Sonata Arctica interview with Tony Kakko
By Wojtek Gabriel, May 2012
The Finish metal band lead by the mastermind/singer Tony Kakko have fearlessly taken numerous turns along their musical career path, but their new release "Stones Grow Her Name" may throw them off the road. The band have gradually dropped their initial power metal sound in favour of progressive and symphonic stuff but this time around they've pushed it even further, basically dropping metal altogether. Sonata Arctica will definitely gain new fans thanks to this move, but on the other hand a part of their less open minded fanbase may turn their back on the band. Whatever the future brings Sonata, "Stones Grow Her Name" is definitely the most mature and most well written album Tony & Co. have ever created. Wanna find out more? Read the interview with the band's main man.
Along with changing the name to Sonata Arctica you started playing Stratovarius inspired power metal; then for a while you went for orchestral and progressive elements and now it's the third time you've changed the musical direction, or actually gone in all possible directions at the same time, ha-ha! Is it like you have a different mindset every couple of years and you want to try something new?
Absolutely! Ha-ha! Musical growth never ends, I suppose. This time I really wanted to make the things little bit simpler. We went far enough on that progressive road and it was the time to make another turn. At the moment it seems to result in a huge turmoil on our set list. I could describe this album as the most live friendly Sonata album to date.
The two previous albums were heavily orchestrated and progressive and now you've got rid of the orchestra completely and there's not much prog on the album too. I've got two ideas why that is. First, you simply got bored with that symphonic complex stuff, or second, you were too lazy to write down all the arrangements, ha-ha! Which is the case?
Well, in fact we mostly outsourced the orchestrations on "The Days of Grays", so that was not what made writing that album difficult. Actually "Unia" was the most work I've personally ever put on an album. So there was a sort of a learning curve already, ha-ha... What really happened was that I wanted to go back to the point where this all started; the time when the songs did not have parts from A to Z and instead of having a 150 piece choir of Tony chanting a harmonious mass, there was actually a lead melody in all songs, thus making the songs more accessible. Difficult to write and play can sometimes be almost impossible to listen. You could say the circle has closed. For example a song like "Full Moon" from our debut album "Ecliptica" could have well been on this album, stylistically. I'm happy to be where this band is right now.
Like I said, the album is so multidirectional and full of weird influences, that I'm not sure if we can still call your music metal? Would you say Sonata Arctica is still a metal band?
Kind of, and kind of not. I hate genres, these tight tubes some people seem to spend their whole lives in. I try to stretch the boundaries, introduce new things to that part of Sonata listening world, who have the capacity to gaze at the music world with their own, open eyes, instead of that tiny keyhole. World is beautiful! I know it's probably not the smartest possible thing to do when you would actually need to sell these albums. Record labels seem to lack marketing tools for us. We've been still pushed into that power metal box and some others as well. Our kind request to remove that label from our music marketing was kindly refused. "Fans can't find our music..." ...pffff... I really think if power metal is what they seek for, this particular album might not exactly satisfy this hunger. But whatever. We managed to push through our own genre box title: melodic heavy rock. So now we're that and a dozen other things. Sigh. Are we metal? Depends on the moment. Live we still do play songs that can be described as metal and also on this album we do have a few tracks, like "Somewhere Close to You", which is pretty metallic, I'd say. You can't make a good soup with just one ingredient, I think. Maybe we are soup music, then. Hah!
You aren't afraid to cross the borders between musical genres and it seems you're really having fun with exploring new territories. Do you care at all about opinions from fans or do you just write music for yourself at this point?
I've always written the songs for myself. I think it's a totally wrong approach if you just think, "This will surely sell" as it's very popular for the time being. Music has to be written for yourself. If I pour my heart and soul on a song and think that song is the best song I've ever written, and this thing happens with each song and album, I think you're doing something right. There are people on this planet who will think the same way about at least some of those songs. But of course it is fine to not like some music or some bands at all. It is OK, kids! Ha-ha! I do care about the fans a great deal, I mean, I love them! I would not be able to do what I do without this fantastic bunch of people. It just seems to me we have a tendency to tickle some bones on some people who have never liked our band. And these guys are always the loudest. We're living on a planet full of wonders.
