Sonata Arctica is a big deal. Not just for this blog (as it’s the first of many major label interviews to come), but just in the metal world as well. They’ve got real draw power, and they have continued to develop as a band, despite some set backs here and there. Not only that, but because for many years I swore by them as the best power metal band of all time. I have been a pretty much die-hard fan of the band since I was 19, and was therefore totally fucking stoked to get a chance to interview their keyboardist Henrik, affectionately known to the label guys and his friends as Henkka, about the new album, what’s going on with the band and whether or not he’s ever been in a knife fight. Why are you looking at me like that? All the Finns do is drink, fight and make metal… right?
AMG: The biggest news besides you guys having a new album is that this record is being recorded with a new guitarist by the name of Elias, how’s that going?
Henkka: Well, it’s going pretty well. I mean, he doesn’t feel so new for us because he started playing on the tour with the last album and then he joined the band during the last tour. So he’s been in the band now for two years, I think even more, you know, three years. So, you know, of course it was a new experience to work with the new guy in the studio and he’s just been, from day one, a really easy going, mellow guy and it’s just, I mean, he’s really easy to work with. He’s open-minded to whatever we can throw his way and he can actually play anything that comes into your head so that always helps.
AMG: Has it been weird working in the studio without Jani and with Elias?
Henkka: Well, the way we work nowadays is that we pretty much rehearse together and then everybody records wherever they feel like, so we usually record at different studios anyway. So, I didn’t see him in the studio at all because he lives 4 hours south from here so he was recording in his home town and then just sending us the files. The rehearsels were a little bit different when Jani wasn’t here, but it’s kind of, I think it would’ve been much more difficult if he had just joined the band straight at the beginning of the recording process. But we played the whole last world tour with him which was almost two years, and we spent so much time together before so it wasn’t really awkward or it didn’t really seem that weird at all.
AMG: With the writing then, since he’s been touring with you guys before this, does any of that happen on the road? Or do you guys come back from tours and then go into your own separate corners and then Tony comes back with songs? Or, how does that work?
Henkka: Tony writes all or most of the music, so whenever he’s home he writes stuff when he feels like it. Of course, on the road, I don’t think he gets anything done. I think nobody else gets anything done either. I mean, on tour it’s uh.. well, during the first days you can kind of have your energy and kind of do something reasonable but then pretty soon when you’re just sitting in the bus days in and days out the only energy you have is on stage and outside of that we turn into this fucking amoebas or something and you just sit there and pick your nose and play PlayStation or something. At least for me it’s really hard to get anything creative done on the road. So with this album, it was like we did the tour and then in the beginning of December last year, and then the rest of us had two months off while Tony was finishing up, he had some songs left already that he had written before. He wrote songs for a couple of months and then we got together and started rehearsing. That’s pretty much how it works.
AMG: How long is the rehearsal process?
Henkka: This time we got I think 5 or 6 weeks of rehearsing. But, we had some days off in between as well. And when we rehearse we like to work like normal people, we like to work Monday to Friday and then have the weekends off, so you can go home and reflect on things a little bit. And usually Tony almost never has all the songs ready when we go into the studio. It’s always like during the rehearsal process we have like maybe two-thirds of the album where we knew what was going to happen and then when we we’re in the studio you get this e-mail that’s something like “Yeah, this is something I made last night” or something like that, so.. it’s always like that with him because uh, well, he doesn’t need time he just needs a deadline. [laughs] So that’s how it works.
AMG: So what kind of say do you guys have in the process? Do you get to experiment?
Henkka: It depends from song to song, I mean. Some stuff, some of the demos are really rough and we have to work on it a lot to get it to work. And then some songs it’s just like, we listen to the demo and at the first take it’s like “hey, this is pretty great as it is.” Usually it’s more small things here and there that we change, and of course for me and Elias there’s always solos to play and those are never written by Tony fortunately. [laughs] I’m dreading that that moment is going to come actually.. “Hey I have this great solo for you to play,” and then I think that’s going to be a no-go.
