If you have followed the Finnish metal scene, or what’s new in melodic metal in general for the past year, you have probably come across the name Arion at least once. These college kids from the Helsinki region have stunned both critics and metal fans alike with their debut, Last of Us, which has undoubtedly swept fans of the genre off their feet. Lene L. sat down with guitarist/songwriter Iivo Kaipainen to talk about the growing buzz surrounding the band, how things are looking half a year after releasing their debut, and what the new year will bring for Arion.
Arion was formed in Espoo in 2011 by three high school boys in the hallways of Sibelius-lukio, and has come a long way since then. After the initial trio was formed by drummer Topias Kupiainen, keyboard player Arttu Vauhkonen, and guitarist Iivo Kaipainen, bassist Georgi “Gege” Velinov, and singer Viljami Holopainen were added to make it a group of five. With the line-up in place, the band was ready to conquer the world, or Europe at least – Arion took part in the Finnish qualifying rounds for the Eurovision Song Contest in 2012 with their song “Lost,” scoring fifth in the voting, and received a great deal of praise from both the judges and the audience. Fifth place was more than enough for Arion; soon after the contest was over in 2013, they were signed with Ranka Kustannus, a record label founded by Riku Pääkkönen, who directed Spinefarm Records for years. He was in charge during the era that introduced acts such as Nightwish, Sonata Arctica, and Children of Bodom, so if it sounds like Arion’s off to a great start, that’s only the beginning. The debut album Last of Us saw daylight in the summer of 2014, shaking up the relatively stagnant melodic metal scene in Finland with its fresh, huge, and uncompromising sound, as well as their remarkably talented musicianship. As for what’s next, that’s what we wanted to learn more about from guitarist Iivo Kaipainen.
Kaipainen, the nineteen-year-old leading force in the Arion collective, drops by a café in Helsinki on his way to band practice, and is almost immediately recognized from the band logo on his guitar case. He answers the questions coming from a fan easily and politely, with a touch of routine, as if this is what he does all the time, but does not appear inconvenienced by fans approaching him. When I ask how the year has started for Arion, the answer is equally forthcoming.
Well, most importantly, we’ve been composing new songs, and we also did a couple gigs to kick off the year.
You were nominated for an Emma (a Finnish Grammy) as “Newcomer of the Year” just a couple of weeks ago; was it more of a surprise or did you expect that kind of honor?
Yeah, that was a really important thing, too. I secretly dared to hope for it, but rationally thinking, I didn’t believe in it all that much. But yeah, it’s nice. The nomination came as a very pleasant surprise.
As mentioned, you’ve done a few gigs every now and then during the winter. How does it feel on the road these days, when compared to last year at this time? Have you gained more confidence on stage?
Oh yeah, definitely, and we’ve developed a much better routine these days. It all sort of goes automatically, like with schedules and that kind of things. For example, I’m accustomed to changing the guitar strings during the drum-check and you always know when you need to be ready, and so on. The routines have developed pretty quickly.
You’ve already been to Japan a couple times, and as sort of a counterbalance for that, you’ve toured some rather small venues in Finland. What kind of things have such drastically different types of gigs taught you? Are they somewhat similar, or are they comparable at all?
There are their own challenges to playing small venues; you put weight on different things when compared to the really big ones. In a small venue you’re kind of more face-to-face with the audience, so you need to be more present. You can’t be as anonymous as compared to bigger stages, whereas there you need to do things more clearly, more articulate in a way, because the audience won’t receive the energy the same way they do in smaller places, so you need to give more of yourself. Then again, uncertainty and how it shows is much worse on a small stage; the crowd will sense that really easily.
Let’s talk about Last of Us a bit. It’s been roughly half a year since the release in Finland and everywhere else except Japan (where it was released earlier in the summer). What kind of a process was making the debut album?
Well, firstly, it took us quite a while to make that album, mainly because we kind of did it in bits. So we started the whole thing by doing the New Dawn EP during the summer of 2013. We did the base tracks for four songs at that time and released three of those on the EP. We continued recordings at the time it was released, finished the bases, and there were a few bits and pieces left to do by winter, which was the time for recording the vocals. That took us a couple of months; the sessions were a bit detached from each other, but really intense in a way. There were those few-day periods where Viljami nearly died from lack of sleep [laughs]. No, not really, but anyway. For example, Matias (Kupiainen – Stratovarius), as a producer, worked 24/7, so it was in its own – in a bit of a fun way though – quite a rough process. But the songs came together damned nicely. We managed to pull off everything as planned and against that time-lapse background.
