By David E. Gehlke
One of the measures by which metal keyboardists are judged, Jens Johansson is well beyond his days of playing underneath his keyboard stand with Yngwie Malmsteen or serving as a finalist for Kevin Moore's open spot in DREAM THEATER. The Swedish Johansson has since settled into his role as one of the longest-serving members of Finnish power metallers STRATOVARIUS, whom he joined not too long after DREAM THEATER selected Derek Sherinian. Johansson played a driving role in STRATOVARIUS's unexpected ascension throughout the late 1990s, becoming the fleet-of-finger counterpart to then-band leader/guitarist Timo Tolkki. Behind influential albums such as "Episode", "Visions" and "Destiny", STRATOVARIUS's brand of neo-classical, uplifting melodic metal reinvigorated the style in continental Europe, where it has maintained its stronghold.
Tolkki acrimoniously relinquished the STRATOVARIUS name in 2008, leaving Johannson, vocalist Timo Kotipelto, drummer Jörg Michael and bassist Lauri Porra to forge ahead with new guitarist Matias Kupiainen. With the exception of Michael giving way to Rolf Pilve in 2012, all has been quiet and businesslike for STRATOVARIUS. They even found the time to play "Episode" and "Visions" in full, but as Johansson told BLABBERMOUTH.NET, the anniversary gigs had nothing to do with their new, highly aggressive studio album, "Survive". Instead, climate change and Kupiainen's songwriting direction pushed STRATOVARIUS into a direction that the seen-it-all-before Johansson appears more than happy to embrace.
Blabbermouth: STRATOVARIUS has enough of a catalog and legacy now that you can keep playing live without releasing new music. Therefore, what's the impetus behind releasing a new album in 2022?
Jens: "That's the thing: Business-wise, no. For fun? Yes. Then again, we shouldn't look at it like a business where we need to put an album out every two years. You lose money making albums. They never recoup; you're living from the touring and live festival income. Each album is a losing proposition if you look at it like that. If we go and lose money, everybody should feel that the songs are the best we could make. To me, the way to do that would be to get together. I was a little bit — 'pissed off' is the wrong word, but I was worried about how we handled the writing process. It felt scattered. I was joking to somebody else — we had the pandemic approach before there was a pandemic. We would do things with Dropbox and WhatsApp and you chat with each other. You don't get this 'fight' where you're discussing things with people in the same room and haggling things out. We had lost our way. For me, it was very important that we should try and get together some of the guys to write. That takes a longer time. You have to synch up schedules and travel. We all traveled to Timo's place — he lives in the countryside in Finland with very good internet. [Laughs] It's like optical fiber…the best. He has his shit together. Nuclear power and optical fiber. Travel-wise, when you put your body there, your flesh has to travel there. Of course, it's more of a thing. We were taking it very slowly. Then when the pandemic hit in 2020, we had planned to finish the album that year. We scratched most of the stuff from the calendar when it came to gigs. Then somebody ate a bat and we couldn't travel or do gigs."
Blabbermouth: So you're saying you missed the camaraderie of being in the same room with the guys? I imagine that's how it was in the earlier days of STRATO with Tolkki.
Jens: "That, and I think there's something in the quality of the material that you don't get. Especially with a singer. The rest of us guys are not singers. We don't know how to sing. It's like you're trying to make demos with the song ideas and playing the melody with a keyboard, imagining what it would sound like. When we did this, we often had two years between albums when we promised everybody the album would come that September. Somehow, we put the cart before the horse. We promised the album would be ready, but the songs were not finished by the time the drums were recorded. In a way, that's not as good as if you sit down and you have 25 songs and think of the 12 best. Then we work on the vocal melodies until they are finished. We do the melodies, the main idea, what the song would be about and test things out with the singer. When we're together, we're testing something out with the singer and he can tell it sucks to your face. He's saying it to your face, 'It sucks.' Then you're sitting there, drinking beer. The songs will get better instead of doing Dropbox and doing a chat. You'll see [via text message], 'It's not good,' and you're driving somewhere. It's like, 'I'll look at this message later,' and something else happens, so you're not confronted with your suckiness until later unless you sit there and talk about it in person. I'm very happy with the material."
Blabbermouth: The material, Jens, has to be the most aggressive STRATOVARIUS has written in years. There's more muscle behind it.
