with Bassist Sami Hinkka
@ O2 Academy Islington
18th September 2012
Interview By Rhiannon Marley
Apparently, you can’t have picnics in the park in Finland anymore. “Well, you can, but if you go by the book [of public protocol], it’s not allowed. It’s stupid! I love a drink in the sun!” claims Sami Hinkka.
How did we get talking about picnics in parks, I hear you ask? Well, we’re doing the interview outside and the sun is shining with the security guard of the O2 Islington just admonished Sami for wanting to bring his beer out to join him. Bad times!
Ensiferum’s fifth album, ‘Unsung Heroes’, fought its way to clamouring ears at the end of August.
The Finns have been busy on a European voyage to celebrate: The Bearers of the Sword 2012 tour. They’ve battled the turmoil of countless line-up changes, with a global fan-base and cult following bordering religious, and with already storming reviews, it seems Unsung Heroes is set to top their sonic saga as their best work yet. Gipsy Kings? Technology? Dressing up as Jesus? Sami bares all…
Let’s start off with Finland; being such a great and reputable place for metal bands…Why are you all so talented? Is it something in the water?!
Sami Hinkka (SH): We have such long winters; we have nothing else to do! [Laughs]
We just go to the rehearsal room and write songs! I really don’t know!
Given the strength of the music scene, what do you think it is about Ensiferum that has endured and lasted so long?
SH: We love what we do; that’s pretty much it.
Is it a renewal of ideas? Determination to better the last effort all the time?
SH: I don’t know; I wish I had a really cool answer for this! [Laughs]
This is just such a big part of our lives – the biggest thing in our lives. We’re so privileged to be able to do it.
On that note, congratulations on Unsung Heroes!
SH: Thank you very much!
Does the title refer to anyone or anything in particular? Of which Unsung Heroes are you speaking?
SH: Well, it’s always really difficult for us to find the title for an album. It just felt like the best choice, and it describes the album pretty well. When I was writing the lyrics for the song Unsung Heroes, of course I had real people from my history in mind. But the more I thought about it, the more I realised that history and the present-day are full of unsung heroes. So I changed the lyrics a bit, and now it’s a bit more general. But no names are mentioned, and none are forgotten.
Do you see heroic actions in everyone, everywhere, then?
SH: Yes, that was pretty much the idea…even the smallest things can, and will, affect the lives of many people. Even if the lady at the grocery store gives you a smile, it could save your day.
Then you might be nicer to other people, and that could save their days, too. It’s the little things.
I’m a long-time fan of the band, and I felt that in Unsung Heroes, you stripped back the folk a little and brought the metal forward. Was that a conscious decision?
SH: Yes, it was. We had a really clear picture as to what kind of sound we wanted for this album, even before we started recording demos. We learned a lot from previous sessions, especially ‘From Afar’; that kind of got out of our hands.
It was so majestic, and the amount of tracks was ridiculous. It’s just so full of details that you can’t even hear them anymore. I remember someone said that the album From Afar has so much happening in it, it sounds like a load of ice-cream trucks having a rally! [Laughs] But for this album, we wanted to focus on the key elements of each song; when there’s a strong metal part, we’ve cut down on unnecessary harmonies, but when there’s a beautiful folk part, we give room for that. When there’s a need for majestic orchestration, we cut down on the metal things, so that all the details can be heard. Many people have said that this album sounds ‘bigger’, even though it has half the tracks of From Afar.
Do you agree with some critics who’ve suggested that Unsung Heroes has qualities of a film soundtrack or score?
That wasn’t really intentional, but it just happened because of our choices.
Do you think it makes for a different listening experience for fans that have grown up with the band?
SH: Yeah, of course. But I’ve said it for years: there’s no point repeating yourself, and writing the same album over and over again. We want to evolve and try new things, and it’s not like Ensiferum’s last album. The next album will, again, be something different. Some old fans were like, “What the fuck is this shit, this is slow! Grr!” But we say, “Sorry; this is just how the songs are this time.”
You had a couple of guests on the album; how did you find the experience?
SH: They are all incredible professionals; we just come to the studio, and they do their magic.
It’s a great privilege to work with them. We had a few guest vocalists: Miss Laura Dziadulewicz from a band called Medeia. She did an excellent job on the track ‘Celestial Bond’, which is, I think, the most beautiful song we have ever made.
There’s also Ulla Bürger, who did some soprano on the last song, and Vesa-Matti Loiri, this Finnish actor/singer guy, whose voice we borrowed for the song ‘Pohjola’. Die Apokalyptischen Reiter did some German dialogue… Ok, who am I forgetting now? Golden Globes acceptance speech! [Laughs] But when you know that someone can do this stuff better than you… Like the folk instruments; of course, Markus plays some bouzouki, and that’s pretty much like guitar playing. That kind of stuff we can do ourselves, but if you have a professional guy who can play, for example, the kantale or the flute, it would be stupid to go there yourself and make it sound like crap, instead of calling in someone who knows what they’re doing.
Now… What made you cover the Gipsy Kings’ ‘Bamboleo’?!
SH: It was actually a really old idea!
We’ve been talking about it for years, that we should do a death-metal version of that.
We stayed in the studio for the first weekend [of writing Unsung Heroes]; usually, we’d go home for that weekend, or at least, some people did. But we stayed there for that weekend, just to check out the covers. We had some ideas, but nothing really grabbed us. Everything was just ‘ok’; we tried some stuff and thought, ‘this could work’. But then Markus suggested that we try Bamboleo, and we came up with these old-school metal riffs.