Probably the funniest comment is about the title track. I did the first version in February 2014 and wrote the lyrics for it right away. It turned out to be one of the best songs on the album, in my opinion, so it’s not always about the time you use. So all-in-all, what we did in the studio went all the time in a more professional direction in that sense. Like with the last songs made during the process, for instance, “You’re My Melody” and “Last of Us”, they came into being the easiest. So in a way we developed a routine for making songs. And when it comes to the new songs I’ve done for the second album, I can already say that they were born in the same way as those two surprisingly, so there has formed a sort of method to song-making for me.
TRACKING THE ELEMENTS FOR ARION
While talking with Iivo, it’s easy to get the impression that there’s not much room for coincidence when it comes to success for Arion. There seems to be a lot going on under that red hair, and what comes out sounds impressively mature – nearly as meticulous as his playing. He chooses his words carefully, but with a certain enthusiasm when explaining how it all works for the band and for him personally. When asked which is more important to him in composing, striving for perfection in feeling or in technical aspects, the answer comes quickly, but Iivo takes his time to explain it properly.
Neither is more important than the other, I’d say. How would I explain it… to me, the most important thing when I compose is the vocal melody. They are very important to me on a personal level, and making a song usually starts from a base of piano and vocals, and we do the band arrangement on top of that. By then the elements we have in our music are already so clear that they’ll come to the final arrangement almost by themselves. So in a way, the factors that separate one song from another merge at the point when I make the vocal melodies. So maybe that explains what kinds of things are essential to me in making songs?
Yes, it makes sense. I have to say, I wouldn’t have expected that kind of approach from a guitarist. It’s quite interesting.
Yeah, that is perhaps the key, as well as in the sense of standing out from other bands and songwriters, when you do things differently. I think that if you want to make different kinds of songs, you need to start making them in a different kind of way.
Along those lines, do you think there is already an aspect to your music that is unmistakably “Arion”, and doesn’t sound like any other band?
Maybe it’s just the blend, you know, and we – well, I never like using other bands as references, because they will stick, but the Nightwish-type massive orchestrations combined with a singer like Viljami is not something a lot of bands have done before. And to separate us from Nightwish’s style is the sort of Children of Bodom -element, as in the more technical playing and a lot of solos. So those things and combining the elements in the right proportions is, from my point of view, what separates us from other bands. Though, of course, there can be a lot of opinions on whether the ratio in this combination is right or not.
Young bands like you are naturally compared to a number of bands from all around the genre, most of them more or less obvious, but have there been any really unexpected comparisons? Not necessarily odd ones, but the kind that make you think, “Gee, I wouldn’t have thought about that myself.”
Geez, I don’t know, it’s hard to think of any… well, that Bodom thing took me by surprise, but when I started to think about it, I feel there’s a certain point to it. And, well, I think the fact that people compare us to Kamelot probably comes from Viljami being a huge fan of their singer, Tommy Karevik. He’s one of the biggest influences for Viljami personally.
You’ve mentioned quite a few times in the past that you’ve taken influences from pop music. What elements do you bring to your music from that direction?
They’re exactly these compositional elements. Content matters, like vocal melodies and such. I kind of try to approach them a lot from that direction, since there are so many pop songs that have touched people deeply. In a way, I believe in the thought that music – the composition itself – is the content, and how it’s arranged and produced to match a certain genre is like a wrapping around it. All songs can be molded into a certain style and, composition-wise, all of our songs being the way they are, could also be easily arranged to fit pop standards. So that’s pretty much how I think about getting influenced by some different types of music – it mostly has to do with content. Not that much copying of, for example, EDM sounds or anything like that.
If we go to the other end of the scale, what about heavier tones in the future? From what I know, before Viljami joined the band, you used to lean more to the darker and rougher end in the metal spectrum, so could you see, for instance, having death metal growls on some forthcoming album?
[laughs] No, not necessarily that, but Viljami does have some brutal sounds up his sleeve, and I think we need to use those again. For what exactly, we’ll have to wait and see, but in general I believe that the certain heavier side will always remain in our music. We don’t intend to go gradually towards a lighter, more rock or pop sound, that’s definitely not our aim. In the end, we’re all metal musicians, so yeah, it will stay there.
Since Last of Us has gained remarkably good recognition all around, have you felt that you might have set the standard too high with it? Has it given you any pressure toward making the second album?
