Hit The Lights: Stratovarius: 'Keep Fighting In The Face Of Disaster'

Stratovarius' Jens Johansson discussed the album "Polaris", as well as the departure of longtime guitarist Timo Tolkki.

Hit The Lights: Stratovarius: 'Keep Fighting In The Face Of Disaster'
Hit The Lights cover acts spanning various ages and genres, and during the course of their careers, many different obstacles throw a spanner in the works. Such obstacles might encompass the departure of a longtime group member, record label problems, or financial issues. One such outfit had to tackle all three in one fell swoop, something which threatened towards their demise even. Predating the rapid power metal which gained fame courtesy of the appearance of "Through The Fire And Flames" (by DragonForce) upon 2007's Guitar Hero III: Legends Of Rock', Stratovarius has emerged upon the other side, and wishes to mark a new chapter through the release of twelfth studio album "Polaris". During September 2008, Stratovarius secluded themselves in a cottage by the sea. Situated near a Finnish forest, the group wrote material at that cottage for roughly a month, material which eventually surfaced upon "Polaris". A collaborative effort, vocalist Timo Kotipelto and guitarist Matias Kupiainen co-wrote three tracks, keyboardist Jens Johansson penned three, and bassist Lauri Porra authored five. In the fall of 2008, "Polaris" was recorded at Hstholmen in Sweden, and at 5by5 studios in Helsinki, Finland. Mikko Karmila, meanwhile, handled mixing, whereas Gyula Havancsk designed the album's cover artwork. The subject of a music video which was directed by Owe Lingvall for Village Road Film, the single "Deep Unknown" underwent release during mid May. "Polaris" was released through edel entertainment's international label earMUSIC throughout Europe on May 15th, although its UK issue occurred three days later on the 18th. The full length's Asian release happened on May 20th via Victor Entertainment, the record witnessing its North American issue via Armoury Records on 26th May. "Polaris" marks the first Stratovarius album to feature the contributions of Matias Kupiainen and Lauri Porra, as well as the first not to feature guitarist Timo Tolkki. From the 15th to the 19th, Stratovarius toured the United Kingdom, taking the outfit to Wolverhampton, Nottingham, Glasgow, London and Manchester. Later May dates saw Stratovarius perform in Ireland's Dublin, Germany's Aurich, Poland's Warsaw, Russia's Moscow, and Russia's St. Petersburg. On 6th May at 14:30 GMT, Hit The Lights' Robert Gray telephoned keyboardist Jens Johansson to discuss "Polaris", and the departure of longtime guitarist Timo Tolkki. That week, Stratovarius were undergoing a week of rehearsals in Germany for a British trek, and so Hit The Lights had to telephone. Roughly two calls were missed, but a call was made back to Wales, the caller passing the phone to Johansson. Jens Johansson: Hello? UG: Hello. How are you Jens? I'm well. How are you? I'm ok. Would it be alright if I began the interview? Yes, of course. Could you provide an introduction to 'Polaris'? Yes. How can I explain 'Polaris'? Compared to previous Stratovarius albums, several different songwriters feature upon 'Polaris'. The album is more varied, I would say. So you'd describe 'Polaris' as being a more collaborative album? Yes, you could say. Is 'Polaris' a fresh beginning for Stratovarius? Yes. Without a doubt. We began recording 'Polaris' in September, and took our time to make the album right, and to find the right label for Stratovarius and so on. Everything worked out quite nicely. In light of what has happened during recent times for Stratovarius, how would you describe the importance of 'Polaris'? Of course, 'Polaris' is as important as every other album Stratovarius has written. I don't know. I just like the album (laughs). It's very difficult to say whether 'Polaris' is extremely important. I thought 'Polaris' might hold additional importance, especially due to Stratovarius' financial troubles with Sanctuary Records, and Timo Tolkki's departure from the group. Yeah. Of course, 'Polaris' turned out to be important in all of those contexts. When we set out to make the album though, we actually didn't even know what group name we would use, or what the album would sound like. So Stratovarius considered changing its name? Yes, at that time. That was roughly a year ago.

