would dim her dedication to the band. We were completely divided: On the one hand we were in heaven, having found such a great, versatile, expressive singer, but on the other hand we were in a blue funk ‘cause it might not work out. Once we were in the studio all doubts left after the first day, though. Anette has a power that sweeps the hair out of your face.”
Anette in turn makes a fist and rattles with her bracelets while thinking of the one and a half year long wait. A few times she was close to convert her application into paper pulp. “Till they’d gotten things straight! It was a medium-sized war of nerves, but… grah! Damn, I wanted that job!” If one has not heard her claws in the songs already, here you can see them ready to strike. Mrs. Olzon knows exactly what she wants. “In the final spurt I was absolutely focussed, I admit it. So what? It did pay off: I haven’t been that happy and challenged for years, nor have I been that anxious to sing.” It does not scare Tuomas that the 36-year-old has been working with ABBA tribute bands, chart-pop and rock-musicals and that she did not know Nightwish until shortly before Tarja’s dismissal. The main thing is: Her voice is coming “straight out of the balls”.
Nightwish do not want a Tarja-clone and even if the singer of a gold - and platinum - draped band inevitably is the main focus – they kicked out the marble pedestal from underneath her. “Yesterday, a journalist asked me what it felt like to be a goddess now”, she agitates. “While I understand that the fans look up to us – I wasn’t any different – please, please stay realistic, okay?” The well-trained Swede definitely has it in herself to be a pulling focus – proof is given in the ‘Amaranth’-video, shot by Antti Jokinen in L.A. – but humbly sees herself as an interpreter only. “Everything else would be arrogance, since I don’t even write the songs”, Anette states. “As a singer, I need the framework the others build for me. I need them as friends, fellows in the tourbus, as great musicians. Nobody is more important than the other.” On DARK PASSION PLAY she simply worked with what the band threw at her in March: Completely finished songs.
Five questions to the ‘new one’
Finnish or Swedish?
At the moment our official language within the band is English. I’m busy learning Finnish, though, with a book and a CD. I’m talented with languages and learning fast. Right now I already understand a lot of Finnish – the boys aren’t safe from me! They were pretty surprised at the casting, because I understood their mysterious mumblings…
Your special talent?
I have a big mouth, that is, I’m quick-witted. When someone talks trash to me, I can give him or her a piece of my mind immediately. I think it’s going to be quite useful on tour.
Your biggest vice?
I always say that I have none. Of course all of us have our bad sides, though. Someone else would have to answer that, someone who knows me well. Spontaneously I’d say: Impatience.
Woah, no idea. If I say singing it’ll sound stupid, won’t it?
Funny moment on DARK PASSION PLAY?
Emppu’s song ‘Whoever brings the night’! A crazy track. Emppu just had the rough scetches of the chorus and the melody, it seems, and the more they worked on it, the crazier it became. It’s like “‘The Grudge’ meets Tim Burton” with absolutely bitchy lyrics. I love strange stuff like that!
Voices in the head
The lovingly tended studio-blog tells that the material was more or less completed in September 2006. “Yes it was, because we had been rehearsing daily and discussing for two months already at that time”, Tuomas smirks. “An album that carries artistry to the extremes doesn’t work any differently. Additionally, Pip Williams, the arranger of the orchestra scores, needed really good demos – and he needed them presto. Our vision had to be clear and tangible because of this. As soon as Pip is working on the scores one cannot change much any more. Working on the songs afterwards would have required him to start anew.” Which, despite their friendship since their first collaboration on ONCE, would have been a tad too expensive.
Holopainen himself does not write down any of his complex, multi-part compositions. A few scribbled chords, a dozen notes for the choir, that’s it. The working basis for the band is demos. “The others call me nuts on a regular basis because they cannot get a complete picture without the orchestra and choirs. There’s everything in my head, though. Trust me, I know what I’m doing!” The orchestrations, which have become more and more opulent since CENTURY CHILD, are woven in from the very beginning – which is the reason why Nightwish do not have as much trouble with orchestra-productions as some of their colleagues from the black fraction: Dimmu Borgir and Cradle of Filth had to experience how difficult it can be to synchronise blastbeat and sounding body. Dimmu Borgir grew so frustrated that they returned to samplers on IN SORTE DIABOLI. Holopainen recognises the problem. “As a normal member of a band one does not think in dimensions that large: One builds things differently. To put an orchestra on top at the end just doesn’t cut it. Look at Metallica’s S&M – as a combination of orchestra and metal I’d say: The issue was missed. I see the orchestra as an oversized keyboard I’d play myself if I had twenty hands.”
With those raw recordings (done in Emppu’s home studio in Kerava, in Petrax and in Finnvox with producer Mikko Karmila) Nightwish moved into the holy halls of rock: The Abbey Road studios in London. Arranger Williams could book the legend at an acceptable price to record orchestra and choirs. Tuomas is still hyperventilating, though less because of the Beatles-aura as just because of the presence of the professionals. “It’s the first league”, he raves. “You already get starry-eyes once you enter the building and see all those old Pink Floyd-posters, but then you overhear the team while on coffee-break: You can hear them talking about their productions… ‘Titanic’-soundtrack here, ‘Harry Potter’ there, ‘Terminator’, ‘Lord of the Rings’. Woah.” Very likeable: Nightwish, selling millions themselves, shyly look at their feet all of sudden. Even the studio-musicians were impressed, though: After the sessions they showered Tuomas & co with compliments – ranging from the headbanging contrabassist to the kettledrum player who is going to treat his pupils with Nightwish-scores from now on.
