Esa Holopainen: “I’m Really Happy That We Are [Called] Amorphis And Not Gore Fest Or Something Like This”
No doubt about it. Amorphis is legendary, a much-loved powerhouse of a band whose place in history is secure. And not just in their native Finland, although they recently were awarded a gold record there for their latest releases, Eclipse  and Silent Waters . Their eight CDs. spanning a remarkable 16-year career, run the gamut from death metal to some of the most sublime melodic power metal ever recorded and are held in such high regard by fans worldwide they might as well all be made of gold.
So I was thrilled to interview, at length, guitarist and co-founder Esa Holopainen on May 6, 2008. The interview was conducted via Skype. Special thanks to Esa for providing the photos of himself.
BM: Hi, is this Esa?
EH: Yes, it’s me. Hi Bill.
BM: Hi, how you doin’?
EH: Doing all right thanks.
BM: Oh good. Good, good. Did I call at the right time?
EH: Yeah, yeah, exactly. It’s good. And Skype seems to work as well, so it’s good. [laughs]
BM: Yeah, this is great. I’m really glad I checked the world time zone website today, because I found out it was a seven-hour difference, and not six.
EH: Exactly. [laughs] So how are things? Good?
BM: Oh, things are great. This is a gorgeous day here. It’s about 65 degrees and sunny. It’s beautiful.
EH: That’s good. It’s getting better here in Finland as well, so it’s really nice. It’s getting really nice.
BM: I really appreciate your time tonight.
EH: No problem. No problem.
BM: Well, our ProgPower interviews tend to cover a band’s history, not just their latest album, so I’ll ask you a lot about your early work to give people an in-depth look at who you as a musician, as well as a person.
EH: Yeah, yeah, right.
BM: I have to tell you Silent Waters is one of my absolute favorite albums.
BM: Phenomenal work.
EH: Thanks. It’s a huge change, you know, when Tomi [Joutsen, vocalist] came to the band. I mean, we had a good time with Pasi [Koskinen, former vocalist], but the last years with him, because we saw when he was suffering with lack of motivation, so it was like change between day and night when we decided to work with Tomi. And we sort of found again the passion for the music. So I think it can be really heard, a glimpse especially on Silent Waters. And it’s a brilliant album, I’m totally proud of it.
BM: Oh yeah. Well, as a matter of fact, congratulations. You recently received gold-record awards for Eclipse and Silent Waters.
EH: Yeah, that was pretty amazing as well, because it’s the first gold records for us. And it’s really weird how things have changed since we started. It’s like, you know, I wouldn’t ever imagine that we would someday achieve gold status here in Finland, but it’s like, metal music in general, in Finland, it’s like the national style of music.
BM: [laughs] Yeah. Well yeah, a lot of great bands come out of your country. And that region of the world is just phenomenal with bands.
EH: It’s pretty amazing if you see how, it’s not the big population we have, it’s a bit over five million people here, so it’s a shitload of bands. [laughs]
BM: [laughs] Well, when you got those gold records, were you thinking, “Gosh, I can’t wait to put these on my wall?” Or were you thinking, “Take that, all you doubters who didn’t think we’d get this far?”
EH: I have to say that when I was about expect the gold record to be received, I started to look a little bit to the space on my walls where it would look nice. [laughs]
EH: But it’s important. It’s something for yourself that you have crossed sort of a line. So it really feels good.
BM: Oh yeah. Well, you mentioned just a second ago about how far you’ve come. And I have to tell you, I understand your name is based on sort of a play on words, you know, amorphous being no determinate form and shapeless. But your first album is just straight death metal. As a genre, it’s very restrictive. So when you chose your band name, were you thinking down the road somewhere, that, “Gosh, we’re going to be completely different in a few albums?” In other words, why did you pick a name that’s so open, and yet you started with a music style that’s so narrow?
EH: It was like pure accident. It was a name which sounded pretty cool [laughs] and we decided to pick it up because we didn’t want like any gore fest. [laughs]
EH: Or bands which were starting at that time as well. So we wanted something different. And that just sounded cool. And next year it will be 20 years since we came up with that band name. [laughs]
EH: So it’s, if you look back now, I think I’m really happy that we are Amorphis and not, like, [called] Gore Fest or something like this. [laughs]
EH: Because we’re, on the other hand, we could have picked up like a silly name, and for a longer term, it would have been a different situation. [laughs] You know, stand behind that name.
