Nightwish's Tuomas Holopainen on symphonic metal and the band's new film, Imagineaerum

Formed in 1996, Nightwish gained instant popularity in its native Finland with the 1997 release of its first album, Angels Fall First. Eventually, Nightwish achieved international success with album sales in excess of over eight million worldwide, yet the group has struggled to achieve popularity and recognition here in the States. Nightwish delivers chugging distorted guitars, double-bass kicks, fast tempos and time changes -- the signature traits of any metal band. But the act's songs also include classical structures and arrangements and have featured an orchestra and a choir, bolstering a classically trained female vocalist -- all of which has earned it a "symphonic metal" designation, a tag its members are comfortable with.

See also: Nightwish at Ogden Theatre, with Kamelot, 9/28/12

In 2005, the band parted ways with original vocalist Tarja Turnunen, and after a two-year hiatus, Nightwish emerged with a new vocalist, Annette Olzon, a vocalist who did not possess the same operatic vocal style as Turnenen, a change that created a division in both fans and critics.

By last year, all that was behind the group, and Nightwish released its seventh studio album, titled Imaginaerum, a concept album that has developed into a full-length feature film that will premier in Helsinki on November 23. Not to be confused with a documentary, concert or rock stars trying to act, Imaginaerum the film is based on the story of a composer who suffers from dementia and regresses into his childhood while on his deathbed, all set to music and visuals of Nightwish, in true fashion.

We recently spoke with Nightwish lyricist, composer and keyboardist Tuomas Holopainen, a day before the rest of the band was scheduled to see the film in Montreal, and he talked about film, gave us his take on being branded as a purveyor of symphonic metal and how he feels about other acts emulating Nightwish's style.

Westword: Do you consider yourself a rock star or a composer, and do you feel that there is a parallel between the two?

Tuomas Holopainen: I could not be further away from being a rock star. During the whole career of the band, I have never understood the term rock star, and I have never considered Nightwish to be a rock band. I just don't get the whole thing to be honest. I am a songwriter, a storyteller, a composer. Any of those terms would work. I am proud to be called any of those things, but a rock star.... NO WAY!

Have you written your masterpiece yet, and if not, how do you envision it?

I have been satisfied with all of the albums that we have done so far. Whenever I have gotten the master copy in my hand and have listened to it, I have always felt very content, and the same goes for Imaginaerum. I don't know if the masterpiece is yet to come or if it has already been done. It's not up to me to decide. I'm very happy with the work we have put out so far.

What has been a personal goal that you have set for Nightwish that you have yet to complete?

I find it extremely important that there is continuity. With each album we do, we challenge ourselves and challenge the listeners with something different. You never want to do the same album or even the same song twice, so that is our goal. Every album has been on a different level from the previous one, and we have always been able to challenge ourselves.

It's the same thing with Imaginaerum, because, after Dark Passion Play, I thought, "What the hell are we going to do next, because the music was so diverse"? We have used so many deliveries. That was when it occurred to me: "Okay, let's go further and open up the dream of a Nightwish movie". So, things like these are goals.

You studied music theory for a number of years. What was the most important lesson you were taught, and how have you applied that lesson to the music of Nightwish?

I remember my piano teacher telling me when I was like seven years old: "Every time you sit in front of the piano, remember to play, not practice." That was something I have been trying to follow ever since. It was really well said.

Do you write the arrangements for the orchestra before entering the studio?

Absolutely, I have accurate ideas in my head when I write the songs of what the orchestra will be playing. I write the horn parts, I write the string parts, and I hear what the orchestra should sound like in my head. I demo them with my keyboards, but I have no idea how to write the actual scores for an orchestra. For example, I don't know what the scale is for a French horn or things like that. That is when Mr. Pip Williams [producer] comes along and writes it on paper.

Is this more of a collaborative process, or do you just give him ideas and that's it?

It's really wonderful and really deep. On Imaginaerum, it was about four months that he did nothing else but score those arrangements. We would call each other at least once a day, every single day, bouncing off ideas. He would say, "I don't think this line is good enough. Can you do it in a different way?" Or, "Can we use the oboe instead of the flute here?" Stuff like that. We bounce ideas back and forth.

How do you feel about Nightwish being categorized by the term "symphonic metal," and what is your opinion of bands that have tried to emulate Nightwish over the years?