"If you write the song, then you're the master of that song."

Why did the group opt to retain the name Stratovarius? We began writing without any pre-conceived notions, and still weren't completely sure of what to do. We then began to record drums, and once we did that, we began placing parts around the drums. It became clear that the material sounded pretty much like Stratovarius, mainly since we kept our drummer and singer. (Timo) Kotipelto and Jrg (Michael) both give the group a very personal style, I think. The rest is somewhat easier to replace in terms of sound, but at that point anyway, 'Polaris'' tracks sounded very much like Stratovarius. If you've heard 'Polaris', you'll likely agree. Yeah, I definitely agree. Considering you've been a Stratovarius member for nearly fifteen years, was it important to you to that the group kept its name? That wasn't our primary concern - the music was, we thought. We wrote 'Polaris'' music initially, and then discovered what that music sounded like. The album's music could've eventually sounded like something else. I didn't really know (laughs). In a way, we just tried things out to see what happened, though once we began writing 'Polaris' and so on, it was clear that the material resembled Stratovarius. So, why the hell not call ourselves Stratovarius? So we did, completed 'Polaris', and signed a record deal. Everything was primarily based upon the music, with the rest of the details being worked out later, which I think was nice. Could you talk me through what occurred between Stratovarius and Sanctuary Records? It seems as though there are conflicting sides to this, so I would just like clarification on what transpired. That's a long story. Sanctuary Records arranged a fucking huge loan with a London bank, though somehow, the conditions made in terms of interest and payments for the loan affected the label's stock price since they were a publicly traded company. Sanctuary's situation was some form of evil circle, I think. When Sanctuary's stock prices dropped, the bank came forward to have their money back since they wanted the loan's interest to be higher. The situation just spiraled completely out of control, and Sanctuary lost everything. The label became totally bankrupt, and its stock prices tumbled down to almost zero. At that time of course, they weren't able to operate anymore as a label. Sanctuary couldn't pay their employees, and couldn't press CDs. The label couldn't do anything. We were still bound by contract to Sanctuary, and we wanted to get out of that contract. They didn't even have the time to open legal mail, and things like this. For us, it was a very complicated situation. How did Timo Tolkki come to leave Stratovarius? What actually happened? We later joined Universal, since the bankrupt Sanctuary got bought by Universal. We wanted to free ourselves of the contract. Basically, Tolkki was broke, and had to do something really strange. He left us guys; he left the group, and left us holding the debt. To cut a long story short, he left us holding that debt, and saddled with a record deal which we tried to be freed from. His attitude was "I'm broke now, and I can't... I have to live and so on". He actually formed a new group called Revolution Renaissance, which I think has issued two albums (2008's 'New Era' and 2009's 'Age of Aquarius') thus far. Like I said, we didn't really know what to do. We wrote some tracks though, and recorded them. The songs resembled Stratovarius, and so then we opted to still call ourselves Stratovarius. At the same time, we resolved some of these problems with Universal, given the fact they bought Sanctuary. It's all this slightly complex legal bullshit which happens sometimes in the music industry, sadly. What can you do though? I'm really glad we made it. Is Stratovarius still in financial turmoil? Not anymore, no. We are still paying the other lawyer which handled this settlement issue with Universal. We did owe him a little, though we can clear that within a couple of weeks. I don't know how we would've figured it out, but we would've figured it out somehow. There were some other issues. Of course, everything was somewhat in a shambles. Over the past year, we had to dedicate a bunch of time towards tackling that, discussing what happened and how to deal with it. Mainly, we're musicians, and making some type of album was one of the first things we decided to do. We just didn't know what the album would sound like, and what the songs would sound like. We went to a cottage in Timo's home village, which has a cottage you can rent. The village has a quiet life. We rented that