The use of two singing boys caused a bit of trouble at the beginning: The choir master of the Metro Voices asked Holopainen to censor the text at a few points – he did not plan to score ‘The Exorcist’ anew, did he?
Pit and Pendulum
When asked, the Nightwish-boss coughs a bit. With mentioning of ‘The Exocist’, the choir master unerringly put the finger on the wound. Indeed Tuomas is exorcising demons – especially in ‘The Poet and the Pendulum’. “There are a few violent spots: Among other things, people are literally are masturbating on my grave”, Tuomas says. “It’s symbolic, of course, but I understand that it’s impossible to give this to a twelve-year-old.” The really bloody details he let Marco sing.
The song concretely mentions “the year of our Lord 2005”, a time in which Holopainen questioned everything. The split was not the cause, but the starting point of a real crisis. “A lot of things came together. Although I have an enormous hunger for life – what can I do when I’m so down that I want nothing more than to commit suicide? I’d never do it, but within a song I can: Lie down on an altar and let the blade swing lower and lower until it cuts me in two”, he says hoarsely and swallows. “It was very…therapeutical.”
Anette Olzon experienced this macabre roleplay in a very hard way. As an empath she always is afflicted and keeps negativity away from her as a means of self-preservation – but in this song, she had to follow Tuomas on the way down. “Dear God, that song hurt. Okay, it’s my job as a singer, but… phew. In general I think I understood the content quite well instinctively”, Anette states. “Personally, I like the forgiving turn the album takes. The suspense curve clearly leads upwards.” Will she try to hold her own lyrics under Tuomas’ nose one day? “Heavens, no”, she declines. “I’m not going to intrude on this matter. Marco and I could help developing vocal lines in the future, but certainly not the lyrics: Those are a sacred cow.”
More importantly, the lyrics are a part of the magic Nightwish possesses and are interlocked closely with the music. Songs are parchment and canvas for Tuomas – he needs both. He deliberately admits that his art does not come to existence out of a vacuum: With borrowings, quotations and lists in which he enthusiastically reveals his ‘inspiration of the month’ online. “One sucks in so many influences”, he muses. “When one gives them time and space, they turn into something new all by themselves. During the last three years I dealt a lot with writers like Poe and Walt Whitman, musically with celtic folk – I think one can hear this on the album.”
Among the main topics are doubts concerning one’s own identity, loneliness and immersion into nature – sometimes tightly, sometimes overflowingly set in scene. Those who call Nightwish a ‘show-off band’ overlook the fact that they are storytellers first. Anette immediately grasped this, Tuomas praises. “Although she minds technical aspects, she mostly cares about expression. That’s the biggest difference between her and Tarja: Anette lets the story behind the song come to life”, Tuomas raves. “During the casting we gave her ‘Eva’ among others, the download-single that tells about a little girl who’s picked on. I cautiously asked if she had an idea what the song was about. Anette said, ‘Absolutely. I’ve already been in the same situation.’ Her version spontaneously blew my mind.”
Before Mrs. Olzon takes all credit: Marco Hietala is convincing, too. His grating input on ‘Master Passion Greed’ and the wistfulness of ‘The Islander’ belong to his best moments since 2002 – which is one more reason for Tuomas to “never again touch a microphone”.
Holopainen’s family restaurant
Following Nokia, Nightwish are Finland’s most successful export: ONCE, for example, bestowed them number one positions in Finland, Germany, Norway and Greece as well as high international chart-positions three years ago. Nevertheless, the five of them are available to their fans on their website on a regular basis, search the contact to them actively and – as it could be seen just now – shake thousands of hands in one afternoon. “That’s the deal”, Tuomas nods. “That’s the basic idea of this band. However I just recently understood the amount of responsibility that comes with it, everything that’s connected with us. It made the parting with Tarja even more sensible: Either you bear your own weight or you better leave.” Nightwish was a style of life, they wrote in their farewell back then.
Nightwish is a big company, too; not even Tuomas can deny this anymore – even if it is led like a corner shop. The recording costs of DARK PASSION PLAY are rumoured to add up to 500,000€, paid out of their own pockets. Are you serious, Mr. Holopainen, half a million? “More or less, yes. We came to one conclusion: No matter the cost of this album, we’d pay everything ourselves – especially now, at this point of our career. We didn’t want any compromises. The lion’s share was devoured by Abbey Road, of course. Eight days in the studios, 130 musicians… it cost”, Tuomas reasons. “Plus ten months in Finnish studios. Not a single cent has been spent in vain, though: We didn’t play on a playstation in the studio for one second, didn’t hire a super-producer who spreads nothing but hot air and gets paid for it. It was highly concentrated working.” At the end, everyone who was involved in DARK PASSION PLAY in any way got his or her own copy of the album – a mindfulness that is not a norm in this business.
Now, after the turbulence around Tarja’s dismissal and the rumour mill concerning the ‘new one’, things calmed down so much that Tuomas even forgives those who have hunted him, Marco, Jukka and Emppu throughout those months. “That’s the price of fame”, he shrugs. “I was angry with the media often. Then, someday, I understood that even the most vicious reporters are just doing their work. They have families to care for and no matter how bad the job is – someone has to do it. Sadly, that’s the way of the world”, he says – and trudges to the next interview, an unholy gleam in the eye. Nightwish are ready for round number two.
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