Strat's Fantastic - In conversation with Jens Johansson

Finnish power metal titans Stratovarius are back with a new album, so we decided it was time to catch up for a chat with their uber-talented keyboard maestro, Jens Johansson.

Jens Johannson, as you will doubtless know, is one of modern metal’s great keyboard players. One of the first to decide that it wasn’t just guitarists who should be allowed to shred, his remarkably fleet-fingered, fluid playing in the eighties for Ronnie James Dio and Yngwie J. Malmsteen virtually wrote the book for power metal ivory tinklers, and today, as we settle down to talk about life in Finnish power metal giants Stratovarius, this colossus of the keys is in affable mood – with not a hint of the arrogance often associated with such prodigious talent.

We’re here to talk about the strats’ latest work, the highly potent Elysium, but first I feel we need to fill in a bit of what people these days call the ‘back story’. Stratovarius have got a bit of a history about them, and we’d be fools, I’ve decided, if we don’t have a bit of a root about in it.

This album seems a lot brighter, more positive than its predecessor Polaris. Were you in a brighter place when you wrote and recorded it?
“Well, I think to a certain extent you are right. We were the same as people, but as a band we were definitely in a brighter place, yes. When we came to the writing of Polaris we had no record deal, no name, we had 30,000 Euros of debt to lawyers we had to pay off… we were a new band. I had not played before with Matias (Kupiainen, at the time the band’s new guitarist) or Lauri (Porra, the similarly wet-behind-the-frets bassist). So, maybe were weren’t in a dark place but it was difficult, yes.”

This difficulty had arisen because of a much publicized split between guitarist (and the band's only surviving founding member) Timo Tolkki and the rest of the band, a split which dragged both parties into the stygian depths of litigation and which, after much wringing of hands, left the band in possession of the name but not, according to Tolkki, the right to use it.

“Another thing that was bubbling underneath the surface at the time was Tolkki’s internet war against us. He kept trying to annoy us with stuff on the internet! He said that we were morally wrong to use the name Stratovarius. So that kept things going for a while after the court settlement. We’ve made things right with Timo now. He has a new project.”

Indeed he has, the excellent Symfonia, soon to release their debut album. It’s very much a statement of where Timo is as an artist, isn’t it?
“It is. But he’s a great songwriter, you know? I really hope he can get this thing off the ground and make it work. I’ve started three bands from scratch in my life and I know how hard it is.”

It’s great that both parties have good records out and can get on with their lives now – there’s no need for bad blood.
“That’s right, there isn’t. It’s good.”

But back to 2008, and debt, namelessness and a brave new world. How did you keep going during that time?
“I just felt we needed to write material, just to see what would happen?”

And what prompted the final decision to actually call this ‘project’ Stratovarius?
“I met Matias around then, and we had nothing. I guess he was pretty dubious when we suggested maybe writing some stuff together, and rightly so! It was like ‘who are these old farts, and what the fuck do they want from me!’ And even then, when we wrote, I was very sure that if the material was not sounding like Stratovarius, then we could not call the band that. All of us were sick of the name anyway, but especially Jorg (Michael, drums). He was adamant that we would never again be called Stratovarius, whatever happened. He was the most certain of all of us. But shit, the material we wrote, that became Polaris, it sounded so much like Stratovarius that we couldn’t use any other name!”

And things came together quickly then?
“I wouldn’t say that. We still had no deal, and we took six or seven months on our own getting the material together, which we had to pay for out of our own pockets. But then we got a deal and the album came out.”

Now Stratovarius are a big deal on the Euro metal scene. But they are huge in their native Finland. It must have come as a relief for you that after all the unseemly wrangling and bickering on the internet and elsewhere that the public stuck with you (the album entered the Finnish charts at number 2) – but were you surprised?

“I can’t say it was a surprise, because nothing surprises me any more in this business! But it was great that it happened. And we went straight out on a world tour, we were able to play 120 dates, which was great.”

And of course this meant that we were able to sit here today to talk about the new album, Elysium, which has already gone one better than Polaris and taken out the top spot on the Finnish ‘hit parade’. You’ve said you were in a brighter place as a band. How did you go about following up Polaris?
‘Well, we had a record deal for a start, which obviously makes things a bit easier. The Polaris tour was ending, and I wanted to start writing new material. But when the tour ended everyone went away, and maybe lazed around for a month, or did a bit of writing, and then we came together.”

And it must have been easier for Matias this time, not having to battle against the ‘Tolkki replacement’ tag?
“He wasn’t ever that I think, and certainly we would not have approached him if he was just a copy of Tolkki, we certainly did not want that. But yes I see that some people would maybe make the comparisons at first. But I don’t think it would be a problem for him”.

Along with vocalist Timo Kotipelto, Kupiainen puts in several match winning performances on Elysium. Are you looking forward to spending the rest of the year on the road with the record?
“I’m not really sure. Probably mainly the summer.”

On the Euro festival circuit?
“Well, we don’t seem to have so many booked at the moment. We kind of have this pact that we are going to go around the world with Helloween as their special guest, but… we’ve been to Asia, Europe obviously, South America. There aren’t many places left to go!”

You could come down to Australia with them…
“Certainly. I’ve never been to Australia. I’d like to check it out. What is it like for power metal bands?"

I remark that there are several very good power metal bands down here, with my favourites being Lord, Vanishing Point and Black Majesty. This is greeted by silence as the man racks his brains.
’Yes, I’ve heard of all of those bands. Certainly Vanishing Point. But do many power metal bands visit? I remember maybe ten years ago Edguy going down there, and I thought ‘why the fuck are these guys going! It should be us! So I’d definitely like to come. And like I said before, I’m never surprised by what happens in this business, so it could happen!”

Even if you don’t come here, you’ve said you’ll be playing a few shows this year. How do you see your audience change? Have they grown up with you, or are you seeing new faces especially with this new chapter that the band is entering?
“We’re getting older. When you get older you start to notice how everyone around looks younger. And I don’t really see many guys at Stratovarius shows my age! So it must be the case!”

And then a new album must be on the cards?
“I don’t know. By the end of this year we will have recorded two albums and done two world tours in two years. I think I’d like us, if we get time off in this period, to start writing new material, but I just don’t know.”
You could strike while the iron’s hot – but there’s no use driving yourself into the ground at the same time?
“That’s right. We’ll just wait and see I guess.”