Published May 03, 2013New record Circle is the 11th studio album from Finland's Amorphis, and it's of a piece with the quartet of records that preceded it. Since frontman Tomi Joutsen joined the band in 2005, Amorphis have settled into a kind of musical stability, a symbiotic blending of metal and rock, prog and folk. All of these elements show up in some way in the band's earlier work but in recent years they've achieved a higher degree of naïve sophistication. This stability, though, means that each new Amorphis album doesn't at first listen sound dramatically different from the last. It's only after time, and multiple listens, that the unique attractions of its own particular sonic tapestry emerge, a new permutation in the relationship between melody and heaviness, catchiness and gloom. Founding guitarist Tomi Koivusaari took some time out to share his thoughts on the new album and on the paired forces of stability and change.
The Amorphis line-up has been stable for several years now. How has this affected the music you create?
I'm sure it of course affects us, in that we haven't had radical changes for a while, but that's also because I believe we have found certain things musically that we've been looking for. When we were younger we were searching all the time and our opinions and tastes were changing all the time as well, even though we still had the same kind of influences from when we were forming the band. But to us now change is not most important. Going forward, of course, but some changes are happening in a smaller scale than you first hear.
How do you keep things fresh without attempting any dramatic shifts in direction or sound? Do you ever still struggle with the pressure to reinvent yourselves?
Back in the days when we were changing quite a lot all the time, everyone was asking why we are doing that, wouldn't it make more sense to stick at least a little bit more in a certain style. Now everyone asks why we don't change anymore. But when we start to work with new stuff, we are not planning what direction we should go, but just do whatever we feel like. That way we keep things fresh for ourselves as well. Obviously we have felt like this style for a while now, and are trying to refine that more.
Working with producer Peter Tägtgren (Hypocrisy, Pain) was one thing you did differently for this record. How did that come about? What was his contribution to Circle?
We have known Peter for decades. The first time we got to know him was when we toured together and shared a bus with Hypocrisy back in '94/'95. We have seen him once in a while on tours, festivals and so on. Many times he also suggested that he could produce/mix our record. This time we needed a change as well, and when we started to think about a producer, Peter was one of our first ideas. It was definitely the right choice. It was relaxed to work with him, and the result sounds awesome. We share quite the same experience from this whole scene, and we can respect him as producer, as I think he respects our ideas and ways to work. We had good fun together. He contributed his knowledge about guitar sounds and a heavier sound overall. We were looking for a heavier and darker sound for this album, and we've got it.
The guitar riffs and bass lines on Circle do carry some extra weight. What made you decide to put additional emphasis on the new record on these more traditional metal sounds?
I think it was our idea to bring up the guitars more, to get a heavier sound, but I think that's what Peter would have done anyway. Peter wanted Niclas (Etelävuori) to play his bass parts with a five-string bass, and when he normally would have gone up (in a bass line) he would go further down. I think it fits perfectly — now guitars and bass aren't at the same frequency-area, and it sounds heavy as hell.
Did you have any anxieties about sending the record off to Sweden to be mixed, or about the amount of creative control you were handing over?
Well yes, that's why we travelled to Peter's studio, all of us, to mix it. Although Peter already had the mix almost ready before, we went there to make final changes. But we have good trust in our Swedish friends, we've been working with Swedish guys so many times before. Also Peter was involved with the whole process since the project started, so I believe we had the same goals in terms of how the album's gonna be.
How did you end up recording an actual church organ?
Santeri [Kallio, keyboards] played once for his friend's funeral at church with a church organ, I think, and that way he knew that church's cantor, so he asked if it was possible to record some tracks there, and it was fine. It's surely a different sound than from the synthesizer. Also Santeri used real Hammonds and real a grand piano when needed, instead of easy and sometimes cheap-sounding synthesizer. There are great keyboard things on this album.
You brought back saxophone player Sakari Kukko for this record. What led to that decision?
A year ago we did a concert-hall tour in Finland, which was a mostly acoustic set. (It was a strange and giving experience — it is so different to play acoustically for sitting crowd. Although they didn't sit at the end anymore!) Sakari was our guest on that tour, as we have known him since he played on our Tuonela and Am Universum records. So when we started to plan the new record he obviously came to our minds, and because of how recognizable his playing is on woodwinds and sax. He is also known as "Crazy-Sakari." He is a great guy. We will play that set at Wacken this year by the way, with Sakari involved as well as [female vocalist] Mari M, who was also guesting on that tour and on the new record. Mari M sings on quite a few songs on Circle. I think it brings a nice "Morricone-ish" feeling to it.
