Staff writer Carl Sederholm recently sat down with Tuomas Holopainen, keyboard player of Nightwish, on their stop in Salt Lake City, Utah on April 22, 2015. Here's a transcript of their discussion.
SoT: The last time you played in Salt Lake City was also the last show Nightwish played with Anette Olzon. I don't want to get into any private stuff, but are there any memories from that performance you'd like to share with our readers?
TH: Let's just say that I have very vivid memories of that show for sure [laughter].
SoT: [Laugter] I had to ask since we're here in Salt Lake City!
TH: It's a historic city for us in that sense. At that point, the band was just a survival machine on wheels and trying to get the shows done. Thanks to Floor, we were able to pull it off without canceling a single show.
SoT: Wow. That's great. Your current tour, with Sabaton and Delain, has been going for about two weeks now. How are things going so far? What kinds of things might fans expect on this tour?
TH: Getting better and better. All the shows have been good, but until about two weeks ago, we hadn't done a single show in 18 months so the routine wasn't quite there, with all the excitement and enthusiasm. It's really getting together day by day.
SoT: Do you like life on the road?
TH: I love the cycles. I couldn't do this all the time, the same way that I couldn't be in the studio all the time. But the fact that you get to spend first a year at home, in peace, writing the songs, then six months in the rehearsal room in the studio and then a year and a half on the road and then starting all over again. It's like having the four seasons.
SoT: The current album, Endless Forms Most Beautiful includes "The Greatest Show on Earth," one of the band's longest recorded tracks. How much of that song are you going to play?
TH: So far we have been playing the two middle chapters of the song for about ten minutes, less than half of the whole thing. The end part is just ambience and that kind of stuff so it wouldn't really work live. It would be an ambitious thing to do the whole thing from beginning to end at some point but right now we are just doing the middle, the band sections of the song.
SoT: I've always been impressed with the number of literary influences in your music. "The Poet and the Pendulum," for example, brings to mind Poe's story "The Pit and the Pendulum." What's the connection to Edgar Allan Poe for you?
TH: I'm a fantasy and horror freak. Poe is one of the best. "The Pit and the Pendulum" is one of my all time favorite novels. I just loved the wordplay of "The Poet and the Pendulum." When I was writing that song, I was going through the most terrible time in my life because of what was going on with the band and elsewhere. Right now, it feels really awkward listening to that song, especially playing that song, since I'm not that person any more. But I just fancied the idea of killing myself in a song, in a concrete way. In the lyrics, it even says in the lyrics that "Tuomas was buried...." Now it feels really weird to listen to that song, but at that time it felt like the ultimate catharsis that I had to do. I imagined myself being on an altar with the pendulum coming down like in the novel—and that's where the song was born.
SoT: On the current album, you have a track entitled "Edema Ruh," a reference to the traveling band of entertainers in Patrick Rothfuss's The Name of the Wind, one of the best fantasy novels I've ever read.
TH: I would have to agree. Also, the sequel The Wise Man's Fear is even better. I can't wait for the third one. For me, it might just be the best fantasy story ever. The Lord of the Rings has always been the story for me, but I think this comes really, really, damn close. The guy's amazing. His words are like music. The way he describes the characters brings them alive. It's so beautiful. I'm out of words. The Edemah Ruh—maybe Nightwish is like a modern-day Edemah Ruh, going from city to city to perform and then move on. About two or three weeks ago, I actually got an email from Patrick Rothfuss saying "thanks" and "It's an honor." I send him the CD and he said that he liked it—it's awesome. Maybe we'll meet at some point.
SoT: That would be fun. I think he's pretty available. He signs books all the time.
TH: We were pretty close to where he lives in Wisconsin. He couldn't make it to the show. Maybe on the next leg. It's just the feeling of worlds colliding because I get to meet my biggest heroes. First was Don Rosa with my solo album, then it was Richard Dawkins with the current album, and then Patrick Rothfuss. It's like—"Wow, what's going on?"
SoT: It's good to have heroes. They inspire us! I didn't mention that I'm a teacher and that I write academic articles about people like Stephen King. I also teach courses in science fiction and horror.
TH: Wow. Stephen King would be one of my top three as well, when it comes to horror writers. He and Edgar Allan Poe.
SoT: You have referenced Stephen King in your music. Especially The Dark Tower.
TH: I love it. The first chapter of "The Poet and the Pendulum" is called "White Lands of Empathica" and that's where it came from.
SoT: Do you also like works like The Shining?
TH: I love The Shining and Misery. Actually, my all-time favorite is The Talisman, written with Peter Straub, more of an adventure story than a horror story. Yeah, that would be my number one, The Dark Tower for sure.
