Urban Tale: A new band for our times.
Urban Tale's Erkka talks about the challenges of being a new band in this musical era and of the challenges facing them while recording album #2.
Ok, Erkka - let's go! Did the band feel any sort of pressure to perform after the great critical success of the debut album?
I guess that there was some, but we believed in the new songs right from the beginning. And as we hit the studio, Theo (Anders Theander, our producer) came up with the finishing touches that were really cool too. It was actually easier to do the actual recordings this time, since we know Theo better now and vice versa. We worked together more closely on song tempos, feelings and such, and he really respects our opinions. Also, now he also knew how we play in the studio so it was much easier.
During the production we noticed that the album was gonna be a bit different from the 1st one, and we also knew that it was gonna get varied responses from the critics. It´s great to get good reviews from the AOR/Melodic Rock media, but we're shooting for the mainstream media as well. Sometimes it just seems that an album that gets all 10/10´s from the "genre" media will end up getting 1´s and 2´s in the big rock mags. There are exceptions to this of course, such as Harem Scarem. We just got 4/5 in the 2nd biggest rock magazine in Finland and we are really happy about that.
One thing that we must remember is that 1 or 2 points out of 10 is not necessarily a bad score. With that kind of score you have definitely caused an emotional reaction, which is a good thing. The worst scores in my opinion are those 5-7 which are like "This is err...nice..." That way the album doesn't move the listener to any direction, and the music becomes muzak. One of my biggest goals with our music is to create those emotions, be it good or bad but I truly hope them to be positive!
Fabulous answer Erkka. Obviously you could tell that you had great songs and a great production, but did the way the debut album was welcomed surprise any of you guys?
Oh yes, and not only us! The Roasting House guys were really happy with the response too. Getting all those great reviews is really flattering, but it has a downside too. The first negative review will really kill you! I remember the first negative one...the entire band went totally apeshit and angry LOL! You have to take the rough with the smooth anyway. Our drummer always reminds us with the great words of our national composer Jean Sibelius: "Remember, there are no statues for critics!" It´s all down to somebody´s opinion and personal taste, so it has to be accepted.
Damn, I was looking forward to a statue too
With Theo at the helm, the production sounds very similar to the debut - sharp and clean, so what was the philosophy for the writing process for this album?
Well, listening to our first album was a good learning experience. We liked the first album, but didn't want to redo it like so many bands do. On the other hand, the composing methods didn't really change that much.
We had some of these songs lying around already when we did the 1st album, like "Mary" and "Still Strong"...also, each songwriter in that band is finding his own voice. Tuomo, our bass player, bought 2 songs this time, "Houdini" and "Morning Smoke". They have a clear personality. It's easier for us to work as a band now too, since we can look in the same direction when we arrange the songs...earlier it was a mess, when everybody had a different opinion on everything! After all, I think that the idea of Urban Tale and our style has become clearer for us and we now know better what we want to sound like...so evolution has happened!
It's certainly a more diverse record - there are a few different musical passages within the album. What was the thinking behind the changes?
Pure gut feeling. We just wrote what we felt at the time. It seemed really natural to expand the band's sound this time, and we just let it happen. A lot has happened to us as a band and also in our personal lives after writing the 1st album, and the songs reflect that really well. I think that the album is a lot more interesting this way, with more variety. A lot of people talk about bringing the melodic rock genre forward, and this is how we do it. We know that it will create strong opinions both pro and con, but as I mentioned earlier, it's a good thing. Controversy is always noticed by people and we are keen on stirring things up and ruffling some feathers! We just have to remember not to make it the only goal...
I said the production was similar, which is true, but there are a few examples of the sound being updated or modernized slightly. Again, what were the thoughts behind those production effects?
I think that the new songs were the catalyst for the new sounds as well. We are also influenced by all the styles you hear on the album. A good example is "Monsters", which begun as an experiment by Timo and then we decided to try it with the band and it seemed to work. As it says on the album linear notes, there are no drum machines used on this album, it's all played by somebody. Most of the time we'd record a loop in half-speed and then double the speed to bring it to the right tempo and the right sound. We used a lot of that stuff on the intro of "Hello Light", on "Open Your Heart" there's a Latin groove, on "Morning Smoke" and of course "Monsters". "Mary" has a cool ethnic percussion thing that was a blast to record!
Also, Timo got a bit crazier too on this album with his wacky synth stuff. He can really find a lot more things from his gear than just the regular piano, pad and brass sounds you hear on so many albums. The bass is distorted in places, and Tuomo played a lot with the pick. I also like the guitar sounds more this time. We experimented more this time with different mikings, microphones and cabinets, effects but only one amp! Theo didn't have to touch the guitar sounds very much in the mix and I'm glad he brought them up!
And in the end - are you all happy with the way it has turned out?
We are really happy with it. This time it's not as Hi-Fi as the 1st album, it's a lot punchier, drier and has more healthy bottom end. This was definitely the band's goal for this album, after listening for the first one. The band was also a lot looser and relaxed when we played. We don't "cut & paste" with the basic tracks, which is really easy and tempting to do when you work in digital domain. All of those takes are full. Tuomo and Kari even came up with a first take for the album! It was on "Don't You Know".
