Drummer Erkki Virta – Sinisthra
Interviewed by: Anders Sandvall
Thanks to Roberto at Rockshots Records for setting up the interview.
Thanks to Rockshots Records for the promo pictures of the band.
Thanks to Miika Storm Photography for providing promo pictures of the band
Drummer Erkki Virta from Finnish dark metal act Sinisthra and I had a sit down where we talked about the band’s second album, the brilliant THE BROAD AND BEATEN WAY which was released at the end of May. Since I hadn’t heard the music of Sinisthra before this, I thought it was time to take a closer look at the band and its history. After the release of the first album the singer Tomi Joutsen left and joined one of the biggest Finnish metal acts Amorphis but now he’s returned to to deliver a stunning vocal performance. The band’s new record label Rockshots Records is going to re-release the debut album, LAST OF THE STORIES OF LONG PAST GLORIES, with bonus material at the end of August so if this interview makes you interested in the band’s music make sure to fetch one of the copies of the re-released debut album.
Hi, I hope you’re doing well in these pandemic times! How has COVID-19 affected the lives of the Finnish people?
Hi, we are doing reasonably well thank you. The virus has affected Finns variously, personally I don’t know anyone who’s tested positive. Finnish people have always been a bit wary of each other so social distancing is quite easy for us.
Let’s travel back in time to the beginning of the band, Sinisthra was formed back in 1999 is that correct? Who is the founder of the band and where in Finland was the band born?
Our guitarist Markku Mäkinen formed the band in Helsinki, in 1999 I think. He heard Tomi Joutsen sing on a compilation album of local bands from Lohja and asked him to join. Lohja is a small town near Helsinki and it’s the hometown of Sinisthra. Markku and Tomi are the surviving members of the original line up.
Where does the band name come from and does it have any special meaning to you?
“Sinistra” is Italian for “left”. I added the additional letter “h” as it seemed to ask for it before it could be the name of a band. The word resonated with our music and mindset at the time, and the left side was always preferable to the right side with allusions to creativity, femininity, freedom of speech, equality, tenderness. Also the left hand path, in a way. The left hand caresses, while the red right hand, covered in blood, wields the sword.
I read that before Sinisthra the band was called something else, what was original band name?
The original name was Nevergreen, which, although quite ok as a name, didn’t really have a special meaning and wasn’t very original either, as there existed several bands with the same name at the time. We knew we had to change the name before we released an album, to avoid confusion and to avoid being stuck with a name that wasn’t really relevant to us anymore.
In 2005 your debut LAST OF STORIES OF THE LONG PAST GLORIES was unleashed, what response did you get from the media and fans?
Tomi was announced as the new singer of Amorphis a few months before we released the album, so that generated some interest. Otherwise, the album might have gone by largely unnoticed. There had been a very minor buzz around us for awhile and we had gotten some favourable reviews for our demos, so the album got some nice reviews also. It wasn’t very effectively marketed though, and I have no idea how many copies were sold. We received royalties for several thousand CD’s sold after the first year, if I remember correctly.
The bio say you were called a gothic metal act which you didn’t like, why?
I’ve always found bands that claim to be “gothic metal” a bit silly, and couldn’t really see us in that category. The same goes for “progressive metal”. I hate progressive metal, and I hate gothic metal. But I love prog, and I like goth.. it’s just, when “metal” is added, things go pear-shaped in my mind. The other reason for disliking the term was because we thought we had nothing in common with the bands we were compared to, like Sentenced and whoever was around at the time. Our music might be moody and dark but it’s never only that, it’s never just depressed and brooding. There’s always hope, no matter how frail or improbable. Singing about death tends to get rather one-dimensional after awhile and wailing about how everything is lost and only darkness remains is all very dramatic and impressive but not our cup of tea thank you very much.
When the debut was out did the band perform live? If so when and where?
Yeah we played shows in Southern Finland, mostly in Helsinki and our hometown Lohja.
Your lead singer Tomi Joutsen joined Amorphis, why did he leave and was his departure expected?
Well, he didn’t leave did he? He was actually pushed there, more like, but it was never the case of “I’m leaving this band to join that band”. Our guitarist Markku suggested him to Amorphis guitarist Tomi Koivusaari, he went to an audition and in his typically modest manner, said afterwards he didn’t think he’d get the job. And I said, “Of course you’ll get the job!”, and of course he did.
