Nightwish's Tuomas Holopainen on symphonic metal and the band's new film, Imagineaerum
Formed in 1996, Nightwish gained instant popularity in its native Finland with the 1997 release of its first album, Angels Fall First. Eventually, Nightwish achieved international success with album sales in excess of over eight million worldwide, yet the group has struggled to achieve popularity and recognition here in the States. Nightwish delivers chugging distorted guitars, double-bass kicks, fast tempos and time changes -- the signature traits of any metal band. But the act's songs also include classical structures and arrangements and have featured an orchestra and a choir, bolstering a classically trained female vocalist -- all of which has earned it a "symphonic metal" designation, a tag its members are comfortable with.
In 2005, the band parted ways with original vocalist Tarja Turnunen, and after a two-year hiatus, Nightwish emerged with a new vocalist, Annette Olzon, a vocalist who did not possess the same operatic vocal style as Turnenen, a change that created a division in both fans and critics.
By last year, all that was behind the group, and Nightwish released its seventh studio album, titled Imaginaerum, a concept album that has developed into a full-length feature film that will premier in Helsinki on November 23. Not to be confused with a documentary, concert or rock stars trying to act, Imaginaerum the film is based on the story of a composer who suffers from dementia and regresses into his childhood while on his deathbed, all set to music and visuals of Nightwish, in true fashion.
We recently spoke with Nightwish lyricist, composer and keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen, a day before the rest of the band was scheduled to see the film in Montreal, and he talked about film, gave us his take on being branded as a purveyor of symphonic metal and how he feels about other acts emulating Nightwish's style.
Westword: Do you consider yourself a rock star or a composer, and do you feel that there is a parallel between the two?
Tuomas Holopainen: I could not be further away from being a rock star. During the whole career of the band, I have never understood the term rock star, and I have never considered Nightwish to be a rock band. I just don't get the whole thing to be honest. I am a songwriter, a storyteller, a composer. Any of those terms would work. I am proud to be called any of those things, but a rock star.... NO WAY!
Have you written your masterpiece yet, and if not, how do you envision it?
I have been satisfied with all of the albums that we have done so far. Whenever I have gotten the master copy in my hand and have listened to it, I have always felt very content, and the same goes for Imaginaerum. I don't know if the masterpiece is yet to come or if it has already been done. It's not up to me to decide. I'm very happy with the work we have put out so far.
What has been a personal goal that you have set for Nightwish that you have yet to complete?
I find it extremely important that there is continuity. With each album we do, we challenge ourselves and challenge the listeners with something different. You never want to do the same album or even the same song twice, so that is our goal. Every album has been on a different level from the previous one, and we have always been able to challenge ourselves.
It's the same thing with Imaginaerum, because, after Dark Passion Play, I thought, "What the hell are we going to do next, because the music was so diverse"? We have used so many deliveries. That was when it occurred to me: "Okay, let's go further and open up the dream of a Nightwish movie". So, things like these are goals.
You studied music theory for a number of years. What was the most important lesson you were taught, and how have you applied that lesson to the music of Nightwish?
I remember my piano teacher telling me when I was like seven years old: "Every time you sit in front of the piano, remember to play, not practice." That was something I have been trying to follow ever since. It was really well said.
Do you write the arrangements for the orchestra before entering the studio?
Absolutely, I have accurate ideas in my head when I write the songs of what the orchestra will be playing. I write the horn parts, I write the string parts, and I hear what the orchestra should sound like in my head. I demo them with my keyboards, but I have no idea how to write the actual scores for an orchestra. For example, I don't know what the scale is for a French horn or things like that. That is when Mr. Pip Williams [producer] comes along and writes it on paper.
Is this more of a collaborative process, or do you just give him ideas and that's it?
It's really wonderful and really deep. On Imaginaerum, it was about four months that he did nothing else but score those arrangements. We would call each other at least once a day, every single day, bouncing off ideas. He would say, "I don't think this line is good enough. Can you do it in a different way?" Or, "Can we use the oboe instead of the flute here?" Stuff like that. We bounce ideas back and forth.
How do you feel about Nightwish being categorized by the term "symphonic metal," and what is your opinion of bands that have tried to emulate Nightwish over the years?
I love symphonic metal, obviously, and I can live with that description. If you want to call Nightwish symphonic metal, then that is totally okay. There are a whole bunch of these big-sounding female-fronted symphonic metal bands in the world today. I don't think any of those bands are copycats of Nightwish. They all have their own identity. If a band tells me that we have been an inspiration to them, then that is just a flattering thing. I am a big fan of these bands myself, like Within Temptation, Epica, and so on. I listen to this stuff all the time.