By Carl Begai
You’d be hard pressed to argue against the importance and benefit of Finnish bashers Nightwish bringing Dutch vocalist Floor Jansen (ReVamp, ex-After Forever) on as their permanent singer in 2013. News that the band had also enlisted English uilleann pipes player and long-time collaborator Troy Donockley at the same time, however, proved to be something of a head-scratcher. Although he’d been a part of the Nightwish camp since 2007 and the Dark Passion Play album – touring with them extensively as of 2012 – the idea that a band known for symphonic metal would add such an odd element to a tried and true formula did not bode well for the future. It was one thing to have Donockley in the background to help keyboardist / mastermind Tuomas Holopainen realize his musical visions, quite another to allow the multi-instrumentalist to have serious input. Especially when Donockley’s resumé includes working with artists sich as Midge Ure, Status Quo, Mostly Autumn and Del Amitri. Any worries were unfounded, as the latest Nightwish album Endless Forms Most Beautiful and the subsequent tour present the band in their expected bombastic metal glory; Donockley has enhanced the band’s sound and show rather than diluting or altering it.
We spoke during the European leg of the Endless Forms Most Beautiful tour in December 2015 prior to one of many sold out shows, with Donockley offering some insight as to how life in the Nightwish camp is now compared to when former singer Anette Olzon – who was let go and replaced by Jansen mid-tour in 2012 – was in the spotlight.
“The tour is much better than we thought it would be, and we kind of suspected it would be that way,” Donockley admits. “We’ve worked with Floor since the famous cataclysmic American tour (laughs) so we all know each other really well now. We’re in a really unusual situation in this band; it’s freakish because we don’t fight, there’s no conflict, there’s no divison between any of us, we share everything and we have massive fun together. It didn’t used to be like that. When I first started to get involved with the band it was very compartmentalized to say the least. Everybody kind of did their separate things, but there’s a real sense of camaraderie now.”
“I’ve seen a lot of uncomfortable situations in this band, but that’s such a thing of the past now that the spirit of Nightwish is one of absolute family. I don’t want to sound trite and I don’t mean it in a figurative sense; it truly feels like we can sit and be and do anything together. There’s no heirarchy in this band. We don’t have domineering parents or tedious siblings or boring uncles (laughs). Everybody in the band is delighted to be here.”
One example of this family atmosphere is, or rather was, Donockley’s willingness to learn Finnish even though there are no language barriers in the Nightwish camp. He’s since abandoned the effort following some well meant advice.
“Finnish is a difficult language. Quite a few years ago I was talking to Tuomas’ mother and I said that I had to learn Finnish since I’m working with this band, and she said ‘Don’t even think about it.’ I didn’t even question it; that was good enough for me (laughs). Of course I can swear in Finnish and insult people, and the guys thinks it’s entertaining to give me something to say when we’re travelling on FinnAir, and in fact it’s something really insulting. They just point and laugh, but that’s the way it is. We do a lot of laughing in this band.”
That said, Donockley understands any misgivings the fans might have about the band bringing him into the fold.
“I have lots of different roles in this band, really. I don’t mean that as actual quantifiable things, but I do have a lot of input. For want of a better word – and maybe I shouldn’t describe it this way – but it was a sort of spiritual thing for us. When they came to ask me if I would joing the band they came to me with the point that it already felt like I was in Nightwish, did I want to make it official? I did feel like a member of the band anyway, so I said yes, of course.”
Donockley is on board primarily to play the uilleann pipes along with an assortment of other instruments as required, but as mentioned he hasn’t become an in-your-face update to the Nightwish sound.
“We consciously decided would be a bad thing to ‘Celtify’ every song now that I’m an official member of Nightwish. The power of an instrument like the Uilleann pipes in this kind of music is used sparingly, because that’s where the effect is at its most powerful. You can see it at the shows on this tour. When we kick in with the pipes there’s a definite lift because it’s unusual, it’s different. There’s no other metal band in the world that does it, really. There are few folk metal bands, sure, but not doing it like this. When we kick into ‘I Want My Tears Back’ the place goes bananas, but if we were to do that in every song it would become dull. I’m a serious musician and outside of Nightwish I’m doing all kinds of stuff, so as a consequence to keep me active – because I’m used to being very active on stage – we’ve expanded things and I’m playing guitar on a few songs. I’m not stepping on Emppu’s toes, but rather emulating cellos and violins. So now my input has gone beyond being The Bloke Who Plays The Pipes (laughs).”
Good thing, too. Anyone with touring experience knows the hell Donockley would have gone through if he’d been limited to performing two or three songs a night.
“I would have gone insane, I would have been bored. It’s not like that, though. Look at the setlist… I’m on 10 of the songs. And I’m doing some guitars and background vocal stuff as well.”
One point of conversation and contention that I’ve raised a few times with Tuomas Holopainen over the years is the high level of orchestral bombast that has become the Nightwish trademark. It’s done well, no question, but I’ve often thought it would be cool to hear Nightwish stripped down to the basics. Not for an acoustic outing necessarily, but the organic nature of Donockley’s pipes suggest it could work quite well with him filling any perceived gaps.
“Maybe a string quartet or a skeleton crew of backing musicians, yeah,” he agrees. “I think that’s a splendid idea. I think if we went out with a skeleton crew of three woodwinds, a string quartet and the band, it would be smooth over the edges of doing something fully acoustic that people might freak out over. It would still retain the orchestral elements of Nightwish but strip it down to a chamber band.”
To be clear, there’s nothing wrong with the current Nightwish direction. Only problem is that so many bands have adopted the symphonic metal model, the scene is saturated with uninspired artists looking to cash in.
“I think it’s something that we should get onto,” says Donockley. “We’ve got plans already for the next album – really loose plans – but some things are heading in the direction you’re talking about now. Our fans are very forgiving (laughs).”