Auri – The Sound of Friendship

Sunday, 25th March 2018

When it comes to the metal landscape, for better or for worse, there’s a lot of times where the music contains a certain level of homogeneity. We sit in less adventurous times, but every once in a while comes along a album with a feel all to its own. Granted, the feel of Auri does not necessarily lend itself to metal from a sonic standpoint, it carries with it that spirit of adventure and sense of being genuine in tone. That’s probably somewhat due to the band being 2/3 made up of Nightwish members (Tuomas Holopainen and Troy Donockley), rounded out by Johanna Kurkela (Holopainen’s wife) on vocals.

The now-released self-titled debut of Auri has a whimsical and celestial vibe to it. It sounds like the music of fairytales, with a sense of wonder that easily ensnares the listener. Before the album’s release, we had a chance to talk to multi-instrumentalist Troy Donockley about his involvement in the group – from it’s beginnings at the turn of the decade, to where it will end up continuing along in the decade to come.

Dead Rhetoric: You are obviously quite busy with Nightwish, what drove you to begin something entirely new?

Troy Donockley: It was always there for us, since 2010. We decided back then that the three of us wanted to do something together. Tuomas [Holopainen] and I are huge fans of Johanna’s [Kurkela] voice. I had been involved in one of her albums as a guest musician, and Tuomas had written a song for her on a solo album. So the three of us realized pretty early on that we wanted to do something together, musically. It was obvious that it couldn’t be like Nightwish. But it was something we felt really strongly about, that we had to release this atmosphere we all felt, and were tuned into. I know that sounds fairly vague, but that’s truly what it was.

It was a kind of music that we wanted to get out of ourselves. We are close friends and have very similar tastes and attitudes towards life so we made our plans, but as you pointed out, Nightwish is a behemoth. We have our commitments there and we did Imaginaerum and Endless Forms Most Beautiful after our decision to work together on some music. As it turned out, fortune smiled on us with a sabbatical year. We decided to dive in and work on it.

Dead Rhetoric: Being that it was in the mixer for so long, is there a bit of relief that it’s out? Do you feel successful that you were finally able to put it all together?

Donockley: Absolutely. It’s not really a weight off the shoulders, but once we started working on it, it was preposterously intense. We cut a record deal with Nuclear Blast – they decided they wanted to take the music and promote it. It was wonderful the way that they handled it. They didn’t want to hear anything, they just believed in it. They just said to do whatever we wanted to do. We had a deadline, and we did things upside-down and topsy-turvy. We did all of the album photo shoots before we had written any music. That was to try to force us into work [laughs].

We started and we just didn’t stop. Six months of solid work. I was getting up at 4 o’clock in the morning and writing string parts out in my underpants – that sort of thing [laughs]. It was intense but it was exhilarating. We knew exactly between the three of us what we wanted, so there was never any ego rubbish or conflict/struggle. It was a wonderfully effortless process of music making with friends. It was quite something.

Dead Rhetoric: So you did the pictures for the album before writing it. Did that help to set a scene in your mind for the music?

Donockley: Kind of, yeah. We had a fairly good idea of the direction we wanted to go into with this, and the spaces we wanted to explore. But that certainly helped with the physical side of making a record. When you see time ticking away, it’s really a boot up the ass. It really was for all three of us. But the way that we worked on this album was blissful. Me in North Yorkshire and them in Finland, we were just throwing music at each other through the ether. I like to describe it as ‘cosmic tennis.’ It was a wonderful thing. It’s been a powerful and life-enhancing, solidifying thing for the three of us as well. We know that this isn’t just a side-project, we want to continue with it, and we will. We are already talking about some live shows, and we will do another album. We are contracted to do another one with Nuclear Blast, so it’s all working really good.

Dead Rhetoric: It’s funny that you mention the term ‘blissful’ in the writing of the album, because that does seem to come across in the sound of the album. Do you think that element in the recording translated over?

Donockley: Well, it certainly sounds like it did for you [laughs], which is brilliant news. I just hope that at the very least, that some other people might feel that as well, the way you just described it. It would be nice. We made this music, not selfishly…well, of course it is, because making an album is a selfish thing, but we made it because we wanted to explore together these sounds and philosophy behind music that we all share. As a by-product of that, there’s neutrality. We didn’t make it for anyone, apart from ourselves. We didn’t make it for a particular audience, hence it doesn’t sound like its rock, metal, folk, or anything. It’s an amalgam of our influences, but at the same time, it’s all very rooted in our thoughts when we first started making this music – it’s hard to describe – we knew what it was but couldn’t really put it into words.

