Stratovarius Keyboardist Jens Johansson
Interview By EvilG / Transcription by Duke
Live Pics Metal-Rules.com, Promo Pics from SanctuaryRecords
After a turbulent year, Stratovarius has emerged from the soap opera that was the band with a new self-titled album and a new approach. The music is still easily identifiable as Stratovarius, but the trademark speed is completely absent from the new album as is the presence of most (not all) shredding guitars and most of the blazing keyboard solos that the pair are known for. Despite the changes, and the missing ingredients, the songs are catchy and quite good. I questioned Jens on the new direction, the past year?s events, and among other things touched upon the infamous ?release the fury? Yngwie recording for which he was present as a member of Yngwie?s Rising Force band.
I?ll start with some stuff about the new album, of course, which I just received two days ago. I actually like it and I have read some comments online that people were worried, but it?s pretty good.
Yeah, it?s ok. I think the arrangements are a bit different from the last two albums. It?s not this excessive orchestra stuff. I still sorta like it, I think it?s back to what the band was about maybe three or four albums ago.
When the album was first being recorded, the band was in a pretty desperate situation. Tolkki was in hospital and fans were worrying about a new vocalist. For you personally, did you ever lose hope and think that everything was over?
Yeah, of course. I was pretty convinced that there was not going to be another album and that the band would remain dead. We just approached it by taking one problem at a time. I guess in the end we just worked it all out.
So how is Tolkki doing physically and mentally these days? Is his recovery pretty much complete?
Yeah, but I think you don?t really recover. You?re born with this stuff. For sure he understands himself better than he did before, and of course we understand it a bit better, how he might react and all that.
Do you feel confident now that the band lineup is here to stay?
I would say that, yeah.
Now that the album is complete and will be out here in North America in September, have things returned to some semblance of normality? Does it feel like a healthier band situation again?
Of course, yeah. I think that with this band it has been a bit strange all the time anyway because everybody is living in different places. It?s not as if we have hung out and drank and rehearsed together as a normal band would be doing. But it?s a bit back to normal since we?re all on the same page. For quite a bit of last year everybody was on different pages and in some cases hating each other, not wanting to talk, and eventually coming to terms with this mental illness stuff. This takes time, it?s not something that you just do overnight, not even just understanding it. It?s not back to how it was ten years ago. We are all completely different people, but we understand each other a lot more than we did even one year ago.
Do you suspect that the soap opera-like situation of last year was a factor for Jari leaving the band at all?
No, I don?t think so.
I read an interview with J?rg where he said something about Jari not really seeming to be a part of the band. He said that hadn?t even been to Jari?s house before.
In some sense, he was never so interested in the band anyway. And some people might think ?Oh, that?s horrible, he wasn?t into the band!? but he was actually the most normal guy. I don?t think he depended in any way on this band for his self-image. He had his priorities very straight. I think in the end when he realized how extensive this tour would be, he was not comfortable with being away from home for so long. I think he just got married to the love of his life and wanted to stay at home. I understand him completely. Part of me does anyway? He?s just not crazy enough to handle being on tour like that anymore because he doesn?t need it. In some sense, I think he actually has his priorities straighter than anyone else in the band does. I think you have to be a bit crazy to get into the music industry in the first place. It?s good for him and there is no hostility. It?s not like some people aren?t friends anymore, but his heart is definitely not into doing this shit anymore, not on this level anyway.
Though it?s only been a few weeks, how are things going with the new bass player Lauri Porra?
We haven?t done any gigs, so?
Have you been jamming at all with him?
No, not really. In August we?re going over to start rehearsing. But I?ve played with him before in Kotipelto?s solo band so of course I know him from that. I think he?s going to work out good.
There?s a bit of controversy surrounding some of the musical changes on the new CD. Do you see any of these changes or think that any of the songs are drastically different from what you?ve done in the past?