SoT: I really liked the track called "My Walden" off of the new album. I especially liked the line "I do not wish to evade the world / Yet I will forever build my own" because it reminded me of Thoreau's own sense that his time at Walden pond was not so much a hermitage as an attempt to learn how to live deliberately. What are your comments about Thoreau and his time at Walden Pond? Walden is not about being a hermit, it's about learning how to live and then going back out to live.
TH: Absolutely. That's the whole essence of the song and that's how I felt when I read Walden for the first time, too. I, as a person, am very optimistic. I just can't take the "this world sucks," everything's dark and rotten. I just want to escape. The world is a beautiful place. It's what we make of it. That's why I don't want to evade the world. It's beautiful. But will still have my Walden, my own Walden. Everybody should. Stop the complaining and do something about it—to put it bluntly. I know it's not so easy for everybody, but...
SoT: We work our own spot in life.
TH: I know so many people who are miserable with their lives and they're just too lazy to do anything about it even though they have the tools to do it, just thinking this is it and there's nothing more.
SoT: I listen to a lot of different bands and attend a lot of shows. Nightwish is a positive band that discusses the beautiful, both in the lyrics and through the music. A lot of black metal bands, for example, are quite negative. I like it, but it's often about the grotesque, the ugly, or the disturbing. What are your thoughts about that?
TH: There's nothing wrong with that. I used to play in a black metal band and I still have a very dark side inside of me but like I said I'm an optimist about most of the things in the world. I've heard many people say that Nightwish is definitely the most positive metal band on the planet. I take that as a compliment.
SoT: I think you should! The interior artwork for Endless Forms Most Beautiful is very beautiful. Is it the same person who did the cover? Were they given any direction as to what the band was looking for?
TH: Yeah. It's the same guy called Toxic Angel that has done all of our artworks since 2006. For some of the songs, I had a very clear impression of what I wanted the artwork to look like—like the cover or "Edemah Ruh," for example. Then I gave him the demos of the songs and the lyrics, saying that, for example, the song "Our Decades in the Sun" or "Weak Fantasy," just come up with something, how you feel, how you hear the song.
SoT: You've always been interested in movie soundtracks, especially the work of Hans Zimmer.
TH: He was the first one.
SoT: What were some of the musical influences for this new album?
TH: It's a funny fact that during the year and a half that went into making this album, I bought two albums. I just can't listen to music when I create. My mind just wanders somewhere else immediately. I couldn't say that there's any concrete inspiration when it comes to music, what influenced this particular album. Throughout the year, it all goes in and somehow all comes out. You can definitely hear that I am a Hans Zimmer fan in many of the riffs, or James Newton Howard, a big hero of mine.
SoT: Do you ever listen to minimalism, like Philip Glass?
TH: Philip Glass is wonderful. Michael Nyman, just wonderful. This is just my personal thing, but I love grand music. Maybe that doesn't translate into English but in Finnish it sounds good.
SoT: Grand music; that makes sense to me.
TH: It's not imprisoned by any genre. It can be metal or jazz or pop or anything, but grand. I think Nightwish, Philip Glass, Hans Zimmer, they are all grand music.
SoT: When I discovered Philip Glass, I couldn't get enough.
TH: It's wonderful, those arpeggios. Troy Donockley, the pipe player, is a huge fan. He was the one who introduced me to Philip Glass. I just found out about him three or four years ago.
SoT: Troy is a new member of the band now.
TH: He's an official member now. He plays the Uillean pipes, tin whistle, bouzouki, does a bit of singing.
SoT: As I listen to Nightwish, I think a lot about storytelling and the wonder of storytelling, the way humans tell stories to make sense of their lives. How is writing music a form of storytelling?
TH: Well, music is the universal language. People might have a story in their heads, just listening to an instrumental piece. You don't need words. That's the beauty of music. There's an interesting example on this album, the track called "The Eyes of Sharbat Gula," which is a song about children in war, a very current theme. I tried to write lyrics for that song for weeks, but just couldn't nail it, it was pretentious or wrong. I thought, "Why not make this an instrumental?" People will know what's going on. The atmosphere is there, the Middle East. It definitely worked.
SoT: The album title makes reference to a beautiful paragraph from Darwin's The Origin of Species. There's also a reverence for the beautiful there. I loved the part of "endless forms," the way that life is made up who knows how many things—endless forms. And they are "most beautiful."
TH: I was really struggling with the album's name. I knew that there were certain themes: Praise for the wonders of the natural world, evolution, love—all that kind of stuff. But how to bring it all together in an album title? And then I remembered, hold on, the classic quote from The Origin of Species. I still have the shivers, it's so perfect. I immediately called the other band members—what do you think about this? The best album title ever!
SoT: Thank you!
Thanks to the good folks at Nuclear Blast as well as Roger Smith who made this interview possible!