cottage for a week, and just jammed, writing songs. It was very interesting. In May 2008, Stratovarius issued a statement which refuted what Timo Tolkki had said in a previous statement. In that statement, Stratovarius said that Timo Tolkki was motivated by greed. Do you still stand by statement? Yes, I do. When we posted that statement, I think he was very upset. He has somewhat come to terms with that too, I feel. No matter how you twist and turn it, if you're a group of people and make a pact somehow, and one guy grabs all the money that's on the table and then just runs, then you have to say it's greed (laughs). Unfortunately, greed is a very strong word, but what he did was selfish. It was certainly the mildest statement we could've posted at the time, as everyone was very, very upset. We lost roughly 250, 000, and that is very costly. Everyone was really pissed off at the time, though you just have to count it as water under the bridge, and try to move on. So that more or less severed your friendship with Timo Tolkki? I actually forgave Tolkki a couple of months afterwards, I think. He was very angry that we called him greedy though, as I don't think he felt that way. Tolkki figured that he was the victim of circumstance, and had to move on, and had to do what he had to do. Of course, he viewed the situation differently. Tolkki eventually told us what he did, as he signed a contract (with Frontiers Records to issue 2008 Revolution Renaissance album 'New Era') which ruined any plans we had of settling with Sanctuary, and we were actually very close to a settlement. He signed a contract with Frontiers Records, and was given a bunch of money, though he didn't tell us (laughs). Have you seen the statement that he released? Yeah, I have. I didn't know what to make of that statement. He posted a statement in April, though I think he's taken them all down now as he's a little bit ashamed. That's why I asked for clarification, since the situation seems a little confusing to the public. It's a really, really long story. We actually made a final statement regarding the situation in May 2008, and that's it. In my view, that statement sums up exactly what happened. Me and Tolkki very much disagreed, though a couple of months ago, he emailed me out of the blue and said "Dude, I'm sorry". We went out and had some curry. He feels slightly bad about the situation I think (laughs), but you have to laugh. If you take these things too seriously, you'll just stay upset. Let's talk about a more positive subject. How did Matias Kupiainen come to join Stratovarius? Lauri (Porra), our bassist, actually bumped into him in a club I think, where he had conducted some guitar clinic. We discussed what we should do, as we obviously needed to recruit a guitarist. I listened to some videos he had uploaded to Youtube, and was like "Holy fuck. This is really good". He was a really good musician, so we talked a little. Matias seemed to be a nice guy, and then like I said, we went to a cottage to write some songs. Everyone got along pretty nice, so we just decided what we would call the group following that. It wasn't clear that 'Polaris' would be issued under the name Stratovarius. Eventually, the songs possibly turned out to be more progressive, as a lot of the songs that we stopped working on were the more progressive ones. Will Stratovarius possibly work upon these more progressive songs for future releases? Could be, yeah. We discussed this yesterday. Some of those songs were really good, I thought. Of course, I'm a little bit of a freak, and like all the weirder material. I'm a big Meshuggah fan. In writing Stratovarius' next album, everyone will know each other better. Like I said, we won't be recording an album under siege. Last time obviously, Tolkki peppered us with statements. He threatened to sue us and so on, until he kind of apologized last month - Tolkki was very hostile towards us. It wasn't completely easy all the time, though I think in writing for our next album, we'll have a clear view of who's in the group. Everyone knows each other better, and Stratovarius also has record company deals, something which we didn't have in recording 'Polaris' of our own accord. Our next album will be very interesting, I think. How did Stratovarius come to sign a record deal with edel entertainment's earMusic? We have a manager who shopped demos. We recorded the drums in September, and recorded the rest of the material around rough versions. She called everyone she knew, and shopped the group old school.

"We wrote 'Polaris'' music initially, and then discovered what that music sounded like."

