Enter Ratkind: An Interview With Marco Hietala

Marco Hietala‘s entrance into Nightwish, before the release of their critically acclaimed 2002 album Century Child, was a turning point for the band. His voice, the high-pitched growl-like singing, gave the band a whole new depth, and allowed to them to reach a level that, in all likelihood, would not have been possible without him. His abilities, which he demonstrated plenty with his band Tarot, both as a musician and as a songwriter, were a great addition to the symphonic style of Nightwish, and gave the band a darker and heavier tone, which I personally love.

I met with Marco during the Amsterdam listening session for their upcoming album Endless Forms Most Beautiful. A truly bizarre experience where you’re sitting in front of the artists, listening to their album, silently making judgments on the work they’ve put their sweat and tears into. For a musician, that must be awkward as hell.

This whole thing would be impossible without the fans

Photo by Ville Akseli Juurikkala
Photo by Ville Akseli Juurikkala

MB: Endless Forms Most Beautiful represents a new chapter for the band, as it is your first work without Jukka in drums and, of course, your first work with Floor as the official singer. At the same time, some see it as an opportunity for Nightwish to return to form, due to Floor‘s lyrical abilities in regards to opera.
Marco:
She has a very versatile sound, and she can almost do anything with her voice. We didn’t really do a lot of the operatic things in the album; there are only or two places on the album where that comes across. We tried a lot of different things, simply because it was possible to do it.
There’s a big scope of things, also vocal-wise, where you go from really soft ethereal things into really big and loud things. It’s easy to do it when you’re in a band where you have musicians who are capable of that.

MB: Since joined Nightwish you have also participated in the songwriting. How does this process change with every different singer?
Marco:
It doesn’t really change that much, because the basic things, how you write the music, the melodies and the lyrics, stay the same; they have their own life. It is the vocalist who then goes through them to give them their own personality and let shine through whatever the lyrics and the story have to say.
Of course, you have to keep in mind what is the actual range of the vocalist, and operate within those boundaries.

MB: Considering the connection that people develop with Nightwish, are there many concerns about fans liking a new singer whenever a change happens?
Marco: 
Yeah; during the times of Dark Passion Play there was this burden of proof that we had to meet; we had to prove that the band wasn’t just one face and one voice, but we managed to do that at the time. It went well; the album sold well, we did an extensive tour, etc. We proved our point then, so now everybody takes it more easily. If you do this kind of thing once, you can do it again.
It also seems to be that the backlash from the fans has been really minimal; they seem to have taken to the idea of Floor singing with us really well, so there was no problem.
Back when we split with Tarja I thought about Floor as a replacement, I think Tuomas did too, but After Forever were doing quite well, they were all friends, and so we didn’t have the heart to ask her. This time around we first needed someone that could finish the tour with us, and so we thought about calling her. As the tour went on we realized that we really didn’t need to fix something that wasn’t broken, and just needed to find the proper time to ask her to join us permanently.

MB: Going into Endless Forms Most Beautiful; how do you feel it compares to Imaginaerum. I felt that it had a lot of Danny Elfman vibes in it..
Marco: 
You might be right in that…
The attitude of doing a lot of versatile things and trying a lot of styles, well, that was already there in Imaginaerum. I feel that this time around, however, the songs, the music itself, is more compacted, in the sense that although it’s still very cinematic at times, there’s more of a band-vibe. This is the result of how we rehearsed and arranged everything during the 6 weeks we had for it; it was a very open-minded, “free for all” situation. If somebody had an idea they could just present it, and we’d try things out; the way in which we put the structures together was very democratic. We found ourselves sticking to the essentials and dropping all the useless stuff.
Another different thing in recording this album was that from the rehearsals we moved straight on into recording the album, because we built a studio in the same place we rehearsed. This also managed to transfer this energetic “band vibe” into the album.

MB: How was that process? I’ve heard about a “summer camp experience”…
Marco: 
That was a big part of it; we did really long days, a lot of thinking, listening and talking about what we were doing. With this energy that we had going on it was all really painless; we were doing things until late in the evening, then when someone got tired we’d just go out, light up the campfire, warm up the sauna, jump into the lake, talk about all kinds of things, and listen to some different kinds of music. Some guys would drink a lot of beer and… [laughs] well, it was a really good and relaxing time for everyone.

