Teräsbetoni frontman J. Ahola on representing Finland at Eurovision 2008 & more

Sunday, April 13, 2008

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Teräsbetoni and Northern Kings musician Jarkko Ahola

Teräsbetoni means "steel-reinforced concrete", and is also the name of a Finnish heavy metal band formed in 2002. Their music, which centres on an honourable warrior lifestyle or on metal itself, quickly became popular in 2003 on the Internet, resulting in a petition by fans being sent to several record labels demanding a recording deal. In late 2004 the band signed to Warner Music Finland, and the following year debut single Taivas lyö tulta rose to number one in the Finnish charts, and debut album Metallitotuus hit number two and went platinum, and has now sold about 47,000 copies.

The band, who sing exclusively in Finnish, have just released their third album, Myrskyntuoja. The lead single on this album is Missä miehet ratsastaa, which Teräsbetoni decided to enter in the Finnish selections for the 2008 edition of the Eurovision Song Contest, where it was selected to go on to the semi-final in Belgrade, Serbia as Finland's representative this year. Although Finland has seen limited success in the contest, their only victory was with a comparable group. In 2006 hard rock band Lordi - whose monster costumes and pyrotechnic displays are famed - achieved a record 292 points in the final with Hard Rock Hallelujah.

Teräsbetoni's frontman, vocalist and bass guitarist Jarkko Ahola's fame extends beyond the band he heads. He also features in Finnish symphonic power metal cover supergroup Northern Kings, alongside Marco Hietala of Nightwish and Tarot, Tony Kakko of Sonata Arctica and Juha-Pekka Leppäluoto of Charon.

Wikinews was able to conduct an exclusive interview with Jarkko Ahola to discuss these various achievements. This interview is now published below for the first time.


On the early days

 ((Wikinews )) Desite the fact that you focus on a lifestyle set in historic times, your band's name means "steel-reinforced concrete". Why did you choose that name?

 ((Jarkko )) We got together and had a little conversation about the name of our band. Pretty soon V. Rantanen suggested the name “Teräsbetoni”. We all thought it sounded great and it described our music well in a way that made people think “what the hell is this?…” (And here you have to understand that word “Teräsbetoni” sounds and IS much cooler than “steel-reinforced concrete”.) I guess the name was okay, ‘cause we didn’t have a tendency or need to write songs about historic times, those kind of songs just came out. There are also songs that aren’t set in the past, more into this day or this moment.

 ((Wikinews )) How did you come up with the concept for the band?

 ((Jarkko )) Mostly it just happened. We all must have had some kind of vision about the music and the looks for sure and we all agreed about the leather and skin. That’s how it all began. We wrote songs we thought were good and metallish. We played them as metal should be played: loud’n’proud. There must have been something special about our music and live performances, ‘cause the fan crowds just kept growing and growing. And while the band evolved, the concept evolved on its own.

 ((Wikinews )) Which artists would you say inspired you?

 ((Jarkko )) We all have our inspiration. I can’t tell who have inspired other band members, but I’ve always been inspired by the hard rock bands of the seventies: Deep Purple, Rainbow, Uriah Heep, Black Sabbath… you know, all the 70’s classics. From the eighties bands like Dio, Manowar, Helloween, Accept have been on my CD- player. Nowadays I’m inspired just by good music. No matter what kind of music it is, if it sounds great.

 ((Wikinews )) Did the early reaction on the Internet surprise you?

 ((Jarkko )) It sure did. We knew we had something special on our hands, but there’s always something special somewhere all the time, you know. We had this “not-so-pro”-looking site with a picture of us and three demo songs…and that was enough! All the basic pieces were so fit, that nothing else was needed. And of course there was also this “Are these guys serious?”-thing going on. It still is.

 ((Wikinews )) When you made your debut releases you became an instant hit in Finland. What was that like for you at the time, and how is it now, still being a big success there?

 ((Jarkko )) Well, you always tend to think that when you hit big, your life changes and everything is cool and crazy. But to us it really didn’t change. After our first hit song “Taivas Lyö Tulta” reigned the air, we were still playing in the small clubs with low prices. I guess many facets believed that we were just a fucking joke. It took some time for the gig organizers to realize that people wanted to see and hear us live. Anyway, it was all clear when we visited summer festivals and got huge audiences. Since then it has been pretty steady.

Now with all this Eurovision stuff and publicity it’s much more bigger than it was with our first hit and first album. Of course we aren’t newbies to success and publicity now, so we take it causually. None of us really love being some kind of small celebs, but what we like is playing our music to our fans that never seem to let us down. It’s great to meet them after gig and have few beers. So, if publicity is required for that, we’ll accept it happily.

 ((Wikinews )) Some people have described your music as "corny" or "camp". How do you respond to that? Would you agree with the view by some people that much of what you do is in fact a parody?