How would you describe recording 2005's 'Stratovarius'? It seems to be a controversial album, with some going so far as to say the record isn't really a Stratovarius album. (Laughs) I think it was. 'Stratovarius' has quite a few good songs, I think. There's a story behind how that album came into being, and why the album sounds like it does. We had just signed with Sanctuary, and at that point, they were flush with money. We received a lot of money for 'Stratovarius', and Tolkki was the group leader before that point. He thought he would create all this media exposure around that album, and had a nervous breakdown since he couldn't really handle all the bad feelings that he whipped up himself a lot. He decided that he would tell everyone that Stratovarius had hired a female vocalist, and so he planned all this fake hype. Eventually, it bit him in the ass somewhat as in the midst of all this, he discovered that he suffers from bipolar disorder, which he has suffered from all his life. Tolkki suffered from this manic couple of months, all while he was carrying around all this Sanctuary money like a pig in shit. A lot of what goes up must come down. We then didn't hear anything from him for roughly six to seven months, but we somewhat managed to piece everything together. We recorded 'Stratovarius' with the whole group, and not a female vocalist. I still think the album's songs are good, but when 'Stratovarius' was released in 2005, there were problems again since that's exactly when the Sanctuary label started having financial problems. It was very bad luck. We signed a pretty good deal with a really good, major label, but suffered a bunch of bad luck. 'Stratovarius' is still a good album, I think. Nowadays though, the mood within Stratovarius is much better? The mood within Stratovarius in 2004 was quite mixed, I would say (laughs). Though now the mood is much better in 2009? Yeah, of course. The mood within Stratovarius is quite good nowadays. We have a common goal, and everyone knows what we want to do. How would you describe Stratovarius' time recording songs for 'Polaris'? To me, that's one of the better ways to record. Me and Jrg slept in the same house, which was a small house. It had a big living room type of thing, so there weren't any distractions really. If you record in a normal studio in the city, and you always feel like going down to the bar and so on. We had a fridge with beer, but it's not quite the same thing. Nothing pulls you away from the process. To be able to roll out of bed, and then begin recording without being distracted by other things is quite nice. The house had everything, such as a kitchen and a shower. It was a very beautiful place right in the middle of the forest. Did having new songwriters to contribute to 'Polaris' in the form of Matias Kupiainen and Lauri Porra help? In the past, Timo Tolkki wrote roughly ninety percent of the material. When he left, there was a songwriting vacuum somewhat. I was very curious to hear what everyone would come up with, and was very happy. That was one of the reasons why I was interested in travelling to Finland during May, or whenever I initially went over. Four people contributed material towards 'Polaris', whereas only one person used to contribute. As a result of that, you obviously attain more diversity, and some of the album's directions are quite interesting I think. I like Matias' material, as like I said, he's slightly more into progressive music too as I am. I wrote some material too, but the material I contributed to 'Polaris' was perhaps slightly more singular than the other songs. Would you like to write with Matias in future? The songs you wrote for 'Polaris' you wrote alone. That's usually how I write, though I'm usually quite picky about a lot of aspects, such as general structure and things of that nature. I'm slightly wary, but that'd be great. Let's see. It's possible I think, now that we've cleared the hurdle of what the group will be called, and what's the framework for what we intend to do. We already talked about Stratovarius' next record yesterday, since everyone has written a batch of material. There's way too much material to use, which amounts to roughly thirty songs or something similar. Matias said "I only have two songs, but one of them is thirty minutes long", so I said "Ok. Sounds good already" (laughs). I don't know what will happen, but it certainly sounds interesting. Could you see Stratovarius recording 'Polaris'' follow up quite soon then? Yeah, I think so. Would you say that 'Polaris'' successor will venture in a more progressive direction? It's difficult to say. I actually don't know, really. I'm judging by what the other guys have said. If everyone else writes a batch of really freaky, progressive material, I'll possibly try to keep my material singular. We have a good method I feel, and we'll use that same method to make our next album, which worked in making 'Polaris'. It's a crazy democracy. That isn't to say that everyone gets things right, though we decide upon which songs we like the most. The person writing the song is then considered responsible for his own song though, so we don't start arguing "Oh, it should be B instead of A". If you write the song, then you're the master of that song. It makes the process much easier. How would you describe the material you're personally working upon at present? The material I'm working upon at present is only slightly more progressive than the material I wrote for 'Polaris', but again, I might also toss those ideas, and try to think of completely new ideas. Some of these files have been around for quite a few years now, and I'm getting sick of listening to them. I might just attempt to write some new songs. Obviously, we won't need forty songs, so I could write four to six good ones which I really like. I'll just have to take the time to sit down, and figure it out. So Stratovarius wouldn't consider issuing a double-album, should there be a surplus of material? I don't know. I think record labels usually dislike issuing double-albums, but I would love to (laughs). That'd be perfect, I think. What can you reveal regarding 'Polaris'' album title? It's just one of those things. Since we're all from the far north of Europe, except the drummer, it's a cool sounding word in some respects. The title has no deeper meaning than that. Gyula Havancsk designed this quite nice cover which, to me, is spooky in terms of how everything was tied together philosophically. In the end, the title was just this somewhat cool sounding word for a star which people have used through the ages to guide their boat. You find your way home by following the star, which doesn't move so much.

