Finnish symphonic metal titans Nightwish have just released their seventh studio album, Imaginaerum, in the US. It's a truly epic effort, a concept album that tells the story of an aging composer lost in memories of his youth. Despite that subject matter, which could be quite depressing in other hands, it's intended to be "uplifting, even...optimistic," says bandleader and keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen. He spoke to us exclusively, talking about the writing and recording process, the band's plans for a very special one-off live show in Los Angeles on January 21, and more.
When you were writing the new CD, was there a particular song that brought the whole thing together for you and made the project cohesive in your head?
Not really, to be honest. I just started doing songs, and since the beginning I wanted to do a more uplifting, even more optimistic album, and somehow all the songs more or less ended up dealing with imagination or memories, so it was just a coincidence that it ended up being a kind of thematic album. But I can’t recall there being a particular song which gave direction for the whole album.
Has that ever happened, where you’re writing a bunch of songs and you reach a point where they all click together and you say, “Okay, this is the kind of album we’re making”?
I’m a firm believer in the flow of mind, and I never want to think too much in advance about what the album should sound like. We never talk, for example, within the band about “Let’s do a more heavy album,” “Let’s do an acoustic album,” anything like this. It’s more like you just let your mind fly and let all the songs come out and after you have about 15 songs done you start to think, okay, what does this sound like and how are we going to do this?
When making any CD, whether something as epic as this or a more typical album, are there songs you know won’t be played live, even while you’re recording them?
That’s also something we don’t think too much in advance. We just try to make the songs sound as good as possible when we are in the rehearsal room and in the studio, and when the album is ready, it’s only after that that we start to think of, how do we bring this alive in a live situation. Basically, we have rehearsed all the songs from the new album, so we could play all of them if we wanted to.
How much of the music comes from the other bandmembers? Can they play things you can’t, and do you therefore indicate things when you’re putting demos together, like, “insert guitar solo here”?
Absolutely. I know very little about guitar playing, I know absolutely nothing about the drums or the bass, and I can’t really sing. So yeah, these guys and girl bring a lot to the band. But I try to finish the songs as good as possible on my own. I really work with them for months and months, and when I don’t have anything more to give to the songs, that’s when I introduce the songs to the other bandmembers and we start to dress the kid up, so to speak.
Anette sounds like she’s having a lot of fun singing this material. Were the vocals recorded fairly quickly and easily?
Funny that you should mention, because to me that’s one of the biggest changes on this album compared to the previous one, is her vocal performance, because it sounds so much more relaxed and diverse and easy, in a good way. And this has the most to do with the fact that maybe for the first time ever she felt confident in being in the band. She could really be herself – she knows the guys in the band now, she knows the guy behind the mixing console, so she was just really relaxed. And also the fact that when we did the demo for the album, she came over to Finland and we told her, you know, this is just for a guide line, just sing something, here are the lyrics, here’s the melody, and it was that relaxed atmosphere that actually ended up being on the album as well. I think like 40-50 percent of all the vocals from both Anette [Olzon] andMarco [Hietala] come from the demo sessions, a year and a half ago.
There are a lot of different sounds on the album – like the jazz song, “Slow, Love, Slow,” and other things that will surprise people. How did you approach writing in different styles and rhythms like that?
Well, the way that I write songs is that I always have the storyline first, I never do songs on a jamming basis, if you know what I mean. I always have this story or a vision or an idea, like, “Okay, I want to do a song about this. So what’s the best way to bring this story alive?” And I just had this vision of an old American jazz club from the Thirties, full of smoke, something really weird is going on there…I just had this vision and I started to think, how do I bring this vision alive? It needs to be – because it happens in a jazz club, it needs to be made in a jazzy way. Then it instantly hit me that wow, yeah, I’ve always loved jazz, but I have no idea how to play it. And neither do any of the other bandmembers, so this is going to be a great challenge. We want to challenge ourselves and we want to challenge the listener every time we do an album, and the jazz song, “Slow, Love, Slow,” is a good example.
What was the practical working relationship like between you and Pip Williams, the guy who did the orchestrations? Did you sit down at one computer together and plot everything out? How was it actually done?
It was really hard work for four months. Pip Williams took a leave of absence from the university he was teaching at, for four months, just to concentrate on these arrangements. And what happened was, we made a demo, I sent it to him, and then we were on the phone every single day for four months just talking to each other about new ideas and he’s playing me stuff, like, “What about if this melody goes like this?” and “What if I use the clarinet instead of the oboe here?” and “For ‘Scaretale,’ I have a whole new idea for the ‘C’ part,” and then he would send me files through email, his demoings and stuff from the computer program, and I’d go, “Yeah, that’s really good, but what if that chord is different?” So it was like this kind of close collaboration for months. We did it through email and phone.
Is it a challenge to incorporate these orchestral and symphonic elements while still keeping a rock band at the center of the music?
You know, this is one of the biggest issues that people bring up when they hear Imaginaerum, is the use of the orchestra and choir, because it’s so dominant there, and you know, that’s just the way we wanted this album to sound. It’s not even rock anymore, it’s something like Hollywood landscape metal, decorated with distorted guitars, or something like that. But this is what we wanted it to sound like. Maybe next time we do an album it will be without the orchestra, maybe we’ll do an acoustic album, whatever. But to bring these stories and visions alive on this album, just for us as a band, required this kind of sound.
On January 21, you’re doing a one-off show in Los Angeles. Will that be a full performance of the album? What are you planning?
We just finished a three-day rehearsal here. We just finished about three hours ago. We had a dress rehearsal for that show here in Helsinki. No, we’re not going to play the album from beginning to end. I never liked that idea, of any band doing that with a new album. For some reason, I just don’t like it. So basically we are just mixing up new songs with the old songs. I would say maybe 50 percent of the show will be songs from Imaginaerum, and the other half from the older albums.
And is that what you’re planning for the larger tour, to present a large amount of new material?
Yeah, it’s called the Imaginaerum World Tour, we want to play the new songs. These are the songs we’ve never played before, so we want to do them, we want to promote the album and it just feels natural to put a lot of emphasis on the new songs. But we’ll never forget the old catalog as well.
Nightwish's Imaginaerum is available now; click here to get it! And tickets are still available for their very special, one-off album release show in Los Angeles on January 21; visit our tour pageto get yours!