How Nightwish’s Imaginaerum made epic even bigger

Nightwish posing on a mountain top in 2007
(Image credit: Steve Brown\/Photoshot\/Getty Images)

On November 30, 2011, Nightwish released their most ambitious album to date. Imaginaerum was a sprawling, symphonic metal epic bolstered by live chorale and orchestral arrangements that showcased founder Tuomas Holopainen’s compositional skills as well as then-singer Anette Olzon’s vocal talents. It went soaring to the top of the Finnish Album Chart and earned the Finnish band a top three placing in the UK Rock Chart. However, the accompanying movie of the same name fared less well and disappeared with little trace, losing the band a significant sum of money in the process.

Although no one realised at the time, it would be Anette’s last album with Nightwish. She was replaced by After Forever’s Floor Jansen the following year during a tour schedule that would nearly destroy drummer Jukka Nevalainen.

In an extract from an interview, originally published as part of Metal Hammer’s exclusive Nightwish supplement in issue 225, Tuomas and Anette discuss the ideas behind Imaginaerum and why bigger is better.

Metal Hammer line break

The concept behind Nightwish’s new album, Imaginaerum, is an old man reminiscing about his days as a musician. Is there anything autobiographical about that? Are you trying to say the last 15 years have felt like three decades?

Tuomas [with much amusement]: “No. Let me clarify a couple of things here. The album is not in the least autobiographical. And the concept has nothing to do with me. It wasn’t even my idea.”

So please explain…?

Tuomas: “OK. Back in 2007 I started to wonder what we could do after Dark Passion Play. I had the idea of combining a movie with an album: I would write maybe 12 or 13 songs and we would film a short movie for all of them. It would be a double CD; an audio disc would contain the songs and there would also be a DVD [containing the visual content]. That was the seed of my idea. There would be no professional actors, no dialogue, no plot or storyline; only the music videos for the songs. So I introduced my idea to Stobe Harju, the director of the video for The Islander [from Dark Passion Play]. He thought it was excellent, saying that nobody had done anything like it before. He went a stage further still. He suggested that we make a full-length drama movie that would condense those songs ideas of mine into the script. I’m not going to try and steal the glory for that: it was 100 per cent Stobe’s idea to have an old man sitting back and looking over his past life.”

Imaginaerum must be the most daring thing that Nightwish has ever attempted. There must have times when you thought you’d bitten off a lot more than you could chew?

Tuomas: “A little, I guess, but it felt like the natural thing to do. Dark Passion Play was so big, ambitious and versatile, it seemed like there was nothing more that we could do. So I searched my brain for something that would take it into another dimension.”

It sounds as though you are constantly in search of something bigger and more spectacular than what’s gone before? It’s necessary for Nightwish to outdo themselves – go to that next level of grandiosity – at every point, time after time?

Tuomas [warmly]: “I like your choice of words. It’s not about trying to make the band bigger and bigger and bigger. What’s important is to challenge yourself. What is the point in doing the same thing twice? I like to be innovative. There’s a lot of ambition in this band. Rock music has such a rich history: We love being the first to do something extraordinary. In many ways this movie represents insanity, but for that exact same reason it’s also a great thing for us to do.”

The Finnish government has agreed to provide a grant of £365,000 towards its full budget of £2.3 million which will help to relieve the financial burden. But if it should flop at the box office, that’s a gigantic amount of the band’s own cash to lose…

Tuomas: “I know. But luckily we have been able to gather together some money for the last 10 or 12 years. Even if we don’t get anything back [from the film] we will still be able to keep our houses. It’s definitely a big risk and a huge investment. Speaking personally, yeah… I am putting everything I have into the movie. The band’s company has invested heavily.”

Did everybody in the group agree? Was it a unanimous decision?

Tuomas: “At the start, no it wasn’t. But the other bandmembers heard the final mix of the demos for the music and they saw the synopsis of the script and some reference pictures of what the movie will look like and they said: ‘This is going to be so cool. We all want to be a part of it.’”

You have streamlined the content of the songs in order to make the movie hang together. It’s now about an old man on his deathbed who glimpses a childhood dream in which he refuses to grow old, and fights ageing with his imagination.

Tuomas: “It was crucial to us that the movie and the album would work together as different entities. They had to be able to stand apart and still make sense. The movie and the album don’t have that much in common. There are some similarities, of course, but also a lot of differences. The film is about the power of imagination and memory, also the amazing things that unconditional love can achieve.”

All of this is no great surprise. After all, the band’s music has always had cinematic scope and you have spoken many times of your hopes to score a movie in later, post-Nightwish, years?

Tuomas: “In some ways, the combining of film with metal music is completely natural. It’s the logical thing for Nightwish to do.”

(Image credit: Steve Brown/Photoshot/Getty Images)

As an individual, you have a great love of the classic Walt Disney flicks.

Tuomas [enthusiastically]: “I really, really do. There’s something about the emotional power of those films that is so seductive. You can watch them time and time again and you are never bored.”

