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How Nightwish became a modern metal phenomenon

This month, Nightwish gatecrash Wembley Arena for a show that promises to be nothing short of spectacular. How did a rabble of Finnish country kids get there?

The couple huddled on the bench gaze open-mouthed at the scene in front of them.

Parading along the shore of one of the crystal-blue lakes that sandwich the Finnish city of Tampere are six people dressed like they’ve just wandered in from an episode of Game Of Thrones: leather, buckles, beards, hair. All that’s missing are a dwarf, a couple of eunuchs and a three-eyed raven.

“Is that really them?” asks the woman in accented but perfect English. Her companion peers closer through the late-afternoon sunshine and nods uncertainly. The two of them look like students in their early 20s: tidy haircuts, unassuming clothes, warm jackets to defy the brisk air. If there’s an air of uncertainty about them, it could be because, by their own admission, they’ve “had a little smoke”.

“It is,” he says. “Nightwish.”

“Holy shit,” she says.

“Holy shit,” he reiterates, just to make sure. “Can we get their autographs?”

By the lake, the six members of Nightwish – and it is definitely them – appear oblivious to the attentions of these two unlikely fans as they line up for a photoshoot. Either that or they’ve learned to take it in their stride. Already today, they’ve had their photos taken by a pair of middle-aged women in a hotel lobby, been congratulated on their achievements by the owners of the oldest sauna in Finland, and been watched from afar by a group of dog-walkers near an old observation tower deep in the woods.

But then that’s life when you’re the most successful band Finland’s ever produced. Since they formed almost 20 years ago in the sleepy town of Kitee, eastern Finland, they’ve done more than any other group to turn symphonic metal from a cult concern into a worldwide commercial juggernaut. Tomorrow, they’ll play their biggest-ever headlining gig at a 25,000-capacity athletics stadium here in Tampere, bringing along enough pyrotechnical firepower to wipe out neighbouring Sweden. In December, they bring their own Greatest Show On Earth to the 12,500-capacity Wembley Arena, where UK fans can witness its glory. Not only are they the first Finnish band to headline the Arena, they’ve sold it out – some achievement for a band from a country whose only other great contribution to global culture has been the Moomins.

“We’re country boys from Finland,” says Tuomas Holopainen, the keyboard player, musical mastermind and king of understatement who’s steered Nightwish from the backwaters of the Northern European symphonic metal ghetto into the wide open seas of international success. “Here we are now, after 20 years and all the ups and downs, doing these kinds of shows. It’s odd.”

Or, as the couple on the beach would have it: “Holy shit.”

If you were asked to pick out the leader of Nightwish from a police lineup, it’s unlikely that you’d choose Tuomas Holopainen. You might go for Floor Jansen, the statuesque Dutch singer who officially joined the band before this year’s Endless Forms Most Beautiful and who everyone else can’t help but seem to orbit. Or it might be fork-bearded bassist and co-vocalist Marco Hietala, who permanently looks like he should be beating a large drum on a Viking longboat as it sails across the North Sea to raid some unfortunate hamlet near Sunderland. It might even be Troy Donockley, the band’s honorary Brit, who combines the role of multi-instrumentalist and court jester.

But no, it’s the man with the measured baritone speaking voice and the floor-length black dust coat lurking quietly on the fringes of the group who runs the show. “I would say I’m the leader of the pack,” he says in a deep, measured voice. “But not a tyrant or dictator.”

We’re sitting in a darkened room in a hotel off Tampere’s main shopping drag. Outside, the streets of Finland’s third-largest city look like they’ve been taken over by an invading army ahead of tomorrow’s show; one clad head-to-toe in black and sporting t-shirts emblazoned with his band’s logo. 

Tuomas knew his band had become truly famous when the Prime Minster of Finland started giving his opinion. It was 2005, and their most recent album, Once, was on its way to selling more than 2 million copies worldwide (and at a cost of more than €1,000,000 to make, including videos, it’s a good job it did). 

The PM, Matti Vanhanen, was an enthusiastic metal fan, but it wasn’t Nightwish’s music that had caught his attention. No, it was their messy split with singer Tarja Turunen, the classically trained soprano who helped bring Tuomas’s ornate visions to life, that prompted him to speak out. Despite the band’s unprecedented success, Tarja had unexpectedly been fired by the rest of the band following what should have been a triumphant end-of-tour gig in Helsinki. 

The PM’s quote itself was fairly innocuous. “I’m not for either side,” he told the press. “They are young people, and hopefully will manage to go forward in this difficult situation.” But the fact he had chipped in was a sign of just how big a deal Nightwish had become in their home country. It would be like David Cameron telling The Sun how much he likes the new Bring Me The Horizon record.

A decade, and one further period of singer-related upheaval, down the line, Tuomas is still perplexed by the reaction. “The funny thing is that I never ever thought it would be such a big deal,” he says of the PM’s would-be intervention. “We just thought, ‘OK, we’re a rock band, nobody really cares.’ Then the tabloids started commenting on it. It became a national tragedy. There’s a metal band with four neanderthals and a princess, and the princess gets hurt.”

In the end, Nightwish pulled through – as they did seven years later when they parted ways with Tarja’s replacement, Anette Olzon (today, Tuomas politely but firmly declines to go over the specifics of either departure, pointing out that “they’ve already been written about”).

