Keyboardist Jens Johansson
Interviewed by EvilG
Live photos by Arto Lehtinen (unless where otherwise noted)
For many years now I’ve counted Stratovarius amongst my favorite bands. Despite the bands ups and downs, they’ve have been on a steady incline over the past 4 years with two killer albums in a row and a new live album/DVD/Blu-Ray and a new album coming in the spring of 2013. I spoke with Jens about their current live release, the upcoming album, the departure of drummer Jorg Michael, the absence of the band from North America on the previous tour, and much more. Enjoy.
Hi Jens, nice to speak with you again. Are you calling from Finland today?
I’m actually in Sweden at the moment.
Well, I was close.
Yes, very close. Same shit, different language. I’m actually working on the new album here. Timo Kotipelto is working on the vocals at the same time and finalizing tracks.
Under Flaming Winter Skies
I recently received my Under Flaming Winter Skies Blu-ray in the mail and it looks and sounds fantastic. Are you happy with how it turned out?
Yes, very much so. In the beginning I was just happy that it even came out because I thought maybe we were jinxed when it came to DVD releases. We had tried before so first of all I was just happy that it came out. I really like the playing, the mix, the packaging, everything.
Were there many studio touch-ups done for anyone’s parts that you’d care to admit? (laughs)
No actually. That was one of the goals for when we recorded. When you are contemplating on possibly making mistakes we were not convinced too fix it. The thing is, my theory is in fact two-fold. First of all when you are recording a live DVD anyway, you are recording the origins…the whole thing, you are capturing the vibe, how the audience is reacting and how they are clapping or whatever the fuck they are doing you know screaming or vomiting or whatever is happening. So of course, there is usually very loud music at a rock concert, so when you play a bunch of bad notes and that goes out through the speakers into the audience and that becomes a severe pain in the ass because fixing parts that the [audience has heard]. The problem nowadays, which wasn’t a factor before, is that people bring their own video cameras into the venue as it’s contained in their phone. They then upload it to youtube, so if we fixed a bunch of stuff, people would know from watching it on youtube and hearing the mistakes and going “hahaha those guys have fixed this or that.” So I think those days are over. You have to do it properly when you record a “live” album. You can’t fix a bunch of stuff and get away with it because it will generally be on youtube no matter what you do. We thought a little about all this beforehand and knew we tried to nail our parts and do whatever it takes. I had the ability to fix all my parts and maybe adjust sounds in the end we didn’t change anything.
Was there much discussion over the inclusion of the covers versus including more Stratovarius material?
Actually, no. At first we did have some idea to record two concerts – one show with covers and one show with just Stratovarius songs. Like for a warm-up gig or something. In the end, it molded into just shooting at one location and we kept some of the cover songs we had rehearsed but nothing was changed too much.
If you, and you alone, were choosing the Stratovaius live setlist, what are some songs that would be played that you haven’t played in a long time or ever?
Hmmm…good question. I think I would pick some really strange stuff from the ELEMENTS albums. I might put something like “Phoenix in the Morning” or “Cold Winter Nights” but that’s from the DESTINY album. All in all, what I think I will do, I will go through all the setlists from the last three years and see what songs we’ve played every time and for those songs, drop them immediately. Then I would see what are the most popular songs that we haven’t played, then make a short list of those, and then pick from them. In fact, I might do exactly this and present the idea to the guys. We have a system where Timo Kotipelto decides basically what the setlist should be and I think that is ok because he has the most physical job. Because if he gets sick you know…
Yes drumming is also very physical, but if you get a cold you can still play drums.
Yes definitely there are a lot more factors for a singer to contend with. If you get a cold in the middle of a tour when you are a singer it’s a fucking disaster. Look at Nightwish, at what happened to them. They have a new singer now, but she also had a cold [when she first started with them]. It’s not easy to be a singer so I think it’s proper that he’s picking the songs.
You mentioned possibly playing something that is a little more obscure from ELEMENTS and I noticed on the bonus interviews on the DVD, you mention ELEMENTS (pt1 and 2) as perhaps your favorite Stratovarius releases. Can you elaborate on what it is about those that put them above the others?
