Interview with Timo Kotipelto & Jens Johansson of Stratovarius
I have to say that the new Stratovarius album doesn’t sound like anything from the past. It’s really different...
Johansson: The thing is that Tolkki [guitars] wrote most of the songs. Actually he wrote all the songs. How did he manage to write them? Don’t ask me because he was really unstable at that time. I’m pretty sure he wanted to get away from the direction we had in the "Elements" albums with all that orchestra stuff. I think he made a right choice. There was no point going for an "Elements pt. 3". He was always was good with the music in his head. I always trusted the vision he had for Stratovarius. We had other problems... but to come back to the "Elements" albums, I wouldn’t have a problem doing a third part. I do listen to a lot of classical music... but what’s the point?
Kotipelto: There was no reason actually. I can sing high but it is only a technique, you know. When he [Tolkki] played the demos for me in September, I was surprised by them. There were no vocals in them but the songs were obviously different than anything else done in the past.
Johansson: Lots of people complain that we are playing the same thing over and over again. This is not true. Listen to the first three albums before we joined the band. Back then Stratovarius had a more obscure progressive direction, like Queensryche meets Pink Floyd or something. The next couple of albums were more direct power Metal. Then the "Elements" albums had this deep symphonic approach. I think that Tolkki always tries to change the sound of the band. He has a good instinct and in the end, you know, if all this was not successful, we wouldn’t be here right now talking to you.
Kotipelto: I think that mostly the first two songs sound really different than what we have done in the past. "United" or "Just Carry On", I think they could easily fit in one of our previous albums. The first song is more Rock, I think, modern Rock. I was surprised myself at how the album actually sounded. Timo said he’s gonna mix it and he had a lot of energy but I didn’t know how this was going to sound since he hadn’t mixed any album for many years. I think he mixed "Twilight Time".
That didn’t have a special sound...
Kotipelto: Yeah, but he did it in a little studio he had with no budget whatsoever.
The last one and a half year a lot of things have happened in the band. I am pretty sure that all your fans would like to hear from YOU what happened and not simply let the press carry on stories that no one can be sure they are 100% accurate.
Johansson: The key to understanding what happened is to realize that Timo suffers from manic depression. He knew he had something but he was not sure what it was. He did therapy to talk the problem away but in the end it became obvious that he also needed pharmaceutical treatment. The whole thing started breaking out with the deal with Sanctuary Records. A lot of money came into the band. Timo started to have very strange ideas on what’s good and what’s bad for the band.
Of course, there were arguments in the past for a lot of things but I think this is a common thing in bands. Unfortunately the heat was up and then you [referring to Kotipelto] left the band. They said "Sayonara" but not in a polite way. He also turned against Jorg [Michael, Drums]... I think somewhere in his mind he believed that these two people were holding Stratovarius back. For me it was impossible to control Tolkki at that time. Letting Kotipelto go was a huge mistake. You never get rid of the singer; it never works.
And hiring a female replacement... did Katrina actually meet with Stratovarius?
Johansson: Yes! Her story was tragic too! She didn’t really know where she was getting into. She just got a call one day from a guy saying "you are part of Stratovarius", imagine her surprise. I mean she had a band...
Yes but they have only released a demo...
Kotipelto: Then you know better than us...
Johansson: She was a good singer for her style and a nice person, but she got in the way of a tornado. It’s very sad. But I will get to that point later. To return to the question. We go back to December 2003 when Tolkki had become completely manic. He had hired a huge studio with completely professional equipment. I think that at that point, in his mind, he believed that some problems would be solved on their own. And of course you can’t work like that. It didn’t take him too long to skyrocket the recording budget, take money from the bank... you get the picture. You know, for a while he even had my brother playing in the band [Anders Johansson, Drums]. So, he went to the band’s site and said that Anders had left Hammerfall to join our band. You can imagine the confusion he created to the guys from Hammerfall.
Than he started talking insane. He pretty much managed to destroy the band he worked so hard for. He owed money to a lot of people, he saw that the recording can’t go anywhere. Things were quite chaotic. He arranged a photo session with Katrina but I don’t think there ever was a rehearsal with her. He started mentioning all these crazy stuff in the site about Hitler and Kabala. We talked on the phone for hours but he never mentioned anything about the studio. He had very chaotic plans.
