Stratovarius – Jens Johansson
Interviewed by EvilG, Transcription by Duke
Keyboardist and (often) mouthpiece for Statrovarius, Jens Johansson, spoke to us about the triumphant return of Finland’s premier power metal band. As many a fan and even casual observers know, this band has been though a lot of inner turmoil over the few years. The band had been on ice, near death, or almost defunct for a while. Whether it was because of their former label going tits up or the mental stability of now former guitarist and band visionary, Timo Tolkki, the dust has finally settled and from it all the band (sans Tolkki) is back and have returned with their strongest album since INFINITE (2000). We spoke to Jens about the new album and how it was that the band which was teetering on the edge are now back to restore and hopefully take the band onwards to new horizons.
Hello Jens, so you´re in Germany today?
Good day, yes, we´re in Germany. Everybody has a bit of swine flu but apart from that we´re fine. ha! Actually we´re rehearsing (for the tour) here.
How´s it going?
So far, pretty good actually. We´ve been here a couple of days and everything is coming together nicely.
How much rehearsing will you be doing? Just a week or so?
Something like that. We take it pretty easy, then there are some interviews and we are doing some barbecuing and stuff.
Your new album entitled POLARIS obviously is a reference to the navigational star that has been used by mariners for a long time. What meaning does POLARIS have to you guys and why did you decide to choose that for the album title?
First of all, it sounds good. We wouldn´t pick a title that isn´t sonically pleasing in some way. But then four fifths of the band are from pretty far up North in Europe and this is the Northern star that doesn´t move. I think it was Lauri (Porra), our bass player, who suggested the name. In the beginning it might have been suggested as a song title, I don´t remember, it was in some e-mail, but everybody was like “Well, maybe we should call the album that”. And we did. So it wasn´t anything deeper, it just fit well together with so many people being from the North. I wish I had a better story! Like a concept album, but it isn´t.
It´s not a concept album no.
Not really. But you could probably construct some sort of concept around it if you wanted, but it would be pretty far fetched.
Fittingly, the logo on the album contains a stylized compass in the centre, which replaces the fleur-de-lis symbol which is not on the album this time. Was there a conscious decision to replace the fleur-de-lis with the compass or was that just something the artist did when he worked on the album cover?
I think it´s something we discussed doing before we even had a record deal or anything. When we were putting together the album, the old guitar player who left the band was going “Oh, these guys can´t continue without me!” He isn´t doing that now, but he was starting his own band as said that the fleur-de-lis was his symbol. So we thought “OK; he can keep the fleur-de-lis symbol if he wants to”. It wasn´t anything beyond that either, I think we just wanted to put some new imagery on it too. All these graphical and symbolic elements, in a way, came long after the songs were written. We started with the music, for better or for worse, which was an interesting process. I´m not sure if you are aware of what happened with the band and stuff?
Yeah, we´ll get to that in a couple of questions! I thought we could start with the new album. I think the album cover for POLARIS is one of your better covers and obviously better than the plain cover in 2005 when you just had the fleur-de-lis on the cover. What was the process, did you have a concept for the cover artist, or did you say “Here are some lyrics, go form an album cover”?
I think he just heard some tracks. I think he had listened to the album -or to the band- and there were actually a bunch of ideas tossed around at the time. This was the just best one. We had some other people making sketches too, but this was just so good that we went "Ah man, this is great!”
For me, POLARIS is your best album since INFINITE. What´s your take on where POLARIS fits into your discography?
That´s nice of you to say, thanks! I don´t know, I think they´re all good in their own way. I´m kinda partial to, well parts of this one too since it´s so different, but if you count the old catalogue I like this live record. For me it´s mostly a memory thing, when you actually play on the stuff I don´t think you think about it the same way as somebody who listens to it. When you get the finished product, you tend to think about it in a different way. But I like the live record, I think it´s great. It was a great time period in the middle, I think it was recorded in 97. The whole scene was waking up again and it was a great time to be on the road and we happened to just record it. I don´t know why we recorded it, but it was good!
When I first played POLARIS I was immediately interested in hearing your new guitarist. The first couple of tracks has you as the keyboardist take the lead and play the solo parts and not the guitar. Was that a conscious decision to structure the album in such a way so you´re not beaten over the head with some new guy shredding at you? Or did it just happen that way when you put the songs in order?
