Wednesday, July 31, 2013

Interview with Sami Hinkka of Ensiferum, Part One

When the Paganfest America Part IV tour came to Chicago on April 13, I interviewed the lyricists for the three main bands. After speaking with Heri Joensen of Týr and Joris Boghtdrincker of Heidevolk, I had a long talk with Sami Hinkka of Ensiferum. So long a talk, in fact, that I missed Heidevolk’s entire set and Týr’s first few songs. This is the danger when two bass players obsessed with mythology get together without supervision.

Sami Hinkka during our interview on the Ensiferum tour bus

Since 2001, Finland’s Ensiferum has released five full-length recordings that incorporate traditional folk instruments into contemporary metal music. Founding member Markus Toivonen has called the group’s music “heroic folk metal.” Much of Ensiferum’s lyrical content is related to the Kalevala, the Finnish national epic, but some material also incorporates imagery from Norse mythology. I’ve seen the band three times in Chicago, and each show has been more energetic than the last. These are some wild kilt-wearing dudes (and one dudette)!

Sami joined the band in 2004 and has appeared on the albums Victory Songs, From Afar and Unsung Heroes. In addition to playing bass, he’s the band’s primary lyricist and co-writes much of the music. He’s also a grand raconteur. The official interview lasted nearly an hour, but we continued talking long after I switched off the audio recorder. I’ve edited the interview down to a manageable length and cut out much of our talk about performing and recording with electric bass. This would likely be fascinating for other bass players, but it doesn’t fit so well with the Norse myth theme of this blog.

After I introduced myself to Sami and told him about my dual career as a Norse mythologist and professional musician, he told me about his experiences playing the string bass.

SH – I just bought my first upright bass a little over a year ago.

KS – Was that the blue thing you played on the new DVD?

SH – Yeah, yeah, yeah. Ha! I had a weird project with Henri from Finntroll and Moonsorrow – keyboard player, accordion player and whatever – and, actually, the ex-bass player of Ensiferum, Jukki. We are all good friends. It’s a small country, small genre. Everybody is friends together. There was this Spinefarm [Records] by Sea. It was like a cruise outside Finland, and a bunch of bands played there.

Dapper Sami Hinkka plays electric upright
bass for dancers on a cruise ship in 2012

I got this crazy idea. Maybe we should do like a lounge jazz version of classical metal songs with tuxedos on. I knew Henri’s a genius. I can call him and ask him, “Can you come here within an hour?” and he can do anything, because he’s master of his instrument. Jukki’s a great singer and always up to all crazy stuff. We did a few rehearsals, and I had this electric upright bass. It was pretty cool, but Henri has a real upright bass, because they use that on Finntroll stuff. I was like, “Ay! I have to get one.”

KS – Isn’t his upright made out of bones and leather?

SH – Ha! Actually, I think it’s just wood. Sorry to break the illusion. Ha!

The cover of Ensiferum's Victory Songs

KS – On Victory Songs, your first album with the band, most of the songs are basically on heroic fantasy subjects. However, you wrote “Ahti” about the Finnish water-god, and in “One More Magic Potion,” you refer to Väinämöinen without naming him – simply asking “Who can shape a kantele from a pike’s jaw?” Was it you personally who brought Finnish mythology to the group?

SH – Yeah. That was me. Hmm. I really would like to know where it all came from.

KS – Was that something you were interested in before you joined the band?

SH – Yes, and – to be honest – the band got me more into it. I was a big fan of old Amorphis, Tales from the Thousand Lakes. That got me interested in Kalevala and Nordic heritage. When I joined the band, there was – I don’t want to say obligation, but that made me more interested about stuff. I started reading more.

I was reading some – it wasn’t Kalevala, but it was about characters of Kalevala. I thought it would be so obvious to take Väinämöinen as a character of that song. We had this song ready, “Ahti,” and this really energetic thing. Somehow, I got the idea of a really raging sea, and I was like, “Of course! It has to be a god of the sea in this song.” That’s where it came from.

I have to say thank you to the guys, because they are always being really open-minded to my lyrics. I don’t think they ever said anything like, “No, we can’t do that.” Maybe some words, like in “Wanderer.” I asked Mahi, because there’s a… How the #*@% do the lyrics go? Ha! “He will ride across land and time.” Yeah. I asked Mahi, “Can I put ‘he will ride ten thousand miles’ or something?” He was like, “No, we can’t use a real measurement. That sounds too modern.” I was like, “Yeah, that’s true.” So we couldn’t even argue about that.

