Interview with vocalist and bassist Marko Hietala
Interview conducted by Luxi Lahtinen
Date online: March 8, 2020
Marko (or Marco as he's known professionally) Hietala is a Finnish legend having been at the front line when Heavy Rock/Heavy Metal was taking the first baby steps in the northern European country of Finland. Marko's first band was Purgatory (formed in 1982), playing Heavy Metal, and it started the snowball effect for his career that has lasted to the present day. Many old-timers remember Marko's work in Tarot, a band that recorded several albums between 1986 and 2011. Over the years he has contributed to several bands and projects from Northern Kings to Sinergy to Virtuocity to Raskasta Joulua (traditional Christmas carols and Christmas hits performed in a Heavy Metal style), etc. The real turning point was when he joined highly successful and popular symphonic metallers Nightwish in 2001, which has kept him busy ever since. When Nightwish took a one-year break in 2019, Marko suddenly had the time to carry on with his solo project that's been many years in the making.
Marko's first solo album, Mustan Sydämen Rovio (also recorded with English under the title Pyre of the Black Heart), was released on January 24, 2020 and was well received by media and fans alike. A European tour was booked for February 2020 to support the album.
The Metal Crypt had the pleasure of meeting the always friendly and talkative Marko in Lahti, Finland, on January 31st, just a few hours prior to the premiere show of the album's English version and many topics were covered, the main emphasis primarily being on his solo band and future plans. Read on...
Luxi: When did you get the idea to make a solo album some day? I bet this has been bubbling in your mind for many years, correct?
Marko: Yes, that's true. I have always had countless ideas for songs that I have come up with over the years. Some of them have gone missing or may have been modified over time.
When Nightwish decided to take a break from everything, it gave me the chance to start working with these ideas. I called Tuomas (Wäinölä, guitar) and Vili (Ollila, keyboards) well before the break and told them about my ideas for a solo project. They were interested and here we are now. I have known the guys for more than 10 years, I would say. They have a background in Rock bands and they have an open mind and open ears for music in general, so working with these lads was a no-brainer.
I had a bunch of stuff already written; choruses, rhythmic parts and stuff, but I must give a lot of credit to my band mates for shaping them in to the vision I had been thinking of for this album. They gave their own input on certain soundscapes and brought in diverse things. Honestly, they were a huge help getting this album completed in the way I envisioned. Without them, this album would not have turned out as great as it did.
Luxi: Were these guys your primary choices or did you have a list of musicians that you wanted to go through to see who was available?
Marko: I had been thinking of a small bunch of musicians that I'd like to do a solo album with, but these fellows were always at the top of my wish list so to speak. Also, when Tuomas suggested that we hire Anssi (Nykänen) behind the drum kit, knowing he's a big fan of John Bonham, I was sold. This band needed a pair of heavy hands behind the battery and he was in in no time.
Kai Hahto (Nightwish, Wintersun, etc.) was originally interested in doing this project with us as well, but he had his house project going on at the same time and unfortunately he also hurt both his wrist and back a little bit, preventing him from playing drums for a little while.
Luxi: Yes, I remember him telling me about this episode at a festival where we met. For people who have been following your doings with both Tarot and Nightwish, this solo album may surprise them a bit if they are expecting it to copy any of your previous works. While I listened to Pyre of the Black Heart, I found a wide range of influences on the album, from more progressive moments to softer ballads to more rocking numbers and so on.
Marko: Yes, there are quite a lot of things going on in these songs, but I would say perhaps Progressive Rock is the genre that's closest way to describe it due to different style and sound combinations. However, what we tried to avoid like the plague was making the songs sound too artsy-fartsy or too calculated just to get a "progressive" tag hung on our songs. For us it was very important to have catchy choruses and melodies in these songs and some people may even think, "Hey, this is an almost dancable stuff..." [*laughter*]
Luxi: Unlike Rush or Pink Floyd that may demand some unorthodox choreography from a dancer's legs, I am afraid...
Marko: Haha... Every bassist should be well aware of what some bottom end bass tones can do for people's hips... ;o)
Luxi: If we sink into the lyrical world of this album, how much does it reflect your own inner feelings and thoughts?
Marko: There are quite a lot of personal things on both solo albums, the Finnish (titled Mustan Sydämen Rovio) as well as the English version. As it's said, truth shall set you free. If you can carefully read the symbolism that's been used on both versions of the album, I am sure listeners can catch some of the thoughts and feelings that I have bled into the lyrics. Nowadays we are kind of living life on the edge, without thinking about how we should balance our life between staring at our cell phones and the REAL life that's outside of it. Rudely said, we tend to stare at all these simulations of life through our cell phones more than living this life that's surrounding us, which is just sad in so many ways. Technology is a great thing and I love sciences, but we humans should embrace the real side of life as well and not just live life surfing in the wonderful world of social media.