Dead Rhetoric: There’s just the three of you involved with Auri – does it make for a clear vision of what you wanted to achieve?

Donockley: It was wonderful. Again, I think the crux of the whole Auri thing is our friendship. We understand each other perfectly well so there was no struggle in making the album. Hence the blissfulness of it all. So we are lucky in that respect. We did have some guests and friends help on a few parts, but on the whole, the vast majority was written and performed by us. As Tuomas has pointed out in some recent interviews we’ve done, is that there’s no leader, there’s no front-person, and there’s no producer either. The music drew itself from this lovely soil that we have been tending to for years, and it’s finally flowered. It truly is an expression of the three of us.

Dead Rhetoric: The band has been described as fairytale music – could you imagine it being used as the score for a film?

Donockley: Well, we would love that. We are all big film fans, and we are all big fans of film music. We’d love for that to happen. You know never know, it might. This is the wonderful thing about when music is released, especially in these kind of channels. Talking to people like you right now, this could generate one person who finds the music and then going, “Wow, this is unbelievable!” Then they say to their Uncle Steven Spielberg, “Have a listen to this, Uncle Steve!” [Laughs] You never know what’s going to happen. The train of events is one of the most exciting things about releasing music. You never know where it’s going to go out in the world.

Dead Rhetoric: Continuing on the whole fairytale angle, Auri does sound unique. It’s like you said, it’s not rock/metal/folk in particular. What do you think makes something sound magical?

Donockley: From experience, and I’m sure this applies to you in the music that formed you, all your formative musical years – the favorite albums from when you are a kid. Its color and its individuality, and most of all its freedom. You can kind of sense those things in the music. You can sense honesty in music. You can sense the personalities of the people involved to a degree. But if you put all of those things together, you come to an indefinable force, an artistic power.

I was talking to a guy just before I called you, a splendid guy over in Holland, and we were talking about how social media and the modern scene has lost so much. It’s lost so much mystery. Nowadays, everything is accounted for. Every second of the making of an album is recorded on iPhones or whatever. There’s no mystery anymore. Back in the days, when I was a kid, you’d hear a rumor that an album was going to come out and it would appear three years later. It would be a magical event, because there was no background to it. You didn’t have constant Tweets about what you were eating when you were writing a particular song, or any of that nonsense. I really feel that it’s important to try, not to move backwards at all, but try to regain the spirit of that. Try to regain some of that excitement of what it used to be like.

I see evidence and I see proof of this optimism in the resurgence of vinyl. Vinyl is becoming really popular. But the great thing about the metal scene, is that in my experience, not only is it the most open-minded of all the genres in my opinion, but the fans like to have physical products. They like to read things, and to hold physical discs. They like the whole tactile beauty of an album cover. All of that stuff that I used to thrive on as a kid. There is evidence that it’s coming back in a degree, but it’s not fast enough for me.

Let’s hope things are going to move in that general direction. I saw a kid at the local railway last weekend waiting for the train, and he had a t-shirt on, and it said, “No, I’m not on fucking Facebook.” I thought this was wonderful – he was a kid, probably 16 or something, and I thought, “Ah, there is hope” [laughs]. I think it’s natural though – when people are saturated with information from all sides, and the information is unreliable at times, people get tired of it. People want reality. They want to hold things, touch things, and get meaning from it. All of this has been stripped away, especially by social media.

Dead Rhetoric: With that same idea, when you put something out there as a musician, and it has that honesty as you mentioned before, people find it and are attracted to it.

Donockley: Absolutely. And that gets back into your original point. People can smell honesty. We were honest in making the Auri album. The response so far has been wonderful. Sure, there’s always going to be dissenting voices from people expecting something else, but that’s understandable. But you don’t have to listen to it. We just hope that there are more like-minded souls, who get exactly why we did it and feel the way we do. Now we are completely objective about the music now. I can listen to it and I’m not in it anymore. We can listen to it completely removed, in objectivity, and it’s a wonderful thing to experience. Have you heard the whole album?

