SOARING ON THE WINGS OF DARKNESS
Interview By Kassu Kortelainen / September 2007
With all the big heavy metal names coming from Finland nowadays, it’s time to take a look at the band that started it all, during a time that wasn’t so easy for loud riffs and steaming solos to break through.
Going stronger than ever, finnish heavy metal pioneers Tarot are currently compiling their new DVD after a furious tour supporting their excellent 2006 album ‘Crows Fly Black’.
With singer Marco Hietala starting a tour with his other band Nightwish and the rest of Tarot taking a well-deserved break, guitarist Zachary Hietala paid a welcomed visit to the Steel Mill and shared his thoughts on the band’s latest news, events in history and upcoming ideas.
© Jiri Rogl
So, Zac – starting off with the latest news from Tarot camp, you just had the band’s 25th anniversary gig at the old “Rupla” music hall in Kuopio, Finland. From the audience’s point of view it was definitely one of Tarot’s best shows to date as the band’s performance, setlist and the atmosphere amongst the crowd really resulted in an excellent heavy metal night. I can imagine the band was also pleased with the evening?
It was one of the best gigs indeed! Two hour show with almost a year and half touring routine it was easy to do it. Actually I’m very satisfied with the response of the audience and that feeling makes you to do something abnormal. We got one year and three month tour under us, beginning May 2006 when our single ” You” took the Finnish charts number one spot! After that… the show has gone on it’s way…
Considering the fact that it was on the very same stage 25 years ago that Tarot (then still called Purgatory) performed their first gig, no other venue could’ve suited better for the anniversary show. Was the choice of the venue obvious from the beginning or was there any pressure to maybe organize the gig at some place else… considering Rupla not being the most up to date concert hall in Finland, nor Kuopio the largest city?
Back then it was one of the first gigs we ever did. Actually we were the opening act that time and the main band wanted to shorten our perfomance cause their singer couldn’t stand Marco’s voice abilities compared to his. The main band was a pain in the ass. The singer of that band never understood the situation, he was kind of a rock ‘n’ roll singer, not a metal one.
For this show, our friend called Turmio – who was with us back then – handled the show and the money so we got the opportinity to do the live album in Kuopio. We considered the bigger cities but everybody thinks we are in our best in the clubs or medium sized venues, so it was obvious to do the recording here in front of 500 people.
In smaller venues you can get a tighter feeling and better reflection with the audience compared to bigger ones. We have seen lots of stadium gig DVD’s with all the equipment, lights and pyros, so I hope this kind of DVD will make a difference.
Glancing into the past, what can you remember from those first gigs 25 years ago?
They gave us the skills to turn professional and get about 50 to 70 gigs in a year. I don’t remember the first gigs, but one of the first ones was the Rantarock festival in Finland, where there were about 15 000 people around. We played after Twisted Sister and they behaved kind of like stars and messed up the mixing board very badly. Fucking idiots! We had to start our show very late compared to the time schedule and only thing working was our monitors, thanx to them. Still the crowd went crazy about two o’clock in the night. That’s a gig we’ll never forget.
© Jarkko Tiitinen
Tarot from left to right: Janne Tolsa (keys), Pecu Cinnari (drums), Marco Hietala (vocals, bass),
Tommi Salmela (vocals, sampler), Zachary Hietala (guitar)
The anniversary gig was also recorded for a future live DVD/CD release. When could we start expecting them to hit the stores and are you perhaps planning on including some other material besides the show itself on the DVD, it being Tarot’s first one?
Release date will be in next spring. We’d like to get some of it ready for the next Finnish Metal Expo for commercial purposes, but the real release date will be later.
For the extras we will show some rare stuff of ours and there will be some surprises too. We have kilometers of tape where to choose some rare stuff for extras.
Giving a small history lesson for the Steel Mill readers who aren’t familiar with Tarot’s background; you are widely considered as the first true finnish heavy metal group. Although it’s hard to imagine nowadays when a lot of excellent metal bands are hailing from Finland, Tarot had to break a lot of ice to establish themselves as a real deal. Back in mid-80’s the general opinion in Finland seemed to be that no finnish band could really come up with decent heavy music. How difficult was it actually to get a recording deal and make name for Tarot in the early days?
We showed the way for the Finnish metal bands all right. Getting the record deal was quite easy, but everything else was difficult. In the 80’s, actually it was too early or late for all of us, depending which way you look at it. In the 70’s we could’ve been more famous with our material, maybe.
As you see, today we are doing fine. But in the 80’s we tried everything we could and nothing happened in foreign countries. One reason of course was the lack of management; it was so poor back then. In Finland we made it, but still somehow our look and music was too different and radical for people here and we got lots of bad luck too. There were many years of disappointments and frustration, but we still kept on going ’cause we believed in our band.
Back in the day when you were starting out, Tarot was still known as Purgatory. Could you fill us in about the reasons behind the name change and perhaps share some light upon the origins of coming up with the name Tarot?
