Interview with guitarist Tomi Koivusaari
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: March 14, 2014
Amorphis is, without a doubt, one of the most important and well-known Finnish Metal bands ever. The Karelian Isthmus, Amorphis' debut album, received rave reviews from all over the world back when it was released by Relapse Records in 1992. It opened doors for Amorphis and gave them plenty of opportunities to play live. However, it was Amorphis' follow-up album, Tales from the Thousand Lakes, released just two years later, that put Amorphis on the Metal map for good. That album brought Amorphis their first ever American tour supporting Entombed. Tales from the Thousand Lakes was much different than the band's well-received debut, content-wise (more keyboards, clean vocals and so on), and, in many ways, is considered the band's breakthrough album. Everything seemed to click on Tales... and, from that album on, it's been a long victory march for Amorphis, with a few ups and downs, to being the much-loved Metal band that they are today.
2014 marks 20 years since Tales from the Thousand Lakes was released. The following interview with guitarist Tomi Koivusaari was done via email and concentrates strictly on Tomi's thoughts and memories about the Tales... album. 2014 is a good year to celebrate Amorphis' second beautiful baby, too...
Luxi: First off, how's it going, mate? What were you up to before you started looking at these questions related to Amorphis' "breakthrough" album, Tales from the Thousand Lakes?
Tomi: I'm fine, thanks! I just woke up for the second time this "morning," and started to check out your interview.
I had some strange dreams, as always when I go back to sleep after waking up for the first time. Now I have a huge cup of coffee next to me.
Luxi: Time really seems to be flying. It's unbelievable that it's been 20 years since the Tales... album was released. Can you still recall the time when you were putting songs together for this, as it turns out, landmark Amorphis release? Did you feel at any pressure from Relapse to record your follow-up record quickly?
Tomi: I remember that time very well, actually. We didn't have any pressure at all, since nothing really happened when The Karelian... was released. I mean, we didn't get any royalties, didn't have tours outside of Finland, didn't have huge sales numbers. Of course, there were more interviews coming from all over the world but still it felt like what's going on now. So when we started to work on new stuff (for Tales...) I remember thinking "either this stuff is going to be a huge flop or a huge success." The main focus was to do what we felt like doing and I think we just found something unique in our music. Also, our taste for different music styles had gotten wider since the Karelian... album, where we were trying to sound like some other bands. So, in that period, our main focus was to do an album that we would find satisfying; to make an album that we would be proud of later on, and not try to do a basic Death/Doom album like we assumed everyone was expecting from us. That was only choice anyway, as all of us had started to listen so much different Metal, so we didn't feel we had to force ourselves to stick to a particular genre, but rather going in a direction that made making music more interesting. It was quite a pleasant surprise when our record label, the critics and the fans loved it.
Luxi: As the majority of feedback from people regarding The Karelian Isthmus was positive, did you start thinking that you had done something special or even remarkable on your debut, which kind of opened the door for all of you to see that Amorphis might be on to something and that eventually led to the Tales... album?
Tomi: I don't think there was any conscious decision on Tales..., it was all about a musical starting point. It was more like an attitude of "we don't care what people say, we're doing our own thing anyway." The Karelian Isthmus was a good release, but after that we started to focus on our own thing more and more. I remember that it took a year or so after we finished the Tales... recordings before the album finally came out, and we mostly played those songs at our gigs even though our fans didn't know them yet. We all felt that the new material was much stronger. But yeah, I think The Karelian Isthmus was an important album for us to start thing off and say "we are here and will kick your butts."
Luxi: How quickly did you start writing for the Tales... album, after the debut? Was it easy to get yourselves motivated to start rehearsing and working with your new songs?
