With credentials going back to the early 1970s, Michael Schenker is one of the finest …
Tony Kakko is a lucky man.
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The singer uses the word ‘fortunate’ often to describe himself and his band, northern Finland power metal mainstays Sonata Arctica, and their twenty-year career. It’s probably no exaggeration. The band makes enough money for its members to make a living, their albums are strong sellers on the European metal market, and they even manage to tour the US without sending themselves broke. WIth their tenth album Talviyö about to see release, Kakko and Sonata Arctica will once again be crossing the Atlantic for a North American jaunt, and he couldn’t be more pleased about it.
Hysteria: Joacim Cans from HammerFall said recently that his band basically gave up on touring the US for a while because it was just too difficult to make any money from it. It sounds like it’s been a different experience for Sonata Arctica.
Tony: Well it’s not exactly a money-making machine, touring there. You need to like touring North America, which is something that we do. We enjoy touring there. It’s a beautiful country. It has everything that a country needs… except maybe not the right leader! But that’s the same thing that’s wrong with a lot of countries. What is wrong with a country is not the people, but who leads it. But away from all that, the country’s first rate and it’s so nice to see all these places that you were so excited to see when you were a kid. You wanted to go to America when you were growing up in the 80s, and now I’ve seen a lot of places that I’ve seen in movies for myself. It’s great going there, and we are lucky enough to be able to come home without an invoice after the tour! Nobody gets rich, but we’re lucky enough to be able to go there and not go bankrupt.
A lot of bands can’t really say the same thing. It is a big market and it takes a long time to tour it, and being from Europe, it takes a long time just to get there, but it can be worthwhile if you reach new people. In a country the size of the US, are there new people coming to see you each time you visit?
It’s kind of like a family in the US. It’s always the same people and we kind of hope that next time they’ll bring some friends with them! We’ve been lucky enough to tour with Nightwish a couple of times, which has given us a great opportunity to introduce ourselves to new people. But, then again, Nightwish and Sonata Arctica go stylistically, somehow, together. It’s not a great leap in any direction. It’s a leap still, but it’s easy in that sense that we’re not a black metal type of thing, and stylistically it’s not so huge. We make a great package. When we go there it’s almost like a vacation. It’s something we want to do anytime.
Sonata Arctica’s music has certainly matured a great deal since the early days. What are your thoughts on your musical progression?
The Stones Grow Her Name album marked some kind of maturity point for us, I think. I became a father for the first time around that time, so I began to think that being a parent changes you – or it should change you a little bit, anyway – and I have found that the subjects I write about are more realistic and more thoughtful, and I try to put in more input into the lyrics than I did back in the day, when I was younger. For the longest time, I didn’t even think anyone was going to bother to read the lyrics. The melodies are the most important thing, and the lyrics are just something that I can sing. But they are really, really important, I have grown to learn! But this is our most mature album. For many albums already we’ve tried to come up with this more natural, live-like sound. We never really got there on our own. Already with the previous album The Ninth Hour we were supposed to have our front-of-house sound guy Mikko Tegelman as our co-producer on the album, but it was a nightmare, schedule-wise, so it was impossible to get him to work on the whole album. This time I wanted to make sure we had the songs ready before we went to the studio and Mikko was able to join us. I was so lucky, I had songs written in early 2018 and in June and July I was able to play all the demos to the guys and when we went into the studio we were on track and knew what to do. Mikko made Tommy (Portino – drums) and our bassist Pasi (Kaupinnen) play their instruments live in the studio together, which give the whole rhythm section a whole organic feel and that gave it a much stronger foundation for the album and made it much easier to develop the album. I think we have stepped quite far away from those early power metal days but, then again, you could take Full Moon from the first album and re-arrange it a little and it would still fit the Talviyö era. We’ve had this certain consistency with what we’ve done over the years. The way we’ve done it has changed!
There are probably some fans who would say they prefer your music to stay faithful to your early days, but a lot would also be disappointed if Talviyö and sounded exactly like the first album or Silence. As an artist, too, you always want to see a progression in what you do, too.