So would you say that this album has anything to offer the hard core Sonata Arctica fans who have been whining for years that your Stratovarius-inspired period is over?
Of course it has! I think at least one song, ha-ha! But we'll never go back to those "glorious power metal days". We just grew out of that style of music. And besides, we've done it already. We hate to repeat ourselves. Releasing another "Winterheart's Guild" full of speedy power songs would probably just cause a similar allergic reaction on that part of our fans who found us via the last two albums. We can't win. Might as well do whatever it is we want to do. Even Stratovarius is not that Stratovarius anymore.
At the first spin I was amazed with the quality of song writing on "Stones Grow Her Name". I wouldn't say it's just experience talking here, as some bands play for 20 or 30 years and they still can't write a solid song. So where would you say has this song writing maturity come from?
Thank you. I found this bottle of red goo from this old barn a year back. And I consumed it and nothing has been the same since. Ha-ha! As a matter of fact, after the two previous albums, I at times felt like an underachiever with some of the songs. "Can it be this easy?!" I was writing songs instead of trying to build monuments.
With every song having its own identity one may have a question if you were actually writing an album, or just gathering ideas you thought were cool and then put them together to compile an album?
I've always written songs and not so much albums. Well, there was a time when I looked at the whole and saw that we'd need two more fast and furious songs, and I would write them. But now I just kept writing until I had enough songs to fill an album and then some. Somehow still despite that people seem to be able to see some kind of a red yarn running through the whole album. That's nice. All songs somehow just always sound like Sonata Arctica.
So, did you write more songs which for some reasons didn't make it to the final set?
Not too many. I always have left over ideas or songs. Usually those songs don't have that long a life expectancy after that. I kill them, run the blood, skin them, take all the meat and re-use the best parts on other songs in the future. I'm a monster!
As far as I'm concerned you wrote majority of the material on "The Days of Grays" tour. Was it like you came back with complete songs and just rehearsed them and then recorded?
The tour was some 180 shows in 2.5 years or so. We actually spent a lot of time home during that time. So it's not like I wrote the material on trains and planes and automobiles. But other than that, that's how it went, pretty much. I had some ten demos I could introduce to the guys ready on the last European tour we had on spring 2011. It has not always been like that. There are albums I wrote while we were already in studio. That's extremely stressful. "Stones" was a relatively stress free album to create.
Why did you (or the label) choose "I Have A Right" for a single? Would you say this song was the right one to make the trick and encourage fans to buy the album?
It was not such an obvious choice. We had I think four songs we were considering for that spot. As the point of releasing a single and video is to find the existing fans, but even more so to find that part of the population that have never even heard of your band, we felt "I Have A Right" would probably have the most crossover-mass appeal to make it on some radios and such who would not otherwise play our music. Also the song subject was pretty suitable for that job. Finding new friends for our music would be very nice and also important. We are trying to make a living with this thing. Children eat food, rents and mortgages have to be paid and so on. Normal being a human shit. Good shit.
The album title has been taken from a line in one of the lyrics I think. Is there any meaning behind that or you just thought it would work well as an album title?
Actually "Stones Grow Dead Names" is a line from a song. It refers to a graveyard, where all the headstones in a way grow names on them. New ones every day. But naturally there's no way we'd have a graveyard on the cover. Also "Dead" gave the whole mostly positively charged album a very morgue feel. So I took a step back and understood I could use the mother earth vs human animal battle and take the assumption we humans will win and kill Her, destroy this planet we live on. This rock, all the stones on this planet grow Her name.
"Somewhere Close To You" is probably the most extreme song you've ever recorded on a Sonata Arctica album, beginning with the guitar sound through to the screaming vocals. What inspired you to write such a heavy tune?
Yeah, the one song I would describe as metal. I actually wrote this song for my own solo album I hope to release some day. But as so many times before, this other band I love so much stole it. I just had to mellow it down a bit. My original version was instrumentally more complex and heavier. I just wanted to try my wings on that field as well. I think it turned out pretty good, also stylistically I would say I'm on the edge of my comfort range.
