Marko Hietala has been in the music scene for years and years now, but we’ve never heard a solo album from him… until now! His solo side project’s debut is coming out on May 24th, 2019, and we were given the chance to meet up with the man himself at Sonic Pump Studios in Helsinki to talk with him about the music.
Before we talk about your music, I wanted to know how your experience in “Ayreon Universe“ was?
Marko: I loved the chance to do the show with them. The vibe with the people backstage and all, it was just brilliant. I was going through a heavy time myself and was badly prepared. Getting there with those people was just great, the rehearsals and getting it properly done. The full houses – and we’re talking about serious prog rock, which has a very selected audience – and you get full houses [every night]. I was really pleased to be part of it. We all know what it is, the music and the daily hits and how much substance mainstream [music] actually has, which is close to none. Then you get that kind of success with that kind of [music]. It’s brilliant, it gives me hope.
Will you go to see the show this year?
Marko: If I have a chance. To be honest, I’ve been so flooded with the rest of this album work and planning the covers and doing the rest of the recordings and mixing and mastering and blah blah, all the little details that went into this thing. I’m totally out of touch with everything. [laughter]
Fair enough! Well, back to the topic at hand… where did this solo album come from? You mentioned, when you introduced the album to us, that these were scattered ideas dating back over a decade, so why now all of a sudden?
Marko: We started over 2 years ago already because NIGHTWISH had a sabbatical. We figured that we would do it that year, but I didn’t count on how much heavy baggage I had from my previous marriage, and then I ended up doing quite a lot of work inside my own head. Then the next year came and NIGHTWISH started touring, which of course slows down your own recordings and ideas quite a lot. I was traveling a lot, then coming back to Finland, spending a week here, another 3 days at the studio with the guys, then trying to be with my boys, then got involved with a new woman, got married and everything, and things started to be fine. Then suddenly it’s spring and the touring year is over and I’m in way better shape here. It’s finished and we’ve got festival shows coming and all that, and fuck yeah, now we’ve finished! So it’s life. You have a plan and then random things will either help or hinder it. This time we got slower, but in the end we did it.
Was there ever a plan to make anymore TAROT music, especially now, following the loss of your drummer?
Marko: TAROT is a different thing, because we have unfinished stuff. We talked about it as a kind of closure type of thing, that it would be nice to finish, but for me and Janne [Tolsa, keyboards], it’s obviously a little bit hard personally. It’s a pretty sad and relentless thing to watch your friend deteriorate and die. At this moment in time, we figure that maybe it would be nice at some point in time, but doing rock music or a rock album, you need to have a good vibe, interest, and enthusiasm, so now we feel that it would make us sad.
And with the solo album… you asked about the yearly things. There are bits and pieces from a long way back, and also straight from the 2 years back when we started working and we also figured out quite a few new things, and the guys brought some ideas as well, pieces and bits of songs. I was missing a C-part in this song and this fit, so that’s how it came to be. But we’ve got leftovers too.
If these songs are put together from ideas that date back a while, is there any theme to it, or story, or are the songs stand-alone entities?
Marko: Stand-alone entities, definitely. Some of them are stories in themselves, in that the imagination takes over from some imagined story and starts building it up, so there are way more violent and asshole-ish things in the lyrics than I would like to think of myself, but then I guess that there are also pieces that are personal, which will give a pretty good insight into what I think of things. But it’s all mixed.
You led me right into my next question. Are there any songs that are particularly personal or special to you in some way at this point?
Marko: Maybe the last one, “Totuus vapauttaa.” On the English version it will be “The Truth Shall Set You Free.” That is [about] the basic miracle of being alive in a unique universe. It’s miraculous in itself.
Greater thoughts on existence?
Marko: Yes, something like that. I mean, there are things we see and hear all the time that we take as mundane.
What triggered these thoughts? Was there some experience that got you into that existential thought pattern?
Marko: No… I think about these things quite a lot and have been thinking about them for quite a long while. To me, the one thing that really came across well from NIGHTWISH was the Carl Sagan thing, which I had already been digging into as a thought for decades before. We are stardust. It’s miraculous to think that everything that I move here with my will was made in the hearts of the stars billions of years ago. The reality underlying reality is more miraculous than what you see. I’m not a preacher or prophet, but if the music makes somebody happy for a while, then it’s a good thing. At least, I’m a possibly genetically normal human being [laughter] – some of my mental faculties may not be, but I still think that I’m enough of a human to have loved ones and friends and I hope to be good for them and I hope they are good for me. So I’ll just replace the 10 commandments with this one simple thing that quite a lot of people know already: don’t be a dick.
It’s very simple and very practical. With that in mind, tell me a bit about the songs? Do you remember, for example, which was written first and which was written last?
Marko: I don’t actually remember when I came up with the acoustic riff for “Kiviä,” but the song itself, altogether when we started working on it 2 years ago, I had the verse and the chorus, but how we put it together – the actual song – we put it together 2½ years ago.
Do you remember which was the first song that was ready to be recorded and put on the album?
