Dreaded Past: An Interview with Tomi Joutsen of Amorphis

Amorphis are an amazing band. This isn’t really up for debate. They write terrific songs, they have amazing lyrics (particularly if you’re interested in Finnish mythology and history), and their members are all extremely talented. At the same time, however, they’re criminally underrated. Despite releasing critically-acclaimed album after critically-acclaimed album, and despite increasing their fanbase considerably, they don’t get the recognition that they deserve as one of the most important heavy metal bands at the moment.

Having just released Under the Red Cloud, and after celebrating the 20th anniversary of the very influential Tales from the Thousand Lakes, I met with Tomi Joutsen, singer of this amazing band, to discuss not only the new album, but also the recording industry, the band’s history, and lots and lots of hair.

 

(L-R) Jan Rechberger; Santeri Kallio; Tomi Joutsen; Niclas Etelävuori; Tomi Koivusaari; Esa Holopainen Photo: Ville Juurikkala
(L-R) Jan Rechberger; Santeri Kallio; Tomi Joutsen; Niclas Etelävuori; Tomi Koivusaari; Esa Holopainen
Photo: Ville Juurikkala

Metal Blast: One of the most interesting elements of Amorphis are the lyrics. Several of your albums, starting maybe with Far from the Sun, were focused on the Kalevala and Finnish mythology and history. Circle broke that tradition, although still paid a lot of attention to the lyrics, written by Pekka Kainulainen, who is also in charge of the lyrics this time in Under the Red Cloud. Is there a unifying thread behind the songs this time too?
Tomi: There isn’t just one concept on this album. It’s just small stories; they’re about life and nature. Although they’re not taken from the Kalevala, I think that every time Pekka writes lyrics he takes inspiration from it, as well as from old myths and stories.
An important inspiration was Red Cloud, a famous Indian chief; Pekka read a book about him when he was younger, and it was really important for him so he always wanted to put him in his art. Now it was the time.
Still, in my opinion the stories in the album are really Finnish; there are lots of descriptions of nature and of beautiful moments, which makes it a very Finnish album.

MB: Finland and its history and mythology have always played an important role in Amorphis’ music. What do you feel has motivated you, the band, and Pekka, to pay such a homage to your land and your history?
Tomi: I think that it’s a very positive way to be proud of your country. Nowadays it’s really difficult to say that you’re very proud about being from Finland, because people think that you are a racist, a Nazi or something. In a way I can understand it, and I’ve been trying to find some cool ways to show our love for our country. For most of the people in Finland I think it’s cool to wear some jewelry or to have tattoos of patriotic stuff, but for me that’s not quite it. I think that what we’re doing with Amorphis is, I hope, a good way to show people that we are from Finland, that we have a great heritage here, and that we can make great art from our country without being “Nazis”.

MB: I get your point; many bands are painted as Neo-Nazis because they demonstrate a love for their (European) country, saying that they’re happy to be from there, without actually saying anything bad about other countries and cultures! It’s also very nice that with Amorphis you went beyond the traditional constraints of what people imagine Finnish or Scandinavian culture, vikings, Thor, Odin, etc., and actually opened the eyes of your audience to things like the Kalevala, and elements of your culture that they wouldn’t have otherwise encountered.
Tomi: It’s a great thing, and it’s a bonus. Music is the number one thing for us, and then come the lyrics. Nowadays we have found a very good combination between those two elements. We have great composers in the band, and now we have found Pekka, who writes really beautiful lyrics for us. It’s interesting, because Pekka is a little bit older than we are, he’s 60 years old and he isn’t into metal at all, so it’s kind of funny that we can create something unique together. [laughs] It’s amazing.

MB: How do you work with him? You give him the music and then he tries to come up the lyrics for it, or do you first have the stories that he wrote and you create the music?
Tomi: We compose the music and he writes the lyrics, and we don’t know anything about each other when we’re working. We are working individually in that way, and every time I start putting the lyrics into the music it’s amazing how easily I can write lyrics or songs; it’s really weird. Of course, it takes time and effort, and sometimes it’s really stressful, because you don’t know how it’ll be in the end.
I’d like to say that there’s some kind of spiritual connection between us and Pekka, since we share the same kind of Finnish soul [laughs].

Niclas Etelävuori at Wacken 2015
Niclas Etelävuori at Wacken 2015

MB: Well, I read that you guys said that it almost feels like he’s another member of the band. Honestly, it really pays off, because the lyrics to your music have always been great.
Tomi: Yes, and it’s really weird. I was really happy the first time that he worked with us and he was really into the idea of working with a metal band. He’s an artist, and he was really open to new ideas, since this was a totally different thing for him.
Every time he writes something he does it in Finnish, and then we have to translate them into English, which is always really difficult, because in many cases you might lose something when you translate the original. This time we had someone helping us with the translations, Ike Vil, who’s also from the Helsinki metal scene, was the singer in a band called Babylon Whores in the 90’s; he’s also really into the old myths, stories, and occultism, and he also writes lyrics. He is a great guy and was really interesting to work with him. This time it was a bit easier to arrange the music with the lyrics, because he did a really great job with the translations.

