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Interview with Insomnium

After two decades of existence, Insomnium need no introduction! This time they are back with the album “Heart like a grave”, whose themes were inspired by works by Finnish poets and writers. A few days before the album's release, Metal Imperium chatted with Niilo Sevanen ...

M.I. - Only a few days for “Heart like a grave” to be released… how do you feel? 

I feel excited and confident. I know it's a good album! In the band we're all very happy with it and it seems that all people who heard the songs so far liked them a lot so I'm sure our fans will be happy and pleased. It's an Insomnium album, it still sounds like Insomnium but I'm sure there are some new things there that make it an interesting and good Insomnium album. So, I just can't wait that all the people can listen to it!

M.I. - It’s a killer album as usual!

Thank you very much!

M.I. - Musicians always believe their latest album is their best… is it so?

It's hard to say. I really like all our albums! I'm really happy and proud of all of them so it's hard to say but definitely it's a great album. I really can't put my own albums in any kind of order because I love them all but, like I said, I'm really, really happy with the album. It has ten strong songs… one of the reasons it is over an hour, it’s because we did not want to drop any of those songs out as we thought they are all good enough so they deserve to be on the album. It's a great Insomnium album!

M.I. - What’s your biggest fear when Insomnium release a new album?

Maybe for some strange reason I fear the band would break up or this would end suddenly but I don't see that happening. I think we've established our position now and we have a steady following of fans who support us so I'm not worried that they would suddenly stop liking Insomnium and nobody would anymore come to see our shows! I don't see that happening as long as we keep on doing good music… yes, that's the key of course but I'm really confident that we can do this for many years from now on. I don't know if we'll still be touring when we’re 60 but look at Aerosmith and Rolling Stones… they are still doing it so we’ll see if it happens! 

M.I. - In your Facebook page you wrote “More darkness and misery... and tales of dreams and death influenced by S. Harmaja...”. Who is S. Harmaja?

S. Harmaja is a woman poet really famous in Finland. Of course, she wrote in Finnish. She is a very respected figure. She lived and died in the 1930s so it was eighty years ago… it’s a long time ago, before the Second World War, and we play this kind of archetypal suffering poet woman figure who died young and wrote really sad and dreamy poems that have influenced other Finnish artists as well. There are actually two songs on this album that are inspired by her poems “Pale Morning Star” and “The offering”. So, the concept is to use these old Finnish lyrics, tales and poems on this album and Harmaja is one of those figures that I've used here and I liked her before and her stuff but now I really delve deeper into it and I think I read everything that I could find of her. There are a lot more poems that we could’ve used that have the perfect atmosphere for Insomnium… so, she's really a great port.

M.I. - The press release states that the band draws inspiration from some of the bleakest tales, lyrics and poems of the north. All of your lyrics, or most of them, are inspired by Finnish poets on this album… 

Yeah, that was the idea… that we try to find these old Finnish songs’ lyrics, tales, poems that are very popular in Finland. The stuff that our parents have listened to, even our grandparents or older stuff… it’s really sad music… we wanted to use that heritage and maybe open it up for the rest of the world and let them see the Finnish mentality here and what kind of themes and subjects we are singing about. Some of the songs can be clearly said that were inspired by this or that but then there are songs that are in a broader sense inspired maybe by several themes. 

M.I. - What inspired the title “Heart like a grave”?

There was this sort of competition a couple of years ago, the biggest newspaper in Finland had this competition and the people could vote for the saddest Finnish song and I think it was a great concept as it got people to vote a lot. It was very popular and the top ten was really interesting to see. We took that number one song, a really old and traditional song, not even credited to anyone, and then I wrote a lyric for our version of that story and it's the song “And Bells They Toll” on this album. So that is based on the official saddest song of Finland so this album has got to do with sadness as usual and that's why it's titled “Heart like a grave” because of the sadness surrounding it… well, there were other song titles as well that we discussed that could have been also the album title but we discussed it quite a lot but then, in the end, we thought “Heart like a grave” is the best one and it gives the right impression of the whole album, of love, the concept of the lyrics and the whole thing.
The song “Heart like a grave” is based on these themes that this famous Finnish songwriter and lyricist who lived in this same city that I'm living now. It's actually quite a small city but we had this one famous songwriter that everybody in Finland knows! He died of alcohol abuse in the 80s, he was like fifty years old when he died and had a miserable figure in the end, but he wrote amazing beautiful lyrics and “Heart like a grave” is a sort of compilation of his works or those themes that can be found from many of these lyrics. There we have this old man, old character, who's looking back at his youth and remembering those days when there was still hope in the air and things look better and still remembers his friend and they had some dreams together and then years just passed and things didn't work out the way they were supposed to and he slowly realizes that all the dreams and hopes will die and all we have a left this is old man who kind of never got to fulfill his dreams and he's just a man with a heart like a grave so that's the basically the idea of the song and the title. I would say disappointment and just feeling that there's no more hope left any more like where can you go anymore, what you'd if you don't have hope left you can say “Heart is like a grave” and that there's nothing left anymore in life… you have spent your life and if you feel that it was all for nothing, awful, then you didn't achieve anything… all your dreams just slowly drifted away so that's about losing the hope.

