NIGHTWISH & SONATA ARCTICA - The Ties That Bind
November 11, 2004, 15 years ago
If you're a Nightwish or a Sonata Arctica fan, you're probably aware of the close relationship between the two bands. Prior to the entrance of bassist Marco Hietala, Sonata Arctica singer Tony Kakko would turn up at Nightwish gigs in the bands' native Finland when he had the chance to provide male vocals for songs like 'Beauty And The Beast', and over the last several years Nightwish founder/keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen has hinted at doing a side-project with him. In October, Nightwish was on the road for their unbelievably successful Once album, and with the release of Sonata Arctica's own Reckoning Night opus looming on the horizon, the band was invited by the Nightwish camp to come out and play support act. I caught up with the tour in Nuremberg, Germany for a sold out 8,000 seat show and had the chance to chat with both Holopainen and Kakko about touring together, being ambassadors for the Finnish metal scene, and the ties that bind Nightwish and Sonata Arctica together.
Out of curiosity, though, how long have you guys actually known each other?"Since 1999, and it was music that brought us together," says Kakko. "We met for the first time at the Spinefarm offices. Nightwish was doing the Tuska Festival (in Helsinki) and we were at the office to check out our first single, 'Unopened'. We were listening to it but the bugger was spinning at the wrong speed, and Tuomas was still kind enough to say 'Oh, it sounds pretty cool' (laughs). I was already looking up to the guy at that point. We had to pull those singles off the market, by the way. But, I know they go for about 150 Euros on eBay and we've got about 400 in storage..."
According to Kakko, the seeds for doing a tour together were planted shortly after this meeting."We've been talking about doing this together for a long time, but up to this point it was impossible because our schedules never matched up. They would be on the road and we'd be in the studio, and vice versa. For this tour the timing was perfect, so when Nightwish offered the chance to go out together it was never a question of whether or not we should. And we're all still getting along, which is good (laughs)."
The last time BW&BK; spoke to Holopainen, Once was about to be released in Europe and a North American deal was nowhere in sight. Months later the album is a smash hit the world over and interest in the band shows no sign of flagging. Success hasn't gone to Holopainen's head - he's still the same soft-spoken guy he's always been - but you have to wonder if he's surprised by the response to his latest labour of love."I think I'm the one who is the most surprised by the response," Holopainen admits. "The thing is none of us were born to be rock stars, so I wouldn't say this is a dream come true because it never was a dream. It's just one big learning process and we've kind of grown into it. We've had to adjust to the fact that this is happening, and of course we try to enjoy it and get the best out of it, but it's a lot more work. As people we haven't changed that much - the ideology is still the same - but in a way I think we've grown to be even more humble. The asshole stage was four or five years ago, when the success started happening, but the more you get the more down to earth you become."
Nightwish and Sonata Arctica are both highly successful in their native Finland. The Finnish metal scene is saturated with bands - damn good ones - and competition is stiff, yet Nightwish has been sitting at the top of the charts since the release of Once. In Sonata Arctica's case, the first single from Reckoning Night, 'Don't Says A Word', hit #2 in its second week on the Finnish charts."As a Finnish band you come to expect that," says Kakko. "It would be like lowering yourself in a way if you didn't, especially if you've been at the top of the charts before. Even if you don't admit it (laughs). And if you don't hit #1 there must be something really huge on the market."
"It's a metal phenomenon that's been going on in Finland for the past four or five years," adds Holopainen. "All these bands, like Stratovarius, Sonata Arctica and Children Of Bodom, you always expect them to at least hit the Top 10. This is something I couldn't imagine happening anywhere else in the world. But, this kind of melancholic music is in our blood, which is why it comes so naturally and why it's so good."
As important as the homeland market is to Holopainen, the band's success in North America is a much bigger victory for him. Discussing the recent Nightwish tour through the USA, it turns out I'm right."It was a very nice experience. It was our first tour in America ever but we were able to headline. The venues went anywhere from 600 to 1500 people a night and Once wasn't even released there yet, but people were still singing along to the songs thanks to the import sales and the internet. It gave us back some of the hope I had completely lost with the US market. With the past albums nothing happened with distribution, there were no sales, but there's been a big change with Once, which is a great feeling."
Sonata Arctica have yet to hit it big Stateside, but they're doing quite well for themselves in Europe and Japan, the latter, incidentally, being a market that has shut Nightwish out up to this point. Kakko offers his thoughts on what it's like playing to what is essentially a Nightwish audience numbering in the thousands every night."It can be tough trying to win them over, sure," says Kakko. "A lot of people are like 'Who the fuck are these guys?' But we just go out and have fun on stage. We have to put some of our slower songs into the set for the Nightwish audience so people can see that side of our music as well. Otherwise we'd be annoying to a lot of the people there to see Nightwish."
