» Tony Kakko - Sonata Arctica

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Interview conducted July 2 2019
Interview published September 1 2019

"We are so much lighter… and closer to the Teletubbies."

Metal Covenant talked to vocalist Tony Kakko of Finnish outfit Sonata Arctica in order to find out a little bit about the band's new making Talviyö [Winter Night, Out September 6th].

Tobbe: Describe with your own words in what way this album continues the path of Sonata Arctica.

Tony: I think stylistically it's in line with the two previous albums, Pariah's Child [2014] and The Ninth Hour [2016]. The one before those, Stones Grow Her Name [2012], was totally different. It was a more rock-oriented album, and pop even. But now we've been on the same path ever since that one. I think it fits in line and we've found some kind of consistency with the style of songs that we have on the albums.

But there are a lot of differences at the same time on this album, especially on the production side of things. We actually played drums and bass and partially also the guitars live in the studio and you can really hear that from the outcome of the album. That was the aim and we tried to get more of a live feeling on the album.

I think it's also some kind of ongoing trend, that bands are trying to do that, but we've been aiming to do that for many, many years now, on our own, without a producer. If you try to do the same thing again and again and again, and always expect a different kind of result, you are stupid. [Laughs]

So you need to change something and of course the most obvious thing and the easiest way to get the live sound is to bring our front of house guy [Mikko Tegelman], who also is a studio guy in the equation, and he produced the album with us. And I think it sounds just bloody marvelous.

Tobbe: If you look at the diversity of the record. In what way do you feel that you have managed to come out with a varied record, like you have done many times before?

Tony: I think it's really diverse. The album kicks off with a song called Message From The Sun and, well, let's put it this way: The so-called old school Sonata Arctica fans will be exhilarated to hear that song. It's kind of false advertisement for the album anyway, because that's sort of a one-off. But still, that power metal-esque style is part of Sonata Arctica and always will be. So there you have that and then the rest of the songs are versatile and we have something for everybody there, really. The album is like a good puzzle without any loose pieces here and there, but it's like an all-together kind of album.

Tobbe: So you think you can still please the old fans with this record?

Tony: I'm pretty sure, yeah. At least with a few songs. [Laughs] You know, we have never been really, purely anything, even when we were, like, the power metal band. Everybody thought we were a power metal band, but that was always only just part of the story, really.

Even on the first album [Ecliptica, 1999] we have a lot of songs that are not power metal at all and we slowly with the second album [Silence, 2001] and the third album [Winterheart's Guild, 2003] started to drift away in a more experimental and more diverse rock kind of approach and even pop things. We've been doing this for 20 years and slowly along the years we have just become a band that is hard to put in any kind of box of genre and now that's really impossible, I think.

Tobbe: What does the words progress and growth mean to the band today?

Tony: Well, it's going forward. Not staying stagnant. And I would probably die like a shark if I stayed in one place and didn't take my music in different directions and used new influences that I've found, like new bands, or whatever styles and things I'm into. It's sort of like spices in a soup. We also wanna stay true to ourselves and not start doing something or certain things, that we know that a lot of people would love, just because of money.

I think we proved our point already with Unia [Dreams] back in 2007. We were on the rise there with Reckoning Night [2004] and everything just started to feel so wrong and it needed to end, so we started drifting around with a couple of albums. Unia, The Days Of Grace [2009] and Stones Grow Her Name were all really different albums compared to each other. We were like a car drifting from one side to another, and now we're back on the road.

Tobbe: Does it feel a whole lot different to write and also record an album nowadays in comparison to what it did when you were younger?

Tony: I think when we recorded the first album a computer was used only to, like, putting the album together, like some kind of finished mix, and mastering, and so forth. And that was it. So we've come a long way from there. And composing: I couldn't use any computers back in the day, so it was just, like, paper.

But nowadays, of course I have all the gear and you can produce music on a professional level on your own. In the privacy of your own home. Of course there are things that would be best to do really live, like with real instruments. But if you're into any form of electronic music, then you can do that at home. With keyboards and orchestrations, that you might wanna have on the album, it's really nice to be able to do that at home. It's just, you know, go and record drums, guitars and such instruments, and vocals in a real studio.