I don?t, but you have to take a big conceptual view of what the band has been doing, I suppose. It has always been a melodic metal band and on the last three records we kept that focus, but we kept adding things. We could become a melodic speed metal band or a melodic orchestral band doing extremely heavy songs with a few layers of orchestral stuff on top, which actually I really like. But I can understand if some people think it?s a little bit too much. This is going back to the core values of the band, which were always about sticking to melodic metal, like pop, but with heavy guitars and heavy drums. I know it might be blasphemy to say that!
So is the simple album cover and the lack of a proper title, just Stratovarius, a reflection of the musical direction?
It is a reflection of a new beginning because the band is sort of back from the dead.
One thing I noticed when listening to the album is not so much a big change except in one area, there?s no over the top fast songs with loads of double kicks. I read an interview with Timo Kotipelto and he said something like ?We have done that before and I don?t think we can take it further.? You?ve done slower songs before and that doesn?t stop you from doing them again.
Is there any reason that you don?t have it? Did you deliberately put a speed limit on the album and say ?We?re not gonna play faster than this?? Or is it just the way everyone?s mindset was for this album?
I think it?s more conceptual when you think about it, only melodic stuff. Sometimes when you do these fast tempos you have to change the chords either very fast or very slow somehow and it makes it hard to make melodies. I think speed in itself became a goal instead of the melodic part of it sometimes. I don?t really mind, in this case I just trusted Tolkki?s instinct when it came to this stuff. I guess he was just sick of the double bass drums stuff. I can understand that, I?ve had similar feelings in the past about other stuff. You just gotta go with your gut feeling. You can try to rationalize it and say ?we?ve done so many fast songs? and you can make a rational counter-argument that negates that and proves that you should probably not make a rational argument in the first place. The only real reason is that it was February and Tolkki was in the middle of this manic Dopamine orgy and he was sick of the double bass stuff and that was how it turned out, but I support it completely. We might go back to that, or I might with some other band, but somehow I think the speed became its own goal. I see that in some other bands as well, it just has to be incredibly fast on the bass drums.
Dragonforce or something?
Yeah! It?s hard to combine with melodic stuff. It?s really easy to combine with death metal or thrash, you just crank up the tempo. However, if you want to keep a melody that the ear can follow, fast tempos don?t really work. I don?t know what the limit is, 150 maybe. I think we passed that limit in 1996 already.
I noticed there is not as much over the top fast keyboard soloing on the album.
Oh no, not at all.
Was this done by choice or did you just feel that it didn?t fit the songs?
Again, it is Tolkki?s instinct. There are no fast guitar solos either and no orchestral stuff. We just do it, it?s very hard to rationalize.
When it comes to your keyboard parts, are you pretty much given free reins to play what you want to play in a song or are some things mapped out for you?
I think I?m given pretty free reins nowadays.
For the songwriting, was everything written by Tolkki or did you guys help with writing and arranging?
It was all written by him, I think in February or March in the height of his mania.
I believe you wrote some lyrics for the album though.
I think so. Sometimes just because I have lived in the States for so long they send me lyrics just to check for any horrible grammatical mistakes. I guess I changed a few things and he says ?Oh, I?ll give you writing credits!? It?s funny, I still don?t even know what the song is about! I guess I co-wrote it but I don?t know what it?s about.
One of my favourite songs on the album is ?Zenith of power?. Even before people had heard the song or read the lyrics, there was controversy over the label being afraid?
It was only the label!
Even though this is obviously NOT a pro-nazi song, do you think there?s a risk of the album being blocked in some markets because of the subject matter?
No, I don?t think so. There was an intro to it that we had to take off because it had Hitler?s words on it. But I don?t think that made it a risk either, it was just the label being afraid of it.
With someone trying to cover that up, it almost feels like they?re denying history.
Yeah, Germans are very sensitive and you have to understand that. After two world wars and over 70 million people killed I guess anyone would be sensitive. But I was a bit upset with it anyway. It was clearly not a song written for Germans, they know it all anyway, it had nothing to do with the Germans really.
