Timo Tolkki talks Symfonia

Timo Tolkki's new power metal band Symfonia are old skool metal...big, hairy and epic...

Timo Tolkki (ex-guitarist with Stratovarius) has a new band and a new album. But he still went a bit nutty at Symfonia’s debut gig at the Finnish Metal Expo.

So Timo, what the hell happened?  “It was kind of interesting because it was my first live in gig in three or four years so I was kind of nervous beforehand but we were well prepared...but I did break my guitar because I was pissed off with the monitor guy so I smashed it [his guitar] into pieces.  But the gig was fine; it was before the album release (In Paradisum is out now) so we played most of the stuff from the record – people didn’t really know the songs” 

How did the crowd react to Symfonia?  “Considering the fact that they didn’t know the songs, the response was really good.  It’s hard to get the crowd going when they don’t know the songs, and for me this is frustrating when the audience doesn’t respond to you. I get a subconscious effect and I become very angry – not that you can be angry with the audience; it’s not the right thing to do especially when people don’t know the songs so maybe part of that anger went to my guitar as well...but it was a good gig”

As your first live gig for a few years, how was it for you?  “Liberating – it was liberating.  I really like to play live, and it’s that interaction that you need with your fans - that’s where you can really feel what music is all about; it’s about that interaction with other human beings.  I’ve had some great moments in my career when I’ve played to people who really sing my songs loud, they know the lyrics; especially in South America”

So who are the craziest fans?  “I think the craziest fans are probably from Argentina.  There have been some situations where it was out of control – it was dangerous!  Argentina seems to have this spirit that sometimes borders on violence – it’s cool and it isn’t.  When it’s too much, it’s too much.  You can play to 3000 people and they are crazy”

Symfonia was dealt a heavy blow when drummer Uli Kusch was diagnosed with severe nerve damage in his hands; how did this effect the band?  “It was a shock because this guy is a very good drummer and we have been waiting for him for six months and it [Uli’s hand] is not getting better.  So we talked about things and we are moving on without him.  Unfortunately we had to make this decision – he took it well which made it easier but I feel very sorry for this guy because he is maybe the best drummer I have ever worked with – he played all the songs on the record in two days.  It was a shock and it still is”

Luckily Alex Landenburg was able to step up to the plate; as Timo says: “Alex is filling in.  We have some gigs coming up and we’re going to do another record so Alex is going to do the gigs but I don’t know who will do the record because the situation is still new.”

Symfonia have some gigs in Europe coming up and there may be a couple of U.S gigs but they’ve been having a pretty shit run of bad luck; Timo explains: “We had a tour booked in Japan and then the earthquake happened so that was another thing that really messed up our plans; the whole thing was incredible. The timing was perfect and then it all happened but if any nation can handle it, it’s the Japanese."

Timo’s playing speed has been recognised as one of the fastest but he’s not one to cling to empty titles – “It’s not about playing fast; it’s very easy to play fast.  Especially now, as I get older I appreciate the emotion of great songs far more than fast guitar playing.“

Will fans embrace the power metal of Symfonia like Stratovarius?  Timo is hoping they will: “Maybe even more because I was with Stratavarous for 22 years, since the very beginning when we got the first record deal and everything so the band was built up very patiently and organically; for me the peak was 2007 and after that it was pretty much going down, for me artistically. It was like trying to keep something alive for the sake of it and there was a lot of business crap behind the scenes; you know, normal rock band stuff... so I left and started to do music with different people and this is what you’re supposed to do.  It’s like getting divorced and getting a new wife or girlfriend – you move on. Maybe you can be friends with your old spouse but maybe you can’t.”

I’ve interviewed a number of musicians and the ex-wife/ex-girlfriend analogy just keeps cropping up.

He continues  “The analogy of divorce and rock bands is a very good one; I think it’s almost the same thing... actually it’s even more difficult because, let’s say there are five guys, you’re not married to five people but you have to get along with five different people with their own habits and their own egos – believe me, there are a lot of egos in this business! And to deal with egos, it’s something I really don’t want to do anymore because I hate that – it takes away from the music and it’s a waste of time.  The first thing I do when I’m producing a record is check if there are any egos to deal with. I have an ego and it was way bigger before. It’s like being insecure, you want to dominate areas of production”

So how does the creative process work for Symfonia? Apparently the band nicked off and spent a couple of weeks in the wilderness...” It was a very creative process.  We recorded the vocals not in a studio, but in a cabin in the middle of a Swedish forest.  It was in January.  It was cold and freezing; we spent three weeks there.  We didn’t have any lyrics when we went in, we only had the song titles and melodies.  Andre [Matos - vocals] was writing the lyrics – he’d start in the morning and he’d write for three or four hours, then we’d agree to the lyrics and then he sang them.  So this is the way we did the first record.”

“I think this is how we’ll do the writing for next album, we have the basic song ideas.  It’s actually going to be a concept record.  We won’t go back to the woods though – that was horrible!”

Timo recounts last year when he locked himself away to record the guitars for the album, then he jetted about the place trying to tie the rest of the production together; “I locked myself in the studio when it was Christmas time here in Finland – I didn’t do Christmas last year, I was recording for one whole week and people were calling me “Come here, what are you doing there alone?’... from there I flew to Sweden to see Andre on New Year’s Eve but I was sleeping by ten o’clock in the evening... (that is just so un-rock and roll and I advise him to keep quiet about that one...) So I missed the new year.  The next day we started recording the vocals so I spent like four weeks inside a cabin, working really hard. Then I flew from Sweden to Italy to mix the record...at least the weather was better.  So the whole process of putting Synfonia together with the demos was eight months solid work and that almost killed me!  It was very hard”

The band is already working on their second album but Timo won’t even give me the working title - he's a tight-lipped Nordic work-a-holic.

“It will be much easier because we can plan things in advance.  We have about ten gigs coming up and then we’ll be heading into the studio around September or October.  There is a release date already; 21st March 2012.  The music business is like this these days- the record companies are like this.  They tell you when it’s going to be released and you do the songs.  It’s going to be a very interesting concept; it has a lot to do with what’s going on in the world at the moment, for example when Andre Matos was here in my home one year ago, he couldn’t fly back to Sweden because there was this Icelandic volcano eruption so he was stuck and had to use a boat to get back.  Almost the same as now.  And then there’s the tsunami in Japan so a lot of stuff is happening with nature right now.  I predict a collapse of the financial systems.  Something’s happening right now.  From these ingredients we’ve written some ideas and it will be a conceptual record.”  Sounds cheery...

Is there anyone that Timo would like to work with?  “No, I’m not into that.  I’m not into guest vocalists and I’m not into playing cover songs – I think that’s boring.  I’d love to have played with Ronnie James Dio though.  I saw him at a festival in Finland, I was watching him offstage, I was like seven meters from the guy.  He was incredible – he played all the Rainbow classics.  He was small man but he had such a huge voice.  I think if you dig him up, he’ll sing Heaven & Hell”