BM: I can think of two bands like that, Edguy, and Symphony X. I talked to both of those guys, and they both said, “We have no idea why we chose those names, and now we wish we didn’t.” [laughs]
EH: [laughs] You know it’s, I never asked this from [Tobias] Sammet [vocalist[, but we did a lot of festivals playing since, I always wondered but I never asked, you know, “What is this Edguy, and what does it stand for?” [laughs] Who is Edguy? Ed who?
BM: [laughs] Yeah, I think he told me it was some guy named Ed that they knew in school or something, and they just decided to call it Edguy. [laughs]
EH: That seems sad. [laughs] Funny-ass Germans. [laughs]
BM: [laughs] Germans, yeah. What can you expect from Germans?
EH: Yeah. [laughs]
BM: You started with a form of music that I mentioned a second ago. Given that region of the world, there’s an awful lot going on: melodic death metal, the whole Gothenburg Sweden thing’s in that region of the world, power metal from Finland, Nightwish, Stratovarious, folk metal, Finntroll, Korpiklaani. There are a wealth of sounds and styles over there. How did you get attracted to what many call just straightforward death metal? What was it about that genre that grabbed you at first?
EH: At that time, I think that was the sort of style of music that was operating a lot with like underground networks. So there were like little magazines by people who were doing them by themselves. They used copy machines to print their magazines out.
BM: Oh yeah, yeah.
EH: And you had cassettes, there’s a lot of tape trading involved, people share of their demos with each other, and small record companies started to get involved with that as well, they started to listen to a lot of the demos. And Relapse guys started like that, they started to pick up demos and then pick up bands. And a lot of little, nowadays huge labels, like Nuclear Blast and Century Media, they started like this, and it just started to grow and grow. And for us, we, from the very beginning, when we started to play together, we wanted to add you know, little bit like melodies in our death metal music at that time. Because it was fun to play death metal, but we just wanted to put something only in there. And already at that time we were listen to lot of, like Jethro Tull and bands from ‘70s, and besides of digging the death metal bands at that time, like Carcass and Tool, and so on. So at the end of the day, our music started to be little soup, like influences from there and there. And yeah, I don’t know, from all that soup, sort of started, we started to create our own sound.
BM: [laughs] Yeah.
EH: And that’s how it started.
BM: You had a logo change, your first two albums, you have that one style of logo that looks very death metalish, and suddenly with the third album, Elegy, different logo, different sound.
BM: Did you consciously make the decision to change the logo and the sound at the same time? Or was it purely accidental?
EH: Yeah, we, you know, it’s nice thing from the past, but on Elegy we started to, I don’t know, think a little bit more about being some concept. So we decided [to use] that battle logo [laughs]
EH: Wasn’t good for the cover. So we decided, at that point, a little bit to change the logo. But you know, there’s a lot of people who still dig the old logo, and so we, these days we do the retro t-shirts, we have the old battle logo and old Amorphis t-shirts out.
BM: Oh, that’s cool. Very cool. Amoprhis draws often from the Kanteletar and the Kalevala [Finnish national epic and collection of ancient folk poetry, respectively].
EH: Yeah, that’s right.
BM: The question I have is – and I think other fans on the ProgPower forum have asked this too – when we as fans outside of Finland look at your lyrics, and some of your music, can we conclude, “Wow, those Finnish people must be really steeped in classical poetry?”
BM: Or should we look at it and say, “Wow, these guys just happen to like those poems?”
EH: Um, I think you should look it like, “Wow, these guys must have been really weird at all times.” [laughs]
EH: [laughs] You know, we used to eat, like, testicles when there was civilization in other places.
EH: But it’s like the old myths and there’s a lot of old sagas where people used to believe here at the old days, the old gods. And it’s perfect, old, little or huge world where people used to believe. And there are a lot of stories and beliefs we started to tell throughout our music. And at first it was just, it was not accident, but we wanted to add like folk melodies to our music and we had an idea that why not putting out some old traditions in lyrical form as well.
