Stratovarius has become one of the most respected Progressive-Metal or Power-Metal bands in Europe. Their recent Elements Pt.1 has some of the richest sounds in today's Metal, and Elements Pt.2 is due for release in early November. Senior Sea Of Tranquility writer Duncan Glenday recently held a conversation with Stratovarius's keyboard wizard Jens Johansson, who has also worked with Yngwie Malmsteen, Dio, Arjen Anthony Lucassen, and Mastermind. We asked Jens about his background, Stratovarius's creative process, and the new album.
Sea Of Tranquility : Jens, where and when did you learn keyboards?
Jens Johansson : Really, it was in my mother's basement. I took piano lessons for about 2 years when I was about 7 – but you know it's pretty basic at that age – and then we started a band a little bit later.
SoT : I find it interesting that you – like Jordan Rudess and Derek Sherinian – are involved with metal bands, but play jazz or fusion when you're on your own. What music do you listen to? For example, what's in your CD player right now?
JJ : Actually, it's funny that you should mention Sherinian – I'm actually listening to Black Utopia quite a lot right now. But I also listen to a big variety of other music.
SoT : What's keeping you busy these days? How do you spend a typical day when away from Stratovarius?
JJ : Things have been very busy lately – so now I'm just reading and watching TV and listening to music when I have a little bit of time off.
SoT : You live in New York, and I believe other band members live elsewhere too. How does that affect Stratovarius?
JJ : I have to commute to Europe – sometimes have to drag my equipment over there, but I have also left some equipment there – you know, I still keep a lot of stuff there.
SoT : How does the creative process work in Stratovarius – is it still mostly Timo?
JJ : After a break, we all take music into the studio so we can decide what to use, and Timo usually picks which ones to use and then we rehearse what we have picked. You know, Timo has been in the band the longest. Mostly it's him and me and the vocalist who bring in songs. We record a little bit of bass, a little bit of vocals and such, and of course you have to flesh out the arrangements a lot. But I find that is easiest to do when you're actually rehearsing together – you can figure things out and you can communicate immediately. So we spend a fair amount of time just rehearsing the songs and figuring out different aspects and changing things and that's actually where most of the work gets done. Then we record the drums and overdub the guitars and bass and vocals and keyboards and mix it, and that's it!.
SoT : Do you use much in the way of loops and overdubs and sampling etc., or is it more like the old fashioned style where you would actually play the whole song in the studio?
JJ : I would say it's more like the old fashioned style. I mean the music is pretty simple stuff. Loops? I don't think we've ever had anything like that. Basically … the drums are played normally and then we overdub on those. Samples and overdubs – if we have sounds in certain patches – like orchestrals and stuff like that. Yeah, I think it's pretty straightforward basically. Sort of '70s or '80s production cycle, not so high tech. Of course all the stuff has moved from being recorded on tape to being recorded into computers – but I think that's the only change, and we use the computers as if they were tape recorders. It's a lot cheaper and a lot easier to overdub and things like that.
SoT : Who are the band's main musical influences?
JJ : I would say it's 70s style bands like Purple and Rainbow and – it's a pretty broad spectrum. And then 80s bands like Helloween and Queensryche. Maybe not so many '90s bands but then the '90s – especially the beginning of the '90s – was pretty bleak. It seems like there was only grunge and rap and things like that in the early 90s.
SoT : And what are your main influences, musically?
JJ : Maybe a bit more broad, because Stratovarius is pretty focused on Baltic-Metal. Maybe Deep Purple and Rainbow, I don't know if you know a band called UK? And Frank Zappa, and some jazz stuff – like Alan Holdsworth and Jean Luc Ponty.
SoT : I believe the Stratovarius lineup has been solid since 1995. How would you describe the musical maturity between then and now, and where do you think it will go from here?
JJ : It was a bit rougher before – we were a little bit inventing our style as we were going, and also at that time the guys in the band didn't know each other as well as they do now. But now we've spent so many years together in the tour bus and in the studio, so I think we know each other pretty well and it helps pull the music together.
SoT : I've seen Elements Pt.1 in a lot of record stores lately, but seldom see many other Stratovarius albums there. Is Elements Stratovarius's American breakthrough? And what caused that breakthrough?
JJ : I don't know – what about Infinite? Do you see that too?
SoT : Not so often – it seems that a record store will have seven or eight copies of Elements, and just one or two copies some of the earlier albums.
JJ : Well the distribution is getting better – it has been re-organized a few times recently, especially since release of Infinite. So if you're seeing it in stores, that is good news.
SoT : How have the band's sales been in the USA vs. other parts of the world, and where are you the most popular?
JJ : The biggest single country for us is Japan or perhaps Germany, and the biggest market is the EU as a whole. But copying music is a problem. We know we're popular in South America, but you go there and you've sold 200 CDs in one country and you go there and play for 5,000 people and everybody knows all the songs!.