We decided pretty early that whoever wrote a song should decide what goes in there, what kind of solos and so on. It´s just a case of where things fell later in the sequence. I think that I was responsible for the sequence in the end. But we had discussed it a lot and I thought a lot in terms of tempos and keys and of course some other people had other opinions until I was just going “Ah, I´ll put it there myself! If you want to change it now, come over and convince me!” I don´t know, it probably seems less coincidental than it actually was, which I think is nice in a way. I think this whole record – even though it doesn´t appear that way when you listen to the finished thing – the whole thing was really an experiment from day one. We didn´t really know what was going to come from it. We should make some music, we should get a new guitar player, great, let´s try some songs, that´s great, let´s record some drums, great, should we call it Statovarius? Once we had some drums recorded and did demos around the drums, it sounded like Stratovarius so we kept the name and decided to finish the record by February and then try to get a deal. It sounds like a backward way, but I think that´s what bands normally do when they start out. So what was backwards for Stratovarius was actually normal in a way. In the Tolkki days we always had a record deal and he would just present us with the songs. This time it was more of an experiment, we didn´t know what the songs were going to sound like or what Matias (Kupiainen) was going to sound like.
On the previous Stratovarius album, there was an almost complete lack of speed in terms of up-tempo double kickers. Thankfully on POLARIS there are quite a few up tempo songs. I guess you guys must have realized that a number of your fans not only love slow and epic sounding songs but also songs that are faster and loaded with a lot of double kicks?
Of course, you think a little bit about the people who are going to listen to it. I think that between FOURTH DIMENSION and ELEMENTS was the time that the band caught most people´s ears, and that has a mixture of epic and fast. In the end, we had very many songs for this record and everybody agreed on the selection the way we made it. It was complicated and simple, it´s very hard to explain.
Was there a reason that the last album didn´t have ANY fast songs? Was that Tolkki´s choice to slow things down maybe?
I think so. Back then, it was Tolkki who made all those decisions in a way because we trusted him completely with all these things. With that record, he was definitely trying to take the band to another level and it´s more accessible with more mid tempo songs. So it was a little bit of a turn in directions. If it had been a huge, huge success, maybe we would have continued with more poppy and more mid tempo material. I don´t know. But the way it happened, the record company we were signed to at the time went bankrupt just after the record was released, so it was all like “Oops!” That could have been the start of the pop Stratovarius where no one had ever heard about this power metal stuff, but there was a lot of happenstance at the time. The worst was actually the record company going bankrupt, but there was a lot of grief afterwards.
Yeah, I remember reading the press at the time and it was a touch and go time for the band.
For the band too, but I mean this label had a lot of other artists too who were in the same boat. They were sold later to Universal and we tried dealing with them, but… A lot of this turmoil in the band, of course a lot of it was internally generated too, but also this music industry squeeze. When you have a record label so defunct that when you send them mail of call them, there´s nobody there to answer the phone or open the mail. We couldn´t even find them.
You released some “tall box” versions of ELEMENTS I and II and INTERMISSION that I ordered back at the time through the Statoshop. So my question is a two part: Where is the Stratoshop and will a deluxe version of POLARIS be released like something like that?
I think there´s no deluxe version with demos or something like that two CD thing. But there is a digipack and they´ve made some other weird things like signed vinyl. I´m not so familiar really with all the formats they have. But there is a limited edition digipack which I think probably is the nicest one.
Will that be like the INFINITE one that had the extra booklet and a tattoo or whatever?
I think there is an extra booklet. If I remember it right. But they also did some vinyl things and vinyl singles… I´ve been out of the loop unfortunately. The Stratoshop, well that´s a long story too. It sort of capsized at the same time as this record company stuff went on. We just shut it down, then we couldn´t pay the server bill so it was just PPPPPPTTT (fart noise). We still have these boxes of merch so it was pretty tough times in the band before we decided to use the name again. Up until September last year there was no one officially manning the rudder for the band. I mean, we were writing but didn´t know if it was going to be called Stratovarius etc. etc..
When Timo Tolkki relinquished the name Stratovarius, I thought he had moved on, but his new project is actually called "Project Strato" and he´s putting together the DREAMSPACE line-up to do an album called RETURN TO DREAMSPACE. His quote was something like that for him, he considers this the closure for Stratovarius. As a fan, this is potentially good news because we have more new material from two versions.
