Stratovarius
Interview with Jens Johansson (Keys) and Timo Kotipelto (vocals)
By Morgan Y. Evans

Finland’s Stratovarius return with Nemesis, one of the most anticipated and intriguing records of their soaring and celebrated career as upper-tier power metal innovators. One look at the flame drenched avenging naked female deity on the cover and you’ll know the band is likewise rising above the fray. Packed with masterful anthems with a more modern punch, the record finds the current day Stratovarius (post-Timo Tolkki) really hitting their stride. Older fans of the band who have been wary since the legendary guitarist Tolkki left the group should really give this a chance because it is one of the strongest albums in Strato history.

It was a pleasure to speak with keyboardist Jens and vocalist Timo about the complex layering of instruments, fierce creative spark and work ethic that resulted in this fantastic, gigantic album. We also discussed new drummer Rolf Pilve and the unbreakable spirit of the group. From the unmistakable care that guitarist Matias Kupiainen took in mixing and producing to the positive general outlook of the band, this is a great time for Stratovarius.

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Nemesis is such an intense, super strong power metal album. The band has always evolved, no matter what the line-up. I think you have always tried to make big musical statements. You must be proud of this record. Power metal albums are so much work to do right- even more than some other kinds of metal.

Jens: It’s funny you mention this because you’re always proud of all of them but you never really know what people will think until you put an album out. I keep an open mind. If it is bad news and people hate it, we try not to care so much what people think. Of course, it’s better when people like it. So far Nemesis has been very well received. All of the records we’ve ever made, they took a hell of a lot of effort.

(Timo walks in a little late for the interview)

Timo: I’m sorry. I was searching for a toilet. I finally found it.

No worries, man. That’s important. We were just talking about how this album is so elaborate and it seems like Power Metal, to do right, it is uplifting and not just grim, technical but also about songwriting. In some ways harder to do well than other forms of metal. Agree?

Timo: It might sound a bit strange but somehow, the band has done I think fourteen studio albums, but to me it feels like this is our third. Especially because we’ve been like four guys composing for the last three albums. It’s a new era for the band and somehow I feel very optimistic about this album. It feels like a new start, in a way.

Huge sounds on here from vocals to the guitar tones to low bass. A lot of bands can’t balance all those different frequencies well. You nailed it.

Timo: That’s nice to hear. Especially Matias (Kupiainen -guitar) spent months and months in the studio. he was sleeping on the couch. It was an enormous job. We always want to make as good an album as possible. Of course, we also spent a lot of money on this album as well, but…that’s the way we want to do it. We want to take care that the album sounds good and hopefully we also composed good songs.

Plus, you are making a permanent record in time, so you want to have high standards. It’s a piece of art. Something like “Halcyon Days” there is so much going on, but it all works together. How do you layer parts so well?

Jens: So many layers. It isn’t just like putting mustard and ketchup on a hot dog. It can be completely over the top when it comes to everything and three overdubs of guitars and our keyboards. We just try and take our time and make sure it comes out well, but we are not in some minimalistic phase. That’s for sure! We didn’t record the fucking thing in one hour. That’s not the name of the game with this music.

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Keyboards first came into metal and some people said, “Oh No”! Van Halen is using keyboards!”, for example. I like “Jump,” personally…but you guys using keyboards makes the songs complete. It is cinematic and puts the finishing touches on a mood or picture. You can do huge and epic or heavy things together and still have something like “Dragons” on here, which is so catchy.

Timo: I agree. Jens is the guy who introduced this keyboard solo sound. He’s always recognizable. It’s a very big part of the sound of the band nowadays.

I wanted to ask about “Unbreakable.” That song seems to really embody the spirit of Stratovarius these days.

Timo: Well said. Matias wrote most of the lyrics for that one. The song is about living in the moment and relationships basically, but this is exactly how I feel as well. This song could also be about that. There have been some very bad moments in the history of the band and of course line-up changes, but you can’t put us down. Some people within the band have tried to kill the band. We almost were dead at some points. But still, Stratovarius the band is here. The band is unbreakable, you know?

