To mark the release of the latest Amorphis album, Under the Red Cloud, let’s go back to a more innocent time—April 2001, to be precise—when Hellbound editor Laura Wiebe interviewed the band before a show in Toronto. They were touring to promote Am Universum, and her freewheeling conversation with Esa (Holopainen, guitar) and Niclas (Etelävuori, bass) captures them as they were breaking into the North American scene and evolving, musically, into the Amorphis we know and love today. Laura notes, “Don’t take every word these guys say seriously—there was a lot of laughing during this conversation.”
Hellbound: How long have you guys been on this tour so far?
Niclas: One day.
HB: Is this the first show then?
N: No, this is the second show. We played in New Jersey yesterday.
HB: For the metal festival?
Esa: It was a horrible festival.
HB: What went wrong?
E: Well, it’s too many bands and you just have to wait all day…
N: No soundchecks.
E: No soundchecks; quick line checks for our first show. The gear we didn’t actually even check before we came here. So basically everything sucked…and the live sound was really bad.
HB: Have you guys ever played Toronto before?
E: Yes, we played here last May with Moonspell and it was really nice.
HB: Have you had much chance to get an impression of Canada?
E: I think both Toronto and Montreal are more like European cities than what you see in the States. Totally different. And the people I guess are more smooth. They don’t talk that much like Americans. Which for us is nice because it’s stupid sometimes to hear it—some voice just “ay ay ay ay” or something…
HB: What has the response been like so far for your new album, Am Universum?
E: Well, I think critics from Europe and the States have been so far quite good. Of course there are some people who don’t like the album.
HB: Are you guys happy with it?
E: We’re happy with the album.
N: Yesterday there were like thirty bands playing death metal and this was the only probably different thing in the whole festival, but people seemed to enjoy it as well.
HB: You released a video for the song “Alone.” How did the filming for that go?
N: It was very quick for us. Pasi had to do most of the work.
HB: Had you worked with that director before on other videos?
E: No. He’s a very nice guy. He’s a Finnish artist himself. He plays in a Finnish band called Apulanta which is like… Well, I don’t even want to translate what it means. But anyways, like a Finnish punk band, and the bass player is a very talented director as well, and he usually puts in these videos a lot of artistic views. We wanted a bit more artistic video as well, so it was quite a good choice.
HB: Is there a specific concept you wanted to get across in the video?
E: I don’t even know. We didn’t even know what the concept was when we went to film the video.
N: We let him do what he is best at, you know, but then at the end it seemed like it was the first time I met a director who had an understanding of the concept of the song. When we saw the storyboard, everybody was, “Okay, this is it.”
HB: Have you released other videos in the past?
E: I think the first video we released was in ’94 with not that good success production-wise. They, of course, saw it in Germany and on many TV channels. The record company in Germany threw us over there and then we filmed some video with the director who really didn’t have any idea what our record concept was, and it was quite horrible. There were some castles and really stupid things… But yeah, that’s about the videos…
[How could I have forgotten watching “Black Winter Day” video on MuchMusic’s Power 30 back in the ’90s? – Laura]
HB: Do you think they get much airplay in North America?
E: I think some videos that we released from the last album Tuonela and from Elegy, they got a little bit of airplay, but I don’t think in North America there are that many TV channels to broadcast any metal music, and usually even then it’s like Korn or…
HB: Is there a common concept to the songs on the new album?
N: They’re all Pasi’s universe.
E: Yeah, that’s pretty much it. He talks about his feelings and these things…
HB: What do you guys try to accomplish with your music? Is it sort of a self-expression? Are you trying to create a work of art, make a statement?
E: We don’t want to make any statements.
N: Try to stay as far as possible from politics.
E: I guess it’s the way for us to express ourselves throughout the music, and I think that’s the main point. Because we all enjoy playing music. First thing that we usually do when we write music is that we want to write music that we would enjoy to listen to, so it’s like the first step, the first rule that we have when we start to write music. So we just hope people like it, and really, the live shows… We’re not like any theatrical band—do any big spectacle and live thing. We usually improvise some things live, try to give a good feeling for the audience.
HB: Do you have a surprise saxophone player with you?
E: No, he couldn’t come with us.
N: There was one bunk too little in the bus.
HB: How do you guys divide up the songwriting process?
N: Everybody participates in it in some ways, and then it’s just, you know, mixed together in the whole thing.
HB: Do you all get together at once and throw ideas at each other?
N: It depends. Sometimes somebody throws ideas at someone and then the other day he throws it back at you and then you try to catch it if you can…
HB: So how are things going with the current line-up in the band? Does it work well studio-wise and tour-wise?
E: Yeah, very well. We have a good laugh together all the time, so it works really well.
HB: Do you guys ever do any songwriting while you’re on the road?
E: No, that’s quite impossible. I don’t know actually who can do it.
