ENSIFERUM BASSIST SAMI HINKKA: “WE JUST MAKE MUSIC THAT SOUNDS GOOD TO US.”
With a new album, From Afar, in stores now, and a U.S. tour just about a month away, now seemed like a perfect time for a chat with bassist/lyricist Sami Hinka. New MetalSucks correspondent Joseph Strombladder got on the phone with the pagan metaller to discuss the process of writing the band’s music and lyrics, the differences between metal fans in the U.S. and abroad, making music videos, and more. Full transcript after the jump.
I’m fine, thank you. How are you?
I’m pretty good. This is actually my first interview for MetalSucks.
Are you familiar with the blog at all?
I might have checked it out, but to be honest, I’ve checked out hundreds of websites these last few weeks.
I understand completely.
If I check it out now, I’ll remember it.
Alright. I hope you like it. It’s actually a very funny website.
I promise I’ll check it out later today.
Fantastic. You guys aren’t playing America for the next month at least. The next big gig that you’re getting ready for is Hell Flame Festival, yes?
Yeah, we have a European tour first, then we head back to North America.
Alright. What are some of the differences between touring in Europe and touring in North America for a band such as yourself? You guys just played America on the Summer Slaughter Tour. I saw you.
Splendid. That was a very good tour, by the way. I really enjoyed that. Personally I don’t think there is so much of a difference between touring Europe or North America. The touring is basically the same. It’s very nice to tour in North America because everybody speaks English. [laughs]
On the site that we’ve been talking about some of the differences between the way metal musicians sort of approach the music between European musicians, let’s say, and American musicians. A lot of American bands are very jazz and blues based, but Ensiferum is folk based. Have you talked with other members of Ensiferum, or members of European or American bands, about the differences between metal overseas compared to here? Do you think it’s difficult to bridge that gap with the audiences?
Whoa, another difficult question.
I’m full of difficult questions. You better get used to it.
[Laughs] I don’t think that they’re so far away from each other. If it’s good music, than it’s good music. Personally, I don’t care what country bands come from. I don’t know, someone else might have a stronger opinion about this one, but personally I don’t see much of a difference between metal in Europe and North America.
Is there a difference in the crowds? I know that in Europe moshing is less common than it is in America…
It depends on the audience. There are very crazy audiences in Europe. That’s another difficult question again. I thought about this for the last few days because I’ve done a hundred interviews, but we seem to have very good audiences wherever we go. The end of last year we were in India for one gig. There was a big circle pit going on, and people were chanting with us. It was insane, because I really didn’t expect our music would work so well there. I don’t know. Sorry for being so boring, but I don’t see the big differences between crowds.
It’s an important opinion to hear. Some people think the crowds are very different.
Yeah. I saw an interview with Dimmu Borgir where they were talking about how different they felt the audiences were. But let’s talk about you guys. You have a new album that just came out in America, From Afar…
And you guys just released the music video to the internets.
Some of my friends and I were talking about it. It’s very conceptual. A lot of American music videos, especially from metal bands, usually have the band playing with a light show. There usually isn’t a story telling element at all, but you guys did take a very narrative approach to the music video, and I liked that. Whose idea was that? How did that happen?
Thank you. That’s something that we have all agreed on since day one – if we ever make a music video, there’s not going to be any playing in it because I would find it very stupid to play back stuff in front of a camera. I’m not very comfortable with that stuff and neither is anyone else in the band. A video that we did from the previous album, there was only me and Markus in that video, and we were the dead bodies lying on the ground for one second. It would be nice to do a very great video with a big budget and story. Maybe someday.
The video looked like it had a decent budget. There were some cool special effects. There was the guy burning the forest.
Oh yeah, that’s true. We’re getting closer and closer.
What country was all that video production done in? Were there American animators working on the computer graphics?
I think it was a Finnish company.
Fantastic. It’s good to see the European nations rising to challenge Hollywood and MTV and all that crap.
[Laughs] Don’t be so harsh!
Alright, I won’t be so harsh. That’s right, I am working for an American website after all. Could you tell me something about the plot that you picked for the video? It didn’t follow the lyrics exactly to the song, and it seemed related to some folklore or mythology, but nothing I could trace. I have no idea where zombie Vikings came from.
[Laughs] Neither do I. I have no idea where that came from. We started talking about the video, and we choose the company that asked what the lyrics were about. Because I wrote the lyrics, I sent the guy a few ideas that I had in my mind, because the lyrics are inspired by a dream I once had.[The director] had some of his own ideas like the zombie Vikings. That’s how it turned out. It had some good moments. We’re getting there.
You’re not completely satisfied?
I am satisfied because we were in a budget, and the schedule was pure hell. It would have been very nice to sit down, do a first version, sit down and make some changes. I am very satisfied with this.