AMG: But didn’t Tony used to write all the keyboard stuff?
Henkka: Yeah, actually, we work in a way that some of the tracks we take straight from the demos especially if it’s a song he hasn’t changed around that much because he’s been recording it at home and so on this album some stuff we took directly from the demos and some stuff he sent over to me and I used my magic mouse hand to fix his piano playing and stuff. Some stuff he played and it’s like “hey this is really great, but it doesn’t quite work,” you know, so I played it again. It depends you know if there’s like a piano part that needs to be sensitive or something like that he doesn’t always pull it off then I might go in and play it again. It’s a balance that we’ve been trying to figure out for two or three albums, I think this one we are pretty close to finding the perfect balance, like taking the stuff that I do well and the stuff that he does well and combine that. And, of course, for me I have to rehearse a whole lot of stuff when we go on the road because I have to play it all at the end of the day anyway so.. As long as you keep your mind open and don’t let your ego get in the way, then it’s OK and he comes up with a lot of really great stuff and it would be stupid not to use it.
AMG: You play on a keytar, do you record on one?
Henkka: Uh, no, no I don’t. I don’t know, I haven’t actually even tried. It’s like when you jump around a lot on the stage and stuff it’s quite hard to play… especially when you’re recording everything has to be really exact and I prefer to play a normal keyboard, it’s just so much easier.
AMG: Do you just use the keytar on stage because it’s better for live shows then?
Henkka: Yeah, I think so. It looks better, it’s more fun for me. I don’t have to just stand in the corner, but of course every once in a while I get a headache because you have to figure out how to play stuff with one hand that you did in the studio with two hands. Of course, I use a normal keyboard as well because when you want to play piano stuff on the keytar it’s really too hard. I’m too lazy for that, so for me it’s just a live tool to make the live show a little bit more interesting.
AMG: So more specifically about the new album, the name, The Days of Grays, where does that root from?
Henkka: Actually, we had another name, but again it was too dark. It would have suited maybe a death metal band, and then I think Tony was playing World of Warcraft or something with his friends and chatting on the Internet and he was saying “Yeah, we’re having so much trouble coming up with the name.” We actually had a brainstorming session one day when everyone was hung over and we only came up with really shitty ideas. So I… I think one of his friends suggested it and they were just talking and he said “what about this,” and he came in and gave said “Well, this could be it,” and we were like “Yeah, this is it.” It was more luck than anything else.
AMG: I have to ask before I say anything about it because I did a promo copy, but what album would you compare this to, as far as the Sonata Arctica discog is concerned?
Henkka: I can only choose one right? I would say it’s something in between Reckoning Night and Unia. I’m not sure that’s a statement I really would like to say, but if I had to compare I’d say that you can find most elements on the new album on those records.
AMG: Mm hmm, ’cause it seems like you guys have moved a little bit back towards faster but you’re not really doing that Silence-era material. Has that been an organic change or is that intentional? Are you sick of it? Finding it monotonous? Or that Tony is just writing more progressive music? What happened there?
Henkka: Well, I think it’s maybe a combination of all of the stuff that you just said. Unia for us was the most different album that we ever made and that came at the point when everybody was sick of this super fast thing and we wanted to try something more interesting and Tony said he was having trouble writing these fast songs. We said, let’s just roll with it and see what happens so for us that was an album we really had to make for ourselves. A lot of that stuff shines true on this album as well, but there is never any intention to go back, I think, there was never an intention with any album to go back so I think OK, maybe it has some elements from the past but we’re just heading in some other direction now. It comes pretty naturally, and also when we tour for a couple of years a lot of things change during that time, and that goes into the writing process from Tony and of course the arrangements that we do. That means that the next one is going to be again something different. We really don’t knock anything out before or have like a band meeting “like, the next album should be like this or like that,” we just roll with it and see what happens. I think the main thing is that it mostly depends what Tony comes up with.