Amorphis have developed a strong relationship now with lyricist Pekka Kainulainen. How much do his lyrics influence the way the record sounds? Does he have any opportunity to hear the music you're working on before he writes the words?
Music always comes first. We are making songs to an instrumental shape at first, then starting to think about the lyrics. That's how it has always been in our case. Pekka wanted to have our demo of new songs, so he could get inspiration out of it for the lyrics he was working on.
Do you have any personal connection to the concept and story of Circle?
Not directly no, but I think it is easy to identify with the story, as I still remember how uncool it was to have long hair and listen to heavy metal back when I was like 15 years old, in a small suburban area near Helsinki. And all the struggling at a younger age when searching for your own identity and all that. So in a way Amorphis was to me the same kind of path to go on as that "own tribe" in Circle's story.
Do you have any favourite songs on Circle?
It's too early to say what songs will remain best. I still think of the album as a whole, and I don't think there are any bad links there. If I'd have to choose some, I'd choose… hmm… "A New Day." It has a nice C-part with acoustics and female vocals. Very Ennio Morricone-ish.
Are there any music videos for Circle in the works?
There will be three of them all together. There's already a studio making-of video for "Nightbird's Song," which will be in digi-pack version of the CD, as well as a documentary from the studio. Also we are working with one Swedish director right now — we will shoot soon our part to the video for "A Wanderer," and there will be video for "Hopeless Days" that will be a mostly animated, without band, video.
I understand you recorded most of Circle at a studio surrounded by sheep. How much does the environment around you when you're recording affect the feel of the album?
We had good kebab all the time! Heh, no, we started to think before recording this album that maybe we should change the process of album-making this time, as the last four albums we did at the same studio with almost the same crew all the time. We needed a change, not only to have something new for our sound, but keeping ourselves inspired. So we went to the countryside to record, mainly because we wanted a peaceful place, so that nobody is hurrying home or anything but staying at the same place for a week or so. That's how we did our very first four albums back in the day. Recording again all separated felt too clinical a way to do it this time. Recording in the middle of nowhere, in nature, was at the same time very inspiring and let us concentrate on the music. I think it created a sort of atmosphere to the album. We can all appreciate being in the countryside and nature — it is all relaxing.
It looks like you will be busy playing live well into the foreseeable future — any particular parts of the tour you're looking forward to? Any plans yet for North American shows?
At first we will have summer festivals all over Europe. In the fall we will be touring in Russia, Europe, Australia, Japan, Finland, plus there are some plans for a South American tour as well. These are all happening in 2013 — we'll keep going from early 2014 as well, but still haven't confirmed anything yet. Looking forward to playing in Australia, as we've never been there before! There are some possibilities [for North American shows], but it is too early to talk about it. I wish — it's been a while since the last time we did proper tour over there. Keeping our fingers crossed.
You performed on the Sweden Rock cruise recently as well — how was that experience?
Well it was okay, quite similar to the Radio Rock Cruise we did earlier. Sweden Rock cruise wasn't that crowded though. Also those cruises are quite familiar to us; when we were younger we travelled to Sweden (just for fun or making our first three records in Stockholm) and back in the same ships and got very, very drunk. But talking about cruises, 70,000 Tons of Metal was just great! Having a holiday the same time as having couple of gigs. It was awesome, especially that it happened at season when there is like, minus 25 Celsius in Finland and having the opportunity to go cruising in the Caribbean. Also it was very well organized, everything worked and everyone had great time on the ship. It was strange that 40 bands and 3000 fans are packed on a ship and everything works great. I wanna go there again, now!
I understand you're releasing an Amorphis "Hopeless" bourbon sauce? How did this come about? Is there any connection to band member's recent cooking show appearances?
Heh, no. Esa knew somebody from that company, and there are a few guys in the company who have been big Amorphis fans for 20 years. And we like good chilli sauce! They appeared at one show of ours last December in Finland, having samples with them, and asked if we would like to do this. We were like, why not, at least it is a more original idea than to have your own wine or beer. It is limited edition, and I think it is a nice thing for fans — not making any bigger business out of it. And it tastes good! You should try!
