For good or ill, we’ll always love SONATA ARCTICA. With their 10th album being released in their 20th year as a band, we had no shortage of questions for these guys about the upcoming release, “Talviyö,” as well as the music and life in general. Vocalist Tony Kakko and keyboardist Henrik Klingenberg were in Helsinki on August 5th, 2019, doing interviews in promotion of “Talviyö.” Since our last interview was sadly deleted by a technical glitch, we were excited to get another chance to redeem ourselves!
So, how have you guys been since the last time we spoke?
Henrik: How many years ago was that? Was it the last album?
It was “Ninth Hour.”
Tony: Lately it’s been festivals every weekend and then interviews and promo touring. As opposed to having vacation time.
Henrik: We’ve also been shooting some videos as well, and then a lot of touring in the fall, so it’s been a working summer.
You guys have put out an album every couple of years – do you get enough time to yourselves, or is it full-go all the time with an album then a tour, rinse and repeat?
Henrik: I think we have some time off. Everybody does what they want in their time off and everybody works [laughter].
Tony: The beginning of the tour for “Ninth Hour” was intense, but then we slowed it down quite a bit. The band itself has had a lot of time off, but at least I keep myself busy with orchestra things and RASKASTA JOULUA and such things, while the other guys were enjoying their home lives [laughter]. I don’t feel like I’ve had enough free time, in my head.
Henrik: Some of the guys are better at relaxing [laughter] than, for example, Tony or me. I think Tony‘s the worst, but me and also Pasi… time off is just not working out too well.
SONATA ARCTICA has put out 10 albums in 20 years as of this year. Was that in any way pre-planned, or did it just happen to work out that way?
Henrik: I think it just happened. I think it gives us too much credit for pre-planning so far ahead.
Tony: [doing math to see if there actually were 10 albums in 20 years]
So compared to 20-odd years ago, when you make music these days do you write the melodies first with the lyrics to follow, or do the lyrics come first and then music made to fit?
Tony: Music first and lyrics if necessary [laughter]. Music is easy and I love writing songs and the music itself. Then again, I’m really [protective] of the lyrics, so I’m not outsourcing that. I want to write them myself.
Henrik: It’s funny because when we’re in the studio, the songs are already there and we’ve rehearsed and we’re playing them and going, “Yeah, this is so cool,” and Tony‘s going [mumbles over an imagined page].
Tony: It’s a pain in the ass actually, when you’ve been working on a song and the song itself has been ready for 3 years but you don’t have any lyrics. You have a melody and everything as it should be, and then you need to find the right words to fit the melody, like you need three syllables there. I try to make sense with the lyrics and not put anything that causes diabetes [laughter]. When that’s the case it’s intentional, the songs full of sugar and honey.
On the “Ninth Hour” you had songs like “We Are What We Are,” which had the environmental theme to it. Do you have any more environmental songs on “Talviyö,” or songs with messages that you wanted to spread?
Tony: “Who Failed the Most” has got that thing happening there. “Demon’s Cage” is the same thing but with a political twist, and in that sense it’s also a follow-up for “Fairytale.” “Storm the Armada” is about us pretty much selling the things that we cannot buy back and destroying things that are important. So those songs are in line with that theme, but with a different twist.
It seems like you guys have recently, perhaps since “I Have a Right,” had a bit more of a message in the music than in the early years. Do you feel more obligated these days to make the world a better place?
Tony: My firstborn son [laughter]; “I Have a Right” was a sort of repercussion of that. It changes you fundamentally. You start thinking that it’s not just you, you can’t be that selfish anymore and soon enough you notice that you don’t really matter that much, but you should take care of yourself because you matter to that tiny thing until he/she is old enough to take care of themselves and has “wings to fly.” Still, it’s a pretty weird moment when you realize that without blinking an eye, you would toss yourself in front of a train to save them. [laughter] Before that it was the other way around.
Do you think that the message comes inevitably with age, or is it more specifically with kids?
Tony: I think it’s a little bit of both. I was a more mature age when having kids – the oldest is in the second grade in school, so it’s a fairly recent thing; they’re not exactly 20 years old. So probably both, but – I’m sorry – if you become a parent at age 18, it changes you but…
You’re still a changing person yourself.
Tony: Exactly. There are a lot of things that are still happening at that age.
Henrik: Yeah, it’s really interesting. It’s impossible to put yourself in that position if you don’t have kids as well.
Tony: We didn’t have too many songs with some kind of… acknowledging something like having an environmental message. Here and there, a little bit yeah, but nothing as big as calling the album a theme album. Every song has some sort of meeting, but sometimes the lyrics are just lyrics. It’s funny, I’ve written lyrics that are sort of cryptic, in a way, from the get-go.
You guys have gotten teased a bit in the past – usually by Finns – about the English being funny in the older songs. As a native speaker, I never noticed it until I moved to Finland though.
Tony: In our case, on the first albums, I didn’t have any coaching and I didn’t have to use English in anything, so I hadn’t even spoken English except at school. Now I pretty much work in English. Interviews are in English mostly, and singing.
Henrik: Sometimes you hear, “Oh no, Tony doesn’t have a cool exotic accent anymore” [laughter], no matter what you do. But it’s true, Finnish people are really harsh against people who speak bad English.
Tony: At some point, it’s a stigma that stays with you when you sing something totally off.
I’ve heard that in schools in Finland, that English teachers are very strict about getting the grammar perfect and don’t really teach kids to get comfortable just speaking. Was that true for you?
Tony: When I was in school, there was not much emphasis in using the English language verbally. It was all grammar. Of course that’s important, but I think I learned more English from computer games and Commodor 64. With some text-based adventure games, I had to have a dictionary with me all the time. Every time you had to check a word, you started to memorize it.
