The Greatest Show on Earth – An Interview with Troy Donockley of Nightwish

To look at the history of Nightwish is to look at a history of maturation and change. Although it is true that some of the elements that were present in their 1997 debut Angels Fall First continue to this day, and can even be heard in their 2015 album Endless Forms Most Beautiful, significant changes have affected the sound, the style and even the philosophy behind the band. Perhaps most importantly, they’ve gone from being a niche band, appealing to goth teens with a passion for operatic stylings, to becoming one of the most important bands in heavy metal today.

One of the changes that had a significant impact on Nightwish was the addition of Troy Donockley to their line-up. It wasn’t only that his background was completely different to that of the band, which allowed them to tread new grounds in their music, but also that he allowed them add new sounds and depths to their catalog. The larger-than-life experience that Nightwish were aiming to create, was thus facilitated by his inclusion.


MB: Troy, thank you very much for joining me. How are you doing today?
Troy Donockley:Very well! How are you? How’s the weather over there?

MB: It’s shit, of course.
T: [laughs] It’s grim here! It’s freezing cold and we’ve had massive storms. It’s just awful.I do like the wildness of it though. Then again, I spent the last 18 months travelling around glorious countries like Chile, Argentina and Japan, Australia… nice hot places, so probably if I had been here for the last 2 years, stuck in this weather, I’d be a bit different in my opinion.

MB: Speaking about traveling around the world… Although you’ve been officially with Nightwish since 2013, you’ve been with the band, in one capacity or another, since 2007’s Dark Passion Play. In very general terms, tell me about your experience with Nightwish, particularly considering that your background was much closer to folk rock, and then found yourself in a band that, at least within this area of heavy metal, is one of the largest.
T: It’s a curious situation in which I found myself in 2013. Sure, Dark Passion Play was my introduction to symphonic metal; although I’ve always been into folk and folk rock music, when I was a youngster I was heavily into progressive rock, so I was into a lot of Pink Floyd and Led Zeppelin (a lot of the things that my dear friend Marco Hietala was into!), some the early kind of hard rock stuff.
I didn’t see this coming, this thing of joining Nightwish as a full time member, because I thought that since I play a Celtic instrument there’s only so much you can do. But then it became clear that the complexion, the landscape, was starting to change within the band. On the Imaginaerum tour things started to change; not only did we have cataclysmic problems (that thankfully are in the past now)…

MB: You mean the departure of Anette Olzon?
T: Yeah, all the stuff that happened in America. It was a terrible, terrible time. Through sheer love of playing together, we managed to kind of navigate through that problem. I didn’t expect to join the band, but it was that change within the band in that tour, and the new direction that the band was taking, that made me realize that my true musical self could flower within the band, as a multi-instrumentalist, not just as a guy who plays pipes and whistles. I play lots of instruments, so I found myself in this tour, the Endless Forms Most Beautiful tour, playing electric guitar on four songs, electric bouzouki on 3 songs, I’m doing lots of backing vocals; these are all things that will only increase as the band moves forward, so I could see that this was more interesting for me, but that it also gave the band more colors for the palette, with lots of different musical flavors being added to this already sumptuous feast of a band.
Because of all of this, when they asked me to join I had no hesitation, because I felt like I was part of the family. I mean I felt that I was part of Nightwish years ago, because we all share a similar attitude towards music, towards the joys and misery of touring, so we have a very easy working relation. To put it simply, we all love being around each other and we have a fantastic time together.
I joined and I’ve had the most fantastic three years since I became an official member, and let’s see what happens in the future.  We intend to do a lot more; it has been a wonderful thing for Emppu and me to bring two electric guitars into the band, so that opens up lots of possibilities for some of the older materials with twin guitars and the guitars harmonies.
What I’m trying to say is that it’s also very exciting. We’re also very happy with the state of the band at the moment, hence our new DVD being called Vehicle of Spirit…

MB: I appreciate the subtle segue into the DVD there… well done.
T: Good, good. [laughs]

MB: Perhaps this is a bit of a bizarre question but, because of your different musical background, do you feel that, in a way, you are “playing a part” in Nightwish? Or do you feel really represented by the kind of symphonic metal that they play?
T: I think that you are absolutely right. I think that your first observation there is correct. There are changes going in Nightwish, and I’m definitely part of those changes. We all introduce each other to different types of music. I was introduced to symphonic metal by Nightwish; I had never heard of them before I went to their session in London. I had heard of them through Pip Williams, the guy who does the orchestrations, since he sent me a copy of Once, wanting me to check them out because he thought I might like them since I’m into progressive rock. I thought that the idea of “symphonic metal” didn’t sound like my kind of thing.