Of course. I can understand that, for example, on your first two albums you are a huge worldwide hit and you make millions, it’s really teasing and tempting to get style in that one style, even if your personal taste might head in a different direction and you would like to do something else. It’s a serious business at that point! We have always made a living at what we do, but we’ve never had any huge hits and never made our millions – yet! It has given us a certain artistic freedom. I am really bad at taking advice from anybody! I pretty much write the songs that I like. They pretty much write themselves, automatically. It has given me that freedom. I’m pretty stubborn when it comes to my music, and I think that has made us what we are today, instead of getting stuck on that one thing.
I am really bad at taking advice from anybody! I pretty much write the songs that I like. They pretty much write themselves, automatically. It has given me that freedom. I’m pretty stubborn when it comes to my music, and I think that has made us what we are today, instead of getting stuck on that one thing.
The fact that you’ve never been superstars would definitely help with that freedom, because you would never be under that pressure to try and recreate something that people are going to buy in their millions.
Yes, absolutely, and I’m not sure how well I would cope with being a huge star who is recognised everywhere. It would be a nightmare! I’m a pretty solitary sort of guy. I enjoy my privacy. Already people seem to recognise me, and in a way I’ve grown to accept it and praise it as one thing that keeps the whole band alive. I’d rather have one steady career than have one huge spike somewhere and then plummeting down! On the other hand, it would be nice to experience a worldwide hit album, but I’m happy with what we have.
You must feel incredibly lucky that Sonata Arctica makes enough money for you to make a living from it. There aren’t a lot of bands that are able to do that.
We are really fortunate that way. I know many bands with members who have to work and aren’t able to concentrate on their art, whereas I am able to concentrate on my music fully. The whole band can. It’s wonderful! It’s a great gift, to be able to do that.
You said it was something of a different process that you worked to this time. Did any of the songs come out differently to the way you had originally written them once they had been worked on in the studio with the rest of the band?
Some of them sound different, but most of them came out the same way as they were on the demos. I make pretty complete demos. I have pretty rough guitar lines and ideas that I am pretty adamant about. This was a really pleasant album to make songwriting-wise. I had the time to write all the songs before we went into the studio, which I haven’t always had the chance to do, like on the previous album. We had the North American tour with Nightwish in the middle of the period when I was supposed to be writing the songs, but that was something that, at the time, we could not say no to. We had to go. It was an opportunity to tour with a big band in the States and it was wonderful. But when I got back home, I found myself inundated with work. I had to write so many songs from scratch. I didn’t have anything! There was a lot of stress. You didn’t see me much in the studio. I was at home, writing songs! It was a stressful album. Then there were albums like Winterheart’s Guild that, when we went in the studio, I had two or three songs ready. That was a nightmare as well! When you don’t have money and you spend years and years in the studio… but diamonds grow under pressure. Then once the diamonds are ready I like to have a little time off to make the diamonds shine brighter.
Are there any tracks that really stand out to you as those that define the album the best?
It’s very difficult to say! But there are songs like Ravens Still Fly With You, which is one of the songs that I wasn’t sure I wanted to have on the album. I played it to the band with the notion that it would be too complex and weird a track to have on the album, but they fell in love with it immediately and I think it’s one of the important tracks on the album, definitely. Storm the Armada is a great song, and Message From the Sun, the album opener, is probably a little misleading. It’s more of the power metal side of Sonata Arctica for all our power metal fans. We’ve got to show that we still have that. So maybe those songs, and then we are continuing with our Caleb Saga, that started with our second album and the song End of This Chapter. The Last of the Lambs is one of those stalker stories once again. Nobody dies in the end. It’s really hard to just choose one song. I’m still too close to the whole process, I think.
There’s going to come a point where you have to decide which of these songs you’re going to play live. Recording the album the way you did, do you have some idea of which ones might work best on stage?
We played all of The Ninth Hour except one song live, at some point. I think Talviyö will be the same way. Any of the songs will work in the right environment live. We are able to them live, as well, but of course we have to choose the first set of songs for the first leg of the tour and I think we’re playing four or five songs, in total, on this tour, in the beginning, and introducing more songs later on. We already have to make a decision because the tour is starting in three weeks!
Well that’s hope we get to see Sonata Arctica in Australia someday, as we can’t all travel to Europe to see you play there!
Ah yes! Well, we have a plan, so keep your fingers crossed and we might be heading your way late next year. I really hope that happens.