"Our next album will be very interesting, I think."

Would you say 'Polaris'' title is a personal one for Stratovarius? Yeah, in some respects. Also, the title fits together with past album titles we've used - they're usually short, and span one word. I liked 'Polaris'' title, which was Lauri's idea. Could you touch upon the song "King of Nothing"? Yeah. "King of Nothing" was inspired by this Swedish guy who wrote a historical book about the Middle Ages, or slightly later than the Middle Ages, which would be the sixteen to seventeen hundreds. Constant warfare occurred in central Europe at the time. "King of Nothing" is nothing more than that, and is another one of those stupid anti-war songs. How did "King of Nothing" musically come to fruition? If I remember correctly, the basic idea surfaced during a sound check in Rio de Janeiro. That had nothing to do with its eventual lyrical content, or anything like that. I had a note and a counter melody, and nothing more. I recorded it as a file many, many years ago, losing the file and then finding it. Right before I wrote this tune, I searched my old computer for ideas, thinking "Maybe I can use this". I changed the tune around a lot, but the original idea surfaced during a sound check in Rio de Janeiro. Also, could you touch upon the song "Blind"? It's just extremely difficult to explain, so it's likely better if people come to their own conclusions. If I explain "Blind" too much, people might not be open to alternative interpretations. There's several different ways of interpreting "Blind"'s lyrics. Generally speaking, do you like lyrics to be vague so that listeners come to their own interpretations? Yeah, normally. "King of Nothing" is a pretty specific song, and there isn't really any other way of thinking about the song. I used to love Ronnie James Dio's lyrics, since they were vague enough so that they could mean a lot of things. Somehow, you utilize the listeners' brain. The third track you wrote for 'Polaris' was "Winter Skies", so could you also touch upon that track? Musically, "Winter Skies" came to fruition last year. The song's lyrics are just about being homesick, as when you travel, you miss home and so on very often. "Winter Skies" could mean many other things too. It's difficult to say. In the winter skies, there's this Pole Star - Polaris, the good old Northern Star. I'd like to quickly clarify a rumour. Obviously, 'Polaris' has been reviewed by various journalists, and some have mentioned the possibility that certain lyrics upon the album are critical of Timo Tolkki. Is there any truth to this? Not in my case, no. I actually consciously avoided that. I knew that something would come up. I really think it's stupid when people do that, and write "You asshole". In my case, definitely not. The Deluge of Poland is likely what "King of Nothing" is most closely related to, something I read about in a book by this Swedish historical author. Poland had this huge empire which just fell apart, and nobody quite understands what happened. People started attacking them, and then decimated their empire. They fought back, and eventually, there was nothing much except little countries left in the rubble (laughs). As usual, the people who pay are usually the soldiers who are being ordered about. "King of Nothing" is nothing to do with Tolkki, but that's the song where everyone said "It must be about Tolkki". Do you have a message for the fans of Stratovarius? Don't lose faith (laughs). Keep up hope, as you can always fix things. If things seem to be fucked up beyond belief, you can always turn things around with a little work. That's the only thing I'd like to say really. In some respects, that's what 'Polaris' is all about. You keep fighting in the face of disaster, and something good comes out of it. Ok. Thank you very much for the interview Jens. Ok. Thank you. Bye. Bye. Interview by Robert Gray Ultimate-Guitar.Com 2009

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    how DARE the writer use dragonforce to define this genre. by the time dragonforce formed, their particular style of powermetal was already dead and done and overdone. stratovarius is powermetal god.