So what are some of your favorite moments on the new cd?
I think I like ?Maniac Dance? the best, and ?United? perhaps.
How do you think the album stands up when you compare it to your favorite Stratovarius album, if you have one?
I think it stands up very well. It?s one of the better albums that we?ve made in the last three or four years, or five years even. It?s the second or third best album we ever made. It?s really not for us to say, we?ll see what people say when we put the damn thing out.
It seems the band is somewhat distancing itself from ELEMENTS one and two.
It does. I?m pretty much into that stuff myself. It?s what I like to listen to. But I can understand that it was a bit too much for your average normal metalhead. They have so long songs and there?s so much stuff in them that I can understand that the ears can get tired. Also, we put out two albums in one year and there was a lot of marketing stuff that was maybe foolish. But you know, shit happens. I think it was necessary to go through that phase of how bombastic we could try to make a record while keeping it melodic. I think we really pushed the limit and I guess this new record is not so much about pushing limits, it?s more about the core value that has always been present, which is to make melodic metal and good kick-ass songs.
When the last album came out, your website was selling a deluxe version in a tall case and everything. Is the new album gonna have a release like that with a bonus CD with more songs or anything?
I don?t think there will be any bonus songs, but there might be a deluxe version with an extra booklet and maybe an interview CD or something like that. I don?t think we will sell it on the website because I got some e-mails from J?rg and he said it wouldn?t be sold on the website for reasons that I don?t understand. I think we?re just gonna put some new shirts and stuff on the webshop for our fans.
I have a couple of questions about recent past. Just out of curiosity, you had a vocalist called Miss K or Katrina?
That was last year?s story! (laughs)
I know. I was just wondering, what is the band?s relationship with her now? Is anyone still in touch with her?
It?s funny actually, when all this stuff happened in April, and Tolkki had a breakdown and stuff, he felt so bad about all the promises he had made and all the business deals, all the stuff you do when you?re manic. So he didn?t really feel like talking to her. He didn?t feel like talking to us much either at the time. I was the only guy who kept in touch with her and she was of course very confused about the whole thing. She really didn?t know what hit her. She was in this other band that really wasn?t performing professionally and she got invited to join this world-famous band and everything collapsed. She was very confused and a little bit depressed about everything that had happened. However, she?s ok. I think she?s going to make a solo album and Tolkki will produce it. They?re actually making it right now. I don?t know how far they are along. Tolkki, as you might know, last year he was going to start a studio and actually he used a lot of the band money that we got from the record deal. He put it into that project and of course it didn?t really work out the way he had hoped at the time. He?s sort of managed to fix that now, because he merged that studio with equipment that he bought with this guitar player from the band Thunderstone, Nino, they have a studio called Sonic Pump. They actually merged the studios, they took Timo?s equipment and Nino?s equipment and put it all into a completely new complex. It?s a very nice studio, I was there a couple of weeks ago. Very nice acoustics too. I think they?re gonna record it there, they might even put the drums on it there.
Is it melodic metal that she plays?
I think it might be pop or something. It?s not going to be called Stratovarius if that?s what you think! I think he wrote some songs, Katrina wrote some lyrics and Nino might have written some stuff as well. But he?s back to being a producer instead of the ringleader of this crazy power metal band. I think it?s actually better for him in the long term to try to ease into that role as well. Of course we have unfinished business with the melodic metal crowd as well, we?re gonna keep the band alive now that we went through this. But I think he?s been looking forward to doing production work for a long time because he can stay off the road and be at home, it?s the right move for him.
At the time when she was in the band it was said that the new album would be called POPKILLER. Is any of the album that was written for that on the new album ?Stratovarius? or are those songs left now?
It was never really gonna be called ?Popkiller?. That was more of a joke of his. You know these ?pop protectors? that you put in front of a microphone so you don?t get pops when you sing?
