Stratovarius is a name that brings to mind sweeping, lushly orchestrated albums, epic concepts and fierce, razor-sharp musicianship. I was lucky enough to catch up with metal legend and Stratovarius drummer Jörg Michael and have an in-depth discussion about the band’s latest album, Elysium, his recovery from cancer, his rise throughout the 80s to become a top session drummer and Stratovarius’ split with former guitarist Timo Tolkki.
Hi Jörg, what are you up to?
I’m here in the clinic, to do therapy for my thyroid program, and the doctor was doing some measurements. Thank you very much for catching up.
How is your health?
*laughs* I’m coming back from the measurements right now. I have really good news that’s why I’m so hyped, because the doctor said it’s really really good and he’s happy with the results. I can go off the clinic tomorrow and he said I will be 100% healed, which is very good news and you can imagine I’m very happy with it.
They discovered the cancer at a very early stage, so from the beginning we had very high hopes that I could be 100% recovered. I had to take certain steps to recover and do certain therapies which involved a little bit of pain at times but in the end everything went fine and I’m really happy now.
Why did you name your most recent album Elysium?
We didn’t have any grand concept or anything, but we were searching for a key point or a key word to describe the feel of the music. Jens Johansson (keyboards) came up with tonnes of ideas for the title, but we hadn’t settled on anything, nothing caught our eye or ear. When it came time to release the album, I went back to all of Jens’ suggestions and saw Elysium and thought it would fit completely for the new story of Stratovarius, with the Polaris star from our last album. Elysium has several meanings, one is a state of paradise, which reflects on the current situation on Stratovarius. We had this huge turmoil with (former guitar player) Timo Tolkki for many years. We’ve finally found our peace with a new guitar player and we are on the road, this reflects all that. On top of that, (new guitarist) Matias took the album title to name his epic song, the 18-minute album closer.
What are the most important elements of the Stratovarius sound?
I think the most important thing is the loud drums *laughs*. It’s in the name – the Stratocaster and the Stradivarius, the violin. There are a lot of classical music influences, mainly Wagner and Bach, a little bit of Mozart and of course our most beloved, the best of all, and the greatest of the greatest Mr Ludwig Van Beethoven. I would say mainly Wagner, and also the harmony structure is also influenced by these old classic guys.
And you also have the basic rock line-up – a guitarist, a keyboardist, a bassist, a singer and a drummer. This is a very classic rock line-up and this is what makes it sound different compared to an orchestra. But if you had the Stratovarius songs played by an orchestra with Timo Kotipelto singing you would instantly see how much these songs have been influenced by classical music. I don’t think this is a bad thing, this is a new century and we work from these influences. I would say that one of the main elements of Stratovarius is that everyone in the band is musically a good player. But we are not putting each player too much in the spotlight, well maybe in former times with *makes guitar shredding noise* show what I can do *laughs*. But now we try to play for the song, to make the song sound the best. That is one of the main points of the Stratovarius sound. For many years Timo Tolkki was the producer, and he always put a lot of focus on the drums. Many other bands in our genre have a different approach, putting the focus on the guitars.
e last part I have to mention is our singer, Timo Kotipelto. If you hear Stratovarius songs with a different singer, better or worse it doesn’t matter, it wouldn’t be the same. The certain colour of his voice fits so perfectly and that in my opinion is what makes it sound so unique. Also, recently we have had a change on our guitar spot, which is a big part of our music. You can see how it has changed our sound, having Matias playing instead of Timo Tolkki. It’s gone into a different direction with Matias, not better or worse, just different.
You have a distinct drumming style, with long fills, fast double bass and driving hi-hats, which has influenced my band and I’m sure many others. Was it a deliberate choice to develop your own sound or is it just what you play?
*Laughs* That’s a good question. Basically it happened by accident. I’m an old-school guy, I’m influenced by players like Roger Taylor, Ian Paice, Keith Moon and John Bonham. These guys are the idols from my youth. And if you look at the drum set-up of these players, not one of them has double-bass. When I started in my first heavy metal band, I was playing single bass drum, but things changed in the 80s, things became more modern. You had all these metal bands coming out with double bass playing – Judas Priest, Exciter, and bands like Metallica and Slayer. At the time I was playing in a band called Avenger. They said we’re a heavy metal band, you have to have double bass. They actually bought me a second bass drum for my kit and thing went from there. Later I played with Mekong Delta, on the first four records, and that had really solid bass drum playing all over the place. I became so well trained with it, so I never had problems playing fast and it became somewhat of a trademark for me, although it wasn’t like I was focusing too much on it.
I’m from Germany, and the reason why I play in a Finnish band is that Timo Tolkki wanted to have solid double-bass drum player and he couldn’t find anyone in Finland at the time. He saw me at some shows with Running Wild and that’s why he gave me a call. But for me it was never really a big focus, double-bass playing, it just happened; I didn’t think too much about it.