Dead Rhetoric: Yes, I’ve heard the whole thing.

Donockley: Wonderful, because there’s quite a few journalists that I’ve spoken to that have only heard the first two singles, which isn’t really [optimal]. I understand that they have to put singles out, but that’s not a good example on what the album is. The whole album hangs together as a whole. I hate to say journey, because it’s such a cliché, but it really is a voyage from here to there. It starts out with “The Space Between,” which was a natural launchpad, but you go through a myriad of different colors, landscapes, and worlds before it reaches where it goes to. That’s another thing that we hope people get. We like to think that people will go all retro on it. They’ll listen to it on headphones one night in the dark.

Dead Rhetoric: That would be kind of an interesting perspective.

Donockley: You must try it. Have a nice bottle of wine and sit with headphones on and just go in there. But make sure it’s a really good bottle of wine. Nothing cheap.

Dead Rhetoric: When you are pairing music and beverages, you should be fancy about it.

Donockley: [Laughs] Yeah, you should. I also recommend that you wear a velvet smoking jacket. Get it on, get your wine out, and have a listen to the album in the dark.

Dead Rhetoric: Continuing with this whole spirit approach, how would you compare the spirit/essence of Auri with that of Nightwish?

Donockley: We don’t see it as very different from Nightwish at all. Sonically it is, for sure. We were struggling to find a label for it, as it usually happens, so I just tossed out ‘celestial metal.’ So this Polish journalist said to me, “I know what you mean about celestial metal. It’s kind of heavenly music. It has the metal attitude, but without all of the electric guitars and bass.” Metal is an attitude. The metal scene – the metal fans are open-minded, as I said before. The Italian [Nightwish] fanclub, I did an interview with them, and this was brought up and she told me that she was a fan of Dimmu Borgir as well as Ed Sheeran. That’s it right there!

So I think the Nightwish connection is inevitable because of Tuomas and I are in it, so there are those elements. But I think the spirit is the same as Nightwish. It does cover a lot of the same themes, it’s just not obviously Nightwish. It’s down to the sonic side, honestly.

Dead Rhetoric: Not being a traditional metal entity, when it comes to playing live do you envision a different approach than just driving around and doing gigs? We talked about listening to the album in the dark with a bottle of wine after all.

Donockley: What we’d do, is we would go into the venue and everyone would have headphones on and have a bottle of wine each, and everyone would sit there in the dark [laughs]! That would be our gig! But no, we do intend to do some shows. We are going to do a tour, but it’s going to be 2022 because we have the giant oil tanker of a ship called Nightwish is sailing into view, and we are going to be on that ship for another four years.

When we get off, we are going to do Auri. We are contracted for another album, so we will do another album – I’m working on new music as we speak. So we intend to go out, and we have it planned to do a tour of cathedrals and castles. Seriously. We are going to do it. Cathedrals and castles. We could do castles with Nightwish, but certainly not cathedrals, because it’s not really a venue for metal. But for Auri, could you imagine?

Dead Rhetoric: It’s crazy that you can already foresee that it’s four years from now that you have the time to do something with Auri.

Donockley: It really is. As a musician, it’s a very rare position to be in for all of us. We were talking about this the other night in rehearsals. The fact that our itinerary is full until 2022 is unheard of. It’s daunting but it’s exhilarating at the same time.

Dead Rhetoric: We have kind of been talking about this the whole time, but what makes Auri special to you, personally?

Donockley: What makes it special to me is that it’s an ideal that I’ve carried since I was a kid. I’ve always pursued integrity in music. I’ve tried to avoid anything that was cynical or crass. Auri is an absolute manifestation of that, because I have two like-minded souls working with me. Working isn’t even the word. I need a better word than working, because then it seems like it was something that was scheduled and formatted, but it really wasn’t like that. Auri to me, it’s a realization of my life’s attitude towards art. It’s a culmination of all that.

With my solo work, when I’ve done any solo music or albums, I’ve always been in solitude, because I had to be. I’m set in my ways, and I know what I like to hear. Then to meet two other people who are exactly the same way, and in absolute unison and harmony with me is something else. That’s why we are in it for the long run. That’s why Tuomas described it as an entity, not a project. That’s how we all feel. So this has been a confirmation of my dream of freedom as a musician and as a writer.

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