MB: Or close to progressive rock at all!
T: I know! [laughs]

MB: “I know you like King Crimson… so check out Nightwish” is kind of a weird thing
T: [laughs] It is! But to me there’s a connection in their honesty, fearlesness, and in not being scared to experiment. King Crimson and Nightwish… there’s a lot more in common than not, in the sense that King Crimson don’t care about what people think. They don’t write the music for anyone, they do it because they have to. In Nightwish we are not pressured into singles or into trying to rehash the same stuff all the time. It’s not like the record companies are constantly pressing us for more demos. We generally do what we want.
Nightiwsh taught me a lot. It was through my friend Tuomas that I discovered lots of interesting, left-of-field stuff. And vice versa! I’ve introduced him to lots and lots of really-left-of-field stuff from the areas that I was interested in as a kid. Some progressive music but also some progressive folk rock music and stuff like that. We bounce off each other, and the same applies to all the members of the band. We spend a lot of time on planes, and I’ve showed stuff to Kai on my iPod, and he then wants to get that stuff too.

MB: So there’s  sort of cultural exchange between the members.
T: Yeah, that’s the way to put it.

MB: I think it has gone beyond just the musical aspect though. I think, philosophically, you also found yourself a nice group with Jukka and Tuomas in regards to secularism.
T: Well said. It’s really quite deep. Our friendship has been fired by these ideas; these in-depth discussions about these subjects. Because we are such close friends, we have no egos, no axes to grind, nothing to assert to each other; we just like to talk with each other. The whole philosophical side of things that you mentioned, well, that just naturally comes when you’re with your best friends for a long time, and especially if you’re sitting in hotel rooms with some fine wine, really good books and you’ve got access to the Internet. You can watch fantastic footage of the lights of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins on Youtube, or you can watch Carl Sagan‘s Cosmos. This is something that has compounded into the whole thing during the last 3 years.

(L-R) Emppu, Jukka, Troy, Richard Dawkins, Tuomas

MB: Speaking of Dawkins, one of the interesting things about Vehicle of Spirit, your new DVD, is that it captures, among others, the Wembley Arena performance, where Richard Dawkins actually delivered some of the narration he did in the album Endless Forms Most Beautiful. How did the collaboration come to be?
T: Let’s backtrack to Jukka, Tuomas and I, sitting in a hotel room in New Zealand, with a bottle of fine shiraz wine, talking about the book The Magic of Reality, by Richard Dawkins (as well as The God Delusion and The Selfish Gene). We watched a couple of his lectures, and I stupidly, after we had drank a few glasses of wine and said that it would be wonderful to have him in the new album, decided to promise that I would find him and get him. Of course, I woke up the next morning wondering “what have I done?! What have I said!?” 
I had to go on a quest, a holy quest, to find Richard Dawkins. It was like Finding Nemo, just not as watery and fishy.

MB: It was surprising, considering that Dawkins does not seem to be particularly interested in popular culture. I remember when Bill Maher and Sam Harris argued with Ben Affleck about the Islam issue, Dawkins eventually commented that he had no idea who he was, so I can’t imagine him going “Nightwish? Fuck yes! Let’s do this shit!”
T: We discovered later the similarities with the Ben Affleck situation in regards to music. He had no idea. When we were recording him, just outside of Oxford, he said something like “the orchestras sound very good.” I told him that our orchestrator, Pip Williams, had worked in lots of stuff, like The Moody Blues’ Nights in White Satin and stuff like that, and he looked completely bland. He had never heard of them. He had never heard of Pink Floyd or anything. He knows The Beatles, and he knows Elvis.
I think it became crystal clear how bamboozled he was by the whole thing when he walked on that stage in Wembley, because he didn’t realize how big this world of symphonic metal really is. I think that he really enjoyed it, he loved doing the show, but he was a bit shellshocked by the whole thing, he did not expect it. He was really touched by the roar from the crowd; of course, it’s the biggest crowd he has ever played to.
Tuomas and I wrote a letter to him, and sent it via a keyboardist friend of mine, who had a friend who would deliver some furniture to Richard Dawkins‘ house. [laughs] It sounds like we’re a pair of stalkers.

MB: It sounds super creepy dude.
T: It sounds really creepy! [laughs] Like Tuomas, Jukka and me sat outside his house trying to get a glimpse of him, but it wasn’t like that at all.