Marko: I think it was “Kiviä.” We started the demoing with “Vapauden kuolinmarssi” from the bass riff, and that’s one of the rare songs where you start with the bass [hums the riff]. That was the one we started demoing with, but it got shelved for quite a while and we started working on other things. I think the first one that felt like a whole song… it didn’t take that long for us to get there, but I think it was “Kiviä.” We were sitting in my home studio for some days and the guys were staying at my place and we would wake up in the morning, have some coffee and something to eat, and then we would sit down and go over things, so it’s a little bit of a blur.
You’ve segued into my next question again! You mentioned starting with the bass line, and my next question was – as both a singer and a musician – did you tend to start with riffs and then add lyrics, or was it the other way around?
Marko: It goes both ways. I’m trying to be open to inspiration from whatever direction it comes from. Sometimes you get good stuff just by fiddling around, and sometimes there’s a bunch of lyrics that get into your head and you start writing. There are some things that I’ve written and I’ve got a good idea, so I wrote lyrical stuff, and then I had some song ideas and this was the mood it fit to. Or the other way around. I have a piece of the song, and you get the vibe that this would need this kind of mood and you start figuring out the subjects and then you get something that will fit.
The same question regarding the language then: do you write in Finnish first and translate to English, or vice versa, or both?
Marko: I do both. In this case, since I’ve been reading and writing in English for decades already from when I was 15 because they didn’t translate enough science fiction into Finnish.
I think that’s how a lot of young Finns learn English. Do you try to get the lyrics as close to the other language or do you compromise a little?
Marko: With this bunch of songs, some were written in Finnish, some were written in English, and I just figured that I have a chance to make this much of a difference, that I can also translate my own lyrics. The same things apply as in poetry or books or whatever. You cannot do it word-by-word or it’ll end up fucked and you’ll lose the rhythm of the sentences and words and all that. So I had a clearer idea of the actual thing where it starts – what are the points that I want to make and what kind of impression or story I want to make – and in that case I can change metaphors. I can change words, I can change the meanings from verses, if I end up with the same conclusion. Just switching two words can make one hell of a difference in what kind of vibe it gives you.
Was there any song that was particularly hard to translate, one way or another?
Marko: I have to say that in “Rautatie,” on the lyrical side I managed to put in a few… Finnishisms, but when you translate it into English, you don’t get that sort of insider tongue-in-cheek. It gets more into the macho rock cliches. Of course it’s full of macho rock cliches in Finnish too, [laughter] but it’s really tongue-in-cheek. The protagonist in that song is a dick [laughter].
After listening to the album, track #2, “Isäni ääni” had a really interesting instrumental sound that we couldn’t place…
Marko: It’s a guitar. It’s got some heavy chorusing and phasing though, but it’s a guitar feed. Tuomas came up with that sound – thank you [to him]!
So, I noticed a lot of the other medias here were talking about how this album was not what they expected, but I found the album to be everything that I wanted it to be!
Marko: Brilliant! [laughter]
I was expecting, of course, a bit of NIGHTWISH and TAROT, but for the most part I was hearing influences from some ’80s rock, some PINK PLOYD in the one proggy song, and of course we know from existing songs that you’re great with acoustic guitar, so the album had everything.
Marko: People have been asking me already how to label this and I don’t know. Of course I’ve got the heavy metal history and all that, but this is “hard prog.” [laughter] Prog, in its soundscape, atmosphere, type-of-thing, but not so much of the 9/4 tempos or something like that, or weird hooks. We were talking about AYREON, so I’m a big prog rock fan. And of course, the songs are still quite compact. We wanted to keep the melody in and the catchy things, but like you said about the PINK FLOYD in “Laulu sinulle,” there’s the whole ending where it builds up and you’ve got layers of stuff and solos coming in gradually. It’s very FLOYD-y.
I had pieced together the PINK FLOYD influence when NIGHTWISH had covered “High Hopes.”
Marko: I have to say, in this case – “High Hopes” – that was Tuomas‘ idea.
Well, that’s about it for my questions. Is there anything you’ve wanted to talk about, but no one has asked the right question?
Marko: I don’t know, I’m just happy I’ve got this thing. Well, about the soundscape and the guys have this application [Bapu], which I really think is a big thing. I’m a former studio engineer and I would really love to always have the best possible clarity and sound and all that. I was not pleased with the speaker pile there. They’re fucking good but they haven’t been properly calibrated.
We were definitely impressed by it. I didn’t expect to hear a difference, but there it was – instantly when they compared songs I knew which one was played on Bapu and which wasn’t. All of the individual elements of the song were crystal clear but still blending together perfectly.
Marko: Good! I don’t have a vinyl player myself, but I hear the difference and I hear the depth of analog things. Of course I know that not everybody does, but it’s not a reason to say, “Ah, nobody hears those things,” because some people do. It’s about a sense, how sharp it is. Some people smell better, some people hear better, and some people see better. Some people are so sensitive to touch that they can’t wear certain clothes. So it’s all about individual senses.
Well, thank you so much for talking with us and best of luck with the release, as well as the partnership with Bapu!
Marko: Thank you!
Interview by Bear Wiseman