Coming Full Circle
Amorphis is one of those bands who always did things on their own terms. They never pigeonholed themselves into one specific genre of metal, constantly experimenting with various sounds and adding elements to their music not typically found in regular metal. Amorphis, as defined by their name, are a band without boundaries, a band without a determinate form. The Finns were one of the first metal acts to ever infuse traditional folk elements to their sound and since the early stages of the burgeoning Scandinavian metal scene, they garnered a legion of loyal fans. Fast forward almost 25 years since the band’s inception and Amorphis is still standing tall amongst their peers. Two EPs and ten full-length albums in, Amorphis just released Circle, an album that revisits many passages of their career as well as a few new wrinkles here and there. TeethOfTheDivine.com was fortunate enough to speak to guitarist and founding member Esa Holopainen about their latest release and Amorphis’ legacy. Considering everything that they’ve achieved and where they stand right now with their brilliant new record, it’s safe to say that Amorphis certainly has come full circle.
Circle just came out around the world and it’s a classic Amorphis album, meaning that there are new wrinkles and elements thrown into the mix. It’s a terrific album. Is it safe to assume that you and the rest of Amorphis are happy with how it turned out?
Oh yes, we really like it a lot. It has a fresh sound compared the last couple of albums. We had a little crisis after we heard the first mix of the album because we got used to the sound of the last couple of albums and we were a bit worried if this was the sound we wanted. Then we played these mixes through and played them for some of our friends and once we started listening to the mixes more and more, we started to really like the sound of the instruments. The guitars are definitely more up front and it’s a much more guitar-oriented album. We really got excited about the reaction from the fans and it’s (been) great.
The first thing I noticed was that though Circle is very clean, the guitars are much rawer than in recent years; they are much more organic. Was that something you were aiming for?
Not really. When we went to the studio and first met with our producer, Peter Tägtgren, he didn’t want to hear any of the demos because he wanted to hear the tracks for the first time in the studio when we start to record. At that point he knew right away that these needed to have the guitar sound much more up front. So we started to really focus and get to work. I really had a lot of great fun recording the guitars and all the stringed instruments. What we did was take the basic sound we were using and then used some old Marshall 800s and hooked them up to some old distortion pedals and basically made a chain of the sounds we used on our other Amorphis albums throughout our career. The results came out really aggressive and really organic, as you said.
In the humble opinion of someone who has listened to Amorphis since The Karelian Isthmus, I think this is the best album you’ve done with Tomi (Joutsen, vocals) and the best album since Tuonela.
Well, the easy thing to say would be that it’s a collection of everything we’ve done in the past. It definitely has a strong touch of the earlier albums and I think that was the (goal) of Peter from the beginning, to get some of that old feeling into these songs. It’s very different from the last couple of albums we’ve done. I definitely love every album we’ve done with Tomi but this one, along with Eclipse which was his first album with us, is the best one. With Circle, for him, it’s a huge step further. It has a lot of elements of his voice that he hasn’t used before. With Tomi, this is the first album with him being more aggressive or more darker than before.
After listening to Circle so many times already, I think it’s actually more reminiscent of Elegy than anything else. While it won’t be mistaken for a clone of Elegy, the tempo changes, the folk-infused elements, the organic feel to it, the clean-yet-raw sound, etc. remind me quite a bit of it. Would you agree with that?
Yeah I would definitely agree with that because I feel that it shares a lot of musical ideas from that album. Sound-wise it’s not that far from what we did on Elegy. There’s definitely a lot of similar elements in the air and the contrast between the vocals are really there. So I do think it’s closer to Elegy and perhaps Eclipse than any other previous album we’ve done. And I don’t know; it’s a positive thing, I guess, because a lot of fans have wanted for us to do a similar album to what Elegy was. I’m sure some people will be disappointed with the songs because it’s not exactly what we did on the last album, but for us it’s what we really wanted to do.
And that’s the most important thing: doing what you want to do.
Yeah. Sure, exactly.