N: Maybe if the tours would be like one year it would come up or something, but these are all quick ones, so it’s easier to be where the equipment is…
HB: So what are your favourite Amorphis songs?
E: I don’t know, I think like the new album presents the band now, and probably of course the new album is the best album that we have done so far, and probably tracks from there. It’s really hard to label any certain kind of tracks, but there’s a lot of good. From the new album I like tracks like “Shatters Within” and “Alone.” They present quite well the band’s sound nowadays.
N: I like “Alone” and then there’s this with the sax part. It was the first time in my life I played with a sax player, so it was interesting.
HB: What other bands are you guys listening to right now?
E: There’s a lot of music that I guess we listen to.
N: I have a lot of Jimi Hendrix with me, and there is Nylon Beat.
E: That’s a Finnish band.
HB: Are there any bands that you draw upon for inspiration for your songwriting?
E: I don’t know. I guess a lot of music that surrounds, what you hear and all of those little things that surround us… I think the old bands like Pink Floyd and Deep Purple, and these kinds of bands still in a way inspire. I think everything—you hear some good bands; they also can inspire you.
N: There are a lot of bands like the one I just mentioned (Nylon Beat) It becomes sort of a funny thing when you get some strange CDs with some cheesy pop band and you listen to them once and [throwing motion and sound]. It‘s the inspiration for that second…
HB: Do you guys have much interaction with your fans at all?
HB: Do you meet them; do you ever answer fan letters?
E: No, no, no…
HB: Do you get fan letters?
E: Actually, my parents still get fan letters, because when I was over ten years younger I was really involved in the underground thing and underground scene, and I was tape trading a lot of demos with bands. I had my address there and some way my old address was spread, and one guy on the Internet still had it there. I think I once wrote him an email: “Hey, come on, put it away. It’s not my address any more. My parents live there.” And he wrote me back: “You’re not Esa. You must be kidding me. That’s his address.” So my parents get, I think, every week a few letters.
N: And we’re trying to organize some chats and stuff like this.
E: Throughout the Internet, of course. We read the guest books and sometimes answer people. And during the shows of course you meet people and talk with them.
HB: So people come up to you during the shows?
E: Yeah, yeah. But it’s like, we don’t arrange competitions: “Meet Amorphis, they will take you out for dinner.”
HB: How do you feel about your fans who have sort of rejected the newer material because it’s not death metal enough?
E: There are a lot of fans I guess who think in quite a normal way, but I’m always a bit afraid of fans who will take things too seriously. Mainly I’m afraid of them and how they think, because sometimes somebody’s too much a fan of something. No matter what you say, they can think what you say upside down in their heads. You always have to be a bit careful what you say to people so they don’t get the impression that you might have said something wrong for them, or you don’t get the impression they’re going to hurt themselves because of what you had said.
N: Well, I think there has been many years of change for the band since the death metal, so if you don’t get it now, you won’t ever.
HB: Do you feel that as musicians you guys have a role to fill in society, that you have certain responsibilities that go along with your sort of “celebrity” status?
E: I don’t know. We’re not probably responsible for anybody. We do music. We are basically like entertainers. We entertain people… or at least try to.
N: That’s why we are staying away from politics.
E: I respect a lot of bands if they really have strong opinions of things. But at the same time I think that is quite scary, you know, because it’s like as a musician, if you have strong opinions, you can have as much power as any politician. You can manipulate a lot of people, so that’s one of the things I hate about combining strong opinions and music. Still, I respect a lot of people who really are standing behind their opinions and sharing them with people.
I heard about a thing in Finland. At Customs, when you go out you give a passport to the guy or he takes the pass. And there are several Finnish bands, including us, which are labelled as dangerous people, because we are playing for the audiences and we might manipulate people. And one friend of ours who is singing in the band called Impaled Nazarene, he used to date a Finnish girl and they lived in Belgium, and his father was like ambassador, and he has a big list of Finnish musicians there, including us as well, which they always check when you give your passport at Customs. They check their computers…
N: For us, we come from a small country up north. The systems work differently over here, and over in different places. So we know how things work in Finland, but of course here is a lot bigger country and it affects more people if you change something in the system, but in the Finnish system it’s okay…
HB: Do people ever give you a hard time because you’re on this list?
E: No, it’s just the only thing that you can recognize. When you give the passport it’s like… check their computer…
N: It’s like they’re FBI or something. They have this list of people who… But it’s a joke.
E: Yeah, it’s more or less a joke. They can’t do nothing, but they always think they know where you’re going.
HB: So they’re sort of just keeping tabs on you?
N: Yeah, we are followed.
HB: So you guys don’t feel you have a need to act as a positive role model for your younger fans?
N: Positive, of course, but we are positive. If somebody has negative opinions I try to correct them for positive ones—if I can do that, of course—but then I don’t want to get involved too much with people’s lives. You have to figure out things for yourself. But of course, if somebody asks me, I’ll tell my opinions.