European metal has a much stronger tradition of melody compared to US metal. Why do you think this is and how important do you think melody is to making good rock and metal?
Well, there are many European bands who don’t use that much melody, if you think about all these Norwegian black metal bands, for example. But for me it’s different, it depends what you want to do and where your roots are. With Stratovarius, all the members, from Timo Tolkki, Jens, Myself, Timo Kotipelto have all been big fans of Deep Purple and that era of rock bands. We grew up with this, and I didn’t see any of those ‘noise-metal’ bands at the time when we grew up. So for me, it’s absolutely essential to have melody in music, and in heavy metal or otherwise I’m not able to listen to it.
What do you think of (Stratovarius’ guitarist) Matias’ grindcore project?
Let’s put it this way, I listened to it for three seconds and I never had the urge to listen to anymore.
*laughs* OK fair enough. How much to do you practice, and what’s the most you’ve ever practiced over a prolonged period?
The real practice time for me was when I was younger. Nowadays it’s more what we are doing, when we are working on an album then we have constant playing time. For example the last two albums we spent three months on it, practicing constantly, every day. There are also times when I don’t play for four weeks. There isn’t a regime where I go everyday to a rehearsal room for three hours, I haven’t done that for a long time.
I still think the best practice is playing live. Because when you play live, you play at the peak of your abilities, you work really hard and that is when you really get better. The best practice is a world tour doing 250 shows a year. This kind of stereotype repeating patterns for hours in the rehearsal room I must admit was never really my thing. Also, when I was rehearsing, almost all the time I was playing with other guys. Of course at one point you have to get the basics, that’s clear, but I don’t have a set rehearsal regime anymore, not for many, many years.
In 2004 (long-time guitarist) Timo Tolkki was diagnosed with bi-polar disorder. Before his breakdown and the band hiatus, did you know that he had mental health problems? Did it make working in the band difficult?
*laughs* Yes. It’s something that’s difficult to talk about. From the beginning of my time in the band, Timo was in different kind of therapies and seeing shrink doctors and so on. So it didn’t surprise us, as he was always very open about things. He had a very hard childhood with his father dying in front of him when he was seven years old and other events. Many Stratovarius songs are written about this, for example Forever, many people think it’s a love song, from a man to a woman, but it’s actually about his father.
For a very long time I think Stratovarius was the best band in the world, with this particular line-up. It was really great to work with these guys. Starting with Infinite in 2000, through to the Elements record in 2003, this is when it all started. We became distant from each other and we didn’t do many things together. Still, it was a big surprise when the actual breakdown came. Now looking back at the history of the band, there are certain things that we could have spotted and said ‘hey there’s something not right.’ At the time though we didn’t really pick up on it. We always knew there were problems and we were very happy that he spoke openly about it, and told the other members of the band that he was undergoing therapy and so on. Nonetheless, when the nervous breakdown came during the recording of the Stratovarius album in 2004 it was a big surprise to us. It wasn’t difficult to work with him at the beginning, but after Elements in 2003, it became more and more it difficult. We tried it after the nervous breakdown, in 2007, but it was almost impossible. And then he tried to disband the band and then the whole thing was going in completely lunatic areas. It’s a shame, I never would want this to happen to anybody, but that’s basically what happened.
In an interview, Jens Johansson (keyboards), said you were initially against the idea of continuing Stratovarius after Tolkki left. What made you change your mind?
We have always worked on a professional level, and many people spoke to us, particularly our dear friend, our Finnish promoter, he was talking serious to me and said "there is still so many requests from fans, from people, from promoters, from festivals for the name of Stratovarius. They don’t care if Timo Tolkki plays the drums, the guitar, or if he’s not in the band, as long as you have three original members in the band and the voice. If you start a new band with a new name, we have to start from scratch, and it will not feed your family, it will not allow you to live as a professional musician." That actually changed my mind. And maybe you don’t expect an answer like that and you might expect an answer like ‘oh all the fans wrote to me’ and so on. We are just human beings and we try to survive with our music, and this is our aim. If we are not able to make music professionally then it won’t be as good as it is now, where we can devote ourselves completely to music. This is part of our life, and just to give it away easy, over something that is not our fault, would have been surreal for us. This is actually the truth *laughs*.
Fair enough. Do you feel the new material has more of a modern sound to it?
Definitely. Matias brought a modern feel to it, as a much younger person. I could almost be his father actually. He is influenced by completely different things. When we were listening to Deep Purple, having our first beer and our first joint, Matias was still having his nose wiped by his mother. He is into completely different bands, he is into Symphony X and this gives of course brings fresh influences to the band. But I don’t judge whether this is better or worse, it’s just a matter of fact.
What is your favourite beer?
My favourite is a German beer called Kronburger. It’s a local beer out of my area and it’s very, very good.
There are some similarity with thrash metal drumming and power metal drumming, as we touched on earlier with double bass and high tempos. Is your drumming influenced by thrash metal?