SoT : Well … regarding the MP3 buzz: On the one hand the RIAA is suing people and there's a lot of illegal downloading etc., but on the other hand the technology could be exploited to promote further sales. What is Stratovarius's position on that?
JJ : I think we come down on the first side – it seems to cause more damage than it creates opportunity. I'm worried about the States for the same reason. One way to build a market is to come and play live because you get more contact with the audience, but MP3s are causing a problem. We see the States sort of as a developing market for us. Two weeks ago I saw Nightwish in Brooklyn, and Children of Bodom are coming over here, but bands lose money by coming here, that's like a given, and if the sales don't materialize it's not going to be so likely that bands will come here. If you sit down and look at the numbers in front of you you realize how bad it actually is. It's hard to say exactly why it's bad, but if not for MP3s, it wouldn't be so bad coming to play in the States.
SoT : Yes, I've read that there will be no tours in 2003 / 2004, and no Elements Pt.2 tour. When can we expect to see Stratovarius in the USA? Any plans to play any of the metal or prog festivals in the future?
JJ : Maybe in 2004 – I'm not sure yet – we thought maybe in thought 2003, but it didn't happen.
SoT : And the festivals?
JJ : Well, ProgPower in Atlanta – we have been approached by them before but somehow logistically and economically it didn't make sense at those times, but who knows, maybe next year.
SoT : Every artist has their favorite songs that they have recorded – what are your favorites on the two Elements CDs?
JJ : Maybe "Vagabond", and on Pt.2, maybe "Dreamweaver". It's hard to say. The first Elements album was more progressive and weird, the second one was more rock and roll. I think I like the second better, but the audience for this paper (meaning Sea Of Tranquility) is more into the weird sick shit! (laughs).
SoT : Does Stratovarius see themselves as a Progressive-Metal band, or do you regard yourselves more as Power-Metal?
JJ : The last incarnation has been pretty focused on Power-Metal. Before that it was a bit more progressive. With the drummer we had before – one of the guys who actually founded the band – he was more into that type of stuff but I think he got sick of the direction it was taking. Actually, he's playing percussion for a symphony orchestra now.
SoT : Someone from Nuclear Blast indicated that Elements would be a trilogy – may we assume there will be a Pt.3? And if so, when?
JJ : Actually, that is not correct – Pt.2 is the last part of Elements.
SoT : Elements Pt-1 was about Fire and Water, and Pt-2 was Earth and Wind. Tell us about the concept behind Elements Pt 1 and Pt 2.
The only reason they were named that way – we came back from a long break, and we had so many songs that we couldn't fit them all onto one CD, so we made 2 CDs instead. So we recorded the drums for both CDs at the same time and then finished one CD at a time. That's the only reason they are named like that – I don't think there's a connecting concept or anything.
SoT : So Elements is not a concept album?
JJ : No – only on the cover art and the title.
SoT : The cover art for Pt 2 is another interesting Derek Riggs design – does the band have any input to the cover designs?
JJ : We have some input in accepting or rejecting, but he's very creative – I mean you just throw him a few conceptual bones, so to speak, and he runs with it. I think basically the cover art was very easy with him.
SoT : Most of your recent cover art has the infinity sign built into the artwork. What's the significance of that?
JJ : It's only been the ones Riggs has done – I think it's just one of those things he just continues because it looks cool – I don't think it means anything specific.
SoT : In Elements Pt.2, at the end of track 3 there's a short verbal interaction between the band members, but it's not clear what's being said. What is that..?
JJ : When we recorded the drums – Jorg, the drummer – it was the first time they tried that song and the drummer tacked on a drum solo after the song and you can hear the drums go on for about ½ a minute after the song actually stops. So we were surprised and someone says "What the fuck was that!" and you can hear him say "Aahh – you didn't hear that before?".
SoT : You guys always manage a big sound – particularly in Elements Pt.1. And we understand that in Pt 1 Stratovarius used orchestra and choir? Tell us about that.
JJ : In the last two albums we did that quite a lot, but that's very expensive because these guys don't work for pizza and beer – you have to pay them, so that's one of the reasons the MP3 copying is a problem. If you want to make an album like that it takes a certain budget and the record sales need to pay these guys salaries as well. But I think I still like it because – although its an expensive way to do it, of course the sound is much better than the computer generated or keyboard generated stuff – it's a much more organic sound.
SoT : Before I leave you – what is happening with Mastermind?
JJ : It's going okay. They have one more record coming out soon, which I played on.
SoT : And how's your brother doing?
JJ : He's doing okay! Hammerfall just release a live DVD – at least in Europe – and I think they're on some signing tour.
SoT : Jens, thanks so much for taking the time to talk to us! The new album is great, and we hope it helps accelerate Stratovarius's penetration into the American market. Take care!.
JJ : That would be great! Well – thank you very much!.
Click here to see Sea Of Tranquility's review of Elements Pt.1, and click here for our review of Elements Pt.2.