I always consult others on lyrics. For “[One More] Magic Potion,” it refers also to “with nature, trolls and the spirits” and so forth. That’s also a tribute to Finntroll, because they’re our dear friends. The drinks that they are drinking are absinthe and this thing called Fisu. The gray thing is actually referring to Fisu. That’s something that Finntroll and us used to drink a lot. You take Fisherman’s Friend [menthol lozenges], put it in a bottle of vodka, and tutu tutu tu! Let it melt and so…

Cough Drops + Vodka = Delicious!

KS – For those of us who aren’t native Finnish speakers, can you explain the lyrics to “Pohjola”?

SH – It’s a really old poem, over a hundred years old. This again depends on what you think is old. It’s actually an old song. We had the first demo of that back in 2006. We already had a real raw version of the song for Victory Songs.

I was reading a book of different poems at home, and I saw this poem. The guy is longing for his homeland. It’s so beautiful nature, the nation is so strong – stuff like that. You have to understand also the historical context when it has been written. That’s pretty much the time when the idea of independence started to rise. At that time, people wrote a lot of that kind of stuff, and all the music that they wrote was really pompous.

KS – So it’s more nationalist Romantic than mythological.

SH – Yes. I was reading poems, and I was like, “Oh, this is so good. I want to use something out of this.” Then I remembered, we have that one song – that weird song. I listened to it, and I was reading the lyrics. I was like, “This fits the song perfectly, everything. This can’t be true!” I took a microphone. I was at home, living in an apartment, shouting. The neighbors were banging the ceiling. And I was like, “Shut up! I’m doing art, here!” Ha!

"Pohjola" poet Yrjö Koskinen (1830-1903)

I took the demo to the rehearsal room, and I played it for the guys. They were like, “Yeah, okay. Harsh vocals. This sounds good.” Then the chorus started. They were like, “Is this Finnish?” I said, “Yeah, here are the lyrics.” They said, “What the &#$%? This is a great idea!” They all liked the lyrics, pretty much. National Romantic is really something that fits Ensiferum’s theme. But the song wasn’t ready. That’s why it wasn’t on Victory Songs or From Afar. There were small details that just weren’t ready.

KS – There are texts from the Kalevala on From Afar and Unsung Heroes, but “Twilight Tavern” mentions Valhalla, valkyries and the Rainbow Bridge from Norse mythology. How do you relate to the Norse tradition as a Finlander? Do you feel that it’s part of your culture, or do you feel that it’s a foreign thing that you adopt?

SH – I think there are a lot of similarities. All the folklore around the world has certain stereotyped heroes and anti-heroes. You’re wearing Thor’s hammer. We have our main god called Ukko. That leads to ukkonen, which is thunder. He also has a hammer.

Ukko, Finnish god of thunder

Finland has been under Sweden. We were part of Sweden at some point. Vikings, on the coast of Finland, were merchants and exchanged stuff. I think everything got kind of mixed up. That’s the way cultures do evolve. They get influences. In that way, I can relate to all the Nordic mythology. I think it’s so close to our national book.

That’s something I always wondered. I think it’s perfectly fine, and people should do – especially art – if you feel like something comes up naturally, just do it. I always find it really funny when there are people from totally different cultures, and they can relate to our stuff – what we write from our heritage. It’s totally fine for me. There are Viking metal bands from South America. I think that’s just awesome. There are also reggae bands from Finland, so it’s all the same. Ha!

The cover of Ensiferum's Unsung Heroes

KS – Iron Maiden has Eddie, Motörhead has the creature, and you have this bearded guy. Is he supposed to be Väinämöinen? On the new album, he has the kantele made from the jaw – but he’s also wearing a hammer. Is that supposed to be Thor’s hammer or Ukko’s hammer?

SH – I think it’s Ukko’s hammer. That’s our Ensiferum guy. You might have noticed on Iron and Victory Songs, you can see he has cowboy boots. Ha! He’s like a heroic guy.

KS – So he’s not a Kalevala character.

SH – No, no. He’s Ensiferum Dude. Ha! We just flirt with the things.

KS – I always thought the band name was pronounced en-SIF-erum, but you’re actually pronouncing it EN-sif-erum.

SH – I think that only comes from the difference of English and Finnish. In Finnish language, when you say a word, the weight is in the beginning – the accent. You have en-SIF-erum, and we would have EN-sif-erum. It’s Latin. Even though I studied Latin when I was in high school, I can’t remember all the pronunciation stuff. Ha!

To be continued in Part Two.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

This might be my favorite interview you've done yet.

"Shut up! I'm doing art, here!"

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