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Interview

Tolkki: "I Am Blessed With A Gift Of Music And That Is All I Could Ever Ask For"

Timo Tolkki………his name has become synonymous with power metal, and in particular Stratovarius, a band he joined in 1985 after its original creation under the moniker Black Water by then drummer Tuomo Lassila, then guitarist Staffan Stråhlman and then bassist John Vihervä. It was Lassila who invented the name “Stratovarius.” At the time Tolkki joined, he was both the guitarist and the vocalist. From 1989’s “Fright Night” to 2003’s “Elements, Pt. II.,” the band put out a prolific string of ten amazing albums, with so many classic songs they are too numerous to count. During that time, in 1994, Timo Kotipelto was added as the band’s vocalist, with Tolkki as the band’s composer and guitarist. 1995 saw the addition of famed keyboardist Jens Johansson and drummer Jörg Michael and the ousting of founder Tuomo Lassila and longtime keyboardist Antti Ikonen (who would later work again with Tolkki on his solo records).

It was in late 2003, after “Elements, Pt. II” was released that a bizarre string of events saw the band break up and reunify in 2005 for the release of the maligned self-titled album. Two very different sides of the story have been told over the years about the end times before the current incarnation of Stratovarius was formed. When the dust settled, the band and its back catalog were handed over to Timo Kotepelto, Jens Johansson and Jorg Michael and Lauri Porra.

Since his departure from Stratovarius, Tolkki went on to form Revolution Renaissance to release three albums and an EP (“New Era” in 2008, “Age of Aquarius” in 2009, the self-titled 2010 EP and “Trinity” also in 2010). The band featured the likes of Gus Monsanto (Symbolica/Code of Silence) and Bob Katsionis (Firewind). In 2010, he disbanded Revolution Renaissance and formed Symfonia, which also featured Andre Matos (Ex-Angra/Ex-Viper), bassist Jari Kainulainen (ex-Stratovarius), drummer Uli Kusch (Ex-Gamma Ray/Ex-Helloween) and keyboardist Mikko Härkin (Cain’s Offering). Tolkki also released three solo albums (“Classical Variations and Themes” in 1994, “Hymn to Life” in 2002 and “Saana – Warrior of Light” in 2008).

In April of 2012, Tolkki started a crowd funding campaign for a new record, which was abruptly cancelled after it reached the target goal. As Tolkki explains here, it was at this time that Frontiers Records contacted him about what would become Avalon. As part of an overall marketing strategy, trailers were released hinting at the pioneer of power metal’s return. In February of 2013, Timo Tolkki’s Avalon was revealed to the world with the debut LP “Land of New Hope” (Metal Underground.com’s review pending). The sound is largely a “return to Dreamspace,” but with many special guest appearances, some of which include Russell Allen (Symphony X/Adrenaline Mob), Tony Kakko (Sonata Arctica), Michael Kiske (Ex-Helloween/Unisonic), Sharon den Adel (Within Temptation), Elize Ryd (Amaranthe) and Jens Johansson (Stratovarius).

Timo Tolkki took some time to discuss the Avalon album with Metal Underground.com, as well as, share some of the highlights of his past career.

CROMCarl: Since much of the style of “The Land of New Hope” was written in the vein of “Dreamspace” era Stratovarius, was any of the material through Avalon originally meant to be the “Return to Dreamspace” project that was teased as far back as 2009 with Jari Kainulainen? If not, will that project ever see the light of day?

TT: No, I never use/have old material hanging around. I always write fresh new stuff. All the songs for the new album were written in August 2012. I don’t know if the new album sounds similar to Dreamspace era Strato. I certainly never aim for any particular type of music. I just write songs. This time I had a storyline to write songs to.

Project Strato has been lurking in there and still is. We have been doing jamming and writing songs as well. Maybe next year we do something together because it is 30 years from when Tuomo Lassila founded Stratovarius and 29 years and 10 months from when I joined the band.

CROMCarl: “Land of New Hope” is the first of three metal operas in a trilogy story with the next two as the “prequels” to this? Is that correct?