If someone decides to make more music, that can never be a bad thing for me. That is how I got into Stratovarius in the first place, with the DREAMSPACE record. I think it was in Dream Theater´s manager´s office, “I have this great Finnish band”. That´s how I became familiar with the band. Then when Timo actually contacted me, I had heard of the band before so I didn´t just throw the fax in the waste paper.
When you guys were given the name Stratovarius, did you have to pay for the name or did he just say “Here you go, you have the name Stratovarius, I´m done”?
I wasn´t completely clear. In a way I think we all owned the name because we had put in a lot of work. Everyone who had put in time and toured and made record had an interest in the name. So it was more like he said “I give you whatever my interest in the name is, I don´t want anything to do with you guys.” But I think he did it because he was angry at the time. I don´t think we had decided to use it then, but I think he suspected that something like that was going on and was just like “I don´t want ANYTHING to do with you guys!” He gets angry sometimes.
To be honest, before I heard POLARIS I was a bit worried that it wasn´t going to sound like Stratovarius because Timo Tolkki wasn’t the main songwriter anymore. But surprisingly it very much sounds like a Stratovarius record to me, even though there are some different things going on here and there. Do you think that with Tolkki no longer in the picture writing the music that the band is going to evolve into something different, or do you think that you will maintain the classic Stratovarius sound that you have developed over the years?
I think it might evolve a bit. It´s hard to say, I can´t really see what we do now that we don´t have Tolkki, because before he left we trusted him with all the musical decisions. Now we are doing things sort of by consensus. So I don´t think that it can evolve very quickly in a different direction because all five of us have to be pulling in the same direction for it to go in that direction. So there´s no risk that we will go in a reggae direction because nobody is a reggae fan. It´s very difficult to say because we haven´t written anything for the new record. I guess we can experiment a bit and if it sounds like Stratovarius, let´s put it out as Stratovarius and if we´re not happy doing that, let´s call it something else. To me, I think that with Timo (Kotipelto) on vocals and Jörg (Michael) on the drums, that´s a lot of the sound. Not only with the songs, the general sound picture of the band is like that.
Was there a point in the last year or two with all of this drama going on and people were reading these very open things on the Internet, I guess with most bands you don´t know their personal inner workings in as many details as with Stratovarius, was there a point where you felt like saying “I´ve had enough of dealing with this, I´m walking away”?
Definitely! I think Jörg was the guy who was feeling strongest like that. I was probably the second strongest. I was really thinking that if we do something, we call it something else. But in the end you gain a little more perspective and you count the stuff that happened as water under the bridge. It´s hard to do when you´re in the middle of it of course, it takes a little time.
I guess you´ve invested so much of your time and your life into Stratovarius, so it´s not an easy decision to say “I´m done”?
Well, for Jörg, he was completely done. He really had had enough. About a year ago he was like “I´m done with this band under this name, I´m sick of just hearing the word”. I didn´t feel quite that strongly about it, but of course I was pretty sick of everything that had happened, it was quite a long story too. Now when I think about it, it was all this bankrupt record company’s fault if you want to blame somebody. They couldn´t manage their bank loans properly and their stocks sank and Credit Suisse wanted to have their money and some of that happened already in 2005 actually. We were still signed to them and couldn´t even get them on the phone.
The Upcoming Tour
So is your new record company working out better for you so far?
Definitely, they have somebody answering the phone! This is a private company, not one on the stock market like Sanctuary were. They were traded by London stock exchange sharks and when they smell blood in the water the stock prices sink and all the artists on the label go down with the ship. The label we are on now are not on the stock exchanges, they´re a normal record label and for their budgeting and such they are a sound company.
On your European tour that you are about to embark on, I believe Firewind is your opening band. Then come Fall you will be over here on our side of the world playing in North America. Do you know who you will be taking with you, which bands will be your opening acts?
Yeah it´s this Norwegian band, I saw their CD in the office, what the fuck was they called… Pagan´s Mind! They will be in the States I think.
Will they be doing the Canadian shows too?
I think so. Usually when you take a band over like that, they do all the shows. It should be an interesting bill.
Cool, I look forward to seeing you both in September. So, What type of material have you been rehearsing for the setlist, is it mostly new material or are there a few greatest hits?