Luxi: Being more humane, without letting technology's wonders enslave us too much, is the key for living...
Marko: Yes, that's right. We should remember we have this planet which is still full of all kinds of beautiful wonders.
COMING OUT FROM THE PROTECTIVE SHELL—OR STAYING THERE?
Luxi: As solo works can be really personal, do you believe you have a sort of inner mechanism that doesn't let you bring out all of your deepest feelings and thoughts out, naked and unfiltered?
Marko: Hmmm... That's a tough question. If a listener gets that kind of feeling solely based on some lyrical content on the album that I would hold myself back lyric-wise, then it must be subliminal for me. I mean, if there are some topics out there that I want to include in my lyrics, that also kind of challenge me in one way or another, then I want to see if I can take on this challenge and overcome it.
One of the challenges for me has always been how to be as open and be honest and truthful about the way I want to express myself. If there's something there that makes me cautious, then I am doing some careful research on why those things make me a bit cautious. And if there's nothing I should be worried about, then I just go with it and express my thoughts very openly. It's as simple as that. For example, that's what happened with the song "Voice of My Father", in which I openly talk about the things we, as this prevailing generation of people, leave for future generations, both good and in bad.
Luxi: But sometimes, if you dig too much, you can actually be pretty vulnerable and feel even threatened if you are too straight about things via your lyrics, right?
Marko: Yes, that's all true, of course. This is also something I have thought myself, that if I am too open about things I may sing, who would like to harm me or act intimidating toward me due to my lyrics, am I perhaps digging my own grave by saying things a bit too straight? I would say to the latter; not really because I think it's more about protecting your personal being than anything else. Should I care if I said something corny or childish in my lyrics? Do people laugh at me if I said this or that? Should I be afraid of peoples' reactions if they attack me due to expressing myself in a cryptic way that might be (mis-)understood different ways? Hell no, I don't think I should be afraid of it at all. This is something I have gotten over.
Luxi: Besides that, we should remember that a certain level of cheesiness has always been a part of Metal music, in one way or the other?
Marko: Of course, it is. I have pondered this many times because many hit songs have this almost too-corny-to-be-good aspect that people tend to like. Sometimes it works, sometimes not so much and many times there may be an absolutely brilliant idea behind a song that is watered down due to reaching this thin line when things simply don't work. But when you get to know your limits of when something is only corny but not overly corny, the result can be absolutely fantastic.
DIFFERENCE BETWEEN PERFORMING IN FINNISH VS. PERFORMING IN ENGLISH
Luxi: It's not so often that an artist makes a solo album in two different languages, like you did with this one. Was it something that you originally planned from the beginning or did this idea grow little by little? How you express yourself using the Finnish language for Finns obviously has a different approach compared to using English for them, I suppose?
Marko: Yes, it is all true what you just said. There certainly is a difference when singing in Finnish for the Finns versus using another language for them. For me, it was relatively easy to do this solo album in two languages, keeping in mind my wife is non-Finnish, plus it's no-brainer for me to switch from Finnish to English either as I am using both languages constantly, almost half-and-half.
And yeah, like you mentioned, it's a plain fact that when I sing in Finnish for the Finns, I am sure they can assimilate my lyrics easier than English.
Anyway, the reason I eventually decided to record both the Finnish and English versions of the album is actually very simple; I had written lyrics both in Finnish and English. I simply could not make up my mind which language I should use so I made a compromise and released it both in Finnish and English. Besides that, it was fun to do this album in both languages. By singing in English, commonly known as the worldwide Rock 'n' Roll language, you can reach millions while singing in Finnish you can reach, if you will, one isolated northern tribe known as The Finns.
Luxi: Doing albums in different languages is not common so obviously there was a lot of work involved...?
Marko: Yeah, it was quite a bit of work indeed, but it was all worth it. I mean, I was fascinated by the contrast between these two languages and how they both would work on the album. There were, of course, some challenges for me to translate from Finnish to English—and vice versa—to get the meaning right. Some translations were easy to do, but some took more time. I remember killing time travelling one spring and summer by plane, sitting for long hours and figuring out whether this or that lyric line would make sense and rhyme. In fact, I wrote a lot this way, both in English and Finnish. Some lyrics were pretty complicated and needed more work. Some for the English version of the album were completed just when we were about to begin the process of recording the English version at the end of last summer. I wanted to have Troy (Donockley, Nightwish) double-check some of my lyrics to be sure there wouldn't be any double meanings in my lyrics because they might sound odd or just hilarious if written in the wrong way.