    Robert Gray
    richard664 wrote: great interview - am loving this series of interviews - you seem to interview one of my gods every single week - new stratovarius album is stunning - bought it at the glasgow gig and got it signed by everyone [lovely chaps] - keep these interviews coming - they are fantastic [am trying to tab "higher we go" - am struggling ]
    Thanks for the compliment, which is much appreciated. I'm quite glad you're enjoying "Hit The Lights", and I hope others are too. This month, some interviewees might not be to the taste of some (I'm sure some installments will be divisive, given they aren't the usual metal fare), though I hope people will nonetheless share their opinion. (PS - Keep trying to tab "Higher We Go" - if you try enough, you'll master it in the end)
    FOREVER IS TODAY !! brilliant album. Jens my favourite keyboardist Stratovarius has always been my favourite band but, i have to say, they really needed this change. Any kid these days can play better than Tolkki, i used to admire his guitar playing years ago until i learned to play the guitar and realised you could compose solos without only using the major scale . I still admire him as a composer though. Now MATIAS, that guy can kick some SERIOUS ass.
    new album is really good so far, good to hear everyone back in form! although i was reaaallllyy hoping Blind would be another Black Diamond :p
    stratovarious(L). I havnt yet seen them, i live in england so they dont really get so much publicity over here as they should, there an amazing band, in fact i have them on now (: but either way, there new album is AMAZING, its mind blowing as all the other albums are, but this one is just boggling (: ive liked stratovarius since i was a little kid about 6 years old, im now nearing 15. they've had an influence on me and tbh, im so glad there album is even better then expected! (:
    Jens is a really cool guy, i remember gettin into Strato from his keyboard work with Yngwie, i gotta pick Polaris up within the next few days and from what i hear its gonna rock, also a double album would be amazing
    saw videos of matias live with stratovarius... that man can play gee-tar!
    Still have to get this, but definately a great interview. I'm excited for the US tour in September I believe. And though he's an *****, tolkis band revolution renaissances 2 releases are solid.
    Kotipelto's side project is pretty awesome so I don't think the loss of Tolki will be as bad as everyone thinks. I have this album on order. Can't wait to get it.
    Seakle dude
    I didnt expect to see a new Stratovarius album, I am glad to be wrong. I saw them Live some years ago. Timmo Tolki is a great player but has no stage appearance at all, the singer had to make it all up for the rest of the band actually.
    I love Stratovarius saw them live on the 18th this month =D Amazing show!
    Jens is a great guy, has a good sense of humour. I can't wait to check out this Album.
    Should be good but I can't imagine Stratovarius without Tolkki. Him and Jens were the best bits IMO
    That other guy, Tolki or whatever, is crazy. Solid band that really defines the genre. Just like Dragonforce... Just kidding
    What i got from this is Jens is an awesome guy and Tolkki is just an *****. theyre better off without him, the new cd is AMAZING
    Love the album. Met Jens and the rest of the band at the Glasgow show, really nice guys.
    Random3 wrote: Should be good but I can't imagine Stratovarius without Tolkki. Him and Jens were the best bits IMO
    tolkki = one of the gods at guitar
    vinc3nt wrote: What happened to Timmo Tolki? I loved that guy!
    Where have you been for the past year?
    great interview - am loving this series of interviews - you seem to interview one of my gods every single week - new stratovarius album is stunning - bought it at the glasgow gig and got it signed by everyone [lovely chaps] - keep these interviews coming - they are fantastic [am trying to tab "higher we go" - am struggling ]
    Raizer Sabre
    absolutely amazing album, jens is king of the keys, and quite a cool guy, reading this