Unforeseen media storms aside, Nightwish’s tribulations have barely troubled their rise. Their most recent album, the grandiose Endless Forms Most Beautiful, consolidated the band’s position as mainland Europe’s most successful metal band, give or take a Rammstein, while the presence of controversial evolutionary biologist Professor Richard Dawkins on the album lent the band a gravitas their symphonic metal contemporaries often lack.

“I wish I knew,” says Tuomas, when asked about the reasons behind his band’s popularity. “Perhaps it’s the sincerity of the whole thing. That’s the biggest strength of the whole band. I mean, in many aspects we are a naive band. I still didn’t feel like I was going to work when I hopped on the train this morning.”

Troy has a different theory. A redoubtable, folk-and-prog loving northerner who’s played with everyone from Brian Wilson of The Beach Boys to former Young One Adrian Edmondson (“Ade came to Brixton Academy the last time we played there. He absolutely loved it”), he suggests it’s down to the intelligence that lurks behind Nightwish’s Andrew Lloyd Webber-meets-Dungeons & Dragons facade. “It’s intelligent music in every respect,” says the man who contributes everything from Uilleann pipes (Irish bagpipes) to bouzouki (a long-necked lute). “It’s intelligent, complex, orchestral, but human at the same time. Not every band who does this sort of music has that.”

All of those things may well have played a part in Nightwish’s rise. But by far the biggest reason is that they do everything bigger and better than everyone else: stage shows, pyrotechnics, albums, movies, songs, solo albums about Scrooge McDuck. Tuomas smiles. “Well, you’ve got to give people something to remember,” he says.

Nightwish are indisputably Tuomas’s band, and their history is inextricably bound to his own. The keyboard player formed the band in August 1996. He’d previously played with various largely forgotten Finnish groups, including teenage black metal outfit Darkwoods My Bethrothed and Nattvindens Gråt, before being conscripted for National Service in the Finnish army. “It wasn’t my cup of tea,” he says of the latter, eyebrow raised. “I actually got accepted in the military band, which was a blessing because I’d just play my clarinet for nine and a half months, so I didn’t have to play around with guns and all that.”

One positive thing did come out of his time in the army. It was there that he wrote the music for what would become Nightwish’s debut album, Angels Fall First, released on New Year’s Eve 1996. That album was an out-of-the-gate success in Finland, entering the national Top 40. Their two successive albums continued the young band’s dramatic upswing: 1998’s Oceanborn reached Number Five in the charts, while Wishmaster made it all the way to Number One.

As is the way of these things, Germany was quick to latch on. The UK was slower. It wasn’t until a headlining turn at 2003’s Bloodstock, on the back of their fourth album, Century Child, that British fans began to embrace them en masse. Since then, the gigs have become bigger, and the albums more successful, culminating in the Top 20 success of Endless Forms Most Beautiful. Even more remarkably, North America hasn’t been much further behind – their last two albums both entered the Billboard Top 40, which is some feat in a musical climate that’s largely ambivalent to rock and metal bands.

But through it all, there’s been the perception to the outside world that Tuomas runs the band with a rod of iron. The evidence for the prosecution rests on the apparently brutal dismissal of the band’s first two singers, not to mention former bassist Sami Vänskä, who was forced out before Century Child due to ‘musical differences’ with Tuomas. He counters that not only were the changes necessary, but the band have emerged stronger from them. And anyway, someone has to have final say. “I mean, a band is not a democracy, but certain things are,” he says.

Are you saying that Nightwish is or isn’t a democracy? 

“I deliberately give a lot of space to everybody in the band, artistically and in other senses,” he says after a thoughtful pause. “During the past few years, we’ve actually talked about this – that maybe other people should step up a bit more. I feel it’s a bit too identified by me as my band. Which it’s not. I do 90% of the songs, yes, but it’s still a band.”

Floor Jansen was at her sister’s wedding in 2012 when she got the call asking if she’d sing for Nightwish. She knew who they were, of course – her previous band, After Forever, had toured with them a decade earlier. And she was aware of the problems they’d had with both of her predecessors. But it still took her by surprise. “I was like, ‘What?!’

If Tuomas is thoughtful and intense, Floor is efficient and direct. Our conversation isn’t helped by the fact that she’s having her hair and make-up done for our photoshoot, though you get the feeling she’d be the same if she wasn’t. An easy question about her background is met by an arched eyebrow and the words: “You haven’t read much about me, have you?”

Her first show with Nightwish was in Seattle in October 2012. She describes “a sense of primal fear” going through her mind in the minutes before she took the stage. “There was this evil voice in my head that said, ‘What on earth do you think you’re doing? You don’t know these songs, you’ve had no time to learn them’,” she says. “And everybody in the venue was holding a cell phone, so it would be on YouTube straight away.”

She survived the gig with dignity intact, as shaky phone-cam YouTube footage indeed shows. But at that early point, there was no sense that it would lead to a permanent position.

“No, no, no,” she says firmly. “At that point it was more survival. I wasn’t thinking any further than tomorrow.”

It was actually following a festival here in Tampere that the rest of the band asked her to become their permanent singer. “It was in the bar of a hotel that they popped the question: ‘Do you want to join?’” she says, with a laugh. “I can’t remember much about what happened after that. I can only remember that I couldn’t tell too many people.”

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