RETURN OF THE KINGS
For a band who s roots go back almost twenty years, the rise to fame and fortune of Finnish gods Stratovarius could hardly be described as meteoric, quite the contrary in fact. Built on years of hard work and unwavering dedication to their art, the band have enhanced their standing a little further in the community with each subsequent album and tour, gradually rallying more and more troops to their call. Widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern day symphonic metal, theirs is an enviable position to which most bands ultimately aspire. After a gruelling seven year album/tour/album marathon which ended with 2000 s Infinite opus, the band decided to take a much deserved break to recharge their batteries. Now however they re back, back with a vengeance and about to unleash what could be their most accomplished, not too mention potent, album to date - Elements Pt.1 . Vocalist Timo Kotipelto talks to Dave Cockett.
At the time of its release Infinite marked something of a new beginning for Stratovarius, the first fruits of their union with the major players on the metal block, Nuclear Blast. However, as the tour schedule grew longer and longer, it became clear that something would have to be done if the band were going to avoid complete burnout. Timo picks up the story. "At first things were going very well," he explains, "better in fact than it had ever gone before, so after the first leg our management and booking agent decided it would be a good idea to do some more shows. At the time it seemed like a good idea to us, but in the end it turned out to be something like four months touring altogether which was a little too much. We d been doing the whole album tour merry-go-round pretty much since I joined the band for the Fourth Dimension album, so at the end of 2000 we decided it would be a good idea to take a break."
Despite the toll it took on the band, the Infinite tour was without doubt the most successful they d yet undertaken. "Absolutely," agrees Timo, "we d never done so well before, and besides that, we were also playing in new territories, places like London which we d never done before, and that was great. Although the venue was kinda small, we were surprised at just how many people turned up to see us play because we d been led to believe that this kind of metal was dead over there. Hopefully it s getting better though because when we come back on this next tour, the promoter has booked us into somewhere a little bigger I think."
Few new metal bands these days get to play more than a handful of gigs a year, let alone tour solidly for months on end; how I wondered did Timo prepare himself mentally and physically for such a gruelling schedule? "It s very difficult," he concedes, "although we re not actually on the road for four months solid, I think the last time the longest stretch was something like six weeks in a row. It all depends on the condition I guess, plus how you prepare yourself for it and the spirit within the band. I mean, there were never any problems within the band & it was just too much of a slog for us. Speaking personally, whenever I start thinking about a new album or a tour, of course I have to rehearse my vocals. Normally I don t rehearse that much & in fact I haven t really been singing at all for the past month. But before a tour, I usually start to rehearse two or three weeks beforehand & at first just something like 30 minutes a day, but by the end I m doing two hours, three or four times a week. It s like if you re a marathon runner for example, you can t expect to run the marathon straight off if you haven t done it before, you need to build up your stamina."
Extended touring is always tough on any musician, but for a vocalist it must be tougher still. "I suppose, yeah," agrees Timo, "it depends on the conditions you re living in. I m the sort of guy who doesn t like smoking too much on the tour bus for example, and luckily the band and the crew understand and respect that. Of course, I don t mind too much if somebody wants to smoke in the dressing room after the gig, that s okay & drinking too, I can t drink too much on tour for obvious reasons, but that s why promotional tours are there, ha, ha!"
The average Stratovarius crowd seems to vary from territory to territory, the only common denominator being that wherever they go, its always on the increase. "In places like Germany we pull anywhere between a thousand and 2,500 people," offers Timo, "but in Spain where we re really popular it can be anything between 1,700 and 4,000, depending on the size of the venue. Our standing is also pretty good in Italy & and of course Japan is pretty good, and South America. So it depends where we re playing really, but it s getting bigger and bigger every year, I don t know why & but it s looking pretty good for this next tour as well. We ve already started to pre-sell tickets in some places, and the sales look great, the venues keep getting bigger as well which is nice."
The decision to take a break from Stratovarius at the end of 2000 was by no means what everyone wanted, at least not in the beginning at any rate. "The idea actually came from Timo (Tolkki, guitarist)," says Timo, "he said that he wanted to take a break and he asked what everyone else thought about it. At first both Jorg (Michael, drums) and I weren t too keen on the idea because we d got the momentum going, and then of course there was the record company. We d just released Infinite , our first record for them, and all of a sudden we turned round and said we wanted to take a break & understandably they weren t too happy about it, ha, ha! But in the end we thought about it, and we all saw where Timo was coming from. He s the guy who s been doing all the production as well as most of the composing for Stratovarius, and if he felt he needed a break from all of that it was only right and fair that we all agreed to it. And then of course it gave me some space to do something I really wanted to do, so in the end I think it was well worth it after all."
