Guitarist Sakari “Zachary” Hietala and bassist and vocalist Marko “Marco” Hietala formed the Finnish band Tarot and became pioneers of that country’s Metal scene, arguably releasing the first Metal album in Finland with their 1986 debut, Spells of Iron. They are also brothers and they have been in the scene for almost forty years.
I had the opportunity to interview Zachary and we discussed many different topics regarding the band’s long history, the many different obstacles they had to endure throughout the years and their musical evolution with each album. It was a really interesting conversation and it shows the kind of mindset behind Tarot’s consistently good output throughout the years.
I hope you enjoy it!
First and foremost, thank you for doing this, Zachary. How are things going for you during this pandemic?
This pandemic gave me great opportunity to do a lot of studio work with Kuopio Rock Academy bands more than ever before. As you may know, my day job is youth worker. That’s because all of the youth houses were closed, so I worked almost three months in the studio with amateur bands. We did also six PA training days with entire bands, doing it one band at the time and two days live streaming events as well.
It was also very fun to play Black Sabbath covers with Marko (his brother’s real name) and his son Miro in both evenings. Great shit indeed J
How much of an impact did this situation had your plans for 2020?
Not much really. If everything goes right, we open the youth houses when the schools start at August. And of course, I will continue doing my producer/coach work with Academy bands. Life goes on.
Focusing on the early days, how did you get into music?
Our father, may he rest in peace. He was a good singer and average acoustic player. He sang fairytales to Marko and me when we were kids. There were acoustic guitars around at home, so it was obvious we had to try them.
Who were the guitarists that influenced you to play guitar?
Basic shit: Mr. Iommi, Mr. Blackmore, Mr. DiMeola. Later Mr. Van Halen, Mr. Vai, Mr. Gillis, Mr Lee. The list is endless here (laughs).
What are some of your favorite albums?
Do you mean Tarot albums or in general? If it’s Tarot, it’s Suffer Our Pleasures and MMXI. If it’s somebody else’s albums, there are so many I can’t name on: Master Of Reality and Heaven And Hell by Black Sabbath. Screaming For Vengeance and Painkiller by Judas Priest. Bark At The Moon by Ozzy. Back In Black by AC/DC. Eye Of The Tiger by Survivor. Frontiers by Journey. Black Widow by In This Moment. Rammstein’s latest album. Just to name a few.
You initially founded Tarot as Purgatory with your brother Marco. You two always played music together or was that something that happened as time went on?
Yeah, shit happens! That was a joke (laughs) Seriously, we are from a little village called Tervo, which has about 2000 people, so there were not many teenagers who wanted to play metal. It was natural that we, as brothers, started to play together. We changed drummers all the time, because they were just bad players. When Pecu (Cinnari) joined the band and we moved to Kuopio, which was about 80000 people city in the early 80s, Purgatory started to sound like what Tarot eventually became.
How did you eventually landed your first record deal?
For a lot of years we did tons of warming up gigs for the Finnish top ten bands and they talk about us to record companies in Helsinki.
One day we got the call from the record company and bro (that’s what he calls Marco) went to Helsinki with our demo cassette. Rest is history J
How was the process of recording your first album, 1986’s Spell of Iron?
Young boys first time in their first ever studio experience. A lots of enthusiasm, no brains.
Everything was new and our producer went home after six hours of work or so, but we wanted to continue and in the next day he asked us how it went. We said that nine out of the ten songs were recorded.
“No fucking way;” he said, but we left those tracks. We were so on of it.
The Finnish Metal scene has certainly changed a lot from the 80s. How it was back in those days?
Everybody laughed to us in the first place. Our clothing style was too much, most of the bands that time went on stage drunken, we didn’t. We rehearsed all the time. Many said “that’s stupid, you’ll lost your feeling”. What the fuck? You’ll get the feeling if you can play great. It really was a different time.
For a lot of people, Spells of Iron is widely regarded as the first Finnish Metal album. What do you think of that album’s legacy in your country’s music scene?
Hopefully we will get the respect what we have earned by the years, but most of the new bands hardly know their own country’s metal scene history, which is a shame.
How was the tour to promote Spells of Iron?
Most of the gigs we did back then were as warming-up acts for other bands, but the feedback was great and after the second album we didn’t have to do warming or special guest gigs, only for super acts from foreign countries.
I think there was a leap of quality and production in your follow-up album, 1988’s Follow Me into Madness. What do you think were the differences between the making of that album and Spells of Iron?
We were more mentally prepared for the recording. We weren’t virgins anymore (laughs). We had an engineer who had experience doing recordings with Metal bands and he listened to us, which was most important thing. He also showed us a lot of new tecs in that time and we went for them. We loved that recording.
