Stratovarius: Moving on from controversy.

I talk with Stratovarius' Timo Koltipelto, who discusses the band's reformation and their chance to put past troubles behind them.

Hi, Timo here, how are you doing?

I'm very well, mate, how's yourself?
I'm doing good. Tonight I'm flying back to Helsinki so no problem.

Oh, is this the last day of PR for a while?

Fantastic. Then back home?
Yes, basically, then there's some promotions to be done in Finland on Monday and then the next week is traditional mid-summer celebration in Finland so there's nothing happening then so I can relax as well.

Fantastic. You deserve it.
Maybe <laughs>

How long did the album take to record?
Well, it's a long story and probably a little bit different from other bands. The drums were recorded sometime in April last year. First of all, all of the problems we had in the past, I don't know if you're familiar with those?

Yes, I am.
The producer and guitar player Timo Tolkki has a mental illness called manic depression. He was diagnosed at the same time that he was supposed to be recording the tracks so what they did, at first, they did the drum sound-check and then the second day he was supposed to go to the studio and start recording Jorg's drums but he never appeared and then later we got a call from Timo's wife that he was in a mental hospital and of course that didn't help with the recording. It was like just the beginning and already a little bit weird.
The drummer was alone in the studio and there was no guitar or bass guitar recorded so the only thing that he heard was a click that he tried to remember the songs like is it going to be the verse next or the chorus next and maybe he did some markings on the paper, but that's it. Then I remember when I got a message from him, “Did you hear that Tolkki's in a mental hospital?” and then the same day Jens Johansson from New York said, “Did you hear that Tolkki's in a mental hospital?” To be honest, I didn't believe these guys. I thought, “Yeah, I bet he is. He's probably on holiday in Spain or somewhere.” But then I phoned Timo's brother, who I know pretty well, and I asked him what's going on and he told me that Timo was in the hospital and he went to see him the day before and he's not doing that good. But that was the first time that he was diagnosed that he has a mental illness. In the past nobody, not even himself, knew that he had a mental problem. I just thought, “What a weird guy,” and of course at some point I was thinking that he was a complete asshole.

He was treating me like shit, especially here in Finland on the yellow press. Nobody knew, of course I was thinking that he was really crazy in a funny way, “Hey, hey, he's crazy.” But then when the reality hits you, hey, he's manic depressive, it explains a lot of things especially from the past. Now it's easy to see when he was having a manic peak, like when we were having our Destiny tour in '98 and he was drinking heavily on that tour but we came back to Finland and he disappeared for weeks. I tried to reach him but no answer. First comes the manic phase and then the depression. Then it's very difficult. And now the biggest thing, and it happened at the same time when the advance money from the record deal came under his account and he had grand and great ideas about putting up a studio so he spent all of the bands' money. All the advance money he spent on his studio. The mixing desk alone costs more than 100,000 Euros.

Then he started saying, “I'm going to have my own studio.” It's not enough if you buy equipment with everything together. His plan was, he would record the drums, actually it was to be supposed to be Jens' brother, Anders Johansson, who he hired as a session drummer in the beginning, well, that complicates the whole story but it didn't work out because Tolkki said he was going to be the new drummer of the band and that was never agreed.

Like a couple of weeks before the recording. So he didn't have any drummer so he had Beck (sp?) would be doing the drums and helping him out but then he had the nervous breakdown. Then nothing happened for 6 or 7 months. He was in the hospital at the beginning and then the rest of the months he was in bed and taking some medications to be able to play some festivals, which we promised to do. The next time when something happened was in the beginning of December when he told me and asked if I would be interested in having a meeting with him and talking about the promise we had.
Then it was really strange, he came to my place and we talked for about 6 hours which is actually much more than we talked in the last 3 years. Then he apologized and all of this stuff. I said I can think about it but first I need to hear the demos, because I wasn't a big fan of the last 2 albums.

