Interview with Tony Kakko
By: David E. Gehlke
Once considered nothing more than Stratovarius copycats, Finland’s Sonata Arctica has emerged as the pre-eminent Finnish power metal band. Hailed as heroes in its homeland (they now regularly enjoy high chart positions) and conquerors in surrounding countries, the group has rode the strength of its more recent “Winterheart’s Guild” and “Reckoning Night” albums and established itself in the international metal scene.
Guided by singer and primary songwriter Tony Kakko, Sonata Arctica’s back catalog is stocked with incredibly melodious (and at times saccharine) songs that are now the measuring stick for all other Finnish power metal bands. For proof, just check out the Finnish version of "American Idols," simply dubbed “Idols,” where contestant Ari Koivunen sang the band’s classic “Full Moon,” helping him win this season's contest. Now just imagine if someone tried singing a song like that here in North America . . .
May 22 heralds the band's newest offering, “Unia,” a decidedly more mid-tempo and song-oriented platter than Sonata Arctica's last few albums. At first listen, there is a noticeable absence of blazing, double-bass-infused power metal anthems, a staple of the band’s repertoire. But further inspection reveals an outfit that has settled into its role as melodic metal masters, a trait that is supported by such excellent tracks as “Paid In Full,” “The Vice” and “Good Enough Is Good Enough.” We were able to discuss the album with Kakko, among other things, when he phoned Blistering on a rainy Sunday afternoon.
Blistering: Summarize these last three years after “Reckoning Night.” You guys have been all over the world and then some.
Tony Kakko: It’s been crazy. We’ve done 160 shows with “Reckoning Night," and the funny thing is that we had no idea it would last that long. It was fun; this is what bands do—they tour. When compared to the Winterheart’s Guild tour, we did only 45 shows, so it’s a world of difference.
Blistering: Has your success in Finland affected your daily life? Are you at the point where people are starting to notice you on the street?
Kakko: People do recognize me, but Finnish people are shy and they don’t talk much. They are usually like whispering [makes whispering sound], and I can tell they recognize [me]. They rarely come up to talk to me, and sometimes they’ll come up and ask for an autograph. Unless you go to a bar, which is something I don't do much anymore. If I go to a bar it’s going to be a time when people aren’t there, like a Monday. People in Finland usually don’t go to bars on that day unless they are professionals. [laughs]
Blistering: It might be hard for you to judge at this point in your career, but do you think “Reckoning Night” is the definitive Sonata Arctica album?
Kakko: I’m not sure—I haven’t thought of it. Every album has been slightly different.
Blistering: Going into your fifth album, “Unia,” were there any new ways in which you approached the songwriting?
Kakko: The whole thing started to go differently when I was asked to do a show for “Idols.” [A female contestant] was singing one of our songs [on the show's last season], and for courtesy reasons, I wrote a song for her. The same day I did that, I got really excited. I wrote a song and it was “Paid In Full,” and I started thinking this was a good song. I discussed it with everyone, and they told me since it was my song and I wrote it, I should use it for the band, so that was how the album got started.
Blistering: Ari Koivunen sang metal songs on this season of “Idols." Were you actually on the show?
Kakko: We were there, but we didn’t talk on the show too much. But we were on another channel that had a spin-off of the “Idols” show that had more backstage footage of us, so it was really good publicity for the band. It was cool to see this lovely little girl on TV singing one of our songs. It’s much more appealing than this hairy metal head. [laughs] This is the only way some of the people can hear our music in Finland—they go dumb, deaf and blind when they see the band.
Blistering: The keyboards are more upfront on this album. Were you in more of a keyboard kind of mood this time out?
Kakko: I laid most of the keyboards down, actually. There was a lot of arranging and programming that comes with it, and I played most of the Hammond organs on the album as well. The solos I don’t touch—that’s keyboardist Henrik [Klingenberg's] job. If he has some ideas that are better than mine in terms of basic keyboard arrangements, then we will definitely use them.
Blistering: You started out as the singer/keyboardist. Do you miss that at all?
Kakko: No, I don’t miss it. In a way, if this was a different band, I’d love to play keyboards and sing backing vocals, but we need to have a lead singer. It’s my playing field, [my] true passion, so to speak. It’s what I’d love to do in a dream world, but now I just jump around onstage.
