Interview: Sonata Arctica

The true fans, they never go anywhere and that’s why metal bands are in such a good position in way. It’s fortunate that we are able to tour and stay here although things are going down a little bit, but we are still there and waiting for the next wave to ride.

Last month, Finnish power metal stalwarts Sonata Arctica were in the UK for their Ninth Hour tour. Nathan Lagden caught up with their enigmatic frontman Tony Kakko.

(((o))): Hi Tony, welcome back to the UK. You’re here on the second leg of The Ninth Hour tour, how has it been going so far?

Tony: It’s been going great so far. We’ve had great shows, great fans and great bands touring with us so it’s a lot of fun. A bit long though, and the weather really isn’t good right at the moment, but this is something we kind of knew to expect.

(((o))): Well I apologise on behalf of the country for the weather. So you’re here promoting the new album. How’s the reaction to that been so far in terms of playing the new material live?

Tony: Live-wise at least it’s been really good. I haven’t read any of the reviews per-se, but live at least people seem to enjoy them. They seem to get into the songs and also in my opinion they blend really well in our set-list. So it’s been really really fun to do. They are live-friendly.

(((o))): How was the creative process behind writing this album, as you followed up from both Pariah’s Child and the Ecliptica rerecording? How did it go this time around?

Tony: It was a little bit tougher for me this time around. When we were still touring with Pariah’s Child I had this idea that the next follow-up album would be heavier and harder and more metal and everything. Then I had already, like two years prior, decided that I was going to take half a year, or at least a few months, off from Sonata Arctica totally, nothing to do with it, cutting all connections to the business side and shit and let other people take care of it. I did a lot of work during that time but nothing to do with Sonata, but then the person that popped out of the other end of that tunnel changed quite a bit, my vision and thoughts had altered and I was unable to go to that heavier sound and follow that vision that I had while we were still touring with Pariah’s Child. So the album turned out maybe a little bit softer in my opinion than what Pariah’s Child was, but definitely more thoughtful and somewhat deeper in a way. But it was hard, I had a really tough time when I started working on the songs a year ago in January. That was my schedule, and we also had this seven week North American tour with Nightwish, opening for them, which kind of cut the whole thing in two. And practically I pretty much had to start writing the songs from when I got back from that tour in early April and we already had a deadline for the album in late June, so that was a really tight schedule.

(((o))): It’s your ninth album, and it’s called The Ninth Hour. There’s a little bit more to it than that though, isn’t there?

Tony: Well, first off I started working on the cover art that I wanted to have on there and I had certain thoughts about it and of course we needed to name it. I was sitting on a train thinking about the whole process of the cover art and the album title and thinking “what should I name it?” and The Ninth Hour was the first thing that popped into my mind. And obviously, I knew that it’s something biblical. I mean, I’m not really a religious person at all so I just had to dig into it, and google what kind of meanings does it have and is it something totally awful if I actually used that as the album title? What I found was like, God expects us to repent and sacrifice on the ninth hour and that fit my idea of the album cover perfectly, because we are on the verge of making a big decision on which way we’re going to go and definitely we’re going to repent some of the things we have done in the past with regards to the state of this planet, and we’re definitely going to have to make sacrifices. Our standard of living is too high to sustain this planet and sustain us on it.

(((o))): You’ve touched on themes of nature before, of course you are quite well known for using the wolf as a symbol, but also technology and the potential dangers of it. Do you think that’s perhaps a more relevant message even now than when you started writing on these kinds of themes?

Tony: Definitely. It has changed a lot. I can tell you that when I was writing ‘Blankfile’ I had no idea. Facebook did not, obviously, exist at the time, and I kind of foresaw that apparently, but everybody knows everybody’s business and everybody knows what I’m doing and thinking even. And so now that’s the reality and the future seems, in that sense, a lot scarier than it did even back then because we are really going in that direction and there’s no stopping it. So, we are skimming away our rights and our personal privacy, but in many ways does it matter all that much if they know what I’m doing? I’m just a normal person. But sometimes it does make you feel a little bit watched.

(((o))): Obviously, it’s not the only theme that you touch on in the album though, it’s not a concept album as-such.

Tony: No, there are only three songs that are environmental, and then the others are normal Sonata Arctica human relationship things and such.

(((o))): I was interested in the fact that you had a couple of sequels in there too, particularly ‘White Pearl, Black Oceans – Part II’. When you come to write these, do you sit down specifically to make a sequel, or do you just start forming ideas and then realise that you could work backwards to it?

Tony: With ‘White Pearl’ I decided that it would be really cool to make something like that and I started toying around with this symphony orchestra sound, and I started working from that. So, that’s one way, having an idea that I want to do something, and then sometimes it happens that you start writing and then it comes up like “wow, that actually sounds like part of this ‘Caleb/Juliet/Don’t Say A Word’ saga” and then we have ‘Til Death’s Done Us Apart’ on the album itself. So it depends, it can go either direction. Somehow, if you run out of fresh ideas it’s comforting and fun to have such things that you can return to.