I think it was a brand name and he saw it lying around in the studio. ?That?s fucking funny, I?m gonna put on the Internet that I will call the new album ?Popkiller?!? That was all there was. It had nothing to do with anything really. He had a lot of ideas per hour back in those days. The drums on the new album were actually recorded for this ?Popkiller? or whatever you wanna call it. I?m not sure when he wrote them if he thought Katrina would sing on them, if it was before she got involved or after. It was early 2004 anyway, and me and J?rg recorded the drums. I was the recording engineer and he was playing. At that point, there were only drums, no guitars, and no anything else. From that point the songs changed a lot.
If there were no guitars, how did J?rg know what to play?
He had a MiniDisc. It?s a very fascinating story actually. They had rehearsed and banged the songs out for a few days. They had made a date in the studio and of course Timo had hired this really expensive studio in Helsinki and had expensive equipment flown in from Great Britain, really, really high-grade stuff. J?rg and Tolkki had made a date as a studio drummer because J?rg was already in Saxon at that point. He showed up in Helsinki on that day and it was the same day that Tolkki checked himself into the hospital. ?What the fuck am I gonna do now?? For two or three weeks he was booked into this fucking expensive studio. But fortunately he had recorded them acoustically. He?s German, you know. ?Ach, I haff to record and listen to ze drums, see if I can improve zis break here!? So he knew the drums and even if Tolkki was in hospital, he made the studio guy record some click tracks. So he wrote it down as best he remembered them from the rehearsals.
So when Tolkki heard them when he got out of the hospital, was he like ?wow, excellent??
No! He was like ?everything is fucked and I?m so ashamed? and that?s how it stayed for six or seven months. I was there in the studio too and of course I realized that unless he killed himself or something else horrible happened, at some point we might actually use those drums, maybe as samples or something. So we recorded everything for every song and some weird ideas since he had already paid or at least booked the time. Rather than just giving up and flying home, we put some drums down. A lot later when we were running out of money for the recording we already had the drums down and they were quite good.
So this event was vital in that it kept the band together?
Yeah. If we could just get everyone on the same point as far as even being in the band, I?m sure we would have recorded at some point, but it would have been more difficult.
You finally have an upcoming tour for North America. I was wondering what your thoughts and expectations might be for playing on this side of the world.
I think it?s gonna be great. It?s the first tour we?ll do over here and I think the market is ready for it. In the past, we entertained ideas of doing some gigs over here, but the places would be pretty bad and many of the venues are horrible compared to Europe. I actually held it off for a bit because I knew they would complain like hell about it. Now the time is right because a lot of other bands have come over here and paved the way for us and I think the market is ready because there has been sort of a grassroots metal revival here in the last three or four years. I don?t know why, maybe because of the Internet or the corporations are losing their stranglehold on the retail market or whatever. But it seems to be growing here in the last couple of years. Of course, a lot of other bands have been coming here, Nightwish have played a lot here, Children of Bodom, Sonata Arctica, HammerFall, and all these European bands have come here before us. They did a bit of our dirty work and suffered for us!
I notice you have the most excellent Canadian band Into Eternity opening for you!
Did someone in the band request that Into Eternity open or was it a label request?
I think it was our booking agent.
Have your heard Into Eternity yet?
No, I haven?t heard them.
I noticed that you have a personal website and it hasn?t been updated in about a year. I was wondering?
One year? It?s like five years! Or a long time, I?m very lazy with that.
Is it something you plan to eventually update again?
Oh yeah! In the next ten years or so.
Are you working on any more solo material?
Not at the moment. I have some rough ideas about stuff to do, but I?ve been really lazy the last couple of years. Before 2000 or 2001 I used to do a lot of stuff like that but then I just decided to do other shit. Like watch movies or just sleep.
You?ve played with your brother Anders in many projects and bands. Do you miss being in a permanent band or any type of musical situation with him?
A little bit, yeah, but we meet so much anyway. We run this little label in Sweden and I see him a lot anyway. It?s gonna be fun when we do this HammerFall / Stratovarius tour in Europe, starting in October or something. It?s not in the same band, but anyway.