I think we tried to take it to a completely different level than the previous three records which was a lot less pop, of course there are still some pop orientated songs like “Eagleheart” and things like that. I think the whole approach was to not have things repeated and I think we succeeded. Not so often in this dreadful business do you this plan that actually works out. When we are making albums, there is usually no grand plan and it was an interesting concept as well and a very relaxing way to make an album. Back in those days we had Timo Tolkki making [most of the] musical decisions in the band. If you want to make a album full of symphonic stuff it’s not as possible to do when you have 4 or 5 guys taking different direction or whatever. Anyway, with ELEMENTS we had a big label, a good budget and we could afford to do it and we had the time to do it. I wouldn’t have made Elements part 3 because in the end it didn’t actually quite work, I think the INFINITE album sold more. Also I think when you talk to people, the reception from the fans generally was that it was a little too much, maybe a little too heavy [when compared to] those more used to the more pop stuff. But I listen to a lot of symphonic music anyway and to [have things] orchestrated for those records was actually hard.
Would you like to include even more orchestration in some of your music possibly along the lines of say Rhapsody or Nightwish who both have a movie type of feel to their music?
Actually, I don’t think so. I think the problem is, if you are trying to fake it with synths or samples and stuff like this, it’s never as good as the real thing. And to have the real thing itself, you would have to sell a LOT more records to get the record company to pay for the job. As the moment, everybody’s record sales are down because of downloading. So it becomes not as possible [for most] to make records of that level or quality with an orchestra as the centerpiece of the whole album. You need deep pockets to do that properly and with decreasing album sales not so many bands can do this. As for the new Rhapsody album, I actually haven’t heard it yet.
Can you tell me about how you write for Stratovarius. For Example, on Elysium you are credited for "The Game Never Ends" and "Move the Mountain" – did you write them in their entirety including any of the parts for other instruments…and on the flipside, for the songs you didn’t write, do the other guys ever tell you what to play or are you given free reign?
I think it’s pretty much free reign both ways. I think whether it’s keyboards, bass, or guitar, we have ideas and sketches. I think everybody is doing it the same way; they put some really bad sketches. Of course I put down some really bad guitar. The other guys might put down some keyboard sketches. Sometimes what is on the demo we end up liking; what you did or what someone else did on the demos. So we end up doing something similar or sometimes we think of a different or better way. It’s only suggestions. We also have this system where whoever writes the song really should be the one. But it’s usually free reign. If somebody is making, for instance on the new album Matias and Lauri are doing bass and guitar and I haven’t always been there when they played them. So we do record stuff and can ask someone to change something we make adjustments back and forth. It’s the same when we do the keyboards and vocals.
Matias Kupiainen has written a lot of the band’s material since he joined and might I add is doing a great job of maintaining the sound us Stratovarius fans love while introducing new ideas. Were you guys at first a bit hesitant hand over the bulk of the song-writing credits to a new guy?
No, I think that was a part of the plan. Maybe I didn’t know that there was a plan, but I really liked what I heard him playing. He plays very musically. I heard him play so solos and realized immediately [from what he played] that he was very musical. I thought this was something like what we need. On the first album with Matias, I don’t think he wrote so much. He wrote some stuff with Timo. I think when we put together that first album with him, the POLARIS record, things were very much ad hock. We did a bit of writing with Lauri too and it was a matter of seeing if we should keep going with the band or not. I think by the time the second album (with Matias) was recorded, I think he realized like “fuck, I really have a chance here so I’ll write a bunch of stuff”… The quality was so completely good as he was writing more and more for the record. And also with the new upcoming record he did very well, I think we all did. We had like maybe 2 hours of material. That was part of the idea with more people writing in the band…you don’t have to wait for anyone to pick up the slack. Sometimes that method works very awesome.
2013 Stratovarius Album
You mentioned the next album. So can you give us an update on how much is recorded and do you know how many songs will make it onto album?
I dunno….we are about ½ way through recording or maybe a little more than ½ way. As for how many songs on the album….we have something like 15 songs that we recorded drums for. Some might be for bonus tracks or something like that. I don’t mind making a long album.
Of course, everyone wants to know how it compares to the past 2 albums or to the previous Stratovarius material?
I think it’s going to be more similar to ELYSIUM than similar to POLARIS. Again, there will be some unexpected directions. Everybody is writing, 4 people are writing, so of course you get a big variety of different ideas. This isn’t so much how it was in the Tolkki days when then the music came more or less came from him which has certain advantages as well as certain disadvantages. But so far, so good you know it’s an experiment to see if we can keep it together and come up with a new album and finish it and get it out. But we’re more than ½ way done now so…
So how is new drummer Wolf Pilve filling Jorge’s large shoes?
I think very well. We’ve done 4, 5, or 6 shows with him and recorded something like 15-17 tracks. He’s a great guy, very easy going and calm, and simply a great player. I think he’s maybe over qualified for Stratovarius…
Some people would say that you are also over qualified for Stratovarius as well (laughs).