It is still Stratovarius and still evolving but things that people liked from other eras of Stratovarius are still there. The guitar leads are rich, inspired and fantastic! It is still uplifting like the first time I heard “Eagleheart” and became a big fan. “Abandon” is hard charging. It grabs ahold right away and takes you off the ground with it.

Timo: Absolutely. It’s still Stratovarius without forgetting the legacy, but a bit more modern sounding. We are aiming to make people happy, not to tell people how heavy life can be. There is enough music doing that. Power metal is about uplifting, anyway.

Jens: Musically it might be a bit darker than some of the previous albums, but there is poppy stuff on there too. We wanted the title “Nemesis” to set a mood for a guy or girl who gets the album and has it in their hands. They can look at the cover and feel this mood and it fits beautifully.

Timo: It does.

How did you get into the right headspace for this record and decide what approach to take in the studio? You recorded some of it separately, right?

Timo: The hard part was first finding a drummer. There were so many good ones that at first it was difficult to pick. Then when we got to the songs we all wrote and had about two hours worth of songs. The most difficult decision was to choose which songs not to record! Once we had picked the songs that would be on this album configuration, you just try and get them as good as you can. I think we all have been doing this long enough that we know we just have to attack it and keep working on it. Of course, it’s a long process. It doesn’t sound romantic, but you have to coordinate with people. Go over arrangements. Play the stuff and sing the stuff. The really difficult stuff mentally is good. Finding a drummer, writing the songs, picking the songs, recording and mixing took about six months. You’re right, we did record everything separately. Jens did his keyboard parts in Sweden. Everything else was recorded at Matias’ studio except keyboards and my lead vocals. It was just Matias and me for two and a half weeks in isolation, basically. That’s the way I like it because it’s more relaxed atmosphere and there’s not any real pressure of seeing the price list of a studio. “Oh, it’s six hundred dollars today. Mmmhmmm.” We took the time that we needed and you can hear it in the performance. I think the vocals sound a bit more relaxed on this one.

Jens: Why suffer when you are recording? For all of us, we all have home studios or locations to bring computers so of course it is much more convenient of a work atmosphere. You can do whatever you want. The only drawback is perhaps it is easier…not to work. In a studio you are sure you don’t want to waste your time but you do ten hours and that last hour is not going to be productive because you are so tired. But this way you can do other things and take your time. It is a much nicer way to work. Towards the end near the deadline we started to get tense, but it came out great. I think we are getting better at allocating certain time for different tasks. We made sure we spent lots of time on songwriting beforehand and then told the label, ok…in three months or four months you can have the record, if you want it.

Timo: Matias and I discussed early on making more evolved choral arrangements for this album. A proper choir. We don’t have any fake orchestra keyboards. It sounds so symphonic it doesn’t need that. This album has a nice mix of stuff, choral arrangements and normal keyboards. No fake orchestra. You can’t compete with Nightwish and a fucking BBC Symphony Orchestra (laughing), so using a choir sample…we just decided not to even try this time. We used a real choir on the album instead.

How did you decide Rolf was the right guy for the job?

Jens: Rolf, easy. We put an ad up and there was a long response. We listened to everything and it made it very difficult. Many of the guys could play like hell, but he was the calmest of the whole bunch. It seemed like nothing could faze him. That’s what we were very impressed with. He’s a young guy and you’d think a young guy would be cracking from nervousness. “Oh man, this is a big chance.” Drink twenty pots of coffee and try to play faster than everybody! But Rolf was a nice, laid back person and a great drummer. Taking all these things into the equation, all the guys thought he was a very, very good choice.

Timo: In a way a very easy choice, at least for me. It was very obvious he was the best of all the guys we were jamming with in the studio. Since then we’ve played, I think, seven festivals. He has proven to be the man. He’s a bit younger than the rest of us but that’s a good thing because he’s bringing a lot of energy.

It feels like in some ways, despite a storied career, that Stratovarius has more potential than ever.

Timo: That’s nice to hear. I haven’t been this excited about a new Stratovarius album in maybe about twelve years. I don’t know why but it feels like we really did something here. I don’t know how the fans will react but hopefully they will really like it too.

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