Well, the vocals I actually recorded at home as well. But then it's really important to get together with the band, to kind of get everybody's input. That's the only way you can really make the album sound like Sonata Arctica, I suppose.

Tobbe: You guys have 10 full-length records out now and was it even possible to imagine such a number when you were young?

Tony: No. 10 songs would be more like it. We never looked too far into the future and we have just done one album at a time, or when you have a recording contract, the length of that contract. But with the coming of age, sort of, thoughts come, like, "Every album and every tour can be your last one, so make the best out of it and enjoy the ride.". When you're in a city somewhere, like Stockholm, New York or L.A., try to enjoy the moment, because you never know what's gonna happen, you know. The same applies of course with the albums, so try to enjoy the whole process. Be it really stressful and everything, but still, sort of, live in the moment.

Tobbe: In what mood or in what situations do you come up with your best lyrics?

Tony: Well, when you're going through emotions for one reason or another; of course those moments are something that you should use to write down your thoughts. And then you're gonna distill it a little bit and use filters to make it to a line of thoughts fit for the song, so you're not actually writing your diary in a song. I just always try to write songs that people have a chance to relate to in some way. But, you know, I usually need to force myself to write the lyrics. It's the thing that comes last.

The ideal situation would be that you're writing the song and the lyrics come together at the same time, so whatever lyrical idea you come up with you can complement it with the right melody. But when you have, like, a solid melody, like "Oh! This is perfect." and you can't change it, then you start thinking about the lyrics, like, "Okay. I need one more syllable here.". It's a challenge, always. I never make it easy for myself.

Tobbe: Ever since day one of the band you have personally written most of the music and most of the lyrics by yourself, and have you never missed a songwriting partner?

Tony: Well, especially with the lyrics. It would be nice to take someone's great poem or something like that. But with music, I don't know. I'm a lone wolf a little bit with that stuff. I don't know what kind of person would tolerate me. Not, at least, a person that is like me. But it would be nice to try that stuff; collaboration.

Maybe it would be easiest if you had a partner and you both would write your own songs on the album. That's probably the only way I can imagine working on such an album. That I write a song and then when it's almost finished I present it to the other person and then we work with the song together to see if that other guy comes up with a better idea for some parts or with some way to improve it. And that's actually the way we work with Sonata Arctica also.

Tobbe: Do you feel a pressure from time to time to come out with stuff?

Tony: I'm super critical with what I do. Probably too much even. I should relax a little bit. You know, as a manifest of that, we had a lot of songs that was the "last" song I wrote for this album, with an idea that it was gonna be a bonus track for Japan. And then all of a sudden I had a song that was gonna be the first single off the album [A Little Less Understanding].

When you kind of toss all the expectations and everything out the window and just, you know, relax and do something, usually the outcome is something that stands out from the rest of the album. Not necessarily artistically, as an ambitious thing, but still something that serves a purpose and has a place on the album as well, and it's probably the easiest songs to take in for the people.

Tobbe: I watched that song on YouTube and I read some comments and there were many different opinions there, like "This song is so generic." or "This song is the greatest thing they've done.".

Tony: You mean comments like "Bring Jani back!"? [Laughs] Especially people who pay attention to the lyrics and can relate to this song particularly seem to like it a lot. It has a meaning and a purpose in their life. But it's a game we cannot win at this point anymore. We have such a wide scale and range of songs and styles. We've been doing songs from really speedy power metal things to slow, cheesy ballads, and pop music, and rock music, and whatever. And each style that we've done has its own fans.

Tobbe: Why name the record Talviyö? A name that no English-speaking person in this world can pronounce.

Tony: That's why. We wanted to give it a little bit of a curveball there. The first idea of course was to take the easy road. We realized and we knew that we wanted to have, like, Talvi or something, Winter Night or something. But Winter Night felt lame, for us anyway. It felt corny even. So we feel that it's more exotic to use the Finnish word for it. So first it was Talvi, just like Winter, which had been really, really nice and simple and people could actually say it.

