(A. Tolonen)
Gioele Nasi


A few months after the release of Nest's sophomore effort, "Trail of The Unwary" , presents to its readers an interesting interview with A. Tolonen, the founder of this finnish Ambient-Folk project: this musician/vocalist/painter/drawer talks about his records' genesis, his collaborations and his curious experiments with sounds...

Gioele Nasi - Hi mr. Tolonen! I’d like to start this interview with some considerations about Nest’s latest effort, «Trail of the Unwary». The first thing that the listener notices, while playing the record, is the great emphasis that is now put on longer and more complex compositions. Why did you explore this way of composing? Was it intentional to create songs that are twice (or three times) as long as your old ones, and feature more themes and melodies? What inspired you this change?

A. Tolonen– Greetings. The length and increased complexity of the songs as well as a great deal of other things were the result of me wanting to make songs without any boundaries or restrictions this time around. I guess I should reveal a bit of history here, so you can understand what I mean. Long time ago, before Nest even existed, I used to mainly compose long songs. I grew a bit tired of this, so when I started Nest I wanted to explore a more straightforward style of composing with clearer and maybe even simpler melodic progressions, etc. Well, I ended up doing quite enough of this style too, so after finishing Woodsmoke I thought I should try something new again. I didn't specifically aim for making longer or more complex songs. What I wanted to do was just to make songs without any preconceived "rules" on what the result should end up like. It just happened that most of the songs ended up being quite long and more complex than before. I had so many ideas for individual songs, and it would have been a shame leave any of them out. On the other hand there is also more simplistic stuff than ever before, namely in "The Mire", in which I wanted to try my hands in what strength there is to be found in heavy repetition. I will also say that I wouldn't want people to focus too much on the length of the songs. The songs are not any longer or shorter than I wanted them to be, nor does an arbitrary length value tell anything of the quality of the music. I think that people are generally way too impressed by big numerical values, so I deliberately left out all lengths from the booklet in order to lessen the focus on them.

G.N. - What does the title of the album and this concept (if there’s just one throughout the whole record) refer to?

A. Tolonen– I don't want to give too thorough an answer to the meanings of titles, themes, concepts, etc. in Nest's music. Even though there is such a meaning for me, I want the listeners to form their own opinions, use their imagination and think of meanings they find enjoyable. I also do this with all the music I listen to. I think it's great fun, so I encourage it with Nest too. Nevertheless, I can give you some more or less clandestine hints. First of all, I always use names that have a ring to them, that I think sound good when spoken aloud. Since this is music, the sound aspect is important to me. The titles are also often like hints themselves. They rarely disclose the full meaning behind the ideas I have. This time around I wanted to focus on the more brutal sides of nature. And not only on the physical struggle, but also on everything else related to survival. The aspects of life, death, stealth, evasion, and those sort of things. Nevertheless, keep in mind the album is not solely based on the brutal sides either. Use yer imagination, folks!

G.N. - Another strong point in favour of «Trail of the Unwary» is the richer and more developed sound of keyboards and synths, and the use of a variety of other sounds. Have you used a different equipment or is it the same featured on «Woodsmoke»?

A. Tolonen– Thank ye. I'm very pleased with the new synth sounds and the general soundscape. On this new album I programmed all the synth sounds myself, so I could get the exact sounds I wanted. I love tweaking these kinds of things with the computer, and this is also one of the reasons why it took me so long to make the new album. This also brought along one peculiar side-effect, using sounds not found in any real keyboard will make attempting live performances... shall we say "interesting". The equipment I used to make the new album is basically the same. The instruments and software are still the same, but I upgraded my computer. This didn't really change the situation much except for allowing me to use more simultaneous real-time effects than before. I have been studying mixing, mastering etc. by myself for the last couple of years so I'd wager that has had a more profound effect on the improvements in the general soundscape. I think knowhow is more important than the quality of equipment, and guerrilla tactics can take you far. One can do amazing things with even almost the cheapest stuff if he knows what he is doing. I'm not saying I'm a master or anything of the sort, and I have plenty of areas where I need improvement, but I'm in a good enough situation when it comes to equipment.

G.N.- Which folk instruments have been used on the album, besides Kantele and Lapland drums? Is their sound real or synth-provided (for example, the didgeridoo-like sound in «Claw and Fang»)?