THE IMPORTANCE OF FINDING LIKE-MINDED PEOPLE
Luxi: Were the other guys on the same page with your ideas right off the bat?
Marko: I was actually pretty surprised that they understood how I wanted this album to sound. Of course, there were a few longer discussions there when we had reached a crossroad where we didn't quite know which direction this or that song should take. We were working our asses off to make the songs sound right to each of us, really pushing hard in the direction we wanted them to go.
At the end of the day, it was worth all the hard work. Each of us in the band was happy with how the songs turned out, thinking they sound pretty darn unique and original.
Luxi: This may be a silly question, but which language version of the album is closer to you personally when thinking of all the musical nuances, colours, soundscapes, etc.?
Marko: Well, let me put it this way; for me, the closest songs, without exception, are the ones in the language I wrote them. On this record, I translated about six songs from Finnish to English and four were translated from English to Finnish. Then I have some raw material still left that is just waiting to be finished, probably 2021, who actually knows?
Luxi: Before you booked the studio time for these recordings, did you have the whole song palette completely ready or did you finish some songs in the studio?
Marko: No, no... We had all the songs demoed already, so we knew how the album would sound when we went to Sonic Pump Studios to record it. We used very organic methods to record the songs. You know, bass, drums, guitar and our keyboard player, Vili, had some demo versions already done for this session. We played the instruments as live takes that also gave a more authentic feeling to the songs. Out of all these takes we just put them together the way that everyone was happy with. For example, I played my bass all at once and Tuomas did the same with his rhythm guitar and that was it. Our main intention was to have the album sound as organic as possible; make it sound like a real live band effort instead of making it too clinical and stuff.
"THIS MELODY IS KICKING MY HEAD..."
Luxi: Promotion means everything in today's rough music business and making videos has become an integral part of it. How did you end up choosing the song "Stones" for the first video?
Marko: I had a vision for this song in my head well in advance because I think it has a pretty addictive chorus. From what I can remember, this song was born two years ago when I was still touring with Nightwish. I was singing and demoing parts of that song backstage. Then one day, when we were travelling by bus, our manager Ewo Pohjola, who had just woken up, walked in the bus looking sleepy and wearing only pants while humming a catchy melody line. At the same time, Tuomas (Holopainen) came in to get his morning coffee and said, "that melody has been in my head the entire night...and blame it on that guy!", while Ewo still kept on singing the same melody over and over again.
Anyway, this catchy melody line stuck in my head as well, and... here we are... ;o)
Luxi: Talking about playing live, this is your very first gig here in Lahti, Finland, for your solo band, sort of the premiere for your solo tour in Europe. Feeling nervous?
Marko: Perhaps just a little bit. I am hoping I don't fuck up my lyrics too much, haha!! The day after tomorrow I should be playing a gig in Hamburg, Germany, so let's hope everything goes smoothly on this tour, too.
Luxi: Have you received any information on how well your solo album has been received in Europe? Have you read any advance album reviews?
Marko: I am afraid to say that I really don't follow social media sites much. However, my wife and some of my friends have told me the album has gotten pretty nice reviews in the media already. I myself have googled some reviews and am glad it's got some very good ones, 8 out of 10, 9 out of 10 and the like, so that makes me honestly happy. It gives me a feeling my band mates and I did something right. I have been doing some interviews as well, phone interviews and stuff, and many have mentioned they did not expect as diverse and all-around good album, so I am grateful for all this positive feedback.
Luxi: When I read some of these reviews, almost every one of them states loud and clear that it's great to hear you use your whole vocal range and I fully agree that there truly is a lot of soul to your vocals.
Marko. Thank you. Naturally when you do a solo album, it's way easier to not hold your horses in this type of project, as say, singing in my main band Nightwish, in which there's always been this some sort of "the beauty and the beast" thing between Floor and me vocally.
Luxi: What are your personal expectations from the crowds in Europe?
Marko: Hmm... hard to say because the type of stuff we do is pretty marginal after all. It's kind of hard to predict how many people will attend our gigs, so in that sense everything's still a bit of mystery to me. But as long as we can entertain people on this tour, then there's not much to complain about really, I guess. We know we have a diverse set, from some headbanging stuff to more atmospheric and emotionally moving stuff. We already tested the more atmospheric stuff last summer, just to see if we were able to hypnotize our target audience and damn, it worked. It all comes down to how it's performed, how convincing or entertaining you can be and so on. On our summer tour this year when we performed these songs in Finnish, it seemed to work well for people. Let's hope this English-sung material will go down with the audience nicely, too.
