TMF meets Nightwish

On the eve of their most ambitious and grandiose album yet in the shape of Imaginaerum and the accompanying film (due sometime next year), The Music Fix met up with Nightwish mastermind Tuomas Holopainen at the Gibson Studios in London to discuss the rollercoaster that became this all-encompassing musical and visual fairground extravaganza…

You’ve spent a long time working on the new album Imaginaerum - how do you feel about it now that the record is finished and people are listening to it?

It’s a mixed feeling because you feel really sad, empty and melancholic. I haven’t been able to listen to the album since we got the mastering done. I tried to give it a few listens, but I just won’t hear it yet. I’m still too close to it, so I have to trust other people’s opinions, the rest of the band and a few people who have heard it and said it’s really good and don’t worry. It’s the classic thing that journey itself is usually more rewarding than the destination, and that’s the case here as well.

Especially as it has taken so long, being almost three years since the inception of the idea.

Yes, it really is, and it is no exaggeration that it has been in my mind 24/7 for at least the past three years - it’s been the priority of everything. Even during the last tour I was thinking about this and trying to visualise how the movie will look like and where we get the money to do that and writing the songs all the time. And now it is ready and about to be released so other people can hear it too, it just fills you with pride, anticipation and melancholy at the same time. It’s really weird, I can’t explain it. But it has happened before I suppose, so I did expect it.

The original idea was to have 12 separate films, so when you decided to stitch it all together, did that change what you had written or how you approached writing further material given that it now had to tie in so much more?

Well, how it came together was really weird and complicated. I don’t think there has ever been a movie in this world that has ever been born this way. I had twelve stories in my head; twelve synopsis’ for short movies, and I wrote twelve songs to bring those stories alive. There was one story that happened in a jazz café, there was one that happened in a ghost circus sort of thing, one story about a rollercoaster ride etcetera. I had these stories and wrote the music for them, and then presented them to Stobe Harju [director of the clip for Nightwish’s single ‘The Islander’], the guy I wanted to be the director these short movies.

He read my ideas and listened to the demos of the songs, and told me “This is really insane, but I love it. But you know, what we have to do is instead of short movies, let’s do a full-length feature film in the vein of Hollywood.” I was like “Wow! OK, I don’t know anything about that, so can you write me a script?” And he said yes. But then again I said that these twelve songs are made for these stories, I don’t want to get rid of these songs and stories, and he said not to worry, he would write these ideas into the story.

So he was the guy who actually came up with the idea of the plot of this old guy called Tom who is lying on his death bed and going back through his life and his memories; it actually sounds a bit like Big Fish by Tim Burton, and there are some similarities there. But he was able to include all of those twelve original visions that I had into the story, which is spectacular.

How much involvement and input did you have in to the making of the movie?

Very little; that was something that I realised early on, that we don’t understand anything about the movie business. The whole thing got out of hand pretty early, and I realised that I just don’t have the resources to be a part of this anymore. We would provide the music, the idea, the philosophy and the story, and [Stobe] would do all the rest. If you thought the music business is a circus, try the movie business! So I just cleaned my hands of it and tried to find trustworthy people around us and let them take the ball. It was the right choice, as everything has worked out really smoothly, the shooting has been done in Canada, and they are editing it now and are just about to start the CGI. This thing is actually going to happen, which is amazing!

Do you still go in and see what’s happening? Do they keep you abreast of what’s going on?

Absolutely! I’m actually quite honoured that everything they do goes through me, and even though I tell them that not everything needs to go through me and that I trust them, they always want to ask me. So I will be going to the edit once a week and I will follow the music really closely, how they put it into the movie, that’s something I want to be a part of. But when it comes to the editing and the CGI, I have no clue about that, so I will let the people who know what they are doing do it.

It will be nice to go there, and if I see something stupid then I will say. For example, there were a couple of parts in the screenplay where the main character said “Jesus Christ” and I said you can swear, but just don’t use “Jesus Christ” as it’s stupid. In the world of Imaginaerum there is no fictional character that fits this; I didn’t want to put it in. At some points there was the f-word as well, I didn’t think we needed that. Little things like this.

Going back to the album itself; with such a clear picture to begin with, did that alter the way you went about writing the songs?

