When Finland's Amorphis released their first death metal demo, Disment of Soul, in 1991, both the band and their genre were young. Only three of those original members (and a few death metal growls) remain, and in 2011 it's hard to hear the Amorphis that was then in the mature and accomplished band that is now. Now two decades later, the band's tenth album demonstrates how far they have come and how well they've mastered their craft – leaving behind pure death metal for a more laid-back fusion of metal, folk, and progressive rock, while making the complicated mix sound easy and natural. Around since that first demo, Amorphis guitarist Tomi Koivusaari answers a few questions about latest record The Beginning of Times, the band's creative and recording process, touring, and near-future plans.
Considering the apocalyptic tone of 21st century life – predictions of the supposedly coming rapture, financial and environmental crises, Hollywood disaster films and the like – "end of times" may seem like a more fitting title for the present moment than The Beginning of Times. How is your latest album about beginnings? And why beginnings now?
The album title is not telling anything about our current situation. It just came from theme of this album, as the lyrics are about biggest character in Finnish mythology [iconic hero Väinämöinen]. So these are stories that are about when world was born. Anyway, it's a good opposite for all these end of times things. It just felt like the best title for the album.
How did this The Beginning of Times end up as your longest so far?
We just couldn't decide what songs we should drop out! So we decided to put them all onto album. It wasn't too easy to work with song order, to make the album solid and not sounding too long. Afterwards I'm glad we did – it needs a few times more listening before it opens.
You've had writer Pekka Kainulainen penning your lyrics in Finnish for three albums now, and developing English lyrics by translation. How does it work for you, having someone from outside the band write your lyrics?
It works fine. No one of us is that interested to write lyrics, and we don't want to "rape" our music with bad lyrics. Pekka knows what we want, and we give him quite free hands. Music comes first to us anyway.
On your website you have the lyrics for the new album, but also a full cycle of poems – can you explain the relationship between the two? And how the words transformed from poetry to song lyrics?
When Pekka starts, he is writing a story (or stories) as one big script of poems, in the Finnish language. When we are translating them to English we pick parts for songs. Finally Marco Hietala (vocal producer) and Tomi Joutsen (vocalist) are arranging them a bit to fit to song. It takes few steps but that's how it has worked the last few albums.
You haven't focused on the Kalevala (Finland's national epic) for every album, but for your fans, your music has become profoundly connected with Finnish mythologies, Kalevala included. What does that connection mean for you in terms of understanding Amorphis's identity as a Finnish band?
When we first had the idea of using the Kalevala back in '95, the idea for it came because we were listening to some different countries' folk and ethnic music and already took influences from that world to our music, and we wanted lyricse from same dimension. After a few albums we got totally fed up the whole thing, as that started to be only thing in the band that interested the media, especially the Finnish media. We didn't want to be any pilgrimages of Kalevala, so to say. Also there were some misunderstandings about why we were using a "national" book in our texts. When Tomi joined (in 2005) it felt natural to go back to that world, as our subjects never changed that much anyway. Today it feels like our own thing. There have come some bands who are taking inspiration from the same book but we were first.
This is the longest Amorphis has had a stable line up (since 2005). How does that affect the music you make?
In our history we always changed more after every album, partly because new members always bring something new to the band musically. Now we have found some more stable situation. Also it is easier when writing songs, as we know about what other guys are going to play for it. Live playing is getting better and better all the time as well.
Melody is such an integral part of the Amorphis sound. Does your songwriting start with melodies?
Songwriting can start from melody, riff or just sound.
How does the writing process work for the band?
When it reaches the rehearsing place, everyone is bringing their views and ideas for it, and it becomes what it becomes, usually melodies and variations are the strongest element.
Your music has tended to engage in a kind of balancing act between metal, rock, folk and prog, with different albums leaning more in one direction or another. What's your take on the relationship between different sounds?
We are quite open-minded when it comes listening good music, it doesn't matter if it is metal or rock or whatever. We are not thinking genre limits when writing music. It's just taking inspirations and influences from different kinds of music and when we play new songs, it usually sounds like Amorphis. At least I hope so. I think songs in those categories you mentioned are after all pretty much the same, it's just up to sounds and attitude, how you play what style it is.
How would you describe the new album in terms of its mix of genres? Was this a deliberate goal, or something that emerged organically?
I don't want to describe our music by any genres. I'd rather leave that to people who want to do it. Personally I don't care what genre it is. All has happened very naturally. We would have broken up long time ago if we'd have stuck to some certain style. We want always to please ourselves at first place when making music, that way this stays fresh and enjoyable for us.
The new album is self-produced – is that the norm for Amorphis?
Actually we have never had real producer, always produced ourselves when it comes to music. We can say there are six producers in the band anyway, and we know exactly what we want. Producers have always been for vocals mainly. It would be interesting though to try someday how it would turn out with some producer. We have even discussed about it. We'll see…
Why is the vocal recording such a distinct process, having Tomi working with Marco Hietala (Nightwish)?
It's just that Tomi wants someone, an "outsider," to comment and listen to what he's doing, as if you record them just by yourself you get easily deaf to what you're doing. Marco is also great with harmonies and arranging lyrics to songs. We could probably do without any outsider producer, but Tomi likes it this way and it is more motivating him to work like this.
How do you handle the steps of choosing songs, recording them, and producing the album?