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Photo by Ville Akseli Juurikkala

MB: An interesting episode of the recording process was the appearance of Richard Dawkins. He’s not the kind of guy that I would have expected would show up to a metal recording. How did that end up happening?
Marco: 
There are these evolutionary wonders that are, well, pretty evident in some of the lyrics. Tuomas had been reading Dawkins‘ books for quite some time already, and since there was stuff he was already writing about, he sent Richard a handwritten letter, and he replied within a couple of weeks. He thought this sounded interesting, even though he had never heard about the band before.
So far, although Richard has done a lot of public appearances, in the entertainment business he had only been once in The Simpsons…  and now he’s on a Nightwish album, so it’s a quote a nice honor.

MB: Recording was done in Finland and London, right?
Marco: 
In London we worked with the London Symphony Orchestra (well, a big part of it), the Metro Voices Choir, and people who were doing different kinds of percussions and children choirs. Almost all the band parts were recorded at “the summer camp”, so that was quite well thought-of already. 
When Tuomas has these orchestral things he also has them first as an electronic demo, and so when you’re playing in the band you know how to behave before the orchestras are actually added.

MB: You came from Tarot, a very straighforward heavy metal band, and moved to this very cinematic, larger than-life project (particularly so in the last few years). How was it for you to switch from this direct approach to this other style? Because I’m guessing we won’t be seeing Tarot with a children’s choir anytime soon.
MI: 
Probably not! [laughs] We did do a couple of shows with a real choir, but it was just for a couple of summer festivals. As musical styles go though, I’m no stranger to either approach; I’m a big fan of 70’s hard rock and prog rock, and so I like these more  unorthodox song structures since they give you a lot of freedom to express yourself just the way you want to. This is the most important thing for me when making music.

MB: I was sad to see that your voice isn’t as prominent in Endless Forms Most Beautiful as it was in previous albums.
Marco: 
There are only a few lead pieces with my voice, but no whole songs. A lot of people commented that I wasn’t singing that much, which although is true in the surface, if you listen to the choruses you’ll see that Floor is doing the leads while I’m doing the harmonies.
If we talk about the amount of singing, there’s probably more in this album than ever before, but it’s just not so apparent.

MB: Would you have preferred to sing more?
Marco: 
I don’t really think in those terms. I like singing, of course, so I have no problem if there’s a song where it fits, but this time around I felt the songs sounded better the way they are now. My attitude about the band is that, whatever we do, we have to first serve the song, and then serve the band.
With Floor we actually found out, while we were still on tour, that when we put these harmonies together we have a really powerful mix. The same when we do things in unison. They sound quite impressive.

Nightwish Elan

MB: Élan, the first single of this album, was leaked before the release. You were all very disappointed about it, obviously; do you think that nowadays this is just inevitable?
MB: 
There’s a very big chance that it will happen, yes, but there’s always the hope that it won’t. You plan things in a certain way, so that they will have a really big impact; you manage to create an expectation which will be fulfilled for everyone at the same time… like a goddamn little Christmas! But then somebody, who doesn’t really care about it at all, who doesn’t give a shit about any of that, or who doesn’t respect the people’s expectations, or our expectations, goes and leaks it… yeah, it’s a disappointment.

MB: It’s happening to everyone, sadly.
Marco: 
You still hope that people will actually learn to actually care about things. This is a thing that is planned for quite a lot of people, so it’s not just my disappoint, but that of a lot of people.If there’s one thing that is causing trouble all around the world it’s the innate greed that we all have; that if we are able to take something that nobody else has… Take the case of Crimea in Ukraine, or anything to do with extreme religious or political regimes, it’s all about getting the money and power, getting stuff, from people, without basically giving anything good back. It’s a sorry attitude.

MB: But considering the limited amount of people who got it, and that our promos are watermarked, you should be able to pinpoint who did the leak anyway, right?
Marco: 
Whenever you have more than two people together you can’t keep secrets, and so these things always find a way.

MB: This also goes back to a big change in the music industry that has happened in the last few years. During the recording of Endless Forms Most Beautiful there were a lot of “studio updates” and “trailers”, things that bands just didn’t do before. Nowadays it seems like bands see a need to stay connected to their fans, maybe to stay relevant or in order to not be forgotten, amid all the bands out there.
Marco: 
The competition is really hard, so that has changed things. In my opinion, we could have done less trailers, making ofs and all that; however, at the same time, this is something that we do so that we can have control, because the people with whom we did them are familiar to us. We don’t have to go through anybody else in order to do them, so I think it’s a good way to present the band because we have total control of what it says and what it gives out from us, especially when it shows us as we are.