 ((Jarkko )) Let’s put it this way. If we would sing in English, that kind of thinking would be much less common. The problem seems to be the fact, that most of the people actually seem to understand our lyrics and they think that we can’t be serious with this stuff. Hell, thousands of bands do the same thing in other language and nobody’s laughing. Of course we have fun when play live or give interviews, but when we write new songs and record them, it’s all real and true.

On Eurovision

 ((Wikinews )) What does it feel like to be selected to go to Eurovision, especially considering it is mostly an English language pop contest? Is that daunting at all?

 ((Jarkko )) Daunting? No way. I’m proud of being the representative of Finland. Finland has never done too well in Eurovision Song Contest, but Lordi gave the whole show a nice slap in the face. You know, it doesn’t have to be pop to win the number one slot - you can actually play rock music there. We might seem a bit odd to European viewers, ‘cause we have our leatherish looks, metallish music and we sing in Finnish. But in the end, I wish that people will like it.

 ((Wikinews )) What is the song about?

 ((Jarkko )) The song is set in the Teräsbetoni-world with certain lyrical style. So, there are horses, heroes and battlefields. But in the end the song is about harshness of life, the call of duty and responsibilty.

 ((Wikinews )) How do you expect Europe to react to a metal song in Finnish?

 ((Jarkko )) Well, you can only guess. I believe they react like Finnish people do – they hate it or love it. Hopely most of them will love it.

 ((Wikinews )) Of course, Finland has a history of similar Eurovision entries. Nightwish were second choice to represent Finland once with Sleepwalker, and of course Lordi won the whole contest in 2006. What do you think of those entries?

 ((Jarkko )) Both of the bands have strong image and style. I’m not too fond of their music, but you can’t really deny their achievements.

 ((Wikinews )) Of the entries so far, excluding yourself, who to win?

 ((Jarkko )) I haven’t heard any other entries yet. We’ll check them out when we go to Serbia, ‘cause we’ll be there for two weeks. That’s enough of full time Eurovision song focus.

 ((Wikinews )) Do you reckon you have a chance of victory yourself?

 ((Jarkko )) You’ll have to believe in your self if you go to a fight. This is also one of the themes of our ESC-song Missä Miehet Ratsastaa.

 ((Wikinews )) A video for the Eurovision campaign planned to be shown to the press was deemed "too burly" for the contest. Was that anoying?

 ((Jarkko )) You mean our music video? I think the first version of the video was a bit heavy stuff for the people who don’t us. But the new version doesn’t really differ too much from the original, so in that perspective it was a bit annoying… or maybe better word is pointless.

 ((Wikinews )) Many people reading this will be thinking about who to vote for at the contest. Why should they vote for you?

 ((Jarkko )) Because what we do is true and pure. We come as we are and play from our hearts. That seems to be pretty rare in nowadays music, especially in pop genre where glamour and glitter seems to be essential. …And our song is good, too!

The new album

 ((Wikinews )) How has the reaction to your latest album been?

 ((Jarkko )) Well, it reached the position number 1 in Finland’s album chart. Most of our fans have thanked us for the best album so far. I’ve seen few reviews and they weren’t too flattering. On the other hand, they’ve never been ‘cause most of the reviews tend to discuss our looks, image and the lyrics. But it’s all right, that kind of criticism have never affected to our listeners.

 ((Wikinews )) What sort of things are the songs on this album about?

 ((Jarkko )) We are still fighting for metal music, so there are traditional songs about playing this music and calling all our brothers and sisters to get together. The other subjects vary from nightmares to galley slavery, from possession to burden of believing in your cause etc.

 ((Wikinews )) Talk us through the writing process for the album.

 ((Jarkko )) This time we had much more time to write new songs than we did with our second album “Vaadimme Metallia”. On the other hand the recording process’ schedule was more shattered than it was with V.M.

The cycle of writing must be a bit different with each writer, but for example I might come up with an idea of a title of the song or just a guitar riff . From there I start to develop the song. Mostly it comes out pretty easy. Sometimes there’s just a special mood that evolve to a song. When the rough version of song is in my mind, I record a demo of it. While recording I start hearing how the song should be sang and played. I also arrange the song in the demo phase. I make the demos ready & polished and send them to band members, A&R and producer. I believe A. Järvinen and V. Rantanen, song writers as well, work pretty much the same way.

At this point we give each other comments and critcism about the songs we’ve written. With the help of the producer and A & R we choose the songs that should be recorded on the album. Of course the whole process is more complex but basically the it goes like that.

 ((Wikinews )) Did all the recording, production etc go smoothly?

 ((Jarkko )) Yeah it did. Hiili Hiilesmaa, our producer, and the band knew each other already and we had discussions about the sound and direction of the new album. The working habits were familiar to us from the Vaadimme Metallia-sessions, so from that point of view things went smoothly. Our guitarists actually did some solos and backing vocals at home! I think that’s a great example of relaxed way of producing.

 ((Wikinews )) Do you plan a tour this year to support the album?

 ((Jarkko )) We’re already gigging around Finland and summer tour is in the making . Visiting countries abroad would be great, too.

