Hans and I did it: our first face-to-face interview. Because of the language barrier to the two gentlemen of Sonata Arctica, we were for once two people. The division of labor was clear: Hans conducts the interview, I am the voice from the off. So much for our glorious plan, but in the end it was a joint project. Tony Kakko and Elias Viljanen kindly sacrificed themselves for our first try. After a short greeting and introduction round it became serious…
HF: How was your time in Germany so far? You had a few issues to get here…
Tony: Ah, yeah, we had unfortunately to cancel the show we were supposed to play the day before yesterday. We had some problems with the airplane, the breaks were busted and they tried to fix them and they did indeed, but the delay was so long that we weren’t able to catch the connecting flight from Helsinki to Munich, where we would have had a three hour drive to the festival. It was the first time that we ever had to cancel a show because of traveling problems, so 20 years of touring and that was the first time something happened, we are fortunate. Usually things go sideways, when we are on our way home, which is a pain in the ass but not as bad. And then you know, yesterday, fortunately the timing was good, I was unable to get out of the toilet in time. I’m not sure if you read the social media thing, but we now have got an answer to the question how many people you need to get a singer out of a toilet. The answer is: eight firemen. I was 40 minutes stuck in a toilet, the lock was broken, I started kicking the door and everything and nothing and finally after 20 minutes they called the fire brigade and first one man came and he was unable to open the door and I was afraid that I was stuck in some old panic room or whatever, you simply can’t go in and I not out of there. Then they called more help and broke it open. But I had water at the toilet (drinking water, he assured us…). It was funny as hell. Had that happened a bit later after the last interview, we would have missed the flight to Düsseldorf, because it took me such a long time to get out of there. So there were a lot of things going sideways on this trip so far, let’s see what happens next. Every day is a new chance.
HF: “Talviyö” will be your 10th studio album. How long did the production and the songwriting take this time? What was special?
Tony: I think I started writing the songs on our previous tour, or already maybe 3 or 4 years ago, like getting ideas together and writing short pieces of songs and so far. Than the more serious songwriting phase started early last year and than we went to the studio in September of the last year and started recording the basic tracks. We actually recorded live like drums and bass and guitars as well. It took maybe 6 weeks to get the basic tracks, than I was on a Christmas tour, which of course gave us the chance to reflect on what we’ve done so far and if we actually have all the songs we need for the album together, there would have been time to rewrite or write completely new songs, but we didn’t have to do that. The work continued early this year and than we had the acoustic tour, which was timewise not a good thing but still a nice experience and contributed well on the album as well, but it caused us to be on a hurry, running against the clock. We delivered the masters almost a month later than we were originally supposed to, but it’s ok, the album is going to be out in the right time. I already new that we were on a loose, they told me “you are in a hurry” and I just “no, no we’re not in a hurry”, I’m just doing my stuff relaxed and not getting nervous, when you’re under pressure it doesn’t help at all.
HF: You are in business for over 20 years now, did your creative process change a bit? Did the rest of the band get a grip on the songwriting as well or are you still head of?
Tony: I’ve written almost all songs, we have ever released, expect of two songs: Janni wrote one song back in the days and Hendrik has written one bonus track as well. The rest are mine and that’s how it is these days. The songwriting process, I think in the early days it was more traditional, you know being a band in a room. Although I did all the songwriting, we were all together and I came up with a short idea and then we got the next idea and just played. We spent a lot of time together as a band and it was fun time and it was actually the only way we could have done everything, I didn’t have any computers or such things that I could have used. I didn’t know anything about it, I didn’t have the software or anything. Eventually I got it and nowadays I do most of the songwriting in the solitude of my home, you know I need it to be quiet and be alone and concentrate on songwriting. It’s mostly a me process and than I come up with the song and create a complete song in some form and when I have enough songs we have a listening party with the band.
Tony: Party, or better session, we listen to all the demos and decide whether or not which songs are feeling for the album or if there any songs that should be left out.
HF: Does that happen a lot, that you say: not this one…
Elias: Not too much, sometimes. Tony has always so much different ideas and we usually try them all, at least once.
Tony: They are sometimes kind of outlandish and wild and weird, but we give it a try.
Tony: I think it’s to big to not give a stupid idea a chance, you know. So just saying no… it doesn’t work that way. Music is emotions and love, being able to laugh, music is one of the emotions you should have when things are getting out of control and wild and funny, you should embrace that moment and take the best out of it and give it a chance. You might come up with something stupid like ahm… and have good reactions. A instrumental song, something like that.
HF: What’s the story behind the name of your new album (Talviyö = winters night)?
