M idsummer has a long association with magic, and it was on that powerful evening back in 1996 that Tuomas Holopainen shared a dream that he had with his then bandmates. The 19-year-old Finn was enjoying a couple of beers with members of Darkwoods My Betrothed and Nattvindens Gråt at his family’s summer cabin. It was here that he made the announcement that he wanted to start a new acoustic project. Despite the late hour, the midnight sun was still bathing the lads in its warm light and igniting their creative juices, which were flowing as freely as the drinks.
“I remember telling my mates that I really had an urge for songwriting, and I thought I would form a band of my own. It was to be just a little, fun project with a female vocalist,” remembers Holopainen. “We have a guestbook in the cabin and I found the entry I wrote that night. It says, ‘Tuomas is thinking of putting a band together’…” he smiles fondly as he recalls the innocent idea that led to the creation of one of Finland’s biggest and most exciting bands.
It’s a mild autumn evening in Helsinki when Prog catches up with the keyboard player and band leader. He’s in the Finnish capital to wrap up the last few bits of press before Nightwish take a well-earned break. And it’s hardly surprising that the six-piece are in need of some time off; the last few decades have been a roller coaster ride packed with the highs of global success and the lows of publicly firing two singers. But despite everything, Holopainen says he wouldn’t alter a single thing. “If I did, it might change something else that happens in the future,” he points out. “People often ask me if I have any regrets and I say, ‘Absolutely not.’ It’s the old cliché; all those things that we did have brought us to this place and time. Everything’s happened exactly as it should have.”
As we chat about Nightwish’s past, present and future while seated on the sort of Scandinavian-designed furniture that interior magazines lust over, Holopainen is philosophical. The band’s journey has been an incredible one so far, but his midsummer night’s dream became a reality when the search for a female vocalist led him to a classically-trained teenage soprano named Tarja Turunen. It soon became clear that Nightwish’s future lay beyond the world of acoustic music.
“We only made one demo with three acoustic songs and Tarja was already singing on those, but it wasn’t just her vocals that changed the direction of the band,” he says. “There was already too much ambition in those teenage guys [Holopainen, guitarist Emppu Vuorinen and percussionist Jukka Nevalainen] and one girl to continue doing that kind of stuff… Ambition was the thing, so we brought in the drums, electric guitars, bass and started doing something heavier.”
The band’s demo became their debut album when it earned them a record deal with Finnish label Spinefarm in 1997. Although the simple recordings on Angels Fall First lacked the finesse of Nightwish’s later work, their so-called ‘operatic metal’ style won them enough fans to send it into the Finnish Top 40. The accolade gave Holopainen’s “little project” the impetus to go all-out on their symphonic follow-up, Oceanborn. This was the album that catapulted them from local stars to serious international band, and their profile has continued to grow with each subsequent release, leading up to the global success of their 2004 Nuclear Blast debut, Once. The critically acclaimed symphonic album was their last with Turunen and reached number one in six countries, coming in just shy of the UK’s own Top 100. Within less than 10 years, Nightwish had grown from a small seed into a lush garden of musical delights. Unexpectedly and without warning, that band’s success seemed to take on a life of its own and they realised it was time to ditch their day jobs.
“I still don’t really grasp what happened,” says a thoughtful Holopainen. “I had always wanted to be a biologist; I wanted to be a science nerd but, whoops, something happened along the way!”
Nightwish’s ongoing achievements have not only surpassed Holopainen’s wildest dreams, but also those that were born in his family’s summer cabin all those years ago. Their albums have gone multi-platinum in their home country, they’ve worked with The Moody Blues producer Pip Williams, recorded with evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins, created a soundtrack for their own movie and even had their music played during the 2016 Olympics in Rio. Over here in the UK, Nightwish’s eighth album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful, reached number 12 in the Official Charts and number eight in the Progressive Albums Charts, giving the band their highest UK rankings to date. The album, which was their first studio recording with Floor Jansen, also introduced Swallow The Sun drummer Kai Hahto. He filled in for Nevalainen after the musician stepped down from musical duties following health problems.
Hahto also joined the band on a massive two-year world tour that included shows in Europe, Asia, North and South America, and Australia, with a sold-out headline performance at Wembley Arena. This, and their summer homecoming at Finland’s Ratina Stadium, are captured on their latest live DVD Vehicle Of Spirit. It’s a huge amount to take in, but ask Holopainen what he’s most proud of and his response is surprising.
“Could I say: a healthy pride that we’ve been going for 20 years?” he asks. “In many aspects, we’re at the peak of our career and there’s been an evolution within the band as well. I’m not ashamed of a single album or song that we’ve done; we’ve never had a huge dip when it comes to the music that we’ve made, or the venues we’ve played. Even though we’ve gone through some serious turmoil, the fans never left us, and that tells me something about the power of this band. There’s something going on here that I can’t put into words and it’s what we call the ‘vehicle of spirit’. That’s what I’m really proud of.”
Despite being at their peak, the band are taking all of 2017 off. When they made the announcement last year, the rumour mill began to turn. Did this mean the end of the band? With the news that Jansen is pregnant with her first child, it seemed like the curse of the Nightwish singer was back, but Holopainen is clear: they’ll be back in 2018.
“There’s only so many times I can say that things have never been better,” he says smiling. “I hope people can see that on the DVD footage, so don’t be worried! The idea of the break came from me; I felt like we’d been doing this for 18 years straight and I think I need a break. I was a bit scared of bringing this up with the other members and the management, but everybody said, ‘Sure, why not?’ It’s lucky that we can take a year off.”
Despite the extended break, the rest of the band have already started plotting their next adventures. Floor Jansen is one of the guests on Arjen Lucassen’s forthcoming Ayreon album The Source, Kai Hahto’s other band Wintersun are due to release their third album, while Emppu Vuorinen and Marco Hietala are also recording for their respective projects. Prog piper Troy Donockley can even be heard playing on Steve Hackett’s latest The Night Siren, and he’s also scheduled to begin work on a new solo release this year. What about Holopainen though?
“I have very few plans,” he says, with an audible sigh of relief. “I have a few trips in mind, but I’ll mostly be staying at home [in the Finnish countryside]. Maybe I’ll finish my [fantasy short stories] book project, take care of our horse, take care of the garden, go hiking, or just do nothing. If the inspiration for songwriting comes then I’ll start, but there’s no hurry. There are no timetables, which is a fantastic and liberating idea.”
In case this is starting to sound as though the relentless cycle of recording and touring have bled his creativity dry, Holopainen lets slip that he does already have some ideas for the next Nightwish album, but no amount of eyelash fluttering can coax them out of him. It seems the bandleader has big plans for the next few years, and a few more tricks up his velvet sleeves.
“We’re ready to start a new chapter and there will definitely be more albums. I want to finally play live with an orchestra and choir as well, and maybe enhance the live experience a little bit. There are still many places we’d like to play: Iceland, Greenland, Alaska…” he pauses for breath, and a mischievous grin fills his face as he adds, “on the moon and the International Space Station!”
Nightwish have already treated fans to the ‘greatest show on earth’, so Prog wonders if the ambitious musician is really joking about those last two locations.
Nightwish’s Vehicle Of Spirit is out now on DVD and Blu-ray through Nuclear Blast. For more information see www.nightwish.com.