TURISAS – Interview with violinist Olli Vänskä
By Peter Atkinson
Turisas violinist Olli Vänskä is a bit out frazzled and all apologies as he calls in from the studio in Helsinki, Finland, where the “battle metal” horde are rushing to finish work on their as-yet-untitled fourth album.
“I am calling late,” he says. “I had two interviews today. One of them I nailed right on time, this one I didn’t. I’m so sorry man. It’s a little crazy here.”
With just days to go before Turisas were to grab their warpaint, kilts and pelts and leave for Florida to join the 70,000 Tons of Metal festival/cruise before launching a month-tour of the U.S. and Canada with Firewind and Stolen Babies that will be followed by dates in Latin America, they were definitely under the gun. That any of the sextet – including frontman/band leader Mathias Nygård, keyboardist Robert Engstrand, new drummer Jaakko Jakku, guitarist Jussi Wickström and new bassist Jesper Anastasiadis – have any time at all for prying scribes is a miracle.
But once he caught his breath, Vänskä was amiable and generous with his time, discussing the band’s evolution, music, image and frequent lineup changes; their insanely busy present schedule; their desire to set themselves apart from the rest of the folk/Viking/Pagan metal pack; and his own quite unique musical background. Our conversation follows.
Sounds like you guys have a lot on your plates right now, between recording and getting ready to tour over here?
Yeah, we are doing everything at the same time. We kind of painted ourselves in the corner with this. But that is kind of good because of our mentality, we would be polishing the details until the end of time. But even our self-imposed deadline kind of fell apart early on because we were supposed to start initial recording in the late summer or so and we didn’t actually start until the fall, like October, so we probably will not finish before we leave.
But all is good. Mathias is doing his vocals and everything else with the basic tracks is done. We have been doing some orchestration work. I think they did strings today. On Sunday [Jan. 20], they are doing some horns and stuff like that and next week we will finalize what we can before we have to take our mojitos on the ferry for the cruise (laughs). We will finish some synthesizers there as well when we are on the cruise.
The basic plan is to finish what we have left to record in February so we can get into the mixing stage. We have a schedule for all that and we are intending to keep that so we can have the album out in May. We are still aiming at May for the release.
You really expect to get work done on the 70,000 Tons of Metal Cruise?
There’s a lot of free time on the cruise, so we’ll see what we can do there. It’s easier said than done, once we get out on the boat we may just want to sit by the pool and drink, and play our sets when the time comes. But, yes, we do intend to get some work done, I guess we’ll just see how it goes (laughs). We’ll do as much as we possibly can here before we go, so hopefully we’ll get a lot done here and not have to worry so much about it there.
Still, it should be a nice break from winter in Finland?
Oh yeah, it’s like minus 20 Celsius here today. But it’s all right. We’ve been spending most of our time in the studio. But I’m looking forward to the cruise, definitely, because once we get to North America, it will probably be just as cold there as it is here in some places. We are starting in Florida and then going up the East Coast, so every stop should be a little bit colder than the one before until we get up into Canada. And then it will be like being home (laughs).
What was the thinking behind doing the tour now, instead of waiting a couple months when the album release was closer?
We knew that we were going to release the album this spring and there was a gap where we knew we could do a U.S. tour. Earlier years we were really bad about scheduling things in a smart way. We’ve had like one year between tours in the U.S. and we know how important it is to be there. We thought that we’d do some groundwork for the actual album release tour and a little bit of testing the waters to be able to reap whatever we sowed last year on Paganfest, which was really good and I’m glad it went well. We thought that this was a good place to return.
We will be doing some shows here and there in Europe as well and going to Israel for the first time and doing a festival in Belgium or something like that and then have the album release in May and do the summer festivals and then probably come back to tour in the states next fall. So it’s all part of a master plan.
It’s definitely a good way to remind folks you’re still around, people’s attention spans being what they are these days.
Absolutely. That was kind of the main idea behind it. We wanted to step up the pace with the album, the last two coming three years after the one before it, and you know how the industry is these days. But even though it’s only been two years since Stand Up And Fight, we don’t see that we are rushing anything.
We are just trying to keep the heat that we’ve already built so we don’t have to start back at the level we began at when the last album came out. You want start where you finished off, so yeah, we want to get the name out there and get people excited about the new album before it comes out.
This bill is a bit different that what you’ve come over with before – last time with Paganfest, before that more of a black metal thing with Cradle of Filth and Nachtmystium. This one is a real mixed bag of styles.
Paganfest was great, but that folk/Viking/Pagan/whatever shit – not shit, that’s the wrong word, but you know what I mean, there’s just so many genres there – everything that comes from Finland people just brand as folk metal, so that’s established, even if it’s not entirely accurate. The idea for this was to broaden the scope of the whole horizon in a way that shows there’s something more to what we do and get away from the idea that if you’re a folk metal band you should only tour with folk metal bands or if you’re a death metal band you should only tour with death metal bands.
As long as there is some kind of touching point between the bands and people can feel that there is something interesting there, it should work. If we went out with some really technical math-metal band, it might be a bit weird, but Firewind is kind of traditional power metal that is very anthemic, which much of our music is. And Stolen Babies are bit avant garde, they have a folk side to them. So there is some common ground there.
I think the variety of the bill is not a weakness, it’s a good thing. There are these insane package shows that have like five death metal bands in a row, each one more brutal than the rest. Have you been to any of those? How do you like it?
I have and sometimes the mix of band is fine – like when I saw Carcass, Pig Destroyer, 1349, Suffocation and Rotten Sound in Baltimore a few years back. But sometimes, yeah, it can be like beaten with a baseball bat for five hours.