Tony: That was the last thing that we came up with for the album. Of course obviously first the music and now even with the cover artwork and the inlay artwork we were running a little tight of schedule. I don’t pay enough attention to that kind of things. For a long time we wanted to have a photograph, an actual photo, on the album cover and this time I was really paying attention to that and we were able to find this man called Onni Wiljami who lives only 100 km south from Kemi where we live. He has been awarded as a world champion of photography in certain categories multiple times. So at editing the photos and edit reality and enhancing the photos he is really good at that and we chose those photos that he had with wintry images, similar type of photos like the album cover are in the booklet. Different photos, but all similar style. They were originally daytime photos but he edited them to nighttime photos and added the moon, but all the trees and snow are actual real photo were nothing has been changed. They, the original ones, are really beautiful photos, but we wanted them nighttime, because it feels more like supposed. So where comes the name Talviyö from, that you were asking actually. Well, that was difficult we were wondering over having a Finnish word or an English word, having just the name winter or taliv in Finnish or winter night, that felt a little corny in my opinion but the Finnish version Talviyö.. That’s gonna be fun having people trying to say that with the Umlaut and everything and “yö”. I’m looking forward to have Americans for example trying to say that. It just a name, and the idea was to have a connection with the album artwork, I think it’s probably the most beautiful package we have done so far. It’s also connected to the music, but mostly with the first song “Message from the Sun” which is about the northern lights, the polar lights and the mythology around it.
HF: Talviyö will follow your tradition and contain a song about wolves, as every album before. Was it a conscious decision to start this tradition or did it just happen?
Tony: I think we have one album without wolves. That was an accident and has never happened since. The wolf has been for a long time sort of a totem animal to us a mascot and that has allowed me to feel relaxed while songwriting , when I’m out of ideas and draw a blank paper and don’t know anything to write I draw the wolf-card and start to write something about a wolf. It’s a great matter with a lot of mystery and mythology around it. The wolf is really hated and feared and you can use it at a metaphor for many many things like humans e.g. lone wolf. I use it often and it works well. Sonata Arctica, arctic wolves… Especially with the artwork, when we plan to make merchandise on the shirt, I can’t think of anything else, it’s natural. Now we have two songs about wolves here. The first song it about the northern lights, but the wolves are there none the less and “The Raven Still Flies With You” is a wolf-song, the second last song of the album.
HF: With „Pariah’s Child“ you turned more back to your roots of pure power metal and already said, that Talviyö will move into this direction as well. How would you describe your new album with just 5 words?
…and after a little discussion they agreed on: beautiful, powerful, emotional, meaningful and uplifting
HF: We are all quite excited about your new songs. If you had to pick three as kind of a business card for your new album, which would it be?
Tony: The single “A Little Less Understanding” although I don’t think it’s the best song on the album, well if I would have to choose my favorites in no particular order it would be “Storm The Armada”, “Who Failed The Most” and maybe “The Raven Still Flies With You”.
Elias: I think I have the same songs…
HF: My personal favorite on Talviyö is „Cold“. It’s so emotional, with great power and I like the difference between often easy and lightminded melody and the more earnest and kind of sad vocals. Can you tell us more about it’s background, please?
Tony: It’s just a story… Just a song, the same as with Stephen King, not all his books are about his own life, I should hope. “IT”… Just a story, some people write novels and short stories and I write songs. And that’s just one take on the subject matter of human relationships and love and everything. Just another version of the same old theme I suppose, to put it really bluntly in a way. You know the thing is, that whatever I write and explain what I have written there is just my view and it’s not the “right view” it’s not the only one. Everybody can and should see the songs through the lens of life, basically what they have seen and their experience and how they lived and understand the meaning of the lyrics through their own experiences. I think it distills the song though that and it’s the richness in the songs. Like with the first single “Little Less Understanding” I mean I have my own explanation, it’s a song about raising your child the right way, not spoiling it and opening them doors when needed and shut doors when needed. But I’ve already heard alternative versions of what it’s about and that’s “wow, you are right, as same as I am”. That’s the richness in songwriting and the most wonderful thing and also the reason why I don’t like explaining my lyrics too deeply. I give some guidelines like “it’s a human relations song” that should be enough.
HF: Due to your career you played all over the world. What would you say, which audience is the most critical one and why?
Tony und Elias: Hmmm
Tony: Critical, there are a few factors, continent, country, city and although which day of the week. Everything is different , that all applies playing in some southern American country like Argentina for example, Buenos Aires if you play there on a Friday or Saturday, where people having a little party its all “woahhh” and if you are playing New York on a Tuesday, people are totally sober with that “we’ve seen everything” attitude… Maybe these are the biggest critics, but as I mentioned these factors all apply and it depends. You can have a huge party in NY as well. But you always have that feeling that it is a bit scary to play in NY, the same as playing in Helsinki for some reason and your hometown.