MB: I’m not judging, man.
T: You better not! [laughs] We thought that was the only way to get him, since he probably wouldn’t pay attention to an email sent to his website, that wouldn’t work. So, by chance, we happened to have this friend who got his address, and we sent him that letter.
We didn’t get a reply for weeks, so we thought that we’d have to forget the idea altogether. Then I spoke with my friend, who told me that Richard is a really nice guy so that I should send him another letter. We did, and then we got a reply. It turns out that his personal secretary is a Nightwish fan, that was really fortunate. He’s a good friend to the band now, and when he saw Richard reading the letter, he told him that he should do this. He liked the tenor of our letter, he said that he was really touched by its wording, and that he was intrigued. Now he’s a bit of a fan. He loves the album, and it was roaring success all around. Sure enough, at Wembley we were really like fanboys having him on stage with us. It was a pivotal moment for the band.

Photo: Ville Akseli Juurikkala

MB: I remember that when it was announced that he’d have this role in the album, and then when you and Tuomas did the “Openly Secular” video, some people were quite bothered by it. Did you notice any sort of backlash during the show itself; either people leaving, booing, etc.?
T: I’m glad to report that nobody left. Once the controversy died down people started to realize that we didn’t get Richard Dawkins to bash religion, but because he’s one of the world’s top evolutionary scientists, and the album is about the beauty of science and reason.

MB: That might be true, but some of the parts that he narrates in the book are anti-religious sections from his Unweaving the Rainbow book, about how the beauty of the world doesn’t need this supernatural explanation.
T: I believe that strongly too. I am an atheist; actually, I’m beyond that, I don’t even acknowledge the word. Of course, we acknowledge Dawkins for his views on this. The God Delusion is a seminal book.

MB: Together with A Letter to a Christian Nation by Sam Harris, I think that it marked the beginning of a more open atheism in the 21st Century. It catapulted into the mainstream.
T: It made non-belief in god less terrible. It made it more acceptable. Let’s face it; we’ve believed for centuries, and that has been the keystone of our civilization, so for Dawkins, Hitches and Sam Harris to come out and talk about it was a major cultural shift.  We were all excited by this part, but also about the science, excited about Carl Sagan‘s writings, his series, the works of David Attenborough, all of that.
When it came to the controversial aspects of that, with the recording of Richard Dawkins, we didn’t expect to get such venom from some quarters. Some people were like they were going to burn all of their albums!

MB: As you do…
T: Right! I thought it was a very fascist response, so we can do without those kinds of fans. We don’t need those kind of people. In general though, we’ve had a marvelous response. People have said that through Endless Forms Most Beautiful they’ve discovered fantastic books on evolution and science. We’ve had lots of frustrated Christians coming out and saying that the album has helped them to come out and shake that stuff off, thanking us for bringing it to them. Also, in that Openly Secular video, nowhere in there do we bash god explicitly. It’s about accepting the world as it is, instead of using supernatural.

MB: I really enjoyed Endless Forms Most Beautiful, and as a person with no faith whatsoever, I didn’t have any problems with the secular aspects of it. I sincerely don’t care. However, did you feel that when you present a message like that you can come off as preachy? I mean, the secularism in the album was just as “subtle” as the Christianism of Nightwish in 1997, with the song “The Carpenter”, ostensibly about Jesus Christ. Both can come off as quite preachy.
T: That’s a valid and astute observation. They do appear like that if that’s the way you want to approach them. To us, at the time, when we were constructing the album, we were just excited. Not about isolating people, or upsetting Christian fans or believing fans-

MB: That’s not what I said at all.
T: I’m not saying that you do. But we did get a lot of responses, but only until the album came out. Then we didn’t have any more negatives responses, because I think those people were expecting Richard Dawkins to be on the Nightwish album going “God doesn’t exist. You’re all insane. You’re all lunatics if you believe in fairies!” Of course, he didn’t. [laughs] If what we had was him saying beautiful, universal things, statements of universal beauty and love, you couldn’t criticize them. It wasn’t explicit atheism; it was humanism, universalism. And that’s what comes out, for me, from facing the world and life as they really are.