MB: Translating is definitely a difficult art, because it isn’t just about going to the dictionary, but also about trying to maintain the same spirit of the original work. Although I obviously don’t know how truthful they are to what Pekka originally wrote, I think that your lyrics definitely work in English, they’re terrific.
Tomi: Thank you, that’s great to hear. Sometimes you have to be, let’s say, creative [laughs] because there just aren’t enough words or lines, and you have to figure out something in the studio. Mostly, however, it’s quite easy; of course, when you’re translating you can also lose the rhythm, so you might have to…

MB: Get a bit creative?
Tomi: [Laughs] Yeah, so to speak. Every time that I listen to the songs straight after the studio, the songs sound a little bit awkward to me, because I’ve been working with the lyrics and the melodies for so many hours, so everything sounds like a big mess. After a couple of weeks, however, after I’ve had a break from the album and go listen to it again, it starts to bloom in my ears.
I’m really glad that we had Jens Bogren as our producer; it’s difficult to imagine recording vocals without a producer, because when you record by yourself it’s like a war inside of your head, all the time. It’s hard to say which was a good take, if the rhythm was OK, if I sang in tune, and stuff like that; it’s great when you have a great producer that you can trust.

MB: Earlier this year I saw your amazing show at Wacken Open Air, where you were celebrating the 20th anniversary of Tales from the Thousand Lakes. While it’s obvious that this was a very important album for Amorphis, it also stands rather far from what you’re doing now with your music; it was much closer to death metal, especially in the vocals, particularly if we compare to your current style, that relies more on clean singing. Considering these changes, how deeply connected to do you feel to that old era of Amorphis?
Tomi: For me Tales from the Thousand Lakes was really important. I was a fan of the band, I bought the album when it was released, and I liked it a lot. It was a really unique album; the sound, the lyrics, and even the cover art, were all amazing. I was so happy to see that we had such a brilliant band coming from Finland, which was a totally new thing.
Of course, when you listen to it now it definitely sounds like it was recorded in the 90’s, but I think that it’s still a very relevant album; the songs are great, and it’s a great combination of old school death metal, doom and really catchy melodies. For me it’s one of the most important albums in death metal, and in Scandinavian metal it might even be the most important, or at least in the top 5.

Tomi performing at Wacken 2015
Tomi performing at Wacken 2015, celebrating Tales from the Thousand Lakes

MB: This time, in Under the Red Cloud, you worked with Jens Bogren as your producer, but before you also worked with Peter Tagtren, and before that wit Marco Hietala. What lead you to change this time?
Tomi: We wanted to do things in a different way. I think that it’s great to challenge the band and to try to find different angles in your music. It was great working with Peter, there weren’t any problems, but he’s also very busy; plus, we had a dream for years of working with Jens Bogren, and this time he was available so it was great. 
Peter spent almost a month with us in Helsinki, Jens also came to Finland, for a couple of days, and both of them liked it a lot. I think that maybe, in the future, it would be possible to work with both guys, since they’re still our friends.

MB: Later in the year you’ll be on tour with Nightwish and Arch Enemy; when you play in a package like that, with bands that appeal to completely different audiences, how do you even prepare your show? Do you assume that, for example, since Nightwish is headlining then the crowd isn’t really there for you and that you have to compensate for that, being more powerful than usual?
Tomi: We have opened for Nightwish a couple of times; it’s not easy, because their fans are a little bit more into melodic stuff, and because of their female singers there might be some people in the audience who, in a way, like more pop-ish metal, no offense [laughs] For us it’s a great opportunity to promote the new album, and that’s why we’re playing there, it’s the most important thing for us as a band. We’ll play as good as we can, that’s all we can do.
Nightwish are the stars of the evening, but we’re be satisfied if we get some new fans, and we hope we’ll be a good opening band; you have to realize that when you are touring with a package like this there’s a headliner, then there’s the second band, and then there’s the opener, and on this tour that’s us.

MB: Well, I discovered Amorphis when I saw you opening for Children of Bodom, and I enjoyed your show more than I enjoyed theirs, so it definitely happens that you get new fans as an opener!
Tomi: That’s great, that’s really great. For us is, of course, easier, because Nightwish are from Finland, and so are we, so I’m pretty sure that everything will work really easily and there won’t be any rock star attitudes… Sometimes there can be some problems if there are some assholes [laughs] but with them there won’t be any problems. It will be a really easy tour for us; we only have to play like 40 minutes and that’s it.
For me, as a singer, it’s great since I can give everything every evening; I don’t have to be worried about the next day, because it’s only 40 minutes. Of course, for the fans it’s really boring that we can only play a few songs, but that’s the deal. We’re really happy that we can open for Nightwish, because they are huge at the moment and these are really big venues with lots of people coming.