What went through your mind when he decided to leave?
I was happy for him because I knew he was way too talented to spend his musical career in small-time local bands, but at the same time I was also quite devastated for selfish reasons, because I knew it meant that Sinisthra was never going to have the chance to perhaps grow a bit bigger and operate without restrictions. I distinctly remember understanding this when I stood in the crowd watching his debut gig with Amorphis and seeing how brilliant he was.
In 2008 the band recorded the EP SINISTHRA PROMO 2008. What was the aim with the EP? To send it to record labels?
Yes, the aim was to secure the funding for the second album. It didn’t work out the way we hoped and it didn’t do much good to our team spirit. In hindsight, we were a bit naïve in thinking that after having released one album, and with a well known singer in the band, releasing another album would be somehow easier.
New album THE BROAD AND BEATEN WAY
When did you start to work on material for the new album?
Quite soon after we had released the first album. We wanted to make another one because the first one hadn’t really turned out the way we wanted, and because we wanted to keep moving. We still had something in us that needed to get out.
Who writes the music and lyrics and what are the lyrics about?
Markku Mäkinen our guitarist writes the music then we collectively mutilate the compositions in rehearsals, Tomi comes up with vocal lines and after that I write the lyrics. The lyrics so far have mostly been about longing, growth, reflecting on experiences and coming to terms with loss.
A few of the songs on THE BROAD AND BEATEN WAY are also featured on the the 2008 EP, have you re-recorded and refined them in any way or did you feature them in their original shape and form?
The songs were re-recorded for the album, also refined and somewhat rearranged. The songs usually tend to evolve and flap around freely until they are restrained and recorded. When a song is recorded, the first version often sets the standard for future versions, so it can be a risky business to re-record previously recorded songs. TSUNAMI, the debut album of a Swedish band called Koma was an influence when we were finding our feet as a band. Several years later they were called Khoma and released their second album on a bigger label, featuring some re-recorded songs from the debut. There was nothing exactly wrong with the new versions but the originals were still better. The same thing happened a bit later with a band called Aeon Spoke and this time the new versions were clearly inferior to the older ones. We’ve had some comments too from the people who have heard the 2008 promo and think the original versions are the definitive ones.
The album contains only 6 tracks but clocks in around 43 minutes. What are the longest songs “Halfway to Somewhere Else” (7.43) and “Safe In the Arms of the Everlasting Now” (7.26) about?
“Halfway to Somewhere Else” is something I wrote to say sorry to several people I encountered in an unfortunately blind curve in my life and wasn’t therefore able to make the kind of commitment I maybe should have. It’s all water under the bridge now, after the album took such a ridiculously long time to materialize. “Safe In the Arms of Everlasting Now” is about an affair of two mismatched people and how its’ inevitable end plunges the other one into understanding that sometimes the presumed depth is shallow, the outer beauty isn’t a guarantee of inner beauty, and growth and comfort never walk hand in hand.
How come you chose to release one of the longest songs “Closely Guarded Distance” as the first single/video?
It’s a song that neatly encapsulates the essence of Sinisthra, it’s the strongest song on the album and it was such a ludicrous concept for a “single”. No other song could have had the kind of impact it had as a first single/ video.
Closely Guarded Distance (Official Lyric Video)
The bio states that the album is a theme/concept album, can you tell us a little bit about what the listener can expect listening to it?
I’m not keen to underline anything as the “concept” is a vague one and the advertised “based on John Milton’s Paradise Lost” is somewhat out of proportion. I should have thought about it more carefully before talking about the Milton connection for the press release. The starting point was the myth of Adam and Eve and their exile from Eden as told in Paradise Lost, as told in the Bible, and as told in numerous extra-canonical writings. In “The Conflict of Adam and Eve with Satan” Adam comes across as quite a whiny character and I started to wonder did his behaviour maybe get on Eve’s nerves eventually and what if she decided to leave Adam and take her chances on her own? It’s about letting go and going forward, finding peace with and within oneself, and finding independence. It’s not a story in a linear sense but basically it tells of a deteriorating relationship that takes its’ time to implode. It takes place in the myth but it also takes place in the Now and Here. The first song “Eterne” is where the downfall starts and the last song “Ephemeral” is what one might find at the end of a spiral, or possibly of a rainbow.