HB: Do you have any plans at this point for where you want to go with the band in the future?
E: I don’t know. I think personally, I’ve dropped the ideas of where we’re going a long time ago ’cause continuing like this, doing tours and then playing for this amount of people, and visiting countries—that’s the best thing. As long as you can release good albums and do good tours, I think that’s what counts. I think that’s the thing that we always wanted to do so… I don’t know if it’s realistic to think how much further you can really take this kind of thing, ’cause we are not any popular kind of music. The record labels can’t promote us as any boy band or whatever, to take us to whatever stadiums… No, it’s okay like this. It’s better to drive with a bus like this than with the little van like we used to do years ago. Some little things got better and now we’re at the point of doing decent tours in decent conditions, so that even makes the whole thing more enjoyable. Because the first tour we did in North America was seven weeks with six guys in a little van and we booked one motel room and put all the blankets on the floor and slept there side by side. So it’s a crazy job if you think of it that way. You really have to work hard if you want to achieve that next level.
HB: Do you guys have to have day jobs back at home to supplement what you’re doing here?
E: Well, yeah, I think everybody does some little things.
N: It’s all a matter of how you organize things. Sometimes you have to do something, sometimes you don’t.
E: We have had a two-year break between the albums, so of course you have to do something else as well. But I think now the situation is better. It’s the last album for Relapse and now we are catching new deals for new labels…
HB: Are you unhappy with Relapse or do you think it’s just time to move on to someone else?
E: No, I think they have done their job with Amorphis very well, and they really gave us an opportunity to do tours and shows outside of Europe as well. So I think they helped us in a way a lot. And without Relapse I think we would have been a little bit disabled. For us it would be easier to work with perhaps a European label.
N: There’s no rush. We have to do shows now for a while, maybe something will come up…
HB: Does all this touring interfere with your home lives?
N: Not really.
E: No, I think probably with the first tours it was a more stressing thing. Now we got used to it.
N: I think it makes it better in the end to stay away and come back.
HB: Do any of you guys have kids at home?
E: Pekka, our drummer, and Tomi, the other guitar player… He’s going to be a father in July, so we have started to spread.
HB: It must be hard to be away from kids though.
N: Not that long time now—two weeks.
E: This is a short tour, yeah. Usually when we take tours we don’t do any longer than four or five weeks. So it’s basically one month that you’re away.
HB: So you guys are playing Montreal tomorrow night. Where do you go from there?
E: Springfield, home of the Simpsons…
HB: And do you go back to Europe after that?
N: We do shows next week here, then we go home, and then we start the same thing over there.
E: The summer festival season is starting now in Europe, so there’s quite a lot of festivals that we do. And I guess in August, September we start to tour more in Europe until sometime around the end of the year.
HB: How does the response to you, like the number of people coming to your live shows, differ here as opposed to Europe?
E: I don’t know. I think it’s getting better now here, as well. Of course in central Europe is our strongest market, but I think it’s getting better. The first time we were in Canada was last May and we were really, really surprised about how people reacted. I think the show in Montreal was sold out already and we were really surprised because we didn’t know exactly what to expect, and North America as well—much better crowd than it used to be.
HB: Are you guys looking forward to tonight’s show, especially after yesterday?
E: Yeah. We just blew up the amplifier during the soundcheck, so that’s always a shitty thing, but of course, yeah. It’s definitely going to be much, much better than yesterday.
N: We had to cut our set yesterday. There were delays in all the schedules, and then…
E: I don’t even know why they arranged this New Jersey festival. Because I could arrange the same kind of festival in my back yard.
N: It was like a big flea market for records.
E: It’s idea-wise very good, but how it was run was not that good. If you really arrange a festival it should be arranged as a real festival. How they arranged the festival, was that young bands had to pay to play there.
N: Yeah. Then they get to play like ten minutes without soundcheck and they pay for it.
HB: So the festivals in Europe are a lot better planned than that?
E: The thing is that they start to plan the festivals almost a year before the actual festival date and everything is piled up really well, and it’s different.
N: They are outdoor festivals, and the stages are far between, so you can’t hear what the other stage is doing, or they’re timed somehow. But yesterday there was like one stage here, one in the middle and one here, and the one in the middle was making noise all day, and then wherever you go there is always [noise sound effect], and you can’t really get anything out of anything.
E: But there are a lot of shitty festivals in Europe as well. But it’s stupid, you know, if you really arrange a festival, you should arrange it well.
HB: Does the stage set-up in there [Toronto’s Kathedral Room] look okay for you guys? Is there enough room to move around or are you used to more?
E: Definitely it’s not big, but it’s all right. It’s like a club feel, so it’s nice.
The conversation ended with Laura trying to learn how to say “I like your cat” in Finnish, and the band went on to play an excellent show for a bar full of enthusiastic fans.