Jens Johansson, at the first glance, is not so well-known name in popular music world. Why? Because he’s just a piano player, a keyboardist – but, as such, has been playing in many of very well-known metal bands. He plays still – in STRATOVARIUS – and works solo. So the more interesting is to talk to a man, who, to a certain extent, hides in the shade, and, at the same time is in the eye of a storm.
– You’re a keyboard player…
– …So, in your eyes, what’s the keyboards’ role in a guitar-based heavy metal band?
Back in the Eighties most of the bands were only guitar-based but many modern bands have keyboards also, like NIGHTWISH and SONATA ARCTICA, and that do more melodic power metal bands. I think, that’s one thing that changes in metal and now here are death metal bands with keyboard players too. Pretty changed, isn’t it?
– Well, don’t keyboards add some melodic line?
Yes, actually. Some harmonic things just add a little bit of color. But, of course, guitars are pretty dominant as well as the drums in basic heavy metal.
– It’s all from Seventies, I think, because in the Eighties many metal bands used keyboards in some bombastic way, not as proper instruments for soloing. All from DEEP PURPLE and this like, yes?
Exactly. I saw a lot of that as well, of course, but, back in the Eighties, what I was doing I was the only one playing solos, I guess. I don’t think there was any other keyboard player doing it then. But it started getting better again in the Nineties, in ’91, with bands like DREAM THEATER that used to do things like keyboard solo. I think, it’s good.
– What’s not good, I think, is that too many bands now have DREAM THEATER for a blueprint not trying to create something their own.
You mean, not good for DREAM THEATER? (Laughs.) I guess, they like DREAM THEATER and it’s always like that. I don’t like it so much either, but, I guess, they’re free to do it and I’m free not to listen to it, basically. Of course, it’s not so good although some of them do something new, like the band MESHUGGA, a very good band that make something completely new.
– What about your involvement in DREAM THEATER? Some time ago news had it that you were going to join them.
Yes, but it was a bit complicated situation there. Basically, it was pretty clear that I was going to join them but they changed their minds as they wanted to have a wider selection of people to pick from. Then I said I don’t care for that type of bullshit. But that was a long time ago, like ’94. It’s as simple as that, it was all silly, I thought, it was a bit strange situation. It was when Kevin Moore had actually left the band so, I think, there was a bit of stress, they didn’t know what to do. A strange situation for them – one of the members that actually formed the band, he leaves right before the tour, that’s what he did. There was a lot of pressure. But since, they had quite good keyboard player anyway – they’re the band that always had good keyboard players, so whatever happened was the best.
– For you, who was an inspiration to become a rock keyboard player?
First of all, Jon Lord, then I listened to the bands like RAINBOW with Don Airey, the best soloist of all. Then it was fun getting to Eddie Jobson, who I used to be an ardent fan of, he was in a band called UK.
– What about his playing in ROXY MUSIC and JETHRO TULL?
I suppose, with ROXY MUSIC and JETHRO TULL he didn’t guide so much. He is a very good composer as well and with UK, I think, he’d come to the rock situation where he got to do the most right thing.
– If you mention UK… You played with Allan Holdsworth – how did it come about?
It’s a long story. I guess, we met him at the gig, talking after that and, of course, as usual, nothing happened for many years but finally me and my brother put some songs together and we sent them to see what he thought, and Allan said he would be glad to play on it. It’s always like that, calling people, talking to people…
– Alex Masi told me that Allan’s a genius. Do you agree?
Yes, he is. It was a very big honour, that was great, working with him. He’s very humble and very nice experienced.
– You played many of the RAINBOW songs. Which parts are more interesting – Don Airey’s, Tony Carey’s or Dave Rosenthal’s?
I always liked Don Airey best of all their players, he was my favourite, for sure. It’s the choice of sounds and general feel.
– Maybe, it’s because he’s more rock oriented?
Maybe. Tony Carey was more pop oriented and Rosenthal was such classically trained that he had no so clear rock identity, I guess. I like Don the best off all the three.
– I’m not going to ask you about your classical training that’s quite covered but tell me: how, you think, does classical music idiom exist in hard rock?