How do you think your playing style has changed throughout the years?
Hopefully to better (laughs). It’s natural development. To play new things and learn more while still being recognizable by your own style.
You took five years between Follow Me into Madness and To Live Forever. Why was that?
We had made a bad deal with the first record company and it took years to get rid of them. Bad years for us. We couldn’t do a new contract with anybody until the shit paper was finished.
In To Live Forever we notice a notorious change in the sound: Marco starts singing in the tone we’re most familiar with, your guitar style becomes more unique, the instrumental parts are a bit more intricate and you even added a keyboard player. Were these changes by design or it was a natural progression throughout the years?
There were so many reasons for the change that I would need to write a book here (laughs).
Let’s say five years of playing and writing with the keyboard player were enough to make the change. We practiced like mad men in those dark years and that’s why the difference between FMITM and TLF sound is so big. If we had had the opportunity to release To Live Forever in 1988, when we made the first demos, I really don’t know how we would sound today. In that five years gap we could have made two or three albums.
Plus, we’ve been thinking about getting a keyboard player from the beginning and when this guitarist, whose name I don’t want to say, vanished with our money and some equipment, we were ready to move on and take keyboards in the band.
Looking back, what do you think about this album? I personally think it is somewhat underrated in Tarot’s discography.
Underrated? I don’t think so. It’s the only one of our albums that sold more than 40000 in Japan. Our other albums aren’t even close of that.
I just love the album, it includes five years of pain and it’s almost a double album in terms of length. Great example of our music wideness.
What can you tell us about the experience of making 1995’s Stigmata?
The most difficult album we ever made. First of all, bro got his vocal problems by pneumonia and it took him more than half a year to get in the shape. When I started to record my guitar parts, we had a serious party and I fell through the glass door, broke my right hand by the broken glass and couldn’t properly play in months.
If this wasn’t enough, our mixing engineer had some fight with his wife, they fight at a phone booth and he kicked it, leg went through and it cut his Achilles tendon. So once again we had to cancel our recordings. When everything seemed to be okay to continue, our 16 track recording player went broke and we needed to wait for a spare parts for month or so.
You can feel our suffering in the album. We thought we are cursed or something…
Why do you think classic Metal bands had it somewhat easier in Europe compared to the United States in the 90s? In the United States in 1995, the scene was practically dead, but in Europe there was still interest in what classic Metal bands were offering.
We haven’t break in US, so hard to say. It’s the promised land of country music and rap/hip hop. All kinds of metal are marginal music there, in my opinion. If you sell million copies there, country stars are selling tens of millions. Metallica and Guns ‘n’ Roses are exception, but still.
I personally think that 1998’s For the Glory of Nothing was your best album. How was the process of making that album? Did you do anything differently?
It’s a great album. Surely, we did everything differently.
After the first two albums, we have had almost unlimited time to do the following albums, ‘cause we did them in our mixing engineers’ studio. We wanted to do the FTGON album in the basic way, so we practiced all the songs in the best shape and booked three weeks in the Seawolf studio at Helsinki. So we had this tight schedule and not so much money to be lazy.
We only had few days to get our instruments recorded and we wanted to left at least one week for mixing. That went actually fine and we spend a little bit extra money to mastering, what was done in LA.
That album has my favorite song of yours, Warhead. Do you remember how was that song made?
It’s bro’s song, which has Janne’s (Tolsa, the keyboard player) intro parts, I did only the arrangements with them.
Obviously, you and Marco are the primary writing force of Tarot. How is your process when writing together?
I do most of the aggressive songs and riffs while bro does progressive parts and Janne has the ability to see the whole song, so he knows how everything should sound together. Of course there are exceptions, but this is the basic way.
The three of us sit down and show our ideas, then we start putting bits and pieces together.
Marco and Zachary Hietala.
As someone who has a brother, I’m curious to know how is having your own brother in a band and making music together.
We don’t think that brotherhood much, we are just the boys in the band. We argue as much or as less like other boys. Nothing fancy there.
Actually, I have to say that we were best friends when playing, but in our personal lives we hardly saw each other. We all have our own personal friends to be with and we all wanted to spend our free time differently. There were moments of course, when we went out together to have some booze, but longevity of the band came from the fact we weren’t together all the time.
Why you guys decided to take an hiatus in 1998?
FTGON album didn’t made as great an impact as we hoped and we got frustrated. Bro wanted to do studio job in Helsinki, Janne concentrated on his own studio, I did my youth worker job and so did Tommi. He is a youth worker as well. Pecu was the only one who wanted to be on the road all the time, but we had to think that through.