MB: Having said all of this, I think it’s great that this secularism is actually put out. In metal you have a bizarre thing, where it is OK to bash religion, it’s OK to have any kind of insane, Satanic, misanthropic message, but you don’t really see a lot of acceptance towards “Nope, I don’t really believe in anything. That’s it.”
T: [laughs] You’re absolutely right. It’s a bizarre paradox that’s rife in the scene. You can get the most terrible misogyny, and ludicrous satanic nonsense, but nobody really cares. Attack something that is mainstream, and you put yourself over the parapet.

MB: I think it’s not so much about the attack against religion, but the lack of religion that weirds people out. I think that it doesn’t have a clear niche in music, so it was nice to see Nightwish tackle that.
T: I’m glad that you did, and we’ve had similar responses from other educated people. That they can see the difference, that it isn’t a gimmick. It isn’t a naked woman sprawled over some tombstone covered in blood.

MB:… You could combine the two though.
T: We will on the next album, that’s our plan! [laughs] No, we took the thing very seriously, from the standpoint of excitement and exhilaration. We were, and still are, exhilarated by this subject, and we will continue to be as well. It’s a life change.

MB: I think it’s also nice to see the plasticity of the members of Nightwish. Right now Marco and Floor, for example, participate in Raskasta Joulua, the Christmas concert in Finland. It’s nice to see that, on the one hand, they don’t entrench themselves within the philosophy of Nightwish and, on the other, that art can be separated from whatever personal beliefs anybody might have.
T: Absolutely! But, don’t forget, me and Tuomas are huge Christmas fans. We love to sing Christmas hymns, we love to sing about baby Jesus, we love all that. We love the whole yuletide experience. Just because you don’t believe in supernatural beings doesn’t mean you can’t enjoy culture, especially an old, ancient ritual. There’s nothing like walking in a church that’s candle-lit, listening to a choir singing. It’s a beautiful, life-enhancing thing. It’s part of our world, and that’s a wonderful thing.
You can listen to the soundtrack to Superman or to The Lord of the Rings, without having to believe that those people are real to love those soundtracks. I love choral religious music. I love to hear the masses, but I also love the music from Star Wars, and that’s just as fictional as the Bible.

MB: Well, it’s an essential part of Western culture, the same way that a call to prayer from a Minaret is part of Arabic culture. You can separate the art from the people behind it or from the philosophy. That is, of course, not to mention that a lot of religious music is the result of the fact that for a long time that was the only music that would pay the bills.
T: Precisely, and that’s the humanistic way of looking at it. The music exists separate from the faith; people might say that Haydn made The Creation through his faith, but I think the music itself is despite the faith. It’s the same as a call to prayer. It sounds beautiful, and I’ve heard it in Jordan, I’ve heard it in the streets, and it does sound beautiful, even though the message behind it is deeply pernicious and malignant. The music itself, the sound is evocative and beautiful, and that cannot be simply discarded.
The same applies to all music, and that’s how music as an art form transcends the culture itself from which it comes.

MB: I think that this is precisely what you get to see in a Nightwish show, and which those who haven’t had the chance to do it will be able to do with this DVD. I think that the inspiration that you gathered from nature, from science, creating this beautiful music, this beautiful stage show, is just really evident there. And it shows how beautiful art comes not just from religious inspiration.
T: That was a lovely review, and I really appreciate it. That’s what we intend to do, that’s our raison d’etre, our drive. Not only to seek out freedom and happiness within ourselves and within our band, but also to convey this excitement of this love and this life to our wonderful fans who love what we do. Endless Forms Most Beautiful is precisely that, and it spills into our fans. You know why it’s called Vehicle of Spirit, of course.

MB: Actually, I have no idea.
T: That’s great! Because then I get to tell you! [laughs]

MB: You absolutely should!
T: Back in the Imaginaerum tour we were playing in Los Angeles, and I invited a friend of mine. He’s a keyboardist who, at the time, was playing with Joe Cocker, the legendary blues singer. I invited him along to see it, and he was curious to see what I was up to. He was expecting a straightforward metal band; he was expecting the star of Astaroth and the naked woman covered in blood kind of stuff. He was came to us after the show visibly shocked, saying that he didn’t expect what he saw. He didn’t expect the subtlety within the band, the intricacy of some of the music, the symphonic elements of it. He came to it cold, he had no idea what we were doing, he only knew that I was on it. He later sent me an email, just fanatical about how wonderful the night had been, and he described the connection between us on stage was like no other band he had ever seen. He could sense something coming from the people, and he called us “a vehicle of spirit that defies category.” That was the most beautiful bunch of words.  When I told Tuomas about it he kind of flipped out on how beautiful it was too.
We used the phrase “Vehicle of Spirit” on the back of a t-shirt on the Imaginaerum tour, but it kind of stayed there. When were looking for a title for this DVD, something that would express how we all feel, the way we all are at this point in time within the band, and “Vehicle of Spirit” had to be it. Also, it describes us as a band, but it also describes the fans as well. It’s a lovely title.

