INTERVIEW: ENSIFERUM – Sami Hinkka; Helsinki 2020

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With the approach of Ensiferum‘s upcoming sea-themed album, Thalassic, not far away on the horizon, Musicalypse was able to arrange a chat with bassist/songwriter Sami Hinkka, who had plenty to tell us about the album’s influences and the tales from the seas.

 

To get us started, how are these quarantined times treating you and the band?
They’re making things difficult. We used the beginning of the year to make the album and we had almost twenty festivals lined up, but naturally everything was cancelled. That sucks, no gigs, and also financially-speaking and on a personal level. The band is a company, we have a lot of bills to pay.

But I don’t want to sound like a whiner, so something good was that we’ve already started composing the next album, so good things will also come from this. People are coming up with creative ideas because they have to come out of their comfort zone.

The last interview I did with you guys was with Pete [Lindroos] and I had teased him a bit that the inclusion of rough clean vocals and accordions might make Ensiferum start to sound like Alestorm. He laughed and assured me that Ensiferum would never sound like Alestorm… yet here you are at sea! How did you decide on a nautically themed album?
[laughs] During the Two Paths promo cycle, almost every journalist asked if it was a theme album and it really started to piss me off; [I was] saying that we really can’t make one based on the way we compose. It’s very slow and when we have enough songs for an album, then we hit the studio. So in my mind, I always thought we can’t do a theme album. It really was pissing me off as a lyrics-writer and composer, why would we set up barriers? What I did then, I took all the raw ideas that we had, put them in my Dropbox or something, and went for a walk – I like to walk a lot – and really tried to focus on the atmosphere of the melody or riff, not the usual analysis of the theory aspect, with cord progression from this to that, but how could this melody be better. Should we adjust the tempo and what kind of riff there would be. I threw it all away and tried to focus on the atmosphere of every part and Helsinki is a nice city. If I go for long walks, it’s easy to end up next to the sea, so this atmosphere hit me quite early, that maybe we could make this into a theme. Naturally, when we compose the way we do, the theme has to be quite vague. You can’t usually have, you know, Julius Caesar and make a concept album out of it because you need to think of every song, every part. You need to know the story, where it begins and where it ends, but if you think of a theme that’s quite vague, it counts as a theme album [laughter]. So we did! I don’t know if it’ll continue this way, but we proved ourselves wrong and it’s a good feeling to acknowledge you’ve been wrong. As I see it, it’s part of growing up.

Very cool! Do you think that releasing a concept album with Metal de Facto had any influence on your willingness to write with a theme?
I’ve thought about this and I think it gave a bit of bravery. That was set in stone, that the whole band was based on a theme album. So it gave us confidence that we could pull it off with Ensiferum. It wasn’t intentional, but in retrospect yeah, I think it had something to do with it.

You’ve covered a lot of these nautical themes such as the piratey-sounding “Rum, Women, Victory”-
It’s not about pirates, I have to say.

Really? I would’ve thought pirates or perhaps Vikings…
Nope! It’s about the British Royal Navy. Until the 1970s, they had a daily rum dose for the navy. But when they started working with computers and more technology, they realized that they can’t have the guys being a little bit tipsy, so they stopped. My dad always used to say about alcohol, that it makes your reflexes slower but gives you courage. For me, it was something really cool to think about, the sea battles and the life of navy soldiers at that time. Of course in Hollywood films, pirates have been so romanticised, like Pirates of the Caribbean, which is a cool series, but I can’t say that being a pirate was really that cool.

So that was the idea for that song. When people started saying, “Yeah, it’s a pirate song,” I was like, “Fuck no!” I didn’t even think about it that way. I had the idea for the song already in my head and then I wrote the lyrics. I never thought that someone might interpret it as a pirate song. Of course, as art, it’s free for all to make to their own interpretations, so I don’t really care if people think it’s a pirate song.

It’s probably the rum that creates that association, especially thanks to the Pirates of the Caribbean series, but a lot of people maybe don’t realize that rum was actually just the most common drink among seafarers in general.
Yeah, that was the thing back before they had lonkero [laughter].

Okay, so back to the question then, you referenced the British Royal Navy, the Greek story of Andromeda, and of course the loss of the sampo from the Kalevala, so you’ve got a really wide variety of sea tales from all over. How did you decide which stories you wanted to do songs about?
It was actually quite sad, I had many more ideas for the lyrics than we had songs, so many ideas were left out. There was a Baltic Sea pirate I had a book about. However, the lyrics need to fit the feeling of the song. Many people nowadays still label us as a “Viking metal” band, and it’s okay, we’re a Nordic band and we have a heroic theme and how we look and the stories and melodies, but it’s just a fraction of the truth.