Luxi: Obviously this kind of stuff should draw very different people to your gigs, from the old school Uriah Heep/Deep Purple generation to younger Nightwish fans, and such.
Marko: Yes, that's what I was thinking, too. But you never know what's gonna happen. This reminds me, was it Tina Turner who made her first solo album at the age of 45, and became a world-famous star after that? I am 54, but it's only a wishful thinking that the same would happen for me as well with my solo career, haha!
OF MEET & GREET AND V.I.P.
Luxi: What about these Meet & Greet sessions? Do you feel like they are necessary or do you see them more like a mandatory thing to do for the fans who want to get close to you, take some pics and autographs, and share even a few words with an artist and/or band members?
Marko: I have to say they have been more or less a neutral thing for me. I happen to know many musicians really do not care for them, but then this other part of them feels it's necessary to do them because it's a part of today's business so to speak.
For me, however, the coolest situations always tend to happen if you meet your fans simply by accident; on some random street or somewhere else but just by accident. I remember this type of meeting with a fan when I was in Brazil, spending time on a little island with my wife. We were on the beach and I had just come out of the water and then this guy appeared saying, "What's your name? Are you THAT Marko?!" Of course he wanted to remember this meeting by taking some pictures with me and telling me, "This is the best day of my life", and so on.
This is something that I love, making people happy this way, with just a little effort from my side.
Luxi: If I can ask, what's your opinion about the V.I.P. packages that include things like going to see soundchecks, special Meet & Greet sessions with band members and a chance to travel to some ranches of their idols, staying overnight there, plus having a breakfast/dinner/etc. with your target of worship?
Marko: Haha... Regarding Nightwish, this has always happened in a smaller scale for us really, but I believe in America we have done that kind of stuff probably more than anywhere else, having these smaller scale V.I.P. options available for them. Our fans mainly have wanted to pay for the opportunity just to meet us; to get a few shots taken with us and to share a few words with us naturally, too. But what's certain, we haven't arranged any special all-inclusive hotel weekends for our fans, or shit like that.
But I do understand that if the fans are dying to meet their favorite artists/musicians and are also willing to pay for this privilege, then why not. In some sense, a little bit exaggerated perhaps, these fans partly pay our tour buses with the money they have reserved for this V.I.P. option.
GOING SOLO—FUTURE PLANS
Luxi: Changing the subject, I am curious to know if there might be some continuum to your solo thing, if Nightwish takes a break from touring/recording again in the future? Do you have half-finished stuff that's waiting for the right time to get finished?
Marko: In fact, I do, and some good stuff that's just waiting for better days to get completed. I have a few good ideas that I'd like to finish someday. It's kind of amazing for me to think backwards that I have reached the point of having my first solo album done finally, after leaving all of my other commitments behind for a little while. After rehearsing and working with two bands for gigs and in the studio, making three videos, several photo shoots, gigs and more rehearsals—all kinds of different comings and goings, I found it nice to take a break of two months and clear my head and recharge my batteries under the Brazilian sunshine. After the break, I did the "Heavy X-mas" tour in Finland, which lasted two weeks but was still a relaxing and nice thing to do. I did not feel it demanded much from me; it was more like a gathering of old friends.
Anyway, this break did me some good because it got my creative juices flowing again. I am what I am. Obviously, I tend to have this some sort of inborn mechanism that seems to get my brain working; coming up with new lyrics and grabbing my guitar and start jamming.
Luxi: You are not the kind of person who wakes up in the middle of night with a cool idea or melody line somewhere in the back of your mind that simply needs to be saved right away?
Marko: Fortunately, this has not happened to me for a long time. I remember when I was younger, I may have woken up due to some band's song not leaving me alone in the middle of my sleep. By the next morning, I had no remembrance of it at all. My mind was totally blank when the morning came.
Luxi: Alright, I think that's all I had in mind for this interview... wait a sec. I have just one extra question for you if you don't mind. As you know, cover bands like Sapattivuosi that you also were a part of once (a Finnish band doing Black Sabbath music in Finnish) have always been popular projects over the years. I was wondering if you have heard this Russian Nightwish cover band called Nevski & The Prospects that seems to be a highly popular band up here in Finland. I mean, they have a gig coming up in Oulu, Finland, on April 10th—and surprisingly, it's a sold-out show...
Marko: Ah, yeah... I suppose I have heard of people talking about quite a few times before. Hmm... Some people are saying that their music may be the closest thing to Nightwish's own stuff, and claim they probably sound even more like Nightwish than Nightwish themselves... [*Marko has a very suspicious grin on his face*]
Luxi: Okay then, now that's interesting. Thank you, Marko, for your time and best of luck for your tonight's show here in Lahti.
Marko: Thank you.
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