Wednesday, August 14, 2013

Interview with Sami Hinkka of Ensiferum, Part Three

Click here for Part One and here for Part Two.

Sami Hinkka is actually very friendly in real life.
Photograph by Haste Malaise

KS – You’ve been in the band for half of its twenty-year history.

SH – Pretty much.

KS – Markus is the only one left from the first album.

SH – Yes, but he’s the founder of the band.

KS – In interviews, you’ve said that he’s the main composer.

SH – Yeah. We have total democracy in the band.

KS – Watching the DVD – which shows how the album goes from demo to finished recording – it looked like you were the musical director. You were singing people’s parts and organizing everything. Are you the one who guides the whole process?

SH – No. Like I said, we have full democracy. We kind of give Mahi certain veto options, still. We could be @$$holes and say, “Okay, let’s make an R&B album! Four of us say so!” And Markus can’t do anything, because we have democracy. Ha! We kind of leave him freedom, also, to say if it’s totally out of the question, but he never uses that. I think, the older he gets, the more crazy ideas he comes up with himself. Sometimes, even we have to say, “Are you serious?” Ha!

No, I think that’s just something that happened in the editing. Of course, I talk a lot. Ha! I might express myself more than, for example, Markus – but when he says something, he usually means it. Because I write the lyrics, I usually have stronger visions of songs. Of course, that’s something that affects how much I want to be involved.

Sami Hinkka, Petri Lindroos, Janne Parviainen, Markus Toivonen, Emmi Silvennoinen
Ensiferum at Paganfest in Chicago - April 13, 2013

KS – How do you and Markus work together? Do you just write the lyrics?

SH – No, we do a lot of stuff together. Actually, it was the 2011 tour with Finntroll. Markus bought this dulcimer you can actually see on the DVD. He bought it in Portland. We went to the back lounge, we had an acoustic guitar, and we started jamming. We were like, “Oh! That sounds so good!” The instrument itself started to inspire us. That became “Burning Leaves.” We have the very first recording of that on some cell phone or something.

We work really well together. Especially for the upcoming album, I think he has had a lot of ideas already. He comes to the rehearsal room, and he has almost a complete song. Then we start arranging it together. That’s the coolest part of writing music with this band, because everybody can get involved – even Janne. He actually has a lot of ideas, because he sees the things totally differently – because he’s a drummer. He sees all the dynamics totally differently, and that’s a really welcomed thing. Me and Markus, we see things totally differently – even from each other, sometimes.

"Hey, Pete! Do you think we should play a C chord here?"
"Yes, Sami. A thousand times yes."

There’s friction, but that’s necessary, because then you have to explain why this is a better choice then this – and you have a conversation. We never had any arguments or fights. Never. Because nobody’s an @$$hole in this band. If somebody’s not happy about something, then we talk. This is really rare. I can’t even remember any of these occasions, but that’s how we would work, if there would be. Ha!

We jam a lot. Now we have two guitars. We have ideas we have already done a few times on this tour, to jam a little bit. We have one song we put forward again. Unfortunately, there’s been a lot of stuff to do on every venue. Sometimes we have arrived late. Like today, we arrived four or five o’clock. There is not always time. When you have fifteen people on the bus, you need silence to really start working. When we get back home, I’m sure we’ll…

We have two types of rehearsals when we write music. We have one where everybody’s there, and then where there’s me and Mahi or Mahi and Pete. Usually, when it’s two guys only, it’s really slow. It’s just changing chords and twisting and turning all the pieces – more detail-focused. When we are with the whole band, then we play the whole song and analyze it in a totally different way. If we would just sit there – me and Mahi – “Oh, should I take C or A minor here?” The others are just tap tap tap, “Who cares? Let’s play!” So sometimes we just say, “Okay, maybe next Tuesday me and Mahi just go the two of us, and Wednesday we go with the whole band.”

KS – I’m amazed by your bass playing. Did you have training in music?