Tomi: I think the songwriting for the Tales... album started pretty soon after the debut. Kasper Mårtenson joined us to play live as sort of a "ghost member," and obviously he had some great ideas, not to mention the keyboards, which changed our sound-scape quite a bit. So we were very motivated to start writing new material. It felt fresh and fun. As I said before, The Karelian Isthmus got us some good tours in Finland, but we wanted to go other countries as well, as most of our fan base was overseas, or, at least, that's how we felt from the "underground times." So we were hungry for that too of course.
Luxi: Tales from the Thousand Lakes included 10 songs that combined to make a pretty mind-blowing concept; the kind of concept that Amorphis became known for in the following years. On Tales... Amorphis started to depart from the brutal Death Metal sound, and began incorporating more melodic, Doom and folk elements into the songs, something that became Amorphis' trademark sound from that album on. Was that intentional or just a result of the music you guys wanted to make? Were you concerned with the fact so many Death Metal bands from those days started to sound the same?
Tomi: I think it was both unintentional and intentional at same time. Things that lead us to that album may have come from the fact that all of us started listening to a lot of 70's progressive and psychedelic Rock music; bands like Pink Floyd, King Crimson, Camel, The Doors, etc. A Finnish band called Kingston Wall was also quite important to us. We saw them live like 30 times over a short period. Kingston Wall also introduced us to Sakari Kukko's band Piirpauke, a folky, jazzy and progressive-sounding act, formed in the 70's, which is still active. Also, because we were getting more interested in folk-orientated stuff, we got the idea on a ferry back from Sweden, where we were recording The Karelian... album, to use the Finnish folklore Kalevala in our lyrics, as we felt it would fit perfectly with this kind of musical path. We didn't know any Rock band that had done that before, which was great. Also, Kasper had just joined the band, and he was very much into this old Hammond and Moog keyboard stuff. All those elements were leading us to Tales... and where we are today.
Luxi: Tales... saw the introduction of keyboards to Amorphis' sound for the first time. Did you have second thoughts or worry that some fans might not look at you so favorably anymore due to the musical change between the debut and Tales...?
Tomi: Yes, we actually thought about that quite a bit, that it might be a flop or a letdown for some people. Ultimately, we didn't care, as it was more important for us to make the album we really felt like making. That's a more honest way to do music, anyway. We've always felt that Amorphis is a bit of an "odd bird" in the Metal scene, as we have never been aggressive, satanic or anything that seemed to be "normal." It was more natural to follow the musical path we did than to put on corpse paint on and start spitting blood or something like that. There's nothing wrong with that but it never felt like our thing, you know?
Luxi: How did you find keyboardist Kasper Mårtenson for Tales...? Did he bring ideas to the songs on the album, besides, of course, those songs he was credited with writing?
Tomi: Oppu, our bass player, knew him at that time, and we did a bit as well. We saw him at gigs, parties and so on. We had a couple of keyboard things on The Karelian... album that we wanted Kasper to play at our gigs. At first, he was a "ghost member" of Amorphis and later, joined full-time, although for just a short time. Kasper had great ideas for song arrangements and he proved himself to be a worthy guy. He is a very talented musician. We all were excited to have a new element in our music, so it was very inspirational to have him in the band.
Luxi: Most of the musical contributions for the Tales... album came from the Holopainen (guitar)/Laine (bassist) axis but you also contributed a few songs, like "Castaway" and "Drowned Maid." What many people don't know is that you also wrote songs like "Folk of the North" and "Moon and Sun: Part 1 and Part 2" during the recording sessions for the Tales... album, but these obviously never ended up on the original version. How many songs did you write for this album and are there still some unfinished songs left from those sessions?
Tomi: At the time, we didn't have any leftovers from our recording sessions. We had just the songs we recorded for the album. We made the Black Winter Day EP after Tales... to include the songs you mentioned. We always try to pick songs that work well together for albums and the rest usually end up as bonus songs or something.