Marko went to play in Sinergy, so he did only his bass player job there and didn’t have to be the front man. Good therapy for him.
What are your thoughts on 2003’s Suffer Our Pleasures?
After the few years pause, I had done demos for I Rule, Follow The Blind, with Janne’s parts of Pyre Of Gods and Bro had some demos as well.
It was the right time to activate Tarot again and in my opinion the album was super. It went on Finnish charts in top 5 and the single Undead Son was third.
It was so much fun to play again with the boys and do touring.
As a band, do you a lot of planning when it comes to making an album? Do you go “Well, with this album we’re going to do this or that” before getting into the studio?
Not really. Ok, the expectations are always high, but you have to be realist and pessimist so you don’t get disappointed (laughs).
By the time this album was released, the Finnish scene was starting to thrive. How do you think the perception of people regarding Tarot and its influence has changed throughout the years?
We have very loyalty followers and Marko’s Nightwish career has brought a lot of new follower.
They have been waiting us to activate Tarot and release new material. So it wasn’t a new start, just meeting an old favorite again.
I think Crows Fly Black was yet another solid work of yours. Do you think the band changed after coming back from that hiatus?
I don’t consider that time a hiatus. The first two albums aside, we have had few years gap between all our releases and I think it’s a good thing. Many bands release albums every year and I have to say that their level is not what fans expect. Some bands release albums every year just for the money and it stinks.
If you do albums rarely, you have time to compose and do the arrangements in peace. You can play the demos to your friends and to some unknown people to get feedback. If the feedback is bad, you have time to hone the songs to the form which is the finally the best.
After having many albums in your catalogue, what do you do to stay motivated and creative?
If you are a player of any instrument, you always make something new. You don’t need motivation. It is just the nature of the musician.
There are times, though, when your instrument doesn’t produce anything interesting and then it’s time to take a little break. After a few days or even months, you fingers start to itch and here we go again.
It has been ten years since the release of your last original album, 2010’s Gravity of Light. What do you think of that album?
It was great album, but written a bit differently than others. Marko was very busy with Nightwish by their tours and recording, so I did most of the demos for the album with Janne and some with Tommi. I composed many of the vocal parts as well, without knowing any of the lyrics or melodies, just trying to figure out what these songs should sound like as a whole.
Actually, I did demos for the first six songs on the album and the other four tracks were made with Marko. That splits the album clearly in two different worlds, but in a good way, I think. The Japan edition has an extra song, End Of Everything, which is made by Marko and Janne only. I had nothing to do with that song. Love the song anyway.
While doing research for this album, I read something about Tarot being on hold for the time being. What can you tell us about it?
Being on hold, what? I have no slightest idea of that.
What prompted you guys to rerecord Spells of Iron and release it as The Spell of Iron MMXI?
Many bands have done their firsts for different reasons. Some succeed, some do not.
Our reason was to see how our songs would sound like with this line up and if we made the album now. With this experience, this kind of composing methods, sound wise, etc. The album is fresh, like a new Tarot album made by us now. Not 20 years ago or so.
That’s why we put all the songs into pieces and started to compose them like we usually do. Me, Janne and Marko sat down and started from the riffs, how we are performing them today, not like in the 80s. All keys arrangements, vocals splits by Marko and Tommi, Pecus’ playing has changed in years, etc. It was like a new album for us.
I understand some puritans hated us for that, but fuck them! They are OUR songs, we can do what we want with them.
After almost forty years in the music business, what is your proudest achievement with Tarot?
I don’t know if the word “proud” is the correct one, but if I say so that way it was being one of the first real heavy metal bands in Finland.
There were some hard rock bands and metal bands if you say so, but in terms of a band that sounds, looks and has the attitude of a real metal band, we were one of the firsts or the first to do so.
I know you must have a ton of great stories, but do you have a particular anecdote that you find funny of your time with Tarot?
There are so many. Sadly most of them are not for under-18 years old (laughs). Ok, here’s the one. Somehow during the 90s we liked to travel naked in our tour bus during summer times. Don’t ask me why. Booze maybe?
When we needed to stop the bus for pee, we took some long willowherbs, went to road shoulder and tried to hitchhike to cars passing us. At the same time, some of us were whipped by willowherbs us who tried to hitchhike. It was so great to see the drivers and passengers’ faces when they passed us! (laughs)
Don’t tell your mama these stories…
Thank you for taking the time to do this, Zachary, and for answering all these questions. I appreciate it. Any last words for our readers? Where can we follow you on social media to stay updated?
Feet in the mud, fists in the sky!