Then I actually posted on my Facebook: “Is there anyone who can do REALLY low growls and knows how to speak Spanish?!” and everyone was like, “…what?!” so I thought, “Ok forget it!” [Laughs] But we listened to the song a hundred times, and wrote the lyrics as they’re pronounced. Then we told Pete [Lindroos – vocalist], “Ok, there we go – do it as low and deep as you can!” On
Monday morning, when Hiili [Hiilesmaa], the recorder/producer/mixer guy, came into the studio with a coffee, we said, “You have to listen to this; we have this great thing!” And he listened to it, and said “Dude, you have to go home on weekends, this is neither good nor healthy!” [Laughs] But it turned out to be a really fun cover!
Are you going to play it later?
SH: Let’s see… It’s actually in D-tune, which makes things a bit difficult.
The funny thing is that on every night on this tour, even at the shows in Finland, there’s at least one person who shouts ‘Play Bamboleo!’ Hopefully, that’ll be you tonight – get all your friends to shout it, too! [Laughs]
It looks as though The Bearers of the Sword Tour is European for now. Are you heading further afield with it at all?
SH: Yes, of course.
We’re heading towards every continent; at least, that’s the plan. Well, Antarctica might be difficult, but let’s see… [Laughs] We’ve got a lot of plans for the end of this year and next year.
Next summer especially, is going to be insane, with festival season. We’re going to do a UK tour for two weeks as well, because on every tour we do in the UK, we only play a few shows.
For some reason, the routing is always like that, even though we’ve said we want to focus on the UK because we have a really strong and crazy fan-base here, so we’re going to see if we can make it even bigger.
For this current tour, we have a good few shows here, so we need to talk to our booking agent and management to see if next year, we can do a just-UK tour.
I’ve read about that bet you have going with the German manager of Spinefarm Records; if Unsung Heroes reaches the German top 10, he’s going to have you tattooed on his back on an upside-down cross as Jesus! Who thought that up?!
SH: [Laughs] We were just drinking one night after the first promo session, and – actually, I have the picture here!
[Sami get his phone out, scrolls through his pictures to show me one of him standing with his arms out in a crucifix-style position, looking like Jesus]
We were fooling around with a photographer while we were waiting, and just took a picture of me as Jesus! And [the German manager] saw this, and just said…
“Ok, if your album goes top 10 in Germany, I’m gonna tattoo that on an inverted cross on my back,” and I just went [shocked and intense] “OK!!!”
But it went to position 15, which is an incredible thing, but still…10…it was so close! He already had time booked in a tattoo studio as well! When Unsung Heroes went to position 3 in Finland, he was posting on Facebook: “Oh man, this is gonna hurt!!!” [Laughs] But he was man enough to say that if this happened, he was going to do it.
What would have happened if it had gone to number 1?!
SH: Oh god, I have no idea! He probably would have gotten it tattooed on his face or something… Maybe my face tattooed on his face?! [Laughs]
Is that the strangest thing anyone’s ever suggested as a result of one of your album releases?
SH: That’s probably one of the strangest things anyone’s suggested as a result of ANYONE’S album releases! [Laughs]
Something I’ve also noticed on your website, is your new Mobile Twilight Tavern idea.
Is that a recent concept you’ve come up with?
SH: No, we’ve had it for years, actually. A Finnish company started it, and it’s getting bigger and bigger.
There are really big bands like Muse getting on board, not just metal ones. But we’ve always wanted to do it. It’s kind of difficult for us, because I’m the only ‘geek’ in the band; I’m the only one who’s posting on it. But now our tour manager has started using it, because the other guys in the band are still in the dark Middle Ages; they can barely send an email out or use a cell phone! [Laughs]
Do you think it’s still important to find new ways of connecting with your fans in this technological age?
SH: Yeah, and in any way that’s really special to us. I think we have about 5000 people on the Mobile Twilight Tavern now, and there’s an inner-circle in there that’s even tighter still.
I really like the idea of breaking the illusion of the ‘rock star’; I really don’t like the mentality that musicians are something ‘out of reach’.
It’s interesting that you say the other band members are not fans of technology.
With your music being so suited to a time without gadgetry, would you swap today’s culture for a time, when there was no technology at all, or are you happy with the way things are now?
SH: I just read a book actually, about the year 17-something in Scotland, and it was a really cool thing to read. It was about 800 pages, and I was right into it. I really enjoy reading descriptions of the ‘normal living’ in that time period, with all the challenges. But nah, maybe I’m too much of a hedonist; I think I’ll stick here! [Laughs]
In that case, are you a fan of Game of Thrones and fantasy novels?
SH: Yeah, I love all that stuff, it’s terrific!
And finally Sami, if you could pick three albums to take with you to a desert island, what would they be?
SH: At the moment, I’d say Seventh Son of A Seventh Son – Iron Maiden,
and maybe some collection from Bjork; she has really good songs, but I can’t name just one album. My last one would be something for rainy days: The Gallery – Dark Tranquillity.
We should praise the 21st Century. After all, without it, we wouldn’t be able to listen to Ensiferum in quite the same way.
Catch them on their European ‘Bearers of The Sword Tour’, and check out ‘Unsung Heroes’ through Spinefarm Records, now. Looking forward to joining the battle later tonight!
In the meantime, I’m off to paint my face and saturate my drinking horn with rum…