How Nightwish became a modern metal phenomenon

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The couple huddled on the bench gaze open-mouthed at the scene in front of them.

Parading along the shore of one of the crystal-blue lakes that sandwich the Finnish city of Tampere are six people dressed like they’ve just wandered in from an episode of Game Of Thrones: leather, buckles, beards, hair. All that’s missing are a dwarf, a couple of eunuchs and a three-eyed raven.

“Is that really them?” asks the woman in accented but perfect English. Her companion peers closer through the late-afternoon sunshine and nods uncertainly. The two of them look like students in their early 20s: tidy haircuts, unassuming clothes, warm jackets to defy the brisk air. If there’s an air of uncertainty about them, it could be because, by their own admission, they’ve “had a little smoke”.

“It is,” he says. “Nightwish.”

“Holy shit,” she says.

“Holy shit,” he reiterates, just to make sure. “Can we get their autographs?”

"OK, who forgot the bucket and spade?"

"OK, who forgot the bucket and spade?"
(Image: © John McMurtrie)

By the lake, the six members of Nightwish – and it is definitely them – appear oblivious to the attentions of these two unlikely fans as they line up for a photoshoot. Either that or they’ve learned to take it in their stride. Already today, they’ve had their photos taken by a pair of middle-aged women in a hotel lobby, been congratulated on their achievements by the owners of the oldest sauna in Finland, and been watched from afar by a group of dog-walkers near an old observation tower deep in the woods.

But then that’s life when you’re the most successful band Finland’s ever produced. Since they formed almost 20 years ago in the sleepy town of Kitee, eastern Finland, they’ve done more than any other group to turn symphonic metal from a cult concern into a worldwide commercial juggernaut. Tomorrow, they’ll play their biggest-ever headlining gig at a 25,000-capacity athletics stadium here in Tampere, bringing along enough pyrotechnical firepower to wipe out neighbouring Sweden. In December, they bring their own Greatest Show On Earth to the 12,500-capacity Wembley Arena, where UK fans can witness its glory. Not only are they the first Finnish band to headline the Arena, they’ve sold it out – some achievement for a band from a country whose only other great contribution to global culture has been the Moomins.

“We’re country boys from Finland,” says Tuomas Holopainen, the keyboard player, musical mastermind and king of understatement who’s steered Nightwish from the backwaters of the Northern European symphonic metal ghetto into the wide open seas of international success. “Here we are now, after 20 years and all the ups and downs, doing these kinds of shows. It’s odd.”

Or, as the couple on the beach would have it: “Holy shit.”

If you were asked to pick out the leader of Nightwish from a police lineup, it’s unlikely that you’d choose Tuomas Holopainen. You might go for Floor Jansen, the statuesque Dutch singer who officially joined the band before this year’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful and who everyone else can’t help but seem to orbit. Or it might be fork-bearded bassist and co-vocalist Marco Hietala, who permanently looks like he should be beating a large drum on a Viking longboat as it sails across the North Sea to raid some unfortunate hamlet near Sunderland. It might even be Troy Donockley, the band’s honorary Brit, who combines the role of multi-instrumentalist and court jester.

But no, it’s the man with the measured baritone speaking voice and the floor-length black dust coat lurking quietly on the fringes of the group who runs the show. “I would say I’m the leader of the pack,” he says in a deep, measured voice. “But not a tyrant or dictator.”

We’re sitting in a darkened room in a hotel off Tampere’s main shopping drag. Outside, the streets of Finland’s third-largest city look like they’ve been taken over by an invading army ahead of tomorrow’s show; one clad head-to-toe in black and sporting t-shirts emblazoned with his band’s logo.

Tuomas knew his band had become truly famous when the Prime Minster of Finland started giving his opinion. It was 2005, and their most recent album, Once, was on its way to selling more than 2 million copies worldwide (and at a cost of more than €1,000,000 to make, including videos, it’s a good job it did).

The PM, Matti Vanhanen, was an enthusiastic metal fan, but it wasn’t Nightwish’s music that had caught his attention. No, it was their messy split with singer Tarja Turunen, the classically trained soprano who helped bring Tuomas’s ornate visions to life, that prompted him to speak out. Despite the band’s unprecedented success, Tarja had unexpectedly been fired by the rest of the band following what should have been a triumphant end-of-tour gig in Helsinki.