EH: That’s basically how it started. And we really liked the form, how the music and the lyrics started to work very good with each other. That was something we wanted to develop further. And at certain point, I think during our [Am] Universum album , and the album after that, Far from the Sun , we wanted to get a bit more rid of the power metal image and all that. But then when Tomi came into the band again, we started to think about concepts and ideas. We really felt good to come back with this world and starting to create what I think we can do the best.
BM: The, one of the posters to the ProgPower forum wanted to know this, and I think it’s a pretty good question: Do you want to be known as a Finnish band? Or do you just want to be known as a power metal band? In other words, do you feel like you’re carrying the weight of the Finnish history, representing your country with the ancient poems and all that?
EH: Uh, that’s like a question a lot of people asked. Do we want to consider us more like a Finnish band or are we proud to be a Finnish band? And I think what the themes are dealing with are definitely very Nordic, very Finnish, what we do. But for the same time, we do very universal music. We want to spread our music everywhere, so it’s just the themes and topics what we are dealing with are something what interests us and we want to share with other people. But definitely, because I think the lyrical theme is so strong in our band and the image is so strong in the band, it’s of course, Finland and to be a Finnish band is always going to pop up somewhere.
EH: People talk with this band. There are a lot of bands like Finnish bands where if you listen like, music from the band HIM, which is great guys, great music, but if you listen to their music, you can’t tell if they’re from Canada or they’re from Finland or they’re from States or they’re from Germany. [laughs]
EH: Oh, you could say if they would be from Germany. [laughs]
BM: [laughs] Yeah.
EH: That’s for sure. [laughs]
BM: [laughs] Well, you know what’s interesting, a lot of bands go way into the folk metal, that whole genre, with Finntroll, Korpiklaani, and Turisas.
BM: How did you guys stop from crossing that line? You know what I mean? It’s like they went way into it, they’re completely folk.
BM: But you didn’t. You just sort of toed the line and then backed off.
EH: Yeah. I think they went, they have gone very far with that. It’s very, bands like yeah, Finntroll, Korpiklaani, they took the polka music into their, it’s like oompa, oopma, oompa.
BM: [laughs] Yeah.
EH: But it’s how we’ve started to do like folk ideas into our music was the main influence were the progressive bands from ‘70s. There were a lot of bands during the ‘70s in Finland who took rock music and some old folk melodies and did very well. So it’s like our idea was to develop our music and use the folk influences so that they match well with like rock music and with metal music. So it sounds more like Jethro Tull type of influences.
BM: Yeah, yeah.
EH: Yeah, Finntroll and the guys, they are really deep in what comes to folk metal themes, so it’s very, very traditional way how they proceed with their music. And it’s very common thing is that they have this polka beat in their music.
BM: Yeah, I like those bands. But sometimes it’s difficult to listen to too much of Korpiklaani, because it’s so, the humpa-beat thing, it’s almost too much going on. [laughs] You know?
EH: Yeah, yeah. They have a lot of good things in the music, but it should be something else than you know, “Humpa, humpa, let’s drink beer.” [laughs]
EH: You know, we like to give a lot of emotions and feelings throughout the music.
EH: You know, especially during the live situation as well, so you have like different moods and you have little things here and there in your live set, and it can’t be the same thing all times. You know? People get bored really easily.
BM: [laughs] Yeah, I know. You mentioned Jethro Tull as an influence. Your album Tuonela —
BM: That sounds like, especially “Rusty Moon” with the flute and all that –
BM: It sounds like a Jethro Tull song.
EH: It is, and on that album we took flute and saxophone in with the music, because there is a lot of folk influences in the songs that is really, you know, I think songs started to live in another light when we got flute in there.
BM: Yeah. It’s great.
EH: Yeah, it’s great. And that’s, you know, great thing about Jethro Tull. I always like how they manage to combine the folk elements into their progressive rock music. It’s amazing how they achieved it. And if you look at the old live recordings, what they did, it’s amazing band, how well they played together.
BM: Oh yeah. Definitely. I always liked Jethro Tull.
