On Friday, 27 September 2019, I headed over to Tavastia, which is the place to be for rock and metal in Helsinki. Here, in front of a select audience, Marko Hietala performed a full album play through of his solo debut. The audience is extremely diverse, from groups of teenagers watching the latest video around a smartphone to older couples sipping a glass of wine while waiting for the lights to turn off.
At 10 pm, Marko hits that stage. As he plays with the session musicians around him, it becomes clear that there is something between him and his bandmates, a real chemistry that you so rarely find in bands which makes music and live performance that much better.
Title after title, these impeccable musicians go on, and it’s just as clear that Marko is still that great showman, entertaining the audience, creating a dialogue and a connection with everyone. Sometimes, he explains the background of a song, sometimes he just talks about general feelings. He repeats what he told me earlier in an interview with him, “fuck those who spread fear and profit from it”.
Marko managed to take full advantage of his vocal range, from the harsher tones of “Juoksen rautateitä” to the deep softness of “Totuus vapauttaa” to the higher notes of “Isäni aani” to the headbanging power of “Kiviä”. The many influences, and maybe longer time of creation for the album really contribute to a diverse atmosphere, though one thing is constant: how hypnotic it all feels.
The concert seems to go by in just a few minutes, but then it’s past eleven and they leave the stage. Copious applause brings them back, and, trust me, if you have never dreamt of Marko covering “War Pigs” (Black Sabbath) in Finnish, now you will. This is possibly one of the best versions of the song ever. Game over.
But, you will have to wait a few more months to listen to these songs in English, and to get a chance to catch Marko on tour for his “Tour Of The Black Heart – Europe 2020.”
Earlier in the day I had a chance to interview Marko. He just came out of a meet and greet next door, which was raising money for an animal charity.
Can you tell a bit about the albums inception? When did you start to focus on a solo effort?
Marko: I have always played some music for myself, but I have been busy with bands and projects and personal issues which slowed down things for years. I had a bunch of ideas, some dating back 15 years, but I don’t want to define that precisely. Everything has been really reworked in the past two years.
This album is more personal, it doesn’t really fit the British heavy metal sound of Tarot. Over the years I gave some texts to Tuomas [Holopainen], but he didn’t really use it. Totuus Vapautaa, for example, some of it can be found in Yours is an empty hope, it has the same meaning that there is more to life.
Maybe the characters of my songs go further than what I would personally, but I still think they reflect my attitude, in a way.
The sounds are always very clean, very precise, even with such a powerful guitar sound. How do you find the balance between those elements?
Marko: As a vocal producer, I had to learn how to fit melodies and harmonies to a song, as I did for Amorphis for example. But it became difficult to find new angles. You can only fit so many harmonies into a song before you have to make a new one.
I wanted a bit of punch but also clarity, I wanted to hear the harmonies and everything that goes on in the background. With a wall of sound kind of mix, you can’t really hear all that detail, unless you work for a long long time on it and mix each track with different sets.
I didn’t want over-heaviness, with bass drums and guitars drowning everything. My music has too many layers for that. But I like a good power trio, like Danko Jones, for example.
It feels like there are a lot of different influences in this album, every song seems to take something from here or there, from all over the musical world, in a positive way. Did you set out to do this, or did it happen naturally while you were composing?
Marko: I just came up with some riffs and then added stuff bit by bit, like the theme from the Orient Express. But I come from a very diverse musical background, my parents listened to all kinds of stuff, from Irish folk (my dad was an English teacher) to the Beatles, to Black Sabbath…
Listening to Sabbath at age 9 has probably fucked me up for life. I learned the lyrics by heart, sang them at school. Shortly after I started singing in my first school band, and progressively I moved on to heavier sounds, but It never really erased my first listening experiences and influences. There is no genre to be scorned, there’s always something good to find.
“Laulu sinulle” is a really immersive song, quite peaceful but we can really get into it. Can you tell me a bit more about this song’s background?
Marko: I really wanted something immersive, indeed, so I am really pleased you call it like that. I wanted a long slow hypnotic kind of song, that slowly builds up. In every show we do, we notice that people are actually into it, they stay until the end even though it’s quite long, they really get into the atmosphere that we wanted.
Totuus Vapautaa is a beautiful closing track for the album, really showcasing folk and cinematic influences. It’s a great example of the balance between soft melodies and more rocking moments in the album. Did you have to work a lot on acoustic instruments for this release?
Marko: There is a lot of acoustics, yes, because most songs are from my home instruments, like the 12-string [guitar]. Before, I hadn’t been in bands where people would play exactly what I wanted unless I played it first myself, but Tuomas [Wäinölä] is a perfectionist. Like everyone in this band, I think. Sometimes it’s a bit hard to live like that, maybe we need to learn how to let things go, too.
On “Tähti, Hiekka ja Varjo”, you explore more synth-driven sounds, something closer to Blade Runner or Stranger Things. And when the guitars kick in, the effect is simply massive. What was the idea behind this electronic intro, very different from what we are used to?
