Amorphis’ Tomi Joutsen: “One time I had to go pick up some human sh*t”

Amorphis Tomi Joutsen
(Image credit: Press)

Tomi Joutsen had already toiled for 15 years in Finland’s death metal underground before he joined Amorphis, helping the prog metallers reconnect to their extreme roots while expanding their sound. Sixteen years and eight albums later, Tomi is firmly entrenched as one of prog metal’s most understated yet reliable forces, quietly confident and quick to praise others for their talents that have helped his band get where they are. We cornered the singer to reflect on what 30-plus years of heavy metal graft has taught him… 

Metal Hammer line break

It pays to look stylish

“I really liked [rockabilly group] Stray Cats as a kid because I had a friend who was a little older and he would play them all the time, they just looked so cool. It became a big thing at our school where all the cool guys – the older guys, naturally – got back patches and bullet belts, smoking cigarettes and whatever.”

If 90s death metal was an arms race, Deicide Won

“I’d got a friend who already loved bands like Slayer and Deicide so he’d lend me some of his records. When I was getting into death metal, I was more into Napalm Death and Bolt Thrower, maybe some of the stuff coming out of Sweden like Entombed and Dismember. I didn’t really enjoy bands like Death or Cannibal Corpse, that whole technical death metal thing, but Deicide sounded like the most evil thing I’d ever heard – I loved them.”

If you really want something, work for it

“I took a summer job when I was a teenager so that by the end of summer I’d have enough to buy my own drumkit. It was fucking fantastic! My parents couldn’t afford to just buy me a drumkit – they are very working class people and even if we weren’t ‘poor’, we didn’t have the kind of money to just buy something fancy. At that time it was really easy to get summer jobs though, so I took one looking after kids at the park, then used my paycheck to buy my first Pearl kit. It showed everyone how motivated I was.”

Sometimes you have to put emotions aside to get a job done

“I later took a job later working on a beach. I wasn’t really a lifeguard as such, because I was just 14 so couldn’t do anything if I saw someone drowning, but I’d patrol the beach just cleaning it up, keeping an eye on people and whatever. I remember one time I had to go pick up some human shit. I was pissed off, but I did it because that was the job.”

Scenes survive through underground venues

“There was a really cool venue in Helsinki called Lepakko, the Bat Cave. It was a really underground place so they’d put on all these punk bands, but also speed and death metal groups. I was living an hour away from Helsinki by that point, so when I started going I really got to see the scene for the first time. It was there I first saw Amorphis, but also bands like Grave, Entombed, Napalm Death, Macabre… Any time a band played you’d go back into school and see guys with brand new t-shirts or whatever. It was really fucking cool, like being in a secret club.”

I became a death metal singer because nobody else would

“Kasi were my first death metal band and formed when I was 18 years old. Before that I had been the drummer in a speed metal band in high school, but I was the only guy with the guts to take on singing, because growling was a very new thing and nobody really knew how to do it.”

Amorphis Tomi Joutsen

(Image credit: Press)

You don’t start out great, you get there by practise

“I fucking sucked when I started growling. After a few shows I started to really find my voice, though. Plus, we knew basically nothing about tunings so couldn’t figure out why we didn’t sound like Entombed! I think the only reason we were really able to make it work though was because we were all friends – it’s a lot easier to fail and get better when you’re with people who are learning alongside you.”

The whole scene benefits when bands break through

“After HIM, Nightwish and Children Of Bodom became big, people started paying real attention to the music scene in Finland. And then when Lordi won Eurovision, heavy metal became a really big thing here. Even now some radio stations will still play metal bands; it really changed how things worked.”

You have to maintain a sense of perspective

“I had to keep day jobs for most of my early bands. I honestly don’t know how I would have coped if I’d joined Amorphis when I was a teenager. I feel sorry for bands who release their best albums when they’re really young – it must really fuck you up and detach you from reality. When I joined Amorphis I knew it was a huge thing for me, but also that if things went wrong I could still go back to doing a normal job.”

Being the ‘new guy’ paints a target on your back

“Most of the shows I played when I first joined went pretty well – people would tell us how happy they were the band were carrying on. But there were some people that saw my dreadlocks and thought, ‘Who is this fucking hippie?’ The first US tour was fucking terrible. I lost my voice and it just didn’t come back, plus there were loads of people who were furious that I wasn’t the same singer.”

Sometimes you’ve got to grab a drink and talk it out

“I felt like an outsider when I joined Amorphis. I wasn’t from Helsinki and hadn’t travelled the world like they had, so while they didn’t have their own language, they did work on a very different wavelength. It’s weird to feel alone on a bus full of guys, but as we played together we really got to know each other – especially whenever we’d have a drink and they’d start telling stories. They’re really good guys and very easy going, so we’re not the kind of band to have arguments all the time – if something is wrong we’ll talk about it openly.”

Eclipse was a trial by fire

Eclipse was the most difficult record I’ve worked on. It was my first time working in a ‘real’ studio and using a real producer, so I was having to learn a lot about what I needed to do before we went in to record. Luckily I was able to work with Marko Hietala [formerly] of Nightwish, as he basically became my mentor and really helped me through. We didn’t have loads of material when we started recording. A lot of it was composed in the studio, so I just trusted in Marko’s direction – he’s a great singer after all!”

The show must go on

“Not long after I joined Amorphis we played a festival in Europe. I was so fucking tired and nervous and became convinced I wasn’t going to be able to do this show. I heard our intro and it felt like it went on for an hour. But the second I saw the crowd I got a load of energy and managed to play through. That was an important lesson – sometimes it can feel like you can’t go on, but you have to push through.”

Sometimes you need to let someone more talented take the wheel

“After a few albums I really wanted to compose stuff for Amorphis. I tried to put the elements I love into the band and managed to do that with [the 2009 track] From Earth I Rose, but I’ll admit I’m not the best composer in this band. When you’ve got Santeri Kallio [keyboards] and Esa Holopainen [lead guitar] in the band, there’s no real competition! Those guys are so talented, they bring much more interesting structures and melodies, so I learned to just work on the things I’m good at.”

If we’re drinking, we’re having fun.

“There are some bands who drink and complain all the time: ‘It’s horrible being stuck on tour’, ‘Shitty this’ and ‘Shitty that’. But when the Amorphis guys drink it’s to tell stories, listen to music and have fun. We laugh lots and that’s one of the great things about being in Amorphis – it might even be the secret to why we’re all still together. There was a book about [90s Finnish goth-metallers] Sentenced and I can’t find myself in it because they just sounded so miserable all the time, hungover and homesick and fighting.”

You reap what you sow

“Amorphis really show that working at it day by day, putting all your efforts into something you love, devoting almost everything to your music and your band can really pay off. We’re not the biggest band in the world – we’re not even the biggest band in Finland – but still lots of people respect our career and our music. I’m really proud of that and we’re still making music that really interests people. Our new album Halo feels like a great achievement – we’re over 10 records in and still have something new to say.” 

Rich Hobson

Staff writer for Metal Hammer, Rich has never met a feature he didn't fancy, which is just as well when it comes to covering everything rock, punk and metal for both print and online, be it legendary events like Rock In Rio or Clash Of The Titans or seeking out exciting new bands like Nine Treasures, Jinjer and Sleep Token.