I’m not surprised that your production values are getting bigger. The single “One More Magic Potion” from your last album, Victory Songs was a big hit in Finland, yes?
Yeah, it was a number 1 single for awhile. But Finland is a small country. It’s pretty easy to get on charts for awhile.
Are you worried about following that up with From Afar? It seems very similar to Victory Songs, except I don’t hear a song that seems so self-consciously verse/chorus/verse, sing-along friendly as “One More Magic Potion” was. “One More Magic Potion” was extremely full of hooks and the really memorable chanting chorus line. I didn’t quite hear all those elements put together the same way on From Afar. Was that a conscious decision or was that the way the writing process turned out?
That’s just the way it turned it. Everyone is aware that we don’t want to do the same album over and over again. We’re not the type of band to check out the charts and say “Okay, people seem to like that song, so let’s make more songs like it.” We just make music that sounds good to us. I think that’s very important. The first album, I don’t think anyone has ever heard, so all those songs are made with that principle: make music that you like. I think that’s something that every band should stick with. Be honest to yourself.
I think that’s something most people can agree to. On the first album, you weren’t yet a member of the band.
Yes. I’ve been a member since the Dragonheads EP.
Since then, you’ve taken on the primary lyric writing duties…
Yeah, that’s true.
I was wondering where you draw inspiration from in lyrics and how do you tie them into the music?
Usually the first inspiration comes from real life stuff – like from the news, relationships, or a drinking session with friends [laughs]. Anything can [provide] the first spark. Usually when we’re writing music, I ask Markus [Toivonen, guitars] what’s up, and what’s the feeling of the song? What does the song mean to everyone? And then I try to make some sort of story out of it. Of course we take music seriously, but we’re not preaching anything. We don’t have any political or religious statement.
The lyrics do seem to draw from some folkloric or mythological background, so you’re sort of riding the wave of those storytellers that came before you. How does that figure in? Do you worry about representing Finnish mythology abroad, where some listeners will only first become familiar with the mythology through your music?
Of course I think about it, and I read Kalevala a ton of times. I like to read a lot anyway. I read a few books on every tour. I think it’s interesting to learn about things. If someone finds inspiration from Nordic heritage or mythology after they listen to our music, I think that’s very cool. For example, I know some kids have to study Swedish also because Finland used to be under Swedish power a long time ago. So there is a remaining law that people also have to study Swedish. Nobody really likes it, but because Vintersorg sings in Swedish, I know a shit load of kids that study Swedish. They want to know what the [Vintersorg] lyrics mean, so they learn Swedish much better. I think that’s very cool, when something positive comes from music.
Well, you have to remember that after Victory Songs was released, but before From Afar came out, we did almost two-hundred gigs. So we had time to write that new album.
To what would you attribute the new found efficiency? Is this just the best lineup Ensiferum has ever had in terms of working together or was there some sort of renewed work ethic? What’s your secret to pumping out great albums quickly and doing two-hundred gigs while you’re doing that?
I have no idea. Markus is the founder of the band. He’s the heart and soul of the music. He usually comes out with great melodies and riffs. We arrange them and turn them into complete songs together. I don’t know. Before we hit the studio, we were afraid that we didn’t have material for a real album.Then we did demos and realized that we had eighty minutes of material.
I was about to say that the album was pretty long. You’ve got two songs that are about ten minutes.
We have two almost complete songs for the next album.
We have a shit load of ideas already [laughs]. I was actually teasing Markus, “We have to book the studio at the end of next year,” but he wasn’t really into it yet [laughs].
He wants to take a break.
You guys are going to have at least a healthy touring cycle for From Afar before that break?
Yes. We’re doing a European tour and then we’re coming back to the U.S. in November.
When you come back to America, obviously the fans will have enough time to digest From Afar and know all the lyrics and stuff. What can they expect from the tour? What can they expect from seeing Ensiferum on this tour supporting From Afar?
Bigger, better, louder metal than before. It’s a very good situation for us because when the first song came out, it came out a few days before our tour ended. We started the European tour before the album was released, so this is a very nice situation for us. The album is out, now we’re touring. That’s the normal situation. Last time, something got fucked up and we started the tour months before the album was released. It’s going to be a very good tour anyway, because we’re touring with Hypocrisy, and they’re releasing an album, also. They’re a band we listened to when we were kids, so it’s unbelievable. It’s going to be huge.
So you’re excited to be touring with a really luminary metal musician like Peter Tägtgren?
Yes, of course! I met Peter a few weeks ago. It was the last gig we played in Finland, and he was playing there with his other band, Pain. He seemed to be a very nice guy. That’s what I heard about the whole Hypocrisy band – that they’re nice guys. It’s going to be a very good tour.