Listening to the new single, “A Little Less Understanding,” the title caught my attention. The feeling I got from the song was about how people pad each other’s egos instead of telling it straight and being honest about things. Did I come anywhere close to what you were going for?
Tony: Probably, but from a different angle. It’s about how you are spoiling your kids by giving them everything.
The “everyone gets a trophy” stigma?
Tony: Yeah, exactly. It’s sending the wrong message, I think. These days kids don’t know how to behave. They have this “free” upbringing and then the kids have no respect for authority. Eventually you have to stop it, end it. Not the kid [laughter]. So to have a little less understanding was the point. Of course it’s probably controversial…
Henrik: I think it’s quite simple. Kids are going to suffer later in life if you give them too much, and also, there comes the responsibility. Kids don’t have the capacity… they get to choose too much, they get fucked up. So you see that in schools a lot, because you’ve got kids who can dictate how things are going up until they go to school, and then all of a sudden they have to conform and do what the teacher says and they can’t deal with it because they’re used to calling the shots. That’s really, really common these days. [laughs] I used to be really easy-going and then I tried a different style and it worked a lot better. The kids are a lot calmer now. Of course, if you start to comment on how anybody raises their kids, there is no right or wrong. It’s a really sensitive subject to start commenting on, especially when you see kids behaving badly.
Tony: That’s why we have the “maybe” in there [laughter].
Now to get the elephant out of the room, who is Ismo and what’s up with his reactors?
Tony: Oh, this thing again. There’s always the same one question. You can name an instrumental song whatever you like. But Ismo, he’s actually Mika, a friend who passed on some 8 years ago. He was 7 years older than I was and when I was 12 or 13, he was studying to be a kindergarten teacher. Part of the thing was that he had to go to a retreat with the kids on an island with a boat with an outboard motor and everything. Those kids were disabled, with developmental issues and such. While they were standing on the pier, Mika noticed that the motor started to dip back into the water, and there were some rocks and everything and it was pretty shallow. So he managed to catch the motor before it fell down, and one of the kids standing at the end of the pier said, “Oh, Ismo’s got good reactors!” In Finnish, “Ismolla on hyvät reaktorit” [laughter]. When I heard that story, it stayed alive, and now even though my friend is no longer here, it’s a nice way to remember him. Every time someone manages to catch or save something at the last moment, it’s like, “Ah, Ismo’s got good reactors!” meaning reflexes, or reactions. So it’s a nice way of remembering my friend and made a weird song seem maybe a little bit weirder, but with a nice, sweet story behind it.
Henrik: I think it fits perfectly. A lot of times you get instrumental songs that have names that don’t connect with the music because it’s so hard, but this one fits perfectly.
You mentioned that “Demon’s Cage” is kind of a follow-up to “Fairytale.” Were there any other follow-up songs on “Talviyö“ to previous material?
Tony: “Last of the Lambs” is part of the Caleb saga. It’s fairly artsy, slow, and moody. It’s great atmosphere, something that I fell in love with and I was adamant that this song was going to be on the album.
Now, as I mentioned earlier, you’ve been in the music industry for a good 20 years now. What are some of the craziest lessons you’ve learned in the last 2 decades?
Henrik: You start to realize, when you get older, that anything can happen. A lot of times that anything can be something really shitty. Also, I think when you’re younger, you take things for granted. You’re just deciding and running all over the place and whatever. Now, when you realize how futile life is and how anything can happen and will happen, it’s easier to appreciate what you do. Also the fact that we have the opportunity to play live and have people show up. When you’re older, you realize that people don’t have to show up if they don’t want to. So it’s a different perspective.
Tony: If something seems too good to be true, it probably is. It’s a cliche. But it’s a nice surprise if something really good works out.
Henrik: I’m trying to think about what you are referring to [laughter]. I think it’s a really interesting industry. The bottom line is, if you connect with people, it’ll work out somehow. All the other stuff, you can somewhat control. It’s really important to find the right people.
We’ve been seeing a lot of bands recently that have been around for a long time – METALLICA, JUDAS PRIEST, UGLY KID JOE – and you start to notice a pattern where these classic bands that used to be all about metal and partying, but as time goes on the turn into – a phrase my friend coined – “dadcore,” the genre for responsible parents.
Henrik: It depends on who you’re asking, but I don’t think the stuff we do these days appeals to a 15-year-old in the same way that the stuff we did 15 years ago does.
Tony: Still, we play a lot of the older songs live as well. We are getting all of these days bringing their kids to see the band that they were listening to when they were 20.
Henrik: That’s funny. When we started out, the oldest people in rock n’ roll were entering their 50s and 60s. Before that, rock and heavy metal… it’s relatively young compared to a lot of other music styles. So we are just part of the, what, 4th wave of people getting up there in age. I mean, we’re in our 40s, so it’s not so bad, but we have seen Lemmy play when he was 70. That hadn’t even happened before because heavy metal was so young. There wasn’t anyone any older. So… dadcore? I’ll take it! [laughter]
Tony: [laughs] We are slowly going there.
A lot of metalheads worry that the younger generations, especially in Finland, are not that into heavy metal anymore. Since you get to travel around and see a lot of different crowds, do you think that’s the case?
Tony: There’s always going to be people who enjoy this stuff. The larger group of people, the “mass”… it goes with whatever is popular. It was metal for a long time in Finland, it was a “thing” when everyone was listening to it. I think it’s never going anywhere, it’s just that what is most popular shifts and changes.
Henrik: And gets all the headlines.
Well, that’s all of my questions! Thanks for taking the time to talk with us and best of luck with the album release.
Interview by Bear Wiseman