Theo has fantastic ears for recording the instruments, especially drums and vocals. We used a big bass drum and a fantastic snare which he Theo has. Also, the vocal sound was a piece of work...we went through 5 microphones and 4 mic preamps...I was there with Theo for the entire production, so I was able to bring my and the band's input for him. The biggest input from me came when we started to work the guitar sounds. I introduced Theo to a few miking techniques he had never seen before.
Theo is also a brilliant mixing engineer. The album was mixed twice, basically. First he did a preliminary mix and sent it to us. We commented on the levels, eq and sounds, he made the corrections and it ended up sounding really good! Just take a look what albums Theo has mixed recently and you'll understand that he is really respected! Pain Of Salvation, Jim Jidhed, Radioactive, Swedish All-Stars...
How did the album and website artwork for you? Very cool....a step above some of the other art out there in stores!
It really looks like everything went really well this time, including the artwork that was done by 2 different guys, ending up costing a lot! A Swedish artist called Niklas Sundin is responsible for the front cover picture, which a wonderful piece of art, very Dali-influenced...I love it! It's partly an oil painting, partly a photograph and partly computer graphics.
Then we took the rest to the A.D. of the biggest advertising company in Finland, PHS. He is called Samuli Harjunpää, and he was the most awarded A.D. in Finland last year. He even won the prestigious Golden Lion in Cannes, France for the best European Ad Campaign! Fortunately he's my childhood friend and we got a fair deal. He came up with very cool ideas and changed our view of the artwork totally!
The idea of the photos on the sleeve is to demonstrate different means of information technology from writing letters and reading newspapers to SMS messages and public internet panels. As a cool contrast there's a band pic that was taken backstage at a well known rock club here in Helsinki.
The website exploits the artwork pretty much 100%! It's designed by Timo Wirkkala. We decided to have those pics appear inside the compass when you navigate to the different areas. Also, we are coming up with a domestic site in Finnish language. We are really happy with everybody's work in this project and I think that the success rate is really good not only because we use good, talented people but also since we are really involved in the design of the products. That way we can affect the end result more directly during the creation phase of the work.
What's happening in your home country with this release? I saw the Stage Dolls are doing great business and gather that there is some hope for melodic bands right now in Scandinavia?
Frontiers has a good distribution in Scandinavia now. The company is called Playground Music. Their biggest own Finnish artist, The Rasmus has sold 70,000 in Finland only (that's over double platinum, my friends!) and 22-Pistepirkko sells well and has a big underground following around Europe, so they know how to do the work. The promos of the album have been sent around to the mainstream mags and radio, and the response has been favourable. We have received some radio airplay, although not on the playlists (yet), and the reviews have been good as I mentioned before. Also, if we get anything major happening in our own country, the HQ of Playground in Sweden will get interested and that's a good thing.
We've just decided on playing gigs here in Finland with another, yet unsigned hard rock band called Human Temple (www.humantemple.com). The trick here is that the vocalist of the band, Janne Hurme, is a popular schlager singer here, who has sold over 150,000 albums with 4 releases and he will pull people to the gigs just out of curiosity! In his heart he is a rocker and he's also a really nice guy. At that point the bands can really hit the people over the heads and get new fans. We are also planning to tour Scandinavia later this year with an established Melodic Rock artist...
How does a band such as yourselves make waves in the music marketplace as a whole?
Well, the above example is good grassroot-level promotion. Our own country has a pretty cool live music scene, and good live bands are respected. Also, getting small risks can be good...releasing radio singles, sending album samplers to film and TV production companies etc... The band has to make itself known, even though might not be selling a lot of albums. Make people remember your band's name and it will pay off.
I realize you are with Frontiers, who do a great job with this music as a whole, but I am wondering what view of the world a relatively new band takes? One step at a time? And how are those steps taken?
Baby steps! Frontiers does a great job in providing their acts visibility and publicity in the rock/metal media. After that it's up to the band, their music and sheer luck to gain the interest in the mainstream as well. We are truly happy to be interviewed by such magazines as Classic Rock in England, which could be considered a major Rock magazine. Good contacts have a lot to do with it but even they won't help if the music is not up to the par. Hopefully our touring plans will become a reality, because it would bring a great bunch of extra publicity to the band.
Any other tour plans coming up?
Major cities in Finland are planned, there are plans for shows in Europe which should reveal in a few weeks, a festival or two and the abovementioned plans for a Scandinavian tour. If all of this becomes a reality we will be busy and bankrupt for sure...and happy too! We will post it on our website and spread the news as soon as we can!
How does the material change when played live?