MB: In regards to the fans you’re definitely right. I’ve been a metal fan all of my life, and I’ve been writing about metal music for about 5 or 6 years now, and I think Nightwish fans are incredibly devoted. I mean, surprisingly so. I think that there’s a big connection that they feel with the music and the lyrics, and that they feel it represents them to a very deep level.
T: We see evidence of this constantly when we’re on tour. The wonderful thing about Nightwish fans, and you’ve touched on it there, is that they do go deep into it. As a result, they take it very seriously, but are also very respectful towards us. We don’t tend to get too many psychopathic fans.

MB: TOO many. We keep it on the low digits.
T: [laughs] You can count them on a millipedes feet!
We have a fantastic connection with the fans, and we do the meet and greets when we’re on tour. They bring us gifts. They’re really sensitive people who are engaged with every aspect of the band, but not in a weird, creepy way, but in a very sweet way. They are part of the vehicle of spirit. We’re very lucky on that respect.

Photo: Timo Isoaho

MB: Now, by and large there’s no doubt that the vast majority of fans are just amazing, loving people. Having said that, I spoke with Floor Jansen a few years ago and she said that sometimes it does get weird that sometimes people get a false sense of closeness with you because of social media, etc. So, they have you in front of them and think they’re your friend.
That’s taking it too extremes, but it does happen a lot, especially with social media. You can get a lot troll-types who take it as a rejection if you don’t answer them personally, because they believe that they’ve made a connection with them, so that you are their personal friend. That isn’t healthy at all, but we have seen it a lot. Still, when it comes to the hardcore fans, the fans who are in it for the music, we tend to get less of that. We tend to have lots more respect and balance from those fans.
It is a bit disconcerting when you get screaming nutters on the internet being offended at something that you might have said, and who are distraught that you don’t believe everything that they believe in.

MB: Or that you didn’t acknowledge them. I’m a photographer, and I’m always surprised when I post photos of Floor or Alyssa White Gluz of Arch Enemy (who gets a lot of creepy people), and I see fans of them talking about them in really bizarre ways. Like “she’s my goddess,” “I follow everything she does,” “why didn’t my goddess acknowledge me?” Dude, you need help.
T: They really do!

MB: I was photographing Wacken Open Air earlier this year, and I remember there was this couple at the front of the main stage when Tarja Turunen was playing; you know, the people who follow her around from show to show… and I just thought “If Tarja ever dies, I know who did it!” It’s creepy!
T: [laughs] You find yourself in a cellar hanging upside down with tape over your mouth because you never answered their email.

MB: Troy, it has been a real pleasure talking to you today. I hope everyone will go out and buy Vehicle of Spirit which, believe it or not, was I think supposed to be the topic of our conversation today.
T: I’m sure you can do some judicious editing.

MB: I’ll just stick to mentioning you love baby jesus, you have sociopathic fans and that you think that the Islamic call to prayer carries a horrible, pernicious message. I was planning to concentrate on those 3 bullet points.
T: Please concentrate on that. Make sure the title is “Troy Donockley of Nightwish thinks god is an idiot”

MB: And loves jesus and hates muslims…
T: Yes, “hates Allah, but LOVES jesus”

MB: Make Finland Great Again
[laughs] Have a splendid Christmas.

MB: Merry Christmas and a happy new year to you too.
T: Hopefully I’ll see you down the road somewhere. Do come over and say hello to us.

MB: I’ll join all the sociopaths and try to get into the backstage, no worries.
T: And I’ll pretend I’ve never heard of you.


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  • Óðinn

    Nightwish. No thanks.

    • J_MetalBlast

      It seems ill-advised to then enter into a page that contains an interview with them, but OK.

      • Óðinn

        You’re right. It was ill-advised.

        • J_MetalBlast

          HOWEVER, we do have a bunch of non-Nightwish material that you’ll definitely enjoy more 😀

          • Óðinn

            I’ll check it out. Thanks.

  • Nightwish is one of my top 5 favourite bands, but to be completely honest I never paid much attention to the drama, like the division of the fandom based on who was the lead vocalist at that time because all that mattered to me is the music. If I liked it, that was all.