A. Tolonen– The traditional instruments we have used are the Kantele and the Lapland drum. The kantele is the core of Nest's music. It is an old Finnish instrument usually with anything between  5 to 36 strings - in Nest I use a 15 stringed one. It's quite like a zither or a horizontal harp with a very sharp, crystalline sound. The Lapland drum is a frame drum similar to the Irish Bodhran. It is traditionally played with a mallet made of reindeer bone and covered in reindeer leather. I play the Lapland drum with my hands with a technique similar to that of playing bongos. This provides more different sound alternatives, so I use it even though it's not the traditional way. It is interesting you mentioned the didgeridoo and it's possible synth origin. It is indeed a synth, and quite a good one too, eh? Nobody has ever suspected it being anything else than a real didgeridoo if I hadn't told them. So... now I'm curious. Had you gained prior knowledge it was a synth or did you come to the conclusion yourself just by listening to it? If you did just by listening to it, you're the first and only one, and I salute you. Good job and a keen ear, mon. I do play a real didgeridoo too, but I thought using a synthesized one was a nice trick, especially when people can't tell it's a synth. I love these kind of tricks, and this is certainly not the only one on the new album - or on any of Nest's albums. Good luck finding the other ones.

G.N. – In «Trail fo the Unwary», the Kantele can be heard in his ‘distorted’ form more often than before (the kind of playing used in the past on «Summer Storm» and «An Oaken Citadel»), thus giving a more powerful tone to the heavier outbursts that are placed in your songs: how did the idea of using a distorted folk instrument come to you? Why didn’t you just play an electric one?

A. Tolonen– Yep, the amount of the distorted kantele has increased somewhat. I enjoy the sound of distorted string instruments, and there is really nothing that can come close to it when conveying heaviness, brutality, etc. in sound form. Sure, I could have used an electric guitar, but where would the fun in that be? Every band and their grandmother already uses a guitar. I also like to explore  the less trodden musical paths. I like to try out new and unconventional things and see if/how they can be made to work, and trust me, most things can be made to work no matter how bizarre they may seem on paper. My kantele has a fixed piezo style pickup (a contact microphone - the same type that is used with most acoustic guitars), so it's just as easy to distort the kantele as it is distorting a normal guitar, even an electric one. There are also kanteles with magnetic pickups, and they work exactly the same way as electric guitars do, but I like to keep the undistorted sound of the kantele as close to the acoustic one as possible so I prefer the piezo pickups. With the piezo I get the best of both worlds. Good acoustic tone and it's still just as easy to distort as a guitar.

Here's another trick I like in to do in Nest. I like to use the distorted kantele and not tell people it's a kantele. Everyone, to whom I haven't told this, has assumed it's a guitar. It's also my little "gift" to people who think one can only play metal with a guitar. The scenario works like this: Most people who think metal needs to have a guitar think that the distorted kantele in Nest is a guitar, and end up accepting parts of Nest as metal. The funny thing is that according to their own rules it shouldn't be metal, but they still think it is because they mistake the sound for a guitar, hence deceiving themselves. I love it when this happens. :) To me this also proves that it's not the instrument that makes metal. It's the sound. And why stop with a guitar? You can get a distorted metal sound from all stringed instruments - the tone depending on the instruments properties, of course. After reading this many of the people who require a guitar for metal might stop thinking of Nest as metal because they now know we use a kantele, but I still have one trick up my sleeve: We do use a guitar - a bass guitar. Sure, it's not distorted (only overdriven a bit for more warmth), but it's still a guitar, so it qualifies. Last, If you are interested, I personally don't think Nest has that much metal, but it is certain we use metal elements. I don't think of genres when making music, instead I take the things I like most from the genres I like, and cram them all into a big pile of styles.

G.N. – Have you studied music theory? How do you usually compose songs, and how do you ‘find’ the melodies for them?

A. Tolonen– I haven't studied music theory at all. I'm completely self-taught, but it's not as glamorous as it might sound. It took me a long time before I was ably to make music I can still say I like. For example, I can't listen to anything from the first 6 years I spent doodling with composing. We actually started making music together with T.S. - the guy who plays bass and does his own share of vocals in Nest. He's actually the one who taught me to make music in the first place, and I'm ever grateful for that. My composition process is quite simple. I just sit down and start playing the kantele for my own amusement. The way I do this is quite meditative. I just drift off and can play a single melody for tens of minutes. It's very relaxing. While I do this, I often stumble upon a melody, riff, idea, etc. that seems worthy to make song out of, and once that happens I go to my computer to "record" it down, usually in a way similar to how midi works. After that I start piling synths, drums, bass, etc. on top of it. I also usually think of new sections on the computer too. After the song is all thought out, I records the live instruments on top of it, and then the song is ready. I don't do any demo versions, because the demo versions are actually the ones I build on top of. This is a great way to make music. I never encounter a situation where the demo version of a song is  better than the final recorded one. Doing everything at home also has the nice benefit of being cheap - free, actually, unless you count the cost of equipment.