I feel like Turisas had a bit of that same issue, that people wanted to label them “Viking metal” and take pictures of them with swords, when they had more to say than just Viking stories. 
Yeah, they made a lot of good music, but The Varangian Way was there at the right time and really underlined them as a Viking band because it was a themed album. If people find you through that, it can be very hard to for them to accept that the band is singing about different topics. It’s a good and bad thing if you get stuck in a certain theme. Of course the band needs an image, or brand – an even worse word – but it’s a fact. Most people don’t have time to follow what happens to a band or all the ideology or whatever. For them it’s just a couple of cool songs and that’s it. They build the image around that. If the interview or album or image doesn’t fit the idea they had in mind, the band is selling out.

Now, of course everyone is asking about this, but we naturally need to know about your new keyboardist, Pekka Montin. The biggest change I noticed, apart from the lack of accordion, was the addition of the dedicated clean vocalist. How did you find him?
Netta Skog played accordion, but it’s a digital accordion so it’s exactly the same as having a keyboard. When she left, the four of us… we’ve been together for years. We took a time out and thought, we don’t actually need a fifth member to pull off the shows, like the cycle of Two Paths. We’ll keep doing what we do because we get along so well together and at some point, we started thinking about if we should get a fifth member and why, if we get one. The fifth member should actually bring something to the band, that was the consensus among us. We can do guitars, vocals, choirs, and we can arrange keyboards, we can arrange orchestrations with Mikko Mustanen. So if we got a fifth member, we don’t need someone to just play keyboard tracks, it wouldn’t make any sense. So this member’s going to bring some element into our music that we need to really boost our music to a different level. We thought we could do clean vocals because Jari [Mäenpää, Wintersun], the original singer, was and still is an excellent singer. So we thought that this could be the thing.

So we had an announcement on our home page and Facebook that we were searching for a new member who could do clean vocals and play keyboards. We got a few hundred applications from around the world, super good musicians, and Pekka was one of those who answered. It was a nice perk that he was from Finland, even though that was not a requirement.

It does help, logistically, to have someone nearby.
Exactly, but it was really cool that we were not narrowing it down, that they didn’t need to come from Finland. The world is smaller these days. You can have conference calls and be in contact with people all the time, all around the planet. There are periods when you compose and record something but it’s not really that big of an issue anymore, and we use English all the time as our working language.

Anyways, Pekka sent us an application and he has a very wide musical horizon, he’s into progressive stuff and all kinds of weird stuff that I don’t know about, and sees music more as an art form and not just like, “Yeah, I’m just into Slayer, fuck everything else!” [laughter]. That kind of person rarely brings anything game-changing to the band. When we listened to his first clips, he was singing Helloween and Manowar and we were like, fuck yeah, this guy is on the right track, so to speak. He came in for a couple of rehearsals, we told him to learn a few songs and hang out and talk with us, to see how he was as a person. We’ve [the band] been together for 15 years, we have our own family. The tours aren’t just about playing shows, you have to like the people that you’re touring with. I’ve heard horror stories about big bands that just meet on stage and that’s it. That’s like… aye-aye-aye, that’s no good.

So Pekka is a very calm and analytical person and got along with everybody very well, so we invited him for a couple rehearsals and he came to a session where we were composing and arranging some songs from Thalassic and we got some demos with voice and he could try some keyboard stuff. That was before he was officially a member and it went really well. He also wanted to join the band [laughs]. He could have said no, what a bunch of old hobo idiots [laughter], I don’t want to have anything to do with them, but that was not the case. So here we are!

He joined the band when we were still composing, so he influenced a bit in the vocal lines and keyboards, but in the next album we’ll be able to utilize his expertise and ideas much more, so we’re really looking forward to the future.

Well, you more or less answered the next four questions right there, the last being if he had any input on Thalassic. Moving on then, let’s talk about the songs themselves! Most of the songs, from what I can tell, are based on existing tales. A lot of your past music has referenced the Kalevala or other Viking-y themes, but I can’t recall any albums that focused so strongly on existing stories, except maybe the previous Kalevala references. Have I missed any references or was this a new thing?
That’s true. On the previous albums, every song was mainly influenced by real life. Of course there were songs that were inspired by folk tales or movies or legends and myths, but on this album, the starting point of each song was that there needs to be something… I can’t say real, but there needed to be something it referred to.