AMG: You said that Unia was sort of a record of necessity. So, how did your fan base, not necessarily the hardcore fans, but the more peripheral fans react to it?
Henkka: We got a lot of new fans with that album, a lot of people said that they didn’t like Sonata before but this one was really good, of course a lot of people did not like it as well because they would like us to do Silence 10 times over and that’s fine. I understand that but for us, to keep ourselves motivated and interested in this business we have to keep the music interesting as well. We got quite a bit of mixed reviews but all-in-all we came out ahead and we’ll see what happens with the next one of course. For us it was not our main concern, our main concern was to make an album that was interesting for us and hope that people like it and a lot of people did like it. That’s how it goes sometimes.
AMG: Speaking of new fans, you guys have toured the US a lot over the last 5 or 6 years, I think more than probably any other Finnish band. In fact, I’m trying to think of other Finnish or European bands that have toured so fiercely… I think Dimmu Borgir toured like nuts over there for a while, or Opeth has toured like crazy too. Why have you done that? Are you trying really hard to break into the American market and has it worked?
Henkka: Well we are trying really hard, but I think there’s still a lot of work to be done. The States are really big and there’s still not that many people who know us. So far people show up at the show and it’s been great, we really haven’t had to play that many shows that are like “oh, there’s not that many people” you know, but there’s a lot of ground to cover and we’ll be going back I think two or three times with this album as well and see what comes out of it. I just got hooked up on that other Finnish bands thing, I think Nightwish has toured the US now quite a lot and Children of Bodom, at least at some point they were there really much.
AMG: That’s true, I saw Children in 2000 and I’ve seen them probably a half dozen times since then too…
Henkka: I think it’s the kind of market where you have to go back and back and back and then maybe something comes out of it, but so far it’s going well in the respect that we don’t really make that much money, but we don’t lose money so we can actually go there and tour and we stay alive. We are going to continue to go back and we will try to work it for the next few years and see what happens.
AMG: Yeah, that’s cool, and you guys are touring with Dragonforce coming up here, right?
Henkka: It’s coming up this fall.
AMG: That’s going to be a big deal…
Henkka: Yeah, I think so. I think they’re doing pretty well there, so I hope we’re going to get a lot of new fans from that crowd as well. But with these things you never know until afterwards, you know. We met the Dragonforce guys when we were playing, uh.. well, we’ve met them before as well but, we met them last year in Japan and…
[Funny story, this is where Henkka’s cell phone dies.. yay! Technology!]
Ok, we were talking about the Dragonforce thing, right? Yeah, I don’t know at what point you lost me, yeah.
AMG: Yeah, you said you met them in Japan.
Henkka: Alright. Well anyway we met in Japan and had some beers and they were like “yeah, it’d be really cool if you guys would tour with us in the States” and we were like “Sure, of course.” But that happens a lot you talk to people when they’re drunk and nothing comes out of it, you know? But then a few months later we got an e-mail from management, and they said “Hey, do you wanna support us” and blah blah blah, and we were like “Sure, of course we do!” And it fit with our schedule as well, the album is coming out just before or during the tour.. so yeah, I have big hopes for that tour.
AMG: And then you’re headed to Europe after that and probably to Japan of course?
Henkka: Yeah, we’re doing a headlining tour in Europe for 5 weeks before Christmas, and then we have a Christmas break and then we’re doing an Asian tour with China and whatnot, and ending up in Japan before we head home.
AMG: So, are you guys as huge in Japan as it seems?
Henkka: I don’t know how huge we are these days because you know, when I joined the band we were really huge in Japan, but I think it’s getting a bit smaller with Unia there was… I don’t think they liked that album that much over there. [laughs] Because they really, really want the faster and older stuff. But still we’re doing pretty well there and we’re playing sold out shows, but we’re not like really huge we’re not playing in the Buddakan or stuff like that. [Laughs]
AMG: Well, that’s crappy.. [laughs]
Henkka: No, it’s still OK. We’re still playing clubs for 1,000, 2,000 people so it’s totally cool, it’s nothing to complain about.