BM: ProgPower USA. How did you guys find out you got the gig? Did Glenn call you or email you? And what did you think when you landed that? You know, what does it mean for you guys to play ProgPower USA?
EH: Great, great, because it’s been a while since we’ve been in the States. And with that festival also, it was very great opportunity for us to be able to tour surrounding this festival as well. So, well, basically we got a call from our management and they told about the opportunity for this festival, and yeah, we really got excited about this, because it’s definitely a festival we want to come over, and looks very nice lineup there.
BM: Oh yeah. As a matter of fact, are there other bands in the lineup you’re looking forward to seeing yourself?
EH: I don’t know. That’s a lot of, what was the one band?
BM: We’ve got Elvenking, Andromeda, Rob Rock, Iced Earth.
EH: Oh yeah. Elvenking is definitely one of what I would like to see, and for sure Iced Earth, yeah.
BM: Yeah. When you play gigs, especially at ProgPower, I guess, do you like to spend time sort of mixing and mingling with fans, saying hi to people before or after your set?
EH: Usually not before, but after a set, it’s nice to go out, especially if you know, you don’t have to play last. Then it’s really boring because everybody is leaving. [laughs]
EH: But during the festivals, it’s nice to go and see the other bands from the audience side as well. And to have a chat with the fans. It’s great fun always, you know, to get like real feedback from people and they have chance to shake your hand. It’s great. You can make somebody happy just by showing your face. [laughs]
BM: Oh yeah, definitely. And you have a great tour coming with Samael, Leaves’ Eyes, and Virgin Black…what is it, September through October?
BM: A tour of the States that looks pretty extensive. Are you guys up for that? Are you looking forward to it?
EH: Yeah, definitely, especially, as you said, as we have such a good lineup with us. It’s really, really nice. It should be really good. And it’s a good variety of bands.
BM: Oh yeah, we can’t wait. I’m sure we’ll go see you guys in Illinois after ProgPower.
BM: That’ll be great. Your entire career, like you said, has been nearly 20 years. When you look back at your two decades years in the band, what would you say was your biggest mistake that you made?
EH: It’s the last album we did with Pasi [Koskinen]. Far From the Sun.
EH: The only negatives I have with that is that you know, it was like the album I think we should have done later, perhaps with Tomi. I don’t know. But you know, it was really hard to work at the studio when we saw that Pasi was not motivated at all. And then we were coming up with the vocal ideas for him and so on. And that was also the only album we did here in Europe for a major label.
EH: So after Relapse, we tried Virgin EMI here in Finland and in Europe. So that was like disaster.
EH: Everybody warned us before that, you know, “Don’t go for a major label.” But you know, that’s what happened. And we talked with the guys who, basically, told us, it’s no use to do another album. Nobody’s doing anything, no promotion at all. So yeah, it wasn’t good. After that we called up the Nuclear Blast guy, and said, “Would you like to start to work with us again?” So it was an easy choice.
BM: [laughs] When you look at your career, was there ever a time in the last 16-20 years or so where you thought about just ending it, quitting the band, ending Amorphis?
EH: No, not really, to be honest. I’ve never thought about quitting. That’s never been an option.
EH: We even had an idea, if we wouldn’t have found Tomi or wouldn’t have found any new singer, I think we would have done an instrumental album and see where that would have led us to.
EH: But we’ve been so many years with the band. So I couldn’t imagine a life without this band, because it’s like one extra leg for me. [laughs]
BM: [laughs] Well, it’s interesting. You’ve done a lot of tours, you’ve gone a lot of places. Do you have a favorite road story? What’s the strangest thing that’s ever happened to you guys out on the road, or the funniest thing or the scariest thing?
EH: Uh, let me see. Lots of things have happened, but when you look at them now, it’s more as funny.
BM: Yeah. [laughs]
EH: You know, like the typical things. Like, the tour bus has left me during the night at the gas station and all the obvious, Pasi has broke his leg a couple of times during a stage performance.
BM: Oh no.
EH: I broke my arm during the mixing session of Elegy  in Liverpool.
BM: Oh man.
EH: [laughs] There’s been a lot of things, you know.