(((o))): And on that note, as we mentioned before, you re-released Eclpitica quite recently. When you were going through that process, particularly of re-recording, did that give you a real sense of perspective at all, or a chance to look back on where the band had gotten to from that point?

Tony: Yeah, it did actually. I didn’t consider myself much of a singer at the time, but then re-recording the thing I realised I had no idea how I’d done some of the vocals. They seem super-difficult for me to do right now the exact same way as it is on the original Ecliptica. When you don’t have technique, you may develop some kind of weird wrong way of doing things that works really well but it’s difficult to do when you’re more educated and then you form some kind of mannerism to your singing and then suddenly you are facing the way that you used to do things back in the day. So, that gave a personal perspective, but I still love the songs of course obviously and we play a lot of them live. Not exactly now, but generally we can take any of the songs on a live set and it would work fine. But we’ve gone a long way. It’s still kind of a punk rock album in some ways, for me, in the way that it’s just a few guys and really fast-paced music.

(((o))): A lot of bands are doing this kind of thing, either re-releasing old albums or touring with old albums. What was your reason behind deciding to re-record Ecliptica?

Tony: The idea came from our label in Japan. They wanted to celebrate fifteen years of Ecliptica, and they worked with us ever since the beginning and still work with us now, so we thought “ok well, if it’s just for Japan then let’s do that”. And they were really happy and we continue working with them and we really trust them. I had this really childish idea that it would only be released in Japan, but deep down somewhere I knew that Nuclear Blast would take it and re-release it. But at least I have a good explanation for it – we wanted to be friendly with our Japanese label. And it was fun. It’s kind of a different approach to this old material and what it sounds like now with a different band; we only have two original members in the band right now.

(((o))): Yeah, I was going to ask, how was it for the new members, because obviously they’ll have played most of the songs live anyway. But how was it for them going into recording it?

Tony: I had to explain to Henrik [Klingenberg, keyboards] for example a lot of things; how they are actually played on the album, because I played the keyboards on that album. So, I was like “this, what you’ve done and it doesn’t sound at all like this”. He didn’t understand what he was doing different and then I explained to him, I remember, although it was 15/16 years ago, that’s how it’s done. So, I had to go through everything he did to make it sound like the way it should.

(((o))): It’s been a long time now since you actually played keyboard for Sonata, but what was your decision back then behind moving away from playing it and do you think you that you’d ever go back to potentially playing keys at all?

Tony: Well the original idea came in late ’99. We had finished mastering the album and we came with it to the label, Spinefarm Records at the time, and the label boss said “we have some support gigs coming for you”, and we were like “oh wow, what kind of thing?”. “Seven weeks in Europe with Stratovarius and Rhapsody”. So we thought maybe it would be a great chance for me to upgrade the band a bit and get a real keyboard player in, and that would allow me to concentrate and be the frontman and just perform and have some kind of show happening on stage, because we were mostly standing still; I was stuck behind the keys trying to play and sing at the same time. I have no idea how I was able to do that, I struggle to do that now. Jami [Liimatainen, ex-guitar] was the only one who was rocking around the stage and our bass player back in the day, he was just standing there and he was not moving around at all. So, we needed more of a show happening, and that was kind of the spark.

(((o))): What about going forward? What are your plans for near-to-medium future?

Tony: Well, same old, same old. We’re going to keep touring until November this year and then we might have some Christmas shows and a little bit of a break, and then start writing the next album early next year and maybe get it out by autumn-time or something, I don’t know. Not before summer anyway, I haven’t got any material.

(((o))): There’s been a lot of talk recently about the state of rock and metal. A lot of people are saying it’s in decline, but at the same time a lot of people are saying that the power/symphonic/prog scene is in something of a renaissance. What’s your opinion on that and how much do you guys pay attention to this kind of thing? Does it change what you do as a band?

Tony: No, it doesn’t really change anything. I haven’t followed the scene in a long time, I have no idea what bands we have there, especially the symphonic/power metal thing, because power metal used to be my big thing back in ’97 to 2000 and then I started drifting away and my music taste altered in a different direction. I’m just writing songs that feel right to me, regardless of what is popular at the moment and how we are doing. But definitely I recognise the fact that it’s been going down, the circle is going in the wrong direction currently. It’s really evident in Finland especially because metal and rock music had a really good long run there with headline gigs and everybody’s albums selling gold. Well, not everybody, but it was normal to have like eight metal bands in the top ten of the albums charts, but now it’s mostly hip-hop bands and TV-made stars, that are really popular in Finland. It is sad. It’s declining at the moment and I think that that circle is going to get faster. People want to have a new thing every day, every week, every year; mostly it’s about something fresh. But the true fans, they never go anywhere and that’s why metal bands are in such a good position in way. It’s fortunate that we are able to tour and stay here although things are going down a little bit, but we are still there and waiting for the next wave to ride.

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