An Exclusive Conversation With Nightwish’s Tuomas Holopainen

The music world is very homogeneous these days. Especially when it comes to hard rock. However, the one band that can never be duplicated is Nightwish.

Formed in 1996, Nightwish’s combination of powerful guitar riffs, personal-yet-epic lyrics, symphonic backdrops and operatic vocalist Tarja Turunen made them one of the most distinguishable bands in hard rock. However in 2005, problems began which led to Tarja’s dismissal and eventual replacement with their current vocalist, Anette Olzen.

Today, the band celebrates the release of their latest album Dark Passion Play and embarks on their first world tour with their new lead singer I had an opportunity to talk with keyboardist and founding father, Tuomas Holopainen about the bands trials and tribulations over the past year, the struggles of finding a new lead singer, and the healing power of time.

Check out the interview after the jump!

First off, I want to say welcome to America. How are you enjoying your tour?

It’s been wonderful so far. I’m not even exaggerating. The people have been so nice to us and we didn’t know what to expect, especially with the turmoil of the changing of the singer and the new album. It was quite a scary moment coming here, but now we know that our people are still there so a big thanks to them.

That actually leads into my next question: the past year and a half you guys have been under a lot of scrutiny due to the dismissal of Tarja. Was that difficult for you to hear all the rumors?

That was definitely the hardest part of the whole process. We’ve always had a lot of confidence about finding a new singer. We’ve had a lot of confidence about the new material and the fact that the record would be good. That was never a problem. The biggest problem was actually facing the media and all the writings and all the false rumors. That kind of went under the skin and never left.

How did you find Anette?

We had an open audition on our website and we received about 2000 demos.

2000?

2000 Yeah.

How did you get through all those?

Well, we just listened through them. The whole process took about one year, so it wasn’t like we just listened to them in one week. We listened to about 2000 demos over a year and of those demos we met in person about ten girls and chatted with them to test the chemistry. We closed the gap one by one and finally ended up with Anette.

Just out of curiosity, how many demos did you listen to a day?

The thing is all of those demos went through our management’s office. We would receive a cardboard box every fortnight or so.

Would you listen to a full demo or pieces of one song?

Some of the songs were promising enough that we would listen to them all the way through, but many of them we only needed to listen to for about ten seconds. Like if they were from a thirteen-year old girl, for example.

So it was like ‘Nightwish Idol’?

Yeah, actually it was a lot of fun. It was like Christmas every fortnight.

Any chance of a “Best Of” compilation?

I don’t think that would be morally correct.

Was Anette nervous when she came for her audition?

If she was she didn’t show it, and that was one of the things we noticed about her. She had really good self-esteem and a poker face, and she still does. She must’ve been incredibly nervous facing us for the first time, singing the new songs, singing the old songs – but she never showed it.

Anette’s voice, from what I’ve heard, is much softer than Tarja’s, which was deep and operatic – did you have to change the keys of certain songs to accommodate her? And are their certain songs that you can’t do with Anette? I asked some people about this before the show in New York City and “Stargazers” was one song that was often brought up.

Tarja cannot even sing that particular song anymore because it’s so incredibly high. She never wanted to do it either because it was too high for her. That’s why we didn’t play it. Surprisingly enough Tarja and Anette have the same range when it comes to the voice. It’s just the voice that’s different. But she (Anette) can do every single song that’s in our back catalogue. But, there are a couple that we will never do again like “Phantom of the Operaâ€? because it relied so much on Tarja.

I can tell you one thing: at the show I attended you could really see the people start to accept Anette. You could tell by their facial expressions, going from skepticism to acceptance. Especially when you played “Ever Dream.”

What show were you at?

The Nokia Theatre show. I was actually down in front and caught one of Emppu’s picks. It was a really great show and she really won the crowd that night. It was magical to watch. She should be proud.

I will tell her that.

How personal are your songs?

They are incredibly personal. There’s a big contradiction there because I don’t want to talk about private things that much because I don’t like that kind of publicity. But still I reveal a lot of intimate things through my lyrics. It’s kind of like my way of communicating with the world. It’s my way of functioning better as a human being when I write these songs and share these emotions with the world. Writing songs with Nightwish is a lot like writing a diary of my life.

So they’re metaphorical.

Yeah, there is always a lot of symbolism and metaphors included; the ultimate example would be the opening track “The Poet and the Pendulum.”

That song is an epic. I got some personal vibes out of “Bye, Bye Beautiful” that seemed a lot more straightforward than metaphorical. But I also got at the end of the chorus with the lines ‘You chose the wrong road, but we’ll be waiting.’ Is that sort of extending an arm of reconciliation toward Tarja?

Not reconciliation, she will never ever be part of the band anymore. It’s more like if we would ever meet on the street I would buy her a cup of coffee or an ice cream, and say ‘let’s be friends again.’ But “we will be waitingâ€? does not mean she’ll be part of the band again.

So, no chance of a duet with Anette?

That would be kind of corny, don’t you think?

I’m not so sure.

Well, lets see. Time has an incredible healing power so lets see what time brings. But, I really don’t see anything happening at this moment because we haven’t been in contact for over two years.

Moving on, what are some of your favorite songs to play live?