M.I. - So you had to adapt the lyrics to English, right? Did you do it alone?

Yeah, of course, the original stuff is infinite but we use these kind of the stories and the basic ideas that these lyrics and stories had so I did not like translate them, I didn't do that, I took the basic ideas there and then wrote a new story, new lyrics based on that kind of idea so that's what I did with nine from ten. “Valediction” is mostly Ville’s so it's his composition and his lyrics and then in the studio we realized that actually we needed more lines so I wrote three lines more that fit the story but everything else is my lyrics on this album so it's mostly me.

M.I. - The band includes 4 composers… so how does the composition take place? Do you all present your ideas and then mix them or what? Who’s responsible for the lyrics? 

We all write the music. I've done most of the lyrics. But there are four composers in the band, four guys creating the melodies and the songs and each of us works first on his own, making demos on the computer and then sending them to the other guys and everybody comments… that's the process and we keep doing that until everybody's happy with every song so it can be frustrating if your great idea is not good enough for the other guys, yeah, but we’re used to it already and I know that it's a good process and a good way to do it because the end result is very good. That's the way we've always done albums.

M.I. - Is it you who decides how long a song will be or is it the song?

You never know how long it will be before it is ready… you just start writing music and it's sometimes hard to describe the process but you know when the song is ready and you don't need to add anything or take anything away. It's a process and everybody in the band can say their opinion so you never know how long the song will be. With “Winter’s gate”, the only thing that we decided was that we wanted to make a really, really long song and it could have been 20 minutes but it turned out to be 40 so music just happens and, in the end, you will see how long it is.

M.I. - There are already 3 singles available: “Valediction”, “Heart like a grave” and “Pale morning star”… how are people responding to them?

I don't remember really seeing any negative comments and I think, with each new single, people have been even more and more excited so it's a good sign. I would say the three singles give a pretty good impression already about the album that's why we wanted to pick different songs… the first one was a bit faster and shorter, then we have this ballad type, slow song, and then the longest one, epic with all kind of parts, so when people hear all these three I think they already have a pretty good idea of what this album is about.

M.I. - In a Facebook comment, Insomnium have said that “Pale Morning Star” is like Winter’s Gate in compressed form”… what do you mean by this exactly? 

I think it has the same kind of atmosphere and feeling and a vibe like “Winter’s Gate” so it's kind of continuing what we did with “Winter’s Gate” so it’s some kind of sister or brother to “Winter’s Gate”. Out of all these other songs, you can say that “Pale Morning Star” is the one that most sounds like “Winter’s Gate” so it has something in the feeling… 

M.I. - Most of your material has either been released in April or September… is there a particular interest in these dates for sales purposes or is it just a coincidence?

I don't know! Well, it's the record company’s policy nowadays that, for example, the beginning of Autumn is usually a good time and, then again, it's not a good idea to release close to Christmas because then it's all about Christmas savings and your music will get lost there in the middle of Christmas album songs so no point in releasing too close to Christmas. I think it's a bit of an accident that our schedules have been like this for some years, that for some reason the cycle has been so that we go to the studio in the beginning of the year and have it ready in May or June and then it will be released three months after the record company gets the final product. So, if we get it ready in May or June, it will be released in September or October. 

M.I. - Ville Friman has had some trouble combining his careers and you decided to add a 3rd guitarist. Will he accompany you on the tour? 

That's the reason why we needed the third guitarist! Ville can do some shows here and there, festivals and weekends and stuff like that, but he really can't do any longer tours as he can't be away from the University where he is teaching and he wants to keep his job. That's understandable to me, he can't tour and that's the reason why we needed the third guy and having Jani around is great.

M.I. - The band has had a steady line-up like no other… and earlier you mentioned that you feared the band might break up. Have you imagined how complicated it might be?