To keep the name afloat whilst the band took a year out, Nuclear Blast released Intermission , a rather fine collection of covers, live tracks and previously unreleased material. "That was totally their idea," laughs Timo. "I think they were a little afraid that the fans might forget about us. So when they suggested the idea for Intermission , we thought about it for a while and we agreed to do it on the proviso that it would be something special for the fans, something that was a cheaper price than a normal album. Of course, what the shops were charging for it in the end I don t know, but I do know that it left our record label at a cheaper price. So we recorded four new songs and pulled it together with some other stuff we had lying around, and the fans really seemed to like it. They weren t expecting a new studio album because we d told them in all the interviews exactly what it was going to be and why we were releasing it, but it seemed to go down pretty well in the end."
When new album Elements Pt. 1 finally does hit the streets in January 2003, it will have been almost three years since their last studio effort, so in some respects the record company s concerns do seem valid. "Yeah, maybe we were a little concerned about that too," concedes Timo, "especially as there are so many new bands getting deals right now. Then again, we always believed that the strongest bands would survive, the bands who were true to themselves and to their music & and of course, we did so much touring in the past, it wasn t like we got to sales of 100,000 albums overnight, that happened gradually. And I think if you rise up slowly, chances are that you ll also fall slowly, ha, ha! But I guess we ll see in a couple of months time, once the album has had time to get out there."
With melodic metal at its most popular in well over a decade, Stratovarius are now seen by many as one of the founding fathers of the modern scene. "In some ways it s a really nice compliment if somebody starts to play their instrument, or even just starts to take an interest in music, because of you," ponders Timo. "Then again, if a band gets a record deal just by copying someone else, it makes it harder and harder for everybody to sell records. But I can understand that in some ways because it usually takes a couple of albums for a band to find their own style, that s normal you know. Back in the early days we were always accused of sounding like this band or that band, and now lots of these new bands are finding themselves in exactly the same position."
During the break, both Timo s took the opportunity to record and release solo albums, the Kotipelto album Waiting For The Dawn the first such outing from the frontman. "Although we knew that we needed to take a break from Stratovarius, none of us actually wanted to take a break from the music," affirms Timo, "which is why both Timo and I decided to release our own albums. In the beginning I didn t have any plans to record an album, I just wanted to see if I could still write songs because I hadn t really had that much time to write since I joined the band. So I just sat down and started to write, and then a couple of months later I found that I had something like 10 or 15 songs. Then I made a demo out of three of them - which Timo (Tolkki) produced incidentally - and sent it off to some of the record labels. And it kinda surprised me because they were all really interested in releasing the album."
Released to quite positive reviews, Waiting For The Dawn even earned Kotipelto a slot at the prestigious Wacken festival. "That was a very memorable gig for me," Timo recalls, "because just about everything went wrong, ha, ha! I think I have very bad karma when it comes to Wacken, it s like & fuck, I don t know if you know, but there was a bad storm warning which was only due when we were on, so the weather was really bad, and then of course, 15 minutes after we stopped the sun came out again, ha, ha! But it s a great festival, and despite everything that happened for us, it was still a very proud day for me."
Despite notching up fairly healthy sales with Waiting For The Dawn , Timo remains fairly philosophical about the album. "Well, if I think about it, it was my first album," he ponders, "and towards the end I was really running out of time. I m pretty satisfied with the way that it turned out, although now of course there are things that I would ve done differently to make it better. It was a pretty big learning process for me because for the first time, I had to make all the decisions whereas in Stratovarius, I could always rely on the other guys to do their stuff. I would really have liked to promote the album more, but when it came round to the time to do that, I was already rehearsing with the band for this new album. Hopefully, if and when there s a next time, I ll have enough time to promote it properly. It s not enough to just put an album out if nobody knows about it, and for me as a solo artist, nobody knew who I was or what the album was like. So, it sold Ok, but it wasn t as much a success as it perhaps could have been if you know what I mean."
Regardless, he obviously now seems to have a taste for it. "Yeah, I was really surprised by the reactions of the fans and the journalists," Timo confesses, "I honestly didn t expect such good reviews. Okay, they weren t all 10 out of 10 s, but they were mostly 7 s or 8 s which was better than I d expected. So yeah, I think at some point I ll probably do another one. I ve got some songs written already and I just need to work out the lyrics and melodies. The main problem again is the lack of time, for the next couple of years I m gonna be pretty busy with Stratovarius."
Ah yes, Stratovarius - Timo picks up the story again from the point where the band regrouped to record new album Elements Pt. 1 . "If I remember correctly," he ponders, "we had some vague plans as to when exactly we d all get back together, but we weren t sure if Timo would be able to compose the songs fast enough. But after he composed the first ten songs he said that we should be ready to start rehearsing in a couple of months time, and when that came round he d composed ten more! I don t know if you knew, but we actually recorded two albums at the same time - there's just the guitar solos and the vocals to finish on Elements Pt. 2 . The plan at the moment is to release that about a year after the first one, with Timo adding his guitar parts at the end of this year (2002), and me doing the vocals sometime in January. We should then be ready to mix it all in February."