It takes like 500 emails between band members in the end, heh. It starts when someone is sending some raw demo version of a song by email. When there are like ten of those we are going to a rehearsing place to jam them. Then we book a studio. Before going to the studio we make a demo from all the songs, so we get a clearer picture of the songs we are doing. Everyone has quite free hands to play whatever in their space, nobody usually needs to produce other's playing parts that much. Then we just… record them. But when choosing songs and putting them in order, that's the most stressing part, as we have six (usually different) opinions for everything.
The Beginning of Times features female vocals – who is the performer? What led to the decision to write and record female vocal melodies for this album?
Her name is Netta Dahlberg. A day before mixing was starting we felt that the album needs some female touch, to make it less "leatheric," heh. Netta is our friend's girlfriend, and she has done her own album as well, very different stuff though, and also singing on many albums as session singer. Beautiful voice she has.
Are there other guests on the album?
There is Iikka Kahri playing some additional flutes and saxophones. He played on the Skyforger album as well.
You have several music videos in your catalogue now. How involved is in the band in conceptualizing and developing your videos?
Heh, not too much, I have to say. Let's face it, we haven't been too lucky when it comes to our music videos. But those are always somebody else's views from our songs. We are not that much concentrating to videos. Also budgets are always quite low, so we have to live with that. There are a couple of videos which are quite nice, in my opinion.
What about the video to the new song, "You I Need"? The setting seems almost post-apocalyptic at first, until Tomi (Joutsen) finds the mermaid and takes her out to the lake. What's your take on the story represented here and how it relates to the original song?
Like I said, those are somebody else's views from the story of the song, which is ok. I mean, people have anyway different feelings from listening music – it is a very individual and personal experience. I do see a connection between the video and the story of the album though, just moved to different time.
You guys have maintained a pretty busy release schedule over the last few years. What has driven you to keep at it so persistently? Is Amorphis a full time job?
This is a full time job for all of us, so I don't even think that we have been busy or anything. Songs are just coming all the time and we are enjoying to make music and tour that much nowadays, so why pull breaks?
Last year you released a live DVD/CD package, Forging The Land Of Thousand Lakes, featuring two concerts from 2009. What made you decide it was time to release a live DVD, and how did you pick these two concerts to represent?
We were planning for a DVD for years before, but were too lazy to make it happen. So we just decided that for our [20th] anniversary year we will have DVD out, where there will also be a documentary from our career. So we looked at our gig calendar from end to end to see if there were some good venues for filming, and there was – Teatria in Oulu is one of the best venues in Finland, for sure. The secondary live footage is from a festival gig [Summer Breeze] in Germany. We just got tapes from that concert and decided to add it to the DVD – it wasn't purposely filmed for it. For that we had to do some re-recordings, as the sound was ruined. But Oulu, the main show, was real live, which is quite rare these days.
The band's 20th anniversary must have been a major motivation for releasing Magic & Mayhem – Tales from the Early Years as well. But what made you decide to celebrate 20 years in that particular way, re-recording your older songs with the current line-up?
It was just because we didn't want to put out just the usual compilation album, but offer something more. This recording is not meant to replace the originals, as that would be stupid – sounds and mood and everything is something you just cannot redo.
How did the newer members react and adjust to the older songs? Were they already familiar with them from live performances?
New members were excited about it. We had already played those songs live so it wasn't so big a deal. We just wanted to record those songs with current line-up. Also there are a lot of new fans in our audience who don't know these songs. Now they do.
How did you pick which songs to record?
We picked songs from our three first albums [The Karelian Isthmus, 1993, Tales From The Thousand Lakes, 1994, Elegy, 1996], songs that felt good to play. Also it was interesting to hear how they would sound in the year 2010 – technology has gone so much forward (and backwards in a way) from when we recorded those actual albums.
When touring for Magic & Mayhem you played several reunion shows with former members. How did you and your audiences enjoy the reunion performances?
It was great! All former members showed up and were excited. Some of those guys we didn't see for years before that, and on stage and on the tour bus it felt like nothing has happened – we still had the same great fun with all the guys. I believe it was great for the audience as well, especially for younger fans who got the chance to see some, for example, Tales or Elegy song with the original line-up. We have kept in touch after that, so maybe in our 30th anniversary we'll do it again.
Where have your found the best audiences or your favourite places to perform?
Hard to say what is best. Europe has been the biggest market for us, so... but it is always great to see new places, and exotic places. I liked them all, U.S.A, South America, Europe, Japan... The audience isn't that different in the end. Except South America – there must be best audience we ever played, singing loud all the songs from beginning to end, so great…
Any dream destinations for future tours?
I would love to go to Australia, never been there.
What are your plans for the rest of 2011 and into the next year?
First we do summer festivals all over Europe, heading to tour in Japan as well, one gig in Taiwan, then we have 17 gigs tour here in Finland. Right after that we start a four weeks European tour, then a South American tour, a few gigs in States, then another four weeks European tour... Russian shows in the fall as well. So there will be lot to do for this year, and it'll continue far into 2012. We'll see after that, probably the next album.
After all this time, how do you understand your relationship with the Finnish and international metal scenes?
Musically we are doing our own thing. Otherwise we have friends from bands all over the world nowadays. It doesn't matter from where, because mainly we see the scene on tour, not so much having time to hang out in, for example, Helsinki's night life. This whole life has become very international, which is nice. When I'm at home I feel like I'm on vacation, and thinking totally different things. Well, I'm trying.