TT: It is a trilogy yes. I wrote a story with paper and pen and chunked it into 3 pieces. The Land of New Hope is the last part of the trilogy. So I start from the end.

CROMCarl: When you were composing the album, did you have specific musicians and singers in mind for the roles? How did the choices of musicians/vocalist come about? Where there any musicians you originally asked to participate that were not available at the time you recorded?

TT: I composed with the story before me and as the songs progressed, I started to think who could sing what. I was lucky to have every singer I wanted for this album. Same with musicians...I wanted a drummer with a punch and ability to play fast if needed but also slow..a musical guy.

CROMCarl: For me the performances of Russell Allen, Tony Kakko, Rob Rock and Sharon den Adel were very special. I noticed that Russell provided some particularly rafter shaking notes! Did he improvise his vocals or was he asked to do that?

TT: I think everbody delivered. Russell did some amazing vocals for this. I don’t know what he was on, but he really shines on the tracks. He had guide vocals to sing to, but he did also quite a bit of improvising. Elize Ryd is stunning on this album. The range of emotions she was able to convey were exactly what I was looking for.

CROMCarl: You had mentioned that the concept for the record is not a sci-fi story, other than the fact that it takes place in the future. Is the story more or less your personal message or warning about where the Earth might be headed due to the mistakes mankind has made or is the quest for the “Land of New Hope” a parallel of your personal journey as a musician?

TT: To me it doesn’t make the story sci-fi if it happens in the future. I wrote a lot of philosophical songs in Stratovarius, and as I have grown older that part of me has shrunk. I just don’t really care about that anymore. To me it is a fact that human being will become instinct in the next 100 years - probably before that - and that mankind is living in some kind of semi-psychotic state. 900 Billion USD annually to military purposes while 3 Billion people live with less than 1 Dollar per day combined with the fact that planet earth can sustain about 2 Billion people and by the year 2050, we will be 10 Billion. Only one conclusion can be drawn simply from this one example.

I am a musician, songwriter and producer. I am an artist and I express myself through whatever I do. This album is a fraction of it on this path of mine that I have walked for over 20 years. If I ever had a message, I don’t have anymore. I meditate on life and I am blessed with a gift of music and that is all I could ever ask for.

CROMCarl: In 2010 after Symfonia was discontinued and then again In March of 2012, you had announced that you had retired and/or left the music business but “hadn’t given up on music altogether.” What is it about the music scene that causes disdain?

I am a very sensitive person but many times us musicians are not seen as human beings by some people or parts of media. After putting so much energy and effort to Symfonia and seeing it fail in all aspects, I just became very bitter for a while and I was honest in for what I wrote at that time. But I came out of it and continued because I cannot be what I am not. [The] music business itself is going through a huge change and nobody knows what’s gonna happen.

CROMCarl: Did you find it much harder to come back writing and producing the Avalon album? Is it more challenging to compose given your bi-polar disorder condition and does music help comfort you?

TT: After my illness was diagnosed, it has had a very little to do with my daily life. It does not affect to my work in any way. I wouldn’t say that music comforts me but making music does comfort me because it is a form of self expression. It gives me satisfaction to write a good song. The whole Avalon project has been extremely positive experience ever since that phone call from the Frontiers Records and I think you can hear it on the album.

CROMCarl: Now given the widely publicized issues with Stratovarius in the past, you managed to have Jens play on “The Land of New Hope.” How did that come about?

TT: Well there are 2 sides to every story. My public image was very good before the publicity stunt of Stratovarius in 2004. I gave a face to that stunt and that gave me a lot of bad publicity. But all the guys, the management and the record label Sanctuary were in this. You can read my version from Tolkki.org/faq . It’s there, with the facts. Jens’ ultimate motives remain hidden. He was my best buddy in Strato, the guy I had the most fun with all over the world. I would say that he is on my record, because he is not a stupid guy. And I am glad to have one of the best keyboard players of the world in there.

CROMCarl: Is there still tension between you and Jens or any of the members of Stratovarius or has it become more “cordial” in recent years?

TT: I am fine with everybody and I think everybody is fine with me except Timo Kotipelto. I have tried to contact him for a chat over coffee but he doesn’t want to have anything to do with me. This is sad, but he has his right to do this and I must respect this.

