Every once in a while, we like to take a step away from heavy metal to see what’s going on in the rest of Finland’s music scene. One of the bands that’s recently shown up on our radar is none other than THE EMPIRE STRIKES, who alongside quite a few other bands this year, are releasing an album called “Charm” on September 6th. While our schedules couldn’t quite line up for a face-to-face interview, we were nevertheless able to send them a few questions online to learn more about them.
Hello and thanks for doing this interview. Just to get things started, tell us a little bit about your background – who you are, how you know one another, how you formed, etc.
Hello, and thank you for the opportunity! THE EMPIRE STRIKES lineup is:
Tommi Tuoriniemi – vocals, guitar
Topi Tarkki – guitar, vocals
Paavo Kuukasjärvi – bass, vocals
Otto Haapanen – drums
Tommi and Topi have been more or less “married” for over 10 years in various band projects and THE EMPIRE STRIKES was formed on the ruins of their previous band. Paavo joined the newborn group right before the 1st release was due to be recorded.
THE EMPIRE STRIKES had to part ways with the long time drummer and dear friend Jaakko Vilpponen in the beginning of 2019, fortunately without any drama, and as Jaakko said it; “It’s just time to step down.” Jaakko played drums on all three album releases. Otto Haapanen inherited the throne from Jaakko, and has whipped the front row in a great shape.
Every member has a past of playing in various bands with various styles of music and actually everyone but Tommi has studied music in some level in their youth.
Your name, THE EMPIRE STRIKES, alludes to Star Wars epi V, though your sound doesn’t seem to invoke much sci-fi feeling with it’s more rock n’ roll vibe. What made you choose that name, and are there actually any sci-fi elements to your music that perhaps we didn’t notice?
The name was actually decided after Tommi drew the 1st version of the crown (Empire) and brass knuckles (Strikes) logo of ours. This happened in the band van when we were heading to record our first EP.
If there’s sci-fi, its more or less unintended. Only song that has any reference to SW can be found on our 2nd EP and the tune is titled “Neon Lights and Old Republic Knights.”
We have wondered (but never regretted) the name decision ourselves a few times… maybe it was a subconscious dream of sharing D-A-Ds destiny of being forced to change a perfectly good band name in the fear of a lawsuit.
I’ve struggled to pin down what exact genre I’d call you guys, as your music has elements of classic rock, blues, even bits of doo-wop and other things. Do you have a basic (or crazy) genre that you identify with?
That’s good to hear, as we’ve never placed ourselves in a single genre, scene, or a marginal footnote of rock n’ roll.
If you want to brand us with a genre label, we came up with the term “regressive rock n’ roll.” It’s 50% joke of course, but still 50% true. We’re not inventing the wheel all over again, but merely using the wheel as we see fit.
This style of music is likewise not overly common in Finland. What drew you to it and what are some of the bands and/or songs that inspired you?
Making music like this is fun! The threshold of just letting it flow through you when playing live is very low, within the band and in the audience. The main reason for making music like ours is that that’s what we want to do.
The list of influential bands and songs would go on and on and on and on…. but let’s say that 1960-70s rock/pop/heavy is as close to our heart as the early 2000s so-called high energy rock n’ roll.
Your 2015 release was called 1983 – does that refer at all to Orwell’s 1984, or why did you choose that title?
Finally someone asks this and doesn’t just speculate! The sole reason is that the members of the lineup at the time were all born in 1983. Simple as that, but holds a certain mystery to it and has made people think “Why?” But unfortunately neither Orwell or Van Halen has anything to do with the title.
Are there any themes or stories in your songs? Do you have any messages you want to share, or are you more in it for the music?
The Sailor Hawkins -saga will probably continue through our future releases too. It started on “1983” in “The Ballad of Sailor Hawkins,” continued on “High Tide” with “The Last Pirate” and now on “Charm” there’s “Miss Margaret Collins.” The lyrics on the first two are written in a true ballad-form, and in “MMC,” Tommi had a scene from an imaginary musical in his mind… and it’s not that hard to find similar storytelling throughout our catalog.
We do send messages within the lyrics but as we see the band as a non-political, abstract figure, if there are messages to authorities, those are quite subtle and usually hidden pretty well. With some exceptions of course.
What are some of the struggles that bands go through these days starting out? Do you think your struggles are different from bands in, say, the ’90s?
Maybe the biggest problems these days are related to how one can be discovered by media and listeners? One really has to stand out from a vast group of good bands, have sheer luck, the right connections, etc. It’s fairly easy to be lost and forgotten in the streaming-jungle these days. Not saying that streaming music is bad at all, as it gives the consumer a huge amount of options, but one has to be an option first…
Vice versa in the ’90s the problem was that even though the band was great, no one heard about it as there were no fast ways to spread the word except for playing live as much as one could. Hence our oldschool mentality on doing things; we’ve tried our best to balance between the modern social media -elated marketing and good old touring and delivering the best possible rock n’ roll-show live every time we play.
This was a great question, and it would deserve a deeper analysis in general.
You’ve played gigs all over Finland – did you experience anything interesting or new within your own country during those shows?
Of course driving through the country has shown some cool landscapes and so on, but as usual with bands and playing in different towns, you just see the venue and the people at the venue.
It’s pretty interesting that we have been mistaken as a Swedish band a few times by local crews in Finland if they haven’t spoken with us beforehand. Considering the quality of groups coming from our neighbor in the west, we don’t mind that at all.
Have to say that every venue we’ve played in has had great staff and nothing but good memories from each and every show.
Interesting pseudo-fact is that we hold the unofficial Finnish record of unloading the backline from the stage of Lutakko in Jyväskylä. We opened there for Phil Campbell & The Bastard Sons a few years ago and were told that we have to be very swift unloading our gear from the stage. Took us 7 minutes to be out from the way, with an amazed reaction from the local crew. The time window to unload was approx. 30 minutes…
That’s quite incredible! You played at Lost in Music a few years ago. What was it like to be a part of that?
It was fun of course, as any gig is. LiM-fest offers an opportunity for the industry all over the world to find new artists and talk to them in person, so that’s of course very positive to all parties involved in it. Visibility is visibility.
Last question: if you could dream as big as possible, where would you like to see yourselves in 10+ years?
This one is easy. We’d be making the first demos for yet a new record at Topi’s summer cabin, sitting on the porch after sauna and laughing out loud, remembering our three straight sold-out concerts at Wembley Stadium last year.
Interview by Bear Wiseman
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