Mike Exley asks Nightwish bass player Marco Hietala just how dangerous it really is to write a rock ‘opera’?

If you were a fledgling band trying to make your way in the music business today, coming from Finland might be only one of your problems. That you should then go and release one of the most daring albums of its generation though would surely be seen as suicidal? But, then Nightwish are no fledglings. Since debuting in 1997 with the album ‘Angels Fall First’, this band has released four daring albums that have tried to move the debate further forward each time, and as current opus ‘Once’ steams up the metal charts worldwide even going Platinum in Germany (that’s 200,000 sales!), it’s either likely to break all records or become the millstone by which all other Nightwish activity in the future is judged? And that’s why I’m sitting here with the ever-smiling Marco Hietala (the band’s bassist since the end of 2001). ‘Once’ is a great album, in fact a milestone for a band that has never shirked ‘courageous music’. It builds beautifully on the format already set by ‘Wishmaster’ (Spinefarm 2000) and ‘Century Child’ (2002), but when people heard of the idea of using The London Session Orchestra and Director Pip Williams to create the ultimate ‘operatic’ musical experience – alongside the driving, melodic and hugely enjoyable metal Nightwish themselves create so naturally - I feel that many simply didn’t expect it to work.

Marco.   ‘And, neither did we, really! I think we actually all got more out of this record than we’d expected! All I can say about it, and you know of course, that I’ve not only recorded material with Nightwish (Marco was in Sinergy before he joined this lot)? Is that, when I listen to it, I never skip a song even now, and it’s been with me for quite a long time! I think it’s all about extremes. There’s a definite Nightwish element – the classic metal band at the bottom, the classical vocal style, the hard, driving sound that we’ve used on all our albums, but everything is just taken forward. The whole package stands up as one piece of music.’

‘Personally, I like the heavier direction of the music, too? When Tuomas (Holopainen – keyboards) had first suggested ideas for the record, last year, he gave us some of the orchestral arrangements he wanted, plus some of the basic riffs. And, not believing that the orchestral side would be as good as it eventually turned out, I instinctively went for the power of the riffs and tried to exploit those. Then, when that side of the record was done, Tuomas told us he was going to England to use this orchestra and choir and suddenly, the album goes up a further notch. It just exploded. The effect on our music was tremendous.’

Can you highlight any personal moments that illustrate that?

Marco. ‘There’s the song, ‘The Siren’. I really like the atmosphere; the mix of the vocal work Tarja (Turunen) and I do, how the whole song hangs together. Then, there is ‘Higher Than Hope’ which I wrote a lot of, the acoustic guitar part is mine. And, ‘Romanticide’ where I brought some of the heavier riffing stuff to the song.’

Outsiders often see Nightwish as Tuomas’ band. Clearly, this proves that it’s more of a team effort?

Marco. ‘Of course, but because Tuomas writes all the lyrics and much of the basic ideas, I understand why people think that. It’s a very good formula though so I really don’t see it changing too much. The success of the band right now, depends on it.’

To quote from the song ‘Dead Gardens’ then – “…. my song is little worth anymore, time to lay this weary pen aside…” Is there material left over from the ‘Once’ sessions, or is the cupboard empty?

Marco. ‘For Tuomas, probably it’s empty, but for me, there’s a few bits floating about, yes. Two of my original ideas were used; two, I think remain, but we’re certainly not going to push that side of it at the moment because everything is still about pushing the album.’

Tuomas, especially on the DVD – ‘End Of Innocence’ (2003) – admits freely how difficult he finds it to write. Can you all relate to that, or is it just a very personal demon he has to battle?

Marco. ‘No, we can all relate to it because I write lyrics too and I understand the need for the perfectionism he talks about. You need to have a finite idea of your style so that you say what you mean without bullshit getting in the way. It’s very hard, especially when deadlines get involved. Tuomas, of course, puts pressure on himself, as do we all to get the perfection, but, this time, it was really brought home by the strength of the orchestra and the choristers – those people can come in on any note with near perfection and that takes a great deal of dedication!’

What makes me more proud, more importantly, is that we’re already starting to see real ‘profit’ from this album. We paid for the recording ourselves and seeing the success it has generated really makes you proud that you took such a risk.’

One band who, of course, took the same risk of using orchestra and got very positive feedback from it, was Metallica with ‘S&M’? Do you feel it opened the doors for you in any way?

Marco. ‘No, not really, because the albums are very different. Metallica’s music was already written, ours was not and, in the rehearsal studio, we were having to adapt ideas to the orchestra, write ideas for ourselves and blend the two. Pip Williams was a big help too of course. Many of his ideas made it into the final mix as well. Songs like ‘Dark Chest Of Wonders’ for example, set the whole tone for how the orchestra ended up functioning in the album. Everyone in the band knew that, almost like a preview, that song would grow as soon as the orchestra touched it – and it did, magnificently.’

Is there a fear though, that by being so daring with the orchestral side, you risk painting yourself into a corner and becoming stuck with this ‘operatic’ tag?

Marco. ‘Yeah! Of course, it’s a possibility but then again I don’t think we’ve really thought about it too much. Each song has its own requirements and its own feeling and really, we haven’t tried to analyse it too much yet. One guy asked me last week, if it worried me that we had a single – ‘Wish I Had An Angel’ – that has like, this techno, Rammstein beat and that that might paint us into the corner of having to use more machinery next time? Well, there you are, everyone has his or her own ideas I suppose? When we write again, and that certainly won’t be for a while, we’ll consider this. Not now!’