I have your album called ?Johansson ? the last Viking?. I thought that was a really good album, but it was unheralded and not really promoted properly and it didn?t get much attention.
Yeah, that?s right, but what can you do about it? Except for Japan, we sorta released it ourselves and of course, we are amateurs in a lot of senses. We should probably put it up as an online thing.
According to your brother, a new album for Johansson is recorded but the vocals are not done. Is this something you hope to complete in the next year or two?
Yeah, I hope so in the next ten years. The last few years here have been busy with all the Stratovarius stuff.
I read somewhere than you were offered and were even interested in joining Dream Theater. Can you tell me about that?
Oh, that was like ten years ago. It was when Kevin left. I don?t know if I was a serious contender or not. It would have been interesting. I played with them on some rehearsals. When the fuck was that? I think it was in 1995, right before I hooked up with these Finnish guys. I think maybe there was a bit of cultural differences.
You were too crazy for them?
I don?t know, I don?t think so. Maybe I was giving off the wrong vibes. At that point, I was really suspicious. I didn?t really know why Kevin left, I thought that was really strange because I though they were good friends. I was wondering if it was some political thing that I didn?t know about. Maybe I asked too much. ?We don?t know why he left and it?s none of your business.? Oh. However, it might have been interesting.
What is the truth behind the infamous ?Unleash the fucking fury? Yngwie tape? Is that something that you actually recorded?
No, it?s Anders of course!
So you weren?t there for the incident?
I was there, it was actually my fault the whole thing. But I didn?t record it. I think Anders was listening to a Judas Priest tape. In those days you?d have a cassette tape, a Walkman, and I guess he just pressed it into record instead of play. It was in the middle of the tape, in the middle of this Judas Priest song or whatever, where he started recording it because it sounded so funny. At some point in the mid 90s this tape started circulating in Stockholm in musician circles because we played it to people and someone made a copy and then everyone started making copies. Ten years later, it has made it onto the Internet.
And to his album title?.
Yeah! He was pissed off at first. ?Why are you fucking giving this tape to people?? He didn?t know about it in ?95, or whenever it first started circulating. Now he?s using it as his album title because, as they say, all publicity is good publicity. He got a lot a lot of attention from that.
I think he got more press attention from that than he got from his last five albums.
Sine you left the Yngwie band Rising Force, have you ever thought about reuniting with Yngwie in any capacity to do something like a guest appearance or a tour?
Sure, I think I did something even, I think I played on his ?Inspiration? album. I just saw him three or four weeks ago in Paris. He?s doing good, he?s completely sober now. I think a lot of his problems, or what people perceived as problems, was because he drank so fucking much. Of course, if you eliminate that from your life – he?s been sober for like two years – you cut out a lot of the problems. That basically goes without saying.
You played some solos on the latest Kamelot CD. How did you get in contact with them? Do you have any plans to do anything else with them?
Sure, if they ask. It was through Sasha Paeth, their producer. I did something else with him, ?Aina?, this rock opera.
Now that your brother is in HammerFall and has a busy schedule, I really hope you will find the time to do the second Johansson disc!?
We?ll find it somehow.
Is there anything else about Stratovarius you?d like to add?
Not really. We have made a video for ?Maniac Dance? that will be up on the website in a few days. The label just sent me the link for where it will be streaming.
Where did you film the video?
In Helsinki. It?s a mixed performance and story video, very frantic, very manic.
Is there any story behind what the ?Maniac Dance? is?
Just insomnia, I guess. The insomnia you get from this mania. There?s some girl in it who can?t sleep and she?s going crazy mixed with the band playing. It?s pretty cool. Looks good, but pretty frantic, athletic features and stuff!
Lots of strobe-lights?
Oh yeah, and very fast cuts.
Thanks for your time Jens and good luck on the tour!
Thank you for the interview.