One cool song is… I can’t say it’s my favorite, but one of them, is “Run from the Crushing Tide.” The story of this one is from an old French coastal legend about were young lovers living on different islands and they could only meet on the seabed when there was a low tide. The girl’s dad didn’t approve of this and he used his authority to send the young man to a monastery, but he escaped and they met again on the seabed. The dad then made a deal or contract with demons and then there was the crushing tide and then young lovers died, drowning there, and according to legend, the two islands were thereafter always separated. The tides never went all the way down again. So that was a really romantic, cool story. I remember when I told the lyrics to the guys when we were making demos and Pete was like, “Do you really think you want me to shout “a boy and a girl” da-da-da, are you kidding me?” [laughter] and I was like, “Yeah, it’s going to be awesome and epic!”

I also noticed the backing sound was huge and cinematic. Did you do anything different this time around?
No, it was made the same way, pretty much, that we’ve done since 2009 with the From Afar album. That was the first time we used orchestrations. What was different was the direction. On From Afar, we didn’t even know how our music would handle the orchestral arrangements. If you listen to a symphonic orchestra, it already fills the whole audio spectrum, from the low end to the high. What happened on the From Afar album was that it was way too full. There are beautiful elements – harmonies, melodies – that you can’t hear. So we’ve learned our lesson and on every album since then, we’ve tried to decrease the number of tracks and we’ve worked with Mikko Mustanen and he also knows better. He hears the first demos that we send him and he starts to look at the orchestra, what elements should be here and there, and he knows that this needs more harmony or this will be a big choir. So the cooperation is much more seamless these days and everybody knows the direction that we’re going. On Thalassic, everybody knew that there were parts where we don’t need orchestrations at all, but there were parts where we knew that here we need it and here you [Mikko] can give it all you’ve got. Sometimes a few violinists doing their thing is enough, you don’t need all the other stuff. So it’s an ongoing process, live and learn.

Then, Jens Bogren, who mixed it, did such a good job mixing the album. He mixed it in Sweden and it was the first time ever that no one was there. It was just sending files back and forth. We sent, I think, one list of comments and that was it. It was so easy, he understood what the key element of each part was. He didn’t even try to have everything up to 11, so as a mixer he did a really good job of the whole thing. Janne Joutsenniemi, who recorded and produced the album, was there when we started recording the demos, so he was helping us already with the pre-production and gave us opinions on things. So it’s good to have a fresh pair of ears when making music. There’s a danger that you become deaf to your own ideas.

Well the learning process definitely shows because it sounded so crystal clear and almost like a beautiful movie score at times, so hats off to you all. That said, From Afar is one of my maybe top-10 favorite albums, so I’ve never noticed anything wrong with the sound. 
Nightwish has done instrumental versions of their albums where the orchestrations are raised up more. For the From Afar album, that would be fantastic because people would find so many cool details that Mikko Mustanen made there. Now it’s just not possible to hear it because you need to hear the drums and guitars and vocals. If everything is on 11, you can’t really hear anything, so you need to make choices. But let’s see! I’m sure Mikko has all the tracks, so someday we might make it.

How then, do “Midsummer Magic” and “Cold Northland” fit in with the concept? By name alone they feel more like Nordic/Finnish songs, regarding midsummer and Väinämöinen [from the Kalevala], so how do they tie in to the theme? 
“Midsummer Magic” is actually the only song that really would more fit the theme of “sea and water in general” [laughs]. One of the most legendary Finnish old folks’ midsummer magic tales is that if you looked in a well, lake, or any water (or the sea! See, it’s there! [laughs]) you can see your future spouse. So it vaguely kind of fit the theme [laughter], but you know, the idea of juhannus – midsummer – drinking and having a bonfire by the lake… The song was so cheerful, a drinking song, the lyrics needed to be jolly. It could have been something like going nude or… umm… kill the tribe… or whatever [laughter]. It needed to have a jolly topic.

“Cold Northland” is something that we’ve actually been working at for quite a long time. When I told [the others] about the theme idea, Mahi [Markus Toivonen, guitar], he had a very strong idea about this song, that it would be the third part of the Väinämöinen saga, after “Old Man” and “Little Dreamer,” also known as Väinämöinen I and II. There’s something very final in this song. It was obvious at an early point that it would be the last song of the album. We even played around with the idea that it might be the first song on the album. That would’ve been fucking cool!

Ooh, risky!
Yes, but then you have to think about the drama of the whole album. Most people nowadays don’t consume music that way anymore. It’s kind of sad, because there is usually a point and a certain order. It takes you on a trip.

I guess that’s why we music journalists need to stay relevant. We need to make sure people listen to the whole album and get everything they can from it [laughter].
Abso-fucking-lutely! I couldn’t agree with you more.