SH – Actually, no. I have two six-year-older big brothers. They got me into hard rock – Iron Maiden, AC/DC, Dio and stuff like that. I kind of grew up with metal. My other brother was already a really good guitar player at that time. Steve Harris was my big idol, from Iron Maiden. I asked my brother, “If I could get something, would you jam with me?” He said, “Yeah, if you get a bass.” I got my first bass. I think the very first songs I ever learned were “Iron Man” from Black Sabbath and “Comfortably Numb” from Pink Floyd and “Stairway to Heaven,” because my brother really loved that song, so he wanted to play that.

I think we can all agree that Black Sabbath's Geezer Butler is the single greatest
heavy metal bass player of all time. Please note Rainbow Bridge to Asgard at left.

Yeah, I’m self-learned. I kind of understand theory, about chords and… I don’t know the terms. I actually learned notes already twice in my life. Because I had no use for them, I forgot them. Of course, I studied music in school. That’s something I always wanted to do, to go for guitar or bass lessons. Whenever I suggested to some people, they’re like, “What the #*^%? You don’t need any classes.” “Yeah, I do. I want to learn.”

At one point, I really enjoyed – this was back in the day – I borrowed from the library these VHS tapes from different bass players, showing off their stuff. I really enjoyed that, trying to learn their technique. I even ordered from the UK, because it wasn’t available in Finland, Flea’s – from Red Hot Chili Peppers – his video, where he’s talking with River Phoenix. Ha! In between, he’s jamming with Chad Smith, who’s a great drummer. He was my second idol. It was Steve Harris and Flea. Ha! That’s where it all started from.

Note to Younger Readers: The "VHS tape" was an ancient ancestor of the
YouTube video, but the artist magically made money when you watched it. 

KS – Ensiferum’s work keeps getting more epic, with bigger instrumental forces and more types of music. The behind-the-scenes DVD is hilarious, but there’s also this very beautiful moment when the camera shows your reaction as you first hear the orchestrations of your music. I totally understand the feeling of hearing the ideas in your head become real. Do you think you’ll eventually go into composition or writing other kinds of music? It seemed like hearing the orchestral music meant so much to you.

SH – Yeah. I get goose bumps, now that I think about it, because it’s such a beautiful song.

I’m from a small town where everybody wanted to be a guitar player, so I was pretty much the only bass player. When there was a band competition in the youth house, there might be ten bands – and I play bass in seven out of them. I play a death metal gig, and then – slurp! – I drink a water and go play funk and pop. I’ve always enjoyed playing with good people. If good people gather around, something good usually comes out of it.

I hope the dude on the bottom right isn't looking up Sami's kilt.

Like Ensiferum, I think that’s the thing. I would like to say similar minded. Of course, we are – in some way – but we’re totally different kind of people. But we like each other, and that’s something really unique. That’s something I’ve always liked.

I remember, when I was a teenager, I used to have seven band rehearsals every week – two per evening, maybe. That’s something that I just loved to do. I never even thought that this could be my profession. It was just something I loved to do. Before I joined the band, I always said my dream as a musician is to make an album in a real studio and play a real festival show. That was it. I never dreamed about touring or anything like that. It was always just, if I can experience one real studio… So this is kind of overwhelming at the moment.

I already have a totally different kind of project. It’s an independent band. Post-rock sounds so cliché, but… The first album we did, I had four songs in almost fifty minutes. Really atmospheric stuff. The only distortion is in the keyboard. Beautiful singing and long parts where you just can gather the emotion. Now we’re doing the second album.

KS – You’re playing bass?

SH – Yeah. I play bass. It’s actually a really nice feeling. Jukki – the ex-bass player of Ensiferum – he plays guitar and sings. So, it’s really the freedom. You totally see things differently when you don’t have to think that I have to sing. On the first album, I was producing a lot of the vocals. I was sitting and recording. It was such a great feeling – trying to explain, “think about that and that.”

Hiili Hiilesmaa records Sami Hinkka's wicked fresh bass fills.
Please note Iron Maiden t-shirt.