CROMCarl: You are quoted as saying “In Stratovarius, back in the early 90’s I was one of the creators of the power metal genre, so it’s only natural that people may associate this music style with me.” Was the genre of “power metal” not around prior to the 90’s and do you still feel it is a viable genre still today?

TT: I am quoted saying many things I never have said. Also, the question implies that the thing that I am supposed to have been quoted would not be true. I was definitely one of the people creating this style. I wrote over 300 songs for Stratovarius, but this started already in 1986. If it’s “viable” genre today, you have to ask the fans. I don’t care about the genres and never have. I have always just done my music and then people and journalists categorize and box it in different ways. I have no problem with that.

CROMCarl: Given your experience with rock/metal opera’s in the past (i.e. “Saana – Warrior of Light, Pt. I”), do you see “metal operas” or larger productions with guest vocalists musicians as what you will likely do from now on or will there ever be a “regular band” from you in the future?

TT: After Symfonia, I doubt there will be another band. Times are changing and nobody really knows what’s gonna happen. The bands that 10 years ago played to 8000 people, nowadays play anywhere from 30 to 2000 people at the most including the current Strato formation. So everybody came down. I do whatever is interesting and fits to the moment. I have my own studio and I am doing music all the time and not only metal so I am keeping myself productive.

“Saana” was actually more rock opera than most of the current “metal operas,” because it had a real dialogue between singers and even spoken sentences. What is nowadays called a formatized “Metal Opera,” has actually nothing to do with classical opera that has real dialogues between real characters. You could just write a power metal album and then call it “metal opera”, which a lot of people are doing.

CROMCarl: In April of last year, you started a PledgeMusic campaign for your new solo album “Classical Variations and Themes II: Credo.” The project caught on with pledges, but then in July, you cancelled the project. What happened and was the album ever finished?

TT: I got a call from Frontiers and they offered me a contract with 3 Metal Operas. I thought about it for 2 weeks and decided that this was better option for me that the Pledgemusic. It is a good thing, but there is still a lot of things to be developed in the actual system. I am happy I made the decision, but I could not at that time give a proper reason for the cancelling, which made some people angry. The reason was that Frontiers had a marketing plan that included my total absence from press and publicity musically and then bring me back with the YouTube trailers and a videoclip with a single release. It succeeded very well actually.

CROMCarl: You recorded some material for the upcoming “Book of Gates” album from EON, the project from Lebanese guitarist Amadeus Awad. How did you come to meet with him and hook up with the project?

TT: I never met him and he asked me to play one guitar solo. That’s pretty much it.

CROMCarl: Will you ever make Avalon a live experience similar to the way Tobi Sammet does with Avantasia?

TT: That would depend only from one thing: money. And I mean that in the way that for a production like that, a lot of money goes to it. I have played 2500 shows in 62 countries in my career, so I can say that I have seen it all. We will have to see if I ever play live again. I don’t really miss the bus.

After the current formation of Stratovarius decides to stop, I think me, Timo, Jens, Joerg and Jari should get together to a room and bash out the whole catalogue from Episode to Infinite, write one more kickass record and do a farewell world tour. I have told this to them and to their manager and Jari would be up for that. I think most Stratovarius fans would love that as well. Stratovarius is a name that comes with 30 years Legacy. For example the founder, Tuomo Lassila never has gotten the credit he deserves for doing the groundwork that made possible the incredible success the band had in the years 1996-2003 when it sold over 2 million records. 7 years of magic.

CROMCarl: Thank you so much for the interview, it was an honor. Best of luck with the Avalon album!

TT: Thank you as well. Always a pleasure!!

CROMCarl's avatar

Carl Frederick is a staff writer for Metal Underground.com. From the early to mid-90's, Carl published his own fanzine called C.R.O.M. In 1997, he released a compilation entitled "CROM: The Resurrection of True Metal," which featured songs from bands from around the world, including the first U.S. release of any kind for bands like Italy's Rhapsody (n/k/a Rhapsody of Fire) and Brazil's Angra. Follow Carl on Facebook and Twitter: @CROMCarl.

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