When I was little kid when I was 2 or 3 years old, an older gentlemen approached me at a bus stop when I was with my parents and asked what I wanted to be when I grew up, and I said, “Rock singer!” In a way, I’ve always wanted to be the singer, and with Sonata Arctica, I’m able to do that.
Blistering: Tell me about “Good Enough Is Good Enough.” It’s a unique way to close the album.
Kakko: It’s one of the songs I wrote for “Idols,” but it never made it to the show—I kept it for myself. Originally, the arrangement was very metal and more progressive and complex, but I took the "song" out and left only what needed to be there, which was the melody and piano. It worked out well. The title is from when I saw Jane Fonda on TV and she was all about “Good enough is good enough,” and I thought, “Hey, this is a good title for a song.” It also applies to relationships when you are going from one relationship to another when you are searching for the perfect thing but you will never find it.
Blistering: “Caleb” follows in the tradition of “The End Of This Chapter” and “Replica” in terms of you doing some narration.
Kakko: Yeah, definitely. It’s the first part of the story where Caleb is born and how they created Caleb. It’s going to be part of a concept that will be elaborated upon down the road, but it’s hard to see where it’s going to go because our label situation.
Blistering: So you are saying your contract with Nuclear Blast is up?
Kakko: It might be, but I can’t say that will be the last. They’ve been really cool, and I haven’t thought of other labels. We are Nuclear Blast guys.
Blistering: There’s an absence of fast, double-bass songs like “This Ain’t Your Fairy Tale” and “Blank File.” What prompted you to leave those types of songs off?
Kakko: [On] at least two of the previous albums, I wrote half the album and realized that we are missing completely that kind of thing we are known for. So I would put the metronome to 165 and write a song around that. In many occasions, I felt afterwards I ruined this by just playing it faster. Still, I was talking about this “Idols” thing and . . . thinking of writing for somebody else, so I could not necessarily go into Sonata Arctica-writing mode.
Blistering: You just did a video for “Paid In Full.” How did that turn out?
Kakko: I haven’t seen it yet since we just shot it last week. The shots from what I have seen look great.
It’s something you have to do, and I want to do it. This time I think the video is something that will suit Sonata Arctica. The video is arctic, which is something you can’t say about the “Don’t Say A Word” video. We shot a lot of narrative scenes that didn’t end up being used, so most of it was just band performance. We weren’t happy since what I considered the "good stuff" was left out, and it was made under someone else’s artistic vision.
Blistering: What was the motivation behind the greatest-hits album that was released only in Finland?
Kakko: The label change. The first three albums were put out through Spinefarm and Century Media. Of course, any time you change a label, the old label will want to do a compilation, so you can either fight with them about it or work with them, and I decided it would be the best thing to work with them. Everyone should understand it is not the band’s decision to make this kind of thing—after 10 albums I might consider to put together our best tracks, but even after four albums we knew it was something that would happen anyway.
Blistering: When you started this band in '96/’97, did you think you’d reach the level of success that someone like Stratovarius has?
Kakko: No, no. We made three demos that were never sent out to anyone. We were doing it all for ourselves, and we never thought of getting a recording contract. Then our fourth demo was what became most of “Ecliptica,” and we had a friend who worked at the studio who suggested we send it out to Spinefarm because he thought they might like it.
Blistering: Take me back to when you were putting together the “Ecliptica” album.
Kakko: Obviously, we didn’t know anything about anything. I was 24 around that time. Anyway, I had never been outside of Scandinavia until we did that first tour with Rhapsody and Stratovarius. We were really green at the time, and a lot of what went on during those first few years helped us understand what this business is all about. Now we’re old men and can handle a lot of things. [laughs]
Blistering: “Ecliptica” has held up well over the years, as evidenced by the number of tracks you culled from it on the “For The Sake of Revenge” live album.
Kakko: Yeah, it’s a really good album. It has good songs in my opinion, and I can say that without being embarrassed. I didn’t notice until we were done recording the live DVD/CD that we had so many songs from that album. I genuinely like playing a lot of those songs from that album.
Blistering: What’s on the horizon for 2007?
Kakko: I know we’re going to be over in North America this fall, which is something we’re looking forward to. We’re doing the ProgPower festival in Atlanta, and we’ll hit most of the country. Before that, we have some festival gigs lined up, and we’re really looking forward to those. It should be a busy year.
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