AMG: Yeah, so it’s nothing to complain about.. [more laughing] Exactly.
Henkka: No, no no.. absolutely not!
AMG: So, switching topics a bit, did you guys get a strong reaction to the whole situation with Jani?
Henkka: Uh, yeah. Somewhat yeah, a lot of our fans were like “Hey, why did this happen?” and blah blah blah blah blah and I think, I don’t remember exactly what we said in our statement at the time, but I think it should have been made clear that this was something we couldn’t do anything about. It’s basically pretty hard to have a guitar player without a passport who can’t travel anywhere. And he was really messing his life up and not, uh… I mean, he was dodging the phone for like 3 or 4 months, so it’s impossible to work with somebody if the situation is like that. Originally the thing was like, we said like, “OK, you get your shit together and Elias is covering for you and you get your stuff done and when you’re ready you come back.” But then we still couldn’t get ahold of him and he wouldn’t answer the phone and then we were on tour with Elias and at some point we just had to say, “Look, if you’re not making this effort this is not going to work out.” So.., but I think partly he did not want to be in the band anymore but he just couldn’t manage to tell us that. That I think could have been one of the reasons that he let everything slip through his hands and go, you know, at least some statements that I read by him later.. he seemed like he didn’t want to be in the band, but just couldn’t say it out loud or something like that. Of course it was a difficult time for us, we were in the middle of recording an album when these things started to happen. Then we got the album ready and then it was a total disaster and we had shows booked for like one or two years ahead and we had no guitar player and so for us that was a pretty chaotic time for the band, but I think we got through it and things are way easier with Elias. I mean, I just got off the phone with him to call you, so.. It was a really… there were really a lot of problems and a lot of stuff that I won’t go into and that we didn’t tell the public because it wouldn’t have been fair, but basically…the tip of the iceberg is something that people know and that was eventually what led to the situation where we chose to fire him.
AMG: Yeah. [Silence] Yeah.. I think I’ll just let that lie..
Henkka: [Laughs] Yeah, well.. to get back to your question, we got reactions of course, but I think ultimately people understand that we are making a living off of this we can’t just have somebody fuck it all up. And also, I think the last couple of years people saw Elias live and then you know there was no discussion.
AMG: That’s fairly common though, I think it’s pretty common for a band to upgrade with a guitar genius once somebody else has left, you end up getting somebody who can play everything PLUS some..
Henkka: Yeah, well with the music that we play we cannot afford to take a crappy guitar player.
AMG: Totally.. so, now for something completely different.. Have you ever been in a knife fight?
Henkka: A knife.. What?? [Laughs]
AMG: Well, it’s just the standard Swedish stereotypes of Finns.. that they’re drunk and violent. So I had to ask… [laughs]
AMG: Yeah, so you’ve never been in a knife fight?
Henkka: Yeah.. well, once. [Laughs] We’re not that violent, but we’re drunk OK.. And things happen in the dark hours.. and sometimes you actually remember what happens, but most times you don’t and it’s, I think, all for the better..
AMG: Yeah, actually I was going to ask apropos Finland.. Why do you think it is that Finland has become the center of a lot of metal that’s coming out these days.. it seems like for a while it was Norway and Sweden and now that’s tapered off, but Finland is a hot spot right now.
Henkka: Yeah, well, it’s really hard to say. We get that question a lot and it’s always difficult to answer it. But I think that there have always been a lot of bands in Finland and there’s been pretty good bands, but it’s not until recent years have we actually gotten the business side of it with managers and record labels and so forth, up to the level that they could actually get the bands exported to other countries. And now with that, now that we have professional managers, we have book agents and whatnot then the bands who actually do know how to play and do something interesting, they now have a chance to get abroad and get on the map so people find them. And that was a problem before. And I think maybe that’s at least one of the reasons that bands get out from here. It’s really hard to say, and I think in some years it might shift, it’s going to be Sweden again or Norway again and I think it’s just how it goes. We are enjoying our time in the sun that’s for sure. I have no idea how it happened, I’m just happy to be a part of it.