The PM’s quote itself was fairly innocuous. “I’m not for either side,” he told the press. “They are young people, and hopefully will manage to go forward in this difficult situation.” But the fact he had chipped in was a sign of just how big a deal Nightwish had become in their home country. It would be like David Cameron telling The Sun how much he likes the new Bring Me The Horizon record.

Kai, Troy, Emppu and Marco were a little overdressed for the sauna

Kai, Troy, Emppu and Marco were a little overdressed for the sauna
(Image: © John McMurtrie)

A decade, and one further period of singer-related upheaval, down the line, Tuomas is still perplexed by the reaction. “The funny thing is that I never ever thought it would be such a big deal,” he says of the PM’s would-be intervention. “We just thought, ‘OK, we’re a rock band, nobody really cares.’ Then the tabloids started commenting on it. It became a national tragedy. There’s a metal band with four neanderthals and a princess, and the princess gets hurt.”

In the end, Nightwish pulled through – as they did seven years later when they parted ways with Tarja’s replacement, Anette Olzon (today, Tuomas politely but firmly declines to go over the specifics of either departure, pointing out that “they’ve already been written about”).

Unforeseen media storms aside, Nightwish’s tribulations have barely troubled their rise. Their most recent album, the grandiose Endless Forms Most Beautiful, consolidated the band’s position as mainland Europe’s most successful metal band, give or take a Rammstein, while the presence of controversial evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins on the album lent the band a gravitas their symphonic metal contemporaries often lack.

“I wish I knew,” says Tuomas, when asked about the reasons behind his band’s popularity. “Perhaps it’s the sincerity of the whole thing. That’s the biggest strength of the whole band. I mean, in many aspects we are a naive band. I still didn’t feel like I was going to work when I hopped on the train this morning.”

Troy has a different theory. A redoubtable, folk-and-prog loving northerner who’s played with everyone from Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys to former Young One Adrian Edmondson (“Ade came to Brixton Academy the last time we played there. He absolutely loved it”), he suggests it’s down to the intelligence that lurks behind Nightwish’s Andrew Lloyd Webber-meets-Dungeons & Dragons facade. “It’s intelligent music in every respect,” says the man who contributes everything from Uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes) to bouzouki (a long-necked lute). “It’s intelligent, complex, orchestral, but human at the same time. Not every band who does this sort of music has that.”

All of those things may well have played a part in Nightwish’s rise. But by far the biggest reason is that they do everything bigger and better than everyone else: stage shows, pyrotechnics, albums, movies, songs, solo albums about Scrooge McDuck. Tuomas smiles. “Well, you’ve got to give people something to remember,” he says.

Nightwish are indisputably Tuomas’s band, and their history is inextricably bound to his own. The keyboard player formed the band in August 1996. He’d previously played with various largely forgotten Finnish groups, including teenage black metal outfit Darkwoods My Bethrothed and Nattvindens Gråt, before being conscripted for National Service in the Finnish army. “It wasn’t my cup of tea,” he says of the latter, eyebrow raised. “I actually got accepted in the military band, which was a blessing because I’d just play my clarinet for nine and a half months, so I didn’t have to play around with guns and all that.”

Floor decided the front three rows didn’t need their eyebrows anyway

Floor decided the front three rows didn’t need their eyebrows anyway
(Image: © John McMurtrie)

One positive thing did come out of his time in the army. It was there that he wrote the music for what would become Nightwish’s debut album, Angels Fall First, released on New Year’s Eve 1996. That album was an out-of-the-gate success in Finland, entering the national Top 40. Their two successive albums continued the young band’s dramatic upswing: 1998’s Oceanborn reached Number Five in the charts, while Wishmaster made it all the way to Number One.

As is the way of these things, Germany was quick to latch on. The UK was slower. It wasn’t until a headlining turn at 2003’s Bloodstock, on the back of their fourth album, Century Child, that British fans began to embrace them en masse. Since then, the gigs have become bigger, and the albums more successful, culminating in the Top 20 success of Endless Forms Most Beautiful. Even more remarkably, North America hasn’t been much further behind – their last two albums both entered the Billboard Top 40, which is some feat in a musical climate that’s largely ambivalent to rock and metal bands.