“The Poet and Pendulum” definitely, “The Islander,” “She is my Sin,” “Dark Chest of Wonders.” “Wishmaster,” for example and maybe “Slaying the Dreamer” are songs that we have been playing on every single show for the past several years. They don’t really get to you in that way anymore, but some of the newer ones are a lot of fun.

Do you like to change things up every show?

Yes, we do to keep the whole thing interesting. We’ve kept the same set list for the past five or six shows but that’s just because we want to keep Anette relaxed so she would get the routine with this particular set list. But, I believe that soon we will start exploring and change a few songs. Right now there are about 18 songs on the set list and we have rehearsed about 27 or 28.

Often your music has been compared to a movie soundtrack. “Last of the Wilds” on Dark Passion Play reminds me a lot of Braveheart. How heavily inspired are you by movie soundtracks?

A lot. That’s pretty much the only stuff I listen to when I’m at home. It’s a bit annoying because whenever I watch a movie I’m always listening to the music more than I’m watching the movie and kind of studying it at the same time. What I want my music to be is visual. I want the listener to see the story of the song not just hear it.

What are your favorite soundtracks?

Everything by Hans Zimmer (Pirates of the Caribbean) and Danny Elfman (Batman), those two are my ultimate favorites, especially Hans Zimmer, who is like my musical god. Vangelis (Blade Runner), he’s awesome. James Horner (Braveheart). James Newton Howard, he’s incredible especially with the soundtracks to the M. Night Shymalan movies. I think for example the soundtrack to The Village is one of the best ones ever made. Trevor Jones, with The Last of the Mohicans is incredible. John Williams (Star Wars, Indiana Jones, Jaws), Jerry Goldsmith (Rudy), all the classics.

What about Howard Shore from Lord of the Rings?

Oh yeah! He’s awesome.

I ask because I’ve noticed some Lord of the Rings references in your music. Any chance you might cover a song off the soundtrack live?

Who knows? Why not? It’s a cool idea.

I found out “Walking in the Air” is the song from animated movie The Snowman, which I haven’t seen in years, so I take it you must be a Raymond Briggs fan.

In my opinion, this particular song is the best piece of music ever written on this planet. If you were to put the soul of the band Nightwish into pictures that movie, The Snowman would be it.

Mr. Briggs worked with Roger Waters on his animated movie, Where the Wind Blows would you ever consider trying to collaborate with him on a Nightwish animated video or an animated feature that could be like a heavy metal version of Fantasia?

That sounds kind of cool actually. Who knows? It’s not a bad idea.

You do a lot of cover songs like Pink Floyd’s “High Hopes” and Gary Moore’s “Over the Hills and Far Away.” What are your favorite songs to cover and are there any people you want to collaborate with?

We have pretty much covered all the songs that come to mind. “Walking in the Air,” “Phantom of the Opera,” “Over the Hills and Far Away,” “High Hopes” – all these songs had a big meaning to me personally. I also think that you should only cover a song that you can do something new with. I don’t think you should cover something like “Master of Puppets” because its perfect as it is.

So there aren’t any songs that tickle your fancy at the moment?

We’ve had a cover song on every album so far, but for Dark Passion Play we just didn’t come up anything and felt we shouldn’t force it.

So, no plans for a cover album?

I don’t think so.

How about collaborations?

Well I’ve been trying to get in touch with Hans Zimmer for years and then its always forgotten. He would be the guy I would like to collaborate with.

Any chance you are going to perform with an orchestra or a choir? Because I know you use them on your albums.

That has been a dream of ours for years. It almost happened in 2005 but it takes an incredible amount of money and organization to bring 130 musicians onto the stage, not to mention the rehearsals. The size of the venue also has to be something special. It just didn’t happen but we are definitely doing our best so that this type concert can happen on our upcoming tour.

What’s the atmosphere like backstage?

What do you mean?

Do you have fun backstage? Pull pranks on each other?

You couldn’t imagine how boring it actually is with us. Every now and then we throw a wild party and people get naked and it gets really wild. But, for example we were talking about this issue in Toronto, two hours before the show three of the guys were browsing the internet, two were reading a book, I was doing an interview, and Anette was doing her warm ups. So, it was really lazy and quiet and nothing was going on.

Wow!

Call that rock n roll man!

So you weren’t putting shaving cream in each other’s shampoo bottles or anything like that?

We have done our fair share of that in the past. Maybe were getting older and more serene so we don’t have the energy to do that anymore. But every now and then it still gets out of hand. It’s part of the business.

It’s rock n’ roll.

Yeah.

How long is this tour going to last?

The plan is to tour until the fall of 2009, so it’s going to be two years all together.

Wow, how long will you be in America for?

This tour is going to last until the 19th of November so it’s a five-week leg altogether. But there’s already another tour planned for May 2008 and a third leg will follow that next fall. So there’s definitely going to be a bit more focus on the U.S. this time around, then Europe and Asia.

What can we look forward to from you in the next couple of years? Are you going to settle down a bit or is it back to the studio?

Well I think after two years you want to take a little vacation. For me that is two weeks at my summer cabin then I get really bored again and start writing new songs, which means we’ll enter the studio shortly after that. This is always how the cycle goes.

We’ll I guess that’s it. Thank you very much for taking time out of your busy schedule to speak with me. Best of luck to you, best of luck to the band, and best of luck to Anette, I hope you enjoy the rest of your time in America.

I’m pretty sure we will. Thank you very much sir.

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