Jens: "We got this new guitar player in 2008 [Kupiainen]. He's masterminding the songs. We're haggling about stuff, but 90 percent he's responsible for. He's the guitar player and the whole thing becomes 'guitar-ristic.' We allow him to have his way completely. I'm so old now. It's like, 'Surprise me. Put something there.' He's a super-talented guy. It is aggressive if you compare it to 20 years ago. I like it. The vocals are still melodic and that's the core of the band. We've had the same singer for 25 or 30 years, which is a very good thing. The other layers under the vocals have been more aggressive for the last ten years. In this case, Matias wrote most of the songs. His personality shines through. He has more modern influences."
Blabbermouth: He had some very huge shoes to fill, right? He's grown into the band after 14 years.
Jens: "I think he's done very well. That's the thing: He's a completely different kind of musician than Tolkki. He has good ideas. Of course, we really didn't know what kind of person he would be when we got him in the band. It was a short time after we met and hung out. We got very lucky that he turned out to be a workaholic. That is handy!"
Blabbermouth: Is he more open to ideas or flexible than Tolkki?
Jens: "Yeah, I would say. Tolkki was also flexible, but with him, it was very clear he was the boss until the end when the band was up in the air. As long as things went well, we trusted him 100 percent. We also listened to him. There's probably more arguments now with Matias, but that's how it should be."
Blabbermouth: Do you think you've nudged the "power metal" term aside with "Survive"?
Jens: It's kind of like 'modern power metal.' It has a very aggressive, guitar-ristic approach. And I guess it's appropriate because it's a big part of metal having a good guitarist. Matias is like an idea machine. I wouldn't say power metal is evolving, but maybe we are pushing it in a different direction with the aggressive stuff and melodies on top, but no growling. Will people like it? I have no idea."
Blabbermouth: How does this work for you placing your keyboards?
Jens: "It's always a struggle. We have discussed this. To me, I think they are too low in the mix. [Laughs] We have argued about the keyboards the same way we have argued about the vocal melodies and lyrics. I think it's healthy."
Blabbermouth: Did the "Visions" anniversary shows affect the songwriting? Like, did you learn any lessons from playing those songs?
Jens: "Not at all. When you are playing old songs, you're just playing them. They're in your spine. It's a fine opportunity to see how people react to those old songs. It's fun. I think you don't learn many new things. It's live and you do your thing. You get transported. I can imagine the feeling is even stronger for the people listening. It's like people are transported when they were back to 14. Those feelings that you had — everything was possible, you had your first girlfriend and it gets mixed in with hearing those songs and those guys are still playing them.
I'm still 14!' That's the good part of the coin. The other side is you cannot be 14 again. We cannot be the same age we were and you cannot turn back time. For a second or four minutes, you're turning back time."
Blabbermouth: "Survive" touches on climate change and how it impacts the world. How did you contribute and where do you stand on these issues?
Jens: "Matias, Timo and I all stand behind the lyrics we have written together. I think this band has always had this ecological streak. When we started doing it, it was not a thing yet. It was basically only us and PAIN OF SALVATION doing 'eco-metal.' We had other stuff, too. It wasn't the focus, but it was uncontroversial. People would say, 'Oh, that's nice. You want to preserve nature.' Now it's becoming more noticeable — these carbon emissions. Then you get the pro and con people and it becomes a fight. It's funny. It's like, 'Where were you in 2003? You could have more of an impact.' Then, everyone agreed with us or didn't care. Now, I'm expecting people to tell us, 'You're lying!' People are right to have their opinions. I just tend not to agree. When we wrote this stuff, it wasn't meant or planned to be a concept album on environmental disasters. We were doing a lot of work in the summer and there were a lot of forest fires in Finland and Scandinavia in general. It wasn't a concept album."
Blabbermouth: We have the problem here in the States of people denying climate change altogether. Is that the case in Sweden or Finland?
Jens: "To a certain extent. I think it's more radical there. You get more extreme there. It's not right in front of their face, though. The evidence is mathematical, physical discussions that are very complicated, but you can see the effects. Then you get very cold weather and people go, 'Now it's cold. How do you explain this, you knucklehead climate people?' It's true — you can't just say it's getting hotter. We still have seasons and changes in weather. I understand people don't want to look at this fact because it's uncomfortable. I'm not harboring any hostility toward people who are climate deniers. I just tend not to agree. As long as enough people try to make some change, hopefully, more people will understand that we will have to make some sacrifices."