Of course we still play some of the old hits. What we do is we rehearse quite a few of the new ones and quite a few old ones too, which is why we have this week here now. Over the next year we will do such a big variety of shows. We do this UK tour which is almost a warm-up. It´s a headlining tour but in small clubs. Then over here in Europe we do a lot of Summer festivals where you get a shorter set, maybe an hour, and we increase the proportion of old hits because a lot of people there might not have bought the record and are there to drink beer or whatever. In the Fall when we headline, we perhaps play more of the new stuff. Anyway, we have rehearsed a spectrum of songs that we can swap.
Have you added any songs to your set list that you never played live before or maybe very rarely?
I don´t think so, no. Not of the old stuff anyway.
Does this lineup play any of the material from DREAMSPACE and older or do you keep to the materials that you guys recorded?
Actually, we don´t do anything from DREAMSPACE or older. So far, anyway. I know the songs and it would just be for Matias to learn the songs and he´s heard that record a lot, it´s probably the one he has been listening the most to. He probably knows those songs already anyway! Of course, now Timo has his RETURN TO DREAMSPACE thing, Stratosomething, so he could go and do those.
When I mentioned to some people that I was interviewing Jens Johansson, they said “You gotta ask him something about Yngwie Malmsteen!” You´ve played with him longer than most who have been in his revolving door band of musicians.
It was only for five years, but we did a lot of work. A lot of records and a lot of touring. The keyboard player that came after me was in the band for, like, ten years. He was always complaining about that to me. “They call me the new guy and I´ve been in the band for ten years! You were only here for five years! Gaaaah!” I guess it was five years, but they were five quite good years.
I think the LIVE IN LENINGRAD VHS was my first introduction to seeing you play the keyboards. Have you remained friends or in contact with Yngwie after all these years or have you lost touch totally?
Almost lost touch. Of course, when he´s around I always go up to him and say hi, but I haven´t talked to him for almost a year. When he was in Göteborg (Gothenburg) and I was there too, last July I think it was, we sat down and talked for a long while. There´s no enmity or something like that.
Is there an interesting war story of Yngwie that you haven´t talked about?
I don´t know, I think it´s something like ten times that all of them have been drafted and discussed. I think the best war story is that nowadays he doesn´t drink a drop. When I went to this show in July or whenever it was, they had a dry back stage with Coca-Cola and Sprite and stuff like that. That´s the happiest ending of them all, he doesn´t touch booze anymore. That´s obviously what created a lot of the problems in the past. For all of us, but especially for him. I can tell you a funny story from 2005 when me and Kotipelto bumped into him in Paris. We were doing press for the self titled Stratovarius and he was there playing and then we went backstage. The keyboard player was Swedish and he went “Can´t you guys take me with you? There´s no booze! There´s nothing! It´s so boring!” “No, you have to stay!” But I think it´s much better for him. You can´t keep drinking like that, he was really drinking a LOT. You can´t drink like that without dying when you´re 49 or something like that. I don´t know how long he would have kept on going with this level of boozing.
I guess only Lemmy can keep that up.
Yeah, I don´t know how he does it but…
So did playing with Yngwie in those years influence your own style of playing solos on your keyboard?
I think so. But I also think we listen to the same people. We had very much the same influences. Guitar players like Uli Roth and Holzworth and also keyboard players like we listened to Purple a lot so I think we both influences each other even. I think I hear a lot of Uli in his playing and maybe even in my own. A bit. Very much. Sort of. It was in everybody´s ears in those days, we listened a lot to old Uli records.
Is there anything else going on with Stratovarius that you´d like to include in this interview?
I think that´s it. I´m just happy that we actually did make this record and that we´re playing live now too. It sounds ridiculous, but in a way it´s a privilege to be able to do it.
Did it take the band almost falling apart for you to realize it was a privilege?
No, I think I realized it before. But of course there were a lot of practical things, like I said, this time we did a completely reversed process from the usual process, which was that we actually had a record deal in place, then Timo Tolkki would write the songs and then we would record them. This was completely opposite. Started without guitar player, found good guitar player, wrote the songs, decided to use the name and THEN we got the record deal. We actually self-financed the record even.
Does it feel more like a band now that you have this way of doing things more democratically?
In a way, yeah. We had a good band feeling before that too. That wasn´t really the problem, the core problem was that Timo Tolkki is sometimes a bit volatile. He makes these rash decisions here and there. But we also had heavy pressure on us because of this record company thing. You just have to deal with that and move on. Keep the music flowing!