Do you think the fact of Tomi Joutsen being in Amorphis can increase Sinisthra’s fanbase?
Yes of course. If a term like “fanbase” can be applied to a band as small as Sinisthra.
The band’s maintained a solid line-up since 2005, which isn’t that common these days. What do you think you’ve done right in order to keep the band solid and strong?
We’re friends, it’s all based on friendship rather than say, individual musicianship. We all come from the same little town, although all of us don’t live there anymore. You can leave Lohja but Lohja won’t leave you. We had to change our bass player at some point as he moved too far away, but otherwise it’s been a solid line-up for ages and the thought of having to replace someone now is a horrible one.
The bio say that fans of Katatonia, Anathema, and Amorphis will like Sinisthra, is that correct? How would you like to describe what kind of music the band play?
Amorphis comes up naturally as the voice is the same, and the overall melancholy might draw comparisons to Anathema and Katatonia. I don’t know how to describe our music. It’s music in minor mode, and our first album had the subtitle of “Lovesongs in Past Tense”, so that kind of sums up the lyrical side. The musical influence mostly comes from the music of the ’70’s, although I’m not sure how apparent it is in the end. My lyrics have always been greatly influenced by what Fish wrote in Marillion.
Eterne (Official Music Video)
Do you think the band has changed musically if you compare the new album with the debut?
Not “changed” as much, maybe “grown” is a more fitting term. The debut had songs that had cumulated during the past five or so years and it included a bit of this and a bit of that, while the “new” album has more consistency and was written in a much shorter time period. Even though “new” in this case means the songs were written over ten years ago.
Most of your songs, as well as your album titles are very long, is that an accident or on purpose?
Not exactly on purpose but not entirely by accident either… I’m not interested in coming across as verbose for verbosity’s sake but it seems I’m not that good at compressing things to a shorter form. I like long and descriptive titles. I maybe went a bit over the top when we had a demo-cd called EMPTY BANALITIES ADORNED WITH DASHING ELOQUENCE but in my mind that was descriptive of what the CD contained. Then again, the new album has three songs with a one-word title!
Have you ready any reviews of THE BROAD AND BEATEN WAY yet?
Yes I have and almost every review has been more positive than we expected. Only Finnish reviewers have found it not very good for some reason. Maybe this kind of sound is still somewhat exotic outside Finland and therefore draws more praise than in our home country where everyone’s already grown used to hearing dirges like ours.
Does the band care about what critics and media have to say about your work?
Well, no. It’s our music and after the recording is released, there’s nothing we can do about how people choose to get it or like it. It’s nice to get praised in reviews, and it’s lovely when someone has clearly understood a song and felt some of the emotions we’ve tried to communicate, maybe even spotted an obscure musical or lyrical reference. But the negative reviews are amusing too, everyone’s entitled to an opinion, and our music is not the easiest to digest. To some, subtlety may come across as one-dimensional, and softness can summon up accusations along the lines of “hey this isn’t proper metal!” Which of course it isn’t, and isn’t meant to be either. The downside to getting lukewarm reactions, as we seemed to get in national press, is that less people feel the need to check our music out, and the less the people check us out, the less we sell records, and the less we get chances to release more records.
Label and management
Why did you leave Arise Records who released your debut?
We didn’t leave, they just ceased to exist. I think ours was the last album they released before going out of business.
Were you without a record deal for a long time?
Sinisthra has never had a record deal as such, if a record deal means a band is signed to a label to deliver multiple albums. We have funded our albums ourselves and then signed a master deal for the release of the album.
Rockshots Records is your new label. Are you happy with the work the label put into the band and album so far?
Yes, the communication has been good and I’m sure they are doing their best to promote the album. It’s in their interests to shift as many copies as possible. So nothing to complain about there.
Why did you choose to sign with them?
Of the offers we got, theirs had the best terms. I think we were lucky to even find someone with reasonable means who would be interested in Sinisthra.
What’s the main difference between working with Arise Records and Rockshots Records?
Non-comparable, since everything changed in th music business during the 15 years between our albums.
What’s your opinion regarding record labels in general?
I’m old-fashioned. I think record labels are needed to release and promote physical albums.
Is RR releasing the album outside Europe?