I love symphonic metal, obviously, and I can live with that description. If you want to call Nightwish symphonic metal, then that is totally okay. There are a whole bunch of these big-sounding female-fronted symphonic metal bands in the world today. I don't think any of those bands are copycats of Nightwish. They all have their own identity. If a band tells me that we have been an inspiration to them, then that is just a flattering thing. I am a big fan of these bands myself, like Within Temptation, Epica, and so on. I listen to this stuff all the time.

How much of the film Imaginaerum is based off the concept from the record? Did you write the screenplay? Also, will the score feature new music from you, or will it be strictly music from the album?

This is a really weird story, because originally, we wanted to complement the songs with, let's say, music videos. We would have thirteen songs on the album and, together with that, there would be a DVD with music videos of every single song. That was the original idea. However, when we were bouncing ideas with the director, Stobe Harju, he thought it would be best that instead of thirteen short stories, we should do one full-length feature film. It made more sense to him, and I thought, "Okay, let's give it a shot. This sounds ambitious enough."

He was able to take my thirteen stories and make it into one that had nothing to do with the original screenplay. You will hear all of the songs off Imaginaerum in the movie, even in the same order as they are on the album, but they are just re-arranged. At some point, we realized we could not use the album version of the songs in the film, because it would just be too much. The visuals in the film are so huge, and the music so bombastic, that they would beat each other up.

Will you be releasing the soundtrack, also?

Absolutely. It will be released on the 9th of November in Europe. We are still waiting to hear about the U.S release.

When listening to the music of Nightwish, I think the listener is able to paint a picture that goes along with the music. Do you feel the visuals of the film are a good representation of Nightwish as a whole?

That was our aim from the start. We wanted to make a movie that would look like us and that would create the atmosphere of the album. I think we succeeded in doing that pretty well. I just saw the movie for the first time about two weeks ago. I was really happy with it and relieved. At some points, the effects did not look good, but everything is fixed now. We actually have a screening tomorrow in Montreal for the band and the technicians, so we are all very excited about this.

Will the screening be the first time rest of the band has seen the movie, aside from you?

Three out of five have not seen it yet, so we will take our friends and a whole bunch of technicians who have not seen it.

Will the film have English subtitles, and do you have a projected DVD release date yet?

Definitely. They are talking about April or May on Blue-Ray and DVD.

How was filming the movie different from filming a music video, aside from longer times on the set?

It's more meticulous. You poke at every single angle and every single hair. Your head needs to be the right way. You film hours and hours to get only like two seconds done. It's very subtle and complicated stuff. It was interesting filming in Montreal and seeing the move come together, because none of us had the slightest clue about the film making process.

Were you on-set and in the editing room during the entire process?

I was in Montreal for two weeks just for the shooting, and I left the whole thing for the director and the producers. So it started its life, its own life. There were some occasions that I wanted to have some dialog cutout and some of the scenery fixed a little bit. We did not have, let's say, arguments with the director, but I felt there was one real cheesy scene in the film. He said, "No, it needs to be there." But I wasn't involved that much in the end.

Is the scene you did not like in the film, and what was the line?

It will not be in the film. It was one line that I felt needed to be cutout.

Do you have any interest in composing more film scores, and whom would you like to work with?

That is something that would be really nice, just a story or movie that would interest me. I wouldn't go do a romantic comedy, let's say, starring Hugh Grant and Julia Roberts. I don't think it would be my cup of tea. Anything from horror or drama, even a documentary for the Discovery Channel, I would like to try.

Imaginaerum is, quite possibly, the most dramatic release from the Nightwish catalogue. How will you transform the music to the stage?

Just play the songs the best we can, with a full heart and with the orchestras and choirs coming from backing tracks. That is the only way we can bring those songs to life. There is no way we can have any extra players on the stage. We won't have any room. So, that is the only way we can do it. We could in Europe, because we have bigger stages. We use pyrotechnics and big screens that give us extra visual effects. On this U.S. tour, it's pretty plain. It is a shame, because I would really love to bring the whole show to the U.S. as well, but it is impossible with the size of the venues we play in here.

I understand Nightwish has opted out of encores this tour. Why?

We are trying to avoid certain clichés. Doing an encore is one of the biggest clichés. I mean, you say, "Goodnight. This is the last song for tonight." and everybody is clapping. Then, you come back. Everybody knows what's happening, and it's a really worn out tradition in my opinion. We are making a statement. With us, you get 100 minutes and then an outro. It's a little bit pretentious to say goodnight, and then you come back. It's so obvious.

If the opportunity presented itself, would you perform a live concert with one act featuring Tarja and a second act with Annette?

NO, NO! Nah, it would be the ultimate corny thing to do.

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Brandon Marshall
Contact: Brandon Marshall