At that time in Finland people were not so great in reading or pronouncing English words, so we were in trouble all the time in the media. So we decided to change our name to something easier and Tarot came from somewhere. And somehow it worked.
Even if the general prejudice for Finnish heavy metal might’ve proved an obstacle, your debut album “The Spell Of Iron” (1986) turned out to be a success and established a strong foothold for Tarot and finnish metal in general. Looking back today, what do you think were the key elements that made “The Spell Of Iron” succeed in breaking finnish heavy metal through to the wider audience?
With that album we set some standard for Finnish heavy metal all right, but there was the flip side at the same time. Some of the finnish people didn’t took us for real; they considered us as clowns and copies of Iron Maiden and Judas Priest, even Black Sabbath. You have to show your roots, but still have your own style. In my opinion we got it.
photo © Mikko Karmila
Songs on “The Spell Of Iron” and it’s successor “Follow Me Into Madness” were based on a twin-guitar sound in the vein of famous metal bands of the time such as Judas Priest or Iron Maiden. After the second album, however, Tarot’s second guitarist Mako H. was no longer part of the band, but instead of replacing him with another guitarist, you brought on Janne Tolsa with keyboards. What was the driving idea behind such a radical change?
In the beginning we wanted to have a two guitar wall like the bands you mentioned, but after the problems with Mako we decided to change our lineup towards the way of Deep Purple and Sabbath. The idea of bringing a keyboard player into the band was there from the beginning, but in those days the keyboard players were very rare…The story about Mako H. is too old and worn to talk about, period!
So we were a Priest type band, but we had to evolve to something else, so we got the keyboard player and actually by accident we met Janne at one gig and asked him would he like to give it a try. Obviously it was the right decision for us. We had always been Priest fans and the change was difficult, but it made us what we are today. All of us are still die hard two guitar wall fans, even our keys player Janne, you can’t find a bigger Priest fan.
After Janne joined the band, his keyboard sound has become an important and very distinctive part of Tarot’s sound, at the same time leaving the guitar duties solely for you. How do you see this influencing Tarot’s music both songwriting and performing -wise? And was it a difficult switch to become the only man with a guitar after the old twin-axe days?
It is much much easier now. Keys do more background than another guitar and give me the opportunity to do heavier, simpler riffs on them. The songs we have made after Janne joined the band showed the direction where we went and are in the composing -wise. Of course I have to say – with only one guitar I have the freedom to do anything I like and I don’t have to switch the solos, he he!
Talking some more of Tarot’s musical evolvement – it’s been noticeable that Tarot’s sound has gotten a bit heavier by each album and at the same time acquired a certain more dark and sinister feel to it, both musically and lyrically. 1998’s “For The Glory Of Nothing” already showed a lot of this developement and five years after that “Suffer Our Pleasures” featured some of the angriest and fiercest Tarot songs so far. And one could say that your latest album, excellent “Crows Fly Black” has perfected the change. Can you see any specific reason behind this sort of meaner approach to the songs?
“To Live Forever” and “Stigmata” were somehow testing our limits and “For The Glory Of Nothing” was the first album where all the songs were in the right place and the style was crystallized in the way it is today. The heavienes of the albums… we are angry old men he he!
With 25 years under the band’s belt, there must’ve been some evolvement also at a personal level. How would you compare today’s Zachary Hietala as a guitarist compared to Zac of the eighties?
I can tune up my guitars better, he! Seriously, I train as hard as I did 20 years ago, and of course I’m a better musician today. The vision of making music has evolved the most, as well as my ambition in showing up something in the band. My personality is more relaxed and I’m more open to the new ideas from the guys, all right. In the early days we had so many fights over everything and today we don’t have to fight at all. I hope the boys see my growing the same way as I do, I see their growing taking place.
© Jiri Rogl
About Tarot’s lyrics; what’s always appealed to me, is that they possess a strength that lifts them above most of the meaningless and uninventive lyrics of many bands. For example on “Crows Fly Black” album, many songs have an almost poetic feel to them with lots of different emotions and shades. I understand Marco’s the one behind the Tarot lyrics. Where does his inspiration and lyrical creativeness draw from? And do the rest of you ever feel the urge to contribute as well?
Marco is a big fan of fantasy and sci-fi, so his ideas for lyrics are coming from real life mixed with those. I have a great respect for his writing and poetic cause. I did some of the lyrics for the first album, but I noticed my heart is in the guitar playing and I haven’t got that much to say in the words.
Another change for “Crows Fly Black” was the inclusion of vocalist Tommi “Tuple” Salmela to the band’s ranks. He had of course been a Tarot stalwart backing vocalist on live gigs for quite some time already but what was the main reason to finally include him as a full-time member?
That’s one of the points I said about growing as a human. We thought about Tommi’s role in the band during the Suffer Our Pleasures” sessions, but were too scared to take that step. He’s been the background singer since -92, so it was the time to give him the real bandmember status at last.