But yeah, so Mahi had mentioned this and I was like, okay, it has to be something Väinämöinen, so I started digging into the Kalevala again. It was something that hit me quite fast and I was like okay, there’s the final feeling in the song. It’s like the end of the movie, so I said, “How about the last poem of the Kalevala, when Väinämöinen leaves… with a boat.” He promises to come back when people need him. This poem refers to Christianity coming to Finland and Väinämöinen represents the old beliefs, old habits, old traditions, they were leaving. I love that it ends with him saying something like, “I’ll be back when you need me.” It’s got a really cool feeling when you think about it, and when you think about the world today – I don’t want to go into politics or whatever – but if you think about nowadays, people are more aware and are digging into their own roots also. We’re all human beings, hairless monkeys, but there’s also something beautiful that people want to understand, the history of where they were born or where they live now. Some people say it will make people nationalistic in a bad way or make you hate others, but I think the total opposite. I think if you know your roots, you appreciate, you understand, and you respect others much more, because you understand they come from another background.

We all walk a different path.
Exactly! I think it only increases understanding.

Again, Pete mentioned last time that you guys didn’t do a cover, more or less because nothing had really struck you as something you would feel like doing at the time. I’m curious now how you picked a cover of The Lollipops?
Yeah, it’s originally by The Lollipops, but in Finland everybody knows the song because a legendary rock ‘n’ roll band, The Hurriganes, made a cover of it.

Ohhh, that explains a lot! That even explains how I know it, because when I listened to the original, it wasn’t the version I knew. 
It’s still playing on the radio [in Finland]. Everybody knows the song. Many people in Finland probably think it’s a Hurriganes song.

The idea is always for us to make something that’s a bit of a parody. Labels always want [covers]. I understand, like in Japan, you need to have something very special and amazing. So it might be a lot of fun, but it almost might be a bit of a burden. This time, it was a lot of fun to make this one. We were wondering what kind of song we could [laughs] cover this time. We had one more idea and we recorded drums already for it, but there was no time to make good vocals and good guitars, so we said we’d save it for the next album. I hope it shows that we believe in quality over quantity.

Everybody knows the song in Finland and since we now had a good clean vocalist in the band, let’s update this legendary song into 2020 [laughs]. We didn’t want to make a joke out of it because we’re not a joke band, per se. Of course we can have fun and fool around with music. So how can we respect the original but still make it sound like heavy metal in 2020 and that’s how you get this mid-tempo Manowar-ish version of it. We had some harsh vocals in there but it just didn’t feel good; we tried the choirs, but no, it really doesn’t suit the song. You can only think of what suits the song, you don’t want to include elements because you have to, you think of the song and what’s good for that.

It turned out to be quite good and one funny detail is that the drums, guitars, and bass were recorded in one take at the same time, so there’s really like a live background to the song.

Your other bonus track is “Merille lähtevä,” which means something like “seabound.” Are there any interesting nuggets on it, because I certainly ht tear familiar melodies. 
I did not know, but there is actually a song with this title and many people have asked if it’s a cover and I kept thinking, “No, what the fuck? It’s our own song!” [laughs]

It’s a medley with part of each song from the album and the lyrics, the spoken words, are from the Kanteletar. It’s another national book from Finland. I was working on lyrics for the song and I suggested that instead of singing it, how about we just have cool poems there. Then I went to my bookshelf and got the Kanteletar – we’d already used the Kalevala in other songs – so I thought, let’s see what the Kanteletar has to offer and it was there. In the names of the poems, it was there: “Merille Lähtevä.” That’s perfectly the theme of the album. I played the rolls of demos that me and Mahi recorded with just two guitars and thought, okay, it fits perfectly. The length, everything! I’m not superstitious or anything, but it was just the right thing.

We’re down to my last question now, so do you guys have any special plans for your stream or any other news to share?
We’re having our streamed gig on the day of the album release, so July 10th, so it will be an Ensiferum studio-live [show]. We’ll play obviously some new songs, some old songs, some rare songs that the hardcore fans who have seen us many times would like to hear, and it’s the first time we’re going to officially with Pekka, so it’s going to be a lot of fun. It’s quite weird for us, since the interaction with the fans, the mosh pits and stagediving, drinking and singing along, it’s a big part of the show. Part of the reason we keep doing it is because we have the greatest fans in the world. So we’ll take some breaks, answer some questions, and in the end we’ll have a long chat with the whole band. Let’s see what happens!

So you’re putting Pekka really to the test with a strange first show [laughs]?
Exactly [laughs]. Of course, when you have a real live show, people are in the audience, a bit drunk or the adrenaline is flowing. Nobody is a machine and nobody plays everything perfectly, but when people are watching the screen, they focus, so we need to really focus on playing well and singing well… [laughs] but I’m sure it’ll go well.

That’s it for my questions. Anything else worth talking about that I didn’t ask about?
I suppose not, I think we’ve covered pretty much everything.

Thanks for doing this!
Thank you, it was a pleasure!

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