Maybe in a way but I tend not to show that I am over qualified. I think it’s maybe a bit strange that he (Rolf) can play this quadruple time death metal blast beats just off the cuff because he could you know but he doesn’t do it because it’s not so sensible.
Yeah, I guess you have to know where to draw the line between showing off your chops and being progressive and knowing what the average Stratovarius fan willing to listen to in terms of how technical it might get.
Yea, exactly. But let’s see because we haven’t done so many live shows with him. Hopefully, of course it might be funny if it happens, there is no like meltdown in the middle of the tour and then all of the songs are like super overplayed. But it could be something unexpected like exploding on stage or some other weird shit like that. So we settled the issue of who will be the drummer, we picked him, and whatever he wants to do with the tracks is for him [to decide] unless he fucks it up in some very very bad way but I don’t think he will actually. He is very sensible and calm and I think understand exactly what is required.
So with regards to playing live; Stratovarius toured as guests on Helloween’s Seven Sinners Tour…a tour which sadly didn’t come to Canada or the USA. Was this because there were just no offers for this part of the world, or were the offers just lacking in some way?
I think the offers are ok. We went over this in some meetings with the booking agent, who funnily enough was actually Jorg (our previous drummer, and we have no bad vibes with him). I think for Canada and for the United States is different- of course there is the airfare. But for the United States the costs of applying for work visas have actually risen. It’s much bigger nowadays then it used to be and they give them for much less time. It is like only 2 or 3 months, exactly how long the tour is. You can’t do the thing were you apply and it’s like for 2 years and you can maybe do 2 tours, there is no more of that stuff. There was also something going on with withholding money from the fees as a foreign artist tax and everybody has to claim that back for the US government. So you get the money, you can spend the money, and anything sitting in an account of the US government you don’t get back for like 2 or 3 years later.
So it was three issues: visa costs, visa lengths, and then this foreign artist tax. It’s wreaking havoc with a lot of European bands touring in the States.
You know where my next question is going. Is it too early to comment on possible North American tour dates for 2013?
That’s the thing. There is no plan yet. We’ve talked about it for next year in the fall. We’ll have to see how the new album is going in the spring of 2013 and see how it looks. But at the moment there are no concrete plans.
As most know, you are from Sweden, have lived in the States, and for many years now you’ve been in this awesome Finnish band. So where do you call home these days, is it still Sweden?
Ahhh….I don’t know. Sometimes I call that home, and sometimes I even call Finland home.
Do you feel like a bit of a gypsy?
Yes, exactly! Somehow, a few years ago, the concept of home was more important. Like, you got homesick wherever, like when you were in the States or like in South America and there was no snow or no Swedish caviar or whatever the fuck that makes you fell homesick. But you end up traveling so much that you end up never being homesick anymore. I don’t know… It’s still somewhat cheap to travel.
There is still the long waiting game when touring and you hear that is why a lot of bands stop touring or doing long tours.
Yes, it is annoying. The other thing is that there is a mad market when in recent years there has been a lot of downloading. In the last 5 years downloading has become such a huge issue and record sales have gone down. Of course people realize with record sales down, you don’t make money from selling records anymore so to make money you have to go on the road. That means for the concert goers Euros or Dollars or whatever, there is a lot more competition not than there used to be. That market has gotten really tough with constantly band out. Some tours are failing and sometimes constantly being on the road something goes to hell, like it’s a much more concrete thing if you can’t buy gasoline or you can’t pay for hotel rooms and people have to sleep under bridges or whatever. So it’s not strange that bands might stop touring as it’s gotten more difficult in the past couple of years.
I guess that’s why is makes sense when two larger known bands tour together like Stratovarius and Helloween, or like what Helloween are about to do with the Hellish Rock 2 with them and Gamma Ray again. That probably makes more sense than one band with a few smaller unknowns. [Yes.] So what that more successful for you when you toured with Helloween?
Of course and it’s also question of like a package that you offer. It’s better than seeing say Helloween with a bunch of unknown bands versus seeing Helloween with Stratovarius. Of course it is then more likely that people will get a ticket and get up off the couch and go out. If enough people do that, at some point you have a scale issue because you can get bigger venues, and with enough people showing up you can make a bigger profit. There are a lot of factors like that working. We know that when say Stratovarius and Helloween have a new album and with so many competing bands who are out at the same time…there is strength in numbers. Rather than play for 200 people, with a package maybe it’s 2000. Let’s put it this way, if we would have been out at the same time as Helloween, of course we would of competed against each other and that would have been more of a problem. We play similar music, like melodic power metal type of stuff, so if we were out at the same time, nobody would have been happy in the end. With both bands on tour together a lot of things and resources can be shared. So there is an economy of scale there. I think this is a direct consequence of downloading. It didn’t used to be like this, like even 5 years ago people still made money from records.