"There are a lot of mutual fans as well, though," says Holopainen. "A lot of people are into the Finnish metal scene in general, so they're very aware of both Sonata Arctica and Nightwish."
True, but given the overwhelming response to Once - particularly the song 'Nemo', which started the current Nightwish-mania - one wonders if the new fans are aware the band has four other studio albums to choose from.
Holopainen: "I was thinking about that the other day, as a matter of fact, because 'Nemo' is the song that gets the biggest reaction, but I don't know if it's just the song that brought more people to Nightwish. The success has been building for a couple years, and it hasn't been just a cult following. I think 'Nemo' just added to the interest in the band.""I can imagine it's like a Mr. Big thing," Kakko offers. "One of those big surprises, where everybody knew the ballads and the slower songs, but when the band played 'Addicted To That Rush' those people were like 'What the fuck?!'"
"I don't think it's a problem," Holopainen insists, "because I really don't see us as a one hit wonder."
With regards to Japan, a market that has traditionally been very kind to Finnish metal bands, Nightwish has seen sales improve with Once but they are nowhere close to Sonata Arctica's level of success in that territory."It's always incredibly hard for us in Japan," reveals Holopainen. "This album has doubled the sales of the last one but it's still down at around 12,000 copies. I can see potential for more sales, but maybe it needs a live appearance or a male singer or more guitars. I don't know what the hell is going on there. It's always been really hard for us in Japan compared to the other metal bands from Finland, which do really well in that market."
"I think the live thing will win people over," says Kakko. "Do some signing sessions and they'll fall in love with you."
Was it the fact that Sonata Arctica played live in Japan from the very first album that made them so damn popular there? Nightwish really is insignificant in comparison..."The whole thing was already there long before we played live in Japan," Kakko reveals. "The first album sold 30,000 copies before we even went there. There was some weird shit going on in Japan that we didn't understand, though. The first time we went there to do some shows we saw these big billboards advertising us saying 'The Messiah Is Coming!' and stuff like that (laughs). It was very weird."
At the time of this interview, Nightwish and Sonata Arctica had two more weeks on the road together before going their separate ways. Holopainen and Kakko still seem to be close friends, but perhaps they now know more about each other than they wish they had..."On the contrary, I need a hug a day from this guy (laughs)," says Holopainen.
Kakko: "Same here."
Holopainen: "No, we're still getting along great and it feels right having Sonata Arctica out with us. It's fantastic. It's no secret that, if I hadn't found Marco for the band, I'm pretty sure Tony would have been the guy who would have done the male vocals for the albums. Tarja (Turunen/vocals) wants Tony to escort her out onto the stage for 'Creek Mary's Blood' at some point, maybe do a short dance number (laughs). So, there are some really strong ties between the two bands."
Conversation turns to songwriting, as both Holopainen and Kakko are responsible for the bulk of the music in their respective bands."There's definitely a lot of passion and emotion in my work," Holopainen says of his mindset towards his craft. "Much more than I can show to my fellow people. The level of success we have now doesn't affect that because the songwriting process is a very personal, selfish thing. I'm creating my own microcosm so I don't really care what happens outside it. Of course, you have these little flashbacks, wondering what the fans and the media are going to think about it, even what the other guys in the band are going to think, but the minute you start thinking about that you go the wrong way."
Kakko: "I'm not as deep as Tuomas when it comes to songwriting. I'm trying to live my personal life along with my musical one; I try to mix them equally. With Tuomas, in my opinion, it's more like..."
Holopainen: "...I have no personal life (laughs)."
Kakko: "No! Music with you is an on/off thing. You're totally into it or completely not into it, and with me it's a constant thing but not nearly as deep as it is with you."
Surprisingly, when asked if they bounce song ideas off each other, both artists admit to shying away from doing so."That's dangerous," says Kakko, "and for me it's really scary. I want to have the finished product before I present the ideas to anyone."
"It's kind of the same for me," Holopainen agrees. "Doing that is intimidating. I want to remain a fan of Tony's music, just have the final record and dig it, and I want him to remain a fan of mine."
As for the oft talked about Holopainen/Kakko side project..."Yeah, I think we'll end up calling it Project 2020, because that's when we'll probably get to it," Kakko laughs.
Holopainen: "Ask me again in November 2005. That's when the Once tour is over, and if I'm still alive I might have an answer for you."