For an artist, one of the benefits of climbing up the music business ladder is an increased opportunity to indulge your own musical quirks. Tuomas Holopainen, the driving force behind Finland’s symphonic metal masters Nightwish, has seized the chance to do exactly that and bring to life a project based on the Disney comic book character Scrooge McDuck.
For Holopainen, the album Music Inspired By The Life and Times of Scrooge is the culmination of 14 years of planning. Disney’s Donald Duck, and all the various Duck comics, are hugely popular throughout Finland and his fascination in these comics dates back to his earliest childhood. “Then I found Mr Don Rosa in the early nineties and he instantly became my favourite Disney story teller,” explains Holopainen. “When I read this particular book, the Life and Times of Scrooge McDuck, I was totally blown away, it became my all-time favourite fictional story. It still is my ‘desert island’ book.” The story captured his imagination and drilled straight into his creative soul. It was inevitable that at some stage he would attempt to bring it all to life. “Every time I read this book my head is filled with music, I hear different melodies and instruments. At some point I thought it would be a cool idea to let that music come out and see what happens!”
At the heart of this comic-turned-music project is the character of Scrooge McDuck. Rich, aggressive and miserly, he is certainly not a typical ‘hero’, especially within the often ‘child friendly’ Disney worldview. In particular, the book by artist/writer Don Rosa brings a depth to the character that Holopainen feels is unique. The complexity of Rosa’s version of Scrooge just adds to the appeal. “I love Scrooge as a character, he’s so multilayered, so controversial,” he says. “He has really honest life values but he’s also really persistent and even violent at times. Then again, he loves his family like no one and life is all about adventure for him. It’s all about memories, he never spends his money because they are memories for him. It’s really intriguing.”
As the project began to take shape it is was clear that this would not be a metal album in any sense. For any fan of Nighwish there are many parts of the album that are instantly recognisable as having the same symphonic ‘feel’ as many of the band’s tracks. Overall, the music really does feel very much like ‘Nightwish minus the guitars, bass and drums’. Holopainen believes this is the only way it could have been. “If you want to bring to life the story of a certain duck who lived in the mid 19th century, then doing that with pop or rock or metal music just doesn’t feel right at all. You want to go the classical film music way. So it was very obvious from the start that this would be a film music album,” he explains.
Making a ‘non-metal’ album also helps to underscore a critical point for Holopainen – that this solo effort is in no way the beginning of the end for Nightwish. “I was searching for different options for releasing this album without my own name on it,” he explains. “I don’t want people to get the misconception that I’m going solo and Nightwish is about to breakup and so on. A project like this cannot be done under the name Nightwish, it wouldn’t be fair on the other band members, because they just don’t have the same intimate relationship with this character. So for this one time I had to go solo. But I don’t want people to think of this as my solo album, I want it to be a tribute to this beautiful story.”
To try and emphasise this even more, Holopainen was very specific about the cover artwork, insisting that his name be in small print and that the specially draw art of Don Rosa feature prominently. He’s also making no plans for any future solo work at this stage. “If there’s something that I fervently want to do that cannot be done under the name Nightwish then why not,” he says, “that’s the same thing everyone else in the band is doing, they all have their side projects. But I have absolutely no ambition of going solo – with Nightwish I can do almost anything I want. Except Scrooge,” he adds with a wry laugh.
Writing for Scrooge meant composing music that is, at this stage at least, studio only. Holopainen has no immediate plans to try and take the music into a live setting, although he adds “I do fancy the idea that in a few years maybe to do a few shows with an orchestra and play the album from being to the end.” If and when that time arrives, translating the music into a live setting may bring its own issues. As a composer, he strongly believes in letting the music be what it needs to be. “This is something we have actually talked about with the band in the past,” he explains, “Should you, while writing songs, think about how to do this live? Whether it’s going to work live? Is it even possible to do live? I think that you should never ever think that, you shouldn’t make compromises to the song. You can always rearrange it for the live occasion later.”
It was also a chance for Holopainen to tackle some ‘firsts’ as a composer. Track 3 ‘Duel and Cloudscapes’ was his attempt at writing music with a comedy feel. “It’s maybe the most comic book like song of them all,” he explains, “and I’m rather proud of the c-part. To write music for comedy is the most difficult thing ever to do. Whenever I listen to that song it puts a big smile on my face.” For track 4, he chose to work for the first time with the Australian Aboriginal instrument, the didgeridoo. Finnish musician Teho Majamaki was brought in to record it. “Scrooge in the book is going all around the world, from Scotland to the Wild West to Australia,” Holopainen explains. “So when he goes to Australia you get to hear the didgeridoo. It was the first time ever I heard the didgeridoo live and it was just a wonderful experience. Teho said he could only play this particular didgeridoo in ‘c’ so I had to transpose the song a little.”
Inspiration can come from the strangest of places, and in the end Holopainen’s 14 year obsession with Rosa’s portrayal of Scrooge has resulted in a wonderful piece of music. It’s majestic, sweeping, emotive – and about a duck. Look for it in early April.