Well hopefully bands don’t stop making records and just tour because that wouldn’t be any good either.
I think like we talked about before with ELEMENTS Part 1 and 2 and orchestral records, that is also another casualty. Nowadays to make that kind of quality of a recording technically you have to have massive sales. You have to be a Nightwish or someone like that to have for example a 100-piece orchestra recorded properly with the conductor and the whole thing.
Image courtey of Stratovarius.com
The CREDO Guest Appearance
In May of this year it was announced that you would guest on Timo Tolkki’s "Classical Variations 2: CREDO", a pledge music project that has since been canceled. So what is the story there, have you worked on anything or recorded anything yet, or can you comment on what your involvement might be?
It never got that far. I asked him if he had anything at he said “no, I haven’t even written it yet.” He was like, I will write it July…he has a VERY good ethic when it comes to writing; he really knows how to put things together when he’s in the right mood or whatever. But as you said, it got canceled, I think he got some other offer.
Yes, that was pretty much what he alluded to. Do you still plan to be a part if it if he asks you to record something when it starts again?
I don’t know what he was planning to write but of course I’m ok do this. It’s very easy for me anyway, that kind of stuff I can do in my sleep. I will do it as a favor you know. But as far as I know now, he hasn’t announced any more details but I think he said that the recording that I would make would be towards the end of the year.
Well that’s all the questions. There’s just one last VERY important thing to get your comment on, and that is…is the force strong with you?
I think so, yes. Today, especially. I have a Lightsaber ready. But yea, those movies, of course I love those Star Wars movies too. It’s funny about this force because the force was also strong with Darth Vader and he was like a badass kinda dude. You have the ability to do terrible things or the ability to do very nice things and within that conflict, I have both. But yes the force is strong but am I more like Luke or more like early Darth Vader? I don’t know.
More like Anakin Skywalker perhaps?
Yea, exactly (laughs). I hope so. I guess everybody likes to think of themselves as not being a really bad guy.
Image courtey of Stratovarius.com
Right on. So is there any other news or things going on that we didn’t get to talk about that you’d like to let fans know about?
One thing I really like about the situation with Jorg, which I touched on, was that I think he left the band in a way that everybody should leave a band, especially if you’ve played in that band for like 15 years or whatever. I think he was able to do it completely on his own terms. We’re still friends; he’s still a booking agent for the band. By doing it this way not only was it good for him, it was good for us. We were between albums and we had plenty of time to find a replacement. Of course, it was very sad to see him go but of course I could see his motivations – he wanted to spend more time at home with his family of course, and with a normal daytime job as a booking agent (he has a booking company in Germany) that was eating a lot of his time. He had to go on the road [and still work his day job]. Actually he did it when he was out with us, booking us and a bunch of bands, when he was out on the road in the middle of nowhere. It can be very stressful to be on the road and doing that at the same time. But nothing lasts forever but it was good for as long as it lasted.
It was cool that it was included on the DVD with a bit of an explanation and a farewell interview from Jorg. In a lot of bands or other situations, members are not given this kind of opportunity.
Yes exactly. And while musically he was “only” the drummer, and normally people get replaced at the drop of a hat you know in normal bands. But he stuck with the band even through some terrible terrible times when we did a lot of very important and very difficult things. The fact that the band still exists after the difficult time from 2004 / 2005…I don’t think the band would of survived without him through those years. And also finally in 2008 when he decided to jump full aboard again when Tolkki said I don’t even want to hear this name Stratovarius anymore, he was so sick of it…the way Jorg jumped aboard again at the right time speaks of his character. So he’s still booking our gigs, it’s not like he dies or something like exploding which drummers normally do.
I’m really looking forward to the new album in 2013 and please, come back to Canada!
If we comes back it might be next year in the fall. We’ll try to play a bunch of summer festivals in Europe before.
The fall is a perfect time of year to come here. It’s not too hot and winter isn’t here so it’s not too cold either.
Actually one other idea we had, because the North American problems are US related with the visas, we actually had some idea of MAYBE, and I don’t know if this is going to work…but with this around the world airfare we could to Japan and Latin America and then maybe Canada, only Canada and not the USA at all. I don’t know.
Well play at cities close to the border so some fans can still manage to come across to still see you.
That’s not a bad idea, but let’s see what happens.