I think thrash metal is even faster. I can’t play thrash metal quite as well, because I still like to be accurate and at certain speeds I find myself losing it. And that is where thrash metal starts *laughs*. That is how I see it. Basically you are right with the comparison, but I’m not influenced by thrash metal much, I’m more influenced by Judas Priest and Ian Paice (Deep Purple).
I guess thrash metal bands drew from the same set of influences so that could explain the similarities.
Yeah, I know where you are coming from. Kreator is a band that lives only a few kilometres from my home and I know these guys very well. When you want to hear good thrash metal drumming, you have to listen to Ventor, he is genius with that stuff. I was never went down that path, he plays every note like his life depends on it, and I was more into keeping things solid and accurate.
What is your favourite Stratovarius album?
The first album, Episode. It was a very special album for me because it was the first and it started the whole thing. Visions is perhaps the album that broke the band, and the highest selling was Infinite. I have good memories with all the albums, but if I had to name one it would be Episode, that is very special to me.
Mine would have to be Elements. Why does Stratovarius work with one guitar instead of two?
Because we have keyboardist. And when Timo Tolkki built the band, I think it would have been very hard for him to cope with the ego of another guitarist in the band. I also think it wouldn’t fit. To make the big sound that Stratovarius is known for, if you had another guitarist in the band it would take away a lot of room from the other instruments. It’s not necessarily, as we have a keyboardist so we can play everything we want.
You’ve played many sessions over the years. What was your favourite session where you felt you did your best work?
That would have to be my album with Glenmore, a German band, produced by Charlie Bauerfeind. It was an extraordinary record that not many people know about. And also playing with Mekong Delta, that was playing at the peak of my abilities, doing things that seem impossible. Those are the records I would like to name.
Have you been playing the tracks with Elysium live? How have they been going down with audiences?
We are supporting Helloween right now on their world tour, as a special guest. We’ve had some problems, I was not there on the first leg of the tour due to my illness. When I came back on January 10th in Paris, Timo suffered voice problems, so we had to cancel French dates, and then we were restricted to certain songs that Timo was able to sing. Now we are on the Asian leg of the tour, things are going much better, and we are playing the new songs live. They go down very well, we’ve played Infernal Maze, Under Flaming Skies, Darkest Hours, and soon we will do Event Horizon. Our target is to eventually play the epic song Elysium live, which will not only be hard for us to play but also for the audience to listen to *laughs*.
Are you still planning to bring a camera crew on tour and capture a tour for a DVD release?
There’s no plans to do that right now, as we are on a support tour right now. If we were to do it we wouldn’t want to play any of the old material into it, and with only two albums at the moment it might be a bit difficult. Of course we can still play the old hits, that is not a problem, but the band is quite young now so maybe with the next album we will consider this.
What is the significance of the star that appears on the Polaris and Elysium album covers?
We worked with an artist from Hungary, Gyula Havancsák, and when we had this idea, I was dealing with him, we had many talks over the phone. The Polaris star is also a spaceship. This is the spaceship of Stratovarius, all the members are in the spaceship, travelling through time, and making stops here and there. And it ties in with the artwork of the recent Darkest Hour single, featuring the Pelican living on polluted earth. The Stravovarius spaceship comes to rescue the pelican to bring it to Elysium, which you see on the album cover. It is our new trademark, basically the star is the spaceship for the members to travel through time, that’s how we see it.
Has the band been writing new material, do you write on tour?
I think Matias does. So far, supporting Halloween since the end of November. We have a break now and then we head to South America. I think Matias has been more into drinking and experiencing a new level of getting drunk. For Finnish people this is not so unusual. I don’t think he has written much and I know for sure the others haven’t written anything yet.
Are you thinking of coming to Australia anytime soon?
We are always considering Australia as we tour Asia, and Australia is the next logical step. But unfortunately we haven’t received the right offers to head down there. Financially it’s just not possible so far. I don’t know what the scene is like there, how much people Stratovarius would pull down there. There has always been interest in the last ten years with people asking us to come down there, but so far it hasn’t been possible.
What are some of your favourite bands outside of metal?
I have three kids at home, and we listen to a lot of classical music, as their mother is a violin player. There is not much metal music I listen to with my kids as they are still very young. They like Stratovarius, especially the ballads. I like Kid Rock’s new record a lot, I think it’s fantastic, such a bluesy, natural feel to it. I really like it, such a relaxed record, right down from his heart. I’ve always been a big fan of this Micheal Jackson guy, I like his rhythm, his way of dancing and his body control I have a lot of respect for. Other than that there’s not much I can name right now. Of course Rammstein is a good band, although that’s almost metal right? And although it sounds boring I’m still listening to the old Queen records with Freddie Mercury a lot. But as I said most of the music I listen to at home is classical music, Mozart and all that kind of stuff.
What do you want written on your tombstone?
I’ve never thought that I’m that important that I’d have to think about that… I’d say Ronnie James Dio – "Long Live Rock ‘N’ Roll".