At first it did, yeah, it created some pressure when we started to make new material, especially the question of, can we do at least one or two songs that could exceed all we did there. But now that these first songs we’ve done have been so good, and above all when compared to the state where the songs on Last of Us are now, I think this new material could be even better. So all-in-all, I think we can do that again, and a bit better, but it’s not going to be easy. There will be a lot of pressure for sure.
Have you noticed that the song-making has become more calculated because of that?
Of course, definitely. It’s unfortunate, but it’s a part of this thing, and I’m not ashamed of it, not at all. The fact that it’s become more calculated won’t mean that the emotional side in songs would disappear. I think those two can co-exist in music.
On Last of Us you had a successful collaboration with Jani Liimatainen (Cain’s Offering, Blackoustic-duo), helping with the lyrics. Have you thought about continuing it on the following album, or is, for example, Viljami going to participate more?
Heh, it’s hard to say what’s Viljami’s going to do, but this time I’m going to write more lyrics by myself, and I have already started doing so. But I’m going to ask Jani at least to have a look and give his opinions and thoughts about them. He’s got some really great ideas and he’s a totally brilliant lyricist, so by no means would I want to stop the collaboration just like that. Also, Jani himself has given me the impression that he would be up for helping with the second album as well if we want, so yes, we’re definitely going to keep him in the picture.
“I JUST WANT TO BE A MUSICIAN”
Even though Arion has achieved a lot in such a short time, there seems to be a certain aura of humbleness along with the determined go-getter attitude in the band as a whole. One would expect a bunch of guys in their twenties to take everything they can get out of the successful artist status in most situations, but that image would shatter immediately on meeting them. They know what they want and what to do in order to get it. The choice of studies for majority of the band is a good example of this.
You’re studying at the moment in the Pop & Jazz Conservatory in Helsinki, alongside Topias and Arttu, and Arttu is also completing his military service. With this in mind, what’s the main priority right now: the new album or other obligations?
The new album, without a doubt. After all, Arttu, Topias, and I are studying music and naturally that line of study encourages you to make your own music, and that’s what we aim for. So by no means will the school get in our way if we say that we’re recording a new album. Studying and doing things with Arion kind of support each other.
I’m a bit guilty of doing this myself, but has it ever started to annoy you that people put so much emphasis on how young you are? Can you still turn that into an advantage?
It’s difficult to say. It won’t annoy us if people put emphasis on it just by the mentioning our age, but sometimes they have certain preconceptions about very young bands and connect it to things like lack of experience and such a bit too easily, and every now and then when reading, for example, gig reviews, it feels like they just have to put it there, just because it happens to be part of the picture they have of us. But then again, the fact is that we are young, anyway – nearly all of us are still under twenty, so having it mentioned kind of comes with the territory.
On the other hand, bands like Nightwish released their debuts when some of them were still minors.
Yeah, that’s exactly the thing here, others have started early as well, and it seems that’s how it should be, too.
Despite this, do you feel like you’ve been taken seriously enough? Have you been afraid of getting stuck with the “teenager band” label or fading out of the picture after some time?
No, that hasn’t frightened me at any point. Like, if we can talk about any sort of hype around us, it’s been the steady growth with the buzz all the time. There haven’t been any big leaps or sudden need to be able to keep the spotlight. And anyway, as a band we don’t really have any of that kind of “let’s play rockstar” attitude to begin with. We’re serious enough about this and really just want to make music, so maybe it guides us in the right direction. And yeah, it feels like people do take us seriously. The best feeling about it comes when there are people who dare to admit seeing potential in us, and who say that this can be even bigger than it is now, that it can go way further from here, and in a way understand that… it’s hard to put it to words, but anyway, in general I feel that people take us seriously, and believe in us, and that there will be things happening even more in the future. There hasn’t been a kind of “shooting star” -vibe at any point, which is really good.
Have there been times you’ve been feeling like everyone’s trying to tell you what to do and how you should do it?
Not really, no, and like, we’ve gotten good mentoring from our producer, Matias, for instance, on how it’s good to deal with something, and focus on the music, so we can in a way dismiss that kind of pressure coming from the outside.
On the flip side of the same thing, what’s the best advice you’ve gotten so far?
It’s hard to say… nothing specific comes to mind, really, but in general when people remind us that it’s the artist who knows when they’ve succeeded – things like making music, did the gig go well, and so on. You can’t put too much weight on that. No matter what people write, good or bad, the artist will know if they’ve done a good album or a good gig, so… yeah, in some ways, even if you deny those things to the outside world, everyone really knows what’s going on.
We had a bit of a demonstration to answer my next question when you came here, as it seems that people recognize you guys every now and then already.