That’s something I learned from studio sessions – that the good producers, at least for me, they use images. Like at the previous session, Hiili Hiilesmaa told me that – on “Last Breath,” the second chorus – he wanted to have more power in it. He said, “Imagine yourself on a cliff, and you’re shouting to the world.” A small thing, and I think there’s one word that really comes out really loud. That’s my favorite part of my own vocals on that album, because this really is so strong. The image was so strong, and it really worked for me. I don’t know – does it work for everyone? That’s something I like to use, also, if I’m producing something.

KS – I think visualization is important for a lot of musicians.

SH – Visualization, yes.

KS – Do you mainly write on acoustic guitar, or do you hear the music in your head and then sing it for people?

SH – I actually hum a lot. My girlfriend says it’s really irritating – ha! – because I don’t realize it. It just happens, and suddenly , “Oh! That was a good melody.” Then I take my phone and hum hum hum hum hum. Then I go home and take acoustic guitar. That’s how I usually do stuff.

Ensiferum plays Paganfest in Chicago - April 13, 2013

KS – So you first hear the melodies, then you figure them out on the guitar?

SH – Yes. Or sometimes I just take a guitar and fool around and something, “Oh! That could be something!” I really rarely compose with electric guitar, with all the distortion and everything. That’s something that I’ve noticed – because I use a lot of acoustic guitar – it starts to get… How to say in English? Six out of eight or three out of four at a time? Dit dit dit dit dunn, dit dit dit dit dunn.

KS – 6/8 or 3/4.

SH – Waltz things. Acoustic guitar just screams, “Play me like this!”

Sami Hinkka & Markus Toivonen in the studio, recording
Unsung Heroes with drummer Janne Parviainen (offscreen)

KS – How much on the recordings is through-composed? Is anything improvised?

SH – Especially guitars, I think they are pretty much planned. For the last album, we recorded really old-school way. The whole band was playing when we recorded drums. At least half of the bass lines are from drum sessions.

KS – So it’s actually interactive.

SH – Yes. I think there’s a really good groove, because of that, on the album. All my fills are pretty much from that session. Those are not something that I had planned in advance. That’s how I actually play live. I have no idea, if somebody comes to me – even in rehearsal – and says, “Oh, that was %*<#!&+ awesome!” I have no idea what just happened.

KS – So you do vary it.

SH – Yeah. That’s how I play. I can’t see myself ever playing so I have to know exactly what I do next. There always has to be freedom. Especially in a live situation. I would suffocate.

KS – For the orchestra music, you hire an orchestrator to write the parts. What about the folk musicians? Do they make up their own parts?

SH – Everything is pretty clear when they come to the studio. We send them demos. Of course, they are master of their own instrument, and they know how to play it and how to make it sound even better. So, of course, they bring their own spice. We take one take where they do it exactly like we had planned, and then we say, “Okay, just vary it a little bit. Play it like your instrument should be played.” That’s what I say to Markus, every time when I bring the raw demo. “You should play it like a guitar player, not as a bass player plays it.”

KS – What was that folk fiddle that was played on the DVD?

SH – Nyckelharpa. I think it’s kind of Swedish, but also western part of Finland. It has a Finnish name also – avainviulu, it’s like “key violin.” So, it’s not just Swedish. I really love the sound. It’s really folkish. We’re really happy.

So many confused.

These guys – it’s so funny, the difference between them. We were talking with Hiili, the producer, recording guy. He said it’s always so funny – because he also works with a lot of metal bands – when real musicians come to the studio, it’s like a totally different breed. They’re like – tchk tchk, pfft, whupp – and everything’s done. Metal musicians come half an hour late, “Can I have a beer first? I need a cigarette. Urgh…” Nothing happens.

Professional musicians, when they come, they don’t need any notes or anything. It’s just, “Ah, okay. It’s a D minor.” Brrt. They do their stuff. We’re really lucky to have these guys. They have been working with us for many albums already. They all say that, if we ever can do a show that they can be there also, they would. They’re all into it. That’s something I really hope we can do someday. Maybe the twentieth anniversary, maybe a DVD. That would be so awesome – to have real folk instruments and stuff like that. We’ll see.

KS – That’s basically everything I have. I’ll type it up and edit it.

SH – That’s a lot of editing. Ha!

KS – I appreciate you taking the time.

SH – No, it was a pleasure.

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