Then, don’t forget that we had taken a lot of money for the festivals booked ahead. At those festivals we had to appear with the original lineup. We had to play these shows... you know, I think he had a female drummer for a couple of days!!! That didn’t work out. He had Katrina for singing but he also needed a drummer. So he asked Jorg to do the job but he was already a part of Saxon.
Anyway, Jorg had some days off and decided to help us out, so Timo had this huge studio like an old theater or something to record the drums, as if Metallica was about to record there. Jorg went to record and that day Timo had his final brake down. I think somewhere in his mind he realized for the first time that this is not going to work. I think he was also chemically ready for this brake down. For a couple of weeks he had these paranoid thoughts, most of them you could read on the web site. He simply drifted from reality.
Once he went to the hospital the doctors didn’t take a lot of time to come with the diagnose of manic depression. He didn’t even believe them at first. The doctors told his wife that he was a classic case since they see a lot of this stuff everyday, you know. He never suspected that of course, he knew he had problems but nothing so serious. I think he never realized how close he came to becoming suicidal.
Fortunately Jorg managed to record the drums. Don’t ask me how and where those drums were supposed to be used. Even Jorg wasn’t sure for what band the drums he recorded were supposed to be used.
At that time period Tolkki was incapable of doing anything. He couldn’t even make breakfast. He would sleep for 14 hours, wake up, cry in his bed for couple of hours and fall asleep again. I guess the medicine caused part of this reaction. As you can understand, he was unable to go to work. He couldn’t decide whether he should put ham or cheese in the hamburgers. He called and we talked for hours about the problems he had with the medicine. I had to convince him every time not to stop the medicine.
That’s the story in short. Once Tokli got a little better, he decided to approach Kotipelto once again. They had a lot of issues to discuss...
Kotipelto: Of course this was not the first time I saw Tolkki after I left the band. We met on stage for the live shows but we didn’t talk at all. We played but there was no feeling on stage. I think it was hard for me because when you play an instrument you can do it in a mechanical way but when you’re singing you must have feeling. I was just standing on stage, singing. The fans could see that something was going on.
When I did a couple of live shows supporting Edguy, I asked Jens to help out and there was a feeling once again, like a part of Stratovarius was with me once again. After the shows, we drank all the time and he would constantly push me to talk to Tolkki, something I didn’t want to do at that time. Eventually in early December Tolkki contacted me and he asked me if I wanted to meet with him.
He came over to my place and we talked for five or six hours. We hadn’t talked that much in the last three or four years. Of course we spoke about music in general and not anything about what had happened in the band. So we went to the sauna. If you have something important to discuss in Finland, you go to the sauna... you know what sauna is, right?
I live in Athens...
[Laughs]Yes, the whole place is a big sauna [Laughs]. Then he asked me if there was any chance I’d sing in the next album. I asked him to first listen to the songs because I wasn’t a big fan of the "Elements" albums. I’m more of a Metal guy, I don’t really like the symphonic stuff. But the demos were a nice surprise to me. The songs had nothing in common with the "Elements". So we had a meeting with all the members at my place and what we asked was not simply to return to the band just to do an album. We had to be 101% in the band.
Johansson: From there on it was easy for us. We are not lawyers or psychiatrists. We are musicians. Once we entered the studio, things run smoothly and in a quite fast pace. There was a happy feeling that once again we had the chance to work on this band we had spent so many years upon.
A lot of people complain about lack of originality in your music...
Johansson: That’s not true. As I’ve mentioned earlier, through the years Stratovarius have changed their sound a lot. Apart from that, you know... when you are in a band that consists of the same members, plays the same kind of music, called power Metal, Rock, Thrash... then how much can you change your sound? I think that some people overreact on such matters.
An ordinary day in the life of a Stratovarius musician?
Kotipelto: There has never been such a thing in the last three years!
One last comments for the magazine?
Kotipelto: "Stratovarius" is a new start for us. Some fans might like it, other may hate it. I understand that. Thanks for your time. We will visit Greece soon. We hope to see everyone there!