You’ve cited the surrealist painter Salvador Dalí, film score legend Ennio Morricone and Tim Burton, whose quirky films include Edward Scissorhands, Alice In Wonderland and Charlie And The Chocolate Factory as other personal heroes. What do you admire about these people? How have they influenced you?

Tuomas: “I love their crazy creativity. That has rubbed off on the album; there are times when you can hear it. It’s quite, quite insane. That’s the type of thing I love. It’s important to be able to laugh at yourself. “

The public perception of Nightwish isn’t necessarily true.

Tuomas: “Yeah. I encounter lots and lots of people that think we do everything with a serious face. When they get to spend some time around us they realise that it’s quite untrue. OK, a lot of thought goes into our songs and some of them deal with quite serious issues like death and love, but we are laughing at ourselves all of the time. Come on, it’s just music…”

Does the band appear in the film?

Tuomas: “We are in some small cameo roles in the film. We play as a band in two particular scenes. Personally I have a very little role as a 47-year-old Tuomas but we were very strict about not being seen too much. It’s supposed to be believable. None of us know how to act, so I told the director: ‘Use us as little as possible.’”

At a pre-release playback of Imaginaerum, which took place for the benefit of the media in London, the band’s orchestrator, Pip Williams, described the album as “Tuomas’s masterpiece”. Do you agree that it’s deeper and perhaps a little less accessible than Dark Passion Play?

Tuomas: “It’s really hard for me to say, but you might be correct.”

So does it bother you if there isn’t a song as instant or ultra-commercial as the last album’s Bye Bye Beautiful or Amaranth?

Tuomas: “Not at all, because you are making that observation after just a first listen. I’m completely happy with the album. I’m not going to repeat the cliché of, ‘Oh, this is the best album that my band has done’ because at this moment I still don’t know whether that’s true. It’s definitely the most theatrical thing we’ve ever attempted. Some people have said that it takes a few more listens to get into it. To me, that might always be a good sign. After all, some of the most rewarding albums ever made have taken a little getting to know.”

Anette: “I really, really like Imaginaerum – even more than Dark Passion Play. When we went to Germany for a playback session I remember, I found myself thinking: ‘How on earth is anyone going to write about an album this massive on the first listen?’ Of course there are some melodies but there’s a lot of stuff going on. It’s something you need to experience with earphones on to appreciate fully. And you must play it much more than once.”

Can you talk us through Pip Williams’ role? He’s been with the band for three albums, recording the choirs and orchestras and helping to perfect the scores, from the final Tarja-fronted release, Once, onwards. Why is the Englishman so important to what Nightwish does?

Tuomas: “The choirs and orchestras have become such a relevant part of Nightwish. I am not sure whether we could ever do album without them again. Well, we probably could, but we really enjoy using them. Since 2004 we have got to know Pip Williams really well and he really understands what we are all about. He understands my mind and the connection is great. I couldn’t imagine using anybody else to do what Pip does for us. He does such great work and the chemistry is so great.”

In some ways has Pip become too invaluable? For instance, when Nightwish play live his recordings of the choirs and orchestras are sampled to enhance the heaviness and sense of drama of certain tracks. Some critics have called this ‘cheating’ for want of a better word, because not everything is being played by the band.

Tuomas: “Well, I don’t really see why the band should have to play everything. You come to the show and you want to see something serious and emotional. You want something to sound as incredible as it can possibly be? When I go to a show, and I’m not talking as a musician, I don’t worry about whether every last note is being performed completely live.”

There are some people who do…?

Tuomas: “I know, I know. But that’s my point. I have seen Rammstein live and they use a lot of backing tracks, and it’s the same thing with big stars like Madonna or Britney Spears. It doesn’t bother me at all. It’s all about the overall atmosphere of the show. And let me stress, it’s about enhancing what Nightwish do. There are five of us onstage and we play completely live – all of the vocals and the instruments.”

It’s simply about offering the best audio experience possible?

Tuomas: “Exactly, it just wouldn’t be the same [without the samples]. We know that because we have tried. They’re such an essential part of our sound, we can’t leave them off. And of course we cannot take a real orchestra or choir on the road with us, it’s just too expensive.”

Does some small part of you long to make a more simple record than Imaginaerum? You don’t make it particularly easy for yourselves, do you?

Anette: “Actually, yes. We are a great band even without all of the cinematic elements that Tuomas likes to add. It would be really, really nice to someday make an album that was acoustically based, or had more straight-ahead rock’n’roll influences. It would prove that we don’t need all of the orchestras and of course it could be made a lot faster to make. A gap of four or five years between albums is just too long.”

Dave Ling

Dave Ling was a co-founder of Classic Rock magazine. His words have appeared in a variety of music publications, including RAW, Kerrang!, Metal Hammer, Prog, Rock Candy, Fireworks and Sounds. Dave’s life was shaped in 1974 through the purchase of a copy of Sweet’s album ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’, along with early gig experiences from Status Quo, Rush, Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Yes and Queen. As a lifelong season ticket holder of Crystal Palace FC, he is completely incapable of uttering the word ‘Br***ton’.