Somewhat different to the last couple of Strats releases, this new album seems more orchestrated and melodic. "I actually asked Timo if he had intended to change the sound a little," Timo explains, "but he said no, it had just happened that way. I think it s just a natural development of our sound, possibly as a result of the break we took & or at least I hope it is. It might also have something to do with our solo albums - especially Timo s since he experimented with a lot of new directions on his album. There's definitely elements there from the old Stratovarius, but also something new. It was all down to him, even the running order. I remember when we were still rehearsing, we had about 20 songs on the running board, and he d say, Oh, this song is for Part 1, or this songs is for Part 2 . And everybody agreed with him .. probably because nobody had a clue what he was talking about, ha, ha! He has this incredible vision, and very often he s completely right, even though we might disagree with him at first."
As ever, Timo Tolkki remains the sole writer in the band. "He wrote all the songs, even down to the lyrics," acknowledges Timo. "We co-wrote the lyrics on Eagleheart , but everything else was down to him, and we don t have any problems with that because it works for us. But even though he composed everything, I would say that there s more individual input from the band members on this album than ever before. This time around we arranged the songs as we rehearsed them, whereas in the past Timo would do the demo s and then we d go straight into the studio to record them. Of course, there s always been a little more freedom with the vocals, but this was the first time that we rehearsed before we went in to record, we spent a couple of months perfecting the songs."
Perhaps that explains the move towards a more orchestrated sound? "Yeah, I think I d agree with that," nods Timo. "This time we took four weeks to record the vocals, and that s something we never did before. Ok, we could ve done it faster, but we decided that we really wanted to try and explore all the angles before we finally committed ourselves. So I ended up trying all sorts of different approaches - sometimes I d sing things a little softer, or a little louder, and he and I were always bouncing ideas off of one another. We worked like that song by song throughout the whole album, and I think you can hear it in the finished results. It s funny but I think that although we worked harder than ever before on this album, it was probably the most relaxed I ve ever felt. I can t explain why & maybe it was because of the break or my solo thing, but it was just so easy."
"Whatever it was, it works for us," Timo continues, "and now I think about it, it might make sense to take a break, albeit a shorter one, in the future. But at the moment, Elements Pt. 2 is scheduled to come out in January next year, although as yet we don t have any touring plans. Maybe we won t tour on the back of that one - it depends on the sales I guess. We might do a few festivals, or a small club tour & it all depends on how we feel after this next tour, ha, ha!"
Even ahead of its release, Elements Pt. 1 is beginning to build quite a buzz on the back of some exceptional advance press. "It s been really good to be honest," enthuses Timo, "very good indeed. The only reservation is that a few people have said that, whilst the album is great, some fans might find it harder to listen to as some of the songs are quite a bit more progressive & but overall, the reactions have probably been better than ever before. I think they re possibly picking up on the fact that there are more slower, epic songs this time, but we ve always had those & songs like Visions and Destiny . It might sound like a cliché, but I really do believe this is our best album yet, I feel really close to this album. Before we did it, my personal favourites were probably Visions or Episode & not so much the last two, although they re pretty good too. But somehow I like this album more because although it s definitely heavier in places, the vocal melodies are really strong again, the strongest we ve had since Episode ."
Once the fans have had chance to take the new songs to their hearts, the next thing is the inevitable world tour. "It starts on March 19th here in Finland," confirms Timo, "and goes right through to the last show in Athens on May 4th & so it s not that short is it, ha, ha! That s just the European tour, the plan is then to go to Japan - it s almost confirmed that we will go there in June. After that it s the summer festivals, although at the moment the only one confirmed is Wacken once again. And after Wacken, we hope to go to South America & and maybe look at the possibility of doing a few festival dates in the States and Canada. We ve also had offers from places like Thailand, South Korea, Hong Kong - even Australia."
Talking of the US, that s one territory which has so far alluded the band. "We re not doing all that well over there," agrees Timo, "we have had one or two offers, but to be honest they haven t been that interesting for us. We don t sell many albums over there, but people tell us that you can t make it bigger unless you tour. But I really don t see the point in going over there just to play in somebody s living room with & if it s only small and there s no people, the PA sucks & you can t present the band properly in that kind of environment. On that basis I d much rather concentrate my energies here in Europe, but let s see how this Dio/HammerFall tour goes. Hopefully that might give us some useful pointers."
Finally, on a somewhat more disturbing note, Stratovarius have of late been receiving some rather negative publicity because of their stance against the downloading pirates, accusations of excessive greed being levelled at the band. For what it s worth, this interviewer wholeheartedly endorses their view that they should have exclusive rights to their own work, unauthorised downloading amounting to theft of the worst kind, depriving the band of their right to earn a living from their labours. Whilst the proliferation of MP3 and other such technologies might seem like an easy way to get your music for free, just remember that the bands rely on you, the CD buying public, for their income. Nobody expects you to work for free, so why should we expect it of them? And that applies whether it s Metallica, Stratovarius, or the next bunch of hopefuls you see done your local club. Illegal downloading is in danger of killing the music we love - surely none of us wants that?