By Aniruddh “Andrew” Bansal
Finnish power metal band Sonata Arctica are ready to release their seventh studio album “Stones Grow Her Name”, an album that sees them take a more straightforward and organic approach towards their musicianship, and moves away from the progressive and orchestral elements that decorated their previous two albums “The Days Of Grays” and “Unia”. About two weeks ago, I had the pleasure of speaking with vocalist and songwriter Tony Kakko, not only to talk about this new album, but also to get his thoughts on a variety of other topics including past touring experiences and a band they toured with. Enjoy the conversation as Tony opens up and speaks his mind, check out the album when it releases on May 18th/22nd in Europe/USA via Nuclear Blast Records, and visit Sonata Arctica on the web for more info on how to order it, using the links below the interview.
Your new album is coming out soon. From what I’ve read, I believe you wrote a good part of it while you were on the touring cycle for the previous album, in the last year or two. What was that process like for you?
Well, the tour was so long, we played around 180 shows, and had a lot of free time on our hands. At some point we spent two or three months at home, and then continued touring. So I had a lot of time to compile the ideas that I had recorded in my little tape recorder, and make them into real songs when I was at home. I can’t really write any real songs when we are on the road. It’s too difficult, because I need my privacy and solitude to be able to do that. But we had a fairly loose schedule for that tour, so when the tour ended, it was pretty easy to put everything together and start rehearsing with the band. All in all, the whole writing, rehearsing and recording process was one of the easiest processes we’ve had for any album.
You’ve always cited Queen as your biggest influence. On this album, how much of this influence is shown on the music, in your own opinion?
In some sense, more, but in some sense less (laughs). This is a way more simple album that some of the earlier ones, where I had tons of backing vocals and all kinds of difficult harmony things that are Queen’s trademark. But on this one, the songs are easier, the structure is easier, and at the same time it has its own way of resembling Queen as well, because their so-called ‘hit’ songs are more listener friendly and easy to get a hang of (laughs). That was one of my main ideas here, not necessarily because of Queen, but I just wanted to write something that is fun and easier to both play and listen. It just felt that it was the right thing to do at this point, because in some ways I think we’ve traveled the progressive and overly complicated ‘10,000 different parts in one song’ path to the end, and we can’t go further into some kind of weird Dream Theater thing. I don’t want us to become anything like that. We are in a rock band, and this is perhaps the most ‘rock’ album that we’ve come up with.
Right, exactly. I feel that when I listen to it. So, was it more enjoyable for you also, to write simpler songs and go back to that straightforward rock thing as compared to the progressive and complex stuff that you did before?
Yeah, it was easy and it was fun. It’s funny actually, because this latest album is closer to when we first started in 1995-96, when we were called Tricky Beans. The band’s music then was closer to this album than our first album Ecliptica was, because at that point when we got our recording contract, a lot of things happened and we started getting into this power metal and mellow music, so our style changed quite a bit at that point. So now, it many ways it is like back to our roots, because as weird as it may sound when I say this, but these songs sound much like Tricky Beans to me, although like 15 years older, more experienced and a hell of a lot better (laughs).
That’s very interesting. Of course, you’re the primary songwriter of the band, and the lineup has been solid for five years now. I’m sure all members in the band must be comfortable with your songwriting, because you’ve been with the same group for a while.
Yeah, this is our seventh album and the other guys have written two songs while I have written 80 songs (laughs). So it’s pretty obvious that they are happy, but they have their own style of songwriting. Henrik released his solo album not too long ago, and it’s instrumental weirdness, and Elias has more of a Steve Vai/Joe Satriani type of approach to his solo project as well. So we are the ones that actually write all the music. Tommy and Marko don’t stick their fingers into that soup at all, they just play in the band and that’s about it. It seems like the guys are happy with my songwriting when it comes to Sonata Arctica. I have my own style, and whenever the guys write any songs, I consider those as well. They have suggested a few songs other than the two that have been released on our albums, but they have been stylistically so different to what fits on the album that the guys themselves said that, ‘Ok, this might not be for Sonata Arctica’. But it’s a good thing that they write songs because that’s the only way they can get their solo material out and will have something to do when Sonata Arctica is on a break. Right now we’ve spent eight months at home after the last show, so that’s a lot of time to do nothing and it’s good that they have their own ‘hobby band’ and things to do other than Sonata Arctica.
For the previous album “The Days Of Grays”, you did an orchestral version of the songs as a bonus CD, and there was a special stuff going on along with the main album. This time, what have you planned in terms of the bonus stuff?
Well, this is not an orchestral album, and we didn’t have any orchestral arrangements except for one song and even on that it’s a very little part. So there’s no point releasing an orchestrated version of the song. The only bonus that we have is for the Japan and European digipacks. We actually recorded a cover song, “I Can’t Dance” by Genesis. I’m not sure where it’s going to be released and in which form. It might be some kind of a digital release or a future single. But it’s a fun version, so I hope people get to hear it.