So many musicians, when looking back on their past albums, will always gripe about certain things. They wish they can change the sound to this, the arrangement of that. It seems that they’re never fully satisfied. Circle is obviously still very new to you guys but is there anything that drives you nuts about the album? Is there something or things that you wish you could go back right now and fix?
[Laughs] I think it’s pretty much what we wanted. I guess it’s impossible to do a perfect album. I don’t know what a perfect album is anyway, but it is exactly what we had in mind. We had about 20 tracks when we started to do demos – we had a lot of songs – so out of these 20 songs we started to actually rehearse 14 for the album sessions. During the album sessions, we realized it was the nine tracks that we want. We didn’t want to take any add-on tracks for the album. Every time you release an album, you kind of realize that you’ve gone overboard with some of the tracks and we wanted to avoid that this time around. Once we started to go over the tracks, it was the easy choice to take these tracks because it was (then) our album. This was the first time that all six guys in the band shared the same opinion. Usually there are some guys who have their favorite tracks and then there’s a crisis inside the band when you have to drop some songs [chuckles].
So far from everything I’ve read, Circle has gotten very positive reviews. When Amorphis releases a new album do you expect to get mostly positive reviews? And when a new album of yours isn’t liked by some people, what goes through your head?
We’ve gotten used to receiving positive feedback and especially with Circle, it seems like everybody enjoys it and for Amorphis’ work, it’s a great work. Of course it feels great because the effort you put into the album and the songs… It takes altogether, when you start to compose the songs, the rehearsals, the recording, and the mix, it can take a year and a half. It’s pretty intense work and you’re surrounded by the songs all the time. You’ve gone through different mixes and different versions and all the tracks become so close to you. The album itself becomes really, really important. But it’s music and in music, you can’t please all the people and you can get some negative critics as well. You should take it (in stride) but still it’s the same as if somebody says you have ugly kids [laughs]. It’s the feeling you get sometimes but you have to tell yourself that it’s just part of the (music industry). That’s the way this thing works.
Speaking of the industry, these interview “tours” everybody does have to get tedious and boring after a while. You’ll do several interviews a day for several days and you’re getting asked mostly the same questions over and over.
[groans with a chuckle]
What questions just make you cringe when they’re asked?
Yeah it gets a little… I try to do it the easy way now because I used to give the record labels a lot of time every day. I’d tell them I could do five hours a day that would turn into like ten interviews a day. At that time it starts to get very boring. What I do now is I try to do about four or five interviews a day. I like to do shorter hours a day but with more days for the interviews rather than one or two huge five or eight-hour interview days. That kills me after a while. But, yeah, there are some questions… Like when I used to get asked all the time about Kalevala, the book where a lot of themes for Tales from the Thousand Lakes came from and we’ve been asked that question hundreds and hundreds of times. Of course, we still explain it all, but it’s extremely boring. Everything related to the new album and related to the band is nice to talk about, that stuff is usually not boring (laughs).
Back to Circle. In my opinion, the best, most powerful song on the album is “Narrow Path.” It’s a near-flawless song. What do you feel is the strongest of the album?
I have several songs. I like “Narrow Path” as well. I like “Shades of Gray”, the opener of the album; that has become my favorite track. I always like the songs that end our albums, too, so “A New Day” is another. It leaves a good feeling when you listen to it, and it hopefully it will make you want to listen to the album again.
Music fans – especially in metal – tend to usually stick to a band’s earliest records and then deem anything newer as not as good or that the band “sold out.” With Amorphis, it seems that most long-time fans prefer Tales from the Thousand Lakes to everything else. When fans or the metal media ask about that album or gripe that you’re “not the same” anymore, what goes through your head? That has to irritate you.
I was reading an article in a metal/hard rock magazine from Finland and the theme was about Amorphis and how there are a certain amount of people waiting for us to do another album like Tales from the Thousand Lakes. Something like that would be impossible. Even if we were to write the same songs now, it doesn’t serve the purpose anymore. It was a different time. Those songs are much more related to the listener; it’s not so much the band. It’s about the listener and how they felt at the time when they first heard the record, like if they were a teenager and it made an impact on them. The same thing goes for Metallica with Ride the Lightning or Master of Puppets and why don’t they do another one just like those? Those albums are so much more related to the listener and what they were going through at the time. If you listen to Tales…, it gives you a nostalgic feeling. It gives you this feeling of how you were when you heard it and that you miss your old days. It’s really hard to do something that would top what touched these people. The same might not happen to them today because it’s a different time.