AMG: OK, but there are a couple questions I have about live shows… first, why do you guys insist on doing medleys?
Henkka: We do it mainly because we don’t have time to play all the songs that we would like to play and then of course, it’s getting harder and harder with every album because there are so many songs to choose from. So instead of you playing just one song or two songs, we play one medley and we can fit a lot of songs in there and cover a lot of ground with a shorter amount of time. Of course, it’s not the ultimate decision I think the best decision would be to play three hour shows, but that’s a little bit much. I don’t know know if we’re going to play a medley on this tour, but we’ve been talking about it.. because there’s always.. you know, I want to play some songs, Tony wants to play some songs, Elias wants to play.. well, he’s pretty much OK with everything [laughs]. But this guy wants to play this, and that guy wants to play that, and I don’t like this song and somebody else doesn’t like that song, so uh, the medleys are basically a compromise. Also for us it’s interesting, instead of playing Replica for the thousandth time we play Replica with something else. Yeah it’s a hobby of ours, every once in a while.. It’s interesting for the fans as well, especially the hardcore people who have heard most of the songs anyway for them to spot “Hey, that’s from that song and that’s from that song,” and you know, for me personally I’m a bit fan of Rush and they always did these medley things and I thought as a fan I really enjoyed that, so..
AMG: I understand that, I’ve been an Iron Maiden fan for my entire life and the thing that always kills me about them is that they never play deep cuts. They always play the same damn 20 songs… Have you ever considered doing a tour where you play deep tracks, like songs that would be cool for hardcore fans but are not, you know.. Full Moon?
Henkka: Yeah, [laughs] oh, that’s a good example. That’s uh, on the last tour we were playing White Pearl, Black Oceans… and we’re still going to be playing that one live I think, and of course, sometimes we’ve thought about that and of course there’s always going to be one or two, or maybe more songs that we play that are going to be a bit more odd or a bit more special, but to make a setlist just with the weird songs might just be a little bit too much. Then, of course, some songs we’ve tried and if they don’t work then we just scrap it.. Maybe on some songs we’ve gone a little bit too far with the vocals and keyboards, and then if you want to make it work live you have to use a lot of backup tapes and shit like that and you can get lost in that kind of jungle. Definitely, we try to do something other than Full Moon as well.
So, that was SUPPOSED to be the end, but then we got talking about partying.. Of course, what unites metalheads more than beer (Metal? Nah.. it’s the beer)? Unfortunately it didn’t get recorded, but I started asking about the comment where he was saying that they just sit on the bus and play PS2.. so that is, “is the partying while touring going down” he started saying “Well, we always say…”
Henkka: … we won’t drink so much on the next tour.. we’re always bloated and tired anyway. [laughs] I think the worst one for me was The Reckoning Night tour, it got basically totally out of hand, yeah. I’m surprised that me, and I won’t say any other names, but I was not alone in that boat, some of us were pretty fucked up during that whole two year period. But uh, luckily we managed to do all the shows and not screw up. But it was.. uh, yeah. I think you have to take it to a point where you realize yourself that this is too much and then you cut back. But of course, after the show we usually drink. But maybe it’s not so out of hand as it used to be… earlier.
AMG: Yeah, they always say that being in a band is like being in a relationship..
Henkka: Yeah, it’s just five guys.. [laughs]
AMG: .. but it’s one of those things like, you have to get old and boring sometime, right?
Henkka: [laughs] Yeah, exactly. Also, I think if we continued at the pace that we used to do with the partying stuff, if we continued in that way.. I think I would be dead in 10 years. We would like to continue to work after that as well. [laughter abounds] But, uh, we were just away for a week and played two shows and got pretty wasted on both nights so.. yeah, we are trying to cut back, we are trying and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t..
AMG: Sounds like you guys need an Alcoholics Anonymous counselor on the bus or something..
Henkka: That sounds like a pretty OK idea. [laughs]