Marko: I love Blade Runner, always been a great fan. And you know, if you add some bass it could even be more of a dance track. This song always have a groovy feeling, a groovy percussion vibe. I’m all for organic play. This is something that I want to find in bands, not just power, not Pro Tools copy-paste, but really an organic feeling, people having fun playing together, people enjoying what they are doing.
If you look at Metallica, for example, on The thing that should not be, you can totally hear how they approach this as a whole, how they have this… yeah, “organic” feeling.
Although your solo work is quite different from what you do with your bands, there are some nods to that in your own work. Do you have fans asking or expecting something different, is it difficult?
Marko: They definitely expected something else, something more metal, like I always mostly did, but it didn’t worry me. I wanted to make music that I enjoyed myself, not just the same old thing. I wanted something of mine, not some Pro Tools shit. Like, if you have 3 choruses in a song, you definitely want the 3rd one to be the most powerful, and you can’t do that on a computer.
Are there any differences between working with your bands and working on this solo project, and which?
Marko: I have known these guys for years, but of course it was scary at first. As we worked, I found out that they were really into my stuff too, that they were passionate and perfectionists like me, they started investing themselves a lot, they suggested things, modifications, told me “oh no this sounds like shit” and so on, so we really built trust, a personal alchemy, over these two years. Really, it’s a 4-men album, because they worked so much, writing arrangements and everything.
Marko: I had this sort of vision of a dark huge hand burning. It means a pretty dark personal history, you know, that sort of feelings which make you write pretty grim stuff too. But I wanted to leave that grim past behind me, and that’s what the pyre means, letting it go. The heart is history, that sometimes repeats itself if we are not careful. The message is really “let go all the bad shit of the past”. It’s quite cathartic.
Does your work as a producer, for example with Amorphis, change the way you create songs and albums for you?
Marko: Yes, I feel it really changes the way I work. It makes me understand more the music theory side of things, like if I want to keep this note for longer I need something to balance it, and so on. Tuomas [Wäinölä] actually did most of the production here. He had never done a full mixing by himself, but he wanted to do it.
I thought at first that maybe we would need someone from outside, a professional, to help, but he spent weeks working on it, and I think he did a really great job. He had the same kind of vision of the sound that I had in mind. It’s not a full-on metal album, I wanted air, complementation, and he pulled it off. He even gets a lot of compliments from great recognized professionals from it, they tell him how they would never think that it’s his first album!
Is it true that the album is going to be released in English as well? Can you tell us a bit more about it?
Marko: Yes, it will be released in English in January. It was an idea from the start: when I started writing, I had some songs in English and some songs in Finnish. I thought “Do I want to have both on the same album?”, and I didn’t really like the idea. But I have a good grasp of both languages, so I translated my English songs into Finnish and my Finnish songs into English.
It was a personal ambition as well, I wanted as many people as possible to hear my words and my music. I’m not a poet, of course, but sometimes I might get something right. And when you translate your lyrics, you discover sometimes that this metaphor works better in the other language, that this image is better in the other language, even though the original always remains what it is, the original.
You played quite a few gigs in Finland, at Tuska, in Jyväskylä, today here in Tavastia… are there any plans for taking this album to the road further out, maybe in connection with the English album release?
Marko: Yes. There is a middle-European tour arranged for February, with Oceanhoarse as support, the band of the former Amoral guitarist. We will also do what I call a Zakk Wylde, where we will go and support the bigger bands that I play in during a tour in South America. We will have the same crew, so it shouldn’t be too difficult.
Thanks for taking the time to speak with me. Do you have anything else to tell the fans?
Marko:Let me think… yes. The right-wing oligarch populists are trying to kill knowledge, so keep a good eye on them. In the end we will kick them out, we will get rid of Trump, we will get rid of Bolsonaro, we will even get rid of Putin, don’t despair. There’s one great thing about internet: knowledge. We don’t need to believe anymore the words of political and religious leaders who are filled with greed.
There is nothing wrong with believing, but there is something wrong in this organized system that’s here just to allow some old people to live in a golden chair, to have a wife or many wives and so on. I’m disgusted by these fucking people who spread fear and hate, when half of their own elite has been busted for doing the worst of everything, corruption, rape and whatnot.
Here in Finland our right-wing is blaming the refugees, who aren’t really doing much. When a girl is raped in Finland, in most cases it’s because of a drunk Finnish guy, when a guy dies it’s because a drunk Finn killed him with a pan or something. It doesn’t make sense to be afraid of that, there are bad apples everywhere. They’re making full politics with marginal statistics.
And the political leaders say one thing but do another, they say they want peace but how do they make money? By selling weapons to people, by building States in the middle of their own enemies so they can sell more weapons. What should be taken care of is integration, schools, education, language. Otherwise we could just as well let everyone die.