I guess, it’s due to the fact that hard rock childhood days were in the Seventies, and in the Seventies there was a lot of experimentation, there was a lot of things going on, there was a lot of bands doing things like that, experimenting with classical music, mixing it with rock, making rock fusion, jazz rock fusion, folk music. That was a wonderful mix of that stuff because it wasn’t completely commercial, industry thing at that point. And some guys, like Ritchie Blackmore, took hold on more of this stuff for baroque and classical influence and put it in his band that was influential on people in Europe.
– So should this classical influence be continued now, or should musicians use other genres – more folk music, world music?
Because I grew up with classically influenced rock, on RAINBOW and stuff like that, it would be more difficult for me to do that, and because I’m old and my brain is solidified. But a lot of band do that, like Nordic folk that’s played by many Finnish bands. Folk music can’t do so much combined with metal in specific. It’s really difficult to conform but there are really nice young people doing it for a couple of years. If it’s possible to do, I’ll try for myself to think of it.
– How can you explain this Scandinavian invasion on rock scene?
It’s so hard to explain but I think, maybe it’s because of such more countries. In those small countries you need one band that do things first and then one day other people seem to realize that it’s possible to do that and they start practicing and playing on after one band showing the way. In Finland it’s always been like that, as you can see now other bands doing familiar things – maybe just because they were following someone. That’s a combination of being in a small country and having somebody doing it first. There’s been a lot of good music since ABBA came because a lot of young people in the Seventies and Eighties realized that it’s possible to make it on international market, so we saw a lot more bands – we see ROXETTE, we see other things.
– We talk Scandinavian now, so what about Yngwie Malmsteen? How it was, playing with him?
A fun. We were young and it was exciting time. Of course, there was some things problematic, like the financial things. But generally it was quite favourable, quite confident because it’s a nice experience and there was a lot of good music.
– But many say that on personal level it was about big egos and things like that.
I never had a problem like that, the problem was like a chaos with the financial thing. It’s always been the problem with every band he had, he commanded to deal with money, basically. Some people tried to talk to him for money end, for money reasons but mentally I never had a problem with these egos, it was musical things, I always had a good respect for his decisions in that band. There were never any musical fights, the only thing we always came back to was that money matters. Now he lost three fifths of his new band, Jorn Lande, John Macaluso and Mats [Olausson, who didn’t actually leave – DME] – they’d left, as I know, for the same reason.
– So is it still RISING FORCE or just Malmsteen and players who help him?
I don’t know, it must be somewhere in-between. About the things he did ever further he did very very good for that goal. If a lot of people come to see and listen to the singer too he’ll have to realize that it’s not very clever to change him in a band all the time. He should take care of it, not only for financial thing.
– Off all the RISING FORCE singers, who do you rate the best?
Ummm… It’s hard to say. I’d say the best singer’s either Jeff Soto or Joe Lynn Turner, maybe. They’re all very good in their own way.
– On personal level?
On personal level, Jeff Soto, because it was like the first time in a band and everybody was so happy, I have a lots of good memories from that band’s days.
– A little off-topic question. I don’t know whether you were there at the time, but how did Barriemore Barlow of JETHRO TULL appear in Malmsteen’s band?
It was Yngwie’s manager at the time. He’s from the same city as the guys from TULL, he even played the keyboards for TULL for like a week in the old days, like in ’68. He was also road managing and things like that so that’s basically where we got him, that led to finding Barriemore.
– In one of the interviews you said that Malmsteen made you aware of Uli Jon Roth. What did you mean?
I think, I was aware of him, but Yngwie had all the records and we used to sit and listen to that stuff and got effected. I meant just the fact that he had all the records that we would listen to in our spare time sometimes – that’s what’s important.
– How did you get in touch with Ritchie Blackmore?
It’s him who got in touch with me through a roadie before he got in a studio, I think, that’s how it happened.
– BLACKMORE’S NIGHT is a very different style from what Ritchie did before. How do you feel about this turn in his career?
