Interview with bassist Marko Paasikoski and guitarist Elias Viljanen
@ O2 Islington Academy, London
25th March 2011
Reviewer: Rhiannon Marley
Photos: Altercarnated Photography
Of all the musicians they could take out for a drink one night, Sonata Arctica would pick Britney Spears! Well actually, that’s an exaggeration; their bassist, Marko Paasikoski, is just hard pushed for an answer. Let’s miss the joke for a second, and put on a deadpan face. There’s something unsavoury about a bunch of noisy Nordic Thunder-Gods choosing squeaky-clean-turned-wild-child bubblegum princess Spears for a question about a musician. I feel I should do something about this, and suggest that it’d be all right to take her out – if you closed her mouth, that is!
Marko’s thinking along similar lines – for reasons all of his own… “I know how to close her mouth, yeah…!” he grins cheekily. Boys. They all need to be piled in the bath and have their dirty minds metaphorically scrubbed with soap.
But it wouldn’t be a good idea to scrub Sonata Arctica’s minds too hard; they’re putting them to too much good professional use. Finland’s rising emperors of metal power-drama have battled to new heights since their primitive formation in ’95.
Six studio albums, live and compilation discs, a record label switch and numerous line-up changes later, and they’re belting, shredding and stomping in the name of the ‘epic’ stronger than ever.
But that barely touches the surface concerning what they’ve secured under their belt along the way.
With four music videos and nine singles to their name, and after gracing a range of festival big boys, they’re also billed for the Finnish instalment of Sonisphere 2011, and are due to show off their much-talked-about second live DVD later this year.
Now on the London leg of their early 2011 tour, I caught up with Marko and guitarist Elias Viljanen before the show in O2 Islington Academy, to see how playing in the company of support acts Triosphere and Labyrinth has been going; and on keeping Britney quiet? Gaffer tape should do the job just fine, I tell them.
“[Touring with Triosphere and Labyrinth has] been really good”, Elias muses, “and…usually, every night we just hang out with them, just have a few beers, and stay up until at least four…or six…something like that. They’re really cool guys. Both the bands.”
Rhiannon Marley (RM): “And you find them talented musicians as well?”
Elias (E): “Yeah. Really, really, really.”
It’s nice to see diplomacy in the cutthroat world of music. And the well-chosen bill with Norwegian and Italian horn-throwers, Triosphere and Labyrinth respectively, fits the Sonata Arctica boys into a great prog-power jigsaw, in which they’re the shining star. But it’s time to dig a little deeper. On a more personal level, I wonder whom Marko and Elias would list as their collective strongest influences as a group…
Marko (M): “For our band, I think…err…I have to say Queen.”
E: “For Tony, yeah…”
M: “For the rest of us…Metallica…Guns N’ Roses.”
RM: “How do you take things from each of those, and apply them to your work?”
M: “Err…no way [Laughs]…I don’t know.”
E: “I think Tony…when he does his…melody lines and stuff like that…he likes to do…multiple…like, he might have maybe 150 vocal tracks, or something like that, so it’s like really…err… ‘Queen’-style, maybe, I don’t know… [Laughs]…but for me, it’s…as for the guitarists, it’s Steve Vai, maybe. And he’s a top performer, and…like that, so, I like to do the same…y’know, as far as I can.”
RM: “Did you catch him at Guitar Nation 2010 at all, Steve Vai?”
E: “No, I think I didn’t. Maybe he’ll be on tour or something…” [Laughs]
When I suggested earlier that summarizing Sonata Arctica’s ascent to success somewhat compromises it, I was including their CV list as a warm-up act. Having supported no less than Dragonforce, Stratovarius, Nightwish and the legendary Iron Maiden over the years, to name but a few, their talents are acknowledged not only by the fans – their contemporaries clearly don’t think they’re bad, either. Quite a feather in their cap. From a technical point of view, how do the gents think Sonata Arctica set themselves apart from very musically-complex acts such as Dragonforce and Stratovarius, whilst keeping their skill and precision?