But through it all, there’s been the perception to the outside world that Tuomas runs the band with a rod of iron. The evidence for the prosecution rests on the apparently brutal dismissal of the band’s first two singers, not to mention former bassist Sami Vänskä, who was forced out before Century Child due to ‘musical differences’ with Tuomas. He counters that not only were the changes necessary, but the band have emerged stronger from them. And anyway, someone has to have final say. “I mean, a band is not a democracy, but certain things are,” he says.

Are you saying that Nightwish is or isn’t a democracy?

“I deliberately give a lot of space to everybody in the band, artistically and in other senses,” he says after a thoughtful pause. “During the past few years, we’ve actually talked about this – that maybe other people should step up a bit more. I feel it’s a bit too identified by me as my band. Which it’s not. I do 90% of the songs, yes, but it’s still a band.”

The guys react to the news they may be expected to perform on trapezes come the next tour...

The guys react to the news they may be expected to perform on trapezes come the next tour...
(Image: © John McMurtrie)

Floor Jansen was at her sister’s wedding in 2012 when she got the call asking if she’d sing for Nightwish. She knew who they were, of course – her previous band, After Forever, had toured with them a decade earlier. And she was aware of the problems they’d had with both of her predecessors. But it still took her by surprise. “I was like, ‘What?!’

If Tuomas is thoughtful and intense, Floor is efficient and direct. Our conversation isn’t helped by the fact that she’s having her hair and make-up done for our photoshoot, though you get the feeling she’d be the same if she wasn’t. An easy question about her background is met by an arched eyebrow and the words: “You haven’t read much about me, have you?”

Her first show with Nightwish was in Seattle in October 2012. She describes “a sense of primal fear” going through her mind in the minutes before she took the stage. “There was this evil voice in my head that said, ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing? You don’t know these songs, you’ve had no time to learn them’,” she says. “And everybody in the venue was holding a cell phone, so it would be on YouTube straight away.”

She survived the gig with dignity intact, as shaky phone-cam YouTube footage indeed shows. But at that early point, there was no sense that it would lead to a permanent position.

“No, no, no,” she says firmly. “At that point it was more survival. I wasn’t thinking any further than tomorrow.”

It was actually following a festival here in Tampere that the rest of the band asked her to become their permanent singer. “It was in the bar of a hotel that they popped the question: ‘Do you want to join?’” she says, with a laugh. “I can’t remember much about what happened after that. I can only remember that I couldn’t tell too many people.”

Even the owners of Finland's oldest sauna are Nightwish fans

Even the owners of Finland's oldest sauna are Nightwish fans
(Image: © John McMurtrie)

Joining a band who got through singers like a bottom-of-the-league football team gets through managers must have been a concern. Especially since both of her predecessors left in less-than-friendly circumstances.

“No, not really,” she says, with a firm shake of her head. “I’m not like the other two – they might not be like each other either. So there’s different chemistry there, and in time we all grow more mature, we all learn from mistakes, so it would be unfair to think: ‘What if they treat me bad?’”

There’s a perception that this is Tuomas’s band. Is that accurate?

“Yeah, I think it’s his band,” she says, then adds diplomatically: “But it’s also [guitarist] Emppu [Vuorinen]’s band and it’s Marco’s band and it’s Troy’s band. Every band needs a leader, and Tuomas is the band leader. He’s the shaper, but without the input of other people it would not be where it is today. So it is his band, yes.”

Is he a hard man to be in a band with?

“[Emphatically] No, not at all.”

If he came up with a terrible idea, would you say, “That’s a terrible idea?”

“Yeah, I think so.

Do you feel like a hired hand in Nightwish?

“No, not at all. Why should I?”

So is Nightwish permanent for you? Will you be here for the next album?

“I surely hope so,” she says. “Yeah.”

It’s something that Tuomas backs up, albeit with the polite weariness of a man who has lost track of how many times he has said it .

“Tarja wore me out big time,” he says. “There’s no way that I could personally take another one of those, so I have said that Floor is the last singer of Nightwish. Period.”