I didn't mean it but it’s not like I'm like afraid of it all the time! I just said it is one of my fears. Of course I think about how long will this last and how will it end… will it in some day that one of us or several of us decides that they don't want to do this anymore, that they are tired or old or I'm gonna do something else with my life or who knows so… maybe when the time comes that we decide it's not fun anymore, we'll quit, but I don't see that happening anywhere in the near future! But we're really, really motivated and we like touring, we love doing new music, we still have the same passion for making music and it's great to see that, even though we've changed our guitarists, we still sound like Insomnium and the new guitarists have really well adapted to the Insomnium sound. So some people commented that Jani would make Insomnium sound like Sonata Arctica something like that they don't need to worry about that because Jani is a really smart guy and a great musician. He will not try to change Insomnium into something else as he understands what the band is about and wants to be a part of it… in fact, he’s already an important part of it! Many journalists have already commented that it's really rare that a band can change the songwriters or change the guitarist and still sound the same so we are really in a good and happy position.

M.I. - In the upcoming months you’ll be touring heavily… How complicated is it combining daytime jobs with everything?

Jani, Markus Valhalla and I are just doing music so we have no day jobs. Drummer Markus still has his day job and he was studying something more… I'm not really not sure what his plans are for the near future but, at some point, he was talking about taking a long leave from work or leave totally but I'm not sure what's his current situation. Let's see what he'll do next but the three of us we're doing just musical stuff so we can tour everywhere because we are totally free from responsibilities at work elsewhere.

M.I. - Portugal has no date included in this album’s live cycle… why?

Sadly yes, but it’s the agents and promoters that organize the tour so we can't always decide where to go. One reason is that places like Portugal and Greece are really in the far corners of Europe and  it takes time to get there and it takes time to get away so that's one reason probably. Mainly that's the only reason because we've always had shows in Portugal. Last year when we were there we had two great shows and we want to come back there again. I'm sure we’ll return when we do the European tour number two… then we will go to all these corners and places where we don't go now. There are a lot of places we don't go to like England, Russia, any of these Eastern Bloc countries and Portugal. So all these corners are still missing but we will do them at some point. So Portuguese friends do not worry we will come to see you again!

M.I. - Is the release show at the Circus in Finland sold out by now?

Well, this morning there were 49 tickets left and the previous day there were 69, so if it's about 20 tickets a day, then it will be sold off in three days and that's three weeks before the show. So, it's really, really good and it's a 1500 capacity venue so it's a really big place and it's the biggest show that we have done by ourselves. We have sold out all the Finnish dates in advance so it looks really good for us. 

M.I. - Insomnium have been around for more than 2 decades. What’s the most valuable lesson you’ve learnt in these years?

Oh difficult, difficult, difficult question! Well, life is strange and strange unexpected things will happen and things will not go as planned. I think the key to be successful in your life or in having a good life is the way you adjust to a new situation and change your plans, goals and targets accordingly. If the new situation requires this kind of action and I will go there and do it. Based on my short experience of 40 years I would say that for any human being this is the key because there are good and bad things that you can affect you… totally random things like people getting ill or someone dying or some big things happening that you have no control of and you just have to get adjusted to the new situation and change the course of plans and continue living and doing the best you can. I think that's one reason why Insomnium is still here and we're  still doing music after 20 years because we are stubborn guys and hard-working guys… those are also qualities that you need to work hard, to achieve something big. Winning the lottery is a different thing but it happens rarely so you better not count on so just be prepared to do work hard for your dreams so you can say you have achieved everything you want. 

M.I. - On a personal level would you want something else or are you exactly where you would like to be?

I'm in a very good position right now that I can support myself by music. I don't have to go to the office and I hope to keep this situation as long as possible. I'm the sort of person that always plans something new. I still want to do music. I have several projects going on all the time and I'm always planning something in the back of my mind or doing it actively and that's the kind of person I am! I will never stop! I will not retire from doing art! As long as I have energy and life in me, I will be planning new things. I always see new opportunities and new chances and things that I haven't yet done so I'm not just resting here being content for the rest of my life… this is exactly what I want to do, I'm happy when I can pursue my artistic goals, new things that I can write. I'm really in a happy position that I can actually do this now as I have time and I can tour as much as I want and spend my days doing what I really know.

M.I. - Please share a message with your Portuguese fans and Metal Imperium’s readers. All the best!

Well, my Portuguese friends, we will come back to play to you guys as soon as possible. We had great club shows there and very nice festivals as well so hopefully next Summer we could come to a Portuguese festival! If that won’t happen, then for the next European tour I promise that we will come to Portugal as we always had a good time there… we love the Portuguese people and it's great to come there… so, we have not forgotten you… we will come there for sure! Obrigado!

For Portuguese version, click here

Interview by Sónia Fonseca