Blabbermouth: Back to STRATO: What's the atmosphere been like in the band post-Tolkki?
Jens: "It's been the same. We always had a pretty good vibe. Of all the bands I've played with, this is by far the most democratic. Everybody is polite most of the time. [Laughs] How would I put it? Civilized. With Tolkki, it was no different. It was always very civilized. I think that's one of the reasons we've managed to keep the same singer for so long. I think other bands, the singers come and go. You talk about Yngwie or Ritchie Blackmore. Bless them. They go through singers. It's a mistake. Most people can identify with the band because of the vocals. I think it's a strength we've been able to keep the same singer."
Blabbermouth: Do you hear from Tolkki at all?
Jens: "Now and then. I had lunch with him a few months back. He seems to be doing okay."
Blabbermouth: Are there still business matters left between him and the band?
Jens: "Not really, no. There could be, but there isn't at the moment. He did relinquish all the rights that he could. He still has his publishing rights for the songs. In a way, it's nice for him that we are keeping the band active even though he didn't see it that way when he left. He was angry. [Laughs] Every time we play some of his songs, he makes money from it."
Blabbermouth: Would you ever play with him again?
Jens: "I have. I played on some stuff — it was like a Dropbox thing. I'm pretty open-minded to it."
Blabbermouth: How about the other guys?
Jens: "Kotipelto is a little bit, 'I don't know…' I think he's still wary of what could go wrong. I can't speak for him. It's a question that comes up a lot. Tolkki often thinks we could do a reunion thing like HELLOWEEN. I wonder if it's good for anybody — good for him or good for us? I'm certainly not enemies with him. Even though he was angry with us, I tried to keep it cool."
Blabbermouth: The HELLOWEEN reunion is almost an anomaly. It's hard to picture other bands — including STRATOVARIUS — pulling it off.
Jens: "If you want to exploit the live market, it's a lot of work. We'd have to do a bus tour for two months. Is it something you want to put people through? I think Tolkki feels he wants to do it, but I suspect it [from him] and he denies it, 'That's not at all the case!' He's trying to reclaim that part of his youth when things were great and he was in his mid-'30s and the band was getting bigger and bigger. It's the same thing: You can't turn back time. Playing live nowadays, it's a different thing than it was then. We are older. Put it this way: I wouldn't want to put him through that. Part of it would also be, what's in it for everybody? Why would we do it? Some people would say it's for the fans. Would they need it? Or is it better to move forward?"
Blabbermouth: Well, Matias plays Tolkki's parts fine.
Jens: "It's nostalgia for nostalgia's sake. It's also a lot of hard work."
Blabbermouth: Ronnie Romero alluded to it recently, but do you think Ritchie is done with RAINBOW?
Jens: "I don't know. You never know. At the moment, of course, with the pandemic, everything went completely right down to zero, all activities. I think he's back to doing some stuff with BLACKMORE's NIGHT. To be honest, that's where his heart is. If he has to focus on one band, that would be the number one priority. I was always joking that BLACKMORE's NIGHT was 'the' band and RAINBOW was his basement band. [Laughs] Like a project. Whenever we would do European gigs with RAINBOW, it was somehow that the gigs would be placed around when certain castles were unavailable. [Laughs] It was like, 'Sweden Rock has 40 to 50 thousand people.' They'd say, 'No, it's on the wrong weekend. This castle is available, so fuck Sweden Rock.' That was the attitude that BLACKMORE's NIGHT is the priority, which I think is cute.
"It was a lot of fun. But most people understood that this was a once-in-a-lifetime thing. Ritchie, he's a little bit like a cat: You never know what he's going to think. The next month he's 'No, I don't want to go out.' Then it's 'No, I don't want to go out. I want to go in.' You can't predict which way he's going."
Blabbermouth: That had to be a dream come true for you, though.
Jens: "It was really nice. It felt completely normal because I knew those songs already. It's not like I had to learn them. [Laughs] It was really nice. In the beginning, I think Ritchie had been into medieval music for 20 or 25 years, so at first, he was dipping his toes into it. Like, 'Oh, fuck. It's loud!' After a few shows, he was back into it."