I guess it would be hard to go as a headliner for something like that, unless you are Slayer or someone like that, where people will be there for you. But the more heterogenic it is, the better, because when everything is essentially the same, the more it hits you and you become numb by the time the headliner comes on.
You’re able to headline in the states now, are you surprised people have been as receptive as they have to you here?
Yeah. I think we’ve done really well. Almost all of the tours we’ve ever done – we toured with Dragonforce back in 2009 when the Guitar Hero thing was going on, Cradle of Filth – I like to go with a different headliner and play with a very weird crowd. It’s very rewarding to see them turned on by what you’re doing, heating up the audience. America has been really good for us, I hope to keep up the pace there.
Everyone wants to break in the states. It’s one of the markets where lots of people want to have some kind of success because it’s such a big country and it has such tradition. You have to eat a lot of shit though, but if you are a good act, play good shows, have a good stage show, you can break out of the pack, and you can make your name. And it seems quite democratic, the most interesting and entertaining acts will prevail, I guess.
That’s how it should be, but it doesn’t always work that way.
Well, that’s the music business for you (laughs). Some things never change.
You’ve got a couple new band members with you now, how are things working out with them in the studio and as you prepare to play live?
We have been rehearsing over the past week and we had this intense period and they both did really well. They both did their own parts for the new album and are really tight, good playing, musical guys. Both are really good singers and it’s really good to have those guys with us.
With the previous guys, there’s no bad blood whatsoever, it’s just the touring commitments were hard for them. I’m not promising anything at this point anymore, I don’t want us to be seen as a revolving door band or anything like that, but we do like to keep very busy and we like to tour a lot, this is a demanding band to be a part of. But so far neither of them has run away screaming (laughs). The hard part is coming up, we will be leaving at the end of January and coming back almost at the end of March.
With the other guys [former drummer Tuomas "Tude" Lehtonen and bassist Jukka-Pekka Miettinen], it was more family demands. There’s regular stuff that comes, family stuff, and you really have to weigh the commitment. Who can take the time off, and who can invest all that they have in being a musician? There’s nothing better than that, if you can do it. But if you have a wife or a girlfriend or children, that decision is a lot harder.
I don’t want you to give too much away, but what can you say about that new album?
We’ve evolved with the sound with all of the albums, so far. I guess there’s a reaction and counter-reaction in everything we do, it’s like that with everything you do as a artist. I think we took that Broadway Battle Metal theme (laughs) kind of far with the last album, so we took the tempo up a bit this time, didn’t do such polished stuff. It’s a little bit less orchestration and bit more punk kind of a feeling.
I think it sounds pretty fresh. There’s probably going to be a lot of people who will be like “What?” when they hear it, but there’s a lot of the original sound there as well. It’s a logical evolution, I’d say.
I don’t want to do the same album over and over again. I want that when you come out with new stuff, people will react. It shouldn’t be like putting on a pair of comfortable old shoes, it should be like changing from sneakers to combat boots.
Speaking of that, when you do the 70,000 Tons of Metal shows out in the middle of Caribbean, will it be in your war paint and battle gear?
Oh yeah. It would feel really weird for me to do what we do in shorts and a T-shirt, or anything other than what we usually wear. Even for something like that. It just doesn’t feel too good. What we wear, our costumes if you will, really are almost part of the music. They help us take it to another place. It’s like if you see a good play or a good movie, you have a feeling like you are taken somewhere else.
None of us are any role-playing nerds or anything like that, no offense to any role-playing nerds out there (laughs), and we’re not running around waving swords or anything like that when we play. It’s not really meant to be theatrical in the sense that we’re acting out parts. I think a band has to look like itself and represent its music, and if we’re considered “battle metal,” then we want to look the part.
You come from a classical music family [his father is conductor, clarinetist and composer Osmo Vänskä, who currently is music director with the Minnesota Orchestra] and, given that you play violin, I’m guessing that you have a classical music background. How did you come to be a part of the band, and were you really into metal before joining up or is it something you had to learn an appreciation for as you went along?
I had never played in a metal band before. I started at the age of 5 playing classical violin. It’s not something that you plan ahead, “when I’m 21, I’m going to join a metal band.” But I have that background, there are a lot of dirty secrets there (laughs). I did like Yngwie Malmsteen and the Guitar Hero metal wanker thing. I listened to Pantera and the Metallicas and Megadeths of the mid-90s.
It was really weird, I started playing with the band in 2003, I did guest violins on the first album. And there is a big festival in Finland called the Tuska Metal Festival, and I had been there four or five times. But that next summer we played there on one of the big stages, and that was one of those moments, like “What happened?” To see the reaction from the crowd to the music we were playing was, for lack of a better term, life altering.
I’d done jazz; theater music; very free; improvisational, cross-genre, very artsy dance collaborations; all weird stuff. That took me to a lot of different waters. I never wanted to be an orchestra musician, myself. And this is about as far from that as you can get (laughs).
Do you have other projects going on outside the band where you are able to explore some of these other types of music, or is it pretty much all Turisas now?
Turisas is the main thing, obviously. But I’m doing guest violins every now and then. In December, I played for one or two things that were not metal. Some old pals of mine sometimes do things like Leonard Cohen night, if you know him, the singer, and that was like with five singers and a semi-acoustic band, ensemble playing. That was really fun and a nice variety of arrangements.
I like to do that and stuff like if a friend’s band is playing and they’re like, “Do you want to join us for this wedding gig?” I’m always up for it. You do a bit of traditional music and then you do a bit of Elvis. A party set. And that’s also what keeps it fresh. It never hurts for a musician to know how to play a variety of styles.