Well, the thing with us is that the only one of us who gets excited about that kind of stuff is Viljami [laughs], though not that much. I can speak only for myself in this, because we don’t really talk about these kinds of things as a band, but I do get recognized on a regular basis out there. That’s probably just because I’m easily recognizable with my looks, like, it’s really hard to mistake me for another person, y’know? I don’t think it would be because of people talking about us that much or anything like that, but just because I’m easy to recognize. And I never like to take delight in those kinds of things. I just want to be a musician.
You have actually mentioned earlier in other interviews that you originally wanted to be a session musician. Now that you have to deal with the artist status and in a way being a public figure, is the publicity a necessary evil, or do you find good things in it?
No, by no means would it be a necessary evil. Of course it is nice in its own way, but I just don’t like to take it as some kind of ego-boost or something. So yeah, certainly, I like being an artist. After all, I get to make my own music, and it’s the kind of music that I want to do. When it comes to mentioning the session musician thing, to me personally – and to the other guys in the band too – it’s connected with how important it is to be a musician in one way or another, and not just getting to be on stage, but that you get to play and do music. It has more to do with that, really.
PAST AND PRESENT, DREAMS AND THE FUTURE
That’s almost all we’ve got here. There are ten shorter questions left. So, when did you start playing?
I started with the guitar somewhere around the time I turned eleven, and piano about the same time. I learned all by myself for a good while and started taking guitar lessons when I was fifteen.
Who’s your biggest musical influence?
Phew, this is a tough one… like, there are musicians who have influenced my playing and then those who have influenced me in general, so it’s really hard to name one. And I’m not really a fanboy type of a person anyway, generally speaking, I don’t look up to people all so much, rather than appreciate them. But, Matias Kupiainen, our producer; I’ve been a fan of his since I was twelve, and now I get to work with the guy so it’s somehow really awesome, and I appreciate him more day by day. And, well, as a kid I was a big fan of Alexi Laiho.
Who do you look up to in general? Who’s your biggest hero? You can name a fictional character, too, if you want to.
No, I really can’t name anyone. It’s impossible [laughs]. Like I said, I’m not that much of a fanboy-type person. I don’t really think about that kind of stuff.
That’s all right, let’s move on then. Which album or artist did you last get excited about?
The last? Geez, what could it be… well, there’s this artist who makes kind of gospel jazz-pop, a Norwegian guy called Ole Børud. Absolutely amazing artist, I like that kind of music a lot, and I’ve been listening to heaps of his stuff lately. I found his music last fall and have been exploring it ever since.
Right now, what’s the last thing you’ve listened to?
Absolutely last? Well, uh, last night I blasted Disturbed. [laughs] No, really, I like them a lot.
If you could create an all-time super-band, who’d play in it? Any musicians, living or dead.
Okay, okay, let’s start with… who I’d pick for vocals… I’ll say Jarkko Ahola (Teräsbetoni), Matias Kupiainen, uh… Lauri Porra (Stratovarius), and Michael Romeo (Symphony X), and then some damn great drummer… Chris Adler, from Lamb of God. Oh and Jordan Rudess (Dream Theater) would be in there, too.
Alright! Who would you like to get to play with or get to open for?
Hard to say, like, pretty much any great band or artist who’s made a long career. Now we’ve opened for Stratovarius, Sonata Arctica, and been in the same festivals as a lot of bands, and in a while we’re going to open for Battle Beast. I don’t know, we’ve been in the same backstage with Dream Theater in Japan, but it’d be awesome to actually warm up for them. I appreciate genuine musicianship a lot, and they’re one of those bands in this scene where it really shines through.
Coolest memory from the road so far?
Our album release concert at Tavastia was pretty sweet. It went insanely well. There’s been talk about the gig at Loud Park, Japan. There was such a crazy huge crowd, so of course it was awesome, but playing-wise it wasn’t nearly as good as the one at Tavastia, so it’s a bit of a tough choice that way. Maybe I’ll go with the Tavastia gig.
What’s the best thing right now, with Arion or in general?
I don’t know, just making new songs is absolutely great at the moment, and how things are falling into a routine… kind of found their places and settled down, so there’s not that restless feeling about the whole thing, but that things are working and going forward more with their own weight.
What are you looking most forward to in 2015?
I look forward to playing some damn cool gigs. That’s the thing at the top of my mind right now, and probably in the fall… I can’t say for sure, but probably it’d be our goal to enter the studio by fall to start recording the second album. I am eagerly looking forward to that as well. This will probably be a busy year and that’s the way I like it.