G.N. – How much time does it usually take to complete a Nest’s song? Was TOTU’s composing/recording process easier or more difficult than Woodsmoke’s?

A. Tolonen – It depends on the song. Some songs I can finish in 3 days, while others might take months to nail down. On 'Trail of the Unwary' I spent 2 years honing the compositions of every song, except The Mire which was one of those I finished in 3 days and after this it was already exactly as I wanted it to be. I wouldn't have had to spend 2 years on the other songs either, but I promised myself I wouldn't release anything before I was completely satisfied with it. The main reason it took so long was that I kept trying out a multitude of different arrangements for some songs, especially Moonbow and Hunt, but tweaking them also yielded improvements to the general soundscape etc., that I could use to better the other songs as well. Yet another good thing about doing everything at home is that I'm not confined by deadlines or studio budgets, so I can work for as long as I want. Composing and recording the new album was both easier and harder than Woodsmoke. Because I had made a decision not to impose any rules on the compositions, I didn't have to try and find "patterns" into which to confine any song. The hard part comes from the fact that more stuff is inevitably more effort, especially when I had so many ideas for individual songs, and I didn't want to lose any of them. This made the arrangement process quite taxing on some songs. More stuff and more complexity also means more difficulty in recording, but luckily my skills have also improved to help in this regard. It still takes "only" 6-8 hours for me to record a song. ;)

G.N.– What about your label? How did you get in contact with Corvus Records, a label from Bulgaria? Is Nest still signed with them or have you ended your collaboration after Trail of the Unwary ’s publishing?

A. Tolonen– We first had contact with Corvus when they wrote to us and said they liked our stuff and wanted to release it. They have always been supportive and enthusiastic towards Nest, and I think it's a great benefit working with a label that really likes your stuff. They actually care how the finished product turns out in an artistic respect, and not just aim for monetary gain. We have a sort of a gentleman's agreement with Corvus. Once I get an album finished we make a contract for that album and go from there. It works well and gives a nice amount of freedom to this ordeal.

G.N.– I guess that most of Nest’s listeners became aware of the band after its participation on the Nest/Agalloch split album in 2004 (which contained a tremendously great Nest song). Who was responsible for coming up with that split’s idea? How did you collaborate with John and Don (who played on «Last Vestige of Old Joy») – did they come to Finland or have you worked via Internet?

A. Tolonen – Thank ye. Yep, many people probably got to know Nest because of that split. It was also a great experience to work on. Certainly one of the most special things I've ever been part of. John of Agalloch was behind the idea. He asked Nest to participate and me to do the visual artwork. He offered to pay me, but instead of money I asked if he and any other Agalloch guys wanted to contribute to the Nest song. Money is so boring, and I though the contribution is a nice opportunity to have friends join in on Nest, to do something truly special, and also to provide something interesting for the listeners to hear. I would have gladly had John and Don come to Finland, or traveled to the U.S. myself, but alas, we did everything over the Internet and regular mail. It's just too damn convenient to send stuff via email and ye goode olde postal service - not to mention that I wouldn't have had the time nor coin to travel. This time around the contribution happened so that I recorded the song with only Nest's parts here in Finland and then sent it to John. The Agalloch guys then recorded their own stuff on top of it, and I got to hear the outcome when the vinyl was released. It was a nice surprise to hear how well their contribution turned out. I knew they would deliver high quality stuff, but it was fun not knowing just what kind of high quality stuff it was before the release was exhilarating.

G.N.– How and when did T. Saxell become involved in the project? And what about the other guests on TOTU (Laurie, Pekka, John) – what convinced you to ask them to collaborate?

A. Tolonen – T.S. Has been involved with Nest since our second release 'Hidden Stream'. He provides the bass and vocals. People often mistake that he does all the vocals, but it's actually approximately 50/50 between the two of us. He's one of my oldest friends, and it's an honor working with him. As for the other guys, I wanted to ask them to participate on Nest for the same reason I asked T.S. In the first place. They're all my friends. I've always wanted to have a group of friends participating in Nest, and since I like using vocals more like voice acting I can easily find a place for all of them in the songs. This also helps me to get a good amount of variety in the voices - it would be quite hard trying to do 5 or more different voices just by myself. I've noticed, that some people wonder why I had people from so far away taking part on the new album. The distance means nothing in modern times when you can send CD quality audio over the Internet in a matter of minutes, and as I stated already, I wanted to work with friends - no matter where they live. I see friendship as an important thing, one of the best things in life actually, and what would be a better reason to get someone involved in a musical project than that? Well, talent is also nice, but luckily all of the guys are musically talented too.