BM: Well, you’re a really good guitarist and songwriter. What has been your biggest challenge as a guitarist with Amorphis over the years? And in what way do you think your guitar playing has improved since you started?
EH: I think I have to say that the biggest improvements I’ve noticed is like taking ideas from another member of the band, because every musician thinks music in a different way. And if somebody tells me about the idea of the melody he wants me to play, or has an idea of rhythm idea, or some song structure or whatever, all that really helps because then you have to like go into another person’s mind and play, try to play how he thinks I should play. So that’s been like huge, huge help.
EH: I think that’s for a guitar player or every player, that’s the greatest thing to go further, is to listen the other players and how they play. Because it’s like playing music is only, you know, bringing your mind and ideas into your instrument, and everybody thinks in different way. So that’s a huge help. And then you know, try different things and try to develop your music in like stupid ways.
EH: Like play kids songs, old folk songs, whatever, just play and play. Until you realize that you have picked up a lot of good ideas.
BM: Well, there’s so much difference in your sound from the first album to the most recent one, Silent Waters. And some fans really like the death metal sounds, and some fans really like the newer sound. Do you ever worry about sort of leaving some fans behind when you change your sound from album to album, or every couple of them or so?
EH: Yes, I think that’s something we faced pretty soon when we released Tales From the Thousand Lakes  and we got Elegy out.
EH: There was a lot of people that wished we could have done an album which was more like Tales From the Thousand Lakes.
EH: And then when we released Tuonela, there was a lot of people moaning about why we didn’t released an album like Elegy.
EH: [laughs] So much like this. You know. It’s, things sound different these days. We do play even songs from the first album these days, but it’s, at the end of the day, they match very well together with the new material we do. So I think nowadays we have a lot of the old fans and still new fans in our shows, so everybody is happy now. [laughs]
BM: [laughs] Well, the thing that seems to be kind of a sticking point, sometimes American audiences have trouble with the growled vocals, you know, the death metal type things.
BM: Do you mix that up? Do you play some in that style in your stage shows nowadays, and how do you make the choice for that?
EH: Um, it’s pretty much, we never think about it, this song is going to too much growl or not. It’s basically the music, what—
BM: The music dictates how it sounds.
EH: Yeah, exactly. And musically, it’s the live show as well. So I know there are a lot of people that like melodic music but they can’t stand aggressive vocals. But still you have to stick with the basic. We started as a death metal band, and there’s still the roots that we have in that music. And the aggressive vocals are very strong way to, how should I put it, to put up great feelings with the songs.
BM: Oh yeah.
EH: You know, especially when people see us live, they forget the whole growling thing, even though Tomi is singing with the red face. [laughs]
EH: But it’s, it will be something that I’m sure people will not, you know, take that hard thing when they see us live. They’ll let us, the people who listen to pop music, they can’t stand growlers vocals, but they still like our albums in a weird way. [laughs]
BM: [laughs] Yeah. If I name an album, can you tell me what you remember most about it? Let’s start with your first one, The Karelian Isthmus . What do you remember most about that time? If your remember back that far, really. [laughs]
EH: [laughs] Yeah. I remember very well when we went to Sweden. That was the first time we, you know, took off and went into a proper studio. And we got a chance to record at Sunlight Studio in Stockholm, which was like the studio, beside Morrisound, at that time. And we lived in a little cottage village, like one and a half week, and that was the period we record the album at Sunlight. And we got surprised, because Sunlight was really, really small. Tomas [Skogsberg, producer] got an electric drum kit where we recorded all the drums, you know, it was very, very, very small in the way how we thought it would have been. But still there was a good mood up, and we found out that Tomas is a great fan of punk bands. And he, the secret behind his like old Entombed and this death metal sound was to do like a punk rock things throughout his amplifier. [laughs]
EH: But it was very interesting. As I said, we took a little bit over one week and we recorded the album. And it was great feeling when we have recorded it and we started to get feedback from Relapse guys.
BM: How did it feel to have that album in your hand finally, the final printed CD and everything? Was that a great feeling?