It’s whatever makes him happy. I like this music, it’s like melodic metal but without a metal, basically. He’s very happy with that he’s found what he was looking for when he was doing a lot classically, baroque influenced music in the Seventies and Eighties and he’s happy. That’s what important – to make music that you’re happy with. Maybe, it’s not as selling as if he made rock but then he would be unhappy.
– You were involved in DEEP PURPLE tribute album and played on every track. So it was basic tracks laid down before with singers and guitarists coming after or you worked with all of them?
No, we did drums and guitars and bass and the organ just in a couple of days and then the other guys put their stuff on, basically, that’s how it worked.
– What was the best song on that album? Not PURPLE song, I mean, but rendition, delivery.
Let me think… I don’t remember which song it was but it was one song that Paul Gilbert did. [“Maybe I’m A Leo” – DME] That’s one I like the best.
– But at the time you met all the singers?
No, no, no! We just did the first tracks and then sent the tapes off to the different singers that we contacted. We didn’t work in the same studio.
– Then who are your dream team? Who are the musicians that you’d love to play with?
Let’s see… Uli Roth on guita-a-ar, Russel Allen the singer from SYMPHONY X, on vocals, Terry Bozzio, my favourite, on the drums, and maybe Marcel Jacob on the bass – that’s the dream team. I don’t know who will take keyboards but if it wouldn’t be me it’s OK. (Laughs.)
– What about Ginger Baker?
I wouldn’t put him in a rock band because I worked with him and I know that he can’t be a guy, it was like always complaining about the stuff. I think, he hardly would work that much for the band like that if he was going to make some work.
– Were you a fan of CREAM, BLIND FAITH, BAKER-GURVITZ ARMY? Or blues is not your cup of tea?
Really, no, not so much. Maybe I was a little too young, as I think, I only got involved with stuff like ’73-’74-’75, I was a DEEP PURPLE fan.
– Where did you meet Baker?
It was together with Jonas Hellborg, he was a friend of Jonas.
– Your work with Ronnie Dio. Many say that Ronnie tries to get into every note by every player on his records. Is it true?
I wouldn’t say it’s completely like that, a little bit. It’s still OK, I trust him with that stuff so it’s not a problem really.
– At the time of you working with him he seemed to have gotten rid of the keyboard dominance.
In a sense, you can tell also that from his later stuff, he was looking for more different, like guitar-based sound.
– Have you heard his latest release, “Magica“?
– What can you say about this return to keybord sound?
I think, it’s a good record. You know, I support all of his doings because I know very well, definitely, what he’s trying to sound like, what he’s really looking for. I think it’s good.
– Is there a temptation for you to do a pure piano album as Rick Wakeman did?
I think, I did something like that. Wakeman wasn’t so much influential, unfortunately.
– What do you try to accomplish with you solo projects and the projects you do with your brother?
Basically, it means to get some of the material out that we wrote, it’s a channel for the songs that we have done. Nothing more important.
– But is it more interesting for you to have a bigger hand in writing and producing rather than in band situation?
If you have a band, especially a band like STRATOVARIUS, Timo Tolkki had written so many other songs before so he really knows what’s right for that band, he knows what to do very well but it’s actually hard anyway, to write in a style that fits the band. I wouldn’t talk for others that it’s easy to write other songs for STRATOVARIUS, for sure. And producing – he knows that very well too, he knows exactly how to do it, how to get the sound, how to do other things, so I trust him completely. But with other things it’s just an opportunity to do something which is not confined to STRATOVARIUS, it doesn’t have to sound like STRATOVARIUS, it’s about structures or what concerns solos.
– What you’re going to do now, when STRATOVARIUS are going to have a little rest?
I’m going to make another project with my brother. In a month we go and record that and after a CD is out, I’ll have a vacation. We want Joe Lynn Turner to sing on that so we have to ask him if he’ll sing a couple of songs.
– So as you play with STRATOVARIUS for five years now, it’s more interesting for you than any other involvements.
Yeah, maybe, you can say that. It’s fun when everybody gets along very well, also on the road and it’s up to the situation where there’s no drugs or in vain people. It’s much much better than lot of other things I’ve been involved in, that’s easy on mind. I don’t have to deal with fights all the time, broken things, tour accidents and drinking. I like it much better.