E: “…I don’t know…we just do our thing, y’know, and we hope that fans like it. We just do our thing…you know.”
M: “We don’t care about anybody else, too. Yeah but you know, we just make albums for ourselves, and hope people like it. Yeah.”
The boys are also asked in interviews all the time about the evolution of Sonata Arctica’s sound. I wonder if there are any compositional staples they stick to, or rules they always use, when making a new album, or whether they just throw caution to the wind every time…
E: “I think Tony does the…usually…or almost everything, like he composes the songs, so I think he might have some guidelines to himself, but, I don’t know. Usually…of course, it’s like, there’s drums, guitar, bass, and keys, so that’s…y’know…we try to be as…y’know…tough as…I like to play the guitar, like…I’m used to it, so…and that’s the style for me. And that’s for the band as well.”
Marko is tired; he doesn’t seem to know what day it is. Let’s hope he wakes up before he goes on stage…what does he think?
M: “Actually, no…not really. [Laughs] No, but it’s…yeah, Tony does all the songs, and that’s pretty much it. And we try to, err, change things a little bit for every album, that it wouldn’t sound the same. I would think it would be really, really boring if it would be the same the whole time. And of course, we want to get better at it; we learn with every album that things should have been done either this or this way, so we learn the whole time.”
E: “Yeah, Tony, usually he has some crazy ideas as well, and we try to maybe hold him back a little bit but [Laughs], usually the craziest ideas, they work also, they work really good, so we have maybe noticed that, y’know, that we must not hold him back [Laughs], for he must…that way is right, y’know…”
It’s well-chronicled that Sonata Arctica’s contract closure with Spinefarm Records, their first signed label and the powerhouse to whom the band sent their first successful demo, FullMoon, resulted in a partnership with Nuclear Blast Records. However, the Arctica signed to the very label to nurture the likes of Meshuggah, Testament and Exodus not before its predecessor had wrung out the very last drops – producing The End of This Chapter, the group’s first compilation album. I ask if they’ve found any more creative or personal benefits from the switch – and from Nuclear Blast itself. But asides from revealing that the latter label is “bigger – that’s it”, Marko doesn’t “wanna talk about business”. So keeping on the subject of creative development, I tilt the tables.
In a recent interview , Sonata Arctica’s keyboardist, Henrik Klingenberg, was quoted as saying he thought it would be “cheating” for the band to dig out their existing covers of songs to make a covers compilation album, without bringing any fresh ones to bear as well. The group already boast a myriad of varied classics to their repertoire; with numbers by artists from Bette Midler, Gary Moore and Bonnie Tyler, to Iron Maiden, KISS and Metallica, the concept of genre cohesion seems to have been given a punch in the face. A kaleidoscopic mix, to say the least. I ask Marko and Elias if the band chooses covers based on what they mean to them personally, or on stretching themselves professionally.
M: “We try to listen to the songs as good songs…and we don’t care about the…”
E: “ ‘Gen-re’ ” [Laughs]
M: “Yeah, we just…if it’s a good melody, and we can make it work, that’s when we do it. So we don’t care if it’s a disco hit or not.”
RM: “What’s your favourite song that you’ve covered?”
E: “For me, it’s the one that hasn’t been published yet…the one I’m playing in…”
M: “Yeah…that’s a good one.
E: “That will be the best.”
M: “For me, it’s the ultimate ‘hit’.”
E: “I’m not sure if we can tell it…no, probably not. I don’t know.”
M: “Maybe it’s getting released, if we say it…”
The ladies, i.e., myself and Metal-Rules editor, Jo, urge them to tell…
M: “When it’s released, for sure.”