Elias: At least Helsinki used to be like that, but not anymore. Oh, and usually the tour starts there when we have to play the first show.
Tony: We are unsure of ourselves still…
HF: If you could design your own festival outside of Finland: What line-up and which location would you choose?
Tony: Money is no question? I have Billions?
Tony: I would probably choose a place I have never been before, like Iceland, it’s probably really expensive to have a festival there, but it doesn’t matter. I would bring Queen, Midnight Oil, Crashtest Dummies, Nightwish, Aerosmith, that’s a pretty nice line up already, and than some local bands.
Elias: I would bring Joe Satriani or Steve Vai as an opener, to do some instrumental stuff, than maybe Metallica and Journey. Where??? Svalbard? Maybe some place a bit warmer.
Tony: No honestly I wouldn’t go to Reykjavik I would bring this festival to my home place, Kemi.
HF: Finland is out of reach…
Tony: Than Haparanda, it’s 25 km and in Sweden…
HF: Imagine, one of your favorite bands is going to cover one of your songs, which band and why would they take this song?
Elias: It would be nice to see Metallica play „Tallulah”, I don’t know why but… They would have to replace the keyboards by guitars, make the song their own.
Tony: Cover doesn’t have to be near to the original… The band would be Queen, obviously, absolutely. The song is a little bit difficult. Let’s say “Don’t Say A Word”, doesn’t matter. I have a lot of song I would like to hear covered by any band, for that matter.
HF: During more than 20 years of bandhistory you had only a handful of changes in your line-up. How did you manage that?
Tony: We have two original members. That’s a lot of change actually. Well all the changes occurred someway naturally because of reasons nobody could foresee. Our first bassplayer wasn’t in the right place and found a girlfriend in a wrong time while we were on tour and he wanted a different life, so he left right after the tour and we took our original bassplayer in our band. He didn’t really have an option, we were friends and I told him that I gonna be an ass wipe the floor with him if he doesn’t come back. On the next tour our keyboard player Mikko started having challenges and decided to go in different direction. Than for a short period of time we were without keyboard player again. Than we found Hendrik and he is still in the band and than we went foreward. Until 2006 the tour was way to long, it was almost 200 shows around the world and we had three tours in north America for example, it was a little bit much and Janni started having a little bit problems you know. You can read it and all about it in our biography… He was physically unable to tour, because he was in jail basically, so we took Elias in our band. First as a touring guitarist and than really soon as a fulltime member.
Elias: Yeah, 2007, 12 years…
HF: Elias, did you ever regret it?
Tony: Every Day (hahaha)
Elias: No, no. Sometimes it’s not easy to stay away from home that much, but otherwise I get to play the guitar that I love and good music…
Tony: The next thing happened 2013 when Marko left and Pasi replaced him. I can’t see any changes in the future, unless something happens.
Elias: You have to be a certain way to cope with all…
HF: The last years brought a lot of changes to music industry, like streaming and the need to be active on social media. What was the hardest change for you?
Tony: Well, I think the most impact you had from the streaming things and the descending physical album sales, I hated when this happened. I was really against itunes and it didn’t take too long until I thought: oh you are wonderful, when you are buying actual the digital versions of the album or the physical version, that was like the greatest thing. But nowadays everybody seems to be streaming and if someone buys a physical copy of the album it’s amazing, like buying one album is more valuable than maybe 10.000 streams, moneywise. It’s just ridiculous. I don’t have all the information, but from what I’ve heard it’s stupid. If you have like 100 million or 200 / 300 million streams and you have the most streamed song on Spotify for example, and all you get is like 2.000 dollars or something like that. When you have like three composers… There is something wrong with the system, that sucked a lot. And than again the touring thing it means a lot and it’s like the endgame in a way that only the viable bands survive. If you have no audience and no future you are pretty much done. You need to be an active band, also in social media nowadays. Which is fine, of course it’s a lot of work and you have to give a little out that you didn’t have to do back in the days. I use my own Instagram as a sort of dairy.
HF: Your album will be released on the 6th of September, when will your German fans get the opportunity to see you live on stage?
Tony: We don’t have the actual tour dates but our european tour starts somewhere mid november. The dates are going to be announced shortly, I’m sure. The tour starts in North America with the album release, and there are going to be german dates, we have a german agent after all.
HF: Thank You!
Interview: Hans Dadaniak and Michi Winner