MB: Do you feel that now there’s just too much pressure on bands to do this kind of thing?
Marco: 
It’s just a sign of the times. I’d be pleased if you could keep things mysterious.
It’s also about competition and survival; you want to market your things as best as possible. At the same time, however, I think that we have a really great and loyal fanbase, so I’m not even sure that we really needed to do these things.

MB: I understand that there is probably some “pressure” or “advice” from the label regarding doing these things.
Marco:
Well, as long as we are paying for the album ourselves, we don’t have to cave in to the rules of mainstream music; we don’t have to take any instructions from record labels regarding how to present the music. As long as we have that luxury, I stay out of the marketing side.
The music business, booking tours, etc., is a logistical hazard. If I tried to control all of that I’d just go mad.

MB: Did you try to do it with Tarot?
Marco: 
There was a time when I was responsible for booking some buses, making sure that people were on schedule, etc. I got fed up within a year; I’m not going back to that. Everything changes day by day; there’s always chaos, and nothing stays the same from one day to another. It’s a tremendous mental pressure to be working with that load. I have the greatest possible respect for tour managers, and I’d never do that myself.

MB: You’re not known for putting crazy things on your rider?
Marco: 
Nah… Whenever possible, I just like to have various fruits, salads and yogurt every day. [laughs]

MB: Since you mentioned the issue of tours being chaotic… something that I see a lot is the absolute insanity that you often get at your hotels with your fans, trying to get close to you etc. How was it for you when you started with Nightwish, and suddenly encountered this? For Anette Olzon things were apparently pretty crazy when she joined.
Marco: 
When I joined Century Child was coming out at the end of spring, and so we just went in and did summer festivals. I was flying into places where I was in front of huge crowds, and I thought it was cool. Then we did our first tour together, which was in South America… and there people are wild. Security people are making sure you can get to your van, and you have fans yelling and banging on the windows of your van… it was a weird feeling to be suddenly inside of that thing.
I wasn’t really scared of that though; it just showed that those people were really enthusiastic about what we do, and that’s just great. It’s a band making music, presenting it to the fans, and them buying the albums, coming to the shows… we are able to provide an escape from mundane things to people, which is important. I have a lot of respect for the fans as well, because it’s all about this interaction between what we provide for them, and what they provide for us. This whole thing would be impossible without them.

MB: And considering the size of the band, how has it been for you to juggle your position in Nightwish with your own family life?
Marco: 
Well, I’m no wonder for my kids [laughs] I think that now that they’re getting to their teens they’re trying to keep a lid on the fact that their dad is a “rock star”. It’s not a big deal for them. When I’m at home I just try to make sure there’s food in the fridge and clean laundry.

MB: But do you still get stopped in Finland when people recognize you?
Marco: 
Sometimes, but it’s not a big thing in my hometown. People are used to me, which is a really good thing, because I wouldn’t like to be a small-town celebrity. I like to live my life as it is, and then there’s this hellraiser side of me which I let loose when I get on stage.

MB: Speaking of raising hell… it’s been a while since we saw any new material from Tarot, are we going to see anything new, or is it just impossible because of Nightwish?
Marco: 
It’s not impossible…. during the break that we had with Nightwish we were supposed to make a new album; we were able to lay down a couple of demos, some riffs, some lyrics… but there was just too much going on for many people in Tarot. A couple of them have their own jobs, musical or otherwise, and so the timing didn’t work.
Maybe by the end of 2016, when things with Nightwish start to wind down, we’ll have to get together and start working on those unfinished songs. I think that there’s a lot of good stuff there as well, so I hope we can make it.

MB: I certainly hope so! Thank you very much for your time, and see you on tour.
Marco: 
Thank you!

  • Mihel

    Back when we split with Tarja I thought about Floor as a replacement, I think Tuomas did too, but After Forever were doing quite well, they were all friends, and so we didn’t have the heart to ask her.

    Holy shit, Dark Passion Play and Imaginaerum could have been sung by Floor since the very beginning?

    By the way, a shame that Marco vocals are almost absent in the new album. Some tracks lacked power.