G.N.– Your Skepticism’s cover-song, your role in and your guest-appearance on a Shape of Despair record make me think that you’re an avid Doom Metal fan, aren’t you? Beyond Doom, what kind of music do you usually listen to? Do you take inspiration for Nest’s musical development from other artists’ records?

A. Tolonen – Yep. Doom is one of my favorite genres. I also listen to a lot of death and other metal, and one of my favorite "genres" is old game music especially from the Amiga days. I've never heard anything quite like it being released commercially, and that's a shame. There's plenty of excellent stuff there, and that's probably the music that has most inspired me in my musical stumblings. Nevertheless, I seldom take any direct influences from the music I listen to. What I like to do, however, is to try if I can translate the elements I like in other musical styles into Nest. For example, I like the massive monolithic feeling of doom, and I have experimented in conveying that feeling in an acoustic/ambient setting - most evident in the Skepticism cover we did. I also did the same with the rhythmic power of death metal - I mean I used the same kind of rhythmic patterns even though I didn't necessarily use them in anything that otherwise resembles death metal. This can be heard in Claw and Fang and Hunt. I love experimenting this way. Even though it's very hard to come up with anything truly original nowadays, there are still plenty of uncharted waters when it comes to combining styles, mixing and matching elements, etc.

G.N.– Back to your youth! Did you attend a graphic-related high-school? If not, how did you get involved with painting and drawing? Is your current work related in any way to music or visual art?

A. Tolonen – I attended an art school for a year after high school. I haven't attended any other specifically art oriented schools. I'm self-taught in the visual field too. I have been drawing, painting, etc. for quite a long time - ever since I was in elementary school. I can't really say what inspired me to begin. I guess I just saw nice looking pictures and wanted to do them myself. Monkey see, monkey do. I don't work in anything art related, because trying to make a living with art would be too damn hard. The most monetary I could wish for is to become famous and sell for bigger bucks after I'm dead, and naturally I'd rather not wait for that to happen. I do some graphical design at work, but most of my time there is still spent coding. I'm actually quite glad I don't do visual (or musical) stuff for a living. I fear trying to make ends meet with it might end up taking all the passion away from art. I'm happy with the situation I'm in now. I work in a totally different field to make money, and I can do art just for fun. The only obstacle now is to get enough free time, but you can't have everything.

G.N. – Are you interested in writing poetry, fables or fairytales, besides witing lyrics for your music project? Have you ever tried to do so?

A. Tolonen– Writing is one area I'm not too good at. The way I write for Nest is just about only way I can write, and I don't really even feel the urge to write otherwise. Sometimes I imagine it would be interesting to write fantasy or horror short stories, but I'm indeed not proficient enough to make it happen. Maybe after I retire or otherwise get a good amount of free time available I can revisit this idea.

G.N.– Why and when did you start playing the Kantele? Is it common in your homeland to play that instrument among young people? When did you realize that you could transform a passion into a ‘real’ music project?

A. Tolonen – If I remember correctly, I started playing the kantele sometime around 1997-98. I seldom keep track of dates, since they don't really mean all that much. Before I started playing the kantele I had already spent many years writing music with the computer. I took up the kantele because I wanted to start playing a real instrument. I didn't want to play a guitar, bass, drums, keyboard, etc., at least not as my main instrument, because I thought there were already enough people playing those. I don't have anything against these instruments, but once again I wanted to do a bit of exploring. And because the kantele is a traditional Finnish instrument it had a nice sense of history and mysticism to it. Even though the instrument is traditionally Finnish, not many people play it here. It was even in danger of being almost completely forgotten less than a hundred years ago, but then dedicated people took upon themselves to revive its meaning in Finnish music. The most important person is probably Martti Pokela who is responsible for the resurrection of the kantele into modern times, the concert kantele, which is a kantele with 30+ strings and mechanisms to change their pitch on the fly, etc. There are still not too many people playing it here, but at least it's gaining popularity once again. An amusing thing is that I have two friends who also play the kantele, Pekka a.k.a. Kuuraparta who has a band called Nostatus, and Virva Holtiton who has a band called Poropetra. We sometimes joke about us three being the Kantele scene in Finland. Of course we're not and there are many other kantele players too, but I find the notion funny.

G.N. – We’d like to thank you for the time spent in answering; wishes you the best luck for your next musical endeavors!

A. Tolonen – Thank ye for this interview. All the best to you and your 'zine. Keep your nuts hidden.

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