What other plans do you guys have in store? What's next for Amorphis?
Now we are just eagerly waiting to get back on road, we have been blowing our balls the last few months, waiting for Circle to release, and now we want to play gigs! That's all we are thinking right now. And of course it is exciting to hear what everyone else is thinking about the new album! We think it is one of our strongest albums.
Tomi, you've been with Amorphis since the beginning. How has your relationship to music-making changed over the past 20-plus years — your reasons for making music, or your ideas about the band?
Basically it's still the same kind of process. Sometimes it is harder and sometimes easier, but still having the same kind of goals as from the beginning, trying to do a song that creates some feelings. We never had any limitations as to what direction we should take musically, so songs are coming the way they come. And when arranging a song with the band, that's when it is getting its shape, which sounds like Amorphis. Of course, now we all have more responsibility than when we were like 20 years old. This has become our full-time job, so naturally we wanna do things the professional way, more than let's say 20 years ago. Our vision musically hasn't changed because of that though.
Amorphis's current sound is drastically different from the band's early albums, but there are still some consistent elements remaining. Do you hear that in your music as well? What sounds, for you, connect the Amorphis that exists now to the early incarnations of the band?
Maybe it is a similar way of thinking when composing, and of course there have been the same guitarists the whole time and our way of playing. I think it is great if you can hear the same elements still going forward. It would be odd to do the same album again and again, and trying to stay in a certain sound, for example, the Tales From the Thousand Lakes sound, which is perfect on that album but not the best sound ever, for sure. Also we have had those folk elements all the time and never wanted to do songs where you should be a virtuoso to play them. The simpler the better — leaves more space for atmosphere.
Are there any elements of earlier or younger Amorphis that you miss or regret leaving behind?
I don't look at it that way, I think every album is that time's milestone, which we should not be ashamed of or try to copy later on. There are some elements in our earlier stuff that, when I'm listening now, I'm thinking "How did we do that? and elements I'm thinking "Why did we do that?" But I'm sure I'll be thinking the same after 20 years from now about, for example, Circle. I do miss a certain innocence about making songs that you have when you're young. Now we are probably over-thinking some things, we can't help it, but that's only because we are trying to do things perfectly. Which is fine too, but then we are missing coincidences in music.
Many of your records draw on the Finnish Kalevala for their themes. In your opinion, what is the significance of the Kalevala for a contemporary audience — in Finland, but also in other parts of the world?
I think it depends on the listener. To some of them it is an interesting thing and they get very deep into it, and to some it is just a source of lyrics, as they still are thinking of a song's lyrics as more separate and personal. In Finland, of course, we are known to most of the ordinary people as "the heavy band who sings about Kalevala." That's why we got fed up with it a decade ago in the first place. But it is unique and an original thing to use, although some metal bands have used the same thing after us. To them it is not that original thing anymore, but why not. It is not our property. On Circle the story is not from the Kalevala anymore, although it could be.
Amorphis have had a great deal of success in Finland — hitting the top of the charts — but you've also charted well in other European countries. How successful do you feel? Does your sense of success vary as you travel from place to place on tour?
I don't know if we feel successful. The more you get, the more you demand from yourself, I think. Nowadays it is quite stabilized in Europe. Of course, still some cities are sometimes surprising us in a good or bad way, but... We feel that if we have a great gig and the audience is enjoying it, no matter how big or small the venue and the amount of people — gigs are one of the big reasons we still want to do this. That's where we get our direct feedback from the fans.
Where would situate yourselves in the contemporary music scene? Do you still see yourselves as a primarily metal band? Or as making a particular kind of metal — hitting a unique niche? Or do you feel Amorphis has a broader appeal?
One reason that we are what we are is that we haven't categorized our music ourselves either. That's how we think, but some or most listeners might see us a making a particular kind of metal. Or just as Amorphis. I couldn't imagine us not to sound heavy some day, but metal isn't maybe the right term when speaking about us. Nothing wrong with being metal, but we are playing our instruments more in a rock-stylish way, in my opinion. I can't say. Does it really matter?