That was certainly a heavy song for a single. It certainly challenges the belief that a single should necessarily be the most commercial track on the album?

Marco. ‘I think, with ‘Nemo’ we possibly did go for the most commercial song, and it was, of course, the first single, but ‘Wish…’ has a great structure and it’s a very catchy song, so I think it works. The record company agreed with our views on that, which is unusual in itself, so I hope people like it.’

To move on to some of the ideas for the songs. ‘Creek Mary’s Blood’ is a brave song to record for Finnish people particularly. The song is about the Native American Indian and features the tones of John Two-Hawks in an almost prophetic Dances With Wolves like manner…

Marco. ‘Tuomas is a big book freak and that’s where that comes from. It has a tragic side to it, of course…’

But not like ‘Run To The Hills’?

Marco. ‘Ah, no! That’s certainly not the way Tuomas would write. You obviously run the risk of being accused of ‘cashing in’, of exploiting the situation, when you write about such things, but it was very important for us to make a very genuine, moving statement in the song. John said that he got involved because he saw that the mood was right and that his ancestors would respect how the song was written. That was a very moving moment for us.’

There’s no politics going on there, at all?

Marco. ‘No, that’s not Tuomas’ style either. I feel that there is a statement there, but that the atmosphere and the mysticism that the song creates is much more important. Nightwish is about making songs talk, bringing atmosphere to the material and giving it a life of its own. For example, we’re currently discussing how to move the live side of this album forward. On recent dates we’ve used a four-track mini disc player with the stereo recordings of the orchestra, all kept in time to the drums. But Nighwish now is a much harder band than it used to be, so the contrast between the album and the live environment is getting really interesting. Watch this space!’

How do you react to the fact that your now ‘chart celebrities’. ‘Once’ chartered in something like six countries almost immediately?

Marco. ‘It’s unusual for us, but very flattering. Of course, in the rock charts, there were three Finnish artists all there at the same time; Him, the Rasmus and ourselves. That’s a really good situation for any country and for different styles of music. It’s never been easy for Tuomas and the other members of this band to embrace that kind of success, it still feels strange even when you get the big audiences all shouting for you, but we’re all rockers so we just go out and try to enjoy it. The band has several very different sides to it and although the album is daring and a risk for us, it only shows one side of the band. The real rock and roll side is possibly kept in reserve.’

Then you release the DVD we mentioned in 2003? You talk about the different personalities being held back; that seemed to strip away a lot of the mysticism and reveal a great deal about Tuomas’ possible insecurities etc?

Marco. ‘Yes, that’s true and some people complained about it because they felt it brought them too close to the band. But, really, it was just something we wanted to do because Nightwish is not on a pedestal for anyone. I’m just the same as the next man – so is Tuomas. I do agree that it was a brave project because it does reveal a lot but I feel that most people’s respect for Tuomas actually grew after seeing that DVD because he didn’t edit too much out.’

You particularly seem to have developed your vocal style more acutely on this album. Who pushed you to do this?

Marco. ‘Well, I can’t really say that I’ve developed that much, but it’s nice to be able to do a bit, especially when you write lyrics for the band as well. Obviously, everybody recognises that Tarja is the lead singer and that her vocal style is what defines Nightwish – it’s silly to believe that I should aim to do more and more, for example - but I really enjoy the vocal side to my job, especially live where we do the songs like ‘Over The Hills….’ and the Megadeth cover.’

Ah yes, the famous Nightwish cover set. Aled Jones – ‘The Snowman-Walking In The Air’. WHY??

Marco. ‘That was before me, but, you know, I think it kinda works?? Ha! Ha! We still play that and I love to watch the crowd because their reaction is just so much fun. ‘Over The Hills And Far Away’ (Gary Moore) is much more successful for us though. It really has opened many doors and like all the songs we do live, the idea was just to not take everything so seriously and have fun with the song initially. Then we got asked to record it, so it had to be done with the same perfection we use for our own songs.’

As the last question, I wanted to pick up on some of the promotional material the band has to date. Bottle openers, your own beer, DVD and video, condoms, singles, merchandise; your own beer?

Marco. ‘Ha! Ha! Yes, the stuff that we come up with, eh?? I don’t know, but the simple T-shirt is often a little boring right? The DVD’s have often been the work of the band, the management and the record company working together and we talked about the ‘End Of Innocence’ earlier. There was also ‘From Wishes To Eternity’ which was a live recording, but the beer – that’s just something which came about a year or so ago. There’s this brewery at home, which has done this for a few bands before, and they asked if we would like to have a beer named after us. We’ve had it, quite a lot of it actually, and it’s nice! I don’t take a stance on this. If people want to collect loads of stuff and you’re not ripping anyone off, then why not? I guess its just part of the business. The better known you become the more companies want to put their spoon in the soup.’

And there we leave Marco as Nightwish continue on their campaign to take ‘Once’ even further around the world right through into 2005. Touring at first was a bit of a curse, but now the band seem to be willing to go everywhere to make this work, whilst still remembering that you can never count your chickens. And that’s why I like the band so much – they’re very down to earth and genuinely surprised by the success they’re having. They certainly deserve it. ‘Once’ is a great piece of hard work, personified.

Editor would like to thank Mike Exley (My Metal Bro), the band and Karl @ Nuclear Blast UK, cheers guys!!

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