But when you use Y and Ö, then that's when it gets interesting. It felt funny and we were laughing about it and "Yeah. Let's use Talviyö.". 'Cause the meaning is really cool and it fits the album cover and also the artwork in the booklet. So, "Talviyö" and now we're just stuck with it, I suppose.

Tobbe: You have used the words before, like in Takatalvi [EP, 2003] and Winterheart's Guild, so I guess winter is still important to you just because you come from the North.

Tony: Yeah. It's Sonata Arctica, so even the name implies that. It was just sort of a given to us when we changed the name to Sonata Arctica. [In 1999. From Tricky Beans to Tricky Means and then to Sonata Arctica.] It's like we can't use palms and sunshine that much. It makes things easier also. You know, when you need to come up with merchandise and album covers, for example, using winter, and wolves, is fairly easy.

But what does winter mean? Well, in spite of what people might think, that it's a really dark time of the year and everything, for me, the time of the winter that I love is the springtime winter from, let's say late February to late April. Late April in Finland, where you can still call that wintertime. At least up there in the North. That's the brightest time of the year, because you have sunshine, long days and snow, so you gotta wear shades because otherwise you'll get snow-blind.

So that's my favorite time of the year, when you have, like, a snow cover that can carry you. Like, when you're 1 meter [3 feet 4 inches.] off the ground, but on snow. And then you can go skiing and skating. The trees and everything; it's so beautiful. It's just the most beautiful time of the year, for me. That's my opinion. And I like cold better than hot. I like sunshine, but temperature-wise it's easier. You can wear clothes.

Tobbe: If you look at the music industry, it has changed a whole lot since you first started out, so how will you be able to make a living out of this for the rest of your life?

Tony: When we started off internet was something totally different than it is today. People bought the albums; CDs at the time, and the music business was blooming in that sense, and bands were having a great time. [Laughs] And then the digitalization of music started and later on the streaming services. Things that changed the whole game drastically. And not in a good direction from a band and creative point of view. It's killing the thing.

Fewer and fewer people are able to make a living on this thing and they need to take a day-job and fans will lose bands that they love because of this thing. You just can't support your family anymore on this thing, because people are listening to some streaming service thing that is not paying enough to the bands. It's just an opinion… [Laughs] But anyway, that's probably the biggest change in the game.

On the positive side, if we could combine the sales of, like, physical CDs, or if the financial side of things would have stayed the same as it was in the late '90s and in the early 2000's, with that we add this social media thing where it's so easy to communicate with your fans on a wide scale, then that would be a perfect situation. Some changes are good, but generally speaking I don't know if there are too many older bands that can say "This has been a great change!", you know.

I understand the bands that have been around for 5 years or so. You know, they say that it's great, but they don't have the background. They don't know how much cooler it was for everybody back in the day. It's hard to say, and difficult to say, and painful to say that we are an old band already.

Tobbe: I think a lot of people don't realize that it costs a lot of money to go out on tour, and to produce records, and that the money that comes in has to be split between more people than the actual band as well. It's not like you get €100,000 right down your pockets for a festival show.

Tony: Who does get €100,000? [Laughs] But, yes, I know. Usually, the bigger fee you have, the more you're expected to put in your show. If you get a €100,000 for a show you won't just walk on stage and play an acoustic guitar. But if you're a band you try to make it as bombastic as possible, with pyros and whatnot. But, you know, of course it's important to make money as well. The season and the chances that you have to make decent money is really short, so you travel around to festivals in the summertime and try to gather as many berries as you can so you can eat during the whole winter. That's basically how it is.

It's not like everybody's making €1,000,000 during the summer. We just make a normal living, like any other person who's got a day-job. And this is more than a day-job, I'd say, you know. But we get to stay a lot of time at home as well, but the times you are away from home, your kids and everything are tough.

Tobbe: Are you sometimes worried about losing your older fans and not gaining younger fans? Because every band needs different generations of fans.