Luxi: Tales... also marked the first time Amorphis featured clean vocals and broke the ice in that department, too. You performed the majority of the vocal parts but the clean vocal parts were sung by Ville Tuomi, who also had his own band Kyyria, back in those days. Whose idea was it to invite Ville to do some clean vocals for this record and was there any concern about it being a good idea or not? I'm sure many though it was only Mr. Koivusaari who was a suitable growler on Amorphis records...
Tomi: If I remember correctly, it was my idea. We knew the guys in Kyyria well and saw each other in the bars a lot back in those days. I had started to feel that this growling type of stuff didn't offer much in terms of growing or expanding Amorphis' sound, so we thought that it would be great to add more dimension to our stuff with clean singing. Ville was a natural choice to handle those clean vocals on the Tales... album. Of course, clean vocals were a little bit strange for the Death Metal scene but we felt that it brought more diversity and melody to our music. Ville didn't only participate on that record but he also joined us for a tour, as well, and, if I can remember right, I think we asked him to join the band permanently, too. He refused to join Amorphis permanently because he had his own band, Kyyria. Coincidence or not, after Ville said "no thanks" to us, we started looking for a permanent clean singer for the Elegy album. Eventually, we found Pasi Koskinen, who was later replaced by Tomi Joutsen and, basically, the rest is history, I guess. Funny enough, today, Santeri Kallio and Niclas Etelävuori are in our line-up, formerly from Kyyria.
Luxi: Tales... was recorded at Sunlight Studios in Stockholm, Sweden, with Tomas Skogsberg behind the board again, just like your debut album The Karelian Isthmus. Why did you choose the same studio and producer for the Tales... album? Did it have anything to do with the fact that every so-called "hot" Death Metal band in Europe wanted to record their albums there because bands like Entombed, Dismember, Xysma and Carnage had recorded their successful debuts at that famous studio?
Tomi: Yes, at the time there weren't many professional producers and/or recording studios in Finland and nobody seemed to get what we wanted because this Death Metal thing was so new in our country. So, of course, we were very excited to get to the same studio booked where, for example, Entombed had recorded their first three albums. It was pretty easy work with Tomas and the recording went quickly, not to mention we had a good time spending a couple of weeks in Stockholm, isolated from our normal routines of life and all that. Actually, we recorded half of the Elegy album there as well, but that time the helping hand was offered by Dismember's Fred Estby, production-wise. Sadly, there was construction work going on at Sunlight at that time, so we had to come back to Finland to finish the record.
Luxi: What was the experience of recording at Sunlight Studios like what are some of your memories about working with Mr. Skogsberg?
Tomi: Well, he was a nice guy to us and focused on work, mainly. I don't remember if he was doing much "producing" work though, it was more like he was checking that the songs sounded right and so on. He wasn't involved with the song arrangements and stuff. I do remember that he was a little worried about what our label might think of our new stuff with the keyboards and so on. He wondered if our new stuff was a bit too commercial sounding. Tomas had more of a Punk attitude. I'm sure he might remember us as a bunch of kids with hangovers every day, although we didn't drink at all when working at the studio. Tomas worked very fast; Tales... was recorded AND mixed in two weeks.
Luxi: Talking about your vocals on Tales..., there are many people that consider your death grunts on that album some of the best and most convincing death growls ever done. How do feel about this compliment? I bet you still meet some old-school Amorphis fans, from time to time, that say you should never have given up growling behind the mic, right?
Tomi: Well, it is kind of hard for me to listen to my vocals on that record the same way, as I'm always very self-critical. I do hear, from time to time, that some fans would still like to hear me singing in Amorphis but, to be honest, although it was fun to do back then, I've always enjoyed being "just" a guitar player. I started to sing in Amorphis purely by "accident" at first, because nobody else could do growling vocals. I was enjoying it, but being the front man of the band wasn't my cup of tea. To be honest, I prefer to stay at the background. But you never know, maybe someday I'll go back to growling my lungs out again, he he!!
Luxi: Do you remember when you finally told your band mates that you were done with doing death grunts so they'd better start hunting for a new vocalist?