A few of the layered guitar and keyboard stuff gets dropped off, as do the drum loops. There's usually more energy and a heavier overall sound. Even some tempos might change. We are not too keen on using samplers or pre-recorded mini-discs/DAT tapes with synths, backing vocals or strings to create a bigger live sound...it's not live anymore that way. It also brings in click tracks and other monitor-related things. If something goes wrong in those situations you will make a fool out of yourself. I do understand that several bands do it nowadays and I won't say that we'd never use them either.
Erkka, the band's sound is clearly your own, but with big influences from the likes of Styx and Journey. What are the favourite classic artists within the band?
I would say Journey, Toto, Chicago, Rush, Van Halen, Don Henley, 80´s Genesis and of course metal bands such as Dio, Iron Maiden, Queensrÿche etc...Believe it or not but none of us has listened to Styx!
There are a lot of other influences as well...classical, jazz, pop, electronic music... they really are equally important to us and the sound of the band as the rock bands. We don´t have any prejudices against different kinds of music...except schlager, maybe!
What about new acts - what other bands/artists are you guys getting into and/or respect these days?
Tough one! I don't think that many of us really follows what's out there that much...Kimmo usually checks out the new stuff by Marillion and David Sylvian, Tuomo likes the funkier stuff and modern rock/pop styles such as "Kent" from Sweden. Timo is into the experimental electronic stuff...Massive Attack, Björk. Kari likes Nickelback and Planet X. I just checked out the new Stratovarius album and I feel that it's their best ever. I also try to check out some cool things, like the new Steve Morse DVD that I´m gonna buy. Sometimes I contact Frontiers and order some CDs, like Jeff Scott Soto or Mecca.
If you were allowed to be responsible for writing and recording any 1 album from history - what would that be?
This is my personal opinion, not the bands... When you think in general about the songs, the sound at the time when it was released, the performance and the success of the album I have to say: "Slippery When Wet" by Bon Jovi.
And what are you listening to in your CD player right now?
Elements pt.1. by Stratovarius. Also some Steve Morse Band stuff for a future project...
Let's talk about the songs from the album. Would you mind telling everyone a little about each track?
Starship of Giants
Good opening track with lots of rock-attitude. Kinda typical Urban Tale-chorus. This is a great gateway from the first album to "Signs Of Times". The lyrics deal with fundamentalism and religious fanatics.
'60s kinda groove with a hard-rocking twist. Positive message, happy and simple song. Hopefully makes one dance and jump!
A moody, dark rock tune with a cool chorus, flutes and dramatic changes! The lyrics are about a relationship you cannot get out of even though you wanted to.
A great, massive power ballad with lots of feeling in the performance! The chorus lyrics speak for themselves. We already had this song when the 1st album was recorded but we decided to save it. it was great to fulfill the long-time dream of using real strings on this one.
Son of a Gun
A great riff by Tommy Denander. Good hard-rocker with very contemporary lyrics written after watching "Band of Brothers"-series. This works great live!
Open your Heart
Bruce Hornsby-style West Coast-feel. Great groove and radio-friendly chorus. Could even be a radio single. The lyrics have a message for everybody.
Captain of Clouds
We wrote this in the studio based on my jamming in my home studio. The song was recorded before we knew what the lyrics were gonna be! Everybody in the band loves this. Great feel, kinda hard-rocking and lyrically "weird", very Shakespearean. Great strings!
Don't You Know
"Easylistening" - soft and melodic snack with poetic lyrics! Reminds me of "Trial By Fire" -era Journey. Originally written by Kimmo, went through big re-arranging and became a simple quartet-sounding song that grows along the way.
Beggar And Thief
A moody, magical, classically influenced work of art with a touch of modern sound and groove. The lyrics are about platonic one-sided love. This is something that you could imagine Sting doing! It was great to use the slide harmonies in the chorus, it sounds like one gigantic bend was going on. A combination of influences from Blackmore to Björk.
The Morning Smoke
Killer chorus and kinda smoky feel... Like a morning-after experience after the girl has left and you don't know if you'll ever meet her again. Hints of the new Urban Tale sound.
Stretching the limits! We wanted to do this even though it divided our opinions at first. We call it a progressive self-study with a very Urban Tale-like chorus. Very much of a studio experiment, not a live song. It´s been great watching critics come up with a name for this "style"...
An acoustic piece Kimmo wrote a hundred years ago. Kinda Celtic feel with mountains and sea and longing for somebody and stuff. Real Irish tin whistles on this one played by yours truly.
So - what's next for the band? What are your grand plans to take over the world and what is next?
We have to see how the album does and we hope to get on the road. Let's spread the Urban Tale word and rehearse for the coming endeavors. We'll probably start to write some new songs soon...
What is important for the band to achieve in the next 5 years?
To achieve a steady position in the music world, be it inside the "genre" or in the mainstream but we want to prove that we are here to stay. We also want to come out with a few good albums and define our personal trademark sound that people would recognize.
Anything you would like to add?
Check out "Signs Of Times". I promise it will truly be "something else" and a unique listening experience! We also hope to see you all on the road really soon! Also, check out the new website and fan forum at http://www.urbantale.net
Thanks again for taking the time out to answer these questions!