Elements. We took this power metal and took it as far as possible. The songs were fast and the vocals were inhuman high and the orchestra was bigger than before and the production was bigger and bigger and bigger.
There was nowhere to go. We walked that path to the end. But I was very surprised when he played me the new demos even though there were only guitars. The sound was more heavy and more rock instead of this symphonic epic thing.

I was going to say that. As soon as I put it on I was like, “Wow, this is like a back to basics release for you.”
Exactly. And it's a little bit closer to what I've been doing with my solo albums. They're rock songs, not big productions. The sound is good but when it comes to orchestrations, there aren't any. This is something new. I think the band needed this kind of a new step. Of course, the easy solution would've been just to play it safe and compose the next Elements Part III and take the money and run. But it doesn't make any sense.

Yeah. After all of the last year or so it must be nice to just get back to the music again.
Exactly. This is why I would like to leave all of these tabloid magazines out of any of the interviews and just do interviews with real music magazines and radios and people who are interested in the music, not in what happened. I never wanted to be famous for the, well, I never wanted to be famous but I only accept publicity when it comes to the music. I hated last year when I had to see my face on these magazines, even though I wanted to be there, but of course it was whenever Tolkki gave interviews it was the band's picture. It was like the old band, the singer got fired and blah, blah, blah. I just wanted to make music. But lucky me, at the time I was already composing my own material. I was busy otherwise I probably would've been lying on the sofa drinking beer and probably not be here today. I had a purpose in my life and I still have. I just want to sing, and that's it.

Yeah, well you do a mighty fine job of it. I'm really impressed with the new album.
Oh, good. That's cool.

Absolutely. I agree with you about the last couple of albums. I really like the new album for its back to basics approach.
Same here. I would say it's a combination, something new, but then again, some of the songs could've been from Episode or Visions or songs that are at the end of the album could've been done in '96 or '97, even though the sound is a little bit different. I like it a lot because it's different and we didn't play it safe. Of course it's probably some other bands wouldn't take this risk but if the fans don't like the album then what to do next? Of course, we can always go back. That's for sure. So far, the critics, especially from Germany, have been so positive.

I'm looking to the future. It can't get worse than the last few years.

Are you confident that that's all behind you?
Of course, I'm hoping that it will get better now. This illness, it doesn't go away.

No, but obviously it can be treated now that you know about it.
We know about it, but of course, I also know that there will be highs and lows, that's for sure. It's not something that you can 100% control, especially if the person who has this disease thinks that he feels good. When he has this depression he crashes down. The doctor told him that he had manic depression and then he took medication but then the people who have it, when they're feeling better they forget to take the medication and blah, blah, blah. I'm pretty sure that we will have to, of course we're trying to talk to him and we're trying to help him as much as possible, especially because we're planning to be touring for 3 or 4 months all together in the next year.

Yeah, I was going to ask you about that. You have a lot of dates lined up.

That's great.
It's good. The tour will start in August in South America. Those dates aren't published yet because they're not confirmed. They're working on it. After that comes North America which is the first time for us to go to the U.S and Canada. So that's going to be altogether something like one and a half months and then there is like 1 week off, which is mostly traveling, but then it's going to be a European tour starting in Moscow, so that's going to be a hard one. It's already in the autumn it's going to be 3 months touring so we're trying to make everything easier by finding good flights, etc. We're trying to make it easier for Timo because it's very important that he can do it.
We actually sort of tested it out by accident, because I had one festival gig last week in Finland with my old band, Koltipelto, and we played this Stratovarius song called “Black Diamond” and during that song Jens and Timo came on stage because Jens happened to be in Finland at the same time so they came on stage and played the song with me. I was very happy to see the reaction of the audience, but what is more important to me is I saw Timo Tolkki smiling on the side of the stage while playing and I haven't seen this for years.

Oh, wow.
And that's a good sign. Of course, he told me after the show, “Hey, man I really like it. I want to be back on the tour.” Now he feels like he wants to do the tour. You can't do the touring if you're depressed, that's for sure. It doesn't work. Well, let's see. I'm looking forward to the future. I guess we're going to do those. But then again, I've learned that you can plan things but you've got to be ready to change your plans.