E: “No, I won’t say it. I don’t have any permission to do that…I can just be teasing…”
M (To Elia): “And it seemed like you would…”
2011 has gotten off to a cracking start for the Nordic boys. Alongside writing new material and working on a forthcoming album, there’s the Arctica’s planned second live DVD, to be recorded in Oulu, Finland, to think about – which, contrary to internet Chinese Whispers, former guitarist and one of the founding members of the group, Jani Liimatainen, won’t be making a guest appearance on. But Sonata Arctica are accruing quite a collection of live dimensions to their work: CD/DVD combo For the Sake of Revenge, recorded in Tokyo, was released in ’06, and earlier still was album ‘Songs of Silence’, once again Tokyo-based, in ’02. 2011’s anticipated slice of non-studio cake suggests what a great means of promotion (not to mention pudding-proof for fans as to whether you can expect the same quality in the flesh or not), live shoots are for any group. But do Elias and Marko think there’s any point at which even specialised music could ‘sell’ itself out? Is there any line they wouldn’t cross to save commercial integrity?
E: “I don’t know…”
M: “I never thought of it like that…no, but we’re like…we haven’t…we have one DVD earlier, and so…I think it’s about time that we make another. ’Cause, we don’t make them; some bands do make, like, two DVDs with every album, so…we don’t like to do that.”
E: “It starts to get a little bit old.”
M: “Yeah. But…in our case, I think it’s about time to make a DVD.”
E: “And we had a bigger production.”
Jo: (M-R Editor/photographer): “So the music’s more important, not so much the commercialism side of it?”
E: “No, we don’t get any money. I mean it, because everything goes to the production…”
But one thing’s for sure: Sonata Arctica are doing pretty well for themselves, with a good deal of recognition in their own right. Precisely why I’m asking them things which probe a little further than the standard ‘tour’ jobs. 2011 marks their sixteenth year treading the boards; sure-fire testament to the fact that it’s far from easy to cut it big in the musical stratosphere. But with a blend of perseverance, belligerence, raw talent, a certain degree of promotional cultivation and a spoonful of luck, Sonata Arctica are grinding their axes with greater passion than ever. If they were looking retrospectively across their discography, I’m interested in which album Elias and Marko would like to be remembered for.
E: “For me, it’s ‘Silence’. It was the first album that I heard…I wasn’t with the band, and it really hit me, like, y’know…something else, something fresh. [Sighs] But of course, the newest one, because I’m there!”
M: “But I think…yeah, I think ‘Silence’ is pretty much…err…like, the songs…it’s close to perfect. Like, all the whole album is…the range to the songs, and everything. But then, on the production side, I would like to…change some things. But we were such newbies then, we didn’t know what to do. But otherwise, I think that’s the best.”
And so, I put the last brain-picker to the gents before the show: classic Desert Island Disc. If Elias and Marko could each take three albums with them onto a desert island, what would they be?
E: “Err…it’s difficult, but y’know…okay, ‘Master of Puppets’, that’s easy. Then, I don’t know, after that, it gets a little bit…maybe something from Pantera, maybe, I don’t know.”
M: “Yeah, ‘Cowboys From Hell’. That’s easy.”
E: “Maybe something classical, to balance that, y’know. Some Bach or something. I don’t know.”
M: “If you find a girl, you’re gonna have some moody music…”
M: “I go with that, yeah, some Metallica, and Pantera – I would go for ‘Cowboys From Hell’. And then…”
M: “What would it be…? Slayer, maybe…? [Laughs] I’m just kidding. I might actually go for Morbid Angel as well…”
So, Sonata Arctica can certainly talk the talk. But testing whether they deliver the goods when plugged in and switched on is hoping they’ll throw a different set of dice from every other power-metal bunch.
The question is always how to do something that hasn’t already been touched…and still fit in.
It’s the poison to there being so many competing numbers for the spotlight in any kind of music. But it’s a particular thorn in the side for the ‘unique’ world of rock and metal: the haven for the renegades and misfits; the temple of ‘individuality’, in which the often indistinguishable sea of hair, tattoos and guitars is pointed out as its very own cult uniform at the cost of great criminal taboo.
Looking forward to seeing them onstage in just a few minutes!