It was really simple, I just wanted to recreate these stories in my head, and they would all somehow be related to the concept of imagination, illusion, and the power of memories – the beautiful, fantastic sides of life. I wrote those stories and then just wrote the music on top of that; one song also came from Marco, our bass player, which was how they were born.

With this being your second album now with Anette Olsen, were you able to do different things knowing better what she is capable of, and able to push her more having doing a full album cycle already?

First of all, I think she takes her singing to a different level on this album; she wasn’t bad on Dark Passion Play, but she’s singing just so beautifully and in such a versatile way on Imaginaerum that it just blew my mind; it blew all of our minds! She does a fantastic job, and I think it has to do with the fact that I was able to write the songs to her vocal range and emphasis her strengths and avoid the weaknesses that she has. But the biggest difference was her being relaxed and confident about being in the band, finally.

She’s just confessed to me that when she did Dark Passion Play in the studio and the first half of the tour she was constantly deathly scared about getting kicked out of the band if she did a poor job, so I hope that feeling is gone now.

You’ve worked with Pip Williams again to do all the orchestral and choral parts; what does he bring, and why do you keep going back to him?

He’s just the wizard when it comes to arranging orchestras and choirs; I can’t imagine anyone doing it better for Nightwish than him, that’s why we want to keep it the same. We have used the same sound engineers for the past fourteen years, because it’s one big family, the guys know what we do and understand the essence of the band.

The same goes with Pip Williams, and you shouldn’t change something that isn’t broken. He’s just amazing; he understands immediately what I am after. And he’s also… nuts! In a good way, so that he experiments with things and comes out with these real weird ideas that I really like. If you listen to the sea part of ‘Scarytale’ for example, the orchestral arrangement is completely his, and I love the weirdness of it. He’s also really dedicated, when he did Imaginaerum, he took a leave of absence from university for four months just to do this every single day, so there is a lot of devotion from the guy, and I have the uttermost respect for him. If he wants to stick with us, I have no doubt we will use him in the future as well.

In the age of technology and quick fixes, are bands going to have to start doing more than “just an album”, much as you are with the film, to keep fans interested in the whole package?

That did pass my mind at some points; it’s not because of this that we wanted to do the movie, but it did occur to me that could this be some kind of new direction for bands all over? But I don’t know, I still want to have faith in people that they want to have the physical item in their hands, either vinyl or CD or whatever. I am a bit concerned about it, but not as concerned as many of my colleagues.

But then there is this example, a friend of mine is an elementary school teacher and he told his class of nine year olds to bring in CDs that they like to listen to and talk about, and none of the kids in the class knew what a CD was, but when they started talking about mp3s they were like “Ah, I’ll bring that and that on mp3”, the idea of a CD was unheard by them. That is a bit of a scary thought. But it is also the future and you have to be able to cope with evolution – you can’t fight the windmills, you just have to adapt, one way or another.

But playing live is now becoming more important…

Exactly, and you can’t beat that. Even though you can see the whole concert on YouTube the next day, it’s not quite like being there. Another thing is vinyl sales are going up in the world, so maybe that tells you something.

You start the touring for Imaginaerum soon, so what are the plans for the stage show? Will there be much coming in from the movie?

We’re planning it as we speak, I’ve just been talking to the technicians of late about what we are going to do with the tour, and there will definitely be some kind of visual show once again. I really like that, I really like the pyros around me and the huge stuff going on. Pyros will be there, possibly screens, some stuff from the movie perhaps, props scattered around the stage. To be honest, I don’t quite know what yet, it’s still in the planning stage, but it’s going to take a couple of months to get those finished. Definitely there will be something visual from the movie, that’s only natural.

Where do Nightwish go next? Have you got other ideas in mind?

I have some ideas, but at the moment the main focus is on the movie and on the tour. I like toying around with the ideas of future albums and concepts and different songs. We’ve been talking with the band about what we’re going to do next, are we going to make a sequel, are we going to blow Hollywood off the map, or are we going to go back in time and do a full acoustic album or something? There are many choices, but once again you need a twist, some kind of hook to keep things interesting for yourself, and you want to challenge yourself and fans. It is a fascinating project, what to do next. Like I said, it’s the journey that matters the most.

Imaginaerum is released by Nuclear Blast on 5th December.

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