EH: It was a amazing, you know. It was like the first actual album you released. And then beside vinyl and cassette, we also got CD, which was quite rare at that time. [laughs]
EH: But, um, yeah, it was amazing feeling. That was like at one point, that was just the main goal, just to be in the band and get opportunity to record an album. If our career would have ended there, I would have been very happy. You know, we still got a chance to record an album.
BM: Yeah. The next album, Tales From the Thousand Lakes. What do you remember most about that? What was the most difficult song to record? What was it like in the studio?
EH: Oh yeah, it was pretty much the same thing.
BM: Yeah, not much changed, because you’re back at Sunlight and Tomas is still producing.
EH: Yeah, exactly. We got a bit more time for the recordings. I think it took around two weeks for the recordings for the whole album. But yeah, again we went to Sunlight, then we took a hostel and we lived there. And it was funny. I remember when we were doing all the basic tracks and Tomas was asking, “Does your record label know what you’re doing? Because this is not like death metal, not typical death metal record anymore.” And he was very worried about that. [laughs]
EH: Relapse guys going to blame him that you know, he’s doing album that they are not pleased with. But then, things happened.
BM: I would say, yeah, the album starts out differently, even. Doesn’t it start out with this nice, gentle piano-type song, “Thousand Lakes?”
EH: Yeah, exactly. Exactly. At the time, we had a proper keyboard player in the band, so we really wanted to give more space for keyboards as well. And the idea for clean vocals actually happened during the time at the studio when we called our friend over to Finland, that you know, you could sing over it. So he came over to Stockholm and did some clean singing, and that was great.
BM: How about Elegy? Now this is the big change you’d mentioned earlier, different logo, different sound. You’re still at Sunlight with this, but you are listed as sole producer, Amorphis is, actually, not Tomas.
EH: Yeah. It was a very, very messy recording process.
EH: [laughs] We went to Sunlight again, started with Tomas, and at that time he started to explore his studio, you know, he wanted to build a bigger studio. But because you know, he’s a really great guy. He’s not the guy who can handle building studios. So it was disaster. His studio was like half empty and it was like, we recorded, I think all the basics there, and then we decided, it’s no use, we go back to Finland and then we recorded rest of the guitars and vocals in Finland with Mikko Karmila, who mixed the album.
EH: That was the last thing we had to do with Tomas, because it was, he couldn’t handle recording an album and same time building his studio.
EH: It was really a mess. But at the end of the day, this album was pretty nice. We came up with some good sound at Sunlight, and then some very good things here in Finland. And at the end of the day, when we decided to go over to England, to Liverpool to mix the album there, it was great, great. You know, that was lot of different things recording-wise and mixing-wise there. Lot of different ideas which I think really reflects for the final result.
BM: Oh yeah, totally different sound. But how did you manage to break your arm in Liverpool?
EH: It was very nice studio, it was a studio called Parr Street Studios. And you had like a hotel in the same building, and then you took a lift downstairs, and you had a chance to go there and do the mixings. And then, you know, next door was a really nice bar.
EH: It was a typical bar evening, we went back to the hotel, and I was too drunk, and tripped over, and broke my arm. [laughs]
BM: Oh no. [laughs]
EH: It was bizarre, you know. I was lucky enough to be drunk, because it was like my arm was totally off position.
BM: Oh man.
EH: And I had to spend a couple days in the hospital there. It was, ugh, it was so mean.
BM: Which arm was that, right or left?
EH: But what I was most worried about, because I lost some nerves from there, and it was really, really hard to start to play again, because there was no feeling. There’s still some spots inside two fingers where I don’t have, it’s like a little bit itchy.
BM: So did you learn a lesson not to be drinking and recording at the same? [laughs]
EH: Well, sort of, yeah. [laughs]
BM: [laughs] Well, you know, your next album is just fascinating to me. I was listening to it this morning. Tuonela, recorded at Finnvox, different producer, Simon Efemy. Really cool sound to it. What was your approach to that one? What do you remember most about putting that album together? That was 1999.
EH: Yes, then we had an idea to use, because we wanted to use like, proper producer, and we got a chance to use Simon, because the latest thing he did was really good success, was Paradise Lost’s Draconian Times  album.
- end part one
NOTE: The entire interview can be found in the ProgPower USA IX program given to all attendees at this year’s metal fest.