(Image: © John McMurtrie)

There are a few things you might not know about Tuomas Holopainen. Beginning around the time of 1998’s Oceanborn, he worked as a stand-in teacher in his hometown’s high school for two-and-a-half years. He’s a fan of Formula 1 racing: he has the phone number of Finnish driver Heikki Kovalainen in his mobile phone, and there are pictures of him rubbing shoulders with Lewis Hamilton in Brazil a few years ago. Less glamorously, it was his ill-advised decision for the band to take part in the televised competition to become Finland’s entry in the 2000 Eurovision Song Contest, in which they came second (“It seemed like a good idea at the time, though I was the only one who thought so”). He also claims he can name any capital city in the world, which is only partially correct – he gets Mongolia right (capital: Ulaanbaatar), but falls down on Malawi (correct answer: Lilongwe).

These days, he lives in a house he built himself near the town he grew up in. He has a horse (“My wife rides it, not me”) and, given his public persona as a kind of gothic Andrew Lloyd Webber, an unlikely fondness for horticulture.

“I love gardening,” he says, as if it’s the most natural thing in the world. “I grow my own chilli peppers and tomatoes and potatoes. Nightwish isn’t my whole life. It used to be my whole life.”

Was there a point where you felt trapped by the band?

“At some points during the past, yes. There have been times where it was all about music and I didn’t think about anything else.”

Did part of you enjoy that?

“Back then I did, but it cost me a lot of relationships, some bridges were burnt. The same old story.”

Tuomas is never stumped for ideas when it comes to stage props.

Tuomas is never stumped for ideas when it comes to stage props.
(Image: © John McMurtrie)

In 2001, Tuomas came close to splitting Nightwish. It was just after the tour for the Wishmaster album. They had no manager; Tuomas and drummer Jukka Nevalainen (currently on indefinite hiatus from the band, though still involved behind the scenes) were taking care of the band’s business affairs. Adding to the stresses, relationships between bandmembers were starting to fracture.

“You know, the classic, ‘You’re earning more than I am, what’s this all about?’ nonsense,” says Tuomas with a sigh. “‘Well, actually, I do the songs…’ It all piled up. I just thought it was easier to let go than try to work things out.”

It was his friend Tony Kakko, singer with Finish band Sonata Arctica, who persuaded him to keep going during a hiking trip in Lapland. There were casualties, most notably original bassist Sami Vänskä. “It was just that one time, 15 years ago,” he says. “But after that, no, I’ve never doubted what we were doing. Not even during the change of the vocalists.”

Do you read your own reviews?

“Sometimes, yes.”

Do negative reviews affect you?

“They do, yes. I admire people who say that criticism doesn’t touch them at all. I don’t know how they do it. Though it depends on how the argument is presented. If it makes sense, I’m OK with it, but sometimes it gets really personal.”

What’s the worst thing you’ve ever read about Nightwish?

“Well, about 10 years ago, when the big drama happened, there was a lot of writing about us being women-haters. What’s the word in English?”

Misogynist.

“Misogynist. Yes, all that kind of stuff. And a lot of death threats.”

And are you a misogynist?

“[Aghast] No, of course not.”

Can you see why someone might think you’re a misogynist, having fired two female singers?

“No, no, not at all. I mean, we have a female singer in the band now.”

You said you received death threats. How did that make you feel?

“You mean was I scared? No. [Laughs] In fact, it made me feel like people were noticing us.”

Looking back, could you have handled the situation differently when it came to the singers? Were there things you could have done beforehand to stop these situations building up?

“I’m sure there could have been,” he says. “That goes for both sides. But do I have regrets? The way we handled Tarja’s departure was bad. We could have handled it better, but when you’re trapped in a corner, you just want to get out as quickly as possible, by any means. Then you make hasty decisions.”

Have you spoken to her since she left?

“No.”

Do you think you will?

He smiles wryly. “I think it’s highly unlikely.”

Nightwish (left to right): Emppu Vuorinen, Kai Hahto, Troy Donockley, Tuomas Holopainen, Floor Jansen, Marco Hietala

Nightwish (left to right): Emppu Vuorinen, Kai Hahto, Troy Donockley, Tuomas Holopainen, Floor Jansen, Marco Hietala
(Image: © John McMurtrie)

The Ratinan Stadion – to give this 1960s football ground its official name – was formerly the home to Tampere United, a team who played in the Finnish premier league until they were busted on suspicion of money laundering in 2011 and subsequently dissolved. This would be the single most rock’n’roll thing about the city, were it not for the existence of a strip club named Big Tits, above which Nightwish’s guitarist and sole Tampere resident Emppu Vuorinen lives.