I’m not sure what “releasing outside Europe” means. The label seems to have an OK worldwide distribution but I think most records nowadays are sold from web shops. I haven’t bought new CD’s from an actual store for years, there aren’t that many record stores left in Finland anymore.
Any plans on releasing THE BROAD AND BEATEN WAY on vinyl?
Not at the moment. Before the release the label said they’d look into making a vinyl if there’s demand and the CD’s sell well enough.
Are the band members fans of the vinyl format?
I don’t know, we haven’t talked about it. I own vinyl albums but gave up my vinyl player ages ago and am not planning to get a new one. I prefer CD’s.
Is the album available to listen to on Spotify etc.?
Yes it’s available on digital platforms.
Who own the legal rights to your debut album today?
We own the rights, therefore it can be re-issued now.
I saw it was possible to pre-order the album. Were there many that took that opportunity?
I know nothing about that, it’s been out just a few months so it’s too early for sales figures, but when we announced the band has CD’s to sell too, we sold surprisingly many copies. Our copies were meant to be sold at gigs that were later cancelled, so it’s nice we could sell them online.
You and RR are going to re-release the debut album in an edition featuring four bonus tracks which will be available for purchase on August 28th. It’s already possible to pre-order it, who came up with the idea to do that?
The label asked if we had any copies left of it as people had been asking for it. I didn’t, but suggested doing a reprint of it, and now there’s going to be a limited new pressing.
What can you tell us about the four bonus tracks?
It features the complete demo CD we released before the first album, and when digging up the materials, we discovered a track called “Not For You” we had forgotten about. It was meant to be a bonus song for Japan at the time but Arise couldn’t get a license for Japan so it was never released. “To Have and To Hold” is a song from our first demo and we added that too as an afterthought.
Past present and future
Why doesn’t the band have a proper website? And your Facebook page doesn’t include much info either.
Maybe we don’t want to disclose too much information, and maybe there isn’t any information to disclose. It might also be a case of “can’t-be-fucking-bothered”. A website feels pointless if there’s not much content, and at least we update the Sinisthra Facebook and Instagram profiles now and then. We only have a limited amount of time to spare to band activities and we’d rather use that time coming up with new music than updating a website. Not that we’ve come up with new music lately. But we might.
Is it possible for bands in Finland to tour nowadays? In Sweden we are only allowed to gather a maximum of 50 people… is it frustrating to not be able to get out and meet the fans?
We have never toured and never will. But playing selected shows now and then would be nice. As for meeting fans…I like to meet and talk to people (occasionally) but in my opinion, that can get a bit embarrassing, on my part, with assumed roles of “a fan” and “an artist” if you know what I mean, with one unwillingly being in a somewhat elevated position in relation to the other. We are ordinary people (well, ordinary-ish) and like to think that those who listen and possibly appreciate our music are ordinary people too. Albeit a special kind of ordinary, if they like our music.
A few of the members are involved in other bands besides Sinisthra, how does that work when you’re about to tour or doing shows?
The bands play live shows so rarely that timetables don’t much clash.
Could you give the readers three good reasons why they should buy THE BROAD AND BEATEN WAY?
1. It’s cheaper than most other CD’s 2. It has a colourful cover 3. It’s under 45 minutes long Or, alternatively: 1. We’d like think that some of the songs on the album turned out rather nicely and might bring comfort and warmth to the listener. 2. We made an effort to make the songs sound like something that can’t be found in any given heavy metal album. 3. There’s also some heavy guitar sounds.
Unrevealed (Official Audio)
What would you like to say to those who haven’t heard the music of Sinisthra yet?
Maybe there’s a reason they haven’t heard it yet, and maybe the reason isn’t very good, and they should hear it quickly. Or maybe the reason is good, something along the lines of not-interested, and in that case it’s hardly necessary to hear it. Unless one is prepared to change one’s mind. I’m not too keen to check out new music myself, so I can’t strong emotions within the songs, and it might raise some emotions in a listener too, so maybe it is worth checking out to someone who likes to have his or her emotions raised. And if not, there’s still the heavy guitar sounds mentioned earlier.
Do you have any final words of wisdom to share with fans and readers?
I think I’m all out of words to share right now. That was a lot of questions. Feeling dizzy. Can I have glass of water please?
Well, that was all for me and Metal-Rules.com today. Thanks for taking the time making this interview, I really hope to see you guys live on stage soon.
Take care and stay healthy! Thank you!