Northern Kings

 ((Wikinews )) How did you come to be involved with Northern Kings?

 ((Jarkko )) The whole thing began with Raskasta Joulua –tour that I was in. We also did an album called “Raskaampaa Joulua”. Anyway, there was some talk about doing something else together. You know, not just Christmas carrols in metal mode. Nobody really had the time to start writing new songs, so a cover album seemed to be a nice way of proceeding.

Everybody agreed that the album should sound massive and orchestrated. At first we had no other direction than covering the music we liked. I did a demo of Procol Harum’s “Salty Dog” with Erkka Korhonen. It was a good example of what we should sound like, but our record label’s A & R Osku Ketola thought that we should do something more defined. After few thoughts we decided to concentrate on pop hits of the 80’s. That’s how it all began. I had a chance to arrange my own atcs which was lots of fun.

 ((Wikinews )) What's it like working with the other three established rockers?

 ((Jarkko )) Unfortunately we didn’t see each other while making the record. That may sound crazy, but that’s how it goes nowadays. It’s so easy to record your parts and send them to the studio for mixing. Happily, we saw each other while the photo & video shoot. Marco Hietala, Tony Kakko and J-P Leppäluoto are all great musicians and great persons. If we ever get to do any shows together, I’m sure it would be wonderful in music and in brotherhood.

 ((Wikinews )) Is it hard to divide your time between the projects?

 ((Jarkko )) It all depends on what you have going on already. While making Northern Kings album “Reborn” Teräsbetoni was having a break. I try to do things smoothly and avoid booking too much stuff on my calendar. You shouldn’t be too greedy and accept all the stuff offered.

Of course there are exceptions. For example while we were recording Myrskyntuoja, I had to leave studio early or not go there at all ‘cause of promotional actions agreed by our record label. I can understand the meaning of promotion, but nothing sucks more than bothering an intensive studio session with another project. It screws up your focus. But fortunately that kind of shit is rare enough, so I don’t care complaining about it. And the bottom line is that projects like Northern Kings bring great variety to your life as an artist.

 ((Wikinews )) Is co-ordinating things with the other members hard when they've all got their projects, too?

 ((Jarkko )) Well, luckily I didn’t have to do that. That’s producer’s and A&R’s business. But what I’ve seen from aside, it does seem a bit hard to fix up meetings, promo sessions etc. Somebody is always going somewhere!

 ((Wikinews )) What do you think personally of the covers you've produced?

 ((Jarkko )) I’m very satisfied with the results. We all got to do arrangements and songs that looked like us. I’ve heard few cover albums and they’ve rarely been interesting. I think we managed to reach that point.

 ((Wikinews )) What about the work of the others in their bands? Do you like their music as well?

 ((Jarkko )) I give all the guys my sincere respect for their work. I think Marco Hietala’s Tarot is one of the Finnish heavy metal legends and it still rocks. I’m not so much into Nightwish, anyway. There’s something that doesn’t quite please my ears. Maybe I should listen to it more. Charon is good on its field and so is Sonata Arctica, while its style is not the style I prefer to listen in metal music.

The future and final words

 ((Wikinews )) Except for an apearance at Germany's Wacken Open Air, you haven't done much international stuff prior to now. Might we see some gigs abroad in 2008, and if not when?

 ((Jarkko )) All I can say is I WISH! There might be few gigs in the summer, but we’ll see.

 ((Wikinews )) You said Missä miehet ratsastaa wouldn't be translated into English simply because it was designed to work in Finnish. Does that mean we could see some songs written specially in English in the future?

 ((Jarkko )) With Teräsbetoni I doubt it. We are pretty much focused on our own language. It would be pretty hard to see us singing in English and still be Teräsbetoni, you know.

 ((Wikinews )) What do you expect Eurovision to do for you? Have you seen any changes already?

 ((Jarkko )) I hope we can get our music out as widely as possible. Even though it’s just one song, I believe that it evokes interest in watchers and listeners. The local media has been interested in us since we won the finale, but nothing special hasn’t yet happened.

 ((Wikinews )) Loads of people in the music industry have been complaining that downloading illegaly is killing the industry. Do you agree?

 ((Jarkko )) I believe it affects the industry and its sales. Still, it’s hard to believe that it’s killing the industry. Of course I also have rights that the illegal downloaders violate. So, even though it’s not killing the industry, it’s totally wrong. The whole system has to change somehow, that’s for sure.

 ((Wikinews )) What does it mean to you to be in these bands?

 ((Jarkko )) It means I can be who I am, a musician, a songwriter and an artist. I’ve done other stuff in my life and I can tell you there were times when I thought that life just sucked. I am grateful for being in this position.

 ((Wikinews )) Any final words for any of your fans reading this?

 ((Jarkko )) All that ever comes to my mind is THANK YOU. You really are the air I breathe. Please, keep on giving it to me. I’ll keep on giving you music.


This exclusive interview features first-hand journalism by a Wikinews reporter. See the collaboration page for more details.