In a few hours’ time, Nightwish will take to the vast stage set-up at one end of the playing field, currently being loaded with its own battery of lights and fireworks. Right now, the band are perched patiently behind a hastily stuck-together desk waiting to greet the first of a 200-strong queue of people who have paid for a pre-show meet and greet.

Even for a band like Nightwish, who seem to exist in a musical Narnia of their own creation, it’s an easy way to make extra money. But then Nightwish have never been about the sort of rebellion that most of their peers pay lip service to. This is purely about an audio and visual spectacle.

“This is an interesting subject,” Tuomas says when the topic is brought up. “I’ve never really seen Nightwish as a rock band – or as a rebellious band. We’ve never had the urge to shock people or be ‘rock’n’roll’. It’s never been of value to us. That’s not our thing.”

So what is your ‘thing’?

“Just a really strong passion to tell stories and write music. It’s the only thing that I feel like I’m good at. It’s the only way I can function as a human being.”

In fairness, no one quite tells stories like Tuomas Holopainen and Nightwish, and they come wrapped up in the sort of extravagance that no one outside of your high-end Broadway show does anymore. Onstage in Tampere, the sheer magnitude of it all lives up to the billing of The Greatest Show On Earth. In fact, the only thing missing is an appearance from Richard Dawkins (interestingly, there is talk of the estimable professor attending the Wembley show, though Tuomas can’t confirm if he’ll actually join them onstage).

Back in the hotel room, Nightwish’s leader is pondering his band’s place in the scheme of things, and his own place within it all. Is there ever a time when Tuomas Holopainen wakes up and thinks, ‘I’m bored of this’?

“Not like that,” he says, shaking his head. “There are better days and worse days. Sometimes, I might think: ‘This has become so big that I can’t handle this monster any more.’ That’s a really weird thought, and every now and then I have some trouble comprehending it.”

Holy shit, indeed.

(Image: © John McMurtrie)

How do you top narration by Richard Dawkins (second from right)?

How do you top narration by Richard Dawkins (second from right)?

Theatre Of Dreams

Nightwish genius Tuomas Holopainen explains how their show might evolve.

The problem with releasing an elaborate concept album featuring a 24-minute track narrated by Professor Richard Dawkins and backing it up with a hugely extravagant live show is: how do you top it?

“We talk about this all the time,” says Tuomas. “Especially the live show. We have had so many ideas to do the ultimate show and it all comes down to money.”

One inspiration may come from theatrical troupe Cirque du Soleil. “We saw them when we were in Vegas,” says Tuomas. “It was the best thing I’ve ever seen. A Cirque du Soleil kind of thing would be the perfect match for us, especially combined with an orchestra and a choir. Combining all these different forms of art. We have been talking about doing a big show with an orchestra and a choir for years, but it already feels that it’s been done so many times so well. We need to take it to a different level. So maybe bring on trapeze artists and dancing bears…”

More immediately, August 2016 marks Nightwish’s 20th anniversary – the perfect opportunity for a spectacular blowout. While more than one member suggests that they’re at least thinking of doing something to celebrate the occasion, Tuomas firmly denies it.

“We’re going to be touring the US at that time, so I think we’re going to wait another 10 years to do a big celebration. I think a 30th anniversary sounds better than a 20th.”

And by that time, do you think you’ll get all three singers onstage? “Hmmm,” he says with a smile. “I have my doubts.”

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“When I heard [2007’s] Dark Passion Play, I couldn’t believe it. I thought, ‘Now, this is a proper fucking album.’ It’s got everything bar the kitchen sink in there. It was controversial because of the new singer [Anette Olzon], but she was brilliant. No disrespect to Tarja, but Anette’s voice suited them a lot better. There’s heavy stuff, classical, even a bit of Disney – all kinds of shit in there. I think it’s one of the best-sounding albums I’ve ever heard in my life.

“Then I got the next one, [2011’s] Imaginaerum. Storytime is a fantastic, instant song. The rest of the album took me a while to get into. Dark Passion Play was so good, I thought there was no way they could ever come up with an album that’s anywhere near that, but the more I got into Imaginaerum, the more I loved it.

“I haven’t heard the new one with Floor Jansen yet, but those two albums for me – I don’t think there’s anything else that I’ve heard out there that’s even close.”