So Tarot now basically has two high-quality lead singers. Both on “Crows” and live this works incredibly well, adding even more depth to your music. Some songs work now effectively as duets between Marco and Tommi, while there are some songs that feature just one of the guys. Is there any strategy how you share the songs between the two, like for example when Marco has the lead on the Tarot classic “Wings Of Darkness” or Tuple has made the Blue Öyster Cult cover “Veteran Of Psychic Wars” one of his signature numbers?
Okay… Marco does the arrangements for them. We like Deep Purple’s Coverdale/Hughes era a lot and the basic idea to do it comes from there. The difference between Purple or any two singer groups compared to us is that we do simultaneous singing a lot, not splitting parts all the time. All right we have splitters as well, but boys are doing harmonics most of the time. Of course they both have their prime time in live set as well as on the album, but singing harmonics gives us the opportinity to do albums more melodic on the heavier back up.
I have to bring up the aforementioned BÖC-cover “Veteran Of Psychic Wars”, since I remember gasping in total surprise when I first heard this old favourite of mine on your gigs some years back. Grantedly a great song but not all that obvious choice for a cover. What’s the story behind discovering it as part of your setlist?
It might sound funny, but all the covers we’ve recorded are kinda rare choices. We like to cover something nobody else has done. Okay, Children Of The Grave is an exception, but if you think about Genesis’ “Mama” or Accept’s “Generation Clash” and “Turn Me On”, they are rare songs to be covered by a metal band. BÖC is one of our favourites and we thought Tommi’s voice is perfect for that song. In the live set there’s the place for both singers to show their skills and for Tommi this situation is kinda new start for his career.
© Mikko Karmila
The Hietala bros and Pecu Cinnari rocking it on @ Tuska Open Air Helsinki 2006
Speaking of covers, you’re also known for making great “tarotized” versions of classic heavy rock songs by bands like Priest, Purple, Sabbath, Accept etc. both as your singles’ b-sides and also on occasional live cover gigs that tend to be a blast for the audience. For established bands with loads of great own material, this is not all that common. So what’s the scoop behind Tarot’s love for covers? Paying tribute to your own favourites, giving the audience some special treats, or just having a good time?
As I said the rare ones. The cover sets we’ve made include the more common songs, but in my opinion, done in the Tarot way. We have always liked to do covers of our idols and if I mention a couple of Priest songs we’ve played, “Breaking The Law” is the most usual one, but “Metal Gods”, “Grinder”, “Riding On The Wind” and an acoustic version of “Painkiller” are rare ones.
Judas Priest apparently were one of the bands that got you started with playing heavy metal in the first place? And indeed those Priest covers you’ve done live have been very good and well done. And one of a bit different approach to those definitely must’ve been the legendary, pretty “unique” rendition of “Breaking The Law” by your drummer Pecu Cinnari?
Yep… Cinnari singing “Breaking The Law” is our way to mix some humour and fun into playing the live sets. Most of today’s bands have forgotten the fun of playing indeed. Judas Priest is so close to our hearts, we want to bow for them if we have a chance to do it before the crowd. Hopefully there will be some more cover sets coming up again in the future.
What most of the Tarot fans see as totally incomprehensible thing, is the fact that despite the set of excellent heavy metal music you’ve made over the years, the band has remained notoriously little known outside Finland. There’s been success in Japan and some gigs in countries like Sweden, Denmark and even Soviet Union, but for example in middle Europe where there’s always been a strong base of metal fans, Tarot hasn’t really been striking through. Do you have any thoughts on how this mystery is possible?
This year was exceptional for us. We did two European tours and gigs in Romania and Spain, so now everything has changed, I think. Somehow after the “Suffer” album we at last got a management that can arrange things in Europe and after that our success has been on the rise. Hope it will do that in the future too.
Okay, so now with the good management and also the internet, the remastering of old Tarot catalogue a while back and obviously also Marco’s name becoming familiar through stadion-scale band Nightwish has helped the things out. So do you feel that the world is finally ready to face the heavy metal assault of Tarot and are there any plans regarding other countries than Finland?
The world has been ready, but our bad choices and luck have kept us in the dark, if I say so. Marco’s role in Nightwish has done a lot of good for us and now he’s starting his next world tour with them. So his name will be on everybody’s lips in the time we take a pause for a while
So while the metal fans are left waiting for the Anniversary DVD, Tarot is now taking a break from touring. Obviously Marco’s going to be pretty busy with Nightwish, but what will the break bring for the rest of the Tarot guys? Any songwriting for the next album taking place or any interesting side projects for anyone?
After a year and three month tour, we really need to rest a bit. Me and Janne have been starting to demo new songs already. I know Marco has new lyrics and ideas too. He said, between the gigs, he’s going to give us ideas and some demos in hard disc, so I’m expecting a lot from forthcoming songs and the next album of Tarot. I know Marco is busy but his heart is still with us as well as it is with Nightwish, I hope them the best of course.
Okay, thanks a lot for the interview Zachary! To wrap things up, any words for the readers of the Steel Mill cross the globe?
For You Priest fans, The Priest is the king of all heavy metal and nothing can change it!
© Jarkko Tiitinen
Check out www.wingsofdarkness.net for more Tarot info!