It’d be virtually impossible to recreate that exact feeling, sound and atmosphere today. There are different members in the band and it was almost 20 years ago. You’ve all changed as people and musicians.
Yes, exactly. A lot of times what these people don’t understand is that it’s really not a problem making another album like Tales… but that we really can’t touch them with our music anymore because that was that time a long time ago and this is today. The listener has changed so we could never touch them the same way. So they just keep listening to the album because it gives them good feelings and brings back good memories of the old days.
Was the writing process of Circle challenging this time around? Was anything different with the creation of Circle compared to all the others?
The writing and composing of the songs for this one was actually a very, very nice process. We had a lot of ideas beforehand that we knew would sound great once we got into the studio to record the tracks. So we already had a good feeling in the rehearsals. I think we were really prepared when we went into the studio so there wasn’t many challenges. I think the biggest challenge was with Tomi and working with his vocals. I think most of us and Peter beforehand – and we know how he works; he’s an old friend – but I think the challenge was with Tomi and his vocals. Peter is not a clean singer, he’s a growler on his Hypocrisy albums; he doesn’t have a lot of harmonies in his voice. So I think that was the most challenging. But they got some time together and they started to work well and from there it really went smoothly. This is probably the first album we’ve done where Tomi has made a huge, huge impact. His range with his vocals and with his lyrics and the songs are great and (though) it was a challenge, I think he proved to everyone (of that) with his work.
Looking back at the very beginning when you first started the band in 1990, did you ever envision that you’d still be here today having accomplished what you have and how far you’ve all come as artists?
No, no, no. Not with this kind of music. When you first start up a band, it’s just with your friends. You all go to a place and rehearse and then eventually you start to create something. From there you start to prepare and go into a studio to record a demo. When we finally got interest from Relapse Records and they wanted to release our album, it was like a dream come true. I would have been happy back then if we would have split up and said, ‘Okay, we have this band and we released an album [chuckles]. But it’s been pretty amazing, everything that has happened. We just take things step by step. We released Tales… and that became a successful album. We got opportunities to tour abroad and we finally started to operate like a “real” band. We got agents behind us and other people working for us and it’s been amazing. If you compare it to today, as a band we work in the same way but on the other hand there are more and more outsiders working with the band as well. It has become a real company or organization these days.
Amorphis is scheduled to tour all over Europe for the next several months. Are there any plans on coming back to the States?
Yes, definitely. We are still trying to work that out. It’s been too long since we’ve been able to do a proper tour of the United States. I think we really would like to do it with two or three other bands so it would make more sense to do it as a proper (full-length) tour. That’s something that is always in the air and with this new album I really hope we can do a proper North American tour.
Now I’m going to ask you ten quick questions and it’s your job to answer them as quickly as you can.
The best band to ever come from Finland is…?
It has to be Nightwish.
The one city in the world that has the best-looking women is…?
The one thing you always need on tour but you can never get is…?
A woman?! I figured that would be easy considering you’re a rock star!
Who has the better dreadlocks; Tomi or Jeff Walker from Carcass when he had them?
True or false – The best Amorphis song ever written is “Weeper on the Shore”.
Bonus question – What is the best Amorphis song ever written?
I have strong feelings for “My Kantele” because it’s a pretty important song for me.
The best city in the world to play live is…?
Esa Holopainen: Whoa… No comment [laughs].
Norway has its trademark black metal. Sweden has its trademark death metal. Denmark has Mercyful Fate. Finland has…?
What is one city you’d love to play live but so far have never been able to?
Auckland, New Zealand.
Roger Waters or David Gilmour?
Oh that’s a difficult one. As a composer, Roger Waters.
While on tour, what is the hardest to come by – a good shower, good food, or good sleep?
Esa Holopainen: A good night’s sleep.