Tomi: It was right after Tales... when we started to seek a permanent guy to do the clean vocals in the band. After Elegy I wanted to completely turn over the vocal responsibility to someone else. I used to do some growls on old songs during gigs but, after Tomi Joutsen joined, I haven't done any vocals anymore. I think Tomi does them better than me anyway.
Luxi: After the Tales... album was released, Amorphis packed its gear and flew over to the States for the first time, to support Entombed on tour. What memories do you have from your first ever Amorphis US tour? Travelling in a tiny old van must have been quite an unforgettable experience for both Entombed and Amorphis, correct?
Tomi: It was exciting, travelling almost seven weeks, over 20,000 kilometers (12500 miles) from east to west, and back, in a van. Back in those days, you were able to see so much more than you can travelling by night liner nowadays. With a night liner, you are likely sleeping when it is moving and it only stops at some truck stops. When we were travelling by van, which we basically drove ourselves, we saw a lot of interesting places and things. It was also great to open for Entombed, who had just put out the Wolverine Blues album and we learned a lot from them from on that particular tour. Of course, it was also a rough tour. We were on the road with all our stuff by ourselves, drinking and having lots of parties and watching the same faces in a small van for seven weeks, and that can be pain. Also, we always took just one motel room and slept all seven people in there. We had Kari Hynninen with us, who worked as a tour manager, a driver, and Roope Palomäki, who was doing F.O.H. and driving as well. It was an exciting experience, for sure, as not many Finnish bands had done it before, and we met many cool people on the road as well. Another thing I remember was Dregen, who was a guitar roadie for Entombed, helped us a lot. Sometimes the van was a little more crowded when Entombed's bass player, Lars, wanted to travel with us instead of on their nice bus because we were partying more, ha ha!! We met Lemmy at the Rainbow and he was funny because he was challenging me to play Pacman with him. Escaping from rednecks from a strip club in Lubbock, looking too normal and not grunge enough at Seattle, that's about it for what I remember. We do have around 10 hours of video footage from that tour, still mostly unreleased. Who knows, we may put it on DVD someday.
Luxi: Even though Entombed was the headliner on that tour you were already good friends with those guys, correct? Besides some hard-drinking, general craziness, can you recall any low points on that tour like maybe the van breaking down in the middle of nowhere or having a hangover that lasted 2-3 days in a row, or some of your gear getting lost?
Tomi: We actually knew the Entombed guys before the tour and I think we played with them at Lepakko in Helsinki in '91 for the first time. Some of the guys even stayed overnight at Esa's place or, actually, his parents place at that time. We also had a tape trading history with them. Entombed did something like 5 tours in a row in States back then, so they didn't party as much as us. We did get lost once in a while and were some very bad hangovers, hell yes! There were some weird parties we ended up at with the Entombed guys, travelling by pick-up truck and around 10 of us ending up to some strange college party, whew! We got along with those Swedes very well. Definitely some good memories, indeed...
Luxi: Did you meet anyone from your label Relapse Records during that tour? Were they even more excited to work with Amorphis once they got a taste of your live experience?
Tomi: Yes we did, we actually stayed at the main office of Relapse in Pennsylvania for a few days before the tour and did some promotion. They did a lot work for us at that time; for example they came to the shows once in a while, though I can't remember if they liked our shows or not. We had a good time. There were some great people working at Relapse back then.
Luxi: I remember watching some clips from this tour on Headbanger's Ball on MTV, hosted by Vanessa Warwick. She even interviewed you guys. Your guitarist, Esa Holopainen, wore a cowboy hat in this particular clip, as I recall. Where the heck did he find that?
Tomi: Ha ha! I think he found that cowboy hat at the first truck stop on the tour. Since we were in the States, we had to get a cowboy hat.