MB: Speaking of Nightwish, I recently spoke with Marco Hietala, and we discussed how the label releases a lot of studio updates, album trailers, interviews, etc. While these are things that come from the industry, trying to keep the attention of the fans, Marco mentioned that he would have preferred to do a little bit less of it, because maybe they’re taking away a bit of the mystery. Considering that you’ve also been in the business for quite some time, how do you feel about this new necessity of having to put out all of these things via the label to create buzz and expectation before an album?
Tomi: It doesn’t feel natural for us, because we are old guys [laughs] and the world is totally different from how it was when we started to play. I’ve been in Amorphis for only 10 years, but before I was playing in local bands too, so I kind of know how it was 20 years ago.
Nowadays it is important to do it; kids are on the Internet all the time, so for them it’s of course great if they get a lot of information, but for me, as an artist, it’s kind of stressful, it doesn’t feel natural. It feels stupid to speak English to a camera [laughs] it would be easier to speak Finnish, but I have to do it in English and it feels really awkward. I really hate to see some videos where I’m talking [laughs] I’m trying to be a little bit more active now… I’m on Instagram, that’s my channel. I put some photos there, and I like it because I don’t have to write anything, I can just put photos, and that’s fine with me. I understand that you need to have some kind of channel through which you can engage with the fans.
As for what Marco said; it’s true, there isn’t that much magic or mystic behind the bands anymore, because there are always updates coming. For me, as a fan, I don’t really need that kind of thing; if I follow a band for me it’s enough to know if there is a new album coming up or if they’re going to play soon. If I want to dig deeper I can buy the record or do some research, I don’t need any updates. Kids are living in a different world now, so I think that it might be necessary to do that.

MB: Before you go, there are a couple of things I really wanted to know. First, how did you come up with your microphone?
Tomi: A friend did it; we had some ideas, and 6 or 7 years ago he made the first version. Now that microphone is in my town’s museum [laughs] I gave it to them, because they wanted to have something, and I’m really honored by it.
I’m now using the second version of my microphone; I have heard that it looks “steampunk”, but I didn’t know anything about that style when we started coming up with it. I just wanted to have something unique, with lots of steel, since I wanted to really feel the microphone (it’s quite heavy), and some Finnish wood, which is great. I wanted to have a military, dirty look, and that’s how it came up.
It’s a challenge for our sound guy, because he has to put all the electronics inside, and he’s been working with many different models, but I think now we have the perfect one. I don’t remember what’s inside, but now it works pretty well.

MB: Finally, as a photographer, one of the really cool things about shooting Amorphis, besides being a fan of the band, was that your long dreadlocks looked amazing when you were headbanging… but you don’t have them anymore!
Tomi: [Laughs]

MB: I obviously noticed it when I saw you in Wacken and, well, it’s a silly question, but why did you choose to cut it off?
Tomi: I think it was about time; I had those dreads for like 15 years. During the winter time it’s OK, but if you’re doing sports like running or swimming… you can do it, but it’s not that comfortable. During the summer, it gets really hot, you’re sweating all the time, it’s really dirty. I mean, it’s OK, it’s not a problem, but I just got tired. It was a big relief, it’s really taking a weight off your shoulders.
It was a nice thing to do, although I don’t know if it was the right thing to do [laughs]. After I cut it I was like “OK… what now?” I wasn’t completely happy with it, so we’ll see what happens in the future.
I’m trying to grow a long hair again but, well, I’m 40, so it’s not that easy anymore [laughs] But I’m trying, we’ll see what happens!

Tomi's former hair
Tomi’s former hair at Dokk’em Open Air (the Netherlands)

MB: You know, if you kept them, they could go next to your microphone in the museum!
Tomi: Well, they are in the trash [laughs]

MB: Thank you very much for your time Tomi, I’ll see you soon.
Tomi: Thank you man, take care!

  • great singer, amazing band! Love Amorphis for their musical talent and their ability to constantly come up with brilliant stuff. Under the Red Cloud is simply amazing and I can’t wait to see them opening for Nightwish in Amsterdam… I’m not even sure which of the bands will be highlight of the evening as I like both 🙂

    • J_MetalBlast

      I’m happy to see you enjoyed the interview; thanks for stopping by! 🙂

  • What a great interview. Didn’t knew the lyrical content about the Red Cloud chief, gotta research! 🙂