Yes. It sounds like you guys are very aware of the situation and doing everything you can to make everything a success.
That's the only way. I personally asked the guys when we had a band meeting in December, if we want to get back together and if we want to do this album then everybody has to be 100% behind it and be ready to work. In the past, I guess it's the same problem with some other bands that have gained some popularity and had some success, somehow you get used to it. You might take everything for granted. Next year we'll do this album and then tour there and there. You get used to it. I know at least myself and everyone else in the band we can feel the hunger again. It's very important to first like what you're doing and you have the energy and the need to do it. You're not doing it just because somebody is paying you some money. That's the wrong approach. You have to feel the hunger and have to be ready to work hard for it especially now with internet pirates and record labels don't have as much money as in the past which means that the recording budget is much lower and not all of the bands can make it. So, especially then. It's a matter of touring and working hard. You can't expect things just to happen.

Absolutely. You sound… I know that you had some label problems there, but it sounds like Sanctuary is behind you and supporting this.
Yes. I think the only problem was about this one song, we are with Sanctuary in Germany, not Sanctuary in the UK, if we would've been signed to Sanctuary in the UK there would not have been this problem but Tolkki wrote this song about this one German guy, well, actually originally Austrian guy about Adolf Hitler and even though the song is quite an anti-Nazi song I can understand why the record label in Germany didn't like it. I didn't like it and nobody else in the band liked it, well, actually Jens liked it. But again, I can understand that the arts shouldn't be censored but then again maybe again it was too much to have his speech in the beginning of the song even though it was very frightening and very depressing. Once again it was an anti-Nazi song and still is. But it was never meant for German markets. In Scandinavia and Finland we have to read about history at the school and we're learning about these things. I don't know, for example, in the U.S. if the people, especially the younger generation, if they know what happened in Germany or in Europe 60 years ago in the 2nd world war. How and why it started. I think it should be very important to learn it so this kind of thing doesn't happen again. You've got one completely crazy guy with grand ideas who gets too much power. Well they've got one President, I don't want to say any names, who has a lot of powers…

Too much power.
That's the thing. These weapon factories and people they're setting this guy up… now I'm talking politics… but you know what I mean. It is dangerous. You've got this one guy deciding, “Let's attack Iraq,” and then off we go. What happens next? It's very dangerous. That's one of the points of the song. We're talking about one part of history, one event. Maybe the record label people didn't see the connection, but it's one song.
That's the end.

You're absolutely right. What do you guys do next? Do you have any long term plans or are you just going to take this tour how it comes and see how it goes?
Well, even before the tour starts there will be promotions to be done. Personally, I'm hoping to get the first summer holiday… maybe I can get two weeks. In the last 10 years we haven't got any. Maybe to relax and compose some of my own stuff this summer. At the moment the only plan is to go up to January next year. Then we have plans to tour Japan maybe Southeast Asia maybe Hong Kong. Maybe even Australia.

Maybe Australia? Absolutely.
That would be great. We've got some plans but nothing concrete. I'd love to play anywhere, I don't mind. It's really too early to say. But nothing is planned. The most important thing is Timo's health. If I had to choose I wouldn't be touring with Tolkki if he was hurting himself more or if he wouldn't be getting better. I would choose him to be better, but it's looking pretty good. But then again, we've learned that this disease is quite difficult to handle. You have to plan the future but you have to be flexible as well.

Yes. Well it sounds like you guys are definitely working towards everything you can do.
Right now it's everything for the band. All of the guys have to be interested in the band and be ready to be touring or it doesn't work.

Yeah. That sounds great.
So far so good.

It can't get worse, well, maybe it can.

I don't want to think about it.

I can't imagine so. That's great. You made a great record and you sound positive and I'm sure things will go well.
Hopefully, yeah.

Timo, that's all I had for you.

I appreciate your time.
Hey, thanks, man. Good interview.

A pleasure talking to you.
Same here.

All right. Thank you.
All right, take care.

Okay, you too.
Bye, bye