Luxi: To boost the sales of the Tales... album, a video for the song "Black Winter Day" was shot, which was in quite heavy rotation on MTV's Headbanger's Ball back in the days. What can you remember from shooting the video for "Black Winter Day"?
Tomi: Oh my god, I still have many things I remember from those sessions. Thinking back, those memories are hilarious, but at that time it was, well, less hilarious making that video, which was our first ever. We traveled to Germany to shoot two different videos, actually; one for "Into Hiding" and the other for "Black Winter Day". We had no clue at all what the director had planned for us. His name was Matt and he picked us up from the airport and we started to ask what he had in his mind. He started to tell us his idea for the "Black Winter Day" video, something about a little girl who goes to dentist, falls into trance and ends up at a medieval prom. We were thinking "what do scenes like that have to do with the song itself" and "what about what we wanted the video to look like?" We stayed at his apartment and he went off and told us there were some clothes upstairs if we wanted to try them on. We had a good laugh when Esa (Holopainen) modeled with those "Mozart clothes" for us. In the morning, Matt came to pick us up for the video shoot and asked if we found any good clothes to use for the video. In fact, we were supposed to dance in this video with those ridiculous clothes on. In the end, we told him we weren't going to wear them and we thought his idea about seeing us dancing in this video wasn't that great. So he hired some guys from Nuclear Blast to act in those roles in the "Black Winter Day" video, ha ha!! I'm still glad we didn't do it ourselves. As for the "Into Hiding" video, it was an even worse experience for us. We went to some school and there was one classroom set up for us as a so-called "backstage." It was full of booze and things you wouldn't normally have at a primary school classroom. We did our part and pretended to play live for audience of 8-year olds! In addition to that, we had on heavy make-up, which we didn't want to put on, but someone from the video team told us that without it, wed look like pigs on film. Oppu was forced into a role where he was someone who's bullied at school. We were just laughing our asses off at our "backstage". I remember, once in a while, one of us would sneak off to see what was happening with the actual video shootings and came back telling how now there is somebody with mustache and leather pants driving a motorcycle down the hallway of the school and some kid skateboarding at the same time. That wasn't really what we expected. We banned the "Into Hiding" video and made Nuclear Blast swear they would never show this video anywhere, never!
Luxi: Now, talking about the Tales... album and playing live, 2014 marks 20th anniversary of this breakthrough Amorphis album, so I was wondering if you have any intention of celebrating the record a little bit. Maybe play a handful of shows this year in which you might play the album in its entirely, from start to finish? I am sure this would be something special that many Amorphis fans would appreciate.
Tomi: This year is already quite full for us, touring wise, and we haven't planned anything like that so far. Next year, 2015, will be our 25th anniversary year, so maybe we'll figure out something special then.
Luxi: Are you aware of how many units the Tales... album has sold all around the world, including reissues and stuff? I saw it mentioned somewhere that it might be as many as 100,000?
Tomi: I don't have any specific numbers to give you but, at some point years ago, what I heard was over 200,000 units. It is hard to tell, though Relapse should know the sales figures.
Luxi: How well would you say Tales from the Thousand Lakes has stood the test of time?
Tomi: Well, musically, I think it has stood the test of time quite well. Sound wise, not that well I am afraid, as within the past 20 years or so, recording studios have become better and more professional and production has taken huge leaps forward. But the Tales... album still has a special sound which nicely reflects the times back in the day.
Luxi: If you made it this far without a big headaches, then congratz Tomi. I want to sincerely thank you for taking time to do this special interview for The Metal Crypt. I also want to wish you all the best with any future endeavors with Amorphis. Last comments are yours...
Tomi: Thanks Luxi, all the best for you and readers of The Metal Crypt as well!
|Other information about Amorphis on this site|
|Review: Tales From The Thousand Lakes|
|Review: The Karelian Isthmus|
|Review: Tales From The Thousand Lakes|
|Review: Silent Waters|
|Review: Magic & Mayhem - Tales from the Early Years|
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