Did you enjoy screaming so much on the album? Do you feel comfortable doing the extreme vocals?
I've done that a lot live the last few years. You learn by doing. It's weird, funny and worrying that sometimes this extreme screaming actually comes easier and hurts less than singing high with a clean voice. Anyways, I just use that kinda thing as a spice. I would not go as far as to write a full song full of screaming. I don't enjoy eating just spices.
What inspired you to write "Cinderblox", a banjo-metal song?
As you might figure, it started out as a... joke. Me fooling around with this banjo sound I came across. Wrote a riff which turned into a song. And when we then decided it's gonna be recorded for this album all we had to do was to find someone to play the banjo. We did! And also find a talent for fiddle and double-bass. This is the one song that still makes me smile every time I hear it. A worthy song for that alone.
The album closes with two parts of "Wildfire", a continuation of a theme from the "Reckoning Night" album. Why did you decide to re-heat that subject and write two more long and epic compositions?
I had played around with this theme from the original "Wildfire" for a long time. I felt it could be used again somehow. Naturally that song should be called "Wildfire" something as well. So it started from that. Suddenly I had a longer new wildfire song in making. There was also one other song that started to look pretty long. As all the other songs are 3-5 minutes long, I did not want to have two 8 minute songs there messing up the perfection, unless those are at the end of the album and would maybe have the same theme. The song about prejudice morphed into this more general "description" of what's going on here. After that writing the lyrics was fairly easy, as I could write a book about us humans destroying this planet only to be able to leave one day. And we'll do that, find another planet, inhabit and over crowd it and then destroy it too. It's in our nature. We're bad.
I've read somewhere that you recorded Genesis' "I Can't Dance" cover song?
Yes, we'll release it in some form a little later. The tour will be long and I think it's good we have something to let out while on the road. I really, really love that song and our version is so different... a worthy cover, I'd say. Yeah!
Along with the variety of musical genres comes a lot of variety in the lyrics department. Do you first have ideas for lyrics and then try to write suitable music or the other way round?
Music first, lyrics later. Music dictates the lyrics, in a way. I need to have enough syllables to fill the melody lines. I've gotta try it the other way around some day. Writing lyrics is sometimes a pain in the ass, but still I prefer doing it myself. You only get better by doing.
The album is so twisted, that seeing the figure on the cover with an apple instead of a head isn't very surprising. Is there any deeper meaning behind that art?
Human animal is a rotten creature. We learned to survive in the nature, grew more powerful, we are able to do things that permanently change things on this planet. Having achieved this level, we can just sit on this rock and enjoy the ride as long as it lasts. But we should not. As Sir David Attenborough put it: "Instead of controlling the environment for the benefit of the population, perhaps it's time we controlled the population to allow the survival of the environment."
You're filming three videos, which is a lot for just one album nowadays. The label must expect "Shitload of Money" from the sales, ha-ha!
At the end of the day, the artist always pays. Ha-ha! But as said, we are trying to make a living with this thing, so it sure would not harm.
On the last world tour you visited such exotic countries as China and some parts of South America where they don't get many metal shows. What's the atmosphere at shows there, as compared to Europe?
It's somehow so, that the poorer the country and the less money people have, the more they get out of these shows they buy tickets to. So the folk there... they're just wild and all over the place! They really make you feel like a rock star, even if you don't usually think so. The venues and gear might not always be the best ever, but their hearts are warm and the will to be there and make things happen is sincere.
Usually bands that have actual management don't know when and where they're going on tour until they're handed in plane tickets, but maybe you've been informed about some UK dates after the summer festivals season?
Ha-ha, that's sometimes so true! At the moment I can only say that we'll be coming to the UK sooner or later. Probably not this year as the first Euro tour leg has been announced already without UK, but hell, we'll be there as soon as possible next year. The actual "Stones Grow Her Name" tour really starts after the festival season is over. That's like 4 months after the album release... Life is life. I can't wait to see you all!
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