Tony: Absolutely. Like Iron Maiden. They just always get new fans and that's great. It's a fantastic thing. But there are young kids who love our music. And I think we will always function as some kind of gateway to heavier music for children. We are a heavy metal band per se and if you are coming from, like, Teletubbies type of music it's much easier to move on to us first than go straight to Metallica. We are so much lighter… and closer to the Teletubbies. [Laughs wholeheartedly] Why did I say that? [Laughs] I just handed it to you.

These are the best things actually, that comes out of interviews sometimes. But that's fine. But anyway, I've heard so many stories from people, young people or older people, that have been into something totally different and then suddenly they've found or heard on some occasion one of our songs. And then found out which band we are and then getting an album and then falling in love with the whole thing. And eventually started to look up other bands and moving on to heavier stuff. So we are, like, a gateway and a stairway in a good direction, I have to say. Like "I first listened to you guys and now I'm listening to Metallica and Iron Maiden.".

Tobbe: About the Sonata Arctica Acoustic Adventures tour that you did. It did seem to attract quite a few of the band's fans and was that a little bit surprising to you?

Tony: No, not for us, but for everybody else it seems to be. Our management and the booking agents were like "It's not gonna work. It didn't work for other bands.". But we've always based our music in melodies and having, like, pop-like structures in the songs, so they translate fairly easy into an acoustic thing as well. The idea was always that you should be able to take an acoustic guitar and just play the song in some form, so that it's recognizable with a guitar.

Sometimes it's just rearranging the songs and sometimes you almost have to recompose the song. You know, write new parts. Like for example The Rest Of The Sun Belongs To Me, which was a bonus track for Japan [On Winterheart's Guild], which is a speedy song, and now, acoustically, it's not. You can't put any of the fast solos there. It just does not work. That's the one thing that you need to strip when you are translating the songs into an acoustic environment thing.

Our friend Masi [Hukari] kind of composed new kinds of solos and parts and it was wonderful. It's beautiful. A lot of the songs are much speedier in, like, normal conditions, and now they get a totally new life and function sometimes even much better acoustically, because of the melody, and especially for a singer because it gives you so many more opportunities and chances to add color to your singing.

Tobbe: What actually led up to the decision of making acoustic shows? Was it to experience different kinds of stuff, or just boredom of playing the same songs over and over again?

Tony: We've had a tiny acoustic bit on the shows before and one summer [2016] we did acoustic shows on festivals in Finland and they got great feedback. It was a lot of fun and relaxed to do, so that kind of sparked the whole thing slowly, like, "It would be great to take this whole concept out of Finland as well.".

That's when we encountered, you know, "It's not gonna work. It's not metal.". But we never were the most metal band in the world to start with, and never will be, so why try to kind of present us as the most metal band in the world, when it's an impossible equation? It started with our need and we knew that it was gonna be fun. It's a little bit of a risk also. We sort of knew that it was gonna be okay and great, but you never know.

When you go and do something like this for the first time, it's not enough that you yourself believe in it, but, you know, you need to believe that there are people who are brave enough to take a chance and come and see the shows. And advertise the whole thing of course. As much as possible. Put live clips online, so people are gonna go "Oh! It looks really nice. I should go and see the show.".

Tobbe: So when will we get to see that kind of experience again? Since it was so successful, I would say.

Tony: Probably when we end the Talviyö tour. That's the thing we are doing right now, for a year and a half / two years, I think. Like, 2021, might be a time for that kind of thing, depending on what happens on this tour.

Tobbe: By doing different stuff like this, where can you see the band going next? Is there anything else than doing the regular shows or the acoustic shows?

Tony: You can expand the acoustic thing quite a bit actually, if you get resources to do so. Like introduce new members in the band, like maybe a quartet, a choir or something like that. You can make that bigger. But maybe it's enough to have the normal version of Sonata Arctica and then the acoustic version. If you get those two working together really well, then that's perfect and I don't see ourselves expanding to electronic dance music, for example. [Laughs] Which might work as well, but you know, maybe there is a limit.

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