Talking of the lyrics, is there any concept to the album this time, or is it just based on things that came to your mind?
The latter is pretty much the case. Lyrics are based on stuff that was in my mind when I was writing the songs, and stuff that happened. There’s one songs that talks about the tsunami in Japan which killed a lot of people. I was inspired by the story of those people, and based on that, I wrote a song called “The Day” on this album. Then there are some relationship songs which have always been a big part of Sonata Arctica. I always got tons of good feedback on those types of songs, so I kept doing it and it somehow comes naturally. All people have human relationships, hopefully, so they can always relate to some of the stories. It’s always a nice thing if music can bring any hope and light into your life, or some kind of answers to your unanswered questions. It’s a perfect thing to have, and the music then serves a greater purpose, I feel. And of course, nature has always been a big part of our music and it’s still here on this album, specially the last two songs on the album, “The Wildfire” II & III. They are telling a story of how we animals are fighting nature and no matter what we do, we will lose somehow unless we learn to live with nature and co-exist with it. At the moment we are just destroying the planet to be able to leave one day and jump on the next planet, and our species is developed enough so that we can build spaceships and find another planet to destroy. I don’t have high regard for this human animal that we are. We are a really destructive race, and are not good for this planet. So, those two songs might give something for people to think. They’re not going to change the world but they are just something that everybody should think about at some point in their lives.
That sounds very intense. I’m sure people will relate to those lyrics. On the previous album tour, you did the US tour with PowerGlove, and I was at the LA show. I felt that the crowd was giving you a great response. How did you rate that touring experience overall?
Yeah, it was really great to tour with PowerGlove, and we got to know them a little bit better on that tour. I even got inspired to sing two cover songs on their album, and it was fun. Well, it was a good experience, and of course we’ve had a lot of other good experiences over there in America with DragonForce, Nightwish and everything. It was a good tour with good people, and a lot of fun, that’s about it.
Exactly, and I spoke to the PowerGlove guys a couple of times after that tour. They’ve always said that you had good things to say about them. You must have enjoyed seeing their kind of musicianship, specially as a live band.
Yes, they have a show with a big S (laughs), with costumes and everything. It’s just fun to watch how people are singing along the songs that they know from computer games which they played since they were kids, and the whole concept is something so totally different from anything else. I fell in love with it the first time I saw it, and I was like, “Jesus Christ, what is this?” (laughs) I was a little suspicious at first when I heard that they’d be touring with us, and didn’t know what it was going to be like. But these guys are just fun and great, and really smart business-wise. I always appreciate that as well.
Besides drinking with them, did you get to learn anything from them, may be playing any video games that they are really experts at?
(Laughs) Not really. There is not too much time on tour to do such things, and when you have the time, you’re on the bus and moving. We had a different transport from them. They had their own van and we were on a bus. So no computer gaming with them, unfortunately, even though it would have been fun. But there’s always the online thing, so may be I should hook up with them on the playstation or something.
As you were saying in the beginning, the tour was pretty loosely scheduled, you had a lot of time in between, and you toured a lot of places. Were there any places on the tour that you did not expect to play, or were surprised by the crowd’s response?
Well … Australia was a fun surprise. I’ve been waiting to play there for a long, long time. So it was fun playing there and also in China, Taiwan, and in South America there were a lot of places, Venezuela, El Salvador, Equador and those kind of places. When you are a kid you don’t expect to go there, and you understand that it’s probably not going to happen. But we had a chance to play there, meet the fans and the people who love our music, and got to see so many sights and beautiful places, it was amazing. For this upcoming tour, I hope to play India for one, and Africa would be fun. That’s a whole continent we’ve never touched, and never been there. So that would be great, and Iceland too. I’ve been thinking of seeing Iceland.
Yeah, I think India and Africa are the two places nobody plays. Very few bands make it out here. It would be great if you guys can make it. I’m sure you’ll get a great response and will be treated nicely!
Yeah, there was some kind of festival in India, may be two years ago or something. We were supposed to play that, but it was canceled due to some election thing that was causing some kind of security risk or whatever. So we were really looking forward to play in India but it was canceled. But may be on this tour, I hope it happens.
Yeah, shows get canceled a lot over here but hopefully something solid will come up this time and you can play here. But lastly I wanted to ask you, what plans do you have for touring behind this album, this year and the few years to come?
The whole thing starts with festivals. We played one so far and another one is in two weeks. And then the summer starts in Finland and in Europe as well. A lot of festivals, and then our first headlining tour starts in September/October here in Finland, following by European tour. Hopefully we’ll get to play in Japan real early next year, and then North America, South America, India (laughs). No further plans at this point, and all I know is we’re going to have the European run this year. From then on, it’s just still under consideration. I know it’s all going to happen, but I don’t know dates, times and places yet.